Ten interesting things that we read this week

Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week's iteration are related to 'the obsession with Korean beauty products', '3D printing using 'living' ink', and 'unfounded worries around Chinese debt bubble'

Published: Dec 17, 2017

g_101801_reading_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock (For illustrative purposes only)

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, including investment analysis, psychology, science, technology, philosophy, etc. We have been sharing our favourite reads with clients under our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week’s iteration are related to ‘the obsession with Korean beauty products’, ‘3D printing using ‘living’ ink’, and ‘unfounded worries around Chinese debt bubble’.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended December 15, 2017.

1) The increasing fascination with Korean beauty products [Source: NY Times]
Euny Hong, the author of “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture,” admits that he uses Korean snail slime face serum and it’s purported to contain anti-aging properties. He has no opinion as to whether snails are particularly young-looking, but his experience is that their excretions do work on humans. That aside, as someone who grew up among Korean beauty products, he finds the world’s sudden fascination with Korean skin care, and its now-famous 12-step regimen, to be comical. Dozens of articles in the Western press claim that Korean beauty innovation is 10 years ahead of the rest of the world. It’s also said that “K-beauty,” as it is often called, is not just futuristic; it’s ancient as well. According to at least three English-language beauty websites, Korean skin care rituals date back to some purported document from 700 B.C. The question to be asked is, if Koreans have had a 12-step skin care programme for 2,700 years, why did they decide to sit on it until the 1990s?

In the last six years, Korean cosmetics in the USA have gone from nonexistent to almost mainstream. K-beauty exports to the USA more than doubled from 2014 to 2016. How did Americans come to view South Korea as this beautiful-skinned Eden, when, until a few decades ago, it was impoverished and chokingly polluted? Mr. Hong lived in Seoul from ages 12 to 18. South Korea was still a developing country when he arrived in 1985, when its inflation-adjusted per capita GDP was about one-fourth of what it is today. These days, K-beauty products come in sculptured packaging and smell like an upscale spa. But when Mr. Hong was growing up, Korean skin creams were all the same shade of toilet-paper pink, and they smelled like Glade PlugIns. No one had ever heard of such a thing as a 12-step regime. That all changed in the early 1990s. South Korea became wealthy; the quality of everything from cars to CD players improved. Then, in 1998, spurred by the Asian financial crisis, the Korean government altered its economic strategy, branching out from heavy industry and electronics-focused conglomerates into pop culture businesses. Korea was rebranded a “cool” country.

Most of this new “coolness” took the form of mass-produced and exported cinema, television and pop music. The popular Korean beauty chains Innisfree and the Face Shop both opened in the early 2000s — around the same time that we first started hearing about the Korean triple cleanse. Until very recently, K-beauty’s presence in the West was largely a matter of prestige, not money. It was the Asian market that really mattered, especially China. It still does: in 2016, China bought about 38% of K-beauty exports and Hong Kong 30%. But geopolitics may be forcing the K-beauty industry to pivot westward. South Korea has been rethinking the precariousness of an export strategy that is too dependent on China, a country that is not only allied with North Korea, but is also becoming a direct competitor in manufacturing and of late, pop culture and television dramas. It’s clear what the K-beauty industry wants from the West: a market that isn’t fraught with messy geopolitics. But what explains why K-beauty has been embraced in the West with such gusto? Has the old Orientalist belief in ancient Asian beauty secrets struck again? Or is it because Korean women themselves, with their glowing complexions, are serving as walking advertisements for the power of K-beauty?

If so, America seems to have missed the true story. The ginseng and Jeju volcano water are not the whole story behind that flawless skin. For the past several years, beauty-obsessed South Korea has been among the world’s capitals of cosmetic surgery. Some 20% of Korean women have had some form of work done. Then, there’s Botox. 42% of Korean women ages 21 to 55 have had either Botox or filler injections. Many wrinkle creams worldwide contain retinol, a vitamin A derivative that is harmless in small doses but not large ones. Some Korean cosmetics contain concentrations of retinol as high as 3.8% — about twice that of their highest-concentrated American counterparts. Korean doctors prescribe isotretinoin-based acne medicine “indiscriminately,” despite the risk of serious side effects.

2) ‘Living ink’ points the way to 3D printed human organs [Source: Financial Times]
Viscosity is a vital but underrated property of everyday substances. Toothpaste wouldn’t work if it dripped through the bristles; it needs to form a pleasing, stable dollop. Custard should be moderately thick but not gloopy; and glacé icing just fluid enough to creep, lava-like, down the summit of a cupcake before solidifying. Defined as the measure of a fluid’s resistance to flow, viscosity was central to a striking development announced recently. Scientists in Switzerland have made a 3D printer capable of using “living ink”. It is a blend of several ingredients: a sugar-containing hydrogel base, which forms the structure of the ink; bacteria, which is the living component; and a culture medium for keeping the bacteria alive. The researchers named their creation “flink”, shorthand for functional living ink. By using different bacteria, the flink printouts can be tailored for specific use. One bacterium, Acetobacter xylinum, secretes a pure form of nanocellulose, a stable material that retains moisture and can be used to treat burns.

The concept of 3D printing “dead” matter, such as plastic is revolutionary enough. The fears over the misuse of this technology are symbolised by a plastic gun; it is indeed possible to print layers of plastic in the shape of gun components — and, crucially, assemble them into a weapon capable of firing bullets. This year, the South China Morning Post reported that Chinese businesses using 3D printers had been ordered to register with the authorities, as an anti-crime measure. The Swiss development will add to the excitement over bioprinting, which is the bespoke 3D printing of biological material. Skin and cartilage, which can already be grown in the lab, could be produced to a patient’s specification. Some observers think that one day we will be able to print organs, such as hearts and kidneys for transplantation. Organovo is a US company working towards this aim. More immediately, it is aiming to produce facsimiles of human tissue for use in clinical and cosmetic testing. L’Oréal is already using its technology.

The printers are not cheap, so printed organs and tissues are some way from both economic and practical reality. But, when they come, some may feel that they reduce life to a manufacturing process. We will become less like humans and more like machines, little more than the sum of our 3D printed components. But it is precisely this logic — that we are the sum of our organs — that lay behind the first successful human heart transplant, accomplished 50 years ago by the South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard in Cape Town. Today, about 200 heart transplants are carried out each year in the UK, a number constrained by the low supply of available organs. According to the NHS, about 6,500 people are on the UK transplant waiting list, and nearly 500 die each year. Bioprinting, if it takes off, could offer the prospect of immunologically compatible replacements, and do away with the illicit trade in human kidneys.

3) How market behaviour is similar to a person with mental illness [Source: Valuewalk]
Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one. The widely touted example of Sir Isaac Newton nearly going broke after investing in the South Sea Bubble of 1720-21 is one of the many cases of even very smart people losing bearings in market gyrations. Mad, irrational, insane, crazy. All of these terms can be used to describe market behaviour at times. It begs the question: Is the market mentally ill? Or more precisely, do markets in fact exhibit behaviour similar to that of a person with mental illness? In a 2010 paper entitled “Does Mr. Market Suffer from Bipolar Disorder?” James H.B. Cheung asserts that, like individuals who experience the severe mood swings of bipolar disorder, investment markets are characterised by moods that range from major depression to mania. Cheung postulates that knowing the “mood state” of a market can help an investor identify optimal entry and exit points and also avoid the devastating losses caused when bubbles burst.

Cheung is not the first to compare markets to human emotional states. In his classic book ‘The Intelligent Investor’, Benjamin Graham created the parable of “Mr. Market” to illustrate an approach for managing the emotional whipsaws of investing: "...Imagine that in some private business you own a small share that cost you $1,000. One of your partners, named Mr. Market, is very obliging indeed. Every day he tells you what he thinks your interest is worth and furthermore offers either to buy you out or to sell you an additional interest on that basis. Sometimes his idea of value appears plausible and justified by business developments and prospects as you know them. Often, on the other hand, Mr. Market lets his enthusiasm or his fears run away with him, and the value he proposes seems to you a little short of silly. "Warren Buffett, a disciple of Benjamin Graham says his favourite part of the book is Chapter 8 -- where Mr. Market is introduced.

Manic depression is now known as bipolar disorder -- a diagnosis that is not trivial for those affected. It is a brain affliction that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy and activity levels, and can severely hinder the ability to carry out daily tasks. It is not a great leap to extrapolate the symptoms of bipolar disorder shown by individuals onto markets driven by the mass psychology of many individual investors. When Mr. Market is besieged by the above symptoms, it's little wonder that he makes irrational investment decisions. While legendary investors like Mr. Buffet recommend ignoring the bipolar Mr. Market, its moods are deceptively contagious and serve as the perfect ammunition for feeding into the herding instinct deeply ingrained in humans. However, this doesn’t stop investors from following the very same herd. John Maynard Keynes, in The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money [1936], writes that the majority of investors, including expert professionals, are essentially in the business of predicting changes in the mass psychology of investors: “[Investment professionals] are largely concerned, not with making superior long-term forecasts of the probable yield of an investment over its whole life, but with foreseeing changes in the conventional basis of valuation a short time ahead of the general public.”

Because the mass psychology of markets moves through a generally predictable cycle, knowing where a market is in the cycle may give an investor an edge. There are six phases of market mood in Cheung’s model: 1) Normal -- This is the base-building or consolidation phase where fundamentals are poor but stabilising. Value investors are showing interest; 2) Hypomania -- Favourable news shocks hit the market, and prices break higher out of consolidation. Speculators, focused on short-term gains, begin buying; 3) Mania -- The uptrend is very strong. Favourable analyst reports predict further gains, adding fuel to the fire. Some smart money investors quit buying and begin to pare holdings, but consensus is overwhelming that more profits are to come; 4) Moderate depression -- The market peaks and begins to fall. Bulls become indecisive, and a narrative that questions the bullish story begins to build. Some buy on dips, expecting a rebound and further gains. Professionals increase short sales; 5) Major depression -- The trend is very bearish and stories are resoundingly negative. Negative feedback mechanism is prevalent. Many “throw in the towel” and quit following the market; and 6) Normal -- Selling has abated as bubble buyers have exited, but new buying interest remains weak. The market is “washed out.” Fundamentals are poor but beginning to stabilise.

4) Starbucks opts for super-sized China [Financial Times]
Starbucks is making a super-sized bet on China, where it is opening a premium roastery that will be its largest outlet in the world as part of efforts to maintain its upscale reputation in an increasingly important market. The Seattle-based company has spread to more than 130 cities in China, where it operates about 3,000 stores. It is opening new outlets at a rate faster than one a day as it seeks growth in the country following several quarters of underwhelming results in the US, its biggest market. The 30,000 sq ft roastery — approximately half the size of a football pitch — in Shanghai is the first for Starbucks outside the US. The outlet, allows customers to watch beans being roasted and brewed in Bunsen-burner style tubes and is positioned as “super premium”. As white-collar Chinese consumers with rising incomes switch to pricier premium goods, Starbucks is betting that thirst will extend to coffee. Starbucks outlets in China have been seen as an upmarket destination for business meetings or dates, and so are able to charge more for a coffee than in the US.

Starbucks dominates China’s $3.8bn specialist coffee shop sector with a 55% market share last year, well ahead of its closest rival McDonald’s, which had a 7% share. Sales at such stores have nearly tripled in value since 2012 as more Chinese people drink coffee. The Asia-Pacific region, including China, accounted for almost 15% of Starbucks’ revenue for the fiscal year ended in October, up from 5.5% five years earlier. Same-store sales grew 8% in China in the most recent quarter, compared with 2% globally.

Starbucks opens a store about every 15 hours in China, including in a growing number of smaller cities, Mr. Schultz said. “We’re seeing fantastic returns in those cities which are consistent with the early days of Shanghai and Beijing,” he added. “One thing we didn’t count on is how busy the stores would be in the afternoon and evening, which is different from the US where we are busiest in the morning,” he noted.

To some extent Starbucks, which is targeting 5,000 outlets in China by 2021, is following a trail blazed by the fast-food chains into smaller Chinese cities, where incomes are rising faster than China’s largest cities. “Starbucks stands for American lifestyle,” said Terence Tsai, a professor at the China Europe International Business School. “It’s allied with status. People in lower-tier cities would aspire to this kind of leisure lifestyle. Lower tier cities are ready for this kind of thing.” Experts though said Starbucks was unlikely to be able to spread itself as widely as brands, such as KFC especially in western regions of China, which are poorer with sparser populations. The urbanisation rate is a problem for a Starbucks in those regions as they need high-visibility and high-traffic locations.

5) Stop worrying about Chinese debt [Financial Times]
Are rising debt-to-gross domestic product ratios around the world a sign of looming financial crisis? China is often singled out as the place where the next financial collapse would occur. Credit expansion there, as is argued, had grown “too much, too fast”. The author of this piece, Chen Zhao, says that for decades, the debt-to-GDP ratio has been widely used as the key gauge of a nation’s financial vulnerability. Nevertheless, this measure has proved to be misleading. In the mid-1990s, when Japan’s gross ratio approached 120%, many concluded that the country was heading for fiscal ruin, which would inevitably collapse the bond market and the yen, and cause hyperinflation. What has happened since then is that the total ratio has risen to 250% today, while the Japanese government bond yields have fallen to zero. Japan has suffered decades of price deflation. Looking around the world, the levels of interest rates for different countries are negatively correlated with levels of total indebtedness. Countries that have borrowed aggressively — such as Japan, China and Singapore — have very low or zero interest rates. On the other hand, countries that have barely borrowed, including Brazil, Russia and Indonesia, usually pay very high interest rates. This negative correlation is highly significant, disproving the widely held notion that higher debt levels lead to higher risk premia at the macro level.

How is this negative correlation explained? Interest rates are the price of domestic savings, and countries with more abundant savings almost always have lower interest rates. Moreover, every economy needs to transform its domestic savings into investment, usually through the banking system. It is inevitable, therefore, that countries with higher savings rates have lower interest rates, but higher levels of credit creation (or debt-to-GDP ratios) — because banks need to extend more credit to move larger pools of savings into investment. This means there is nothing wrong with high-saver nations having high ratios. The fundamental problem with this ratio is that it only provides a narrow snapshot of an economy’s debt picture. Debt is a stock concept, while GDP is a flow. The ratio tells you more about how much of an economy’s accumulated savings have been allocated via the debt channel. It does not tell us anything about a country’s net asset position. Nor does it provide any information on debt-servicing costs or the mix of local versus foreign currency-denominated debt. As such, the debt-to-GDP ratio gives us almost no information on a nation’s ability to sustain its debt.

In recent years, the rapid escalation of China’s credit-to-GDP ratio has been watched keenly by the investment community. Many predict that a debt crisis in the country would be the next big event that would bring down the world economy and global financial markets. Mr. Zhao disagrees. China’s domestic saving rate is 48%, which amounts to almost $6tn of new savings each year. This vast pool of savings primarily relies on state-owned banks for allocation. It is therefore inevitable that the country has a high credit-to-GDP ratio. Furthermore, so-called credit risk in China is, in fact, sovereign risk. The Chinese government often relies on bank credit to finance government stimulus programmes. In 2009, Beijing launched a fiscal package worth more than $600bn to combat the effects of the global recession that followed the financial crisis. Subsequently, Chinese bank credit growth climbed steeply, lifting the credit-to-GDP ratio to new highs. In essence, the Chinese government was using credit expansion to finance fiscal stimulus. This was a credit-based equivalent of the Troubled Asset Relief Program in the US. There, fiscal stimulus programmes are financed by increasing public sector debt. In China, they are often funded by depositors.

China has a chronic current account surplus and has been a net creditor to the rest of the world for decades. Beijing’s outstanding public sector debt, valued at about $4tn, is dwarfed by the vast assets controlled by the various levels of governments. Therefore, China’s sovereign risk is extremely low. Importantly, the balance sheets of the Chinese state-owned banks, the government and the People’s Bank of China are all interconnected. Under these circumstances, he says, a debt crisis in China is almost impossible.

6) A failure to heal [Source: NY Times]
What happens when a clinical trial fails? This year, the Food and Drug Administration approved some 40 new medicines to treat human illnesses, including 13 for cancer, three for heart and blood diseases and one for Parkinson’s. We can argue about which of these drugs represent transformative advances but we know, roughly, the chain of events that unfolds when a trial is positive. The drug is approved for human use; “postapproval marketing” is deployed to commercialise the treatments; slick ads materialise on TV; fortunes are built. Yet the vastly more common experience in the life of a clinical scientist is failure: A pivotal trial does not meet its expected outcome. What happens then?

A few years ago, the author was a lead investigator in a study for a drug for blood cancer. Let’s call the medicine O. The compound, designed to kill leukemia cells, had shown efficacy on cancer cells in Petri dishes. The trial was backed by a small company with just a handful of employees, many of whom had invested their lives, and their life savings, in the company. The first patient to enroll was a 60-something woman who had been treated with other medicines. They started the experimental medicine on a Monday. When she returned to the clinic two weeks after, her face was illuminated with the warm flush of colour that is instantly recognisable to a hematologist. Her blood counts were up. But then the response flickered off. Her blood counts sank again. A few weeks passed, and the drug stopped working altogether. In 74 hospitals, where other trials were ongoing, patients were also struggling with strange, flickering responses. From 2003 to 2006, nearly 300 patients were enrolled in a randomised trial — with one group receiving the medicine and the other a placebo. The overall survival rates showed no difference.

In his book “Awakenings,” Oliver Sacks wrote about a group of patients who, having had encephalitis decades before, had been locked into a near-paralysed catatonia. In the spring of 1969, Sacks began to treat them with a drug called L-dopa. The patients, miraculously, “awoke” from their locked-in states. Some walked the corridors; some began to speak, recounting stories of lives that had been deep-frozen in a neurological tundra. It was a coming-to-life moment that Sacks described in the book’s prologue as “the most significant and extraordinary in my life.” He was “caught up with the emotion, the excitement, and with something akin to enchantment, even awe.” But missing from the prologue is another story. The awakening was temporary. One by one, the responses foundered and died: nearly all the patients became resistant and returned to their catatonic states.

The first thing you feel when a trial fails is a sense of shame. You’ve let your patients down. You know, of course, that experimental drugs have a poor track record — but even so, this drug had seemed so promising (you cannot erase the image of the cancer cells dying under the microscope). You feel as if you’ve shortchanged the Hippocratic oath. And then a second instinct takes over: Why not try to find the people for whom the drug did work? In O’s case, the sickest patients in the study had, indeed, developed a response. Couldn’t we justify using O for these patients? This kind of search-and-rescue mission is called “post hoc” analysis. It’s exhilarating — and dangerous. On one hand, it promises the possibility of resuscitating the medicine: find the right group of responsive patients within the trial group — men above 60, say, or postmenopausal women — and you can, perhaps, pull the drug out of the rubble of the failed study. But it’s also a treacherous seduction. The reasoning is fatally circular — a just-so story. You go hunting for groups of patients that happened to respond — and then you turn around and claim that the drug “worked” on those very patients that you found.

Why then do we persist in parsing a dead study — “data dredging,” as it’s pejoratively known? One answer is that pharmaceutical companies want to put a positive spin on their drugs, even when the trials fail to show benefit. (“But within a subpopulation of subjects, the results were positive.” The F.D.A., though, does not approve drugs based on post hoc data.) The less cynical answer is that we genuinely want to understand why a medicine doesn’t work. Perhaps, we reason, the analysis will yield an insight on how to mount a second study — this time focusing the treatment on, say, just men over 60 who carry a genetic marker. We try to make sense of the biology: Maybe the drug was uniquely metabolised in those men, or maybe some physiological feature of elderly patients made them particularly susceptible. When a trial fails, a clinical scientist’s life thus enters a new kind of limbo. It’s like being suspended somewhere between the possibility of a real awakening and the dread of loss.

7) A literary manhunt for Josef Mengele [Source: Financial Times]
The French writer Olivier Guez has just won the Prix Renaudot for his “true novel”, La Disparition de Josef Mengele. The chief doctor of Auschwitz stood on the camp’s arrivals ramp whistling Tosca while he sent about 400,000 Jews to the gas chambers, and selected others for slave labour or medical experiments. The Mengele of Auschwitz is beyond comprehension. Instead, Guez tracks the postwar Mengele, telling much of the story from his point of view. The book —brings us as close to Mengele’s mind as is feasible. It illuminates the nadir of the European century, and also what Guez calls the “Nazi society” of postwar Latin America.

Mengele, the son of a Bavarian businessman, was a driven medical student who attached himself to the eugenicists dominating German prewar medical research. When he got to Auschwitz in 1943, he saw the camp as the perfect laboratory. Here he would master the genetics required to build an Aryan superhuman. His research among living subjects (especially identical twins) was sure to earn him a glittering postwar career. He hung his laboratory wall with human eyes. Guez captures Mengele at Auschwitz very briefly, chiefly through one unforgettable true story. A hunchbacked father and lame son from Lodz, Poland, arrive on Mengele’s ramp. They are fed a last meal, then killed and boiled in cauldrons to detach their flesh from their skeletons. (Prisoners eat from the cauldrons, thinking it’s stew.) The men’s clean bones are sent to Berlin’s anthropological museum for study. Mengele worked tirelessly at Auschwitz, especially during the extermination of Hungary’s Jews in 1944. He loved his unlimited power. He would always remember the camp as his career peak. But by 1949 he was on a boat to Argentina, without wife, son or reputation. He planned to stay in Buenos Aires only until Germany went Nazi again.

He skulked around town at first, afraid of running into an Auschwitz survivor. Soon he realised he was on friendly territory. The German captains of Argentine industry provided a useful network. Back home, his father’s company, Mengele Agrartechnik, was riding the postwar German economic miracle. Mengele began selling its agricultural machines around Latin America. If anybody ever came looking for him, his hometown police tipped off his family. West Germany’s ambassador in Buenos Aires, a former Nazi, issued him a passport in his own name.

However, everything changed in 1959, when West Germany issued an arrest warrant for Mengele. The following year brought another shock: Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires, and nearly nabbed Mengele too. He fled to Paraguay, then Brazil. From then on he lived as a hunted animal, survival his only aim. Bankrolled by his family, which feared that his capture might tarnish their business brand, he moved in with a Hungarian family on an isolated farm. He disdained them as an “inferior race”, but once they discovered his identity he became their captive, serving as a sex toy for the wife, and paying them endlessly for their silence.

Mengele broke up with his Hungarian hosts after 13 fraught years. Prematurely old, he moved alone to a poor neighbourhood of São Paulo, where locals knew him as Pedro. He drowned in 1979, aged 67, on a beach outing. He was buried under a false name. In 1985, the world finally found him. His bones were given to a São Paulo medical school, to be used as teaching tools.

8) Astronomers to check mysterious interstellar object for signs of technology [The Atlantic]
Scientists have long predicted an interstellar visitor would someday coast into our corner of the universe, but not something like the one that visited recently. Oumuamua came into view in October, the first interstellar object seen in our solar system. “The more I study this object, the more unusual it appears, making me wonder whether it might be an artificially made probe which was sent by an alien civilization,” Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard’s astronomy department said. The interstellar asteroid is now about twice the distance between the Earth and the sun from our planet, moving at 38.3 kilometers per second. The chance of an alien detection is, as always, small. But it’s not zero. But Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire behind Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million search for intelligent extraterrestrial life thinks we should check—just in case—before ‘Oumuamua is gone for good. The object will pass the orbit of Jupiter next year, and by the 2020s will be hurtling beyond Pluto.

Unlike the lumpy, potato-shaped asteroids of our solar system, the 400-meter-long ‘Oumuamua is perhaps 10 times as long as it is wide, an extreme aspect ratio that trumps any of the known asteroids. Astronomers don’t know how the universe could have produced an object such as this. Most natural interactions between an object and its surrounding medium favour the creation of rounded objects, Loeb said, like pebbles on a lakeshore made smooth by lapping water. Further, observations of ‘Oumuamua revealed it carried no traces of water ice, which suggests the asteroid is made of rock or perhaps metal. Whatever it is, the material is certainly sturdy. Thanks to its nonspherical shape, the asteroid is tumbling uncontrollably. “If you take an object that isn’t round and you throw it up in the air, it’ll make this complicated spinning motion,” said Jason Wright, an astronomer at Penn State University. Also, analysis of the light reflected by the asteroid shows ‘Oumuamua is red, a colour that would be expected for rocky bodies exposed to the cosmic radiation of interstellar space for long periods of time.

There are some natural explanations for some of ‘Oumuamua’s weird properties. Some astronomers say ‘Oumuamua could be a contact binary—two objects that drift closer until they touch and fuse at one end—like our solar system’s Kleopatra, a metallic, dog-bone-shaped asteroid. They suggest any ice on the asteroid’s surface was zapped away by high-energy particles on its journey between stars. Perhaps the asteroid is so hardy because it formed in the inner regions of a solar system, where rock and metal are more commonly found than ice. This would be tricky, since most exoplanets discovered so far orbit extremely close to their parent star, preventing them from flinging debris beyond the star’s pull. But they may have siblings, like our Jupiter and Neptune, lurking in the darkness, doing the work for them. If ‘Oumuamua has anything exciting to tell us, it’s that our understanding of planet formation needs some work, said Gregory Laughlin, an astronomer who studies exoplanets at Yale University. “We know that planetary systems are extremely common, but the way that their process unfolds seems to be richer than anticipated,” he said.

The thought of a spaceship being dropped into planetary systems like a reconnaissance mission may sound like the stuff of science fiction. But for Milner, it’s the future. Milner is spending $100 million over 10 years to develop spacecraft technology capable of sending a tiny probe hurtling at one-fifth the speed of light toward Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to Earth. If Milner succeeds, the 25-trillion-mile trip would be cut from tens of thousands of years, based on our current technology, to a breezy 20 years. Hundreds of these miniature probes would be deployed into the darkness in the hopes that at least one might complete the journey. Perhaps another civilization already had the same idea. The possibility that ‘Oumuamua is an artificial artifact from an advanced civilization is not spoken in whispers in the astronomy community. But there’s a healthy dose of hesitation in their discussions. Scientists must, after all, exhaust every other plausible explanation before considering ET.

Astronomers predict many more interstellar asteroids, perhaps thousands, are coasting through our solar system, out of view of our telescopes. Pan-STARRS, a survey telescope designed to observe the entire visible sky night after night, found ‘Oumuamua after only four years of operation. Turner suspects the discovery—a fairly quick one—is not a case of pure luck, but a sign of more to come. Some interstellar asteroids may be hiding, overlooked, in the archival data of Pan-STARRS. Many more will be spotted as other powerful survey telescopes, like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile, come online in the next few years.

9) Central African Republic: The country where teachers have disappeared [Source: BBC
In the Central African Republic, rivals have been fighting since 2013 after President François Bozize, a Christian, was overthrown by the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels. The Seleka were ousted by France, leading to bloody reprisals by the Anti-Balaka. They are often described as Christian but they are a ragtag of fighters wearing amulets they believe protect them from the bullets of Kalashnikovs - called the "anti-balles-AK" in French. In the chaos, the school teachers have quietly disappeared so now parents are going through crash courses to replace them. Farmer Apollinaire Zaoro, 58, knows a thing or two about planting. While his maize and cassava grow in the field, he has been leading a class of 105 primary school children for the past three months. The school in his village, 25km (15 miles) from the capital, has no qualified teachers. The UN says 2.3 million people, half the population, are dependent on aid. Armed groups are fighting across 80% of the territory. They often use school buildings as base camps, playgrounds as firing ranges and turn desks and chairs into firewood. Most qualified teachers, unable to collect their salaries because there are no banks outside the capital, have abandoned their positions.

For three years leading up to 2016, Mr. Zaoro and the 1,000 or so residents of Yamboro regularly had to flee Seleka rebels. "We would run into the bush and hide in the trees, the shrubbery, among the snakes. It wasn't easy to find enough to eat. We have to be grateful that [their opponents] the Anti-Balaka came and chased them away. But we are still frightened," he said. In the packed classroom, the charismatic Mr. Zaoro looks like he has found his vocation. He admits he has always enjoyed acting, so he brings heaps of energy to the lesson in counting from 1 to 100. He unrolls a poster showing all the numbers, and exclaims: "73". He wants a child to come up and point out that number. Eager arms shoot into the air, fingers clicking for attention. And when, after a moment's suspense, 11-year-old Esther correctly points out the number, all the children quick-clap and shout "c'est super!" (that's great). There is even more excitement during the French lesson, in which Mr. Zaoro calls two boys to the blackboard and they are asked to act out a short story about a boxing match. The class is a heart-warming and dynamic environment in a country humanitarian workers describe as one of the most hopeless and, for them, the most dangerous in the world.

The UN force, Minusca, essentially controls only the capital, Bangui, keeping in place the elected government of Faustin-Archange Touadera. In the rest of the country, the Seleka and Anti-Balaka have splintered multiple times. Groups on both sides now fight for control of road junctions and natural resources, including gold, diamonds and cattle-herding routes. Mr. Zaoro is among 500 "parent-teachers" who have received a crash course in education from a Finnish charity. A further 8,000 parents - most of them with only the very basics of schooling themselves - have been recruited and need to be trained. But 14,000 are said to be needed. The farmer loves his new role. "I am educating the future leaders of my country. It makes me proud and happy. I want these children to go further than I have gone in life." He and three other parent-teachers at the school each receives 35,000 CFA francs ($65; £45) per month from the United Nations children's agency, Unicef, to mind four classes from 7am to 4pm every weekday. "We do not do it for the money!" he exclaims. "Since there are no banks and the road is dangerous, we have asked to be paid quarterly in Bangui. I am due to receive my first pay at the end of December. "Unfortunately, due to my teaching commitments, my field is mostly overgrown now. But the other parents who are farmers help me with the work, and they give me food when they can."

The parent-teacher initiative is getting the country's children back to school. But it only works in villages with a strong community spirit, and it is still a far cry from the national education system the Central African Republic needs. Yamboro's children are among the privileged few. At Sangala 1, a village a further 70km away from Bangui, there’s a deserted school building with graffiti on the walls, bullet holes in the corrugated roof, a broken borehole and a mere 17 useable chairs. No children had turned up for class because, said village chief Gaston Mongombe, "there is no teacher and it is raining". Unicef does not know exactly how many of the Central African Republic's children are out of school due to the teaching crisis. The figure is likely to be in the hundreds of thousands.

10) What would happen if the world went vegetarian [Source: TED] 
The worldwide rate of vegetarianism is very low, ranging from about 4-5% in the US and Canada, to a little over 30% in India. As a result, there are 20 billion chickens, 1.5 billion cows, over a billion sheep and nearly a billion pigs in the world. Without any meat-eating humans to provide a market, whole herds of domestic animals would disappear and this would free up vast quantities of land. About 33 million sq. km are used for pastures, an area about the size of Africa, and that’s not even counting the land used to grow crops exclusively for animal feed. Some of them would be needed for the increased amount of vegetable crops, but much of the land currently used as pasture is too dried to grow crops. Without humans adding artificial nutrients, this land could turn to desert, but if properly managed, it is possible that some farm land would return to its natural state of grass land or forest, which could help combat global climate change.

After all, the loss of CO2 absorbing trees cleared for agriculture is the major reason why global levels of CO2 are going up. Cows and other grazers also affect our climate through large amounts of methane production which has 25 times more potential planet-warming power than CO2. Combined with the loss of forests and other effects, livestock production is responsible for about 15% of greenhouse gases emissions, which is more than all the world’s planes, trains and automobiles put together. In fact, many scientists believe that reducing meat consumption maybe one of the best strategies for managing climate change. A vegetarian diet would also greatly reduce water consumption. Around 70% of fresh water consumption is used in agriculture. It takes 15,000 litres to make a kilogram of beef, 6,000 litres for pork and 4,000 litres for chicken. Compare this with 1,600 litres for cereal crops, 900 litres for fruits and 300 litres for garden vegetables.

Of course, a kilogram of meat packs many more calories than the equivalent weight of fruit, but even if you compare the ratio of water per calorie of available food energy, beef is 5 times more water-intensive than fruit, 7 times more than veggies and 20 times more than cereal. Are there any downsides to a vegetarian diet? We’ll be left with a cheap source for many by-product of livestock leather from animal hides or animal fats, which are used in cosmetics, candles and detergents. Vegetable-based alternatives do exist, their production would mean more land dedicated to growing crops and less restored to its natural state. A more complicated fact is that raising and processing animals is a full-time job for more than a million people. Most of whom are small-scale farmers in the developing world. Some maybe also moved to producing milk or eggs or even growing vegetables crops. Many will be faced with their way of life becoming obsolete. Any increase in vegetarianism is likely to be a gradual process rather than a sudden cut off. Surprisingly, the trends are in the opposite direction. In places like India and China, people are becoming wealthier and as a result are consuming more meat which effectively cancels out the decline we see in other countries.

- Saurabh Mukherjea is CEO, and Prashant Mittal is Strategist, at Ambit Capital. Views expressed are personal.

Show More
Post Your Comment
Required
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated
The structures that can support your digital journey
In India, we've gone very deep, instead of wide: Xiaomi India head Manu Jain