Ten interesting things that we read this week

Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week's iteration are related to 'dying Kashmir willow bat industry, 'the heartache of dementia', and 'the darkest material on earth'

Published: Dec 29, 2017

g_102255_reading_280x210.jpg Image: Shutterstock

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 ‘dying Kashmir willow bat industry, ‘the heartache of dementia’, and ‘the darkest material on earth’.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended December 29, 2017.

1)    Switzerland thrives on apprenticeship tradition [Source: Financial Times
Switzerland’s long-established apprenticeship system, combining classroom and workplace learning, is widely seen as one of the affluent country’s greatest economic strengths, creating a pool of highly skilled workers for Swiss companies. The efficiency gains help explain why Switzerland — despite its high costs resulting from a strong franc — regularly tops global economic competitiveness tables. Hopes are high that European innovation such as this could create an opportunity for growth as the continent recovers from the financial crisis.

Dating from medieval times, formal apprenticeship schemes remain entrenched across German-speaking Europe. Not coincidentally, Germany and Austria, as well as Switzerland, have among the continent’s lowest youth unemployment rates. In Switzerland, two-thirds of students in the final stage of secondary education opt for vocational training, mostly in three or four year “dual” programmes combining classroom study with workplace training. Prominent alumni include Sergio Ermotti, chief executive of UBS, who began his career in the mid-1970s as an apprentice at Corner Bank in Lugano, and Peter Voser, chairman of ABB Engineering Group, who started in the early 1980s on a vocational training course at a bank in Aargau. At the Zurich training centre, operated by Login, a subsidiary of the SBB railway operator, apprentices believe their career prospects are just as attractive as those of counterparts who continued with their academic education — and they are paid a wage, starting at SFr680 ($680) a month in their first year.

Swiss companies are closely involved in drawing up and selecting candidates for training programmes for more than 200 professions, ranging from cooking and social care to multiple branches of engineering. Crucially, some 45% of funding for Swiss vocational training comes from the private sector — compared with an average of just 14% among members of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. That high private sector spending “helps ensure apprenticeship programmes are in line with labour market demands”, says Marie-Helene Doumet, OECD education analyst. Proponents believe the system boosts innovation by creating a skilled workforce that can efficiently translate the latest developments in academic thinking into practical applications. That malleability encourages entrepreneurship and allows Switzerland to keep pace with rapid technological change.

Nevertheless, some Swiss educationalists fear that the training is too specialist and focused on vocational qualifications in an era when digitalisation is upending traditional ways of working and creating uncertainty about future job requirements. But the Swiss system has inbuilt flexibility. Even if adolescents start in vocational training, they can switch to academic courses later and even study at the country’s top universities. Importantly, vocational educational and training programmes have strong support in Switzerland, and parents are pleased when their children win places. This means they attract the brightest students as well as investment by companies.

2)    The willow in Kashmir weeps [Livemint]
A non-descript patch of highway that runs past Sangam and Halamulla in Anantnag district, just before the town of Bijbehara and some 45km from Srinagar, is one of the two places in the world that produce professional bats made of willow—the other being England. It is thus a common sight to see stacks of willow wood neatly piled up next to the shops, and sawdust dancing about in swirling clouds on the tarmac each time a car storms past these establishments. Though the willow was believed to have existed in Kashmir centuries ago, a large-scale effort to plant it in the region was carried out during the 19th century on the advice of Walter R. Lawrence and J.C. Macdonell, who was then the head of the forest department of the state. Its early use was primarily as fuel and fodder for livestock. When the British brought with them cricket, there was a need to manufacture the bats locally, instead of depending on imports from England. According to research conducted by the faculty of forestry at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Kashmir, that demand was met by Allah Baksh, a native of Sialkot (which is today in Pakistan). He set up the first unit at Sangam-Halamulla. It was the only facility at that time, and originally produced more hockey sticks than cricket bats.

It was the only factory operating in the area and was the source of employment for some 30-40 households from villages around the area. Each family had at least one member working in the factory. When Pakistan was created in 1947, the owner moved back home to Sialkot and the factory was taken over by the current proprietors of Dar Sports, which is today the oldest in the area. “My grandfather used to work in that factory,” says Zuber Dar. “Everyone who runs a factory or a business related to bats was once employed there. Those who had learnt the tricks of the trade invested in their own set-up, as a result of which, we have so many factories in this small stretch today. No one really considers taking up another job in this area.” Until 1980, there were around 30 units operating in this region. However, in the years following India’s World Cup triumph in 1983, there was an exponential rise in the demand for bats. Today, around 20,000 people from the villages of Sangam, Halamulla, Charsoo, Pujteng, Bijbehara and Sethar, to name a few, either own factories or are employed in the industry as labour.

In international cricket, the English willow is most preferred due to the quality of wood; its Kashmiri counterpart is considered heavier and harder, and is said to lack the punch while playing a stroke. However, the cost effectiveness of the Kashmiri willow makes it a good substitute and is consequently, more popular among budding and semi-professional cricketers. On average, a bat made of the English willow costs over Rs6,000, while one made of the Kashmiri willow starts at Rs800. Cricket in Kashmir, though, has always played second fiddle to football at the professional level. With the region experiencing monsoon and snowfall for close to five months, cricket is mostly restricted to the mohallas, in addition to local tournaments during the summer months. The bat industry as a result banks on the glitz of the Indian Premier League, World Cup wins such as in 1983 and 2011, and the frenzy surrounding the rare India-Pakistan clashes, for its sales.

Over the years though, the industry has had to deal with a lot of hurdles, both natural and situational. For starters, the willow that has been so giving over all these years has come under severe pressure. While the demand for bats has risen in the domestic and international markets, there are hardly any new trees being planted to compensate for those felled. Most of the existing plantations are on private land and are being cultivated by individual farmers, rather than through a collective effort. Each willow tree needs at least 20-25 years to mature before it can be put to any use. Due to the investment in time, most choose to put the land to other use in search of quicker returns. For instance, the amateur bats used by tennis ball cricket players are today made of poplar, which takes about five years to mature, is easy to access and hence, cheaper. It has reduced the pressure on the willow to a certain extent but these bats are of no use in professional cricket.

Besides the looming shortage of willow wood, patchy electricity in the area also constantly afflicts this industry—with just two hours each day, they have to rely on diesel generators that escalate costs further. Then, there is the issue of 12% goods and services tax (GST) that has made business difficult. For instance, Alfa Sports reported sales of just 3,000 bats instead of the average 7,000 that they typically sell during November. The biggest blow though comes from the smuggling of the raw willow wood to centres such as Jalandhar and Meerut, which have their own bat-making units and a flourishing export industry. Until the mid-1970s, a lot of the wood made its way to these manufacturing hubs. When the state government realised the importance of the wood and the potential of the industry, it restricted the number of clefts that could be sold outside. The sales today are regulated by the Jammu & Kashmir Willow (Prohibition on Export and Movement) Act, 2000. However, locals claim over 25 lakh clefts are smuggled out each year leading to severe losses for the industry.

3)    My father Pete, his dementia and our last year together [Financial Times]
Guy Dinmore recollects his memories of spending last year with his father Pete who was ailing with dementia. He says quite when it (dementia) began is hard to pinpoint. Perhaps the first signs were mood swings about eight years earlier, expressing themselves occasionally in confused but still mild outbursts of aggression and frustration. However the true depth of Pete’s decline had really become apparent only two years earlier when Penney, Guy’s mother, suffered a series of strokes, probably exacerbated by the stress of looking after him mostly on her own. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, is variously described as having three to seven stages. The last one is the shortest and ends in death. Some call the disease the longest goodbye as the average individual may live eight to 10 years after diagnosis.

After dealing with an army of agency carers, Guy decided to return from abroad and move into Camden, the family home in Warwickshire, with Pete. It turned out to be the last year of his life, and Guy kept a diary of their time together as they both entered unfamiliar emotional and mental territory. While his mind was failing, Pete remained surprisingly strong in body. Indeed, he could outwalk some of the carers down those country lanes, and sometimes would persist until he reached the point of exhaustion. More than once he was recovered by friendly police and neighbours. Being on the move for him was a kind of escape or perhaps a therapy. Between such episodes when he thought he was flying with the birds, back in the army or waiting for a train in the living room, Pete, a former doctor, also had moments of great lucidity. Sometimes they were calming, but other times devastating.

Once they were admiring the roses from the sun lounge on a glorious English summer’s day after mowing the lawn together. “I am feeling so euphoric now,” said Pete, breaking the silence. “I got the car back. I got me back and I got a few thousand in the bank, maybe more.” He did not recognise the house or garden as his, but still he felt contented. And, amazingly, his almost constant humming, like a nervous twitch for many months, had suddenly stopped. Reaching and maintaining a state of contentment is the theme that dominates Contented Dementia by Oliver James, a clinical psychologist and bestselling author. Its thesis is that people with Alzheimer’s can still live a life of quality contentment before the disease reaches its final stages. The approach rests on what James calls “the three golden rules”: Don’t ask direct questions; listen to the expert — the person with dementia and learn from them; don’t contradict. The author believes that James’s “don’t ask questions” principle is based on the idea that questions lead to insecurity. Ask someone with Alzheimer’s if they would like a cup of tea for example, and they will fret, wondering when they last had one, whether there is milk etc. Better to say instead: “Time for a cup of tea.” Guy believed contrary to James’ approach, everyone with dementia is different. Pete was not troubled by being asked if he would like tea or coffee. He appreciated the choice. And he did not appreciate being talked down to.

Guy says he was occupied with an internal debate: “How to distinguish what is best for Pete. And for us, and what is sustainable in terms of stress, time, a residue of love, and the finances. Am I fooling myself in thinking that Pete might actually be happier in a care home with other people, more activities, more stimulus? He rarely recognises Camden as his own home, but somehow it is still home, and the villagers keep an eye on him. And occasionally he has a little laugh and is happy, but this is getting less frequent.” The answer presented itself. Hallmark, a US company, was close to finishing the construction of Anya Court, a new care home, in the nearby town. In late November, Pete and Guy walked out of Camden for the last time. This is the Guy’s diary entry for that day: “‘I don’t want a nursing home,’ Pete says. I lie and say this is not a nursing home but that there are people who will help take care of him. ‘I will walk down the road, find a canal and kill myself.’ Later he asks me for ‘reality’. I try to explain as honestly as possible. Like a parent leaving an infant on his first day of school, I say goodbye. He gets into his new bed, where he feels refuge. I return home with the strongest wine I can find, crying on the doorstep that was his and ours for this summer gone.”

4)    Is DNA the future of data storage? [Source: TED]
Let’s say there’s a disaster that sends humanity back to the stone age. Can our knowledge and history survive? The printed page will decompose or hard drive storage will deteriorate. Even stones will eventually crumble. But we might have something inside us that can outlast these physical limitations, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). It already stores our biological information. From eye colour to skin tone, it programmes our entire body. DNA is made of four organic bases, Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymine. The specific sequence of these bases into groups of three known as codons gives our cells instructions to make each of the proteins in our bodies. But these codes can be used for other things too, like secret messages.

In 1999, scientists in New York created an alphabet in which each of 64 possible DNA codons substituted for a specific letter, number or symbol. They sliced a 22-character message into a long strand of DNA and surrounded it with specific genetic markers. They then hid the DNA over a period in a type-written letter with only a small smudge to give the location away. They mailed the letter back to themselves then they examined the letter looking for the DNA strand. Once the DNA strand was located, they found the genetic markers. Then they sequenced the DNA and successfully decoded the message. It soon became obvious that DNA cryptography could code for much more than simple text. By translating the ones and zeroes of the binary code into DNA codons, digital data could be programmed into synthetic DNA then decoded back into its original form. In 2012, the scientists in the UK encoded 739kb of computer files into DNA strands, including all 154 Shakespeare sonnets and an excerpt from the Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Four years later, researchers at Microsoft and the University of Washington broke that record. They used binary coding to capture a whopping 200mb of data, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and an HD OK Go music video – all in strings of DNA. As far as storage capacity goes, DNA stands out because of the surprising amount of information it can hold in so little space. The current theoretical limit of DNA storage capacity is so high that you could fit one hundred million HD movies on a pencil eraser.

It’s even conceivable that one day we could fit all the information currently on the internet into the space of a shoe box. Also, computers and magnetic tape and disks that the information is stored on only last for a few decades at most before degrading and becoming unreliable. Meanwhile, DNA has a half life of 500 years, meaning that’s how long it takes for half of its bonds to break and if left in cold and dark environment, DNA could potentially last for hundreds of thousands of years. If that isn’t long enough, scientists experimented with having synthetic DNA order reproduce. After creating their own strands of DNAs that spelled out the lyrics to the children’s song, “It’s a small world,” they placed them into the genome of a microbe nicknamed Conan the Bacterium. Conan belongs to a species which can survive in a vacuum or without water for six years or come out unscaled after being exposed to a dose of radiation one thousand times that which would kill a human. According to the experiment, the bacterium was able to reproduce at least one hundred generations without data loss.

Theoretically, if the organisms had redundant copies of the information that can be used to automatically correct mistakes, the information could stay preserved even longer. So one day, you might be able to create a living, growing knowledge archive in your own backyard and its seeds might carry your family’s history. A detailed breakdown of the world’s political upheavals or some of humanity’s knowledge into forests and across continents, perhaps into the far reaches of space. Though we might one day disappear, perhaps our legacy can still live on, if anyone will think to find it.

5)    The hidden player spurring a wave of cheap consumer devices: Amazon [Source: NY Times]
Wyze Labs, a one-year-old start-up in Seattle, sent the author, Farhad Manjoo, its first gadget to try. It’s a small, internet-connected video camera, the kind you might use for security or to keep tabs on your dog or your baby. While it’s similar to other cameras in the market, what surprised Mr. Manjoo was the price. It is being sold for such an unbelievably low price, $20. A price that no rival can match. Out of curiosity, the author searched the global gadget industry to figure out how Wyze had done it. That, in turn, led to a revelation about the future of all kinds of products, from cameras to clothes. That future? We’re going to get better products for ludicrously low prices, and big brands across a range of categories — the Nests and Netgears of the world — are going to find it harder than ever to get us to shell out big money for their wares. There’s a hidden hero in this story — or, if you’re a major brand, a shadowy villain. It’s Amazon.

Nest’s and Netgear’s comparable indoor cameras sell for around $200 each, while Wyze’s device goes for $20 plus shipping if you buy directly from the company’s website. The only other place to purchase the WyzeCam is on Amazon, where members of the company’s Prime service can get it for $30 including two-day shipping. Wyze didn’t compromise on the quality of the camera, though it comes in extremely spare packaging. The idea behind the low price of this camera is connected with Amazon. The company’s three founders all worked at the retail giant, and they said they had been inspired by Amazon’s high-volume, low-margin approach to sales. To hit the $20 price, it cut out just about every middleman, including most retailers. Its founders believe internet-connected home devices will be a growth category. They plan to establish a trusted brand with the first camera, then release a succession of products that they hope to sell in large numbers, at low prices. But how do you establish a brand online? That’s the second place Amazon comes in. Customer rankings and reviews on Amazon have become just about the most important factor in how consumers buy electronics products; because Amazon pages come up high on search results like Google’s, a positive rating on Amazon can effectively make a brand — and a negative rating can break one.

Besides a dozens of electronics companies, Wyze is now relying heavily on Amazon to create online brands. In an earlier time, you might have dismissed companies like these as “Chinese knockoffs.” After all, like Wyze, most of them use commodity parts and global manufacturing efficiencies to create low-priced versions of relatively uncomplicated products. Allen Fung, the general manager of Sunvalley’s American division, said that what was unique about Amazon was that its store encouraged low prices while heavily penalizing companies that made shoddy products. Mr. Fung recently spent a couple of hours providing an in-depth look at how he manages his company’s brands on Amazon. To win a certain product category — portable chargers, say, or children’s night lights — the company is obsessive about monitoring customer feedback, including the rate at which its products are returned. Amazon, which charges a fee for third-party companies to sell through its platform, is not a passive actor in this trend. It has long encouraged businesses to set up shop on its site. The company said that half of its products came from small businesses, and that in 2016, more than 100,000 businesses exceeded $100,000 in sales through its system. It also started a lending program to allow those businesses to scale up; last year, its loans exceeded $3 billion.

“As this takes off, it really makes you start to question, you know, what is a brand in the Amazon age?” said Scot Wingo, executive chairman of ChannelAdvisor, an e-commerce consulting firm. It’s an intriguing question, and one that raises fears of Amazon’s rise. While the growth of high-quality, low-priced brands on Amazon seems unquestionably good for consumers, the trend does produce economic losers. “There is this erosion of what it means to be a traditional consumer product brand,” Mr. Wingo said. “In a way, Amazon is providing all this information that replaces what you’d normally get from a brand, like reputation and trust. Amazon is becoming something like the umbrella brand, the only brand that matters.”

6)    How Abraham Lincoln triggered India’s first stock market crash [Source: Business Standard]
It was 1863. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 in the Indo-Gangetic plains had been put down brutally. The control of India had passed from the East India Company to the British crown. Parsi and Gujarati brokers had been trading in shares for eight years at different locations in Bombay (the Bombay Stock Exchange would be born 12 years later), and a roaring bull market was underway. Share prices of companies that didn't exist till a few years ago were rising astronomically. The Back Bay Reclamation share, with face value of Rs5,000, traded at Rs50,000. Bank of Bombay's Rs500 share touched Rs2,850. The source of all the speculation lay in events taking place in distant United States where Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, and his campaign against slavery had triggered a civil war. The conflict choked the traditional source of cotton for the British. The cloth mills of Birmingham and other places soon turned to India, buying up all they could and more. The average exports prior to the war were 528,000 bales - they expanded to over 1.2 million bales by 1865. This was a period of unprecedented prosperity for those engaged in the cotton trade. Cotton was called "white gold" and its demand grew so large that traders grabbed anything they could lay their hands on, even tearing apart mattresses and pillows so that they could sell the stuffing.

The money they made from selling cotton to the English was deployed in the share market. The rise in the market was also fuelled by investors who managed to get loans from banks to invest in shares. The investors were certain that the shares would continue to rise as the cotton boom rolled on, and banks were certain that the money loaned at high interest rates would be safe. Both, say historians, were right; but only for a time. Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney, director at Bank of Bombay feared it would all come to grief one day. "Such practice will induce greatly more gaming in shares. I would wait and never have this sort of dangerous business for the present," he registered his protest. "We are only following the example set by the Bank of Bengal, but we must not follow them. Their gross mismanagement of this kind brought the Union Bank of Calcutta to total ruin, whose board was composed of highly, more than highly, respectable gentleman; two baronets, one gone to jail, another ran away to England, and other three ruined for life."

His fears came true when the Bank of Bombay increased its capital despite him opposing. He resigned. The institution was the poorer without Readymoney. In the absence of his calming influence, the Bank of Bombay became one of the key sources for capital for the speculation mania as it reached some kind of frenzy. "…ordinary clerks, officers, pleaders, adventurists, editors, and even sweepers had started dreaming about minting money. At the junction of the Meadows Street and Rampart Row…hordes of brokers and speculators would gather that would lead to terrible traffic jam. Share mania had turned Mumbai mad," says historian Amrit Gangar, author of 24 x 7 = Mumbai. The man who replaced Readymoney at the position of influence in Bank of Bombay was Premchand Roychand, a financial whiz kid and beloved of the masses. Crowds would gather from early morning at his Byculla bungalow. Everybody wanted to meet the man with the golden touch, and maybe lay his hands on a share or two. He possessed prodigious financial talent and a decidedly speculative streak. Every new company looked to get him on board as a promoter or took his advice about who should be given the shares that were just waiting to soar in value.

The boom saw hectic corporate activity. In December 1864, there were 31 banks, 16 financial associations, 8 land companies, 16 press companies, 10 shipping companies, 20 insurance companies as against a total of 10 in 1855. In 1855, there were no joint stock companies at all. By 1862, there were 62. The newspapers were full of advertisements for new share issues and other stock market business such as annual general meetings for shareholders. What contributed to the bull run were "time bargains", essentially forward contracts, which made it easier for people to bet on the rising share prices. Governor Frere attempted to pass what was called the Wager's Bill that would have clamped down on these time bargains. The move was stoutly opposed by merchants. Jivraj Balloo, the most important cotton trader of the time, signed a petition against the Bill. So did Roychand. Also opposed to the Bill were over 250 British firms that felt that its provisions interfered with free trade.

Frere prevailed nonetheless and managed to get the Bombay Legislative Council to pass the Bill. Unbelievably though, the Bill was lost in transit between Shimla and Calcutta before it could be signed into law. By the time Lord Lawrence could eventually sign it and bring it into operation, it was too late. The stock market bubble had burst two months ago. The Back Bay Reclamation shares fell from Rs50,000 to under Rs2,000 - a fall of over 96%. Bank of Bombay's shares which sold at Rs2,850 were down to Rs87. The meltdown happened because the American Civil war ended in May 1865, which caused cotton prices to fall in anticipation of resumption of supplies from the United States. Exports collapsed and would take another quarter century to reach the same level as 1865. The effect on the city's elite was utter ruin. The premier business houses of that time, the so-called merchant princes of Bombay, saw their wealth evaporate before their very eyes. The disaster didn't drain the city just economically - its population declined by 21% in the years following the crash. There were estimated to be 816,000 people in Bombay in 1864 - the census of 1872 put the population at 644,000.

7)    Obituary: Simeon Booker, civil rights pioneer and journalist [Source: Financial Times]
Simeon Booker, a black reporter for Jet and Ebony magazines whose stories shocked the US and galvanised support for the civil rights movement, died on December 10 at age 99. When Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago, was tortured to death in Mississippi in August 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, Booker covered the funeral. He stood beside Till’s mother as she threw open the coffin and removed the rubber bag from her son’s mutilated face, and recorded her famous cry, “Darling, you have not died in vain. Your life has been sacrificed for something.” Jet magazine was the only publication to run David Jackson’s photo of Till, and the story sparked fresh outrage. The issue sold out and was reprinted, reigniting calls for an end to the era of black oppression.

With the eyes of the nation on them, Booker and a team of 12 black reporters went to Mississippi to cover the Till murder trial. Black journalists were segregated from the regular reporter pool and forced to work at a small card table in the back of the courtroom. Booker, though familiar with the indignities of segregation, later wrote that, as a northerner, he was unprepared for the “state-condoned terror” in Mississippi at the time. Black journalists reported from the south at great personal risk. Booker once escaped from a manhunt in the back of a hearse; and slept on floors when hotels turned him away. A month after Till was killed, the two white men accused of his murder were acquitted after just 67 minutes of deliberation.

Known simply as “the man from Jet”, Booker, in his signature bow tie and glasses, attended most of the major events of the civil rights struggle. He was the only reporter aboard the 1961 “Freedom Rides”, a bus trip across the south protesting against the refusal of southern states to implement a Supreme Court order to integrate interstate transport. A violent mob attacked Booker’s bus. He was rescued and taken to safety at a local preacher’s house. There, he took a call from attorney-general Robert F Kennedy to explain the day’s events. “That was probably the best reporting I did in my journalism career,” Booker told Ebony, “explaining to Kennedy what happened.”

Booker saw journalism as a way of pursuing the struggle against racial inequality. “I wanted to fight segregation on the front lines,” he said. “I wanted to dedicate my writing to the cause. Segregation was beating down my people. “I stayed on the road, covering civil rights day and night. The names, the places and the events became history.” “What I’d like to be remembered for,” he said in his NPC acceptance speech, “is that the preacher’s son tried to put into journalism the values that his father said were missing — integrity, compassion for people, and service to all Americans regardless of race, creed or colour.”

8)    The confusing way Mexicans tell time [BBC]

When the author of this piece first stepped on Mexican soil and asked a local ice-cream seller in downtown Guadalajara when he expected a new delivery of chocolate ice cream, he said ‘ahorita’, which directly translates to ‘right now’. The author took him at his word, believing that its arrival was imminent. She sat near his shop and waited. Half an hour passed and still no ice cream arrived, so she timidly wandered back to the shop and asked again about the chocolate ice cream. “Ahorita,” the shopkeeper said again, dragging out the ‘i’ ‒ “Ahoriiiiita”. His face was a mix of confusion and maybe even embarrassment. Waiting longer wasn’t appealing, but the author felt it was impolite to walk away, especially if the ice cream was now being delivered especially for her. But finally, after waiting long, she took the nearest bus to take her home. As she sat on the bus, rain pattering on the windows, she replayed the conversation in her head and decided indignantly that the ice cream seller was a liar. She says that this incident faded from her memory until years later when she came back to live in Mexico. She discovered that cracking what she came to call the ‘ahorita code’ took not a fluency in the language, but rather a fluency in the culture.


When someone from Mexico says ‘ahorita’, they should almost never be taken literally; its definition changes dramatically with context. As Dr. Concepción Company, linguist and emeritus researcher at the Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, said “When a Mexican says ‘ahorita’, it could mean tomorrow, in an hour, within five years or never.” Ahorita llego, which directly translates to ‘I am arriving right now’, in fact means ‘I will be there in an indeterminate amount of time’, while ahorita regreso (‘I will be right back’) means ‘I will be back at some point but who knows exactly when’. ‘Ahorita’ is even used as a polite way of saying ‘no, thank you’ when refusing an offer. Even after almost seven years in Mexico, this response still catches her off guard when she’s hosting friends; she finds herself hovering, unsure if she should get her guest what she offered them or not.

Mexicans are famous in the Spanish-speaking world for their extensive use of the diminutive. While in most Spanish-speaking countries the addition of the diminutive ‘ita’ to an adverb like ahora (meaning ‘now’) would strengthen it to indicate immediacy (i.e. ‘right now’), this is not the case in Mexico. Dr. Company explained that Mexicans instead use the diminutive form to break down the space between the speaker and the listener and lessen formality. In this case of ‘ahorita’, the addition of the diminutive reduces urgency rather than increasing it – a difference that can be extremely confusing for foreigners. Subtle adjustments to the pronunciation of the word also affect the way ‘ahorita’ is interpreted. “The stretch in the ‘i’ sound in the word ‘ahorita’ is a demonstration of the stretching of time,” Dr. Company informed said, implying that the longer the sound, the longer one can expect to wait. Equally, “if you want to imply that you really mean right now, you would say ‘ahorititita’,” she explained, noting the short, sharp sounds represent the idea that something needs to happen at once.

Difficulty interpreting what the author has come to call ‘Ahorita Time’ is a reflection of different cultural understandings of time. Dr Company explained that if she is giving a talk in Mexico and goes over her allotted time, Mexicans “feel like I am giving them a gift”. In the UK or the US, however, “The audience starts to leave, feeling like I am wasting their time.” Her Mexican friends plan parties for 7pm knowing that no one will show up until at least 8:30pm. Foreigners who are new to Mexico organise events for 8:30pm not knowing that means that most people will arrive at 10pm.

Foreigners are often heard complaining about Mexicans’ tardiness, viewing lateness as a lack of manners and respect. This stems from the notion that ‘time is money’ – a finite, valuable resource that should not be squandered. Mexicans on the other hand have a much less loaded attitude, viewing time as something flexible and malleable; something that cannot be controlled. Ahorita Time makes little commitment and allows for spontaneity, because you never know what might happen between now and ‘ahorita’. However, some expats living in Mexico just cannot get used to this more fluid way of measuring time. After moving to Mexico from the US, Elizabeth Wattson found a unique way of working with Ahorita Time. “Whenever my boss said ‘ahorita’, I would respond by asking ‘ahorita when?’. I just couldn’t work with this vague concept of something getting done at some indeterminate point in the future,” she said. As for the author herself, since moving to Mexico, her attitude towards time has changed dramatically. She doesn’t worry so much about being late; she is generally still on time to appointments, but when she’s not, she doesn’t panic. And while she still gets frustrated when waiting for a plumber who may arrive in the next five minutes or the next five hours, she knows that the payoff is feeling far less controlled by time and enjoying the spontaneity that this adds to life.

9) Harry Potter and the magical profit margins under the tree [Source: NY Times
The author of this piece is a big fan of Harry Potter. Not the books or movies, but the Chinese-made wands you can buy for $37.50 at Amazon, or $42.95 from harrypottershop.com. He first encountered the wand when he visited Universal Studios in Florida. He says that a wand was purchased that day, and not long afterward an overenthusiastic young wizard cast a spell with a little too much elbow rotation. The wand snapped in half. The author was left marveling at the fact that such a thin reed of resin could require the heft of a credit card to own.

We live in an age when fidget spinners can cost more than $16,000. There was a period where the author tithed much of his income to Pokémon cards. Legos once were so plentiful they lurked painfully underfoot in his house. Granted, the best toys are the ones that can spin gold from pennies. Of the 65 toys inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, N.Y., many are not all that complicated: The Slinky, Little Green Army Men, marbles and alphabet blocks. That said, the Hall of Fame itself should be viewed with a degree of suspicion. They have also inducted the stick, justifying it by saying it “may be the world’s oldest toy,” and the cardboard box, explaining that “children sensed the possibilities inherent in cardboard boxes, recycling them into innumerable playthings.” But cardboard boxes are not to be underestimated, actually. If you watch the many “unboxing” videos of Harry Potter wands on YouTube, the box gets significant airtime. One such review, which has been viewed more than 77,000 times, began with a close perusal of the box’s “dark red, maroonish color,” the stickers that replicated the look of those from Ollivanders, the wand store in the books, movies and theme parks, and the “red velvet squishy foam” that the wand itself comes nestled in. Lesson learned: Packaging counts.

So what are the highest profit margins in the toy business? Brand Finance, a brand consulting company based in London, pointed to Lego, putting its operating margins at 34% over the last half decade, compared with 14% for Hasbro and 13% for Mattel. It all comes down to brand and brand quality. Parents feel good about letting their kids play with LEGO. There’s a lot of play value (hours and hours of playtime. Toys aren’t the easiest business, though. Even Lego, whose revival over the last decade came with a popular movie and adroit licensing deals, had a tough year. Toys ‘R Us, once dominant, is wheezing. Harry’s wand endures, though much is left to the imagination. Warner Brothers licences the Harry Potter wands to other companies that produce and sell it. The cost for the resin used to make most of the wands is pennies per pound. The main Harry Potter replica wand — one of 60 varieties produced by the Noble Collection, the largest licencee — has a weight measured in ounces. But there is also the tooling, labor and intellectual property to factor in, and the fact that some of the newer wands light up or have other features.

10)    The darkest material on earth [Source: YouTube]

Things around us that we call ‘black’ are not actually true black. This video showcases a new material that is closer to true black than anything else on the planet and it’s revolutionising everything from space exploration to architecture. This material absorbs 99.98% of all light and it’s so black that it changes the dimensionality of an object. It’s not a colour but rather ‘absence’ of any colour that gives this material its distinct feel. It’s made up of microscopic carbon nanotubes which are grown in a lab just outside of London. Vantablack- as the material is called, is more expensive per weight than diamonds or gold.

A comparison with black hole would not exactly be incorrect as this material is helping scientists peer deeper into the heavens. Acting a bit like a lens hood for a camera, Vantablack basically prevents lens flares in powerful telescopes. Reducing that stray light allows us to see some of the faintest and most distant objects in the universe.

Space isn’t the only frontier. Artists, designers and musicians want to get their hands on Vantablack. Asif Khan – an architect is covering a building with Vantablack for 2018 Olympics.  He says” When people look at this building they will see a schism in space. It will be like you’re looking into the night sky. In fact we’re creating star field within this blackness. So it will look like Milky way but you’ll be seeing it in broad daylight!”

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