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 ‘changing dynamics of Indian marriage, the ‘return of the newspaper’, and ‘the attachment theory’.
Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended January 5, 2018.
1) Marriage in India is becoming less traditional [Source: The Economist]
India remains a highly traditional society. Marriage in India is much more about binding families, and much less about personal choice and fulfillment. Arranged marriages are so much the norm that people who find their own partners sometimes seek to disguise the fact. Among Hindus, caste barriers appear insurmountable. But change is afoot, especially in the crowded, sprawling cities where a growing proportion of Indians live. Astonishingly quickly, India’s most important social institution is being reshaped. Many young Indians now have mobile phones, which makes secret courting easier. The growth of marriage websites and, more recently, dating websites has given them more control over the search for a partner. And India is becoming wealthier, more urban and more educated. A quarter of young Indians now go to university, and half of all students are women. Because marriage is usually delayed until people have finished studying and found a job, brides and grooms are growing older. As recently as 2005-06, 47% of Indian women in their early 20s were married before their 18th birthday. By 2015-16 the share had fallen to 27%—and just 18% in the cities.
Although parents might seek marriage partners for their children, the final decision now rests with the young, especially among the urban middle classes. One large survey shows that the more educated the woman, the more likely she is to have met or communicated with her husband before the wedding day. The perfectly chaste bride is going out of fashion, too. Further, caste is weakening more than appearances suggest. Amit Ahuja, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-author Susan Ostermann have tested it by signing up eligible grooms to three of India’s largest marriage websites. The men, who were very similar in every respect other than their caste, contacted women and measured how they responded. Many of these men seemed to be snubbed just because of their background. For example, only 33% of affluent upper-caste women responded to advances from successful lower-caste men. Intriguingly, though, 60% of less affluent upper-caste women expressed an interest in such men. That suggests Hindus now see caste not as an impenetrable barrier but as a bonus in the marriage market, like a university education or fair skin.
These changes seem disconcertingly quick. The West took centuries to articulate an ideal of companionate marriage, and decades after that to elaborate social codes around dating and premarital sex, points out Ira Trivedi, a novelist who has written a book about marriage in India. In India, everything is happening at once. Until recently many Indian men were unaccustomed to the sight of a woman’s exposed upper arms. Suddenly they can download Tinder, a dating app created in Silicon Valley. Conservatives though consider the changes outrageous. Love marriages—the Indian term for unions conducted in defiance of parents’ wishes—do not last, they say. And when marriage ceases to be a family concern and becomes a purely private matter, family obligations of all kinds are forgotten. According to them, if Indian parents relinquish their control over their children’s marriages, the country will be on a slippery slope to Western-style teenage pregnancies and old people left to moulder in retirement homes.
What should worry conservative Indians is not so much that their country will go the way of America but that it will follow Japan. Arranged marriage was the norm in Japan before World War II, and many retired Japanese lived with their children. Today arranged marriage is almost unknown in Japan, and children feel little obligation to take in their aged parents. In India, meanwhile, marriage is also quietly eroding from below. Slum-dwellers whose marriages collapse seldom bother with divorce. Instead they separate from their spouses and take up with new partners. Sometimes they announce that they are now married to their new loves. Technically this is illegal, but nobody seems minded to interfere. Nervously and unsteadily, India is letting go of old ways and groping towards something that resembles Western marriage. At the same time the West is in one sense turning more Indian. The idea that the best marriage partner is someone with the same family background and belonging to precisely the same social group seems to be rooted in the subcontinent. But something that looks remarkably like caste marriage is becoming increasingly common in rich countries.
2) The return of the newspaper [Source: Project Syndicate]
Following President Donald Trump’s victory in the United States, it seemed that the mainstream media had not only lost the plot, but had also lost their relevance. Trump led the multi-pronged attack on traditional news media, and newspapers in particular. But many members of the press were also quick to declare that their own character limit had been reached. Accused of being elitist and out of sync with readers, newspapers’ reactions ranged from self-flagellation to repentance for the election result. Flummoxed by the clobbering from all sides, pundits who could not get the Trump election right prophesied that declining sales, falling readership, and flagging credibility heralded the demise of the newspaper, as we have known it. But more than one year later, it is clear that Trump’s victory did not mean any such thing. On the contrary, his ascendancy has made the newspaper business more relevant than ever.
Newspapers achieved this remarkable turnaround by doing what they do best: investigative journalism and breaking stories. Since November 2016, and particularly since Trump’s inauguration in January last year, newspapers have led with stories ranging from conflicts of interest involving Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to evidence that the president’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, met with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. These tales of political intrigue competed for attention with lurid allegations of sexual misconduct by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, US Senate candidate Roy Moore, and other powerful men. And the pummeling of Trump with inconvenient facts has not been limited to Russia’s meddling in the election. It is important to remember that newspapers’ investments in rapid-response investigative teams, long-form stories, and data-driven journalism are possible only because more people are paying for their news, especially through digital subscriptions. Millennials in the West, dismayed by the surge in “fake news,” are helping reverse declining circulations in major markets. Growth trends are even more pronounced in the Asia Pacific region, where readers in China and India are leading a return to traditional newspapers.
Newspapers’ post-election rebound was not entirely their own doing; it was also facilitated by social media’s failure to consolidate its gains. Blinkered by the illusion of having snatched whatever influence newspapers commanded, social media’s mavens bungled their attempts to dethrone the older medium. Instead of breaking stories, they took to drafting manifestos, like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s 5,700-word jeremiad about nothing in particular. And, while there was a time when 140 characters may have been more appealing than 700-word opinion pieces, brevity is no longer enough. Having abducted the truth, social media were at a loss about what to do with it. They did not innovate by, for example, following the lead of BuzzFeed, a once-notorious “clickbait” factory that soon expanded into serious reportage and long-form journalism. Rather, most major social media platforms continued to feature whatever presidential nonsense interested or amused their users.
Newspapers have gained allies even on Capitol Hill. When Congress grills executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google, glee is evident in news headlines. To add insult to social media’s injury, it is newspaper articles that are being relentlessly quoted in congressional testimony. For example, former FBI Director James Comey’s memo on his interactions with Trump, which led to the hiring of a special prosecutor to investigate the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia, was leaked to The New York Times. As calls to rein in social media grow, it is the world’s newspapers – until very recently thought to be on the ropes – that have provided the reporting needed to convince policymakers to act. Because social media companies, for all their power and potential, never developed the journalistic capacities needed to displace traditional news media, the pendulum has changed direction.
3) How high frequency trading hit a speed bump [Financial Times]
Wall Street’s fastest trading firms are building Go West, a trail of wireless towers, fibre-optic lines and submarine cables linking Chicago, the Pacific coast and Tokyo. Transmitting market data end to end will take fractions of a second for traders seeking to preserve an edge. Go West, which is due to be operational in early 2018, is the latest stage in a quest to move financial transactions closer to the speed of light. But it is also a sign of pressures inside the lucrative high-frequency trading sector. Rather than outpace each other with competing paths to Tokyo, top companies formed a consortium to build a single route, sharing bandwidth and costs. Since markets left bustling exchange floors for computer data centres a decade ago, the majority of deals in equities and futures have come to be executed by machines — automated and lightning-fast. The high-frequency trading land rush unleashed frenzied investment in wireless capacity, efficient computer switches and coding talent. It also sparked complaints that the speediest preyed on investors and caused flash crashes. The rise of HFT means that ordinary investors buying or selling stocks, bonds, exchange traded funds or futures are likely to be transacting with an algorithm on the other side.
But the bonanza has now ended. Trading firms are struggling to wring profits from the incremental millisecond. Subdued volumes and reduced volatility have shrunken the size of the pie. Exchanges have ratcheted up market data and technology costs for customers. In 2017, aggregate revenues for HFT companies from trading US stocks was set to fall below $1bn for the first time since at least the financial crisis, down from $7.2bn in 2009. The straitened times have led to consolidation, with some firms selling out to stronger rivals. The wave could result in only a few large players that are able to invest in the best technology and a bottom tier of niche specialists, making mid-sized firms uncompetitive. The survivors are searching for new ways to make or save money. Some are gambling on untested cryptocurrency markets, mainly because they offer volatility.
Electronic trading first emerged in parallel to exchange floors where brokers and traders shouted out orders. From there it evolved into an ecosystem where speed was integral. Traders paid exchanges to “co-locate” computers in cages beside matching engines, the electronic equivalent of exchange floors. This way they could be first to receive market signals and adjust their orders, beating investors outside the building. To gain competitive edge in information dissemination, a secretive race began to build telecommunications networks as straight as possible across the Appalachian mountains: first fibre-optic cables and then microwave towers that transmit data in eight milliseconds. The construction was chronicled in Flash Boys, the 2014 book by Michael Lewis. “A small class of insiders with the resources to create speed were now allowed to preview the market and trade on what they had seen,” he wrote. The book led to congressional hearings.
At the height of the furore, markets themselves were already turning tougher. The financial crisis of 2008 detonated furious price swings. Volatility, the amount a market moves in a given period of time and therefore essential for the high-frequency traders to make money, increased. But since then, markets have become the sleepiest in 50 years, as measured by daily price moves in the S&P 500 stock index. Trading volumes have also been subdued: the number of shares transacted in the first half of 2017 was down 12.2% year on year, while exchange-traded derivatives volumes were off 5%. Falling volume means fewer chances to trade, while low volatility allows less money to be made on each transaction. Traders are also shouldering higher fixed costs. Exchanges need high-volume traders to keep their markets liquid and provide rebates on transaction fees to trading firms willing to buy and sell all day long. In turn traders gravitate to active markets where it is easy and cheap to find buyers and sellers. But exchanges, now for-profit companies, increasingly rely on sales of market data to generate profits as volumes stagnate, squeezing trading companies that need a fire hose of data to survive. Wolverine Trading, a Chicago-based proprietary firm, complained to regulators that its market data fees from the NYSE had increased more than 700% in eight years.
While essential to play the game, speed is no longer enough to win it. And with volumes soft, there are only so many good trades the fastest can pounce on. Proprietary firms also now face competition from brokers and hedge funds. Renaissance Technologies, one of the world’s biggest quantitative hedge funds, has applied for a patent on a precision clock to execute trades on multiple exchanges all at once, aiming to head off what it called the “predatory practice” of HFT. Then there are enterprises such as Alpha Trading Labs, a Chicago-based start-up created by industry veterans which will share its HFT systems with any aspiring trader for a cut of the profits, with an aim “to democratise high-frequency trading.” In acknowledgment that the racy industry may be settling into boring middle age, banks have begun enlisting HFT firms to execute some deals rather than spend money to upgrade their own systems. The French bank BNP Paribas recently joined with Global Trading Systems of New York to trade US Treasury bonds. Traders are also focusing on strategies that involve using other information, such as “alternative data” scraped from consumer records and social media.
4) Yes, it’s your parent’s’ fault [Source: NY Times]
While we live in a culture that celebrates individualism and self-reliance, we are an exquisitely social species, thriving in good company and suffering in isolation. More than anything else, our intimate relationships, or lack thereof, shape and define our lives. While there have been many schools of thought to help us understand what strains and maintains human bonds, from Freudian to Gestalt, one of the most rigorously studied may be the least known to the public. It’s called attachment theory, and there’s growing consensus about its capacity to explain and improve how we function in relationships. Conceived more than 50 years ago by the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby and scientifically validated by an American developmental psychologist, Mary S. Ainsworth, attachment theory is now having a breakout moment, applied everywhere from inner-city preschools to executive coaching programmes. Experts in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, sociology and education say the theory’s underlying assumption, that the quality of our early attachments profoundly influences how we behave as adults, has special resonance in an era when people seem more attached to their smartphones than to one another.
By the end of our first year, we have stamped on our baby brains a pretty indelible template of how we think relationships work, based on how our parents or other primary caregivers treat us. If you’re securely attached, that’s great, because you have the expectation that if you are distressed you will be able to turn to someone for help and feel you can be there for others. It’s not so great if you are one of the 40-50% of babies who, a meta-analysis of research indicates, are insecurely attached because their early experiences were suboptimal. Then you have to earn your security by later forming secure attachments that help you override your flawed internal working model.
People who have insecure attachment models tend to be drawn to those who fit their expectations, even if they are treated badly. They may subconsciously act in ways that elicit insensitive, unreliable or abusive behavior, whatever is most familiar. Or they may flee secure attachments because they feel unfamiliar. One reason attachment theory has “gained so much traction lately is its ideas and observations are so resonant with our daily lives. If you look at the classic categories of attachment styles — secure; insecure anxious; insecure avoidant; and insecure disorganized — it’s pretty easy to figure out which one applies to you and others in your life. The categories stem from tens of thousands of observations of babies and toddlers whose caregivers leave them briefly, either alone or with a stranger, and then return, a test known as the “strange situation.” The labels can also apply to how adults behave toward loved ones in times of stress. Secure children get upset when their caregivers leave, and run toward them with outstretched arms when they return. They fold into the caregiver and are quickly soothed. A securely attached adult similarly goes to a loved one for comfort and support when they, say, are passed over for a promotion at work or feel vulnerable or hurt. They are also eager to reciprocate when the tables are turned.
Children high on the insecure anxious end of the spectrum get upset when caregivers leave and may go to them when they return. But these children aren’t easily soothed, usually because the caregiver has proved to be an unreliable source of comfort in the past. They may kick and arch their back as if they are angry. As adults, they tend to obsess about their relationships and may be overly dramatic in order to get attention. They may hound romantic interests instead of taking it slow. Insecure avoidant children don’t register distress when their caregivers leave (although their stress hormones and heart rate may be sky high) and they don’t show much interest when caregivers return, because they are used to being ignored or rebuffed. Alternatively, a parent may have smothered them with too much attention. Insecure avoidant adults tend to have trouble with intimacy and are more likely to leave relationships, particularly if they are going well. They may not return calls and resist talking about their feelings. Finally, insecure disorganised children and adults display both anxious and avoidant behaviours in an illogical and erratic manner. This behaviour is usually the lingering result of situations where a childhood caregiver was threatening or abusive.
Researchers think that people should be viewed as along a continuum in all categories. Also, it’s worth noting that just as people in the insecure categories can become more secure when they form close relationships with secure people, secure people can become less so if paired with people who are insecure.
5) Benjamin Franklin’s guide to spotting pseudoscience [Source: Livemint]
Scientists—especially those in fields plagued by irreproducible results—could learn a thing or two from Benjamin Franklin. In the late 18th century, humanity had yet to invent most of the statistical tools now considered essential for social science, yet Franklin conducted a top-rate psychology experiment yielding conclusions that stand to this day. To do it, he had to invent some of the core principles of experimental science. With critics charging that most published social science can’t be replicated, Franklin’s foray into psychology deserves some attention. In 1782, Franklin was asked to investigate an allegedly science-based form of medicine known as Mesmerism by King Louis XVI. Named for its inventor—Viennese physician Franz Mesmer—treatments involved moving an alleged magnetic fluid through the body by means of waving hands or rods over a patient, or having them touch a “magnetized” object. It was wildly popular and a little too good to be true—much like a lot of the claims behind today’s supplements, homoeopathic remedies and self-help books. Mesmer, whose name lives on in the word “mesmerize”, dealt treatments in form of performances with music and elaborate rituals, after which some patients went into convulsions or fainted. Then, they reported they were cured of their ills, aches and pains.
Franklin led the investigation to see if the treatment was genuine. After he visited one of the salons where people were lining up for treatments, he realized there was too much going on, and this was not the right setting for research. So he brought trained mesmerists and volunteer patients to his home. Franklin reasoned that if Mesmer’s magnetic interpretation was correct, the effects should be the same whether or not patients were blindfolded. The experiment that followed was a precursor to today’s double-blind controlled trials. What the investigators controlled were two specific variables—whether patients were told they were getting the treatment or not, and whether they really were treated. The investigators found that patients reacted to the treatments only if they were told they were getting them. Others were not treated, and they reacted too—but only if told they were in fact getting mesmerized. Franklin’s report hurt Mesmer’s credibility, but his ideas didn’t completely die. In the 20th century, something like mesmerism returned in the form of “therapeutic touch”—a practice that involves no actual touching. Practitioners run their hands through the air, allegedly realigning patients’ energy fields. In 1998, an 11-year-old girl named Emily Rosa did an experiment much in the spirit of Franklin’s to debunk therapeutic touch.
Franklin’s experiment did something more than just debunk mesmerism. He discovered something new—what would come to be called the placebo effect. He also discovered the “nocebo” effect—the experience of side effects when people wrongly think they are getting a treatment. In the case of mesmerism, those included convulsions, “fits” and fainting. Backing for this idea continues. Recently in Science, researchers reported that subjects experienced worse side effects from an inert cream if told it was the more expensive of two brands. Franklin produced an example of what philosophers of science call abductive reasoning—finding the best explanation that fits the available observations. It’s science in the spirit of Darwin, Newton and Einstein. The power of suggestion also explains why so many people felt better after bloodletting and other now-discredited mainstream practices of Franklin’s time.
Modern psychological experiments are less likely to go after explanations and more likely to chase weird “counterintuitive” behaviour patterns. Many of the most surprising have been called into question: A study showing that forcing a smile by putting a pencil between your teeth can make you happy or that seeing words associated with old age would make people walk more slowly. While Franklin’s results were very clear, many of these questionable results are hard to distinguish from random variation in the way people behave. Many are reporting mere noise, dressed up as real phenomena through the misuse of statistical tools.
6) A year when tide turned against big tech [Source: Livemint]
In 2017, the term ‘big tech’ gained popular currency. It is not complimentary. Other industries that have earned the dubious distinction, big tobacco, big oil, have long been seen as rapacious and careless of the public good. The big tech firms make similarly tempting targets by virtue of being at the top of the capitalist food chain; Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft are the five largest US companies by market value and now outspend Wall Street two to one on lobbying efforts in Washington, DC. Indeed, the commodification of data over the past decade or so has caused public debate and hand-wringing to an extent. And the European Union (EU) has always been more sceptical of such big firms than the US. But it took until 2017 for the tide of public and political opinion to begin to truly turn.
The catalyst was US President Donald Trump’s election late last year. Claims that his victory was due to Russia ‘hacking’ the election via fake news disseminated on social networks arise more from political partisanship than logic. That said, the fact that substantial Russian interference took place is indisputable after US congressional hearings late this year. This has troubling implications for future democratic processes in the US, India and elsewhere. The Russia angle in the wake of the election also caused a shift in perception across the political spectrum in the US—big tech’s most important battleground—that led to their market dominance being viewed with an increasingly jaundiced eye. This intersection of big tech’s market power, innovative energy and consumer benefit is the heart of the matter. Its market dominance is indisputable. Together, Google and Facebook control almost 70% of global digital advertising. From being an online book store two decades ago, Amazon now offers almost 400 million products. Its vertical and horizontal integration are unprecedented in the retail industry. In this, it’s following the big tech script—acquire companies with offerings that could be potentially disruptive, or outspend them into the ground.
There is no evidence yet that this is harming consumers when it comes to product offerings and price levels—quite the opposite. But the potential for monopolistic behaviour to the detriment of consumers and innovation is undeniable. This raises the question: Is the dominant Chicago School of antitrust theory, which focuses on those two factors in conventional markets, adequate for dealing with a tech sector that is far more liable to produce winner-take-all outcomes due to network effects? Until this year, political and public attitudes in the US and EU stood on opposite sides of the argument. Now, they are converging; there have been calls from credible political and academic quarters in the US for breaking up the big firms or regulating them as public utilities. Their tax avoidance woes haven’t helped when it comes to public perception. Nor has Silicon Valley’s sexual harassment problem, which brought down Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick earlier this year. The fear of automation in developed economies seen against the backdrop of income inequality; the growing realization that technology and the spread of the internet are not panaceas that will disrupt inegalitarian socio-economic structures but may in some instances entrench them; the vexed question of data privacy; the struggle to find a solution for monitoring online speech without stifling it—they have all contributed to big tech’s image problem in 2017.
A flurry of EU rulings against the big tech firms this month means they are ending the year on a bad note. The EU’s top court has ruled that Uber must be regulated as a transportation service, not merely a platform, which raises the regulatory burden considerably. German and French regulators have taken Facebook to task for alleged misuse of user data, whereas Italian authorities have ordered Amazon to pay $118 million to end a tax evasion probe. Similar challenges—antitrust, privacy and more—await big tech in 2018. Will the backlash stifle innovation and industry growth to the detriment of consumers? That seems unlikely in the immediate future; their troubles notwithstanding, they wield too much market and economic influence to succumb easily. But 2017 has made one thing clear: The tech sector’s ‘move fast and break things’ philosophy is increasingly unacceptable to governments and the public alike.
7) How San Francisco turned against robots [Source: Financial Times]
San Francisco’s anti-tech backlash has a new target, robots. This is a place that ought to love artificial intelligence. After all, Silicon Valley is home to some of the most advanced robotics labs in the world. But when it comes to sharing its sidewalks with these technological wonders, San Francisco has said, “Forget it.” The city recently cracked down on delivery robots — autonomous devices, such as those tested by Yelp’s Eat24 service last year, that travel on the sidewalk to distribute food and other essentials to customers. New rules limit them to a speed of 3mph, and require a human operator nearby. Moreover, only nine delivery robots can be tested in the city at any time, dashing the hopes of start-ups that had envisioned fleets of self-driving bots taking hot pizza to hungry millennials.
Like many Silicon Valley innovations, the robots have found their least welcoming audience at home. In fact, several of the city’s most prominent start-ups have faced some of their toughest opposition here. Take Airbnb, the accommodation company. In 2016, San Francisco passed a law on home-sharing that was so restrictive, Airbnb sued the city over it. (That lawsuit has been settled, but all Airbnb hosts in SF must still obtain a business licence and registration before they can let their homes.) The same goes for Uber and Lyft: city leaders routinely lambast them for causing congestion and double parking. More than half of all traffic violations in the downtown area are attributable to Uber and Lyft drivers, according to a police study. Amid this broader antipathy towards tech, robots have come to occupy a special place of loathing in San Francisco. An incident in December highlighted the depths of the city’s dislike.
It began innocuously, with an animal shelter in a high-crime area paying for a robot “security guard” to help monitor its campus and the surrounding streets. The 5ft, 400lb droid takes photographs and records video footage, and has the ability to summon human help when it detects unusual activity. Made by Knightscope, a start-up based in the Valley, this autonomous device is most commonly deployed to roam parking lots and malls. The pet shelter initially reported good results from the security robot, with fewer car break-ins. However, controversy arose over its powers of surveillance, and at one point it was kidnapped. Unknown assailants covered the robot with a tarp and smeared barbecue sauce on its sensors to block them. News of the kidnapped robot spread, and the town quickly took aim at the pet shelter, accusing it of deploying a robot to keep its homeless neighbours away. The city of San Francisco weighed in too, threatening to fine the shelter for operating the robot on public sidewalks without a licence. To quell the outrage, the shelter sent the machine back to its manufacturer.
There are several lessons to draw from this tale. First, the issue of homelessness never fails to spark controversy in San Francisco, where the squalor of the public streets is in stark contrast to the wealth that exists behind closed doors. The second is that it is easier to blame the robot. Instead of asking why the neighbourhood has become so dangerous that a pet shelter should need protection, it’s more convenient to target a machine. The third lesson is that robots do not have a home-court advantage in San Francisco. The opposite is true. After the crackdown, robots will not be delivering pizza, and security droids will become scarcer. The robots will still serve one purpose, though — as a scapegoat for problems whose roots are all too human.
8) Can science save humanity? The debate between HG Wells and George Orwell is still relevant [Source: Scroll]
In the midst of contemporary science’s stunning discoveries and innovations, it’s easy to forget that there’s an ongoing debate over science’s capacity to save humankind. Seventy-five years ago, two of the best-known literary figures of the 20th century, HG Wells and George Orwell, carried on a lively exchange over this very issue. Wells, one of the founders of science fiction, was a staunch believer in science’s potential, while Orwell cast a much more sceptical eye on science, pointing to its limitations as a guide to human affairs. Though Wells and Orwell were debating in the era of Nazism, many of their arguments reverberate today in contemporary debates over science and policy. For example, in 2013, biologist Richard Dawkins justified confidence in science in these terms: “Science works. Planes fly. Cars drive. Computers compute. If you base medicine on science, you cure people. If you base the design of planes on science, they fly. It works….” On the other hand, Nobel laureate Peter Medawar famously argued that there are many important questions that science cannot answer, such as, “What is the purpose of life?” and “To what uses should scientific knowledge be put?”
Herbert George Wells was born in Kent, England, in 1866. Achieving acclaim mainly as science fiction writer, among his most prominent works are The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds. In his own day, however, Wells was better known as a public intellectual with progressive political views and high hopes for science. Nearly four decades after Wells, George Orwell was born in 1903 to a British civil servant in India. After working briefly as a policeman, he began a prolific career as a journalist. His writings explored themes, such as the lives of the working poor and the dark side of colonialism, and he also produced fine literary criticism. It was near the end of his life that Orwell published the two works for which he is best known, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Orwell was not bashful about criticising the scientific and political views of his friend Wells. In “What is Science?” he described Wells’ enthusiasm for scientific education as misplaced, in part because it rested on the assumption that the young should be taught more about radioactivity or the stars, rather than how to “think more exactly.” Orwell also rejected Wells’ notion that scientific training rendered a person’s approach to all subjects more intelligent than someone who lacked it. Such widely held views, Orwell argued, led naturally to the assumption that the world would be a better place, if only “the scientists were in control of it,” a notion he roundly rejected. Orwell pointed to the fact that the German scientific community had mounted very little resistance to Hitler and produced plenty of gifted men to research synthetic oil, rockets and the atomic bomb. “Without them,” wrote Orwell, “the German war machine could never have been built up.” Orwell believed that scientific education should focus on implanting “a rational, sceptical, and experimental habit of mind.” And instead of merely scientifically educating the masses, we should remember that “scientists themselves would benefit by a little education” in the areas of “history or literature or the arts.”
Orwell is even more critical of science’s role in politics. In Wells, Hitler, and the World State, Orwell treats calls for a single world government as hopelessly utopian, in large part because “not one of the five great military powers would think of submitting to such a thing.” Though sensible men have held such views for decades, they have “no power, and no disposition to sacrifice themselves.” Far from damning nationalism, Orwell praises it to at least this extent: “What has kept England on its feet this past year” but the “atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners?” The energy that actually shapes the world, writes Orwell, springs from emotions that “intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms.”
The contrast between these two towering figures of 20th-century literature should not be overdrawn. Orwell recognised that without scientific research and technological innovation, the British could not maintain parity with Germany’s rapidly developing military. He did not for a second think that his countrymen should revert to the use of shovels and pitchforks as weapons of war, and he called for adult males to own and know how to use a rifle. Yet Wells’ and Orwell’s views on science’s potential did in the end contrast sharply. As Wells saw it, scientific habits of mind were precisely what was needed to rationalise the political order of the world. For Orwell, by contrast, purely scientific ways of thinking left human beings vulnerable to deception and manipulation, sowing seeds of totalitarianism. There is much to hope for from science, but a truly reasonable outlook places equal emphasis on science’s limitations.
9) A contraceptive gel for men is about to go on trial [MIT]
After more than a decade of work, government researchers in the U.S. are ready to test an unusual birth control method for men—a topical gel that could prevent the production of sperm. Currently, men’s only options for birth control are condoms or a vasectomy. In the last major study of a hormonal male contraceptive, which took place in Europe from 2008 to 2012, participants received injections of hormones every two months. The shots suppressed sperm production and prevented the men’s female partners from getting pregnant, but they also gave men severe mood swings and other serious side effects. The new gel contains two synthetic hormones, testosterone and a form of progestin. Progestin blocks the testes from making enough testosterone to produce normal levels of sperm. The replacement testosterone is needed to counteract the hormone imbalances the progestin causes but won't make the body produce sperm.
Men in the trial will take home a pump bottle of the gel and rub about half a teaspoon of it on their upper arms and shoulders every day. The gel can suppress sperm levels for about 72 hours allowing some ’flexibility’. Researchers will monitor the men’s sperm levels, which need to drop to less than one million per milliliter to effectively prevent pregnancy, according to Blithe. Once the sperm count is low enough, the women (who will initially also use some form of birth control) will go off their birth control. The couples will then use the contraceptive gel as their only form of daily birth control for a year.
Still, the question is: Will men use it? Historically, there hasn’t been much interest from pharmaceutical companies in a male contraceptive. Running clinical trials takes years and is hugely expensive, so it’s a risky endeavor when lots of options for female contraception already exist. But researchers like Sitruk-Ware think views are changing, and that men, especially younger men, will be open to using a contraceptive drug. “This is about gender equity,” she says. “Men would also like to be able to regulate their own fertility and not be forced into fatherhood.” Plus, some women can’t use hormonal birth control for medical reasons, so having another option would be helpful to those couples.
Men’s attitudes on their role in contraception vary by country, but a 2010 survey indicated that at least 25% of men worldwide would consider using a hormonal contraceptive. The biggest problem might not be resistance but forgetfulness. In a small 2011 survey conducted in the U.K., 42% of respondents worried that men would forget to take a contraceptive pill—and women were more likely than men to say so. Forgetting to take the drug at the same time every day is the top reason why oral contraceptives for women fail. The typical failure rate of those methods is 7%, compared with about 13% for condoms, according to a recent study. However, even if the trial is successful, it will likely be several years before the gel would be available to the public.
10) My father’s body, at rest and in motion [New Yorker]
In this article, Siddhartha Mukherjee - bestselling author of “The Gene” and “The Emperor of All Maladies” for which he won a Pulitzer Prize - describes his father’s last days. It all began with a call at three in the morning. His father had fallen and was muttering meaningless string of words in an unrecognizable high-pitched nasal tone. He kept repeating his nickname, Shibu, and the name of his childhood village, Dehergoti. He sounded as if he were reading his own last rites. “Take him to the hospital,” Siddhartha urged his mother, from New York. “I’ll catch the next flight home.”
Twenty hours after the phone call, Siddhartha reached Delhi. Once he reached the neuro-I.C.U., he saw his father was densely sedated. The unit in which he was kept was arranged in four pods around an atrium. Part of the floor was being repaired—the polished terrazzo had a gash like a busted lip that exposed the building’s pipes and electrical conduits, and pieces of jagged concrete were strewn across the corridor. When Siddhartha called his father’s name, for a moment, he thought he swung his head toward him in recognition. He felt a burst of joy—until he saw him swing his head back and forth again, and realized he was seeing an automatic movement, repetitive, rhythmic, patterned. A neurosurgery resident came, extended his hand and said Dr. Mukherjee, as he knew he was a physician. “Your father had extensive bleeding into his brain,” he said. “And with his underlying dementia I’m not sure how much of a recovery we can expect.” He added that his sodium had fallen to 128—critically low, yet another sign of severe damage to the brain tissue.
In the late nineteen-twenties, the physiologist Walter Cannon coined the term “homeostasis”—joining together the Greek homoios (similar) and stasis (stillness). The capacity to sustain internal constancy was an essential feature of an organism, he argued. His work was rooted in his experiences working with Allied troops during the First World War, as he studied the physiological complications of traumatic shock. But it was also inspired by the work of predecessors such as the nineteenth-century French physiologist Claude Bernard, who wrote, famously, “La fixité du milieu intérieur est la condition de la vie libre, indépendante”: the constancy of the interior environment is the condition of free and independent life. What is true of a well-functioning institution may also be true of the bodies that staff it. Consider temperature: the normal human body maintains an extraordinarily narrow range—somewhere between ninety-seven and ninety-nine degrees—despite enormous, often unpredictable variations in the environment.
Cannon’s insight inverted long-established logic. Physiologists, for generations, had described animals as assemblages of machines—as sums of dynamic parts. Muscles were motors; the heart a pump; the nerves electrical conduits. Pulsing, swivelling, pumping, sparking; the emphasis was on movement, on actions, on work—Don’t just stand there, do something. In shifting physiology’s focus from action to the maintenance of fixity, Cannon (and Bernard) had fundamentally changed our conception of how the human body works. A major point of physiological “activity,” paradoxically, was to enable stasis. Don’t just do something, stand there. Siddhartha had versed himself in the reasons that his father had ended up in the hospital. It took longer to ask the opposite question: What had kept his father, for so long, from acute decline? He had to reimagine the fall—the blow, the bleed, the delirium, the coma—and try to understand why such disasters hadn’t occurred earlier, as his brain had inched, woozily, inexorably, unrecognizably, toward dementia.
The power of homeostasis is such that it’s hard to see a failure cascade coming; everything returns to normal, until normality gives way. Once his body stopped resisting death, Siddhartha’s father died rather quickly. “Old age is a massacre,” Philip Roth wrote. For his father, though, it was more a maceration—a steady softening of fibrous resistance. He was not so much felled by death as downsized by it. The blood electrolytes that had seemed momentarily steady in the I.C.U. never really stabilised. Two months had elapsed since his admission to the geriatric ward. That’s when Siddhartha broached the topic of bringing him home. So the chirping monitors were shut off, the I.V. lines were pulled out of his veins, and the gastric tube from his nose was unsnaked. He was bathed and shaved. He put on his shoes and wrapped him in his favourite pashmina shawl. They brought him to his own bed. The fishmonger delivered a spectacular specimen of the river fish that he loved, and the author’s mother curried it with mustard and ginger, pulverized it into a mash, and fed it to him with a baby’s spoon. He died in his sleep three days later, his restless body finally at rest.