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 favorite 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 ‘Yo-Yo test’, ‘when your phone listens’, and ‘trend in handloom sarees’.Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended June 29, 2018.
1) How the yo-yo test became a selection standard
The Indian cricket team has been using the yo-yo test as a critical criterion to determine match fitness of its players. A yo-yo test involves a player shuttling between two cones that are set 20 metres apart on flat ground. He starts on a beep and needs to get to the cone at the other end before the second beep goes. He then turns back and returns to the starting cone before the third beep. That is one "shuttle". A player starts at speed level 5, which consists of one shuttle. The next speed level, which is 9, also consists of one shuttle. Speed level 11, the next step up, has two shuttles, while level 12 has three and level 13 four. There are eight shuttles per level from 14 upwards. Level 23 is the highest speed level in a yo-yo test, but no one has come close to getting there yet. Each shuttle covers a distance of 40 metres, and the accumulated distance is an aggregate of distance covered at every speed level. The player gets ten seconds to recover between shuttles. At any point if he fails to reach the cone before the beep goes, he gets a first warning. Usually a player gets a few "reminders" to keep to the pace, but three official warnings generally marks the end of the test.
As a player moves up the levels, the time available to complete each shuttle diminishes, which means he needs to run quicker to reach the next cone before the beep. The player runs until he gets his three warnings, and the level achieved at that point is the test result. Teams have different speed levels as qualifying marks. India have set 16:1 as the qualifying speed level, which means it is mandatory for their players to finish the first shuttle of speed level 16, which in terms of accumulated distance is 1120 metres. Pakistan's minimum level is now 17:4; West Indies are at 19, and New Zealand probably have the highest level, 20:1. As for "civilians", the simplest way to know if you are fit for a yo-yo test is to run two kilometres in eight minutes.
The yo-yo test is mainly derived from the Leger Test, created by Luc Leger of the University of Montreal, which was popular until the turn of the century. The Leger multi-stage test, where an athlete would run non-stop 20-metre shuttles for 12 minutes, was not considered suitable for sports like cricket, which are marked by bursts of activity separated by recovery periods. "You bowl, you throw, you hit, you run, you have about 30 seconds before the next ball starts," Andrew Leipus, who was until recently the head physiotherapist at the NCA, says. "So you've got to get your heart rate down, your breathing rate down for the next delivery." Leipus says that the yo-yo test is not simply a fitness test, in that it also helps players improve their fitness while testing it.
The intention behind the yo-yo tests and the "beep tests" of old (similar to the Leger tests, where a player shuttles between cones without taking breaks), Leipus says, was and is to establish a "baseline fitness", showing the players were fitter than the common man. "It is going to mean less injuries because the guys are fitter. It is going to mean high level of performance, because guys are going to recover better out on the field. The turnaround time between matches is shorter now, so they are going to recover quick between games." Also, once a player gets into shape to routinely pass the yo-yo test, Leipus says, "he will find it will improve his batting ability, because you recover better between runs running ones, twos, threes". A yo-yo test also helps measure the aerobic capacity of a player. "We use it to show them how fit they are," Chris Donaldson, the New Zealand strength and conditioning coach, says. "The major physical components of cricket are based around aerobics, strength, speed, so how fit, fast and strong they are, are the components we train for a cricketer so that they don't break. This way, they can play the game for longer and faster and they can do things like stop the ball, take a miracle catch or run between wickets faster."2) The quant factories producing the fund managers of tomorrow
[Source: Financial Times
The wealth of nations and individuals is ever more likely to be influenced by computer algorithms as investors look to computer-powered quantitative trading strategies to generate returns. But underpinning those machines and algorithms are real people, namely the world’s sharpest mathematicians and data scientists. Though not hard to identify, virtually every industry — and especially Big Tech — is competing with the financial world for their skills. Competition for talent means the campuses of elite universities have become a favoured hunting ground for many groups, and that the very best students and early career academics can command staggering starting salaries should they join the investment world. A top masters student with a strong quantitative background joining a US hedge fund typically commands $90,000-120,000 in their first job, while the basic pay package for those with a PhD under their belt could hit $200,000.
The links asset managers foster with universities vary. In the UK, Oxford and Cambridge are home to dedicated institutes established and funded by investment managers. Although these were set up with a genuine desire to foster research in the field, with a nod to philanthropy, they are also proving to be an effective way to spotting future talent. Connections between hedge funds and investment managers are less formalised on US campuses but are treated with no less importance.
Some of the examples of such partnerships are: Oxford-Man Institute of Quantitative Finance set up by the world’s largest listed hedge fund group in 2007 to conduct research into financial markets and develop new quantitative methods. More than 70 PhD students have been supported by the Oxford-Man Institute over the past decade and a number of them now work at Man Group. Erasmus University Rotterdam began offering a one-year masters degree in Quantitative Finance more than a decade ago. A key attraction of the course is a 10-week research project where students work on problems set by Dutch investment groups. AQR Capital Management, a $225bn Connecticut-headquartered hedge fund established the AQR Asset Management Institute at London Business School three years ago, providing funding for PhDs and academics. The Cantab Capital Institute for the Mathematics of Information was set up with a £5m donation to Cambridge university in 2016 by Cantab, a Cambridge-based investment company acquired by Swiss asset manager GAM the same year and renamed GAM Systematic Cantab.
Another option for recruiting talent is to bypass the traditional university campus entirely and establish your own course, available online, akin to the distance learning Open University model. This is the approach favoured by WorldQuant, a hedge fund headquartered in Connecticut, whose founder Igor Tulchinsky set up WorldQuant University in 2015. The online portal offers students a two-year part-time MSc programme in financial engineering with modules covering topics such as econometrics and statistics. Around 60 graduates have earned the qualification but those hoping for a springboard to WorldQuant will be disappointed: students are ineligible for employment there for a year after graduating in an effort to maintain a strict division between business and philanthropy. However, WorldQuant says that the project would help “lift the whole boat” globally when it comes to developing better quant skills and widening opportunities in the field. Over 1,500 students are enrolled in the programme, over half of them from sub-Saharan Africa.3) Your Phone Is Listening and it's Not Paranoia
The author of this piece discusses how, a couple years ago, something strange happened. He and a friend were sitting at a bar, iPhones in pockets, discussing their recent trips in Japan and how they’d like to go back. The very next day, they both received pop-up ads on Facebook about cheap return flights to Tokyo. It seemed like just a spooky coincidence, but then everyone seems to have a story about their smartphone listening to them. So is this just paranoia, or are our smartphones actually listening? According to Dr. Peter Henway—The senior security consultant for cybersecurity firm Asterix, and former lecturer and researcher at Edith Cowan University—the short answer is yes, but perhaps in a way that's not as diabolical as it sounds.
For your smartphone to actually pay attention and record your conversation, there needs to be a trigger, such as when you say “hey Siri” or “okay Google.” In the absence of these triggers, any data you provide is only processed within your own phone. This might not seem a cause for alarm, but any third party applications you have on your phone—like Facebook for example—still have access to this “non-triggered” data. And whether or not they use this data is really up to them. “From time to time, snippets of audio do go back to [other apps like Facebook’s] servers but there’s no official understanding what the triggers for that are,” explains Peter. “Whether it’s timing or location-based or usage of certain functions, [apps] are certainly pulling those microphone permissions and using those periodically. All the internals of the applications send this data in encrypted form, so it’s very difficult to define the exact trigger.”
He goes on to explain that apps like Facebook or Instagram could have thousands of triggers. An ordinary conversation with a friend about needing a new pair of jeans could be enough to activate it. Although, the key word here is “could,” because although the technology is there, companies like Facebook vehemently deny listening to our conversations. “Seeing Google are open about it, I would personally assume the other companies are doing the same.” Peter says.
With this in mind, the author decided to try an experiment. Twice a day for five days, he tried saying a bunch of phrases that could theoretically be used as triggers. Phrases like I’m thinking about going back to uni and I need some cheap shirts for work. Then he carefully monitored the sponsored posts on Facebook for any changes. And Bingo!. He'd never seen this ad for "quality clothing" until he told his phone he needed shirts. The changes came literally overnight. Suddenly he was being told mid-semester courses at various universities, and how certain brands were offering cheap clothing. A private conversation with a friend about how he’d run out of data led to an ad about cheap 20 GB data plans. And although they were all good deals, the whole thing was eye-opening and utterly terrifying.
Peter said that although no data is guaranteed to be safe for perpetuity, in 2018 no company is selling their data directly to advertisers. But as we all know, advertisers don’t need our data for us to see their ads. Also, Peter went on to say that just because tech companies value our data, it doesn’t keep it safe from governmental agencies. As most tech companies are based in the US, the NSA or perhaps the CIA can potentially have your information disclosed to them, whether it’s legal in your home country or not.
4) The mystery trader who roiled Wall Street
[Source: Financial Times
In 2015, brokers working on behalf of a mystery client in London, offered hedge funds the chance to make a trade they thought was impossible to lose: betting that a teetering Norwegian paper company would imminently default on its debt. The hedge funds snapped up hundreds of millions of dollars of the derivatives contracts that would pay out in the event of a default. By the time the buyers realised who was on the other side of the trade it was too late: they had been trapped. On the other side was Akshay Shah, at the time a managing director at the Blackstone Group’s GSO hedge fund unit, who for nearly a decade spearheaded a series of unconventional trades that made him the most feared operator in European credit markets. The aftermath of the complex trades Mr Shah helped pioneer have shaken the $10tn market for credit default swaps to its core, leaving a trail of at least three lawsuits and recriminations between the world’s largest private equity group and some of the most powerful names in finance.
How it worked: GSO buys a CDS contract on a struggling company from another hedge fund. The CDS is like an insurance contract: it pays out if the company defaults. GSO then approaches the company and offers it very attractive financing (a low interest loan for example) with an unusual condition: it has to default in a way that will trigger a payout on the CDS contract. The company carries out this proposal, for example by paying interest on a bond a few days late, causing little concern to bondholders but “triggering” the CDS contracts. The hedge fund then has to pay a lump sum to GSO given that the company has defaulted. The trades have also highlighted a shift in the balance of power on Wall Street since the financial crisis, where the so-called non-bank lenders such as GSO have leveraged the infrastructure and reach of parent private equity groups to become more feared than the once dominant proprietary trading desks of Goldman Sachs and the other leading investment banks.
The GSO unit at Blackstone where Mr Shah worked became the biggest predator in the global CDS market by going beyond merely trying to predict when companies would fail. Instead it used Blackstone’s substantial influence to directly intervene in struggling businesses, changing their fates in ways that maximised profits on GSO’s trades. The strategy allowed GSO, which has $140bn of assets under management, to radically alter the odds in its favour by inventing a trade that had never been seen before: the manufactured default. It is the debt equivalent of a controlled explosion: offering a company favourable financing, such as low interest loans, to convince it to intentionally default in a way that will trigger payouts on CDS contracts, but without bringing down the whole company. By doing this GSO pushed its trading edge on rivals to the limits of what many saw as legal.
People familiar with Mr. Shah’s trading style say he pores over hundreds of pages of bond or loan documents, trying to find tiny details that others in the market might miss. Once he identifies chinks in the wording of particular clauses he plots a way to construct trades using derivatives on whether a company will default on its debts, which would lure rivals to take the other side. “He’s a sniper,” says one hedge fund manager. “He would call you up and say ‘Hey, what are you doing, what are you thinking on this?’ and he knows all the information already, he’s just fishing for what you know and what you think so he can work around it.” GSO would then directly approach company managements with proposals that guaranteed it would profit on the CDS. Ahead of the approach, Mr Shah would often hire external consultants for role-playing purposes, shadowboxing with them in a specific country’s law or corporate culture until the pitch was finely tuned. “You need to have a management team willing to screw people,” says one distressed debt investor.
Rivals argue that GSO was uniquely placed to not only gain access to greater information than many rivals, but could also use Blackstone’s reputation to open doors to corporate management teams. Mr Shah used all the levers at Blackstone’s disposal to push through one of GSO’s most controversial trades in 2015-16. The tussle over the CDS of heavily indebted Norwegian paper company Norske Skog resulted in a bitterly fought court battle in New York, as rival hedge fund BlueCrest tried in vain to block GSO’s gambit. The trade involved charging other hedge funds large premiums to bet on a company’s rapid demise before doing everything possible to keep it alive for long enough to avoid having to pay anything out. Interestingly, after CDS contracts were settled in June 2016, 18 months later, in December 2017, Norske Skog filed for bankruptcy.5) The trade in dinosaur fossils robs humanity of its heritage
[Source: Financial Times
Recently, a 9m long dinosaur skeleton of a potentially new species was auctioned off to an unnamed private buyer in Paris, with no guarantee that scientists will ever be able to confirm such a significant discovery. For many, the appetite for fossils among wealthy collectors is robbing science, and humanity, of its collective heritage. The skeleton was, legally, dug up in the US and exported to France. The Society for Vertebrate Paleontology wrote to Aguttes – the auction house last month urging it to cancel the June 4 sale. “Fossil specimens that are sold into private hands are lost to science,” complained David Polly, the society’s president. Aguttes was unmoved, insisting that the transaction was “honest, public, legal and documented”.
One problem is that old bones have become must-have trophies for the super-rich. Hollywood heart-throbs display a paleontological predilection: Leonardo DiCaprio bought a dinosaur skull at auction and then sold it privately to Russell Crowe. Nicolas Cage agreed to return a different dinosaur skull — for which he originally outbid Mr DiCaprio to the tune of $276,000 — to the Mongolian government after it emerged it should not have left the country. Those catering to the wealthy have been quick to respond: dinosaur fossils have almost come to be regarded as investments, akin to fine art and vintage wine. Top auction houses such as Sotheby’s have hosted high-profile sales.
It means that museums and universities must now spar with moneyed collectors. In 2013, bidding for a pair of fossilised dinosaurs supposedly locked in combat stalled at $5.5m. The seller was rumoured to be holding out for $9m, a target that one curator dismissed as “ransom”. Some people are calling for a change in US regulations, which permit fossils unearthed on private land to be exported and sold to anyone. China, Mongolia and Brazil are among fossil-rich nations that have clamped down and even criminalised export.
6) Tips for office interns that apply to us all
[Source: Financial Times
Recently, the bosses of the Jefferies investment bank decided to write a letter to their new crop of summer interns and post it on the firm’s website. Richard Handler and Brian Friedman told the recruits they were entering a world of “hand-to-hand combat” where they would be “fighting in the trenches” to reach “difficult and complicated objectives”. They would have to figure out how to swim as they were tossed “smack in the middle of the action” and when they inevitably got water up their noses, they would have to “learn to deal with it”. Like the hundreds of other interns fanning out across Wall Street and beyond in summers, the 166 newcomers at Jefferies were smart enough to survive a gruelling interview process for a spot that more than 3,500 originally tried for.
The author - Pilita Clark digs into the ‘tips’ given by the duo of Mr. Hander and Mr. Friedman. The duo’s first tip is a Trump-like call for the interns to treasure “tremendous flow”. In other words, they should want to be at a firm that has what he calls “an enormous amount of action”: deals, trades, ideas and so on. Ms. Clark is at her satirical best when she says that she doubts a single intern has pitched up expecting to work at somewhere like a high street bank, learning how to deposit pay checks. All must know they have arrived at an investment bank where this “flow” is supposed to be routine.
The bosses’ next bit of advice is even stranger: “You have to be excited about the people you met during the interview process and all the ones you are going to work with this summer.” Ms. Clark says this is rubbish. No one needs to be “excited” about anyone at work, not even an intern. The people the Jefferies rookies meet this summer will probably be much like those in any office. Most will be fine. Some will be dull. A few will be rotters and one or two might be admirable. To expect relentless excitement from them all is idiotic. In her experience if one is lucky one can end up working with smart, amusing, generous people in one’s career.
As far as the “mission” is concerned, the duo says that “You need to pick a firm that has a mission and a purpose that truly aligns with your goals and excites you,” they say. Ms. Clark says while she has never worked in an investment bank she knows a lot of people who do and she cannot think of one who has ever mentioned their firm’s mission, let alone whether it excites them. Most go to work for the same reasons as anyone else: they like being paid to do interesting stuff. Quite a few do not especially like what they do but are very much in favour of the substantial amount of money they earn. In fact, she says if she were a Jefferies intern, she would find it far more useful to read what ex-interns are saying on sites such as Wall Street Oasis, which has published a slew of veterans’ tips for this year’s “summers”.
“Put in the hours, even just for the facetime,” says one. But don’t let anyone know that’s what you are doing “or you’ll come across as a brown-nose”. Instead, find something useful to do, even if it’s boring. Also, act as if everything you do and say is being watched, because it probably is. Ms. Clark says this is sensible, especially if you are competing with more than 160 other pushy strivers for the attention of a lot of busy people with the power to shape your career. She also like another suggestion: don’t ask any questions that could be answered by Google. And this: offer lots of help, but not if you have no hope of being able to provide it. The tips actually are applicable to anyone – not just interns. Don’t complain. Don’t name-drop. Don’t babble on your phone too much. Try to be likeable. Listen and wait for people to stop talking. Take special care at any event involving drinking. Finally, don’t forget that if you want to stick around, you will need to satisfy the whimsical emotional impulses that drive your bosses.7) Decoding the phenomenon that’s handloom sarees, and Raw Mango
Over recent years, a new fashion movement has steadily gained ground in India. Seasonal trends are being linked intrinsically with local, sustainable resources; handloom is being reinterpreted in contemporary designs; forgotten craft traditions are being revived; and the saree is being reclaimed as a bona-fide style statement. And 37-year-old Sanjay Garg, textile designer, music lover, avid cook and collector of antiques, is indisputably one of the brightest navigators of this new wave through his label Raw Mango. His modest office in Delhi resides within an expansive green compound, which is visited frequently by peacocks and monkeys. “I come from a village, I can’t really live (and work) in apartments. This was the closest I could get to my rural roots,” he says. Garg’s frequent recounting of his early life is the foundation on which he has built his distinctive approach to design and revivalism. “I wanted women to relate to the sari. I wanted simplicity, yet provocation was also important to me, and I approached it by way of colour, imagery and display” he adds.
As a National Institute of Fashion Technology graduate he thought deeply about why didn’t women want to wear sarees any more, and why was there this great divide between fashion and craft? To be fair, sarees have never been absent from fashion in India—come Spring/Summer or Fall/Winter, there’s always a saree on the Indian runway. Think of a quintessentially Indian costume, and the answer is always a saree. Yet, there have been growing concerns over the years that the garment may be going the way of the kimono, restricted to ceremonial occasions like weddings and festivities or worn exclusively by older women. Seemingly, the saree seemed to be weighed down by its own heritage. It was timeless yet not functional—or stylish—enough to make a fashion statement. When Raw Mango emerged in 2008, it instantly filled a vacuum, introducing a new sartorial vocabulary. In bright hues and rich textures, these sarees were the desi equivalent of Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic Le Smoking tuxedo suits. The French couturier’s feminine take on the classic masculine design pioneered a movement towards androgynous silhouettes and power suits for women. Raw Mango transformed the saree into a power move that made Indian women sit up and take notice.
While his choice of colors was a factor, the deal clincher was the label’s lookbooks. They showed women (not models) of all ages, shapes and sizes, and devoid of make-up, posing in hallways, bathrooms and rooftops. Their saris, crushed and imperfectly draped, made an instant connection. “Sanjay is often credited with reviving the sari but what he really revived was an interest, primarily through his image-making,” says Delhi-based brand consultant Meher Varma. Garg’s appeal is one of the subjects of Varma’s PhD dissertation, Making Design On Fashion: Producing Contemporary Indian Aesthetics (UCLA, 2015), which addresses how Raw Mango became popular among socialites and brides. “He taps into certain pre-liberalization values, appealing to people who don’t want to be seen wearing their money.”
The Indian fashion scene today abounds in fresh sensibilities. While new designers have advocated use of handloom designs , the trend has been boosted further by industry initiatives. The Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) collaborates with the Khadi & Village Industries Commission to promote handwoven fabrics, while the LFW is dedicated to showcasing local textiles every season. In this new ecosystem, where the idea of fashion is woven with that of handloom revival, Raw Mango and Garg’s other label, Sanjay Garg, have been a catalysing force. He has sold over 70,000 sarees and a few hundred thousand designs overall, for his labels. Apart from 120 people in city offices, the brand employs 1,500 weavers and other workers at 500 looms across India. In 2008, Raw Mango’s annual turnover was ₹90,000. It crossed ₹10 crore in 2012-13, and, according to Garg’s team, has increased multiple-fold since.
Raw Mango is part of a wave that has reclaimed traditional handloom as a luxurious style statement. At prices ranging from ₹5,000 to ₹4.5 lakh (for saris and stitched garments), his designs can be more aspirational than affordable, but Garg is keen to find ways to make this luxury more accessible to India. He says: “There are many reasons why everyone can’t wear handlooms. If I could harness technology to make an improvement, I would make handlooms easier to wash and dry, lighter and cheaper too, without compromising on quality.”
8) Mammals Go Nocturnal in Bid to Avoid Humans
[Source: NY Times
Humans, it turns out, can annoy more than just one another. In fact, some animal populations are escaping their Homo sapiens cohabitants by sleeping more during the day, a new study finds. Mammals across the globe are becoming increasingly nocturnal to avoid humans’ expanding presence, according to the study, published in Science magazine. The findings show that humans’ presence alone can cause animals across continents — including coyotes, elephants and tigers — to alter their sleep schedules. “We’re just beginning to scratch the surface on how these behavioral changes are affecting entire ecosystems,” said Kaitlyn Gaynor, an ecologist and graduate student in environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the study. Previous research has found that mammals went from being noctural to being active during both day and night about 65.8 million years ago, roughly 200,000 years after most dinosaurs went extinct. “Species for millions of years have been adapting to diurnal activity, but now we’re driving them back into the night and may be driving natural selection,” Ms. Gaynor said in an interview.
The researchers compiled data from 76 studies of 62 species living on six continents in reaching their conclusions. On average, human disruption is making these animals 1.36 times more nocturnal, according to the study. “For example,” it says, “an animal that typically split its activity evenly between the day and night would increase its proportion of nocturnal activity to 68 percent of total activity near human disturbance.”
In California’s Santa Cruz mountains, for example, coyotes are opting to sleep more during the day in response to recreational human activities such as hiking and bicycling. As a result, coyotes are eating more nocturnal prey, whose waking hours match up more closely with theirs. Recent research such as this was used to provide data for the new study, Ms. Gaynor said. Thousands of miles from these night-walking coyotes, tigers living in Nepal at the base of the Himalayas are making similar lifestyle decisions. To avoid contact with humans traversing their favorite forest trails, tigers are increasingly walking the same paths during the night instead, said Neil Carter, who researched this tiger population and co-authored the new study.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “The optimist in me is saying there’s a pathway for coexistence here in an otherwise challenging landscape,” said Dr. Carter, an assistant professor at Boise State University. “What we don’t know is how that might negatively affect tigers.” Humans do not necessarily need to exhibit violent or blatantly destructive behavior to evoke this fear response in animals; often, our simple presence is enough, Ms. Gaynor said. Her own research in Mozambique showed that elephants that typically ate human-grown crops, like maize, were avoiding areas that humans inhabit during the day, but came out after sundown in full force.
9) The story of the first Indian newspaper
One was the last few copies of Hicky’s Bengal Gazette — India’s first newspaper, that had been lost to history for over 200 years — had been gathering dust in the archives of the High Court of Calcutta. It was in this issue that the newspaper’s founder, James Augustus Hicky, about to face the trial of his life, called on the whole city to defend the freedom of the press from the then Governor-General Warren Hastings. And this was the only remaining copy of this issue in the world.
Founded in 1780, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette made a point of challenging the most powerful people in India. For instance, Hicky boldly accused Hastings of corruption, tyranny, and warmongering; and it was not long before Hastings, fed up with Hicky’s reporting, attempted to shut the paper down by suing Hicky for libel. Hicky fought back, announcing his trial to the world with these words: Tomorrow the very important Trial of Mr James Augustus Hicky, the printer of the Bengal Gazette will come on at the Court House in Calcutta, on the fate of which materially depend the inestimable liberty of the press.
Hicky is a legend in Indian journalism, known both as the pioneer of India’s press, and as a scurrilous scribe. The truth is that Hicky was much more. Hicky saw himself as the voice of the poor and wrote that the British East India Company should not launch wars of conquest. Perhaps that is why he was suppressed and dismissed as a scoundrel by imperialist British rulers for centuries. The author – American writer Andrew Otis, visited four countries and spent six years in his quest to piece together Hicky’s story in his book ‘Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper’. From America, where he first came across a copy of the memoirs of Hicky’s lawyer, to England where he first came up with the idea of writing a book, to India where he spent over a year in the archives of Kolkata and Delhi, and even Germany where he delved into Hicky’s accusations against a missionary for embezzlement.10) The axolotl—nature’s miracle healer—is on the brink of extinction
The axolotl, or Ambystoma mexicanum, is the ultimate survivalist: When an axolotl loses a leg, tail, or a bit of its heart, the body part regrows and nary a scar remains. It is also a conservation paradox: The iconic creature is Mexico’s national symbol, and, because it breeds easily in an aquarium, a beloved pet around the globe. So many axolotls live in captivity that certain restaurants in Japan serve up the axolotl as a fried snack. Many thousands of axolotls a year are also used in scientific research: Because of their miraculous regeneration abilities, axolotls are studied in labs the world over. But in the Xochimilco canals around Mexico City, the axolotl’s only remaining natural habitat, pollution and the loss of water habitat mean that the axolotl has become a rare sight.
Axolotls entered laboratories when a French expedition shipped 34 of them to the Natural History Museum in Paris in 1863. Five males and one female were passed on to French zoologist Auguste Duméril, who managed to breed them with fantastic success. Duméril distributed axolotls to institutions and individuals all over Europe. Various labs have bred them over the past century, making the axolotl the oldest self-sustaining laboratory animal population. Fascinating—and somewhat grotesque—experiments from the past 150 years brought us much information about the axolotl’s ability to regenerate and heal. For example, amputated axolotl limbs regenerate completely, and even after multiple amputations, they are as functional as the original limb. The axolotl’s cells “know” which structure to regrow: When an arm is amputated at the level of the shoulder, the entire arm regrows. But when the arm is amputated at the elbow, only the lower arm and hand regrow; when the arm is amputated at the wrist, only the hand regrows.
Other fundamental experiments delved further. When regenerating tissue is grafted from an amputated left limb to an amputated right limb, and vice versa, the axolotl curiously grows three new limbs instead of just one—two of them are so-called “supernumerary limbs.” Perhaps more astonishingly, axolotls can receive transplanted heads without problems from rejection. These experiments have helped develop an understanding of just how regeneration works in axolotls—and why it doesn’t work in mammals. In mammals (like us humans), scars form rapidly and prevent tissue regeneration. The axolotl, on the other hand, can repair deep tissue wounds without any scarring. This is thanks to the blastema, a group of cells that cover the amputation wound. While macrophages, a type of immune cell that gobbles up dead cells, are responsible for scarring in mammals, scientists found that in the axolotl, these macrophages are essential to its remarkable wound-healing and regeneration. This blastema is also the reason why the axolotl can regrow a broken (or cut off) heart.
But it is unknown how long researchers will still be able to work with the axolotl: Like many lab animals, they are highly inbred, which could threaten their survival. To measure how small a gene pool is, scientists use an “inbreeding coefficient:” identical twins have an inbreeding coefficient of 100, completely unrelated individuals a coefficient of zero. For healthy growth, a captive population should have a coefficient of 12.5 at maximum. The notoriously inbred Spanish Habsburgs had a coefficient of 20; the coefficient for axolotls is 35. Together with the dwindling numbers in the wild, the small gene pool conjures a perfect storm that could threaten these wonderful animals.