Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Health (The toxic truth about modern food, and Death of calorie), Dialect (The power of silence), Internet (Who are the next billion users and what do they want), Politics (Elections 2019: The digital challenge to EC's model code of conduct), Assam Tea (How the British discovered tea in Assam)

Published: Mar 23, 2019

g_114097_reading_bg_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Health (The toxic truth about modern food, and Death of calorie), Dialect (The power of silence), Internet (Who are the next billion users and what do they want), Politics (Elections 2019: The digital challenge to EC's model code of conduct), Assam Tea (How the British discovered tea in Assam).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended March 22, 2019.

1) How India conquered YouTube [Source: Financial Times]
There were days when we had 1GB data plan per month, but today you get more than 1GB data per day. More than 500 million Indians are now connected to the internet, making India the world’s second-largest market after China. The number of internet users in the country rose 11% between December 2016 and December 2017, largely due to Reliance Jio. This explosion of internet access has brought a wave of social change, but nothing as ubiquitous as the consumption of online videos. As many as 245 million Indians watch YouTube on their phones each month. India’s craze for videos is shaking the world of entertainment. Valued at more than $700m, the country’s online video market is shaping the content and pricing models of local and global companies.

Netflix, with approximately two million viewers, is investing more in Indian content than it has done anywhere outside the US. While Amazon Prime charges US subscribers $119 a year, those in India pay $14.50 annually. T-Series is one of the companies to have leveraged this rise in popularity most effectively. Founded in 1983 as a record label specialising in Hindi film music, it later expanded into film-making. From Bollywood songs to devotional numbers, T-Series owns a massive chunk of Indian popular music, and now millions are watching the videos for the songs on their mobiles. Acknowledging that 95% of India’s video consumption is in vernacular languages, YouTube has introduced options for users to discover content in their native tongues.

As opportunities for upward mobility dry up — unemployment rose to a 45-year high in 2018, according to government data — more people are likely to seek magical interventions from the likes of Himeesh Madaan, an author and motivational speaker, fuelling the country’s vast market for motivational content. The chances that they will not succeed, or even get sucked into shady get-rich-quick schemes elsewhere on the internet are very high, but it doesn’t stop them from looking. One of Madaan’s most watched videos was uploaded in June, with 470,000 views so far. Its title: “How to Earn Money from YouTube”. 

2) Good enough to eat? The toxic truth about modern food [Source: The Guardian]
What we eat now is a greater cause of disease and death in the world than either tobacco or alcohol. In 2015, around 7 million people died from tobacco smoke, and 2.75 million from causes related to alcohol, but 12mn deaths could be attributed to “dietary risks” such as diets low in vegetables, nuts and seafood or diets high in processed meats and sugary drinks. This is paradoxical and sad, because good food – good in every sense, from flavour to nutrition – used to be the test by which we judged the quality of life. A good life without good food should be a logical impossibility.

Almost every country in the world has experienced radical changes to its patterns of eating over the past five, 10 and 50 years. For a long time, nutritionists have held up the “Mediterranean diet” as a healthy model for people in all countries to follow. But recent reports from the World Health Organisation suggest that even in Spain, Italy and Crete, most children no longer eat anything like a “Mediterranean diet” rich in olive oil and fish and tomatoes. Where humans used to live in fear of plague or tuberculosis, now the leading cause of mortality worldwide is diet. Most of our problems with eating come down to the fact that we have not yet adapted to the new realities of plenty, either biologically or psychologically.

Our culture’s obsessive focus on a perfect physique has blinded us to the bigger question, which is what anyone of any size should eat to avoid being sickened by our unbalanced food supply. No one can eat themselves to perfect health, nor can we ward off death indefinitely, and the attempt to do so can drive a person crazy. Life is deeply unfair and some people may eat every dark green leafy vegetable going and still get cancer. But even if food cannot cure or forestall every illness, it does not have to be the thing that kills us.

3) Breaking2: Epic quest to run a marathon in less than 2 hours [Source: YouTube]
Breaking2 was a project by Nike to break the two-hour barrier for the marathon. Nike collaborated with National Geographic to shoot this project as a documentary. Nike organized a team of three accomplished marathon runners who trained for a private race. Their aim was to do the impossible; completing a marathon in under 2 hours. And these runners were: 1) Eluid Kipchoge, a Kenyan long-distance runner and winner of 2016 Olympic marathon. Mr. Kipchoge is also the current marathon world record holder. 2) Zerseney Tadese, an Eritrean long-distance runner. Mr. Tadese held the men’s half marathon world record from 2010 to 2018. 3) Lelisa Desisa, an Ethiopian who specializes in road running competition.  

The event was held on the Formula One Autodromo Nazionale Monza race track in Italy. The Monza automobile racetrack was chosen due to a combination of its low altitude, calm weather conditions, and short lap length. But, the documentary throws light on how the team at Nike tracked the runners’ nutrition, running speed, breathing, and other things. After monitoring these, the team came up with solutions or answers to how the athletes can run faster without exhausting themselves. Nike also developed a new running shoe called the "Vapor Fly Elite" for the attempt. In addition to the pacemaker vehicle, runners acting as pacemakers were positioned to shield the key athletes in an attempt to reduce wind resistance.

It can be seen in the documentary that all the runners were determined to break the record, but a bit nervous as well. While all the athletes performed to their best, it was Eliud Kipchoge who came close to the target; he missed it by a whisker. He finished the marathon in 2 hours and 25 seconds. Kipchoge, a multimillionaire, who prefers to live a simple life, still believes that humans are not limited. Even though he couldn’t finish the race below the targeted time, he feels someone will do it someday.

4) Silence is golden, especially when you need to say something important [Source: ubiquity.acm.org]
This piece talks about how while giving a speech, instead of using incessant uh, um, er, ah, like, you know, and other distracting sounds, you can pause a bit to reflect what you’re going to say next. Novice speakers employ these unnecessary noises seemingly because they dread the "sound of silence." It's as if someone told them public speaking means that something must always be coming out of their mouth, at all times, under all conditions, no matter what. This idea is incorrect; moreover, it is counterproductive. As professional speakers know, silence is a natural and necessary part of any good presentation.

These unnecessary noises hinder thinking rather than helping it. Instead of allowing you to fully concentrate on your mental search, your lungs, larynx, and mouth are engaged in useless activity. Because they are audible, your ears are also engaged in useless activity. A second or two of silence will also help focus the attention of your audience. No matter how interesting, pertinent, and well organized your presentation, listeners occasionally need a moment's break in order to better absorb and assimilate what you have been saying. Silence provides these crucial respites. Using silence instead of noise while you are thinking confers another important benefit. It gives the impression that you are careful and conscientious.

If you now agree that these unnecessary noises impede thinking rather than aiding it, you have already taken the first crucial step. The next step is to implement it. The next time you give a presentation, consciously concentrate on avoiding these detrimental noises by putting silences in their place. At first this may feel strange; however once you experience how silences help your thinking and impress your audience, the strangeness will quickly disappear. Using helpful silences rather than destructive noises will rapidly become natural and automatic. The speed at which this changeover takes place can sometimes be startling, virtually from one day to the next.

5) Death of the calorie [Source: The Economist]
We put so much focus on reducing weight. This piece starts with Salvador Camacho, an engineering student, who was robbed once. Being traumatised, he sank into depression, and soon started drinking and binge eating. His weight ballooned from a trim 70kg to 103kg and this led to the second incident in his life; he was admitted in a hospital due to an attack of severe arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. The doctor advised him to lose weight or else he’ll be dead in 5 years. To help with what he now understands was post-traumatic stress disorder, he started having counselling and taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs. To address his physical health, he tried to lose weight. This effort propelled him to the centre of one of the most fraught scientific debates of our age: the calorie wars, a fierce disagreement about diet and weight control. 

Camacho says, “People are living with real pain and guilt and all they get is advice that is confused or just plain wrong.” The guidance that Camacho’s doctors gave him, along with a string of nutritionists and his own online research, was unanimous. It would be familiar to the millions of people who have ever tried to diet. “Everybody tells you that to lose weight you have to eat less and move more,” he says, “and the way to do that is to count your calories.” Millions of dieters give up when their calorie-counting is unsuccessful. Camacho was more stubborn than most. He took photos of his meals to record his intake more accurately, and would log into his calorie spreadsheets from his phone. He thought about every morsel he ate. And he bought a proliferation of gadgets to track his calorie output. But he still didn’t lose much weight. Why?

Susan Roberts, a nutritionist at Tufts University in Boston, has found that labels on American packaged foods miss their true calorie counts by an average of 18%. American government regulations allow such labels to understate calories by up to 20%. The information on some processed frozen foods misstates their calorific content by as much as 70%. That isn’t the only problem. Calorie counts are based on how much heat a foodstuff gives off when it burns in an oven. But the human body is far more complex than an oven. Camacho ditched his heavily processed low-calorie products and focused on the quality of his food rather than quantity. He stopped feeling ravenous all the time. “It sounds simple but I decided to listen to my body and eat whenever I was hungry but only when I was hungry, and to eat real food, not food ‘products’,” he says. He went back to items that he’d long banned himself from eating. He had his first rasher of bacon in three years and enjoyed cheese, whole-fat milk and steaks.

6) Sleep deprived? What missing too much sleep might be doing to your body [Source: globalnews.ca]
There are days when you just don’t fall asleep in the night. And the result of this is seen next day in your behavior; you are cranky, tired, slow and you don’t feel like doing anything. Nearly one-quarter of Canadians reported experiencing symptoms of insomnia and about one-third reported sleeping for less than the recommended seven or eight hours, according to a Statistics Canada report from December 2018. Too little sleep or poor sleep is associated with cardiovascular and mental health, metabolic disorders and possibly even conditions like dementia.

While we’re asleep, our bodies are still busy, taking care of things that it doesn’t do when we’re awake. Charles Morin, the Canada research chair in sleep disorders at Laval University and president of the World Sleep Society says, “At night, we produce a number of hormones including leptins. Leptins are an appetite-controlling hormone so if we only sleep four or five hours a night, we produce less of that hormone and therefore we’re at greater risk to become overweight and eat more.” Similarly, getting too little or too much sleep is associated with changes in how our bodies react to glucose, and a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

In a 2016 meta-analysis, insomnia was associated with a higher risk of depression, though the connection can go both ways – people with depression often have trouble sleeping, and trouble sleeping might lead to a higher risk of depression. Treating sleep disorders alongside depression can lead to a better outcome for both conditions, Morin said. Although the amount of sleep needed varies from person to person, experts generally recommend about 7.5 to eight hours of sleep every night, with some rare people needing as little as six or as many as nine hours. While we all know that sleep is important to our health, what more important is the amount of time that we sleep. Too less or too much, both can cause health disorders.

7) Elections 2019: The digital challenge to EC's model code of conduct [Source: Livemint]
Elections in India are just around the corner, and the Election Commission has flung into action of monitoring every move of the politicians. The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) came into effect ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, with the Election Commission of India announcing its intent to enforce it on internet platforms for the first time. The MCC is a set of guidelines that regulate elections in India, one of which cautions against using the armed forces in campaigning. Although the MCC has applied to internet platforms since 2013, no attempt has been made to enforce it thus far. The EC has now announced a series of new measures, which fall into two broad categories: 1) measures designed to increase transparency in campaigning; and 2) norms aimed at curbing misinformation and hate speech by candidates.

But India’s online world of murky WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages, some of which can be bought by the hour, has thrown up a set of unique challenges. How does one regulate a realm of smoke and mirrors where the identity of key actors and their motives is tenuous at best? Crucially, all the current measures in place to regulate elections online are being implemented based on voluntary commitments made by four major platforms: Google, Facebook, Twitter, and ShareChat. Further, the EC has made no mention of regulating smaller platforms such as TikTok, Helo, Telegram, and WeChat. Facebook’s latest political advertising transparency report supports the claim that unofficial pages are ruling the roost. The two highest-spending pages so far, "Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat" and "Nation with NaMo", have spent a combined ₹2.77 crore on 4,669 ads since Facebook started tracking the data in February.

For now, the official pronouncements appear to be focused on the removal of problematic content. The EC has added social media experts to its district and state-level election Media Certification and Monitoring Committees and has launched an app called cVigil through which MCC violations, both online and offline, can be reported. While these are some of the important tasks for the Election Commission, the hardest task in EC’s unenviable list of responsibilities is that of ensuring that campaign-related activities cease 48 hours prior to polling. This silence period is intended to ensure that voters have a period of quiet reflection before casting their vote, free of last-minute manipulation.

8) Who are the next billion users and what do they want? [Source: https://goo.gl/MRCXnG)
Ubiquitous cheap phones and increasingly affordable phone plans such as Jio in India are helping another billion users join the internet. What do those users want though, and how are they the same and different than existing internet users? That’s the subject of a critical book by Payal Arora, entitled The Next Billion Users: Digital Life Beyond the West. The compact thesis encompasses a range of argumentative vignettes on how Western tech founders and non-profit executives misinterpret the needs of the global poor — and what internet access really means to them. In her book, Arora, who today is a professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, argues against narratives that make it hard to see the global poor for who they really are.

Far from being “exotic,” these users need many of the same things found in the West: entertainment, education, and romance. In fact, there is a huge intellectual gap between what Western product leaders believe these next users want, and what they really desire. Every day in the West, there is news of data breaches and privacy violations. Arora sees a much more complicated relationship with privacy for the global poor though. For these users, “privacy is not such a big issue, not because they don’t care about privacy, not because they don’t quite get it. […] But the fact that it is still — in relation to their actual lives — far more private,” she said. In her book, she writes, “They are savvy hiders when they need to be, and active seekers when they need to be, especially when seeking happiness online.”

These new users are often coming from very conservative and gendered societies, where even showing a woman’s face can be grounds for punishment. Technology of course creates new sets of problems. Location-based technologies can help gangs target individuals for harassment or kidnapping. Romance scams are proliferating as young men and women try to find a relationship online. A scandalous image can be distributed to the shame of families and entire communities. Yet, these simple connections made through tech can make the burdens of living poor just a bit less hard.

9) A theoretical physicist (and entrepreneur) on why companies stop innovating [Source: HBR]
In this podcast, Safi Bahcall, former CEO of the biotech company Synta Pharmaceuticals and the author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries, talks about the one important thing that’s missing in today’s companies. Mr. Bahcall starts with talking about his transition from science to business. He shares how his parents opposed his thought of getting into business, as they both were scientists. He further throws light on his new book that’s on business and tries to make scientific comparisons to it. Mr. Bahcall feels that there’s this mindset, it’s all about the CEO and the culture. So, you read a lot of management books and said, well the CEO must be the CIO, the Chief Incentives Officer. Just pound the table that you love innovation. And the problem is that doesn’t work. There are so many books about culture, but he doesn’t think that we’ve been spending enough time thinking about structure.

On a company’s structure, Mr. Bahcall gives an example of a glass of water. He says, “Imagine you have a glass of water and you stick your finger in the glass of water. You can swirl it around and everything just sloshes around. And that’s always true. Except, as you gradually lower the temperature, all of a sudden the behavior completely changes. You can’t stick your finger anymore. It freezes. It comes completely rigid.”  But the molecules inside are exactly the same. So, why do they suddenly change behavior? How do they know to suddenly change behavior? There’s no CEO molecule with a bullhorn saying: “All right, let’s be liquid now,” and then “Oh, I think the temperature’s changing. Let’s be solid tomorrow.” There’s no CEO molecule. There’s no leadership. There’s no cultural discussion. It just suddenly changes.

He also says that this idea of transition can be applied to a system. Mr. Bahcall says, “We’ve been spending all this time thinking about culture, culture, culture. Just spend some time thinking about structure. And maybe the return on investment of let’s say, hiring a Chief Incentives Officer, just thinking about it more professionally, more systematically.” We need a more sophisticated and higher level HR group and Chief Incentives Officers than you have today. Most of those in most companies today are kind of rubber stampers. When asked how one can know if you’ve turned your company from ice back into water, he says, “If you walk the hallways and you hear people talking about careers and promotion that’s a bad sign. If you walk the hallways and you hear people pounding the table excited about the next wild or crazy idea, you’ve done the right thing.  

10) How the British discovered tea in Assam [Source: Madras Courier]
The state of Assam is famous for its tea estates. It’s a significant source of livelihood. Although the world came to know of tea first from China, it is a fact that Assamese tribes like the Singphos were used to drinking tea prepared in their native ways. This tea flowered wild in Upper Assam and was popular there. The locals believed it had memory-boosting powers. Beesa Gam, a local Singpho leader, and the Assamese nobleman Maniram Dewan were instrumental in helping Robert Bruce, a Scottish officer who decided to stay on in Assam permanently, to search for tea.

Robert Bruce eventually discovered tea plants growing in the Upper Assam jungles with Beesa Gam’s help in 1821. In 1824, Charles, Robert’s brother, planted for the first time, tea saplings in front of his bungalow in Sadiya in Upper Assam as an experiment. In 1828, seeds were imported and planted in Joypur and later at Dinjoy (Chabua) in Upper Assam. When their efforts fruit, Charles sent the first batch of tea leaves to the first commissioner of Assam, David Scott. The British then appointed Charles to survey Assam and report on its tea-growing potential.

In 1835, the first tea cultivation on commercial basis was carried out in Chabua. England received the first tea chests from Assam in 1838 and soon acknowledged that the Assam tea was superior to the Chinese variety. By 1844, large volumes of tea were being exported to Britain. In its wake, Assam never remained the same. Sprawling tea gardens soon covered the region. Waves of migrants moved into Assam, a source of cheap labour, from neighbouring areas. Little would have Robert and Charles known that this same Assamese tea would one day become famous globally. 

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