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Ten interesting things that we read this week

Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week's iteration are related to 'India's missing middle class', 'Internet of fungus', and 'the UK's first loneliness minister'.

Published: Jan 20, 2018 06:08:47 AM IST
Updated: Jan 19, 2018 03:22:10 PM IST

Ten interesting things that we read this week Image: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, including investment analysis, psychology, science, technology, philosophy, etc. We have been sharing our favourite reads with clients under our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week’s iteration are related to ‘India’s missing middle class’, ‘Internet of fungus’, and ‘the UK’s first loneliness minister’.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended January 19, 2018.

1) What are we really worth?
[Source: Financial Times]
Michal Kalecki, the Polish economist, is said to have described economics as “the science of confusing stocks with flows”. Investors scrutinise a company’s balance sheet as well as its profits and losses. Yet, when it comes to sizing up a nation, we are mostly stuck with GDP, which counts the value of goods and services produced in a given period. However, GDP numbers can be misleading. The author puts across the example of Japan to make his point. People there seemed so well off when nominal GDP had not budged for 20 years. Deflation and low population growth were part of the answer. That meant real per capita income was higher than the nominal number suggested. But the quality of services and technology also made a difference to living standards. The case is opposite in China where year after year of double-digit growth does not take into account not-so-hidden costs of poisoned air and depleted soil. To the author, it seems perverse that, if China spent money cleaning up its mess, that too would count as growth, much as GDP counts money spent to repair the damage after natural disasters, terrorist attacks or war. Any activity, it seemed — digging a hole and filling it up again — would do.

With any entity — a family, a company or a nation — wealth is “what enables you to plan”, by “converting one form of capital into another”. With nations, some forms of capital are easier to count than others. So-called manufactured capital comprises investments in roads, ports and cities. It is relatively easy to value and many countries keep inventories of capital stock. Human capital is the size and skill of a workforce. Natural capital includes non-renewables, such as oil and coal, and renewables, ranging from farmland to complex ecosystems that provide water, oxygen and nutrients. Some economists view any attempt to account for natural depletion with suspicion. Lawrence Summers decried what he saw as a bogus attempt by environmentalists to limit growth. His main complaint was that wealth accountants were quick to shout when resources had been depleted, but slow to acknowledge when they had been augmented. New technology, such as fracking and deep-sea drilling, Summers said, had increased exploitable oil and gas reserves. Video conferencing was a breakthrough that meant people could hold more international meetings while reducing travel-related emissions. But wealth accountants were never honest enough to concede how innovation could add to wealth as well as subtract.

Summers is right that it is difficult to know how much current capital stock is worth, since its value can change depending on technological or political developments. Cobalt was once a mildly interesting byproduct of copper; now it’s a must-have component of electric car batteries. More philosophically, it is hard to put a price on the future. One of the supposed virtues of wealth accounting is that it is forward-looking. It analyses today’s stock of capital that will produce tomorrow’s income stream. GDP, on the other hand, is backward-looking. It merely tots up total production over a specific period in the past. So, in theory, wealth accounting should help one generation think about the next.

And this area has real momentum behind it. The research in the World Bank’s ‘Changing Wealth of Nations 2018’ produces a comprehensive wealth accounts for 141 countries between 1995 and 2014. The findings of the report suggest a huge shift of wealth over 20 years to middle-income countries, largely driven by the rise of China and other Asian countries. A third of low-income countries, however, especially in Africa, have suffered an outright fall in per capita wealth over that period, in what could be a dangerous omen about their capacity for future growth. The report is particularly illuminating in tracing the path to development as countries, trade in one form of capital for another. Crudely put, they use income derived from natural resources to build up other forms of capital, principally in infrastructure, technology, health and education. So, while natural capital accounts for 47 per cent of the wealth of low-income countries, it represents only 3 per cent of the wealth of the most advanced.

The lesson, says Paul Collier of Oxford University and author of “The Bottom Billion”, a book about failing economies, is that spurts of GDP don’t tell you anything if you don’t know about underlying wealth. In Africa, countries such as Nigeria have converted resources into consumption booms, but have largely failed to build the infrastructure or invest in the healthy, educated population that will sustain future growth. Much of Africa, says Collier, has “dug itself up and chopped itself down, but didn’t build enough in its place. It’s not sustainable growth. It’s a fiction of the flow data.” One cannot help but wonder to what extent this is true of India as well with its polluted air, it poisoned rivers and its disappearing forests.

2) India has a hole where its middle class should be [Source: The Economist]
As China’s, the world’s most populous country, economy slows, business are looking for the next set of consumers to keep the tills ringing. To many, India feels like the heir apparent. Its population will soon overtake its Asian rival’s. It occasionally grows at the kind of pace that propelled China to the status of economic superpower. And its middle class is thought by many to be in the early stages of the journey to prosperity that created hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers. Upbeat management consultants speak of a 300-400mn horde of potential frapuccino-sippers, Fiesta-drivers and globe-trotters. But, the Indian middle class conjured up by the marketers and consultants scarcely exists.

Firms peddling anything much beyond soap, matches and phone-credit are targeting a minuscule slice of the population. The top 1% of Indian adults, a rich enclave of 8mn inhabitants making at least $20,000 a year, equates to roughly Hong Kong in terms of population and average income. The next 9% is akin to central Europe, in the middle of the global wealth pack. The next 40% of India’s population neatly mirrors its combined South Asian poor neighbours, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The remaining half-billion of Indians are on a par with the most destitute bits of Africa. To be sure, global companies take the markets of central Europe seriously. Plenty of fortunes have been made there. But they are no China. Worse, the chances of India developing a middle class to match the Middle Kingdom’s are being throttled by growing inequality. The top 1% of earners pocketed nearly a third of all the extra income generated by economic growth between 1980 and 2014, according to new research from economists including Thomas Piketty.

The well-off are ten times richer now than in 1980; those at the median have not even doubled their income. India has done a good job at getting those earning below $2 a day (at purchasing-power parity) to $3, but it has not matched other countries’ records in getting those on $3 a day to earning $5, those at $5 a day to $10, and so on. Middle earners in countries at India’s stage of development usually take more of the gains from growth. Eight in ten Indians cite inequality as a big problem, on a par with corruption. The reasons for this failure are not mysterious. Decades of statist intervention meant that when a measure of liberalisation came in the early 1990s, only a few were able to benefit. The workforce is woefully unproductive—no surprise given the abysmal state of India’s education system, which churns out millions of adults equipped only for menial work. Its graduates go on to toil in small or micro-enterprises, operating informally; these “employ” 93% of all Indians. The great swell of middle-class jobs that China created as it became the workshop to the world is not to be found in India, because turning small businesses into productive large ones is made nigh-on impossible by bureaucracy. The fact that barely a quarter of women work—a share that has seen a precipitous decline in the past decade—only makes matters worse.

Good policy can do an enormous amount to improve prospects. However, hope should be tempered by realism. India is blessed with a deeply entrenched democratic system, but that is no shield against poor decisions. The sudden and brutal “demonetisation” of the economy in 2016 was meant to target fat cats, but ended up hurting everybody. And the path to prosperity walked by China, where manufacturing produced the jobs that pushed up incomes, is narrowing as automation limits opportunities for factory work. All of which means that companies need to deal with the India that exists today rather than the one they wish to emerge. A strategy of waiting for Indians to develop a taste for products that the global middle class indulges in—cars as income per head crosses one threshold, foreign holidays when it crosses the next—may lead to decades of frustration. Only 3% of Indians have ever been on an aeroplane; only one in 45 owns a car or lorry. If nearly 300mn Indians count as “middle class”, some of them make around $3 a day.

Companies would do better to “Indianise” their business by, for example, peddling wares using regional languages rather than English. Pricing matters. Services proffered at the same price in India as Indiana will appeal to mere millions, not a billion. Even for someone in the top 10% of Indian earners, an annual Netflix subscription can cost over a week’s income; the equivalent in America would be around $3,000. Apple ads may plaster Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, but for only one in ten Indians would the latest iPhone represent less than half a year’s salary. The biggest consumer hits in India have been goods and services that offer stonking value: scooters and mobile telephony have grown fast, but only after prices tumbled. A surge in consumer financing has put desirable baubles within reach of more Indians. Insofar as it is the job of politicians to create a consumer class, successive Indian governments have largely failed. Businesses hoping the Indian middle class will provide their next spurt of growth should be under no illusion. Companies will have to work very hard to turn potential into profits.

3) Drug group Spark to charge $850k for blindness gene therapy [Financial Times
Spark Therapeutics says it will charge $850,000 for its new gene therapy for blindness, making it the most expensive drug on the market and kick-starting a debate about the affordability of pioneering treatments. Jeff Marrazzo, chief executive of Spark, said the company would charge $425,000 for each eye for Luxturna, which recently became the first gene therapy to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Unlike traditional drugs, which tend to be taken for months or years at a time, these gene therapies are intended to be one-off treatments that tackle a disease at its source, repairing faulty DNA so the body can fix itself. Spark’s Luxturna, for instance, involves inserting a functioning copy of a missing gene directly into a patient’s eye, where it encourages the body to produce a protein essential for sight. In clinical trials, the medicine restored eyesight in some people with severe visual impairment. Although Luxturna is intended for a relatively rare type of inherited blindness, several companies are developing similar therapies for more common illnesses. Spark and others are targeting haemophilia while others are focused on other blood disorders.

The advent of single-time gene therapies — and of new cancer cell therapies from Novartis and Gilead that are also administered once — has prompted a debate over how much drugmakers should charge for scientific breakthroughs and whether society can afford them.  Spark also announced what it described as “first of their kind” programmes designed to help employers, the Government and patients manage the cost of Luxturna. The group said it would share the risk of the treatment failing by paying some health insurers a rebate linked to whether the treatment worked in the first 30 to 90 days, and also to whether it was still effective after 30 months.

Spark said it had also designed a scheme that would allow the drug to be sold directly to insurers or special pharmacies, rather than hospitals or treatment centres, which tend to charge big mark-ups that can prove costly in the case of expensive drugs such as Luxturna. The company said that government regulations meant it could not offer to sell the drug under instalment plans that would allow insurers and patients to bear the cost over time. However, the biotech group said it was in discussions about designing a pilot instalment scheme with the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that administers taxpayer-funded healthcare for people on low incomes. If successful, the pilot could act as a prelude to regulatory changes that might make instalment plans for medicines more common.

4) China rewards a non-violent activist with what he most wants
[Source: Financial Times]
The day after Christmas Day, a Chinese court sentenced a man known as the “super vulgar butcher” to eight years in prison for his history of non-violent activism and performance art. The practice of arresting or sentencing human rights activists to lengthy prison terms over the Christmas break when western journalists and the public are on holiday has become an annual ritual in China. But Wu Gan, also known as “the butcher”, stands out for the severity of his punishment and for his dogged defiance in the face of persecution and alleged torture. His was the first in a wave of hundreds of arrests or forced disappearances of activists and human rights lawyers that began in mid-2015 and marked a relentless expansion of the definition of “subversion” in China. His sentence is the harshest of the dozen or so that eventually came to trial.

On the same day the butcher was sentenced, Xie Yang, a human rights lawyer caught up in the crackdown, was effectively let off with a warning after he confessed on television to inciting subversion and recanted his earlier account of torture at the hands of the security services. In contrast, Wu claims to have refused a similar deal offered by the authorities, instead issuing rebellious statements through his lawyers before and after his one-day trial in August.The concept of “leniency for those who confess, severity for those who resist” is the oldest and most important tenet of Chinese criminal justice. The butcher knew that but decided to resist anyway.

With his bald pate, burly frame and goatee, Wu cut an imposing figure but he was warm, funny and committed to his work. He was also basically a loser by most traditional measures — a nearly 40-year-old unemployed former security guard whose girlfriend had left him. He seemed to be searching for something that would make him special. He idolised the dissident artist Ai Weiwei and wanted to emulate him, despite a lack of artistic training or talent. Like most other Chinese activists, Wu was careful to focus his protests and online criticism on the misdeeds of local officials rather than the wider system and to an extent it seemed as if that system valued his actions for exposing poor governance at the lower levels. While his language was colourful — he liked to talk figuratively about “slaughtering the [corrupt official] pigs” — and his protests often noisy and profane, he was extremely careful not to break any laws and strictly adhered to the principle of non-violence.

He claimed to enjoy secret support from senior party officials who believed the country needed more civic action from concerned citizens to make up for the absence of democracy. From his indictment it is clear that such ideas are now completely out of favour in China. Predictably, the party accused the butcher of being “influenced by the infiltration of anti-China forces” and “accepting interviews by foreign media” is listed as evidence for his crime of subversion. In doing this, the party has given Mr Wu the thing he most wanted. It has created a brave martyr when he might have been easily ignored or even co-opted. Most revolutionaries in history — Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong or Fidel Castro — were considered fringe losers until their enemies began to take them seriously and persecute them. Mr Wu’s sentence makes the party look weak and scared of shadows; it has legitimised him and his work in a way nothing else could have.

5) Why Sugalchand Jain’s saga is nothing short of a corporate fairytale [Source: Economic Times]
This article revolves around the success of one Sugalchand Jain’s lottery business. On Christmas Eve last year, four large families, the Jains, Damanis, Chhedas and the Ajmeras, boarded planes from three different Indian cities to Manama, the capital of Bahrain. The total headcount of 51, spanning age groups of 3 years to 74, assembled at the swanky Ritz Carlton Resort, to attend their 'annual family council meeting.' The highlight of the council meeting, was a talk by management guru Radhakrishnan Pillai, author of the book “Corporate Chanakya”. The meeting hall with close to 60 people in audience sat rapt, as Pillai thundered: "If you have a will it is very easy. If you have excuses you never start." Seventy-four-year-old Sugalchand Jain, who sat at the middle of the first row, pondered over Pillai's statement. Did he not have the will? Of course, he did, the septuagenarian assured himself.

He is known as the undisputed king of India’s lottery business and he still has the same hunger as he did 48 years ago. Back then, he wandered across Chennai's Triplicane, pedaling his bicycle on a muggy morning to sell 100 tickets of Haryana Lotteries - a rupee for a ticket, bearing a prize money of Rs1 lakh. Growing up in Chennai, Sugalchand, son of Nathmal, a small Rajasthani pawn broker, wasn’t in favour of his father's pawn business. "We were never unfair to our customers... We always paid and treated them fairly, but pledgers were never happy. I was never happy doing pawn business," says Sugalchand Jain, chairman-emeritus of Sugal & Damani. He tried many businesses, ranging from corporation contractor to a jewellery retailer, and an LIC agent to a road survey instrument seller and a collection scheme manager. In 1969, Sugal decided to try his luck by buying a lottery - a one-rupee Kerala lottery ticket, with a promise to pay Rs1 lakh as prize money. He was not lucky enough to win the prize money, but a great business idea came upon him. And that’s how his lottery business took off.

Sugal & Damani (S&D) is one of the largest marketers of state government-issued lotteries in India. They claim to have over 75% market share in online lottery business, over 20,000 point-of-sale terminals across lottery-friendly states and 15 million transactions per day. "S&D have perfected the art of selling lotteries," feels Jaydev Mody, chairman of Delta Corp, the country's casino king. Currently lotteries are allowed in nine Indian states only - Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Sikkim, Punjab, West Bengal, Goa, Maharashtra and Kerala. The Lottery Regulation Act does not allow private parties to run lottery schemes. Corporate entities such as S&D and Playwin market these lottery issuances to common people. In other words, the job of these companies is similar to that of a lead banker in an equity IPO. According to industry estimates, lotteries are a Rs 50,000-crore business in India. S&D runs (solely or part distribution) the lottery mandates of Goa, Maharashtra, Punjab, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram currently.

In the late 1970s, Sugalchand realised that to ramp up sales he needed a stronger partner. That partner turned out to be GN Damani. Damani did not agree to Sugalchand's initial pitch to take over the distribution of the Arunachal bumper. Instead he suggested a partnership. Sugalchand accepted his terms to salvage the lottery issuance. Then they also roped in Pravin Chheda from Mumbai (a coal and ball-bearings trader, with a small lottery agency) - to market the bumper issue. The Arunachal experience encouraged the three partners to take up more joint mandates throughout the 1980s. A few years later, S&D started its Delhi operations. Kishor Ajmera, an acquaintance of Damani, was roped in as partner to steer S&D's growth in the Northern plains. A few years ago, the founders of S&D ceded control and day-to-day management of the group to their second generation. At present, the group has 14 family members managing different business verticals.

The four families are bound by a 'family constitution', which dictates the duties, rights and responsibilities of all the family members. "The idea is to keep our families united and our business alive for several centuries to come," Chheda adds. The family council meeting (that the four families attended in Bahrain) is conducted as part of the family constitution. The lottery industry reveres Sugalchand Jain's doggedness, a 12th grade dropout. Once he found his calling, he went back to complete his education and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology at 55 years. He then went on to complete his masters at 65. Now the patriarch is gunning for a PhD in psychology. "If you have a will it is very easy. If you have excuses you never start," he sums up.

6) Plastics pile up as China refuses to take West’s recycling [Source: NY Times
Ever since China announced last year that it no longer wanted to be the “world’s garbage dump,” recycling about half of the globe’s plastics and paper products, Western nations have been puzzling over what to do when the ban went into effect, which it did on Jan. 1. The answer, to date, in Britain at least, is nothing. At least one waste disposal site in London is already seeing a buildup of plastic recyclables and has had to pay to have some of it removed. Similar backups have been reported in Canada, Ireland, Germany and several other European nations, while tons of rubbish is piling up in port cities like Hong Kong. Steve Frank, of Pioneer Recycling in Oregon, owns two plants that collect and sort 220,000 tons of recyclable materials each year. A majority of it was until recently exported to China. “My inventory is out of control,” he said.

China’s ban, Mr. Frank said, has caused “a major upset of the flow of global recyclables.” Now, he said, he is hoping to export waste to countries like Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Malaysia — “anywhere we can” — but “they can’t make up the difference.” In Britain, Jacqueline O’Donovan, managing director of the British waste disposal firm, O’Donovan Waste Disposal, said that “the market has completely changed” since China’s decision went into effect. Her company collects and disposes of about 70,000 tons of plastic trash every year, she said, and expects “huge bottlenecks across the whole of England” in the coming months. Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, pledged on Thursday to eliminate avoidable wastes within 25 years. In a prepared speech, she urged supermarkets to introduce plastic-free aisles where all the food is loose. The European Union, for its part, plans to propose a tax on plastic bags and packaging, citing the China ban and the health of the oceans among other reasons. Those measures might help ease the situation some day, but for now Britain is faced with growing piles of recyclables and no place to put them.

China’s ban covers imports of 24 kinds of solid waste, including unsorted paper and the low-grade polyethylene terephthalate used in plastic bottles, as part of a broad cleanup effort and a campaign against “yang laji,” or “foreign garbage.” It also sets new limits on the levels of impurities in other recyclables. China had been processing at least half of the world’s exports of waste paper, metals and used plastic — 7.3 million tons in 2016. Last July, China notified the World Trade Organization that it intended to ban some imports of trash, saying the action was needed to protect the environment and improve public health. “Large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials,” Beijing wrote to the W.T.O. “This polluted China’s environment seriously.” “It’s not just a U.K. problem,” said Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association in Britain. “The rest of the world is thinking, ‘What can we do?’ It’s tough times.” In Halifax, Nova Scotia, which sent 80% of its recycling to China, Matthew Keliher, the city’s manager of solid waste, said he had largely found alternatives to accept plastic, except for the low-grade plastic film that is used to make shopping bags and for wrapping. Stockpiles of those plastics have so exceeded the city’s storage capacity that Halifax had to get special permission to bury about 300 metric tons of the material in a landfill.

In Britain, even the political class appeared caught by surprise. When asked in front of lawmakers about the impending ban last month, Environment Secretary Michael Gove fumbled: “I don’t know what impact it will have. It is something to which — I will be completely honest — I have not given sufficient thought.” Pollution from plastics has captured global attention in recent years. A new David Attenborough series on the BBC, “Blue Planet II,” has shown plastic bags and bottles clogging oceans and killing fish, turtles and other marine wildlife, prompting governments to put in place more stringent rules. Every year, Britain sends China enough recyclables to fill up 10,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, according to Greenpeace U.K. The United States exports more than 13.2 million tons of scrap paper and 1.42 million tons of scrap plastics annually to China, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries has reported. That is the sixth-largest American export to China. “There may be alternative markets but they’re not ready today,” said Emmanuel Katrakis, the secretary general of the European Recycling Industries’ Confederation in Brussels.

Mr. Katrakis dismissed China’s claims that all imported scrap waste contained high levels of contaminants, and said that Beijing’s thresholds for most types of scrap were “far more demanding” than in Europe or the United States. At the same time, he said, Europe has focused too much on collecting plastic waste and shipping it out, and not enough on encouraging manufacturers to use it in new products. “We’ve got to start producing less and we’ve got to produce better-quality recyclable goods,” Mr. Ellin said. “The contamination can no longer be more than 0.5%,” he said, referring to the stringent levels that China has imposed on some of the materials that it hasn’t banned so far.

7) Plants use an internet made of fungus [Source: TED]
Imagine you’re walking through a forest, everything might seem quite, but beneath your feet there’s a flurry of conversation. All the plants around you are actually talking to each other. The trees and the shrubs and the flowers are passing information back and forth with serious life and death consequences. So how are they communicating? They are using a giant network of fungi, so pervasive and powerful that some scientists have started to compare it with the internet. They are calling it the world wide web. The world wide web is made up of water called Mycorrhizal Fungi. There are many types of Mycorrhizal Fungi, but generally these will grow on the roots of plants and provide them with water and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous, in exchange for sugars.

While they are incredibly thin, the threads of the fungi can be up to a thousand times the length of a tree root. This allows the fungi to connect together many different plants. Once connections are made, the fungi can act like the neurons in the brain, transporting signals from one plant to another, and these networks are everywhere. It’s estimated that around 90% of land plants are connected to some kind of Mycorrhizal network. So how can plants use these networks? To begin with they can help each other out in times of stress. For example, during the fall months, when Paper Birch trees lose their leaves and can’t produce sugar, Duglas Fir trees may shuttle the nutrients through the fungal network.  And in the summer when Paper Birch trees have lots of leaves, they send triggers for young Douglas Fir saplings growing in their shadows. Plants can also warn each other of danger. Douglas Fir trees connected by a fungal network can alert their Ponderosa Pine neighbours if they are attacked by bad budworms. In response the Ponderosa Pine trees will produce incest-repelling chemicals even though they haven’t been directly exposed to the insects themselves.

Mycorrhizal fungi can also enable prevental care among plants. Some adult trees will help out their younger relatives by sending more nutrients to the fungal network than they send to strangers. The adults may even make room for them in the soil by reducing the number of their own roots. But not everyone is so generous. Much like our own internet, things can sometimes get a little nasty on the world wide web. Take Black Walnut trees for examples. They can spread poison through the network, hindering the growth of their neighbours. And the fungi making up the network can be just as tricky. Mycorrhizal fungi tend to pick favourites. They may share resources from one species of trees, but bleed another species dry without giving anything back in return. The fungi may also judge a plants health. If it thinks it’s too weak or too sick they may not allow it to receive nutrients or danger signals from the network. We are only beginning to understand how complex these relationships get. But imagine the possibilities for agriculture and forestry. If we find out certain species share well across the network, maybe we can plant them near each other to yield better harvest or grow healthier forests.

8) Why trying new things is so hard to do [Source: NY Times]
Sendhil Mullainathan, the author of this article, talks about how experimentation can produce outsize rewards. He starts with his own habit of drinking a lot of Diet Coke. He drinks almost two litres a day, almost six cans’ worth and he is not proud of the habit, but he really likes the taste of it. He’s well aware that if he switches to a generic soda, he can save money, not just once but daily, for weeks and years to come. He has never even sampled generic soda. Like most people, he conducts relatively few experiments in his personal life, in both small and big things. If he sampled generic soda, and he likes it, all his future sodas would be cheaper. When the same choice is made over and over again, the downside of trying something different is limited and fixed — that one soda is unappealing — while the potential gains are disproportionately large.

One study estimated that 47% of human behaviours are of this habitual variety. Yet many people persist in buying branded products even when equivalent generics are available. These choices are noteworthy for drugs, when generics and branded options are chemically equivalent. Why continue to buy a name-brand aspirin when the same chemical compound sits nearby at a cheaper price? Scientists have already verified that the two forms of aspirin are identical. A little personal experimentation would presumably reassure you that the generic has the same effect. On Feb. 5, 2014, London Underground workers went on a 48-hour strike, forcing the closings of several tube stops. The affected commuters had to find alternate routes. When the strike ended, most people reverted to their old patterns. But roughly one in 20 stuck with the new route, shaving 6.7 minutes from what had been an average 32-minute commute. The closings imposed by the strike forced experimentation with alternate routes, yielding valuable results. And if the strike had been longer, even more improvements would probably have been discovered. Yet the fact that many people needed a strike to force them to experiment reveals the deep roots of a common reluctance to experiment.

Finally, many so-called choices are not really choices at all. Walking down the supermarket aisle, Sendhil does not make a considered decision about soda. He doesn’t even pause at the generics. He acts without thinking. This is true not only in our personal lives but in every scenario conceivable. Executives and policymakers fail to experiment in their jobs, and these failures can be particularly costly. For government policymakers, experimentation is a thorny issue. We are right to be wary of “experimenting” in the sense of playing with people’s lives. Yet we should also be wary of an automatic bias in favour of the status quo. That can amount to a Panglossian belief that the current policy is best, whereas the current policy may actually be a wobbly structure held together by overconfidence, historical accident and the power of precedent. Experimentation is an act of humility, an acknowledgment that there is simply no way of knowing without trying something different.

9) Virus could be used to treat brain tumors  [Livemint]
A trial of a potential new brain cancer treatment has shown that a virus injected directly into the bloodstream can reach tumours deep inside the brain and switch on the body’s own defence system to attack them. The trial involved just nine patients, but scientists said that if the results could be replicated in larger studies, the naturally occurring ‘reovirus’ could be developed into an effective immunotherapy for people with aggressive brain tumours. “This is the first time it has been shown that a therapeutic virus is able to pass through the brain-blood barrier,” said Adel Samson, a medical oncologist at the University of Leeds’ Institute of Cancer and Pathology who co-led the work. He said their trial had shown not only that a virus could be delivered to a tumour deep in the brain, but that when it reached its target, “it stimulated the body’s own immune defences to attack the cancer”.

Published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the trial involved nine patients with tumours that had either spread to the brain from other areas or were fast-growing gliomas, an aggressive type of brain cancer. All the patients were due to have their tumours removed surgically, but in the days beforehand they were each given a single dose of the reovirus administered via intravenous drip into the bloodstream. Once the tumours were removed, the scientists analysed samples to see if the virus had been able to reach the cancer, which in some cases was deep within the brain. In all nine patients, there was evidence that the virus had reached its target, they said. There were also signs that the replicating virus had stimulated the immune system, with white blood cells or so-called “killer” T-cells being drawn to the tumour to attack it.

Because the virus only infects cancer cells and leaves healthy cells alone, patients who received the experimental treatment reported only mild side-effects such as slight flu-like symptoms. Until these positive results, scientists had been doubtful about whether the virus would be able to pass into the brain because of the protective blood-brain barrier membrane. However, injecting the virus directly into the brain would be difficult and potentially dangerous. Alan Melcher of Britain’s Institute of Cancer Research, who also co-led the study, said the results pointed a way forward for more trials using this virus, including testing whether it can harness the immune system to super-charge the effect of existing chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments. “Now we know we can get reovirus across the blood-brain barrier, we have begun clinical studies to see just how effective this viral immunotherapy can be,” he said.

10) UK appoints first ever ‘loneliness’ minister [Moneycontrol ]
British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday appointed the country's first-ever minister in charge of tackling loneliness and combating social isolation. Tracey Crouch, currently minister for sport and civil society in the UK government, will take on the additional role created in memory of Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a right-wing fanatic in June, 2016. The new ministerial role will take forward the recommendations of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, with the post holder working with the commission, businesses and charities to create a government-wide strategy.

According to research, more than 9 million people always or often feel lonely, around 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month, and up to 85 percent of young disabled adults—18 to 34-year-olds—feel lonely. "For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life. I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones – people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with," May said.

Crouch, Tory MP for Chatham and Aylesford, said she was determined to make significant progress in "defeating loneliness". Loneliness can be triggered by a life event, such as a bereavement or becoming a parent, with certain groups, such as the elderly, young people and carers, particularly at risk. An estimated half the people aged 75 and over live alone in Britain, with many saying they can go days, even weeks, with no social interaction at all. The UK government has also announced that the Office of National Statistics (ONS) will devise a method of measuring loneliness, and a fund will be set up to help tackle the problem through activities which connect people.

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