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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week's iteration are related to 'the death of newsfeed', 'India's military woes', and 'a galaxy without dark matter'.

Published: Apr 6, 2018 03:08:42 PM IST
Updated: Apr 6, 2018 03:25:09 PM IST

Ten interesting things 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 ‘the death of newsfeed’, ‘India’s military woes’, and ‘a galaxy without dark matter’.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended April 6, 2018. 

1)  The death of the newsfeed and what it means for fake news [Source: ben-evans.com]
According to Facebook, its average user is eligible to see at least 1,500 items per day in their newsfeed. This high number comes from a combination of two factors - Dunbar’s number (a rule of thumb that implies that you probably know several hundred people well enough to friend them on Facebook) and ‘Zuckerberg’s law’ (the supposed tendency to share more and more on social media over time). Combine these two and you get overload. This overload means it makes little sense to ask for the ‘chronological feed’ back, wherein the items will be sorted by no logical order at all except whether your friends happened to post them within the last hour. This is the logic that led Facebook inexorably to the ‘algorithmic feed’, i.e. instead of this random (i.e. 'time-based') sample of what’s been posted, the platform tries to work out which people you would most like to see things from, and what kinds of things you would most like to see. According to Ben Evans, the author, this approach has two problems. First, getting that sample ‘right’ is very hard, and beset by all sorts of conceptual challenges. But second, even if it’s a successful sample, it’s still a sample.

There are problems in getting the algorithmic newsfeed sample ‘right’ though. There are incentives for people to try to manipulate the feed. Using signals of what people seem to want to see risks over-fitting, circularity and filter bubbles. People’s desires change, and they get bored of things, so Facebook has to keep changing the mix to try to reflect that, and this has made it an unreliable partner for everyone from Zynga to newspapers. Facebook has to make subjective judgements about what it seems that people want, and about what metrics seem to capture that, and none of this is static or even in principle perfectible. Contrast this with Google search which has to work out the best 10 results to show, using all sorts of judgements about what signals work best and what signals matter more, just as the newsfeed does. And it can’t just show you the results by some objective measure like date or file size. While it faces challenges similar to Facebook, Google has explicit intent - you told it what you wanted to see. And so if Google shows me exactly what I told it I wanted, it’s succeeded, even if I ‘shouldn’t’ have searched for that. Facebook has no such direct signal. There are things it ‘shouldn’t’ show me, even if my uncle did share them.

According to Ben, challenges of overloading and subjectivity around ideal feed are behind the suggestions of systemically lower engagement on Facebook newsfeeds, and behind the growth of person-to-person chat (most obviously WhatsApp, iMessage, FB Messenger and Instagram). The social dynamics of a 1:1 chat work much more strongly against overload, and even if one person does overshare they're in a separate box, that you can mute if you like. Meanwhile, one could propose that the ‘Stories’ format that Snap invented, is also a way to address overload. It works by bundling what you want to share into one unit instead of many separate items so that even if you share that to many people, any feed is more manageable. In effect then, you put the structure into the content instead of the display of the content. Ben says that there are other trends too behind any swing from newsfeeds to messaging. Messaging can be more private, have less social pressure, and be more fun. A Snapchat story isn’t a permanent record and has less pressure to show off your perfection. Stickers and filters are more fun and spontaneous than Facebook’s rigid blue boxes.

He adds that tech like this tends to move in cycles - we swing from one kind of expression to another and back again, and we might be swinging away from the feed. This will have consequences for the traffic that sharing creates. 'Like' buttons made it frictionless to post any web page you want into your feed and push it to (some arbitrarily calculated percentage of) your friends, and many hands have been wrung about how much traffic this can drive. But sharing links inside Stories isn't the same, today, and a link you share in a WhatsApp or iMessage group with 5 friends will only be seen by them, and Facebook has no lever to pull to make this more or less visible. On the other hand, a 'WhatsApp forward' can take such a link and send it viral across a country, and unlike ‘feed’ where Facebook can ultimately kill a link or an entire source across the whole site, it's very different for a P2P messaging app to make that call. What this essentially means is that while steps to kill 'fake news' links are at least theoretically possible on Facebook, it's not possible in likes of iMessage – as with end-to-end encryption, Apple has no idea what you’re sharing.

2)  Learning how to think: the skill no one taught you [Source: Farnam Street]
In this digital-age world, we seem to have forgotten to think. One moment we are thinking and in the other, our hands reach our cellphone to see if there’s a message or notification from social networking sites. A team of researchers at Stanford wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. The answer, they discovered (against their expectations) is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself.

One thing that made the study different from others is that the researchers didn’t test people’s cognitive functions while they were multitasking. They separated the subject group into high multitaskers and low multitaskers and used a different set of tests to measure the kinds of cognitive abilities involved in multitasking. And what they found was that in every case the high multitaskers performed the worst – they were more distractible. They were worse at what you might call “mental filing”: keeping information in the right conceptual boxes and being able to retrieve it quickly. Multitasking, in short, is not only ‘not thinking’, it impairs your ability to think.

Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. It’s not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. It’s about developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. The author of this piece finds that his first thought is never the best thought. His first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what he has already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of his mind come into play that he arrives at an original idea. He needs time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast impulses, to defeat desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

The author used to have students who bragged about how fast they wrote their papers. He would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.

3)  Anti-Semitism in the age of Donald Trump  [Source: Financial Times ]
Since the Holocaust, anti-Semitism has been the West’s largest taboo. Today, it is creeping back from the fringes. Its return is most remarkable in the US and Britain. According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents in America rose by nearly 60% in 2017 — by far the largest jump since it began monitoring. In the US, whether it is Mr. Trump who stokes it unwittingly is an open question. That he has had a big impact is undeniable. How else to explain a near doubling of anti-Semitic incidents in US schools in his first year in office? Children mimic grown-ups. Society takes its cues from leaders.

Mr. Trump leaves no taboo unturned. Whether you are a Muslim, Hispanic, African-American or a globalist, America’s president has made it safe to disparage you. When it comes to Jews, however, Mr. Trump deals in euphemisms. Take three examples: 1) Mr. Trump initially refused to disown David Duke, the pro-Nazi leader of the Ku Klux Klan; 2) During the 2016 campaign, Trump ads demonised George Soros, a leading target of anti-Semitic campaigns from Viktor Orban’s Hungary to America’s alt-right; and 3) he forgot to mention Jews on Holocaust remembrance day in his first week in office. But the biggest Trump effect comes from his anti-globalist imagery. Like Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s Labour party, the president has a taste for authoritarians, notably Vladimir Putin — the leading sponsor of online vitriol. Both disdain Nato, the EU and international bankers. But they differ on Israel. Mr. Trump is a big fan. Mr. Corbyn is one of Israel’s biggest detractors.

Partly it is because of the company he keeps. Before Mr. Corbyn became Labour leader he belonged to a secretive Facebook group some of whose members blamed Jews for many of the world’s ills. People around Mr. Corbyn detest Israel. A number of pro-Corbyn commentators have said that Israel, rather than Russia, may have carried out the nerve gas attack in Salisbury. While Mr. Trump has been as reluctant as Mr. Corbyn to hold Russia to account, they part company on Israel. The most dramatic example of this was Mr. Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But that difference may be more apparent than real. Mr. Trump’s motive was to please his Christian evangelical voting base. More than eight in 10 evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump, the highest share ever recorded. They did so for two reasons. First, he would nominate judges who pledged to reverse abortion rights. Second, he would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital.

Many evangelicals believe the Day of Judgement can only happen once the Jewish Temple has been rebuilt. That means backing Israel’s hardliners to the hilt. Once that has happened, the Book of Revelations prophecy can be fulfilled. The righteous will be saved. The wicked, including the world’s Jews, will face eternal hellfire. It’s hard to say whether Mr. Trump shares these beliefs. Probably not. But to a large chunk of his most loyal voting block, it is an article of faith. Evangelicals are politically philo-Semitic and theologically anti-Semitic. Mr. Trump is their instrument. The lessons of history could not be further from their mind.

4)  Investors should bet on smaller nimbler companies and countries
[Source: Financial Times]
If you think about recent news stories, from Donald Trump’s China tariffs, to the Facebook privacy scandal, to recent market volatility, the common thread is that all things large are under threat. Big countries and regions, such as the US, China and the EU, are most at risk from a trade war. Should there be more extensive tariffs, companies with the biggest market capitalisation would most likely be hit hardest. Manufacturing brands — Boeing, Caterpillar, 3M — have already suffered large share price dips and the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which includes the biggest stocks, fell 6% on the Trump tariff news. Meanwhile, the biggest US tech companies are squarely in the sights of regulators on both sides of the Atlantic. Even big corporate pay packages are being challenged by US rules around wage disclosures that will make the largesse of executive salaries ever more visible.

The assets that seem undervalued and safer are all smaller things. Southeast Asian “countries, as well as Southern Europe and parts of Latin America have lots of slack relative in particular to the US, but also core Europe and even China”, says Jay Pelosky, head of the investment advisory firm Pelosky Global Strategies. “They have more room for growth, profit expansion, investment, and a lot more political breathing space.” Mr. Pelosky, who is based in New York, believes regionalism is the new globalism and espouses a “tri-polar” world theory, in which the Americas, Europe and Asia go their own ways and the south of each region in particular prospers. This seems reasonable. Much of Latin America is coming out of decades of populism and protectionism while the rest of the world seems to be plunging headlong into it. While the US is at the end of a recovery cycle, many analysts believe Latin American markets have plenty of room to run. The same goes in Europe, where if you assume the EU will hold together, then you also have to assume that most of the potential growth upside is in the periphery, rather than the core. Meanwhile, if the US and China really do end up engaging in a full-blown trade war, it may be the smaller Southeast Asian nations that will benefit, since they will continue to be open for business with both.

At the company level, smaller also seems smarter. According to the author, small-cap stocks are still a good buy even as the S&P 500 valuations seem high, as compared by price-to-sales ratios. Any coming regulation in areas such as tech, will probably target big players not small and mid-sized ones. Even in China, where the largest tech firms do not have to worry about regulation in the same way, it is the big companies that investors have soured on — Chinese tech group Tencent lost $51bn off its market value last week after announcing margins would shrink to fund spending on content and technology. It may be that Big Tech companies, like big banks, have simply become too sprawling for their own good. Smaller, more localised players will probably also avoid the worst effects of tariffs. “In a war, it’s all about destroying symbols,” says Peter Atwater, head of the research group Financial Insyghts. “Successfully bring down the share prices of even the top 10 firms, and you’ve hurt the US financial system.”

Aside from being a less visible target for protectionism, small firms with lower debt levels are better positioned to cope with rising interest rates. The article points that small-cap stocks are the only asset class that has outperformed inflation in every decade from the 1930s. That may be in part because they are not overpaying their top executives like many of the largest US companies. A recent survey of US public companies by the executive compensation firm Equilar found that the median ratio of a chief executive’s pay to his or her median worker was 140 to one. But for companies worth more than $15bn, the median ratio was 263 to one. Starting this year, the US Securities and Exchange Commission will require large US-based companies to disclose that ratio. Politicians may decide to make the most of those numbers in a midterm election year.

5)  India isn’t building a military to take on China [Livemint ]
With continuous rise of the People’s Republic of China, there seems to be only one country eager to deal with the ramifications of China’s rise: India. Across dozens of world capitals, confidence is repeatedly expressed that India will seek, in the decades to come, to balance China. And in no capital is this sentiment expressed more loudly than India’s own. But, India’s actions speak otherwise. Its diplomats and strategists continue to dither about whether or not balancing or containing China should be India’s strategic objective. More importantly, the government isn’t funding the military capability it would need to manage China’s rise. India is short of cash and it is, unfortunately, starving its military. The share of military spending in India’s federal budget has fallen below 1.6% of gross domestic product—the lowest proportion since 1962. That’s a year instantly recognizable to every Indian, since it’s when India’s underpowered army was routed in a border conflict with China.

In the 1962 war, India paid the price for years of under-spending on the military, as well as for its determination to remained “non-aligned,” declining to shelter under the American military umbrella. The parallels with 2018 are eerie. While India is closer to the US than it was then, it remains similarly unwilling to embrace a full-fledged alliance. Successive governments have shrunk military budgets, even the proudly nationalist administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Meanwhile, as in 1962, India hasn’t moderated its tone towards China. It’s leading the opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative as well as seeking to prevent Chinese inroads into its neighbourhood—including, most recently, an apparent power grab in the Maldives. India’s army has too many men and not enough armament. One senior officer told a New Delhi-based defense reporter: “There is nothing in the defense budget except to pay salaries. Nothing for infrastructure creation, military station security, maintenance and repairs, maintaining critical war reserves, let alone modernization or paying for current deals.”

India’s vice-chief of army staff warned a parliamentary committee that over two-thirds of the army’s equipment was “vintage.” According to him, the military doesn’t have enough money to pay for committed purchases, let alone replacing older arms. It can’t afford the 10 fighting days’ worth of ammunition it considers a basic necessity. The air force, meanwhile, is missing one of the four squadrons it needs to be at full strength, while the navy is so short of submarines—it has 15 to China’s 70, and many of those 15 are superannuated—that it sent its two newest subs out to sea without torpedoes. Also, India is adding to its already million-strong army by raising additional divisions. And a decision recently to raise military pensions has meant that the amount spent on manpower will continue to grow over time. The Modi administration has certainly moved towards a closer strategic relationship with the US, signing some crucial agreements on cooperation between the two militaries. The problem, however, is that Indian politicians are simply unwilling to commit to modernizing the army if it means reducing its manpower—even though Modi himself has admitted, “modernization and expansion of forces at the same time is a difficult and unnecessary goal.”

The army’s manpower is raised largely from parts of India that are often crucial swing districts in elections. In addition, the establishment appears unable to codify its vision of security threats and an ideal defense posture through, for example, the sort of white papers periodically produced elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile, defense procurement is notoriously politically sensitive; accusations of corruption tend to swirl around any major defense deal. Both the Modi government and its predecessor have been concerned enough about the political cost of such accusations to delay or cancel major purchases. India has made it clear that it intends to challenge China in its neighbourhood, its seas and on the world stage. The politicians’ egos are writing checks the military can’t cash. Metaphorically, that is: In actual fact, the politicians aren’t writing many checks for the military at all.

6)  Market pressure gauge flashes a red alert [Source: Financial Times]
The author of this piece, Bob Wigley, headed Merrill Lynch’s Europe, the Middle East and Africa division in Aug’07 and he says there was a day when the markets defied logic. Equity prices shot up while the spread between some riskier bond yields and safer securities also widened. Debt should not become more expensive at the same time as share prices are rising. While he worked basis his guts and adjusted his books significantly at the time, now he says he has a better understanding of the phenomenon called network effects. The activity in complex spiderwebs of companies, investors and asset classes can have a strong predictive effect. So Dan Nicolau, a mathematician and medical doctor, and Bob have been working together to tap this potential.

He says that at the moment, market analysts examine company-specific factors and macro-economic and political factors. But, until recently, they have lacked the tools to analyse how all these factors interact and what they might be telling us about future market movements. What their analysis shows is that company share prices routinely move in groups or clusters, but not those that correspond to traditional sectors, such as oil stocks or UK retailers. These clusters are generally not closely correlated with each other — so group A might go up while group B goes down and group C bounces around. They also found that when the clusters all start moving together — or alternatively move in completely independent ways — that is a sign that the whole system is becoming unstable. Very strong or weak correlation between the clusters relative to a normal level suggests that a major market shift — either up or down — is looming. Finally, while price movements within the clusters are strongly correlated, each group generally comprises both a solid core of members and others that come and go.

According to Bob, the early results from project are exciting. They have discovered a discontinuity predictor — a “pressure gauge” measure that would have anticipated every major equities market crash including 2000 dotcom bust, as well as the 2008 crisis. In both cases the predictor was more than three standard deviations higher than its mean just before those events. By contrast he says, traditional predictors, such as Vix (known as the fear index), only started moving much nearer to the fall because they only measure volatility that has already occurred. As for today, their instability predictor has been climbing for 15 months and is registering a three-year high and they believe that a major discontinuity in equity markets is close.

According to Bob, these findings have implications for investors who use industry-based tracking funds — if companies in specific sectors are not correlated, what is the point? He adds that they are not alone in study of network effects. The Bank of England and the US Federal Reserve have been studying network effects since the 2008 crisis. Using different but similarly network-focused methods to theirs, a Dutch study found that measurable changes to interbank lending networks preceded the 2008 crisis. Finally, the ability to detect functionally connected clusters and track their performance means that one can measure precisely how much money is coming in and out of different clusters.

7)  The curious tale of India’s first craft beer [Source: Sequoia Capital ]
In this piece, the author shares the success of Bira91- an Indian beer company in a short span of time. Ankur Jain, founder of Bira91, sold his healthcare start-up in the US in 2011 and returned to India to embark on a plan to import and distribute craft beer. Ankur had a ton of passion and that seasoned grit you often see in second-time entrepreneurs. Craft beer, globally, is usually premium tier, appealing to urban hipsters in large markets that consume a ton of mass market brew. India is a whiskey market that, historically, has not been big on beer. Most markets tax liquor based on the percentage of alcohol, but India’s liquor tax is flat. That drives price-sensitive consumers in this emerging economy towards hard liquor, which delivers more bang for their buck. What’s more, you can’t advertise alcohol in India in print, radio or TV, making it hard for niche products to make inroads.

But Ankur wasn’t bothered about all this. Bira’s modus operandi was to offer a superior tasting product at an acceptable price point, filling an untapped sweet spot between Indian brands and expensive imported beer. Ankur planned to drive distribution through bars and restaurants - to build awareness and let consumers experience the brand. Bira is a popular generic word for beer, and 91 is India’s country code; the name was designed to roll off the tongue and fuel pop culture pride. The logo, a reverse B with a monkey as the mascot, projects a spirit of rebellion against the conventional. What’s more, he had a clear strategy on how he aimed to use digital marketing to build an emotional connect between India’s young, irreverent, tech-savvy urban consumers and the brand. While most consumer categories in India have seen upstart challengers emerge, the beer segment had seen nothing until Bira came along. Although India’s beer sales are relatively low on a global scale, it’s still a market worth $7 billion. It was a large category that was screaming for product and marketing innovation. The success of micro-breweries in Bangalore and Gurgaon, which made and sold craft beer, were clear indications that consumers loved the craft category. But the micro-brewing business model is difficult to scale.

Ankur launched with Bira Blonde lager, which is cheekily described “a refreshing contrast to insipid mass-market beers”, and Bira White Ale, pitched as an “all day craft beer” that’s “mixed with barrels of passion”. The products were initially brewed in Belgium and imported to India. Consumers loved it, but the pricing was a hurdle to trials. Bira faced many challenges and miscalculation led to serious supply shortages. The consumers were upset and this ‘dry’ period really tested the resilience of Ankur and his team, who faced tough questions from channel partners. In July 2016, Bira started brewing in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Bira expanded its product portfolio to include Bira Lite, Bira Strong and The Indian Pale Ale, reclaiming the name for a type of UK-brewed beer that was exported to India during the colonial era. A second facility in Nagpur started production last month.

The Bira team has been particularly creative at digital marketing. In September, they launched Hot Stuff, an eight-episode web series that sent well-known foodies Rocky Singh and Mayur Sharma on the search for the hottest chillies and cuisines across India which, of course, the duo pair with Bira 91. The series drew over 4.5 million views. They also collaborated with Zomato and Saavn to make their presence felt. In November, the company launched Bira Free Flow, a 360-degree hip hop platform that will span live music gigs, a web series, and partnerships with Indian hip hop acts to produce original content for Bira’s channel. One of the first artists they’ve signed on is Delhi-based rapper Prabh Deep, who has just launched his first album “Class-Sikh”. Overall, Bira has done a fantastic job in building the brand in a short time frame and most of the consumers love this urban and cool beer.

8)   The US Navy’s indoor ocean
[Source: navy.mil]
While a little dated, this article highlights how indoor oceans are being prepared to build massive ships and boats. Built in 1962 and renovated in 2013, US Navy’s MASK (Maneuvering and Sea Keeping) basin is a massive 360-foot-long, 240-foot-wide indoor ocean with depths ranging from 20 to 35 feet. The 12 million gallons of water it contains are pushed around by 216 individually controlled electromechanical wave boards that line the pool's edge, recreating ocean conditions found around in the world. "There are many different kinds of waves," said Calvin Krishen, NSWC (Naval Surface Warfare Center) engineer. "Waves are different in different parts of the world, and they are different depending if you are close to shore, or away from shore or whether you're in a storm or not. We actually have the capability of programming all those different types of waves to test." Using this tool, researchers at MASK can dial in the exact conditions under which the Navy's current and future vessels and equipment will operate.

"We can nail, at scale, the conditions all over the world," said Jon Etxegoien, Naval Architecture and Engineering Department head. "So it's not just that we can do some kind of rogue sea states, we can actually do the kind of seas they can expect in the North Atlantic, the South Pacific, littoral areas, that sort of thing. So that's what gives us a real leg up. It's not just some generic sea condition, but the specifics of where they're going to be operating." Scale models up to 30-feet in length are dropped into MASK's gyrating waters and put to the test in simulations of their intended operating environments. "We'll put a scale model of a Navy vessel [in the water], whether it's been built already, or it's something they're planning to build, and actually test it before they build the actual ship," said Krishen. "That way the Navy can then get some feedback on the design they're using and make any adjustments that they might need."

This capability provides MASK researchers insight into a new vessel's strengths and weaknesses, ensures future platforms meet their required performance goals and informs decisions on ship system configurations. "The ability to recreate accurately and repeatedly the seaways that you're going to see out in the real world allow us to evaluate a lot of variables and understand the system," said Dr. Christopher Kent, NSWC engineer. Beyond ship design, the lessons learned from these scale model tests help establish ship operation guidelines for the crew. If the ship hits high seas, or has to operate in unusual circumstances, knowing the behavior of the ship allows a crew to make the best possible decision. "Though this seems a little disconnected from the warfighter," said Kent. "This is an integral part of making a fully functional ship that gets us to the theaters and to the places that we need to be in this world to keep the American public safe." According to Krishen, the value of the MASK facility is two-fold: It allows us to explore the cutting-edge of naval technology, while benefiting our Sailors by making the ships they call home safer and better-equipped to succeed in the Navy's mission.

9)  How a virus spreads through an airplane cabin
[Source: gizmodo.com]
New research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that airline passengers infected with influenza aren’t likely to infect other passengers who sit more than two seats to the left or right, or more than two seats in front or back. In other words, your chances of contracting the flu from an infected passenger are slim—unless you’re sitting within about three feet (one meter) of them. It’s surprising to learn that very few studies have looked into this issue in detail. Tracking the spread of viruses on planes, it seems, isn’t easy. Tools like video cameras, RFID tags, ultrasound, infrared, and other technologies normally used to track human movements cannot be used in an airplane cabin during flight for safety and privacy concerns, frustrating efforts to study transmission patterns of disease on flights. “As far as we know, nobody had any quantitative understandings of the movements, behaviors or social contacts between individuals during flight. We also haven’t seen any studies of testing cabin air and swabs of surfaces for respiratory viruses,” said Howard Weiss, Georgia Institute of Technology mathematician and co-author of the new study

To study how infectious diseases might spread during flights, Weiss devised and tested a new observational technique which used paired observers (members of the research team) seated every five rows, each using an iPad app, and later aggregating these local “zone-by-zone” observations to chronicle all movements of passengers and crew within an airplane cabin. “We are proud of the success of this method,” said Weiss. “This was the first study to quantify passenger movement, behaviours, and social contacts and to estimate transmission likelihood using a data-driven model,” he said. “The simulations provide compelling evidence that for influenza, if you are not seated within a meter of an infected passenger, and you practice careful hand hygiene, then you are unlikely to get infected during flight.”

Interestingly, of the 229 environmental samples taken on the flights, not a single sample contained traces of 18 common respiratory viruses. Planes, it would seem, aren’t the cesspool of germs we often make them out to be. The study was also interesting in what it revealed – the more a passenger moves around a plane, the greater chance they have to come into contact with germs; or if they’re infected, the more chances they have to spread the germs. Approximately 40% of passengers never leave their seats during transcontinental flights (which tend to be on the short side), another 40% get up at least once, and 20% get up two or more times. About 40% of passengers who sit next to the window will get up, compared to 60% in a middle seat and 80% with an aisle seat. Passengers who got up did so for an average of five minutes.

“The study is a bit limited because they had no positive samples, making it difficult to know whether their transmission model accurately reflects real life,” echoed Jason Burnham, an infectious diseases expert at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “The authors [also] state that sick crew members are unlikely to come to work, but we know from the healthcare industry that this is not always true. They also state that sick crew members would likely take cough suppressants, thereby minimizing disease spread. However, generally speaking cough suppressants do not work well. In addition, there was a recent study showing that just breathing can spread virus, [and that] people do not have to cough for viruses to spread,” he said. Burnham says this study should encourage people who are ill—both passengers and crew—to stay home when they are ill. In addition to wearing a surgical mask, “everyone should wash their hands,” he said. “It is one of the most effective ways to protect yourself from illness.

10)  Astronomers find the ‘impossible’: A galaxy without dark matter [Source: MSN]
Stupefied astronomers recently unveiled the first and only known galaxy without dark matter, the invisible and poorly-understood substance thought to make up a quarter of the Universe. The discovery could revise or even upend theories of how galaxies are formed, they reported in the journal Nature. "This is really bizarre," said co-author Roberto Abraham, an astronomer at the University of Toronto. "For a galaxy this size, it should have 30 times as much dark matter as regular matter," he told. "What we found is that there is no dark matter at all. That shouldn't be possible," he added. There are 200 billion observable galaxies, perhaps more, astronomers estimate. Some 65 million light-years from Earth, NGC1052-DF2 -- "DF2" for short -- is about the same size as our Milky Way, but has 100 to 1,000 times fewer stars. Dark matter's existence is inferred from the motion of objects affected by its gravitational pull. "It is conventionally believed to be an integral part of all galaxies, the glue that holds them together and the underlying scaffolding on which they are built," said co-author Allison Merritt from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, in Germany.

The so-called ordinary matter, including stars, gases, dust, planets and everything on it, accounts for only 5% of all content in the Universe. Dark matter and dark energy comprise the rest, and scientists have yet to directly observe either. The discovery was made with a new kind of telescope developed by Abraham and lead author Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University. Unlike mirror-based devices, the mobile Dragonfly Telescope Array is composed entirely of nano-coated lenses, 48 in all. "Conventional telescopes are good at finding small, faint objects. Ours is really good at finding large ones," said Abraham. Indeed, over the last few years Dokkum and Abraham have used it to uncover a whole new category of sparsely populated "ultra diffuse galaxies" -- and sparked a cottage industry as astronomers struggle to explain their strange properties. "Everything about them is a surprise, starting with the very fact they exist," Abraham said. Up to now, the analysis of galaxies has shown a fairly tight ratio of dark to ordinary matter. But this new class "is breaking all the rules," he said. The first anomalies discovered were galaxies almost entirely composed of dark matter. That was odd enough. But the real shocker was DF2, which has virtually none at all.

DF2 was first identified by Russian astronomers conducting a photographic survey, but it's uniqueness didn't come to light until later. Dokkum's team used the Keck telescopes in Hawaii to track the motion of several star clusters -- each with about 100,000 stars -- within the galaxy. The clusters, they found, travelled at the same speed as the galaxy, itself moving through the Universe. Had there been dark matter, the clusters would be moving slower or faster. Abrahams recalls seeing the graphic plot showing the motion of DF2's constellations for the first time, and wondering if something was amiss. "We asked ourselves where we had screwed up, if the measurements were wrong," he said. "Then I suddenly realised the implications. That's as close to an 'Oh My God' moment as I got." Figuring out how something as big as a galaxy is held together without dark matter will be difficult, but understanding how it formed in the first place will be even harder, Dokkum said. Whatever the explanation, a galaxy with no dark matter poses an ironic challenge to astronomers who question the very existence of the substances, according to the study.

- Saurabh Mukherjea is CEO, and Prashant Mittal is Strategist, at Ambit Capital. Views expressed are personal.

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