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 a ‘Nation’s value creators’, ‘Why the industry you’re in matters’, and the ‘price of social media’. Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended May 19, 2018. 1) Who creates a nation’s economic value?
[Source: Financial Times
Martin Wolf in this piece discusses how misconceptions regarding who creates, extracts and destroys value in an economy leads to impoverished and unhappy societies, in which plunderers rule. Many advanced western countries, in particular the US and Britain, have already reached that state, says Mariana Mazzucato, a professor at University College London in her book - ‘The value of everything’. The consequences of this, including soaring inequality and declining growth are already visible, she argues and insists that we need to change course.
This book’s big point is that it is far too easy for those operating in the market economy to get rich by extracting economic value from those who add it, not by adding it themselves. An obvious example is the way the financial services sector generated a huge increase in household debt in the years leading to the financial crisis of 2007-09. This funded zero-sum competition to buy the existing housing stock at soaring prices. Its legacy included a huge crisis, a debt overhang, weak growth and political disenchantment. Yet, for those who created, manipulated and sold this debt, it was a gold mine. This represented value extraction and destruction. Much the same picture can be seen in asset management, with its excessive trading, exorbitant fees, lack of transparency, poor stewardship and conflicts of interest. This financial sector, together with the “shareholder value maximisation” that economists have promoted, has had a malign effect on the corporate sector as a whole, argues Mazzucato, by encouraging excessive pay and also, partly to that end, manipulation of stock prices in preference to long-term investment.
Mazzucato also attacks what is going on in more obviously beneficial sectors of the economy, such as information technology and pharmaceuticals. One of the problems here, she argues, is the award of overly generous or simply unjustifiable rights to intellectual property, such as the patenting of things found in nature or of trivial business processes. No less important is the emergence of concentrated monopoly power in a small number of huge online internet companies, such as Google and Facebook, whose very size and omnipresence make them the only rational choice for potential users. Mazzucato not only refers to activities whose benefits are exaggerated, but also notes the significant activities of a sector too often assumed to generate no economic value: government. Government does more than enforce justice and provide security, she argues. It builds infrastructure, educates the young, maintains the population’s health, finances fundamental research and has often promoted economic development directly. The US government, not private businesses, created many of today’s most fundamental and transformative technologies: the internet and the global positioning system are two spectacular examples.
A fundamental thesis of the book, however, is that mistaking value extraction for value creation, and vice versa, has its roots in the errors of economists. The classical economists, notably Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx were, she notes, concerned about the distinction between those who created value, those who merely moved it around and those who lived parasitically on the efforts of others (such as aristocratic landowners). Neoclassical economists, however, such as Léon Walras, Stanley Jevons and Alfred Marshall, with their marginal revolution and idea of equilibrium, eliminated these distinctions: under the subjective theory of value, price is simply the best indication of (marginal) value: what is expensive is, at least at the margin, valuable. The choices people make are the only determinant of value. The economists’ focus on what is produced and distributed in the market has two further consequences, argues Mazzucato — government is, by assumption, unproductive, even parasitic, and household labour disappears from sight.
In Mazzucato’s view the evident failings of our economies are a consequence of our inability to distinguish among activities that create, redistribute and destroy value. This, in turn, emboldens value extractors (such as pharmaceutical companies that charge whatever the market will bear); it frightens off non-market actors, including bureaucrats, who might have been able to help create value; and it encourages policymakers to believe market solutions, such as the UK’s flawed private finance initiative, are necessarily superior to ones introduced by governments. While Wolf has reservations about the book’s conclusion on government’s role in creating value, he says the book has three significant strengths: a) Mazzucato pushes us to get away from the simplistic creed that markets are always good and governments always bad; b) she offers the Left a positive goal of prosperity-inducing innovation rather than a sterile and ultimately destructive politics of resentment and redistribution; and c) she forces us to ask ourselves what adds value to society and how to create an economic and social order that promotes that.2) Roger Federer’s career choice could teach you something about yours
Roger Federer’s tally of Grand Slam championships now numbers 20—an incredible feat. As tennis’s biggest star, he is well compensated for his efforts: Forbes magazine estimates that he took home $64 million last year. Why does Federer make so much money? The answer, most would say, is clear: talent, hard work, good looks, business acumen. But what if Federer played badminton? He would face Lin Dan, the champion in that sport. Each man may be the best ever in his respective game, and both are extremely marketable, with competitive instincts and personal charm. But Dan doesn’t make anywhere near what Federer does—and he never will. That’s because Dan has an “industry” disadvantage. A Top 10 tennis player makes 10 to 20 times what a Top 10 player in any other racket sport earns.
Likewise, a company’s choice of industry matters a great deal—more than many realise. In a four-year study of the world’s 2,393 largest companies, the researchers in this piece found that about 50% of a company’s performance compared to the broader corporate universe (as opposed to its own sector) is driven by what’s happening in your industry—highlighting that “where to play” is perhaps the most critical choice in strategy. Your industry trend is the single biggest factor shaping your odds of outperformance. The role of industry in a company’s position is so substantial that you’d rather be an average company in a great industry than a great company in an average industry. The median pharmaceutical company (India-based Sun Pharmaceuticals), the median software company (Adobe Systems), and the median semiconductor company (Marvell Technology Group) all would be in the top quintile of chemicals companies and the top 10% of food products companies.
In some cases, you’d rather be in your supplier’s industry than in your own. For example, the average economic profit of airlines is a loss of $99 million, while suppliers in the aerospace and defence category average a profit of $453 million. In fact, the 20th percentile aerospace and defence supplier, Saab AB, earns more economic profit than the 80th percentile airline, Air New Zealand. That is not to say that all airlines have poor economic performance (witness Japan Airlines), nor that all is rosy in aerospace and defence. But it is a fact of life that there are more and less attractive playing fields.
The authors also point that in their study, of the 117 companies that jumped from the middle quintiles to the top, 85 moved with their industry. Of the 201 that fell from the middle quintiles to the bottom, 157 were pulled down by their industry. So, it’s crucial to both identify the relevant trends and to act on them in the right timeframe. As the global economy moves through cycles, as new technologies and business models emerge and older ones die, as industry structures change and new ecosystems are formed, profit pools shrink and grow and move between industries. The results can sometimes be dramatic. For instance, wireless telecom jumped from near the bottom of all industries 10 years ago to nearly the top. The oil and gas business went the other way in the wake of the commodity price plunge.
If you’re enjoying a favourable industry trend, you should ride that trend as hard as you can. If, however, you find yourself facing an industry headwind, you might need to seriously consider changing your industry. Say your industry faces a major disruption. You have only two options: either transform your industry (through consolidation to change its fundamental performance prospects, for example), or leave your industry to establish a new foothold in a less threatened space. Unfortunately, neither is easy. If you’re going to stay in the same industry, you might need to find ways to alter its dynamics. For instance, the beer industry in Australia was a so-so performer decades ago until Lion and Foster consolidated it so thoroughly that it became a lot more attractive for both. 3) How to put a price on social media?
[Source: Financial Times
British economist Tim Harford in this piece highlights a new research paper from three economists — Erik Brynjolfsson, Felix Eggers and Avinash Gannamaneni — which attempts to measure exactly what digital services such as Facebook are worth to us. They offered various experimental subjects (adult US residents) the possibility of a cash payment if they quit the social media network for a month, observing which offers were rejected or accepted. Twenty percent of the site’s users were willing to quit for as little as a dollar; raise the monthly price to $48 (in 2016) or $38 (in 2017) and half of Facebook’s US users would happily jump ship. Mr. Brynjolfsson and his colleagues used a more informal survey to estimate the value for other services. Their rough-and-ready conclusion is that the typical person would have to be paid about $17,500 a year to do without internet search engines, $8,500 to abandon email and $3,500 to quit using digital maps. Video streaming through sites such as Netflix and YouTube is worth over $1,150 a year; ecommerce $850, and social media just over $300.
Mr. Harford says that the first lesson from this research is that some of these new digital goods have a huge and unmeasured benefit to consumers — “consumer surplus”, in the lingo. This is not entirely news: the economist William Nordhaus has estimated that during the second half of the 20th century, innovative companies generally managed to capture as profits just 3.7% of the social value they created; the other 96.3% went to others, largely consumers. For example, penicillin saves lives for pennies. Another example: the indoor lavatory. Messrs Brynjolfsson, Eggers and Gannamaneni found that indoor toilets were valued much more highly than any internet service. Lavatories are not expensive, so they produce a huge consumer surplus. Still, many digital goods are free — and if internet search really is worth $17,500 per person each year, that is equivalent to one-third of US gross domestic product. So perhaps unmeasured consumer surplus is larger than in the past.
But there is a second important lesson here. Access to email seems to be worth almost 30 times more than access to social media; a good search engine is worth twice as much again. Yet the key suppliers of email and search — Alphabet, Apple and Microsoft — are not worth 50 times more than Facebook, which dominates social media through its own site and its subsidiaries Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp. If they were, they would be $20tn companies. In other words, Facebook is more effective at turning consumer surplus into profit. This is where network effects come into play. Since all your friends are on Facebook, the only serious alternative is not to use social media at all. By contrast, it is easy to find an alternative email provider. Mr. Harford says that we urgently need a way to turn social media into something more like email — a portable profile that can be taken seamlessly from one provider to another, just as we can take our phone numbers with us from network to network, and dial any other number in the world.
One final lesson emerges from another research paper — from the economists Susan Athey, Christian Catalini, and Catherine Tucker. Ms. Athey and her colleagues asked what value MIT students place on their own private data, and the data of friends. The answer was nothing terribly coherent: students would make very different choices in response to small nudges, and would gladly hand over private data in exchange for a pizza. The value we place on services such as email and search is clear. The value we place on our own privacy is not.4) The hitmakers: why music pluggers are thriving in the digital age
[Source: Financial Times
This piece discusses Mr. Passmore, 33, and Mr. Lloyd, 31, - known to be ‘record pluggers’. “We take an artist’s music to radio stations on behalf of record labels or management and try to convince them to support that artist,” Mr. Passmore says. The ultimate aim is to get a song on to the roster of 30 to 40 songs that play throughout the day on national UK broadcasters, such as BBC Radio 1 or Capital FM. “At the start of an artist’s career it can just be ‘spot plays’, which are like one-off plays on specialist DJ shows,” Mr. Passmore explains. “But as you build an artist’s career it becomes more strategic. You’re building towards playlist support and playlist rotation increase, trying to get from a C-list song to an A-list.”
Plugging is still a vibrant niche for entrepreneurs, relatively unscathed by the upheaval that has affected the rest of the music industry. This pivotal role in popular music goes back to the early days of radio in the 1920s, when big bands were feted acts. Today, it is a key strand in the promotional tactics used by record labels to drive a hit song. Plugged In, which Mr. Passmore set up in 2007, focuses on the UK national radio (regional radio has its own network of specialist pluggers). Clients range from indie band Haim to rap group Migos. Among its current campaigns is up-and-coming singer Alice Merton, who is trying to crack the UK market with her single “No Roots”. Today, Mr. Passmore and Mr. Lloyd are waiting to learn if she has been playlisted by Radio 1. It turns out she has, which almost automatically guarantees a chart placing: the station has an audience reach of nearly 10mn.
The stations usually hold formal meetings for pluggers to pitch songs to the producers and music teams who decide the weekly playlist. Pluggers can pitch one or more songs in their 10-minute slot, one eye on the clock, the other on the pitchees’ reaction. They estimate there are about 20 other independent UK plugging companies working on national radio, as well as in-house plugging teams at record labels. “There is plenty of work to go around,” Mr. Passmore says. “We turn down more than we take on.”
Much of a plugger’s daily routine is spent at the computer. But the core activity of meeting radio stations and persuading them to play a song is a throwback to a world of face-to-face business dealings. James Curran is director of music for national broadcasters Magic and Absolute Radio and their stable of nine subsidiary stations. Together they have a reach of 8.6mn listeners. Like Radio 1, Absolute has decided to play “No Roots”. Mr. Curran’s music team sees pluggers on Monday afternoons in 15-minute appointments. “The whole process is about instilling confidence in the music programmer that a song has legs,” he says. “We want to be confident there is a story behind it. What makes it stand out from the crowd?”
The biggest change to plugging this decade is the rise of streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music. Last year songs were streamed 68.1bn times in the UK, representing more than half the consumption of all recorded music. In the pre-streaming age, the plugger’s job was to create an appetite for a song before it arrived in shops. Now they operate in a climate of instant availability. Following US practice, the industry has agreed a common code whereby songs are promoted on a so-called “day-and-date” basis. The day that you put the record out to media is the day that it should be available. People now, as soon as they hear a record they want it straight away. Music is the most technologically disrupted of the creative industries and record labels are no longer the only route to releasing music. Acts can promote themselves on social media and get songs on to SoundCloud and Spotify. But the belief is that the plugger’s role will remain vital. According to the community, there are a lot of artists that can do certain bits by themselves. But for a proper radio campaign, pluggers are still very much relevant. It’s probably one of the most standard things that happen.5) Scientists reveal how nithyakalyani makes potent cancer drug
[Source: Hindu Business Line
An ornamental plant commonly found in India and elsewhere may emerge as the source of one of the largest-selling anti-cancer drugs, vinblastine, with a team of researchers from the UK helping find missing genes involved in the biosynthesis of the chemical. Sixty years ago, two Canadian scientists studying the anti-diabetic properties of the Madagascar periwinkle, known as nithyakalyani in Tamil and sadabahar in Hindi, stumbled upon its anti-cancer properties. This led to the discovery of vinblastine and vincristine, used to treat various cancers. Since then, many scientific groups have worked tirelessly to unravel the cellular mechanisms involved in the production of these valuable chemical compounds. They met with only partial success, as many enzymes involved in their biosynthesis were still missing. The complex chemical mechanisms that the plant uses to produce vinblastine remained a puzzle for nearly six decades.
Now, a research team led by Sarah O’Connor, biological chemist at John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich, UK, has identified the missing steps in the biosynthesis of vinblastine, opening up a potential avenue for rapid synthesis of the compound. “Vinblastine is one of the of the most structurally complex medicinally active natural products in plants...which is why so many people in the past 60 years have been trying to get where we have got to in this study. I cannot believe we are finally here,” said O’Connor in a statement. The JIC scientist, who has been working on the periwinkle plant for over 15 years, is hopeful they can now try to increase the amount of vinblastine produced — either in the plant itself, or by placing synthetic genes in hosts such as yeast or other plants.
Producing 1 gram of vinblastine requires about 500kg of dried periwinkle leaves, so the drug is currently synthesised chemically. The reconstitution of vinblastine biosynthesis, following the discovery of the ‘missing steps’, could provide an additional source of this valuable drug. It is currently used in the treatment of cancers of the lymphomas and bladder, breast and lung.
6) The United states of Japan
[Source: New Yorker
In recent years, American culture has increasingly been following a playbook made in Japan. Consider the fascination with “the Japanese art of decluttering.” Its guru, Marie Kondo, lives in Japan. She generally relies on an interpreter, and it has been four years since she published a book in the U.S. While she has largely fallen off the radar in her home country, her popularity shows no signs of waning among Americans. One video of Kondo folding clothes, dubbed in English, has close to four million views on YouTube. On Valentine’s Day, Netflix sparked joy among fans with an announcement that it had greenlit a Kondo reality show. Stripped down to its most minimalist outlines, a life of uncluttered simplicity represents a fantasy. Why should Americans be so compelled by one from Japan?
Close to twenty years ago, the answer would have been “because Japan is the global imagination’s default setting for the future,” as the author William Gibson wrote in 2001. Gibson was referring to a Japan of trendy gadgets and services, such as high-tech cell phones and robot sushi bars, the flashy products of a hyper-consumer metropolis that inspired the creators of such films as “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix.” But what Gibson wrote about products was just as true about other, less visible trends in Japanese society: economic stagnation; a plunging fertility rate; a dramatic postponement of the “normal” milestones of adulthood, such as getting married or simply moving out of the family home; a creeping sense of ambivalence about what the future might hold. Seventeen years later, America has finally caught up. According to the author, Americans don’t buy into Kondo’s life-changing magic just because they think Japan is cool; they also buy because America is, in many ways, increasingly like Japan.
A drop in fertility is virtually a defining trait of industrialised economies. But, speaking purely statistically, a given nation requires a so-called “total fertility rate” of 2.1 births per woman to maintain its population. In 2016, the U.S. birth rate was 1.8, the lowest since 1976 vs. Japans 1.4. For many reasons, Americans are choosing to have fewer babies, and, as a result, their population is growing steadily older. Then comes the problem of a large population of unemployed young men and women. A report from 2017 revealed that, in 2015, there are some 1.7 million of them, a full ten per cent of those between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine—a shocking number, given that Japan’s unemployment rate is an enviable 2.5%. For America, a 2016 Pew study showed that, for the first time since 1940, men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four are more likely to live at home with a parent than with a partner or spouse. Many lack college degrees. “So what are they doing with their time?” the University of Chicago economist Eric Hurst has asked. “The hours that they are not working have been replaced almost one for one with leisure time. Seventy-five percent of this new leisure time falls into one category: video games.” Not coincidentally, a field that the Japanese perfected, if not pioneered.
Tellingly, the Japanese have a slang term for people like this: otaku. Literally meaning “one’s home,” the word emerged in the early eighties as slang for young adults who eschewed normal relationships in favor of the virtual worlds of manga, anime, and early video games. At the time, there was a great deal of hand-wringing among academics and critics about a generation’s stubborn refusal to graduate from such juvenile entertainments into full-fledged adulthood. Yet when the bubble burst, in 1990, plunging Japan into its Lost Decades, this marginalized community proved a resilient incubator of trends. Chief among these was the Pokémon video-game series, whose creator, Satoshi Tajiri, is a self-proclaimed otaku. The resounding box office success of Steven Spielberg’s cross-cultural mash-up “Ready Player One” is only the most recent affirmation of a societal trend: we’re all otaku now. Japan was, once again, simply ahead of the curve.
The author says that while the statistics present a rather somber picture of the future America likely faces there are bright spots too. Young adults in Japan, freed of the shackles of the older generation’s lockstep salaryman life style, report surprising levels of contentment. Public facilities and infrastructure remain in tip-top shape. The trains don’t simply run on time; they run faster than the trains almost anywhere else. The streets and schools are among the cleanest and safest in the world, even in the heart of Tokyo, the largest metropolitan area on the planet. British writer John Lanchester sums up the Japan experience aptly in a column for the Times Magazine: “As Japan shows, us there are worse things for a society than calmly growing old together.” Or, to paraphrase Marie Kondo, all our futures, individually and collectively, depend on finding the things that spark joy in the midst of the inevitable, inexorable trend of old age. In the years to come, it’s entirely possible that Japan’s most successful export won’t be judged to be the Walkman or the Game Boy or the volumes of manga it churns out; it will be a helping hand born of its collective lived experience, just a few clicks ahead of us down the time line.7) Inside the brotherhood of the Ad-Blockers
About 18% of U.S. web users have an ad blocker, says PageFair Ltd., a company that helps advertisers find technical ways to work around the software. Outside the U.S., the numbers are more dramatic. Desktop ad-blocker penetration is 24% in Canada, 29% in Germany, and 39% in Greece, according to PageFair. The practice is growing fastest on mobile devices in Asia, where data allowances are typically lower. In Indonesia, 58% of users block mobile ads. Only a few years ago, even people who hated ads saw ad-blocking software as akin to stealing. But online advertising has grown so predatory that while blocking is estimated to cost publishers billions of lost revenue a year, it’s started to seem less like robbery than self-defense: Ads slow devices, eat up data plans, and sometimes deliver malware. Meanwhile, the industry is building ever-more-detailed dossiers on every user based on web habits.
The rise of ad blocking mirrors an explosion in online advertising technology. Barely 100 digital-only ad-tech companies operated in 2011; today there are about 2,000. Most arose with what’s known as programmatic advertising, automated systems run by the likes of Google and Microsoft that promise to match every ad with the person the ad is most likely to influence. Dissect how such systems work, and it’s easy to be outraged. When you load a website, it sends a series of requests to other web domains to auction your eyeballs to the highest bidders. The number of intermediaries involved changes with every page load, but on a recent visit, the homepage for one popular U.S.-based news site sent 20 requests to 10 ad exchanges, each of which likely offered the space to hundreds of advertisers. It also set 47 cookies with unique tracking IDs, many of which log user data such as location, gender, age, and likes and dislikes based on browsing behavior. These data give advertisers a sense of how valuable you might be as a customer, and therefore how much to bid to show you an ad. When one of the advertisers wins the auction, an ad appears on your screen. The whole process takes less than a tenth of a second.
As a side business, every company involved in any step of the process may also try to place a cookie or tracker to collect more data on you for later use. Such companies often swap data to try to identify users they have in common, and they may pull in your email address, name, public records, and credit card history. “Ad blocking has grown in response to a lot of legitimate problems,” says PageFair’s Blanchfield.
To circumvent this issue a community of DIYers has cropped up and built an ad-block software called Pi-hole. It is a free, open source software package designed to run on a Raspberry Pi, a basic computer that’s popular with DIYers, fits in the palm of your hand, and retails for about $35. Most ad blockers have to be installed on individual devices and work only in web browsers, but Pi-hole blocks ads across an entire network, including in most apps. Jacob Salmela, the creator of Pi-hole, is a 33-year-old Linux administrator who lives outside Minneapolis with his wife and son. Open sourcing his software helped him build an entire community of sorts and to recruit talent. “It really is a project of love for me,” says the first recruit, Dan Schaper, who claims to spend 50 hours to 80 hours a week on Pi-hole in addition to his work as a consulting network engineer. The community mostly focusses on talking new Pi-hole users through setup and the occasional bug. To support that labor, donors provide $1,000 to $2,000 a month. Salmela also collects an extra $20 to $100 a month through sales of Pi-hole T-shirts, hoodies, and mugs, and about $20 to $30 through affiliate links on the Pi-hole website, which pays a tiny commission when someone clicks on them.
The ad industry hasn’t taken any official shots at Pi-hole, likely because set-up remains a significant barrier, says Jeremy Gillula, tech policy director at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. Yet some 30 percent of the internet’s top 10,000 sites now use software designed to subvert browser-level ad blocking. Publishers will target Salmela’s software if it becomes anywhere near as popular as AdBlock Plus, says Nicole Perrin, an analyst at researcher EMarketer. Still, the popular support for Pi-hole and other ad blockers may signal changes. The scandal around Cambridge Analytica, the political advertising firm that got hold of as many as 87 million Facebook users’ data and used the information to try to influence an election, shows that people still value privacy more than Mark Zuckerberg long claimed. For publishers struggling to survive even with maximum ad surveillance, the Pi-hole team recommends a renewed focus on subscriptions, affiliate links, and curated endorsements for products and services that might truly interest users, similar to the way podcast hosts may talk about how much they personally enjoy a sponsor’s products. 8) A royal retreat
[Source: Financial Times
Soukya, a health retreat outside Bangalore offers traditional Indian cures for conditions from hay fever to diabetes and strives to “restore the natural balance of your mind, body and spirit”. Procedures run from massage, yoga and mud baths, to a three-week-long ayurvedic detox involving enforced vomiting, enemas and leech therapy. It is a serious place, lacking the five-star comforts and fripperies of many health spas, and yet has become the retreat of choice for some extremely wealthy and well-connected guests. Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall has been five times; Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been three times. And, despite having only 25 rooms, its international influence is growing.
Conditions in the retreat are quite clear. One stumps up $5,000 for smoking in the bedroom or drinking alcohol and rules stress that smuggling in non-vegetarian food will lead to instant discharge, with no refund (rates start at £2,800 per week). The rules — which also ban talking on a mobile anywhere outside the bedroom — are, apparently, in place to make the treatments more effective. The retreat opened in 2002 and sits in 30 acres of organic farm by a suburban village on the outskirts of the city. White trumpet flowers cascade from branches, wind chimes tinkle in trees, tropical foliage looks to the sun. Three tethered sheep mow a lawn that’s bordered by splashes of purple, burnt orange and fuchsia. Nearby women in grass-green saris and leaf-coloured headscarves pour pitchers of water on to marigolds.
Guests stay in villas dotted around the garden. There’s no room service, mini bar or television, again said to be with guests’ health in mind. The welcome pack is two books by Dr. Mathai and white yoga garb. In place of the usual perfumed toiletries are home-made herbal options, including ayurvedic toothpaste. Outside down paths lined with fluorescent blooms, there’s a yoga and meditation dome, a shop (products include coconut sugar and herbal scrubs) and communal television area (although watching TV is deemed to interfere with the healing process). There’s also a library rich in spiritual tomes, a swimming pool (with sunbeds in need of their own rejuvenation programme) and an Indian Orthodox chapel. Plus fields of organic fruit and vegetables, cows and goats. It’s also very ecological: from its solar power and rainwater harvesting to the cows’ dung converted to bio-gas to power their kitchen.
The days are packed with treatments and therapy sessions — many starting with a prayer sung to Dhanvanthari, the god of ayurveda. There’s also afternoon meditation: 45 minutes in a group of guests focusing on a candle or a mantra. Guests rise for daily yoga (gentle asanas done in a group at 7:15am) and retire at 9:30pm, mostly exhausted. There are cookery classes too on a two-ring stove in a dining room pungent with sandalwood and tours of the ayurvedic medicinal herb garden. The author of the piece in her own experience talks about getting ill with a fever after three days; they call it a “healing crisis”: toxins leaving the body, apparently. Sceptics might question Soukya’s bolder claims, which include reversing or arresting conditions from multiple sclerosis to cardiovascular disease, but Dr. Sabine Donnai, a London doctor credits the place with her own “detoxification and rapid recovery from radiotherapy and breast cancer”. She also cites positive results in a patient previously bedridden with chronic fatigue and in a schizophrenic, who returned free of voices. “I cannot,” Dr. Donnai says later, “explain this in western medical terms.”9) Death is weirder than you think
Our cells precede us—but they also outlive us. Long after it’s lights-out for you, individual cells don’t give up the ghost. In fact, some cells can survive for days and others for weeks in a dead body. What exactly is going on in those cells that rage against the dying of the light? Research has found that not only do cells survive for a while after an organism dies, they may actually fight to live. The activity of some genes increases after death, as cells apparently sense that something has gone horribly wrong. It’s like an astronaut in deep space who suddenly gets silence on the radio and frantically beams signals home to Earth, unaware that a nuclear holocaust has wiped out everything she holds dear. The researchers uncovering the details of this post-mortem genetic activity think it could have consequences for organ transplantation, genetic research, and forensic science.
The whole thing got started in about 2009, when Alexander Pozhitkov was a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany. It was there that he got a chance to pursue a project he’d been thinking about for more than a decade. Pozhitkov tested about 30 zebrafish from the institute’s colony and the fish’s messenger RNA revealed some interesting things. Messenger RNAs are threadlike molecules that do the work of translating DNA into proteins; each strand of messenger RNA is a transcript of some section of DNA. What Alexander noticed was that translation of genes into proteins generally declined after death, as would be expected. But the count of messenger RNA indicated that about 1% of genes actually increased in transcription after death. Some were chugging along four days after life ceased. His team faced a lot of criticism though. The main critique was that they might have misinterpreted a statistical blip. Because cells die off at different rates, perhaps the transcripts recorded in still-living cells merely made up a greater proportion of all the total transcripts, says Peter Ellis, a lecturer in molecular biology at the University of Kent.
Since that original publication, though, there are hints that something more is going on in the cells that are still churning after the organism dies. In a study published in February in Nature Communications, other researchers examined human tissue samples and found hundreds of genes that alter their expression after death. Some genes declined in activity, but others increased. A gene that promotes growth, EGR3, began ramping up its expression four hours after death. Some fluctuated back and forth, like the gene CXCL2, which codes for a signaling protein that calls white blood cells to the site of inflammation or infection.
When an organism dies, the most important, energy-intensive cells follow first. But more peripheral cells keep doing their jobs for days or even weeks, depending on factors like temperature and decay. In one 2015 study, researchers were able to coax live cell cultures from goat ears a whopping 41 days after the goats were slaughtered. They got these cells from fibroblasts, which make up connective tissue and are relatively low-energy. Keeping them alive for 41 days required nothing more than normal refrigeration. “Organismal death has no meaning at the cellular level,” Ellis says. But death does rock the cells’ world by cutting off oxygen and nutrients, at the least. So what is driving posthumous gene expression?
Research has found that the messenger RNA active after death isn’t like the rest of the messenger RNA in cells. About 99 percent of the RNA transcripts floating around in cells degrade rapidly when the organism dies. The remaining 1% has something special: certain patterns of individual nucleotides that bind to molecules that regulate messenger RNA after transcription. This appears to be a large part of what keeps things going after death. The researchers argue that this mechanism could be part of how cells react to a situation that the organism theoretically could come back from, like a near-drowning. Cells might essentially try to “open all the valves” in their death throes, allowing certain stress-related genes, such as ones that respond to inflammation, to express themselves. One implications of such cells is to do with organ transplant. Organs taken from donors for transplantation spend at least some time outside the body, and their RNA may start sending out the same sort of distress signals seen in death. It’s possible that this could have long-term health consequences for the transplant recipient.10) Pramod Mahajan’s (deceased BJP MLA) hilarious explanation of democracy in India to Chinese
In the wake of recent drama around the Karnataka state elections in India, one can’t help but recall a historical (short) speech by deceased BJP MLA- Mr. Pramod Mahajan on the way democracy works in India.
During a parliament session in late 1990s, he talks about how during a visit to China, the Indian delegates (including Mr. Mahajan) were asked how the democracy works in India. To this Mr. Mahajan’s reply was “I am Pramod Mahajan. I’m member of Lok Sabha. I belong to the single largest party and I’m in opposition.”
The Chinese, he says were confused with this reply! He then points to his colleague saying “he belongs to the second largest party but he’s outside the government supporting the government” He then points to Mr. M.A. Baby saying “Mr. Baby belongs to third largest party and he’s inside the front but outside the government”. Finally he points to Mr. Ramakant Khalap saying he’s the only member of this party and he is the government! - Saurabh Mukherjea is CEO, and Prashant Mittal is Strategist, at Ambit Capital. Views expressed are personal