Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week's iteration are related to 'Dangers of night shift', 'Biomimicry as a sustainable solution', and 'India's vaping fad'

Published: Jun 17, 2018 08:33:26 AM IST
Updated: Jun 17, 2018 09:21:11 AM IST

Ten interesting things we read this week

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 ‘Dangers of night shift’, ‘Biomimicry as a sustainable solution’, and ‘India’s vaping fad’.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended June 15, 2018.

1) Night shift: the dangers of working around the clock [Source: Financial Times]
Across Europe, almost one in five workers are employed on night shifts. In 2004 (the most recent data available), approximately 8% of Americans worked nights or evenings, as do a slightly higher proportion of South Koreans. In the UK, night working is significantly higher among black people — one in six black workers undertake night shifts, according to research by the Trades Union Congress, compared with one in nine across the whole population. But working through the night is a fundamental challenge to the human body. It unsettles our finely tuned biology, forcing us to be active when powerful impulses are telling us to lie down and dream. A growing body of research links a lack of sleep to increased morbidity — an average of less than six hours sleep per night in the long term puts you at a 13% higher mortality risk than someone getting seven to nine hours.

Sleep is not just the mind turning on and off. During the day, your brain shuffles information off to one side to be processed later; during sleep, it sorts and stores it. The brain also does emotional processing and releases growth hormones for repair work on your tissues. So without enough sleep, your brain has little chance to make memories, organize your feelings or heal the body.

Some types of night work are relatively new products of our post-industrial economy, such as jobs fulfilling orders at Amazon warehouses or working on the checkout at a 24-hour supermarket. Other professions, like medicine have long entailed a degree of shift working. Russell Foster, a neuroscience professor has spent decades working to understand the biological clocks that determine our sleep patterns. Now he is calling on employers to protect night workers. The human body clock has been calibrated over millennia to respond to changes in the natural environment — something that is forced wildly out of sync for people who regularly work night shifts. Foster accepts that you cannot put the 24-hour genie back in its bottle but he is trying to alert the world to what he sees as a growing health crisis. In particular, he wants employers to do more to protect their workforces from future health impacts. Different people are more energetic at different times during the day: you might be an early bird or a night owl — an inclination that can be assessed by a process called chronotyping, using a simple questionnaire. Even small things can help. If employers gave night workers access to decent meals rather than vending machines, workers could avoid the metabolism-disrupted slide towards obesity.

With studies suggesting night workers are more likely to develop cancer, Foster thinks employers should provide more regular health checks. He also suggests employers increase light levels in workplaces to help employees stay alert. He worries about night workers nodding off on the way home. Sleepiness is associated with accidents — sometimes fatally. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents estimates that driver tiredness contributes to up to a quarter of fatal and serious road accidents, while a study in Canada found that rotating and night shifts were correlated with higher rates of injury for workers. If companies don’t change their ways, Foster warns, they could meet a slew of litigation in future.

2) Want sustainable solutions? Copy nature says this Bengaluru couple, who is showing even ISRO how to do it [Source: Indiatimes]
Since 2014, Prashant Dhawan, a former architect, entrepreneur and corporate man, and his wife Seema Anand, have been hopping around the country to bring biology to engineering firms, banking companies, tech summits, research institutes, design colleges and even Montessori schools. They were also called by Rolls Royce and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to talk about Biomimicry – an emerging field that wants you to emulate nature to make sustainable materials and systems for the human world. Biomimicry isn’t new. To fix their first flight, Wright brothers spent hours watching Turkey vultures soar. Japan’s bullet train is modelled on owls, Adélie penguins, and kingfishers. The idea for velcro came from burrs that get stuck to dog’s hair. And there are many such innovations inspired by Biomimicry.

According to Dhawan, “earlier, only somebody who was either deeply intuitive or loved nature would look at nature for answers. There was a certain amount of arbitrariness in this process to extract information from biology.” The key argument here, as popularised by Janine Benyus, who coined the term Biomimicry in 1997, is sustainability. The only real model that has worked over long periods of time is the natural world, the American biologist once famously said, adding, that after 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned what works and what’s appropriate on the planet. So it would be unwise to turn a blind eye to its innovations at a time and age when we need products that guzzle less energy, waste less materials, and produce less toxins. Sample a leaf and learn to make a better solar cell, for instance. But Anand likes to clarify, “Biomimicry is not the slavish copy of nature. It’s nature-inspired design thinking.”

After hearing Peter Head’s lecture on sustainability in 2010, biology, a subject Dhawan and Anand hated in school, became a way of life. Anand went off to study Biomimicry. Dhawan followed. Now he is full-time into organising lectures, workshops, and games on Biomimicry, while Anand, additionally, freelances as an architect and teaches Biomimicry as an elective at RV College of Architecture in the city to keep the kitchen running. And that’s because pushing Biomimicry in India hasn’t come easy. Anand got her first break to speak as a Biomimicry specialist in China, not India. However, the duo isn’t complaining – earlier they would turn up for free to halls filled sparsely but mostly with their friends and leave with only a rose in return, today, they get invited, get paid a “respectable fee”, and even mementos. Dhawan says, “Since Biomimicry is a truly multidisciplinary science, we often come across resistance due to the current structure of academia which operates in exclusive silos.” But it’s one challenge we must overcome, as Steve Jobs had said, “the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology.”

When quizzed what Biomimicry have they done, Dhawan says, “Inspiring people to think differently, even that is innovation. Just look at our student projects.” Dhawan believes if we follow nature and “its architecture of exchange, and system of resource utilisation”, we can fight poverty. “Have you ever seen an unemployed plant or an unemployed animal? Endemic poverty and unemployment is a human invention! Nearly all resources in nature have multiple uses and/or multiple users. Also there is no waste! While in our world most resources have single use and single/very few users. In coming weeks, the Hyderabad chapter of Biomimicry will be launched. In August, they plan to conduct a workshop in Nepal because their students say if we are learning about nature, let’s do it at the heart of it.

3) India’s vaping fad. Could it go up in smoke?
[Source: The Ken]
Aalok Awasthi, once a computer engineer, used to smoke 20 cigarettes a day. But he switched to vaping three years ago. Today, he has two stores, in Gurugram and in Greater Kailash. Awasthi insists that his business has grown rapidly since he opened in January 2017. His Gurugram store, which he claims was the first vaping store in India, profited by selling only to those who were looking to quit tobacco. He sells three times more devices and e-juices every month now than when he started. But, there are two fundamental questions to answer. 1) What exactly is vaping? 2) How popular is it, really? A vape is a device which allows you to inhale and exhale “the cloud,” as Awasthi like to call it, not smoke. An e-juice is used to create the substance in the device, which comes in different flavours. The vape itself is small, hand-held. It could look like a miniature walkie-talkie or resemble a hookah or a cigar or even a cigarette. The most popular kind is one that looks and feels like a plastic cigarette.

Major brands and companies like ITC, Philip Morris International and Godfrey Phillips have launched their vaping products. According to business intelligence company Euromonitor, the global market for vaping products grew at 818% between 2011 and 2016. There have been regulations slowing its growth, and yet, it is projected to grow at 176% between 2016 and 2021. Even conservative global market studies peg the market to cross $43 billion by 2023. Awasthi may have started the store with the intention to offer smokers a less harmful alternative to tobacco, but that’s not how the Indian government sees vaping. The government wants to crack down on the industry, as not only is vaping addictive, nicotine in large doses can prove fatal. A team’s in place posing a strong challenge to vapers in India. A 31-member committee, which includes government officials, public health professionals and doctors, was put together in July 2014. In a unanimous recommendation it made to the health ministry earlier this year, it declared one thing—vaping is harmful and should be banned.

While Punjab termed vaping devices illegal five years ago, Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar and Mizoram are the states to have blanket banned vaping over the last two years. Unlike nicotine gums and patches that are allowed for people to quit smoking, vaping has seen no clinical trials conducted or results published. Vaping products do not have the necessary approval from the drug regulator for sale, points out Dr. Prakash C. Gupta, Director of Healis–Sekhsaria Institute of Public Health in Mumbai. Dr. Gupta was a part of the committee subgroup focused on the science behind vaping. Pharma major Cipla’s popular product nicotine gum sold under the brand Nicotex contains 2 to 4 mg of nicotine in each piece. A cigarette, incidentally, contains about 10 mg of nicotine, but only about 1 mg of it is absorbed. In comparison, Awasthi says that the nicotine strength in a bottle of e-juice could range anywhere between 0-32 mg. That’s a lot of nicotine.

Further, Dr. Gupta says, “Vaping has fewer toxicants than cigarettes but still quite a lot of toxicants, apart from nicotine”. According to the World Health Organisation, which published a report on vaping in September 2014, nicotine can adversely affect pregnancy, contribute to cardiovascular disease, potentially promote tumours and be involved in neurodegeneration (or the degeneration of the nervous system). The report also stated that the cloud released from vaping is not merely “water vapour” and increases exposure of non-smokers and bystanders to nicotine and a number of toxicants. But, the Association of Vapers – India (AVI), which represents over 4000 members, is not convinced. Vaping still contains less nicotine than a pack of cigarettes, says Samrat, spokesperson of AVI. That is the crux of AVI’s case filed in December 2017 in the J&K High Court. AVI filed a PIL which states, “There are numerous studies, research and analysis that suggest that Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems [or vapes], in comparison to tobacco cigarettes and other tobacco products, are less harmful and contain far lesser toxins and thereby cause a reduced level of harm.”

A valid question at this juncture, one which Samrat, too, hints at is this: Why aren’t cigarettes banned instead? AVI’s members have increased from 10 to over 4,000 in over two years. It is this growth in the market despite the ban in several states that is bringing down the price of vaping devices to half at about Rs2,000 ($30) and e-juice to Rs350 ($5) in the last few years, he adds. It is adding to the customer base as smokers can afford to shift. Once they shift, says Awasthi, they are likely to puff a lot if they get in the habit. This, he explains, is because vapour or cloud, unlike smoke, does not stink and isn’t taxing. Awasthi believes that vaping helped him quit smoking, but does he plan on quitting vaping? “I have been nicotine-free for two years.” He takes a drag. “But now I am addicted to the flavours.”

4) How to get ahead? Buy an office bed [Source: Financial Times]
In this piece, the author, Simon Kuper talks about how waking up tired is one of the quiet horrors of middle age. According to Matthew Walker, a sleep expert at the University of California, Berkeley by middle age, we have fewer deep-sleep brain waves, more body pain and weaker bladders. Old people sleep even worse but they generally have more time to spend trying, which might explain why 45- to 54-year-olds emerged as “the most sleep-deprived age group” in a survey of 5,007 Britons for the UK’s Sleep Council in 2013.

Simon says that good or bad nights can shape careers. He suspects that the key to success — certainly in middle age — isn’t talent, luck, nepotism or even showing up. It’s getting enough sleep. Fewer than 1% of people are natural “short sleepers”, who need less than six hours sleep a night, estimates Ying-Hui Fu, neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco. Yet this tiny cohort seems to enjoy disproportionate professional success, especially in managerial jobs. Emmanuel Macron— famous for his 2am text messages — is today’s most prominent short sleeper. One reason he charms people is that he has time to chat (since he has several extra hours a day) and doesn’t get distracted and irritable. A man who worked with him in his days as President François Hollande’s aide recalls that at 7am after all-night crisis meetings, Macron was the only pleasant person in the room. Marissa Mayer, who was Google’s 20th employee and its first female engineer, and later became chief executive of Yahoo, is another one from same breed.

Lots of people nowadays sleep as little as Mayer and Macron. Charles Czeisler of Harvard Medical School estimates that average American sleep on work nights has declined over the past 50 years from eight-and-a-half hours to seven. More than a third of Britons in the Sleep Council’s survey reported sleeping five to six hours a night. But most of these people aren’t natural short sleepers. They need normal quantities of sleep; they just aren’t getting it. They probably underperform every day, and the long-term health consequences are terrifying.

Simon says he himself is not a short sleeper. But he gets 20 minutes naps in between his work hours. He says that if he had to get through every day in a typical office where napping is for wimps, he doubts he could cope. He recalls his long-gone office days, where middle-aged colleagues wandered around in the post-lunch phase having desultory chats. The modern equivalent would be pointlessly spinning through websites because you’re too tired to produce. Exhaustion is surely one reason why salaries of American male college graduates peak at the age of 49. In old-style factories, your career ended when your back went; in today’s offices, perhaps it is when your sleep goes.

He wishes companies were more serious about on premise sleeping facilities. Napping at work remains a rarity, which is why he says nap cafés are popping up in workaholic South Korea. New York, the city that never sleeps but probably ought to, got its first one, Nap York, in February. A pod in “business class” — stacked, like a bunk bed — costs $10 for 30 minutes. Given that current generation is going to have to work into their seventies, some lucky chain of nap cafés could become the next Starbucks.

5) Chocolate vs. steel: A look at Canada's strategic tariff retaliation strategy [Source: CBC]
In retaliating against US tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, Canada crafted a list of quirky, mismatched targets for its own tariffs that may look more like MacGyver's shopping list than a strategic plan to bring about a change to US policy. From pizza and quiche to strawberry jam, ketchup and mustard, the tariff target list Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland released today seems completely remote from steel and aluminum. "This list was clearly drawn strategically to exert maximum pain politically for the president," said Maryscott Greenwood of the Canadian American Business Council. "The idea is, you look at a map of the congressional districts of the United States, you look at which members of Congress are in leadership positions and then you look at the big industries in those districts and then you draw up your list accordingly," she said. "And this list was clearly drawn up with this in mind." There is a two-week consultation period for Canadians to weigh in on the list, with tariffs taking effect July 1.

While the first list released by the federal government targets steel with 25% tariffs, items on the second list, which will be subject to a 10% tariff starting July 1, were clearly put there to put some U.S. politicians in a bit of a pickle. Take Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. He represents a district in Wisconsin where there is significant cucumber and gherkin industry. That state also has a large dairy industry, which could help explain why yogurt was added to the list. But Wisconsin is also home to a manufacturing plant and distribution centres belonging to the Toro Company, the owner of several lawn mower manufacturers that sell to Canada. This probably explains why "mowers for lawns, parks or sports-grounds" were added to the list. "The general reasoning is to choose items which won't hurt Canadian consumers — they won't have to buy them at inflated prices. And items that are in sensitive political areas," said John Weekes, Canada's former chief negotiator for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

One U.S. legislator who is likely to get a rap on his door from grumpy businesspeople is Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who represents the state of Kentucky, a great producer of bourbon whiskey. Yes, U.S. whiskies are on that list too. According to Gordon Ritchie, a trade expert, in the past, Canada would first pursue a resolution through a legal trade tribunal and then afterwards impose tariffs. The move to impose tariffs first, he said, marks a departure in Canadian practice by acting quickly and targeting specific U.S. electoral regions. Also, chocolate, in blocks, slabs or bars, and toilet paper and paper towels, were added to the list of 10% tariff items, along with candy in general. Pennsylvania is home of the Hershey chocolate company and Scott paper company. Upsetting voters in Pennsylvania is not something U.S. President Donald Trump will want to do. He narrowly won that state in the 2016 election, breaking a Democratic grip on the state that held for the past six presidential elections.

Of course, not all of the items on the list are as easy to explain. Why, for example, did mayonnaise, salad dressing, automatic dishwasher detergents and certain types of plywood make the list? "When you run down the detailed items on the list, I can't second-guess these guys," said Ritchie. "They've done a lot of detailed work and consultation and the next 15 days will check whether they've got it right." Of course, none of the tariffs have to be imposed. There's still almost a month for the U.S. to rethink its strategy here — and Greenwood thinks that might actually be the real play here. "The goal here is not to actually levy the tariffs," she said. "This is like the Cold War and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. You don't actually ever want to fire warheads. You just want the other side to know that you've got them so that everybody stays calm and peaceful, and this is the economic analogy to that.”

6) The perils of taking half a dozen pills before breakfast
[Source: Financial Times]
The trend in public health towards preventive medicine, orchestrated by well-meaning epidemiologists and profit-driven pharmaceutical companies, sees millions taking multiple pills daily (polypharmacy). It is not uncommon to find sixty somethings lining up half a dozen pills with their breakfast cereals — a cocktail meant to lower blood pressure and sugar levels, strengthen bones and protect the heart. It has, in fact, been a prescription for medical catastrophe, according to James Le Fanu. In Too Many Pills, the doctor and writer rails against “ . . . the progressive medicalisation of people’s lives to no good purpose”. Symptoms of this disturbing trend include unnecessary testing and over-treatment of minor ailments.

The main focus of his eloquent bile is polypharmacy, with the “mass prescribing of drugs imposing a serious burden on people’s lives while (if paradoxically) posing a substantial threat to their health and wellbeing.” He claims a hidden epidemic of drug-induced illness. Older patients are particularly likely to have overflowing medical cabinets — but their ageing livers and kidneys also make them the least able to withstand pharmacological onslaught. Complaints range from muscular aches and pains, lethargy and insomnia to impaired memory and generally going downhill. Le Fanu’s evidence is the threefold rise over 15 years in the number of prescriptions issued by family doctors and a rise in emergency hospital admissions for serious side-effects.

Le Fanu decries pharmaceutical companies for redrawing the line between normal and abnormal, in a bid to widen the market for their products, and for overplaying positive results. Drug giants, he adds, have been abetted by GPs chasing performance targets and attendant remuneration. Propping up the rotten edifice of mass prescribing is the misguided thesis that entire populations, rather than individuals, require intervention. He offers the history of statins, which lower cholesterol, as a masterclass in how a drug can be profitably repurposed for the masses. Statins are unquestionably effective for those who have already suffered a heart attack or stroke. This has prompted large-scale trials into whether they can be used pre-emptively. The results led to conflicting interpretations but statins are now recommended for primary prevention. In other words, doctors prescribe them to those who have never had a heart attack or stroke but are deemed “at risk”. The risk threshold, meanwhile, has fallen gradually, consigning millions of people to a lifetime of daily drugtaking.

Le Fanu shares letters from patients who have rediscovered their joie de vivre after stopping medication. While anecdote is not adequate grist to his evidential mill, he makes an important point: we should think more carefully about the relative risks and benefits of the drugs thrust upon us. There is also an unspoken message. Some of us should reject the false promises of near-immortality that modern medicine offers, even if the possible trade-off for a more comfortable life is a slightly shortened one. For, in the end, we must all die of something.

7) Unsuccessful people focus on “The Gap”. Here’s what successful people focus on
There are people who have a negative relationship with goal-setting. And then there are some who believe they should be happy just the way they are. Both of these approaches to goals are ineffective because neither can produce actual joy and happiness. If you’re not growing and changing, you’re not happy. And if you’re growing but constantly measuring where you are against your ideal, you’ll never get there. This will lead you to always feeling dissatisfied with yourself. Mostly people try to simulate their ideal or create a specific goal. But what’s ideal/goal? Ideal can be defined as satisfying one’s conception of what is perfect, most suitable or existing only in the imagination, desirable or perfect but not likely to become a reality. Goal can be defined as the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result or a specific, measurable, and time-bound outcome or experience a person is seeking.

Once you’ve made tangible progress on your goals, it’s important to measure, track, and report your progress. That progress should clearly be measured against where you were when you set your targets, not against some vague imagination. People adapt quickly and if the target for happiness is always moving and in the future, it’s impossible to reach. Hence, those powerful and positive emotions end up being reframed in the memory as negative, which creates a negative association between goals and happiness in people. Thus, people stop setting goals and develop a personality of being comfortable where they are — and never truly happy. Your future should be big, fun, and playful. In Sullivan’s words, “Your future should always be bigger than your past.” The more playful the imagining, and the more immersive, clear, and specific you get about that imagining, the more creative and powerful will be the goals that you set to strive for that ideal.

According to psychological research, the anticipation of an event is almost always more powerful than the event itself. Both positive and negative events are generally more emotionally-charged in your head than the actual experience ends up being. Very quickly, we adapt to our new experience and the event itself is underwhelming compared to how we imagined it to be. Because we adapt so quickly, it’s easy to take for granted where we currently are. Moreover, because our ideals and dreams are like a horizon which is constantly moving — we never reach our ideals. The horizon always moves, no matter where you are. It’s the direction, not the destination. This is what creates feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. We quickly adapt to where we currently are and our ideals are always out of reach. This is living in “The Gap.”

Being happy allows you to work more effectively. It allows you to embrace your experiences more fully. It allows you to be far more open to feedback. Happiness is a powerful way to create high performance. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be happy if you’re living in “The Gap.” Not only will you be happier if you measure yourself against The Gain, you’ll be more confident. Research has shown, confidence is the byproduct of past-performance. So when you take the time to live in “The Gain,” your confidence can increase, which will allow you the ability to set bigger and more imaginative goals. It will also give you the clarity to create better plans, which according to research will give you more hope and expectancy in your future that you’ll achieve those goals.

If you’re achievement-oriented, you probably write down your goals and you probably achieve a great deal of them. However, it’s powerful and important to regularly go back and examine your previous goals. When you measure yourself against “The Gain,” you often realise that you’re currently living your dreams right now. Where you are right now may be far beyond the ideals you had even one or two years ago. Yet, you’ve probably adapted to your current reality and are now striving for newer and bigger ideals. But if you take the time to examine your previous goals, you often realise that your current reality is beyond the wildest dreams of your past. Indeed, your current reality has become your “new normal” even though it may have been completely unimaginable to your previous self.

8) Ignore the hype over big tech: Its products are mostly useless [Source: The Guardian]
Back in 1999, Google hit 1bn searches a year. Wifi began to make an impact about two years later. Thanks to the pioneers of Facebook and Twitter, the age of mass social media dawned between 2004 and 2006 – and non-stop posting, messaging and following was soon enabled by the iPhone, launched in 2007. But, it’s been years since Silicon Valley gave a game-changer. Instead, according to the author of this piece, we’re fed overblown promises like colonizing Mars. The same happened again a fortnight ago, when the Google chief executive, Sundar Pichai, addressed his company’s annual developers’ conference. Among his other tasks, he was there to rhapsodise about developments in artificial intelligence, and the ever-evolving application known as Google Assistant (created, he said, to “help you get things done”), and a new innovation called Duplex.

Duplex might be a grim portal into a future in which high-flyers get digital “assistants” to do their chores, while poorly paid people have to meekly talk to computers, in constant fear that they are about to be automated into joblessness? Pichai also announced the introduction of a new feature of Gmail called Smart Compose: a kind of supercharged predictive text that offers you extended phrases as you type, which then build up into whole sentences. Pichai showed an email exchange in which Smart Compose understood that the matter at hand was “Taco Tuesday”, and suggested “chips, salsa, and guacamole”.

Today, our phones are full of apps that gather digital dust, and the same fate has befallen many supposedly groundbreaking inventions. Though the idea of internet-enabled spectacles has potentially fascinating uses in such fields as autism, education and high-end manufacturing, inventions such as Google Glass were never going to be a mass-market product in the way its inventors thought. The same applies to the concept of the “smart fridge”, which has been kicking around for almost 20 years. To make his point, the author further explains that he has Apple’s Siri “assistant” on his phone, but he barely uses it. And neither do lots of other people: between 2016 and 2017, Siri’s use in the US is thought to have dropped by 15%.

Yet some people fall in love with these things. Among the great mountain of writing at the heart of the current so-called “techlash” is a great book entitled Radical Technologies, by the former tech insider Adam Greenfield. When he writes about people obsessed with the kind of internet-enabled devices that monitor sleep, heart rates and exercise levels, he nails something that applies to a whole array of allegedly cutting-edge innovations. “A not-insignificant percentage of the population has so decisively internalised the values of the market for their labour,” he writes, “that the act of resculpting themselves to better meet its needs feels like authentic expression.” What he says echoes a key passage in Guy Debord’s visionary text The Society of the Spectacle, published 50 years ago: “Just when the mass of commodities slides toward puerility, the puerile itself becomes a special commodity; this is epitomised by the gadget … The only use which remains here is the fundamental use of submission.”

If we do not want to live in a world in which “assistants” trick us into flimsy conversations, and human contact is a chore left to the bottom of the labour market, we do not have to. There is a basic fact about the future the figureheads of big tech too often forget: that what it will look like is actually up to us, not them.

9) Trailblazers bring Indian sexuality out of the shadows [Source: Financial Times]
Indian celebrity chef Ritu Dalmia runs nine restaurants in three countries; she has starred in three television cooking series, written four popular cookbooks and is a favourite food curator for the extravagant weddings of India’s elite. She is also, as it happens, a lesbian. Ms. Dalmia has never hidden her sexual orientation from family, friends, staff or anyone who directly asks. Yet, in a conservative society, she wasn’t eager to broadcast it publicly either. “I want to be known for what I do — for my talent — not for who I sleep with,” she says. But Ms. Dalmia decided to go public two years ago, when she and several other prominent cultural figures petitioned the Supreme Court to throw out the Victorian-era penal code provision that criminalises gay sex in India.

It was the first-time any member of India’s LGBT community had directly petitioned the court to say that the controversial Section 377 had cast a shadow over their own lives. In itself, it was a terrifying act. But the trail blazed by Ms. Dalmia and her co-petitioners is now being followed by others. In April, Keshav Suri, the scion of luxury hotel chain The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, petitioned the Supreme Court, saying 377 violated his fundamental rights, casting a pall of fear over his private life and choice of partners. Last month, 20 gay alumni and students of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology — a network of top engineering colleges that is considered a catapult to success for youth from modest backgrounds — filed a similar petition on behalf of Pravritti, a pan-IIT LGBT group that has more than 350 members.

Section 377 of the Indian penal code prohibits “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, and has long been held to include even intimate acts between consenting adults. Activists have battled since 2001 for its repeal. The fight was initially led by HIV/Aids prevention groups, who said the stigma around homosexual sex hampered their outreach efforts among gay men. In 2009, victory seemed at hand when the Delhi High Court ruled that 377 could not apply to consenting adults in a landmark judgment that gave new confidence to a still largely hidden community. But, in 2013, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling, effectively re-criminalising homosexuality. During those proceedings, Justice GS Singhvi declared he had “never met a gay person”. His verdict asserted that only a “minuscule fraction” of India’s population were LGBT. That is when human rights lawyers decided individuals had to stand up for themselves.

With their petitions due to be heard soon, the LGBT community has reasons for optimism. Last year, a rare nine-judge Supreme Court bench ruled unanimously that India’s constitution establishes a right to privacy into which the state cannot intrude. Though it did not explicitly mention 377, the verdict said, “sexual orientation is an essential attribute of privacy”, which it also described as “the right to be left alone”.

10) Maybe we can afford to suck CO2 out of the sky after all [Source: MIT ]
A detailed new analysis published in the journal Joule finds that direct air capture may be practical after all. The study concludes it would cost between $94 and $232 per ton of captured carbon dioxide, if existing technologies were implemented on a commercial scale. One earlier estimate, published in Proceedings of the National Academies, put that figure at more than $1,000. Crucially, the lowest-cost design, optimized to produce and sell alternative fuels made from the captured carbon dioxide, could already be profitable with existing public policies in certain markets. The higher cost estimates are for plants that would deliver compressed carbon dioxide for permanent underground storage.

Making direct air capture as cheap as possible is critical because a growing body of work finds it’s going to be nearly impossible to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5˚C without rolling out some form of the technology on a huge scale. By some estimates, the world will emit enough greenhouse gases to lock in that level of warming within a few years. At that point, one of the only ways to reverse the effects is to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, where it otherwise persists for thousands of years.

In 2011, a pair of influential papers all but sounded the death knell for direct air capture, concluding that the approach would cost nearly an order of magnitude more than capturing the greenhouse gas from power-plant stacks. The cost differences from the earlier studies arise mainly from different design choices. Those include the use of horizontally rather than vertically stacked structures, lower energy demands due to improved heat integration in the process, and the power sources selected to run the plant. Carbon Engineering, a Calgary-based firm looking into this market plans to combine the carbon captured at its plants with hydrogen to produce carbon-neutral synthetic fuels, a process the pilot facility has already been performing. Such fuels are more expensive than standard gasoline and diesel, so the size and stability of the market for them will depend largely on whether subsidies are in place.

But those carbon-neutral fuels won’t directly help to reduce carbon in the atmosphere (unless they’re used in systems that capture carbon as well). To make real gains in removing greenhouse gases, the world may eventually need to permanently store massive amounts of captured carbon dioxide, rather than releasing it again when synthetic fuels burn. Doing that on a large scale would almost surely require significant cost reductions, a high price on carbon, or other public policy support.

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