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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics this week are Psephology (Lessons from India's first elections), Brexit (Of civil wars and family feuds: Brexit is more divisive than ever), Aviation (First-class travel is in decline), and Society (How India's anganwadi system is getting some things very right despite its many flaws)

Published: Mar 16, 2019 08:42:19 AM IST
Updated: Mar 16, 2019 10:02:11 AM IST

Ten interesting things we read this weekImage: Shutterstock
At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Psephology (Lessons from India’s first elections), Brexit (Of civil wars and family feuds: Brexit is more divisive than ever), Aviation (First-class travel is in decline), Neuroscience (How feeling bad changes the brain), Human Evolution (We just got new clues about the 'Denisovans', ancient humans who live on in our DNA), Tech (Lab-grown meat will soon be available at restaurants), and Society (How India’s anganwadi system is getting some things very right despite its many flaws).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended March 15, 2019.

1) Lessons from India’s first elections [Source: Madras Courier ]
General Elections in India are around the corner and everyone (at least most) would be stepping out to cast their vote. But, have you ever thought how elections started in India? When India became independent, parliamentary democracy with the universal adult franchise was a given, as the constitutional scheme. In March 1950, two months after the constitution came into force, Sukumar Sen, then Chief Secretary of West Bengal, was appointed as the first Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). The Representation of the People Act (RP Act) of May 1950 and the RP Act of July 1951 laid out the procedures for the conduct of elections. Many were skeptical of its success arguing that democracy was not possible in a caste-ridden, patriarchal, pluralistic society.

The challenges before the Election Commission (EC) were manifold: 1) the size of the electorate with more than 17 crore Indians being eligible to vote; 2) of whom 80% couldn’t read or write; 3) inclusion of women in the voters’ list, particularly in north India. The first election was simultaneous for the Parliament and the State Assemblies. Voting had to be conducted in terrains as varied as mountain-top villages which could only be reached through treacherous treks on narrow roads, hamlets in the middle of deserts and island settlements in the middle of the ocean. The EC roped in the Indian Navy to assist the process in the Indian Ocean islands. These challenges didn’t deter Sukumar Sen. Mr. Sen was a distinguished public servant, educated at Presidency College and London University, with a gold medal in Mathematics.

The EC then requisitioned the services of the government machinery. Ballot boxes were procured. The EC drew pictorial symbols for the different political parties to help voters choose their candidate. It also developed a system of marking voters with indelible ink, which is still used in India. Also, the election was not without its share of political drama. Political scientist Richard Park wrote, “the leading Indian parties and party workers are surpassed by those of no other country in electioneering skill, dramatic presentation of issues, political oratory, or mastery of political psychology.” The actual election was spread over 5 months and only 45.7% of the electorate voted. The Congress secured 364 out of 489 Lok Sabha seats and 2,247 of the 3,289 Assembly seats. Mr. Sen’s biggest experiment in democracy in human history was certainly a resounding success.
2) How Big Pharma kills off competition in USA [Source: unherd.com ]
Each and every company wants to gain monopoly in their business. And for pharma companies it’s the patents that give them the edge. Patents give drug makers a period of time with no competition where they can be rewarded for their innovations, encouraging drug companies to invest in costly research and development that might take years to pay off. The big players are taking advantage of this to stay on the top, while start-ups struggle to make it big. From 1900 to 1982, the number of patents increased by around 138%. After 1982, the number of patents extended increased by an astounding 416% by 2014. The longer the drug lacks competition, the longer companies can charge extortionate prices.

The United States spends over $3 trillion annually on health care, and 10% is spent on drugs. The average American spends more than $1,000 a year on prescription medications, 40% more than the next highest country, Canada, and double what Germany spends. The most important reason for the surge in costs is market exclusivity protected by monopoly rights awarded upon Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval and by patents. Also, when patents are about to expire, for example, the pharmaceutical industry seeks endless extensions through ‘reformulation’ of their drugs or minor modifications to the methods of delivery. There is no new innovation, no new discoveries or any greater benefit to patients, yet companies can continue to charge high prices.

For example, the Orphan Drug Act of 1983 regulated the approval of drugs for rare diseases and gave drug companies even greater exclusivity. In theory, this would encourage drug companies to find cures for diseases that might not have a big market. The problem is that Orphan Drugs are not in fact rare. They make up 20% of all global prescription drug sales. Incredibly, 44% of new drugs approved in 2014 had orphan status, and due to pricing they are almost all the most expensive drugs. Now pharmaceutical companies are taking advantage of these incentives to gouge patients, insurers and the government. Drug makers can charge what the market will bear because the magic of competition is missing. The ugly truth about regulation is that while big businesses often complain about regulation, they tend to benefit from it.

3) Of civil wars and family feuds: Brexit is more divisive than ever [Source: NY Times ]
Brexit will have a deeper effect not only on the UK as a country, but also the lives of the Britons. Like the election of President Trump, the 2016 Brexit referendum vote crystallized divisions between cities and towns, young and old, the beneficiaries of globalization and those left behind. “It’s a bit like 16th-century France between the Catholics and the Protestants,” said Brett Kahr, senior clinical research fellow in psychotherapy and mental health at the Center for Child Mental Health, adding: “I think there is a great deal of hatred of one position toward the other, and a lack of willingness to engage.

If it is hard being a pro-Brexit clergyman in London, it is no easier being a remain supporter in Meden Vale, a former mining village in Nottinghamshire, 150 miles north of the capital, where most people voted leave. But not Chris Hawkins. “I can’t honestly think of anyone from Meden Vale among my group of friends or people I know who voted remain, apart from myself,” said Mr. Hawkins, who works with children with educational problems. After arguments about Brexit, Mr. Hawkins sees less of his two best friends, who now tend to socialize or take bike rides without him.

Some experts worry that, rather than open feuding, a chilly silence has descended across parts of a population that is often adept at avoiding confrontations. Those trying to make sense of it all include Candida Yates, professor of culture and communication at Bournemouth University, who is researching Brexit sentiment. More recently, Ms. Yates managed to cajole two groups into the same room. “People talked about it being like a civil war,” she said. Indeed, some mentioned Britain’s Civil War, which took place in the 17th century, or even episodes further back in history.

4) First-class air travel is in decline [Source: The Economist ]
Airlines are falling out of love with first class. Why? Because most of the passengers now prefer business or economy class. The decline of first-class air travel seems at first glance surprising. Facilities onboard have never been so good. On its a380 superjumbos, Emirates first class provides in-flight showers. Moreover, the number of very rich people has risen sharply. Forbes, a magazine, estimates that the stock of billionaires has doubled to more than 2,100 over the past two decades. And the rest of the luxury-travel business is booming. Richard Clarke of Bernstein, a research firm, estimates that the number of luxury hotels in Asia could increase by as much as 168% over the next decade. Despite this, many analysts predict that first class will soon disappear. In America it is already almost extinct. Ten or so years ago almost all the many hundreds of long-haul aircraft based there offered first-class seating; now only about 20 do.

Changing attitudes among the very rich are also sapping demand. Over the past decade the number of billionaires has grown fastest in China, India and the tech hubs of America. But many self-made tycoons want their children to have the “normal” middle-class upbringings they themselves had, says Charlotte Vangsgaard of red Associates, a consultancy. So, why do some passengers still want to fly first rather than business? Privacy is one reason, says Sir Tim Clark, Emirates’ president. Smaller cabins and walled-off seats make it easier for a celebrity to fly unnoticed by fellow passengers who might otherwise tweet unflattering pictures of them drooling in their sleep.

Another is flexibility. First-class passengers want to sleep and eat when they choose, not on a timetable set by cabin crew, as often happens in business class, says Joost Heymeijer, head of Emirates Inflight Catering. But even Emirates’ first- and business-class sales are threatened by private jets. These let executives avoid the wait for a scheduled flight. It is also much quicker to pass through security in a private-jet terminal than an airport. And in America ten times as many airports are open to private jets as are available for the bigger aircraft airlines use. So, if the airlines want to make first class worth passengers’ money, they need to think differently.

5) India: Narendra Modi faces a rural backlash as election looms [Source: Financial Times ]
Narendra Modi was the favourite in the 2014 elections, but in the coming elections even though he is in the pole position, the competition would be tough. Many people who voted for him or his party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in the 2014 elections are talking against him. During his last campaign, Mr. Modi won over both India’s expanding urban middle-class and many rural voters with compelling promises of economic modernisation, faster growth and new jobs for youth. But as he bids for re-election, the BJP is facing a wave of deep discontent among farmers and other rural dwellers who account for around two-thirds of the electorate.

When Mr. Modi took office in May 2014, his top priority was to combat the persistent high food price inflation that had fuelled urban anger towards the previous Congress-led government. Within weeks of taking power, his government had raided traders and warehouses suspecting of hoarding fruit and vegetables. While these measures succeeded in damping food prices, economists and farmer activists say this has come at a huge cost to India’s farmers, who are now getting paid less for their crops than they did a few years ago, even as their production costs, including labour, fertilisers and pesticides, have surged.

“Aspirations of farmers have increased very much and the growth in income is not keeping pace,” says Ramesh Chand, an agricultural expert with Niti Aayog, a government think-tank. “Income of farmers is rising, but it’s not keeping pace with the rate of growth of income of non-farmers.” The erosion of farmers’ income has come amid sharply rising socio-economic expectations, fuelled by Mr. Modi’s own ambitious promise to double farmers’ incomes by 2022. The proliferation of satellite television and low-cost smartphones has also brought images of affluence and consumerism to once isolated rural villages. Though Jagdish Patidar, a farmer in Madhya Pradesh, is not happy with the recent tax reforms, he says he’ll vote for Mr. Modi again one more time because he feels the PM is honest and hardworking.

6) Why data science teams need generalists, not specialist [Source: HBR ]
Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, demonstrates how the division of labor is the chief source of productivity gains using the vivid example of a pin factory assembly line. With specialization oriented around function, each worker becomes highly skilled in a narrow task leading to process efficiencies. Output per worker increases many fold; the factory becomes extremely efficient at producing pins. This division of labor by function is so ingrained in us even today that we are quick to organize our teams accordingly. Data science is no exception. But, we should not be optimizing our data science teams for productivity gains; that is what you do when you know what it is you’re producing. The goal of data science is not to execute. Rather, the goal is to learn and develop profound new business capabilities.

In the pin factory, when learning comes first, we neither expect nor want the workers to improvise on any aspect the product, except to produce it more efficiently. Organizing by function makes sense since task specialization leads to process efficiencies and production consistency (no variations in the end product). But when the product is still evolving and the goal is to learn, specialization hinders our goals in several ways: 1) It increases coordination costs; 2) It exacerbates wait time: 3) It narrows context. In order to encourage learning and iteration, data science roles need to be made more general, with broad responsibilities agnostic to technical function. That is, organize the data scientists such that they are optimized to learn. This means hiring “full stack data scientists”—generalists—that can perform diverse functions: from conception to modeling to implementation to measurement.

With fewer people to keep in the loop, coordination costs plummet. The generalist moves fluidly between functions, extending the data pipeline to add more data, trying new features in the model, deploying new versions to production for causal measurement, and repeating the steps as quickly as new ideas come to her. By contrast, generalist roles provide all the things that drive job satisfaction: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy in that they are not dependent on someone else for success. Mastery in that they know the business capability from end-to-end. And, purpose in that they have a direct connection to the impact on the business they’re making. If we succeed in getting people to be passionate about their work and making a big impact on the company, then the rest falls into place naturally.

7) How feeling bad changes the brain [Source: BBC ]
Our emotions are directly related to how we respond to others’ pain. It is apparent that our mood can influence our behaviour in a myriad of ways, from the food choices we make – when we are in a bad mood we eat less healthily – to our friendships. When our friends are down and gloomy, the feeling can be contagious and can makes us feel more miserable too. Bad moods can even spread on social media, a 2017 study found. In fact, our emotions are so powerful that when we are in a positive mood, it can dampen how much pain we feel when injured. It provides us with an analgesic-like effect. When it comes to negative emotions, the opposite occurs: our feeling towards that pain is exaggerated.

A recent study published in December 2017 has shown that when we feel bad it affects our in-built capacity to respond to others in pain. It literally dampens our empathy. Emilie Qiao-Tasserit at the University of Geneva and her team wanted to understand how our emotions influence the way we respond to others while they are in pain. Individuals were made to feel pain with a temperature-increasing device on their leg. The team also showed participants positive or negative movie clips while in a brain scanner, in addition to making them feel pain, or when watching clips of others in pain. Did participants feel empathy towards those who they knew were made to feel pain, the team wondered. This work is revealing. It shows that emotions can literally change our “brain state”, and that by doing so our own feelings modify how we perceive someone else’s.

So why would negative emotions reduce empathy? It could be that a specific type of empathy, called empathic distress, is at play. This is “the feeling of being overwhelmed” when something bad happens to someone else, which makes you want to protect yourself instead of being overcome by negative feelings. This type of empathy even shows very different brain activation compared to typical empathy. This kind of distress might naturally also reduce compassion. So next time you are in a foul mood, consider the effect it might have on the people you communicate with day-to-day. You may also want to time your reading of chilling dystopian novels or horror movies wisely.

8) We just got new clues about the 'Denisovans', ancient humans who live on in our DNA [Source: sciencealert.com ]
We humans are always on the lookout to better ourselves, and looking back in the history is the best way to do so. Recently, the remains of an ancient population of humans called Denisovans have been found at a cave in Serbia. Denisovans were unknown until 2010, when their genome was first announced. The DNA was obtained from a girl's fingerbone found buried in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia. A few Neanderthal fossils have also been retrieved from the site, along with their genetic traces in the sediments at Denisova Cave, which was first excavated 40 years ago. Besides the fingerbone, a total of three teeth have been genetically identified as Denisovan. The DNA from a tiny fragment of long bone from the daughter of Denisovan and Neanderthal parents provides direct evidence that the two groups met and interbred at least once.

Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans are the only people alive today with substantial amounts of Denisovan DNA in their genome. But while hominin fossils are few and far between at Denisova Cave, the deposits contain thousands of artefacts made from stone. The upper layers also contain artefacts crafted from other materials, including ornaments made of marble, bone, animal teeth, mammoth ivory and ostrich eggshell. There are also animal and plant remains that bear witness to past environmental conditions. Despite the importance of Denisova Cave to studies of human evolution, the history of the site and its inhabitants has persisted as a puzzle, due to the lack of a reliable timescale for the cave deposits and their contents.

The new studies build on the detailed work carried out by Russians over several decades in all three chambers of Denisova Cave. They have painstakingly documented the complex layering of the deposits, along with the excavated cultural, animal and plant remains. The new studies show that hominins have occupied the site almost continuously through relatively warm and cold periods over the past 300,000 years, leaving behind stone tools and other artefacts in the cave deposits. Fossils and DNA traces of Denisovans are found from at least 200,000 to 50,000 years ago, and those of Neanderthals from between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago. Denisovans were evidently a hardy bunch, living through multiple episodes of the cold Siberian climate before finally going extinct.

9) The meat growing in this San Francisco lab will soon be available at restaurants [Source: Fast Company ]
Can you ever imagine having meat where the animal isn’t butchered? That might be the case in near future. In Japan, a farm called Toriyama painstakingly breeds and raises cattle to make Wagyu beef–delicately marbled meat that sells for around $100 a pound. In a lab in San Francisco, food scientists plan to recreate Toriyama’s meat in a bioreactor. If the scientists at Just Inc., the start-up formerly known as Hampton Creek, which launched in 2011 with a focus on plant-based alternatives to animal ingredients in products like mayo, are successfully able to pull this off, then we soon will have food served from the bioreactors.

Just Inc.’s history has been drama-filled, involving fights with the FDA over the definition of “mayo,” a controversial program to buy its own products off store shelves, and board members resigning en masse over concerns about the direction of the company. Still, the company has continued, and now sells mayo, dressing, cookie dough, and a bean-based product that turns into something resembling a scrambled egg in a pan. A little more than two years ago, the start-up also started developing products in the category sometimes called “clean meat” or “cultured meat,” which is made from animal cells without the need to slaughter an animal. “Our theory is that given that human beings have been eating meat for about 2.4 million years, it’s a hard sell to get them to stop eating meat now, especially now that most of humanity is rising up out of poverty,” says Josh Tetrick, the company’s CEO.

“The best way to deal with the meat challenge is just to make better meat without all the issues associated with killing animals today.” Those aren’t just issues of animal ethics; the meat industry is also one of the world’s largest contributors to climate change. But, one challenge is the cost of the liquid medium that feeds the cells. “Most of the time, the media formulations that are available for medical research are expensive, and we would never be able to make a meat product affordable for consumers,” says Vitor Santo, a senior scientist in cellular agriculture at Just. So the company is creating a medium of its own. Once the company tackles the cost issues, the next would be growing cells quickly and focus on flavours.  

10) How India’s anganwadi system is getting some things very right despite its many flaws [Source: The Hindu ]
This intriguing piece by Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta throws light on Government’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme. Perhaps it is the largest mother and child nutrition and care programme of its kind in the world. It primarily covers six services: 1) supplementary nutrition, 2) non-formal early education, 3) health and nutrition education, 4) immunisation, 5) health check-up, and 6) referral services. ICDS was launched on October 2, 1975, with about 5,000 anganwadis. Close to half a century later, with about 1.4 million anganwadis in 7,000 blocks and around 2.8 million frontline personnel, India is still grappling with child malnutrition. One-third of the world’s stunted children live in India. This is the highest number in the world. Stunting in children is associated with underdeveloped brains and long-term harmful consequences for learning capacity, school performance, and later earning ability.

An IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) study of equity and extent of coverage of ICDS from 2006 to 2016 found that the proportion of respondents using ICDS had increased substantially in the period under study. However, the poorest sections of the population were still left out, especially in States with the highest levels of malnutrition. Also, there was an insightful paper published recently by retired civil servant V. Ramani, who led Maharashtra’s pioneering Nutrition Mission. He points out that 50 districts, some larger than entire countries, figure at the bottom of the table in international comparisons of child stunting. According to Ramani, the following aspects also require immediate attention; improved programme design, especially in supplementary and maternal nutrition; sharper focus on the health-ICDS synergy; more local government involvement; and decentralised data to guide frontline workers and improve service delivery.
Tackling malnutrition is not a one-time affair. It requires a lifecycle approach that addresses a gamut of issues. From providing milk and meal to students and mothers, anganwadis are also playing an important role by engaging kids in early learning activities. The idea of the anganwadi drew imaginative power from the work of pioneering Gandhian educators Tarabai Modak and Anutai Wagh, as well as the educational philosophies of Gandhi, Tagore and J. Krishnamurthi. Modak and Wagh drew their child-centred pedagogy from the work of Italian educationist Maria Montessori, and set it in an Indian context. Today, in many ways, local communities are still carrying forward this great project. The anganwadi is at the heart of the community. Many anganwadi workers collect seeds and pebbles to teach games, texture and numeracy.  

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