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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are Trashonomics (Living off Zuckerberg's waste bin), Psychology (Why the brain hates slowpokes), Society (Caste aesthetics), Science (Promise and perils of synthetic biology), Entertainment (Inside the making of 'Three Identical Strangers'), Politics (Millennials don't have a taste for politics), and Economics (Should the world brace for China's Minsky Moment?).

Published: Apr 13, 2019 07:00:55 AM IST
Updated: Apr 13, 2019 02:03:25 PM 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 Trashonomics (Living off Zuckerberg’s waste bin), Psychology (Why the brain hates slowpokes), Society (Caste aesthetics), Science (Promise and perils of synthetic biology), Entertainment (Inside the making of 'Three Identical Strangers'), Politics (Millennials don’t have a taste for politics), and Economics (Should the world brace for China’s Minsky Moment?).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended April 12, 2019.

1) Why your brain hates slowpokes [Source: Nautilus]
In this fast-paced world, we are always in a hurry. Slow drivers, slow Internet, slow grocery lines—they all drive us crazy. Earlier, when watching a video on YouTube, most of the time would go watching the video buffer. But, now even if the video stops for buffering for even a second, we get impatient. Things that our great-great-grandparents would have found miraculously efficient now drive us around the bend. Patience is a virtue that’s been vanquished in the Twitter age. “Why are we impatient? It’s a heritage from our evolution,” says Marc Wittmann, a psychologist at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany. Impatience made sure we didn’t die from spending too long on a single unrewarding activity. It gave us the impulse to act.

Society continues to pick up speed like a racer on Bonneville Speedway. In his book, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, Hartmut Rosa informs us that the speed of human movement from pre-modern times to now has increased by a factor of 100. The speed of communications has skyrocketed by a factor of 10 million in the 20th century, and data transmission has soared by a factor of around 10 billion. The pace of our lives is linked to culture. Researchers have shown society’s accelerating pace is shredding our patience. In tests, psychologists and economists have asked subjects if they would prefer a little bit of something now or a lot of it later; say, $10 today versus $100 in a year, or two pieces of food now versus six pieces in 10 seconds. Subjects—both human and other animals—often go for the now, even when it’s not optimal.

The rush of society may affect our sense of timing and emotions in another way. Neuroscientists like Moore have shown that time seems to pass faster when we have a direct connection to a subsequent event, when we feel we’ve caused a particular outcome. They call the experience “temporal binding.” Conversely, says Moore, “When we have, or feel we have, no control over events, the opposite happens: The internal clock speeds up, meaning we experience intervals as longer.” Can we stave off the slowness rage and revive patience? It’s possible. But we need to find a way to reset our internal timers and unwarp time. We can try willpower to push back our feelings, but that only goes so far. Also, research has shown meditation and mindfulness—a practice of focusing on the present—helps with impatience, although it’s not entirely clear why.   

2) Goodbye postwar miracle years: Politicians shouldn’t fight “slow” global growth, they should explain why it’s not so bad [Source: Times of India]
The US government revised its 2018 growth estimate down below 3% as economists were revising their 2019 forecasts down towards 2%, triggering another wave of disappointed commentary about doggedly “slow” growth in the United States. But it’s not just an American story, and it’s not just President Trump who won’t deliver on promises of 3%, 4% or even 5% growth. Across the world, economists have had to downgrade growth forecasts in most years since the global financial crisis of 2008. Economists keep basing forecasts on trends established during the postwar miracle years, when growth was boosted by expanding populations, rising productivity and exploding debt. But population and productivity growth had stagnated by 2008, and the financial crisis put an end to the debt binge. The miracle is over.

Even during the Industrial Revolution, in the 19th century, the world economy rarely grew faster than 2.5% a year, until the post-World War II baby boom began to rapidly expand the labour force. After 1950, the combination of more workers and more output per worker lifted the pace of global growth to 4%. Roughly, economists should have expected that United States economic growth would slow to 2% from 3% – and it has. Stimulus measures like the Trump tax cuts can lift growth above this path, but temporarily and at the risk of higher deficits and debt. Political leaders should not be trying to reverse the new age of slow growth, they should be trying to explain to the public why it’s not so bad.

Slower growth in the working age population also means less competition for jobs, which helps explain why unemployment is now at record lows not only in the United States but also in Germany and Japan. Not a bad thing. Economists on the right and left are now calling for lower interest rates, or higher government spending, to boost growth even if that risks reigniting inflation. At the Federal Reserve, there is an emerging view that letting inflation rise above 2%, long considered a red line, may not be unwise. Instead of trying to bring back the miracle years, economists need to adjust their forecasts and politicians need to rethink their policies to the new era of slower growth. Because trying to recreate a bygone golden age is a shaky way to build the future.

3) Caste aesthetics [Source: Mumbai Mirror]
Ours is a caste-based society. Caste hierarchies create dominance and inequalities. In the second half of the colonial period, the hierarchies that solely existed on the fundamentals on caste for centuries, began to break down. The flourishing democracy changed everything. After the 1990s, globalization and the rise of the marginalized sped up the process of collapse. The dominant communities would not part with the power that came along with caste for centuries. Whenever possible, they sought to assert their caste dominance and hierarchy. The marginalized continued to identify their rights by way of democracy and sought to establish their role in the bureaucracy. The clash between the two entities constitutes the politics till date.

It is the duty of democratic politics to break the philosophy of caste power and work towards social equality. But in recent history the political forces that were at least slowly accelerating this process have been pushed back and they have lost their power. We have been experiencing the domination of forces that have successfully been able to give shape to such hegemonic philosophies. The castes started to believe that it would be possible to retrieve the power that they lost to democracy. Hence, caste organisations converted into political parties. Now, the caste organisations are forming their political parties to perpetuate their power structures.

People organized by caste identify their leaders. The leaders express the aspects that add pride to their caste. They oppose any challenge to their caste. This is the truth of the day. When caste takes an upper hand, freedom of expression and democracy take a backseat. Caste has no space for dialogue. It has trained people to not question those in power. The truth that caste pronounces loudly is that neither of freedom of expression nor democracy has space in our scheme of things.

4) In San Francisco, making a living from your billionaire neighbor’s trash [Source: New York Times]
Jake Orta is a trash collector who lives in a small, single-window studio apartment filled with trash; just 3 blocks away from Mark Zuckerberg’s $10 million Tudor home in San Francisco. From Mr. Zuckerberg’s bin, Mr. Orta dug out a vacuum cleaner, a hair dryer, a coffee machine, all in working condition, and a pile of clothes that he carried home in a Whole Foods paper bag. For years, San Francisco has been a global beacon of recycling, attracting a stream of government ministers, journalists and students from across the globe to study the sorting facilities of Recology, the company contracted to collect San Francisco’s garbage. But the city is also full of young, affluent people preoccupied with demanding jobs and long commutes for whom the garbage can is a tempting way to get rid of that extra pair of jeans or old electronics cluttering their closet.

Trash pickers fall into several broad categories. For decades, elderly women and men have collected cardboard, paper, cans or bottles, lugging impossibly large bags around the city and bringing them to recycling centers for cash. Trash pickers like Mr. Orta are in yet another category, targeting items in the black landfill garbage bins whose contents would otherwise go to what’s known as the pit — a hole in the ground on the outskirts of the city that resembles a giant swimming pool, where non-recyclable trash is crushed and compacted by a huge bulldozer and then carried by a fleet of trucks to a dump an hour and a half away. The city exports about 50 large truckloads a day.

Mr. Orta sells what he retrieves at impromptu markets on Mission Street or at a more formal market on Saturdays on Julian Avenue. Children’s toys sell very rarely because parents don’t like the idea that they have come from the trash. Women’s clothing is iffy. But men don’t seem to care as much where the clothing came from, and jeans are easy to hawk for $5 or $10 a pair. Mr. Orta’s favourite item retrieved from the trash is one that he will not sell: a collection of newspapers from around the world documenting the course of World War II. He wonders why anyone would have thrown that away.

5) A two-wheeler reflects the stops and starts of Indian capitalism [Source: Economist]
When Jawa, a Czechoslovakia-based motorcycle company, planned to return to India with 2 bikes (Jawa Forty Two and Jawa Standard), it was a pure nostalgia moment. Millions of Indian motorheads wanted to catch a glimpse of the original Czechoslovak design reimagined for the 21st century. An undisclosed (but modest) number of online orders were later filled in an instant. In the 1950s then-high-tech motorcycles were imported from Czechoslovakia. A decade later steep tariffs forced production to move to India, and then, in 1971, further restrictions on foreign products prompted it to be renamed Yezdi. The 1980s ushered in efficient Japanese-led joint ventures, boosted from 1991 by liberalisation.

These, together with Royal Enfield, a colonial-era brand with a cult following which has been in Indian hands since the 1950s, outcompeted Jawa, which was also under pressure at home in Europe from a botched nationalisation (and the fission of Czechoslovakia in 1993). The last Yezdi left the firm’s factory in Mysore in 1996. Jawa’s swift resurrection reflects how Indian business has changed since the Licence Raj. In 2015, Anupam Thareja, a former director of Royal Enfield, forged a joint venture with Anand Mahindra, who heads a family-controlled conglomerate. Fancier models—with bigger engines and a price tag of 200,000 rupees ($2,900) or so—account for most of the profits in India’s two-wheeler market, which is approaching 20mn units a year. A recent slide in the fortunes of Royal Enfield’s parent, Eicher Motors, left an opening.

Jawa’s long-term prospects depend on harnessing nostalgia while eradicating performance flaws. Fiat 500 and MiniCooper prove that rebooting iconic vehicles is possible; Volkswagen’s unloved new Beetle shows how it can misfire. Overwhelming demand suggests Jawa ticks the sentimental box. Mr. Thareja promises that the new model goes faster and burns greener than the original. Mahindra’s nationwide network should help with parts and servicing. Yet the reboot also shows that India’s ride to a free-market paradise is incomplete. After enterprising types created an independent auction site for the coveted online purchase rights, Jawa made them non-transferable. Jawa lovers must instead deposit 5,000 rupees with one of 100 dealers—and hope for a call.

6) The promise and perils of synthetic biology [Source: The Economist]
There have been various revelations in synthetic biology recently. Now genes can be written from scratch and edited repeatedly, like text in a word processor. It permits the manufacture of all manner of things which used to be hard, even impossible, to make: pharmaceuticals, fuels, fabrics, foods and fragrances can all be built molecule by molecule. What cells do and what they can become is engineerable, too. Progress may be slow, but with the help of new tools and a big dollop of machine learning, biological manufacturing could eventually yield truly cornucopian technologies.

Use of synthetic biology can be seen in our daily lives. Burger King recently introduced into some of its restaurants a beefless Whopper that gets its meatiness from an engineered plant protein; such innovations could greatly ease a shift to less environmentally taxing diets. They could also be used to do more with less. The earliest biological transformation—domestication—produced what was hitherto the biggest change in how humans lived their lives. Haphazardly, then purposefully, humans bred cereals to be more bountiful, livestock to be more docile, dogs more obedient and cats more companionable (the last a partial success, at best). This allowed new densities of settlement and new forms of social organisation: the market, the city, the state. Humans domesticated themselves as well as their crops and animals, creating space for the drudgery of subsistence agriculture and oppressive political hierarchies.

Synthetic biology will have a similar cascading effect, transforming humans’ relationships with each other and, potentially, their own biological nature. The ability to reprogram the embryo is, rightly, the site of most of today’s ethical concerns. In future, they may extend further; what should one make of people with the upper-body strength of gorillas, or minds impervious to sorrow? How humans may choose to change themselves biologically is hard to say; that some choices will be controversial is not. Synthetic biology will challenge the human capacity for wisdom and foresight. It might defeat it. But carefully nurtured, it might also help expand it.

7) Inside the making of 'Three Identical Strangers' [Source: CNN Entertainment]
In this interview, Tim Wardle, director of “Three Identical Strangers” documentary talk about how they made this happen. Mr. Wardle and his team had spent four years working on their stranger-than-fiction documentary, about triplets separated at birth and reunited 19 years later, and they were finally ready to start shooting. The film released in select US theaters last summer to critical acclaim and picked up plenty of buzz as it became one of the top grossing documentaries of 2018. The producer of this film Grace Hughes-Hallett says, "That's a crazy enough story to have about yourself as it is, that you were separated at birth from a twin or a triplet. The boys' story had a whole other level of craziness on top of that, in the way that they found each other. And then the awful things that began to unravel as they discovered what really happened to them."

It took two years for the director and producer to flesh out the story and try to get funding for this project. But the most important part was earning the trust of the three brothers. Mr. Wardle said, “When you think about the extent of what they've been through and what's happened in their lives, you understand why they might find it hard to trust people." Robert Shafran, one of the three brothers said that they were reluctant for this project due to various reasons. The most obvious being the typical American's perspective on British sensationalistic newspapers. They could sensationalize the crap out of this. The brothers, born in New York in 1961, were separated by adoption agency Louise Wise Services. Their adoptive families had no clue that each son they brought home had been born as a triplet.

The brothers, along with other multiples who were separated and sent home with different families, were then secretly included in a years-long study by child psychiatrist Dr. Peter Neubauer. The results of Neubauer's study were never published, and the study's materials are being kept under seal at Yale University. In the end, "Three Identical Strangers" covers a lot of themes: medical ethics, mental health and the question of nature vs. nurture among them. But for some, it really boils down to family. Lastly, Mr. Wardle says, "I think it's the toughest thing I've done. The thing I'm proudest of is that 'Three Identical Strangers' has had a real-world impact. We managed to get the brothers access to files and videos that have been kept secret from them for six decades. We know of at least one twin pair who have reunited after seeing the film. (And) it has brought the triplets and their families much closer together."

8) Millennials don’t have a taste for politics [Source: Livemint]
In the coming elections, youths have the power to make or break the Government. A recent report in The Indian Express observed that 81 million young Indians will vote for the first time in the 2019 general elections, and could decisively influence electoral outcomes in 282 parliamentary constituencies. The report also said there will be an estimated average of 14.9 million first-time eligible voters in each Lok Sabha constituency and this figure is larger than the winning margin in 297 seats in 2014. Reports like these tacitly suggest that the first-time voters, unlike the older ones, are impressionable and lacking in evolved political attitudes.

Speculations about the political inclinations of the millennials will need to confront the stark, sobering fact of high political indifference among the Indian youth. According to a 2016 report Anxieties and aspirations of India’s youth: Changing patterns by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)-Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), which surveyed over 6,000 respondents aged between 15 and 34 years in 19 states, 46% of Indian youth have “no interest at all" in politics and 18% only have “little interest". The influence of gender on youth attitudes is strong and clear. Fewer women, for instance, are interested in politics than men. In a graphic illustration of the power of patriarchy, large numbers of male and female youth concur that wives should remain obedient to their husbands and not work outside the house. Also, class and caste inequalities have major consequences for the social experience of youth.

The millennials among religious and ethnic minorities and lower castes experience higher job insecurity and workplace discrimination. Regional cultures offer a space of belonging in the lives of youth. While many millennials strongly identify as Indians, regional identities also have a strong appeal to them. It appears that the millennials share more with the older generations inside their states than with their peers elsewhere in India. The urban and rural locations of the millennials, therefore, translate into a marked difference in their political values. Also, the role of digital and social media plays an important role in shaping the views of the youth as they are literally always online. The millennials in contemporary India inhabit very differing cultural predicaments. Any claims about them being a distinct political community therefore ought to seem shaky.

9) Music streaming has a far worse carbon footprint than the heyday of records and CDs [Source: Quartz]
The trend of Listening to music through vinyl records has almost vanished. Digital streaming of music has taken over now. Rarely will you find people listening to vinyl records now. The price of a phonograph cylinder in its peak year of production in 1907 would be an estimated $13.88 (£10.58) in today’s money, compared to $10.89 for a shellac disc in its peak year of 1947. A vinyl album in its peak year of 1977, when The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks came out, cost $28.55 in today’s money, against $16.66 for a cassette tape in 1988, $21.59 for a CD in 2000, and $11.11 for a digital album download in 2013.

Yet if consumers are paying an ever lower price for their music, the picture looks very different when you start to look at environmental costs. Intuitively you might think that less physical product means far lower carbon emissions. In 1977, for instance, the industry used 58 million kilograms of plastic in the US. By 1988, the peak year for cassettes, this had dipped slightly to 56m kg. When CDs peaked in 2000, it was up to 61m kg of plastic. Then came the big digital dividend: as downloading and streaming took over, the amount of plastics used by the US recording industry dropped dramatically, down to just 8m kg by 2016. But if these figures seem to confirm the notion that music digitalized is music dematerialized—and therefore more environmentally friendly—there’s still the question of the energy used to power online music listening.

Storing and processing music in the cloud depends on vast data centers that use a tremendous amount of resources and energy. It is possible to demonstrate this by translating plastic production and the electricity used to store and transmit digital audio files into greenhouse gas equivalents (GHGs). This shows that GHGs from recorded music were 140m kg in 1977 in the US, 136m kg in 1988, and 157m kg in 2000. By 2016 it is estimated to have been between 200m kg and over 350m kg—and remember that this is only in the US. Are streaming platforms the right business model to facilitate that exchange? Is streaming music remotely from the cloud the most appropriate way to listen to music from the perspective of environmental sustainability? There are no easy solutions, but taking a moment to reflect on the costs of music—and how they have changed over history—is a step in the right direction. 

10) China’s housing glut casts pall over the economy [Source: asia.nikkei.com]
Housing prices all around the world are soaring, and it’s the same with China. Even in a so-called second-tier city like Jinan, a 100-square-meter apartment would cost about 2 million yuan ($297,000). China's once-sizzling property market is showing signs of a slump, adding to a growing list of warning signs about the Chinese economy. A massive building boom across China, including in tier-two cities like Jinan, has left as many as 65 million empty apartments across the country, according to estimates by Gan Li, a professor at Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu. Sales volumes in 24 cities tracked by China Real Estate Index System fell by 44% in the first week of 2019 compared with a year earlier, though the four largest cities -- Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Beijing -- still saw a 12% increase.

The property slump has also triggered several episodes of social unrest, which Beijing seeks to avoid at all costs. In October, Shanghai homebuyers came out in droves to protest a developer's decision to cut prices in an apartment complex. The angry residents screamed slogans denouncing the developer and carried placards saying: "Give us our hard-earned blood-and-sweat money back!" Even while the Chinese government has stopped short of officially speaking out on the risks facing the property industry, a top economist from a state-controlled university recently sounded the alarm. Xiang Songzuo, a professor at the prestigious Renmin University in Beijing, warned in a speech in Shanghai on Jan. 20 that real estate is one of a few serious "gray rhinos" -- a potential risk that is obvious, but ignored -- facing the economy this year. According to his estimates, about 80% of Chinese people's wealth is in the form of real estate, totaling over $65 trillion in value -- almost twice the size of all G-7 economies combined.

A significant slowdown could, therefore, have a substantial impact on citizens' financial health. To him, Chinese people have "played around with leverage, debts, and finance, and eventually created a mirage in a desert that will soon entirely collapse." In response to the property slowdown, some local governments have been quietly removing some restrictions on home purchases, including by scrapping price caps for new units and relaxing the requirements for non-local buyers. In early January, China's central bank also moved to lower the amount of cash that banks must hold as reserves by 100 basis points, freeing up a net of 800 billion yuan, or $117 billion, for new lending. The pause in the upward property cycle has dashed the hopes of making quick profits in the housing market. As a result, "homebuyers' sentiment can only get cooler."  

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