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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Medicine (Dr. Devi Shetty talks about his life and profession), Economics (IMF confirms that 'trickle-down' economics is a joke; Why UBI is a bad idea), Technology (Elon Musk on video games and simulation), Politics (Why Hong Kong's protesters are braving tear gas and rubber bullets), Literature (Amitav Ghosh's Jnanpith address and book 'Gun Island'), Health (Science's newest miracle drug is free) and Water Management (India's water crisis and how traditional methods can work as panacea)

Published: Jun 22, 2019 08:15:34 AM IST
Updated: Jun 21, 2019 07:28:24 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: Medicine (Dr. Devi Shetty talks about his life and profession), Economics (IMF confirms that ‘trickle-down’ economics is a joke; Why UBI is a bad idea), Technology (Elon Musk on video games and simulation), Politics (Why Hong Kong’s protesters are braving tear gas and rubber bullets), Literature (Amitav Ghosh’s Jnanpith address and book ‘Gun Island’), Health (Science’s newest miracle drug is free) and Water Management (India’s water crisis and how traditional methods can work as panacea).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended June 21, 2019.

1) Dr. Devi Shetty - In pursuit of excellence [Source: YouTube, Louis Philippe]
In this longish video interview, Vijay Amritraj, former tennis player, chats with Dr. Devi Shetty, a philanthropist and heart surgeon. From his contribution to making healthcare in India affordable, and sponsoring kids to take up medicine to his early life, this video throws light on how Dr. Shetty manages to do what he is doing tirelessly. When asked about the secret of how he stays fit even when he’s working 15-18 hours a day, the doctor says that he was always interested in fitness and exercise. From bodybuilding to karate, he has done all. He also says that in his profession, at times, he has to stand for 8-10 hours at a stretch. And exercise is what makes it happen.
When asked what is that one thing that one needs to have to succeed in medicine or become a doctor, Dr. Shetty says that passion is the most important thing. Without passion you can’t be a good doctor. He says that India can prove to the world that the wealth of the nation has nothing to do with the quality of healthcare its citizens can enjoy. All that the policymakers have to do is liberate medical education. He further says that we don’t have good doctors because poor kids and their parents can’t afford medical education. The surgeon feels that if given a chance, these kids can become the best doctors the world has ever seen.

Lastly, Dr. Shetty also believes that “It’s not a solution if it’s not affordable.” And his quest has always been to make the surgery and medicines affordable to common people. He also points out to a time (25 years ago) when a heart surgery was costing 1.5 Lakh rupees. But today that same surgery can be done in 80,000 rupees! For him, if poor people can’t afford it, it isn’t a breakthrough.  

2) Jeff Bezos: Big things start small [Source: Farnam Street]
For success, the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos feels that you need to focus on three big ideas; 1) thinking on a different timescale; 2) putting the customer first; and 3) inventing. On the pressures of running a public company and meeting quarterly earnings expectations, he says that if you’re straight forward and clear about the way that you’re going to operate, then you can operate in whatever way you choose. And Warren Buffet has a great saying on this. He says, “You can hold a ballet and that can be successful and you can hold a rock concert and that can be successful. Just don’t hold a ballet and advertise it as a rock concert. You need to be clear with all of your stakeholders, with are you holding a ballet or are you holding a rock concert and then people get to self-select in.”

Inside Amazon’s culture, they understand that even though they have some big businesses, new businesses start out small. He gives an example; the biggest oak starts from an acorn and if you want to do anything new, you’ve got to be willing to let that acorn grow into a little sapling and then finally into a small tree and maybe one day it will be a big business on its own. Also, you need to go step by step. Basically you can’t skip steps, you have to put one foot in front of the other, things take time, there are no shortcuts but you want to do those steps with passion and ferocity.

Lastly, he gives the best advise; Love what you do. Not every day is going to be fun and easy. That’s why they call it work. Mr. Bezos says that he has lot of passions and interests but one of them is at Amazon, the rate of change is so high and he loves that. He loves the fact that he gets to work with these big, smart teams. The people he works with are so smart and they’re self-selected for loving to invent on behalf of customers. On work he says that there are things that he doesn’t enjoy, but if he is really objective about it and look at it, he is so lucky to be working alongside all these passionate people.  

3) The IMF confirms that 'trickle-down' economics is, indeed, a joke [Source: Pacific Standard]
Few people know that the phrase, ‘trickle-down’ economics was actually coined by American humorist Will Rogers, who mocked President Herbert Hoover’s Depression-era recovery efforts, saying that "money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes it would trickle down to the needy." Rogers’ joke became economic dogma, thanks in large part to President Ronald Reagan. At the center of Reagan’s economic doctrine was the idea that economic gains primarily benefitting the wealthy—investors, businesses, entrepreneurs, and the like—will "trickle-down" to poorer members of society, creating new opportunities for the economically disadvantaged to attain a better standard of living.

Now, a devastating new report from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has declared the idea of "trickle-down" economics to be as much a joke as he'd imagined. The IMF report, authored by five economists, presents a scathing rejection of the trickle-down approach, arguing that the monetary philosophy has been used as a justification for growing income inequality over the past several decades. According to the analysis of Pavlina R. Tcherneva, of the Levy Economics Institute, the balance in the distribution is flipped from the majority of the nation to the top 10% during the Reagan and Bush administrations, a rapid acceleration of a gradual trend.

Income inequality was already growing in the U.S., but the advent of Reaganomics kicked the trend into overdrive. But, according to the IMF, countries looking to boost economic growth should concentrate their efforts on the lower segments of society rather than bolstering so-called "job creators" with tax breaks. The study results suggest that raising incomes for the poor and middle class yields measurable improvements to the national economy.

4) Elon Musk: 'The Simulation, The Simulation, The Simulation' [Source: engadget.com]
In this piece, the author throws light on a recent conversation between Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, and Todd Howard, a legendary video game designer. Mr. Musk spent most of the conversation talking about how gaming has influenced his life, his vision for the industry and, of course, "The Simulation. The reason I got interested in technology was video games," Musk said. "I probably wouldn't have started programming if it wasn't for video games. Video games are a very powerful source for getting young kids interested in technology."

Musk, who said the last game he played regularly was Fallout 4, said he has a running joke that "if reality was a video game, the graphics are great, the plot is terrible and the spawn time is really long." He also revealed that Fallout Shelter will be coming to Tesla cars in the near future, along with a game called Beach Buggy Racing 2 that will be playable using the Tesla's steering wheel. He also said there are plans to let people watch video-streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube on their Tesla screen, as long as the vehicles are parked.

When asked about how realistic graphics and technologies like AI in gaming may be blurring the lines between what is and isn't real, he said, "I bet we see these creatures in the games saying 'wow, can you imagine if there was a simulation?" with a slightly evil laugh, the kind you would get from a villain in a superhero film. "It's, like, you're in a simulation, guys." Musk seemed to be implying that we, the humans, are the creatures in this case. He further adds that we could be somebody's video game right now.

5) Why Hong Kong’s protesters are braving tear gas and rubber bullets? [Source: Economist]
In Hong Kong, things are going from bad to worse. On June 9th hundreds of thousands of people—over a million, organisers say—peacefully marched in opposition to a government bill that would allow extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China. Things turned nastier on June 12th, when protesters surrounded the Legislative Council building and forced a delay in the debate on the bill, scoring a temporary victory.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, appointed by a panel of local loyalists of the Communist Party in Beijing, says that there was a loophole and they are trying to plug it. She suggests that previous leaders somehow forgot to draft rules for sending criminal suspects to China. But, there was no omission, says Margaret Ng, a barrister who represented the legal profession in Hong Kong’s legislature from 1995 to 2012, under first British then Chinese rule. When drafting an extradition law before the handover in 1997 officials took a deliberate decision to maintain a firewall between Hong Kong’s justice system and that of the mainland, “to protect the rule of law in Hong Kong and confidence in Hong Kong as an international hub free from China’s much mistrusted system.”

The prospect of losing the legal firewall between Hong Kong and China, in a bill that is being rushed with minimal debate, is what brought out vast crowds, many dressed in white, the colour of mourning. It is a clarifying rebuke for China’s rulers. Exposure to their version of the rule of law feels like an unbearable loss to many in Hong Kong, outweighing the rewards of integration with a faster-growing China. Assuming that the extradition law is rammed through anyway, it will be a win for fear and resignation, not love.

6) Why Universal Basic Income is a bad idea [Source: Project Syndicate]
The gap between the rich and others has expanded immensely in recent years. Reason? Maybe automation and globalization. And many fear that this is just the start. So how do you strike a balance? Many have supported the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI). But, according to the author of this piece, UBI is a flawed idea. In the US (population: 327 million), a UBI of just $1,000 per month would cost around $4 trillion per year, which is close to the entire federal budget in 2018. Without major cost savings, US federal tax revenue would have to be doubled, which would impose massive distortionary costs on the economy. And, no, a permanent UBI could not be financed with government debt or newly printed currency.

Basic economic theory implies that taxes on income are distortionary inasmuch as they discourage work and investment. Moreover, governments should avoid transfers to the same people from whom they collect revenue, but that is precisely what a UBI would do. Besides, a more sensible policy is already on offer: a negative income tax, or what is sometimes called “guaranteed basic income.” Rather than giving everyone $1,000 per month, a guaranteed-income program would offer transfers only to individuals whose monthly income is below $1,000, thereby coming in at a mere fraction of a UBI’s cost.

Guaranteed basic income is just as universal as national health insurance, which does not dispense monthly payments to everyone, but rather benefits anyone who has incurred medical costs. Automation and globalization are indeed restructuring work, eliminating certain types of jobs and increasing inequality. But rather than build a system where a large fraction of the population receives handouts, we should be adopting measures to encourage the creation of “middle-class” jobs with good pay, while strengthening our ailing social safety net. UBI does none of this.

7) Amitav Ghosh’s Jnanpith Address and Gun Island [Source: amitavghosh.com; hindustantimes.com]
Amitav Ghosh was conferred with the prestigious Jnanpith award this year for his contribution towards literature. In his blog, Mr. Ghosh says, “When I started writing, many, many years ago, I could not have imagined that the Jnanpith would ever come my way. In those days Indians who wrote in English were accustomed to thinking of themselves as marginal, both to Indian and to English literature.” He further goes on to thank various writers who have influenced him and talks about literature, language and much more.

He also recently launched his book, Gun Island. The novel follows a Brooklyn-based rare books dealer as he tries to make sense of an ancient legend of the goddess of snakes, Manasa Devi. Set in Kolkata, the Sunderbans, Los Angeles, New York and Venice, the novel engages with Ghosh’s fascination for etymology (which blossomed in the Ibis trilogy) and how words in different languages inform our sensibility and understanding of the world. The novel explores many of Ghosh’s other recurring motifs: Irrawaddy dolphins; the Sunderbans; and climate change. But if there is one theme that takes up residence at the heart of the novel, that becomes its propulsive engine, it is the theme of refugees and illegal migration, of displacement and renewal. It is one of the most urgent and fraught themes of our times.

The detail in his novel is captivating. But, how did he amass that wealth of detail? Mr. Ghosh says, “Over the last couple of years, I spent a lot of time in Italy, visiting refugee camps, and interviewing recent migrants, especially those who have made the crossing from Libya to Sicily, across the Mediterranean. These interviews were revelatory… When we hear about refugee boats on the Mediterranean, we usually assume that the people on those boats are mainly Middle Easterners and Africans. But in fact large numbers of people from the Indian subcontinent, mainly Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, also travel that way.”

8) Science's newest miracle drug is free [Source: Outside Online]
Sitting has become a norm these days, with all sorts of new technologies around us making us lazy. Children love playing video games instead of going outdoors. Adults, when they return home from office (where they…sit), sit on couch watching TV. That’s where everything goes wrong in our body and we start getting high cholesterol, blood pressure and all other diseases. But, doctors have been encouraging their patients to go outside for millennia. Hippocrates called walking “man’s best medicine.” Han dynasty physicians encouraged outdoor “frolicking exercises” to ward off aging. And until the mid-1940s, tuberculosis patients were sent to mountain retreats to take in the “magic airs.”

Though boutique wilderness treatments for trauma and some behavioral disorders have existed for years, the idea that your primary-care physician, psychiatric nurse practitioner, or cardiologist might prescribe a park before a pill is quite new. Most credit the concept to a regional Australian recreation department, Parks Victoria, which began to link the outdoors and human health through initiatives with medical providers in the early 2000s.

Exposure to nonthreatening natural stimuli, scientists have discovered, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress-hormone levels, promotes physical healing, bolsters immune-system function, raises self-esteem, improves mood, curtails the need for painkillers, and reduces inflammation. One leading theory is that these stimuli—the scent of plants, the sight of trees swaying in the breeze, the sounds of birds, streams, and rustling leaves—combine to activate the unconsciously controlled “rest and digest” functions of our bodies, which are regulated by our parasympathetic nervous system. In the meantime, as the movement grows, patients are finding themselves venturing outside for the first time and discovering that it suits them.

9) UBS must resist social media bullying over ‘Chinese pig’ comment [Source: Financial Times]
Paul Donovan, a London-based economist, in a recent note and podcast said, “Chinese consumer prices rose. This was mainly due to sick pigs. Does this matter? It matters if you are a Chinese pig.” The wry comment was picked up, mistranslated and taken to be a racial slur in a flurry of critical social media posts. This was so severe that soon Haitong International Securities in Hong Kong had severed relations with UBS, and the Chinese Securities Association of Hong Kong, which shares a boss with Haitong, was demanding Mr. Donovan be sacked.

The author of this piece feels that cultural sensitivity is important for any multinational. But it is an absurdity to translate an innocent English phrase in a certain way and then take offence at it. Mr. Donovan’s original remark was merely a factual explanation of what has caused inflation, swine flu, followed by a droll aside that inflation more generally was not a problem and therefore that only pigs, because of the risk of flu, need worry. The explanation rather kills the witticism.

Mr. Donovan’s case isn’t the first. In 2006, Morgan Stanley parted company with respected economist Andy Xie, after he made critical comments about Singapore which were leaked to the authorities. UBS cannot go down the same path. Mr. Donovan is highly rated, has had a 26-year career at the bank and has done nothing wrong. His employer must stand by him and resist a misguided bullying campaign stoked by social media and mistranslation.

10) India’s water crisis [Source: The Hindu; Technology Review]
Water crisis in India is much more severe than what you think it is. More than 600 million Indians face “acute water shortages,” according to a report last summer by NITI Aayog, a prominent government think tank. Seventy percent of the nation’s water supply is contaminated, causing an estimated 200,000 deaths a year. Some 21 cities could run out of groundwater as early as next year, including Bangalore and New Delhi, the report found. Forty percent of the population, or more than 500 million people, will have “no access to drinking water” by 2030. So what can we do to save or preserve water and water bodies?

One way to look is the traditional way with ancient practices. Farhad Contractor of Sambhav Trust describes, “In Rajasthan, there is a pre-monsoon ritual called Lasipa. The entire village gathers, cleans, mends and desilt all water bodies. The ritual ends with a community feast. Similarly during the fertility festivals of Gangaur and Akkha Teej, women come together to clean lakes and tanks.” “The Bhawai dance of Rajasthan where a dancer performs with pots on the head, traditionally is related to a story where seven pots of water were carried to appease Sheetla Maata (the Goddess of Chicken/Small pox).” says dancer Suresh Vyas.

Traditional water wisdom is not taught but inherited and amalgamates knowledge on geology and hydrology. The ancient technique to harvest condensed water is amazing. “In different parts of India, this method has existed. Previously, here in the desert even the dew on leaves was harvested. Presently, harvesting the dew on the sand is more common. The harvested water is brought to use by the capillary system,” explains Mr. Contractor who has worked in a number of locations including Rajasthan and parts of Tamil Nadu. The only way the national water emergency can be averted is by immediately choosing between ‘building’ and preserving water bodies. For instance, it is imperative that lakes, ponds and step wells in Delhi and other cities are revived not by modern cementing but by traditional knowledge methods. 

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