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Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Business (Consumers are becoming wise to your nudge), Evolution (Running made us human), Law (What the judiciary has done to itself), Technology (How do we get to the next big battery breakthrough), Genetics (Jack Szostak's pursuit of the biggest questions on Earth), Urbanisation (India's collapsing hill stations — symptom or disease?) and Migration (A southern state sets the template of how migrants should be treated).

Published: Jul 6, 2019 09:48:24 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: Business (Consumers are becoming wise to your nudge), Evolution (Running made us human), Law (What the judiciary has done to itself), Technology (How do we get to the next big battery breakthrough), Genetics (Jack Szostak’s pursuit of the biggest questions on Earth), Urbanisation (India’s collapsing hill stations – symptom or disease?) and Migration (A southern state sets the template of how migrants should be treated).

Here are the ten interesting things we read this week, ended July 5, 2019.

1) Globalisation is dead and we need to invent a new world order [Source: Economist]
This piece (an interview and book excerpt) throws light on Michael O’Sullivan’s, formerly an investment banker and economist at Princeton University, book, “The Levelling: What's Next After Globalisation.” Mr. Sullivan voices worries about a world of low growth and high debt—and calls for a “world treaty on risk” so central banks only resort to measures like quantitative easing under agreed conditions. So, what will come after globalisation? The economist feels that globalisation is already behind us. We should say goodbye to it and set our minds on the emerging multipolar world. This will be dominated by at least three large regions: America, the European Union and a China-centric Asia. They will increasingly take very different approaches to economic policy, liberty, warfare, technology and society.

When asked what killed globalization, Mr. Sullivan says that there are two things. 1) Global economic growth has slowed, and as a result, the growth has become more “financialised”: debt has increased and there has been more “monetary activism”—that is, central banks pumping money into the economy by buying assets, such as bonds and in some cases even equities—to sustain the international expansion. 2) the side effects, or rather the perceived side-effects, of globalisation are more apparent: wealth inequality, the dominance of multinationals and the dispersion of global supply chains, which have all become hot political issues.

Talking about the book’s title, Mr. Sullivan says that the Levellers are the hidden gem from history. They were a mid-17th century group in England, who participated in debates about democracy that took place in a part of London called Putney. Their achievement was crafting “An Agreement of the People,” which were a series of manifestos that marked the first popular conceptions of what a constitutional democracy might look like. He feels the Levellers are interesting for two reasons: 1) in the context of the time, their approach was constructive and practical, and 2) they are interesting for the way the movement was countermanded and then snuffed out by the military leader Oliver Cromwell and the Grandees (the elites of their day).  

2) Consumers are becoming wise to your nudge [Source: behaviorialscientist.org]
Are scarcity and social proof messages so overused in travel websites that the average person does not believe them? Do they undermine brand trust? Marketers are using behavioral interventions to influence their behavior? The author of this piece and his team carried out an experiment where they started by asking participants to consider a hypothetical scenario: using a hotel booking website to find a room to stay in the following week. They then showed a series of nine real-world scarcity and social proof claims made by an unnamed hotel booking website.

The results were surprising. They had expected there to be cynicism among a subgroup—perhaps people who booked hotels regularly, for example. The verbatim commentary from participants showed people see scarcity and social proof claims frequently online, most commonly in the travel, retail, and fashion sectors. They questioned truth of these ads.

The lessons that the author learnt from this study was that feedback loops affect the efficacy of behavioral interventions more than we realize. Just because an intervention was successful five years ago does not mean it will be successful today. Practitioners should pay as much attention to the ecosystem their interventions operate in as their customers do. There’s no better place to start than spending time with them—talking, observing, and empathizing.  

3) Why women hold the key to a new history of India [Source: Livemint]
There’s a new book (The Courtesan, The Mahatma, and The Italian Brahmin) on the shelves of book stores that talk about the history of India from eyes of the women. Who are these fascinating women who enriched Indian history? One courtesan was a figment of someone’s imagination, but has since become a phantom, enduring to this day in the name of a city; another was a dancing girl who died one of India’s wealthiest women, but in her personal choices smashes our notions of who belongs and who is an outsider. A third set up a colonial-era company, establishing a business venture when most Indian women were still illiterate. The lives of most of these women often ended in tragedy, and many were the mistakes they made.

Whether it is a goddess with three breasts, or a woman with none; whether it is the same woman presented one way in an epic and radically differently later—their stories remind us that the past is never a linear narrative, it is not a land of timeless tradition, and that, above everything else, it often only represents history as written and shaped by men. But if we seek to understand these women on their own terms, we might be richer in our ability to grasp history itself better.

The irony, of course, is that not only that historian from a hundred years ago, but many even today, remain reluctant to embrace this aspect of our heritage and tradition. Clubbing a courtesan with a mahatma may not immediately be understood or approved of by some. But that is precisely where the courtesan belongs, for, in the larger scheme of things and the big picture of our civilization, her role is no less significant than that galaxy of saints and monks we have all been taught to venerate.

4) How the brain and body work together to create thinking [Source: undark.com]
Our brain is very important for thinking, but quite a few 21st-century psychologists and cognitive scientists believe that the body, as well as the brain, is needed for thinking to actually happen. The latest version of this proposition comes from Barbara Tversky, a professor emerita of psychology at Stanford University who also teaches at Columbia. Her new book, “Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought,” is an extended argument for the interplay of mind and body in enabling cognition. She draws on many different lines of evidence, including the way we talk about movement and space, the way we use maps, the way we talk about and use numbers, and the way we gesture.

Tversky argues that our ability to imagine the layout of objects in space is at the root of a more general, and more essential, skill. This ability, she believes, is the key to abstract thought. “Spatial thinking enables abstract thinking,” she writes. She devotes a lengthy section to gesture, and for good reason: We do it incessantly. We do it naturally when we talk. But Tversky argues that gesturing is more than just a by-product of speech: it literally helps us think. What seems to be universal is the way we imagine time in a linear fashion.

According to the author of this piece, despite its oddities, “Mind in Motion” is a compelling journey through the world of cognition — a tour that leaves us with a renewed respect for the connections between the body and the mind, and how the two act together when we imagine, describe, and experience the world.

5) Running made us human: How we evolved to run marathons [Source: discovermagazine.com]
Running a marathon isn’t easy. You need lot of practice to run a full marathon. But, do you know that our ancestors used to hunt by running all through the day? Yes. Also, when it comes to long distance locomotion, we’re remarkable. After 15 minutes of sustained running, fit humans can outlast nearly all mammals, especially in hot weather. According to some scientists, distance running was key to our ancestors’ evolutionary success. They say adaptations for endurance allowed early members of the genus Homo to hunt long before the invention of complex weapons. Regular access to meat spurred brain growth, and ultimately, humanity as we know it.

Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard University evolutionary biologist and 9-time Boston Marathon runner, says that roughly 2 million years ago Homo erectus ancestors, armed with sharpened sticks and stones, were able to kill prey by persistence hunting. This strategy, practiced in some recent forager societies, entails pursing a tasty herbivore in midday sun until the animal collapses from exhaustion and heat stroke. Hunters can then finish it off with simple weapons. But, what’s the proof? Ethnographic studies have noted persistence hunts in some recent hunter-gatherer societies, including Kalahari Bushmen, Aboriginal Australians and Native American groups in the American Southwest and Mexico.

The ethnographic studies prove that persistence hunting works, but only in hot, grassland-like environments. But, what suggests that Homo erectus was the first species to embrace this strategy? In a 2004 Nature paper Lieberman and biologist Dennis Bramble, now an emeritus professor at the University of Utah, identified skeletal features in hominin fossils that indicate running abilities. These include a narrow pelvis, short toes, expanded attachment for the gluteus maximus (butt muscle) and large semicircular canals, fluid-filled ear chambers that help us stay balanced while moving. Most of these adaptations for running appeared around 2 million years ago in the species Homo erectus, rather than earlier hominins such as the Australopiths. This suggests H. erectus was the first endurance athlete in our lineage.

6) What the judiciary has done to itself [Source: Caravan Magazine]
Time and again it has been seen that the independence of the judiciary has been under threat. Be it during Indira Gandhi period or the current PM Narendra Modi. Judges have been appointed by the government at the apex court without following due diligence. Even when there are much more experienced and capable options for the position, names are pushed forward. One of them was AK Goel. The president, KR Narayanan, refused to sign Goel’s warrant of appointment, and sent his file back to the ministry. Instead of then returning the file to the collegium, Arun Jaitley defended Goel’s nomination himself, and dismissed the intelligence bureau’s findings as a “slur.” Goel’s file was sent to the president again, this time with the signature of the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, attached. Mr. Narayanan, now that Goel’s file had come before him a second time, reluctantly signed the warrant of appointment.

Also recently, the independence of the judiciary was the main talking point when four most senior judges after the CJI, including Ranjan Gogoi and Jasti Chelameswar, called a press conference. This was another scandalous first in the history of the Supreme Court. The four judges said many undesirable things had been happening at the institution, and that democracy would not survive if it was not protected. They had gone to the CJI with a particular request, which he did not entertain. With no other recourse, the judges came before the media. When asked if the request had to do with the Loya case, Gogoi replied, “Yes.”

Other biases creep in with what are known as “uncle judges”—members of the judiciary who have relatives practising as lawyers in the courts. Often, those relatives receive preferential treatment from the courts, on occasion as a prelude to consideration for judicial appointment. The law commission acknowledged the existence of uncle judges in 2009. Dipak Misra is the nephew of Ranganath Misra, the twenty-first CJI. His rise as a lawyer at the Orissa High Court overlapped with his uncle’s career at the Supreme Court. In elevating him to judgeship in 1996, the collegium—barely three years into its pursuit of “persons of unimpeachable integrity”—overlooked a prior judicial order indicting him of land fraud.

7) How we get to the next big battery breakthrough [Source: qz.com]
Electric vehicles are slowly gaining acceptance all around the world with the push for cleaner and greener world. Maybe we can also have electric planes in the future. Who knows. Electric cars make little noise and provides lightning-fast response to the driver’s decisions. Charging an electric car costs much less than paying for an equivalent amount of gasoline. Electric cars can be built with a fraction of moving parts, which makes them cheaper to maintain. So, why aren’t people buying electric cars? It seems battery is the main problem.

The batteries used in these cars are expensive, making the upfront cost of an electric car much higher than a similar gas-powered model. And unless you drive a lot, the savings on gasoline don’t always offset the higher upfront cost. In short, electric cars still aren’t economical. Similarly, current batteries don’t pack in enough energy by weight or volume to power passenger aircrafts. We still need fundamental breakthroughs in battery technology before that becomes a reality. Despite over two centuries of close study since the first battery was invented in 1799, scientists still don’t fully understand many of the fundamentals of what exactly happens inside these devices. What we do know is that there are, essentially, three problems to solve in order for batteries to truly transform our lives yet again: power, energy, and safety.

But, solving these problems is not easy. So far battery chemists have found that, when they try to improve one trait (say energy density), they have to compromise on some other trait (say safety). That kind of balancing act has meant the progress on each front has been slow and fraught with problems. But with more eyes on the problem—MIT’s Yet-Ming Chiang reckons there are three times as many battery scientists in the US today than just 10 years ago—the chances of success go up.

8) Jack Szostak’s pursuit of the biggest questions on Earth [Source: harvardmagazine.com]
We all wonder how life started on Earth. Various people have come up with different theories, and we can only guess how it all began. Jack Szostak, a scientist, has always been driven to it. He is a Nobel laureate, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Rich Distinguished Investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. His own research focuses on one segment of the pathway to life: the protocell, “a really, really simple primordial cell that could assemble from chemicals that were around early on, on the surface of Earth,” Szostak explains. He hopes to understand how it would grow and divide and start to replicate, and eventually evolve.

According to him, there are three big fundamental scientific questions that are interesting: 1) the origin of life, 2) the origin of the universe, and 3) the origin of the mind or consciousness. His team has been making model protocells since the early 2000s, seeking to figure out how they might have assembled and evolved originally. These primitive structures were “extremely simple” in comparison to the simplest single-celled bacterium on Earth today, he explains. Despite some theories that early life arose near hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean, Szostak is more convinced by research showing that the earliest cells developed on land in ponds or pools, possibly in volcanically active regions.

Some scientists, including Gerald Joyce, suggest that life might have started outside cells, but Szostak argues that the cell membrane was necessary, in part because it would keep beneficial genetic molecules together and prevent the useful metabolites made by genetically coded ribozymes from floating away in surrounding water or being snagged by other passing protocells. Once his team assembles working protocells that contain pieces of RNA, they expect information in some specific RNA sequences to confer some benefit to the protocell that surrounds it. “Any RNA sequence that does anything that helps its own cells to survive or replicate faster will start to take over the population,” Szostak explains. “That’s the beginnings of Darwinian evolution. And then we’re back to being biologists again.”
9) India’s collapsing hill stations [Source: New Indian Express]
Shimla, Ooty, Mussoorie, Kasauli, Ranikhet, and some other cities were once regarded as the best hill stations to retreat to during summer. But, that’s not the case now. The beautiful butterfly has turned into an ugly caterpillar. Says author Ruskin Bond who has spent most of his adult life in Mussoorie, “These places survive on tourism. So tourists cannot be discouraged. I wish a little more attention is given to caring for the surroundings and encouraging sustainable tourism. We need tourism, but we also need to preserve the beauty and sanctity of the mountains.” Mr. Bond may be right but Indian hill stations are collapsing due to reasons well within our control.

There are many reasons: 1) burgeoning traffic due to increasing tourists; 2) rampant misuse of precious natural resources; 3) uncontrolled development as builders are flouting the norms, and many more. Climate change has caused bizarre variations in weather. In winter, snow falls in Umrikhaal, a few km below Lansdowne in Uttarakhand, while in summer temperatures go up to 29 degrees. Darjeeling, which was famous for both tea and lush glory, is now a concrete jungle, stifled by tourist traffic. Twitter and Instagram were flooded recently with images of people sleeping in the open as hotels in Nainital and Mussoorie ran out of rooms.

A recent report notes that Manali produces about 10 tonnes of garbage daily; the quantity shoots up to 50 tonnes during peak season. The Kullu Municipal Council, Bhuntar Nagar Panchayat and the Manali Municipal Council dump tourist-generated trash near the Beas. Despite directions from the Himachal Pradesh High Court and the National Green Tribunal, no alternative spot has been allotted to dump the waste. The hill stations where once the British high command would spent most of their vacations relaxing are now becoming a place for tourist garbage and pollution. If we don’t take steps to preserves these hill stations then soon there will be a day when hill stations would be rare.

10)    How to make friends in Malayalam [Source: Indian Express]
Many immigrants have cropped up in Kerala lately; mostly from North India. These immigrants’ kids are also going to schools there and learning to Speak Malayalam. “When I heard the language for the first time, it felt like someone was shaking a glass full of stones,” says Vikas Kumar, with a chuckle. Vikas is a Class X student at the Binanipuram Government High School in Edayar, an industrial neighbourhood on the outer fringes of Kochi — one of the many migrant children who make up 45% of the school’s strength. Kerala’s education system has welcomed the children of these migrants.

Kerala is home to an estimated 3.4-million strong inter-state labour force that powers its major sectors, from construction to cashew, fishing to footwear and garment to hospitality. When native youth left the state in droves looking for better job opportunities in the Gulf in the 1990s, lakhs of workers flowed in, largely from the country’s east and northeast. Kerala offered the best wages in the unorganised sector in addition to a largely peaceful social environment and superior health and educational facilities. To help these students, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) has appointed resource teachers who can speak the mother tongue of the migrant children in schools where they are present in significant numbers.

But, are they welcomed? Sudhi TS, the school’s mathematics teacher, says while he was happy at the number of migrant students going up, he found it discomfiting that parents of Malayali children were not enthusiastic about sending their wards to what are dismissively called “bhai schools” (migrant workers are referred to as bhai by the locals). Lissamma Isaac, just a couple of weeks into her new role as the headmistress of the Binanipuram School, said she couldn’t feel any difference between the two sections of students. “There is a lot of assimilation. They teach each other Hindi and Malayalam,” she said. As the headmistress, she says, she has to reach out to more migrant parents to persuade them to send their children to school. One thing is certain: the future of migrant children in Kerala looks bright. 

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