India: Five Articles on Makar Sankranti

An attempt, for myself, to understand Makar Sankranti better. Reading up about this festival threw up for me additional information about how the it’s one of the few festivals in the Hindu calendar that is based on the solar calendar. In addition, I got to read about sesame (the word ‘tel’, a professor of mine tells me, may well have its etymological roots in ’til”) and about festivals in other parts of the world that celebrate similar themes.

The traditional Maharashtrian greeting around this time is ’tilghul ghya, god bola’ which translates as – although you lose the romance in the translation – “Eat sesame-jaggery, speak well (of each other)”.

One can hope!

  1. As usual, the Wikipedia article to begin with.
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    “Makara Sankranti or Maghi, is a festival day in the Hindu calendar, dedicated to the deity Surya (sun). It is observed each year in January. It marks the first day of the sun’s transit into Makara (Capricorn), marking the end of the month with the winter solstice and the start of longer days.”
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  2. Heard of Maslenitsa? I hadn’t!
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    “”People burn an effigy made of straw, wood, and cloth, representing Mother Winter, to mark the end of Maslenitsa in the village of Leninskoe, Kyrgyzstan, on March 10, 2019”
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  3. “A Hindu holy man, or naga sadhu, prays as he bathes in the waters of the holy Ganges river during the auspicious bathing day of Makar Sankranti of the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, on January 14, 2013. The Maha Kumbh Mela, believed to be the largest religious gathering on earth is held every 12 years on the banks of Sangam, the confluence of the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. The festival is expected to attract over 100 million people.”
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    A lovely photo essay in the Atlantic about the Kumbh Mela. As the article suggests, best seen on a computer, and that too full screen.
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  4. “Does drinking a live fish out of a jeweled goblet sound like your idea of a party? Better book a trip to Belgium, stat. That’s how locals in the town of Geraardsbergen—and nowhere else in the world, as far as we know—get down on the last Sunday in February. To kick things off, participants (dressed as medieval knights, naturally) march to the top of Oudenberg Hill, where they proceed to toss thousands of krakelingen, or ring-shaped bread rolls, down on the town below. Later on, they set a wooden barrel on fire and carry torches back to the city, symbolizing the seasonal return of light. But not before they take turns drinking a live fish from chalices filled with red wine—even though everyone knows white pairs best with seafood.”
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    A fascinating (to me, at any rate) set of links about how some European cultures celebrate the end of winter and the start of summer. Celebrate, it would seem, the ability to light up a fire – a global phenomenon.
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  5. “Sesame seed makes a grand appearance in January in most parts of India, around the time of Makar Sankranti, as the sun moves into the zodiac of Capricorn. Up north and in the west, it assumes the forms of laddoo, chikki, revdi and gajak. In Punjab, they also go by the name of til pinni. Til pitha and tilor laru are prepared in Assam for Bihu celebrated around the same time.”
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    How could I not include a link about food?

Etc: Links for 22nd November, 2019

  1. Timothy Taylor tells us about the time when Hayek spoke about the inadvisability of the Nobel Prize in Economics… while receiving it himself. It is a speech that reads well.
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  2. “With that in mind, the journalist Oliver Morton has made the marvelous suggestion that if at least some abstemiousness is due to shyness and the inability to find partners (while the promiscuous have relatively little trouble in this regard), then the answer might be to establish a government-funded dating service: bring us a used condom and we’ll get you a date.”
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    I cannot remember how and where I chanced upon this article, but I can assure you that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Steven Landsburg on why more people should have sex, and how that might benefit society – but only up to a point. If you are confused and intrigues, I strongly recommend reading this article.
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  3. “Trapped in the eye of this storm, Joumban and Mae Seang press their faces against each other. With her trunk, Mae Seang gently touches Joumban’s mouth, his tusks, his eyes. He responds in kind. They wrap their trunks around each other and rub foreheads. What must they make of all this?”
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    A gratifyingly long read about elephants, including how to purchase one. By the way, what this reminded me the most of was (if I recall correctly) an MRU video about buying slaves in Africa, and the elasticity of supply. Via the consistently excellent The Browser
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  4. “Now, thanks to a new initiative by the Internet Archive, you can click the name of the book and see a two-page preview of the cited work, so long as the citation specifies a page number. You can also borrow a digital copy of the book, so long as no else has checked it out, for two weeks—much the same way you’d borrow a book from your local library. (Some groups of authors and publishers have challenged the archive’s practice of allowing users to borrow unauthorized scanned books. The Internet Archive says it seeks to widen access to books in “balanced and respectful ways.”)”
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    Wikipedia’s supply chain.
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  5. “But the work of D’Agostino and a handful of other pioneering ketone researchers over the past decade has also led scientists at Harvard, Yale, and other top institutions to consider the diet’s potential to treat other diseases. Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist and the author of The Emperor of All Maladies, a Pulitzer Prize–winning history of cancer science, is among those interested in whether the ketogenic diet could have a role in cancer therapy.”
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    On the unexpected benefits of the ketogenic diet.

RoW: Links for 30th October, 2019

  1. Who, exactly, are the Rohingyas? A short explainer from Wikipedia.
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  2. “With repatriation stalled, Bangladesh is now exploring relocation. The country has thus far been patient and welcoming, but its willingness to host such a large refugee population is wearing thin. Dhaka now plans to relocate about 100,000 Rohingya to a remote island at the mouth of the Meghna river in the Bay of Bengal. Known as Bhasan Char, or “Floating Island” in Bengali, the islet is made up of accumulated silt and is hard to reach—aid workers worry that anyone moved there would be vulnerable to floods, cyclones, and traffickers.”
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    A problem that the world would rather not acknowledge.
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  3. “Myanmar, which United Nations officials say should be tried on genocide charges over the orchestrated killings that began on Aug. 25, 2017, is keen to prove it is not a human rights pariah.Bangladesh, struggling with overpopulation and poverty, wants to reassure its citizens that scarce funds are not being diverted to refugees.

    But the charade at Nga Khu Ya, with its corroded buildings devoid of any Rohingya presence, proves the lie in the repatriation commitment. The place is so quiet that a dog snoozes at the main entrance, undisturbed.

    Even the repatriation center’s watchtowers are empty of soldiers. There is no one to watch.”
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    They, the Rohingyas, are to be sent back to Myanmar. Except not.
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  4. “One day in the 1980s, my maternal grandfather was sitting in a park in suburban London. An elderly British man came up to him and wagged a finger in his face. “Why are you here?” the man demanded. “Why are you in my country??”“Because we are the creditors,” responded my grandfather, who was born in India, worked all his life in colonial Kenya, and was now retired in London. “You took all our wealth, our diamonds. Now we have come to collect.” We are here, my grandfather was saying, because you were there.”
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    Suketu Mehta in fine form on this topic.
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  5. “I want you to think of free movement across borders as not just a matter of humanitarianism, not just a matter of good policy, but as an issue of civil rights, in the same tradition as those of Milk, and King, and Stanton, and indeed others yet to come.”
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    A short blog post on a longer essay, which argues about instituting immigration as a civil right.

India: Links for 21st October, 2019

In honour of the delayed departure of the monsoons from India, five articles about what the monsoon is, and what it means for us here in India.

 

  1. “The unique geographical features of the Indian subcontinent, along with associated atmospheric, oceanic, and geophysical factors, influence the behavior of the monsoon. Because of its effect on agriculture, on flora and fauna, and on the climates of nations such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — among other economic, social, and environmental effects — the monsoon is one of the most anticipated, tracked, and studied weather phenomena in the region. It has a significant effect on the overall well-being of residents and has even been dubbed the “real finance minister of India”.
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    Wikipedia is always a good place to start.
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  2. “Simulations of future climate generally suggest an increase in monsoon rainfall on a seasonal mean, area-average basis. This is due to the twin drivers of an increasing land-sea thermal contrast, but more importantly, warming over the Indian Ocean which allows more moisture to be carried to India. Typically increases in total rainfall over India may be in the region of 5-10%, although some climate models suggest more and some less. Climate simulations also show different patterns of rainfall change, so it is difficult to predict how rainfall might change within India. ”
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    The Royal Meteorological Society’s take on what is likely to happen in India in the years to come when it comes to the monsoon, and why.
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  3. “This Wednesday witnessed a rare meteorological coincidence. The southwest, or summer, monsoon, finally withdrew from the country, having overstayed and delayed its retreat by a record time. The same day, the northeast, or winter, monsoon made its onset, on time. The two events rarely happen simultaneously, though the three month-winter monsoon season is supposed to begin almost immediately after the end of the June-September summer monsoon season.”
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    The Indian Express on a relatively rare occurrence in meteorological terms.
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  4. … and the Livemint on the same topic.
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  5. “Along with their ancient perfumery, the villagers of Kannauj have inherited a remarkable skill: They can capture the scent of rain.”
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    I’ve probably linked to this before, but it is always worth a reread: on capturing the essence of petrichor.

Etc: Links for 4th October, 2019

  1. Spiders can fly, and farther than you think.
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    “Spiders have no wings, but they can take to the air nonetheless. They’ll climb to an exposed point, raise their abdomens to the sky, extrude strands of silk, and float away. This behavior is called ballooning. It might carry spiders away from predators and competitors, or toward new lands with abundant resources. But whatever the reason for it, it’s clearly an effective means of travel. Spiders have been found two-and-a-half miles up in the air, and 1,000 miles out to sea.”
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  2. Ted Chiang (and if you don’t know who he is, look him up!) on parrots:
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    “Many scientists were skeptical that a bird could grasp abstract concepts. Humans like to think they’re unique. But eventually Pepperberg convinced them that Alex wasn’t just repeating words, that he understood what he was saying.Out of all my cousins, Alex was the one who came closest to being taken seriously as a communication partner by humans. Alex died suddenly, when he was still relatively young. The evening before he died, Alex said to Pepperberg, “You be good. I love you.”

    If humans are looking for a connection with a nonhuman intelligence, what more can they ask for than that?”
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  3. On rats in Alaska. A great story, lots of information that I didn’t know about rats, and lovely pictures to boot.
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    “Consider the rat—the inquisitive whiskered muzzle, those deft little paws, those assessing eyes. It looks smart, and it is. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be so indestructible. Rats are highly suspicious of new things, or neophobic, which makes them hard to catch because they steer clear of traps. In 2004, New Zealand biologist James Russell and a team of collaborators released a radio-collared male rat named Razza on a small island to test just how hard. They spent the next four months chasing him, writes William Stolzenburg in his 2011 eradication-for-conservation opus, Rat Island. Razza snubbed every treat. The radio signal failed when Razza swam to another island. In the end, Razza succumbed to a trap baited with fresh penguin, in an area where scientists tracked him with rat-sniffing dogs.”
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  4. On the ongoing, escalating, sometimes bewildering war between humans and mosquitoes.
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  5. And to round off our romp through the animal kingdom, bees.
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    “Argentine startup Beeflow says it has more than doubled its tiny workers’ pollen-carrying capacity by feeding them custom compounds. The nutrients enhance the bees’ immune systems to handle colder conditions and also increase their attraction to the particular flower the farmer wants them to pollinate—blueberries, raspberries, or the all-important almonds.”

RoW: Links for 2nd October, 2019

I thoroughly enjoyed reading each of the five links today, both for how informative they were, but also for how thought provoking they were. A rare treat, this selection.

  1. James Fallows, from 1993 (!) on How The World Works.
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  2. Adam Mintner on Asia’s haze problem.
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  3. Tyler Cowen on his recent visit to Karachi.
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  4. Housing and the middle class in China.
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  5. I’m cheating a little, but this qualifies as an essay, right?

Tech: Links for 6th August, 2019

Smart Cities is a phrase that has been bandied about in India for a while now, but nobody who actually lives in any city in India can claim in good conscience to actually live in one.

What exactly is a smart city? What does it entail? What are the minimum qualifications to be thought of as one, what are the costs involved? Are all costs economic – as in, might it be rather lonely to be a part of a smart city? Rather than spend time defining each of these things, today’s links are about a city in South Korea that very few of you have likely heard of: Songdo.

  1. “Built on 600 hectares (1,500 acres) of land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea off Incheon, about 56 kilometres (35 mi) from the South’s capital Seoul, Songdo district is the largest private real estate development in history. By its completion date in 2015, the district was planned to contain 80,000 apartments, 5,000,000 square metres (50,000,000 sq ft) of office space and 900,000 square metres (10,000,000 sq ft) of retail space. The 65-floor Northeast Asia Trade Tower became South Korea’s tallest building. Computers have been built into the houses, streets, and offices as part of a wide area network.”
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    From Wikipedia. Reading this article also informs us that while a lot of us may not have heard of Songdo, we certainly have seen it.
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  2. A link (Business Insider) that has lots of pcitures, and information about Songdo’s urban density, transport, remoteness, trash collection and much more.
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  3. “This was all pretty slick, but where were the levitating buildings and flying cars we had envisioned? The city’s futurism was incremental, as it turned out, coexisting with the familiar and mundane. We had expected a city 25 or even 50 years ahead of the rest of the world; instead, Songdo felt like 2017—still the future, perhaps, but not the promised land of science fiction. There were mostly just subtle, somewhat odd differences from the cities of the present—for example, in Central Park, a small island filled with rabbits, a cordoned-off section with captive deer, and the occasional hidden speaker playing relaxing classical music.”
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    From a while ago… an article from the Atlantic talking about how Songdo was in 2014, and how it might turn out.
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  4. “The streets, footpaths and cycle lanes and racks are strangely empty for such a large city, there’s no presence of culture – no museums, theatres and just one cinema. On weekends, the cycle racks are empty and the area is desolate. One critic said it had a “Chernobyl-like emptiness” to it.
    Now it’s trying to entice US citizens to save the US$40 billion project from failure with the construction of a colossal “American Town”.”
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    People, it would seem, make cities what they are. Doing it the other way around seems to have not worked. Exercise: would you say this is good news for India?
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  5. And another article from CityLab that says more or less the same thing.

Etc: Links for 19th July, 2019

  1. “Almost half of all U.S. rice comes from Arkansas. When a rice farmer who was also a state legislator bought some and tasted it, he decided the label had to be banned. So, during March, Arkansas legislators prohibited the cauliflower rice name from all food labels in the state. Saying that the word rice has to refer to actual rice, the law included a $1000 fine for a “mislabeled” product.”
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    What’s in a name? A rice by any other name, it turns out (forgive the pun), ain’t quite the same thing, legally speaking.
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  2. ““By lowering the barrier to initiate communication, the hidden side effect is that Slack has the quiet capacity to exponentially increase communication overhead. Resulting in much more voluminous, lower quality communication.”In other words, talk is cheap and we’re spending like crazy.”
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    The problem with all these awesome tools that help us communicate better is that they help us communicate better. Folks with GIPE id’s… tried out Hangout Chat on your phone just yet?
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  3. “I kind of have a perfectionist type of mentality. Things kind of irritate me and get more and more irritating over time and it was just really confirmed to me that I couldn’t make it better. So I threw out this problem to the group: “Wouldn’t it be great if customers just gave us a chunk of change at the beginning of the year and we calculated zero for their shipping charges the rest of that year?””
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    The most popular form of the sunk cost fallacy in the world: it’s origins explained. If you’re confused about how this is about the sunk cost fallacy, ask yourself this: how often have you checked the Flipkart app after you became a Prime member?
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  4. “Influencers won’t receive a cut of the sales their posts generate. They will, however, have access to a shared analytics dashboard with robust metrics that the tagged brand can also see. Previously, influencers relied on screenshots and other imperfect methods to communicate engagement numbers with brands, so tying their influence directly to sales was nearly impossible. Having a more streamlined framework and detailed analytics will be incredibly valuable for influencers. “It gives you more leverage when you’re negotiating rates,” says Aimee Song, a fashion influencer.”
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    The evolving economics of Instagram influencers. What do you think will happen next?
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  5. “In his time around Italy, especially in Venice, Ghosh was struck by the fact that the language he heard the most after Italian, is Bengali. He explains, “The people who literally keep Venice going are Bengalis. They are the ones making the pizzas, the hotel beds. They play the accordion even. Bengalis have absolutely become the working class. It is such a striking thing that people don’t seem to notice. The tourists don’t notice. Even the Indians who go there, don’t seem to notice. Venice is like a gigantic stage set. So people only notice the setting. They don’t notice who keeps it going; it is literally the Bengalis.””
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    Just in case you have not read any of Amitav Ghosh’s works, this might get you interested in them. If you are looking for a good place to start, I’d suggest The Hungry Tide.

Etc: Links for 14th June, 2019

  1. “But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”
    Ezekiel J. Emmanuel on how long he wants to live. Worth reading to ponder questions of mortality and what it means to each of us. Also worth reading up on: memento mori.
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  2. “Indeed, the German hyperinflation was not even the worst of the twentieth century; its Hungarian equivalent, dating to 1945-46, was so much more severe that prices in Budapest began to double every 15 hours. (At the peak of this crisis, the Hungarian government was forced to announce the latest inflation rate via radio each morning, so workers could negotiate a new pay scale with their bosses, and issue the largest denomination banknote ever to be legal tender: the 100 quintillion (1020) pengo note. When the debased currency was finally withdrawn, the total value of all the cash then in circulation in the country was reckoned at 1/10th of a cent. [Bomberger & Makinen pp.801-24; Judt p.87])”
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    I wasn’t aware of what the topic of this essay is about – which is not contained in the excerpt above. Somewhat shamefully, I wasn’t even aware of the Hungarian episode quoted above! Read more, sir, read more!
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  3. “Consider the first time a right-handed player tries to dribble with the left hand. It’s awkward, clumsy. Initially, the nerves that fire off signals to complete that task are controlled in the front cortex of the brain. Over time, with countless repetitions, those nerve firings become more insulated. The myelin sheath builds up. Eventually, less effort is required to use that left hand, and the brain processes it as second nature.The same is possible with pressure, according to neurologists. With repetition, stress can be transformed into fortitude.”
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    Put yourself in pressure situations, and repeatedly. That’s the only way, this article says, to handle pressure. Lovely read!
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  4. “The project in Colombia, a partnership with the nonprofit Conservation International, involves protecting mangrove forests, which can store 10 times as much carbon as terrestrial forests. In its first two years, the program is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 17,000 metric tons, roughly equal to the next decade of emissions from the lidar-equipped survey vehicles that update Apple Maps. “This is rare for Apple to say, but we are telling other companies to copy us on this,” Jackson says.”
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    I have only glanced through this article, and haven’t come close to reading all the entires (a true rabbit hole), but there’s lots of small interesting snippets here about creativity. Not so much, based on what I’ve seen of the “how to be creative”, but rather descriptions of folks who are creative.
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  5. “The (c)rapture I felt was likely a case of “poophoria,” explains Anish Sheth, the gastroenterologist and coauthor of toilet-side staple What’s Your Poo Telling You? “Some have compared it to a religious experience, others an orgasm,” he says. The exact science is unknown, but Sheth thinks the sensation may result from “a slightly prolonged buildup, an overdistension of the rectum, and immediate collapse by passing a sizable stool, which fires the vagus nerve and releases endorphins.” Lights-out pooping, Sheth adds, may “help with a proper rate of exit.””
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    Truly etc., this. The Wired magazine on, well, pooping in the dark.

Links for 29th May, 2019

  1. “And so India will continue to grow at her sluggish pace; socialism will continue to thrive; Air India will continue to fly; and Modi will continue to waste a fifth of our yearly budget on PSUs. Modi always knew that the secret to winning elections is socialism. What he has learnt now is the secret to running India. It is to gamble.”
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    I have posted this link not because I agree with the conclusion (I don’t), but because I share the sense of pessimism when it comes to matters pertaining to economic reforms, or the lack of them. India needs me, and the author, to be completely wrong about our pessimism.
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  2. “Zahran Hashim, 33, radical preacher and alleged ringleader, found little acceptance in his hometown Kattankudy, in eastern Batticaloa. Mosques in the predominantly Muslim town rejected him outright. Their members even complained to authorities, before he went absconding in 2017 after a clash with a fellow priest who challenged his interpretation of Islam.But soon, a team of young Muslim men — and one woman — from other, mostly Sinhala-majority, areas eagerly joined him on his Easter mission to carry out a suicide attack on churches and high-end hotels in and around Colombo and Batticaloa. All nine bombers were in their 20s and 30s.”
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    A mostly depressing, but also revealing, portrait of the nine people who perpetrated the terror attacks in Sri Lanka recently.
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  3. “There are striking parallels between the philosophies of Trump and NIMBY urbanists. Trump asserts that America is “full” and so wants to restrict the flow of immigrants. The urbanists, who tend to be Democratic and highly educated, assert that their cities are too crowded and so want to restrict the supply of housing. The cultural valence of the two views is quite different, but the practical implications have a lot in common — namely, a harder set of conditions for potential low-skilled migrants to the U.S.”
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    As he so often does, Professor Cowen reminds us why studying economics is entirely worth our time. In this case, he explains why NIMBYism, and high minimum wages are at least as anti-immigration as are, well, walls.
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  4. “Our goal is to defeat the snail in a race.”
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    Possibly the shortest extract I have put up ever, but it is hard to improve on that sentence. For once, I won’t speak about what the link is about. Try guessing what it might be about before clicking here!
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  5. “What’s happening here is much more complicated than an imagined zero-sum game between the defenders of books and library futurists. The decline in the use of print books at universities relates to the kinds of books we read for scholarly pursuits rather than pure pleasure, the rise of ebooks and digital articles, and the changing environment of research. And it runs contrary to the experience of public libraries and bookstores, where print continues to thrive.”
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    The Atlantic on substitutes and complements. On books actually, but read this article to understand how to think about the implications of thinking about complements and substitutes