Thursday, September 19, 2019

Words of the day

Merriam-Webster has added 533 new words to its dictionary—as dictionaries are known to do in order to remain relevant and ‘with it’. The Insta-fueled entries include vacay, sesh, inspo and fabulosity. Most notable: the inclusion of ‘they’ as a pronoun. Also: we had no idea that there is something called ‘fatberg’—“a large mass of fat and solid waste that collects in a sewer system.” Wtf is going on with sewers in America? 

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The biggest news story today, explained.

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The end of vaping in India

Yesterday, the government issued a comprehensive ban on all forms of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS). But the anti-vaping move left many wondering about its motivation.

What are ENDS? The term covers pretty much any kind of vaping device—most common version is the e-cigarette. These battery-charged devices heat a liquid form of nicotine—or cannabis in the US—turning it into vapour which the user inhales. The liquid comes in a variety of different flavours such as vanilla, creme brulee, mango orange crush etc. At the time of the ban, there were 460 different brands and more than 7,700 flavours marketed in India.

Ok, tell me about the ban: It is now illegal to produce, manufacture, import, export, transport, sale, distribute, store or advertise any kind of ENDS—including e-cigarettes, vapes, e-hookahs and e-cigars. First-time offenders will be imprisoned up to a year or pay a fine up to Rs 1 lakh, or both. Repeat offenders face three years’ imprisonment and Rs 5 lakh in fines. 

Point to note: Users of such devices will not be punished. According to a Health Ministry official, “Over a period of time, people will not get their (vape) refills, so they will become responsible.” In other words, they’re cutting supply and expect demand to follow.

But aren’t e-cigs better than smoking? Not according to the government. It views them as a ‘gateway drug’ to nicotine addiction—especially in the case of teenagers. Announcing the policy, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said, “These novel products come with attractive appearances and multiple flavours and their use has increased exponentially and acquired epidemic proportions in developed countries, especially among youth and children.” She also pointed to growing concern in the US—where a rash of respiratory disease cases has been linked to vaping.

Is that true? TBH, US scientists have not yet detected the actual cause of this illness which has affected 380 and killed six people so far. And diagnosis is complicated by the fact that most of the US cases involve a variety of cannabis-derived liquids. Authorities are unsure whether the culprit is the additives in the liquid or the device itself—i.e. metals such as nickel and lead in the coil used to heat the liquid. But the United States is indeed moving toward a total ban on flavoured nicotine which unarguably target kids.

So? Good or bad? E-cigarettes have simply not been around long enough to conduct definitive studies that establish the effects of long-term use. Research, however, shows they are more effective in helping smokers quit than nicotine patches or gum etc. And they are less toxic than actual cigarettes because they don’t contain cancer-causing tar or produce carbon monoxide. But e-cigs could contain other more toxic chemicals—we simply don’t know 🤷‍♀️

But this ban is a good start, right? Only if the endgame is to ban all tobacco products. And the evidence of that is slim to nonexistent. Tobacco stocks soared the moment the ban was announced—and the greatest beneficiary was the government which holds a significant stake in two of the biggest tobacco companies. According to Indian Express, the government’s equity soared in value by Rs 1,000 crore over the course of just one day.

Don’t forget the tobacco farmers: India is the third-largest producer of tobacco in the world. And the industry employs an estimated 45.7 million people. Tobacco is also a major export. The Kisan Union recently demanded a ban on the grounds that e-cigarettes will be “devastating” to tobacco farmers. 

Why is that? E-cigarettes sold in India are manufactured by foreign companies and they do not use Indian tobacco. As Times of India notes, every other tobacco-growing country—including Thailand, Nepal, Brazil, Mexico and Sri Lanka—have also banned e-cigarettes. It is also the reason that 16 Indian states and one Union Territory have already done the same.

Bottomline: Oh look, a red herring!


Learn more: Indian Express reports on the stock bonanza and has a detailed explainer on the reasons for the ban. AFP via The Hindu offers an excellent breakdown on vaping. We also liked Times of India’s take on the politics behind the ban. Harvard Medical School’s blog offers a balanced take on the risks of vaping. NPR explains the vaping-related illness that is causing panic in the United States.

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wishing for an AI that can ‘interpret’ your parents

The Israeli election drama continues: With more than 90% of the vote counted, the Blue and White party has 32 seats while its rival Likud has 31. And the prospects of either party building a coalition to hit the magic number of 61—the majority required to form the government—remain remote. One reason: The kingmaker is the leader of a far rightwing nationalist government who is insisting on a ‘unity government’ comprised of Likud, Blue and White, and his own party. Bahut picture abhi baaki hai. (The Guardian)

Yes, Tabrez Ansari was indeed murdered: First, the police dropped murder charges from the FIR filed in the lynching of Ansari—who was tied up and beaten for hours. That sparked a huge outrage. Now, they’ve changed their mind thanks to a new medical report. (Indian Express)

The definition of ‘normal’ in Kashmir: Here are two excellent analyses on the situation on the ground. 

  • The first—from the Observer Research Foundation (An Ambani-funded think tank with a centrist skew)—reveals how the Kashmir policy has erased the political middle ground in one fell swoop. More worryingly, this: “In the absence of mainstream and separatist politics, militants and fear of their terror are taking control of both physical and mind space.” 

  • The other is a BBC report that echoes many of the same concerns. For example, this quote: "People are angry, humiliated and adrift. They have no leaders to take orders and cues from. And forget India. There's no trust left in India… This calm looks like a lull before the storm to me. But this time, we don't even know from where the next resistance will arise." Also: that’s a local police official talking not an angry citizen. 

The downside of zero single-use plastic: Any initiative to battle plastic pollution is a worthy one. But this in-depth Mint report reveals the costs of a hasty, unplanned ban that may prove both costly and ineffective. It is a thought-provoking read geared to make us think more deeply about saving our environment. (Mint)

No Dalits allowed, including our MLA: A BJP MLA was blocked from entering a village in his constituency because he is Dalit. This story is abound with ironies. One, A. Narayanaswamy represents a seat reserved for the Scheduled Caste community. Two, the villagers who ejected him belong to a tribal community—and have been agitating to be included in the list of Scheduled Tribes. Three, the legislator was accompanied by reps from a major hospital and pharmaceutical company to encourage them to invest in the region. Also: here is Narayanaswamy’s calm response.

Air pollution is affecting foetuses: The dirty air that pregnant women breathe is breaking the placental barrier. A first-of-its-kind study revealed: “Air pollution particles have been found on the foetal side of placentas, indicating that unborn babies are directly exposed to the black carbon produced by motor traffic and fuel burning.” We’ve always known that pollution leads to higher number of miscarriages, low birth weight, etc. But this is the first piece of research that reveals exactly why. It isn’t because the mother’s body is stressed or inflamed. Foetuses are directly absorbing the pollution. So what can expectant mothers do? Avoid busy roads. Or maybe entire cities in the case of India. (The Guardian)

U2 is coming to India! They will perform in Mumbai which is the last stop on their ‘Joshua Tree’ tour. Date: Dec. 15. Tickets go on sale Sept. 24 and range from Rs 3,000 to Rs 14,000. (Yahoo News)

Mera naam Alexa hai: Yes, Amazon’s personal assistant can now speak Hindi. She already spoke Hinglish, and very soon will be able to switch seamlessly between Hindi and English in multilingual homes. (TechCrunch)

Everybody’s streaming, including your apps: Everyone’s multitasking these days—including your favourite app. ICYMI, Zomato is making video shorts —food-themed shows that stream on your app. So why not Tinder and Airbnb? The dating app is launching “a multi-episode series” which “centers on an ‘apocalyptic’ storyline and includes a relationship subplot.” AirBnb has already leaked plans to create a full-fledged “studio.” The plan: “Let’s do shows. Let’s do films, because we want to be travel-everything.” Let’s not. 

Now AI can tell you if he’s into you: So you’ve been WhatsApping back and forth, and you still don’t know if he’s feeling what you’re feeling—and how intensely he is feeling it. Meet Mei the AI bot aka ‘relationship assistant’. Her job is to assess his romantic interest—on a scale of 0-100. But, she needs at least 1000 words to do her job and she doesn’t come cheap: around $9 per review. (Wired)

Mantri vs Foreign Agent Apple: Consumer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Paswan is an unhappy man. His cook brought back apples from Khan Market because Mantri Sahib wanted to make his famous Russian fruit salad. So the cook washed them and washed them… but they kept shining like an unwelcome beacon. And that’s when he realised—shock, horror!—they were waxed! Paswan informed the authorities who raided the shop—which in turn dumped the offending Rs 420/kg imported apples ASAP. Unfortunately, now everyone knows that Paswan is a card-carrying member of the Khan Market gang—and a connoisseur of phoren salads made of phoren apples, no less! (Times of India)

Think your Lab is waaay too needy? Well, there’s a sound genetic reason for that. Turns out breed behaviour isn’t accidental. Humans have bred some dog breeds to direct wide-eyed forlorn stares at us. German Shepherds, OTOH, have a lot more self-respect. (Daily Mail)

Your daily quota of sunshine items: includes the following:

  • Watch V. Unbeatable—the dancing group from Mumbai aged 12 to 27—rocking the ‘America’s Got Talent’ final. Don’t know who they are? Why there’s a video clip for that.

  • This awesome clip of director Radha Bharadwaj explaining why the women ISRO scientists had a very different experience from their African American peers in NASA—who were portrayed in ‘Hidden Figures’. 

  • This because you really need to watch a dog feed a baby goat… the milk bottle is just gravy.

  • This very talented woman doing amazing special effects makeup using household items like bananas and espresso coffee.

  • IIT Bombay has a cow problem. First, one wandered through a classroom—during class! Now, gau-mata has escalated her criminal activity to eating books—inside a hostel room!

  • This happy song celebrating menstruation for the #HappyToBleed campaign.

  • Incontrovertible proof that no one can ever come between Modi-ji and a camera. 

  • Demi Lovato’s inspiring Insta photo of herself in a bikini—unedited and unfiltered.

  • Our gods and goddesses have many arms. We’re not sure if this iteration is cultural appropriation or tribute. But it’s definitely worth a look.

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Unexpected, thought-provoking and always worth your time

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The ‘Language of Colour’ Edition

Today, we have a slightly nerdier but no less fascinating topic: what is the relationship between words and colour? The first looks at the size of our colour vocabulary across different cultures. The second shows us how that vocabulary can affect what colour we can or cannot see. Sounds crazy, right?


The many languages of colour

Some languages have only three colours: dark, light or red. Others like English have 11—the colours of the rainbow we were forced to memorise as kids. But here’s what is amazing: all languages share a common pattern: “Every culture in history invented words for colors in the exact same order.” And red was always one of the very first.

Watch: The surprising pattern behind color names around the world | Vox

Sex, Love etc 2

I see what I speak

If various languages have different sets of colours, then does it affect how we perceive colour? For example, can we ‘see’ blue if we don’t have a word for blue? We have two different ways to learn the answer. The first is a short two-minute video and the second is an expert opinion. 

Watch: How Language Changes The Way We See Color | YouTube

Read: The way you see colour depends on what language you speak | The Conversation

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