Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Number of the day: 30 million

A Mint analysis of consumer expenditure data offers a stark conclusion: Over the past six years, 30 million Indians have fallen below the poverty line. And most of them are in rural India—where the poverty rate has risen from 26% to 30% during the same period. In contrast, urban poverty has fallen from 14% to 9%. The hardest-hit states are in the Northeast, such as Manipur and Nagaland. Point to note: India’s poverty rate has increased for the first time in decades.

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The biggest news story today, explained.

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The Indian engineer who spotted Vikram

The failure of Chandrayaan 2 was a big disappointment for the entire nation. But one Indian techie’s triumph offers a silver lining, if not a happy ending.

A very brief recap: Mission Chandrayaan 2 aimed to land a rover on the moon in order to study the extent and distribution of water on the moon’s surface and below it. A great part of the mission went as per plan. The GSLV Mk-III rocket delivered a module containing an orbiter, lander and rover into the Moon’s orbit. The orbiter was circling the moon as per schedule. On September 7, the lander—nicknamed Vikram—detached itself in order to land on the surface. Then everything went pie-shaped, and scientists lost all contact with Vikram.

Remind me what went wrong: Vikram was equipped with thrusters to make sure that it makes a soft landing on the surface. They act like brakes that are applied at various intervals to slow the lander down, and correct its orientation so it lands on its legs. One or more of these did not perform as required in the last five minutes. (We have all the details in our previous explainer)

Ok, what happened now? Soon after the disaster, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) announced that it had found the lander, but never provided details about its condition—and its location remained a mystery… until now. NASA released images showing the main crash site, as well as bits and pieces of Vikram scattered on the moon’s surface. And it made this discovery thanks to a Chennai-based engineer named Shanmuga Subramanian.

Who is this person? Subramanian is a 33-year old mechanical engineer who works in IT. He describes himself as coder, photographer and nerd, and even runs a Chennai Rains Live page on Facebook that offers forecasts using radar data and satellite imagery. And he is fascinated with all things to do with space technology—especially Chandrayaan 2, pulling all-nighters to follow minute-by-minute updates of the launch and landing. He was heartbroken when Vikram disappeared into the void.

How did he help? Here’s how this grand discovery unfolded:

  • NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter regularly circles the moon, capturing high resolution images of its surface. The US agency releases these images to the public so everyone can take a look.

  • The LRO flew over Vikram’s likely crash site on September 17, and NASA published the images on its website on September 29. 

  • Subramanian then set up ‘before’ and ‘after’ images of the crash site, and compared them “pixel after pixel,” for seven hours each night—until he spotted one little white dot. It wasn’t present in the image taken before the crash, and was most likely Vikram—or at least some part of it. (This animated gif highlights his find)

  • He tweeted his discovery at ISRO and NASA—and followed it up with an email to NASA in October. The agency confirmed his findings, and used it to locate both the exact crash site and Vikram’s debris.

  • On Tuesday, the space agency released the image of the same—and emailed Subramanian to congratulate and thank him for his efforts.

What did ISRO say? In stark contrast, the Indian space agency’s response was less than enthusiastic: “ISRO had already found the Vikram lander two days after the crash and we had made that public.” 

Point to note: At the time, ISRO’s website claimed, “Vikram lander has been located by the orbiter of Chandrayaan 2, but no communication with it yet. All possible efforts are being made to establish communication with lander." Really? With a lander that has clearly been totalled?

Why is this a big deal? Subramanian doesn’t think it is, telling Indian Express, “Let me make it clear that I don’t expect any kudos from ISRO. Everyone knows it was a hard landing. Finding debris, anyway, is not a big thing.” But we think NASA scientist Noah Petro gets it right: “The story of this really amazing individual (who) found it, helped us find it is really awesome.” Because it is the story of the dedication and passion of ordinary citizens to our space program—and it is undimmed by failure. ISRO, are you listening?


Learn more: Indian Express has more details, while The Hindu describes Subramanian’s efforts at length. Better yet, watch this brief interview with Subramanian who explains how he did it. Broadsheet put together two explainers, the first when Chandrayaan 2 launched, and again when the mission failed.

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practising your Chilean dance moves

Sundar Pichai will rule ‘em all: The Google CEO just got promoted! Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are stepping down from their roles as CEO and President of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Pichai will be the chief exec for both. Indians everywhere are bracing themselves for the parental angst to follow. (CNN)

GST rates are gonna go up: Facing a serious tax revenue shortfall, the Union government has asked the states to review current rates and exemptions on a laundry list of items. GST tax collection numbers have been steadily falling due to a slowing economy and reductions in the effective GST rate—which is now 11.6%. Expect to pay more for cigarettes, alcohol, cars and soft drinks. (Times of India)

Prince Andrew’s other damning interview: A couple of weeks ago, the Queen’s favourite son gave a disastrous BBC interview in an attempt to defend himself from Virginia Giuffre’s allegations. She has alleged in a US court deposition that billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein forced her to have sex with Andrew. Well, it was her turn to be interviewed by BBC. And here are the choicest quotes (Watch the highlights here)

  • “This is not some sordid sex story. This is a story of being trafficked. This is a story of abuse and this is a story of your guys’ royalty.”

  • "His sweat was like - it was raining basically everywhere and I was just like grossed out from it.”

  • “I couldn’t comprehend how in the highest levels in the government powerful people were allowing this to happen. Not only allowing it to happen, but participating in it.”

Kamala Harris drops out: India lost its closest connection to the presidential race. The US Senator—whose mother is from Chennai—canceled her Democratic campaign. The reason: “I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign. As the campaign has gone on, it’s become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete.” That  may be because her poll numbers have remained stubbornly low. (Time)

Where in the world is Nithyananda? The absconding guru—accused of child abduction, rape and other crimes—has formed his own country: Kailaasa. It has its own website and describes itself as a “'nation without borders created by dispossessed Hindus from around the world who lost the right to practice Hinduism authentically in their own countries.” While Kailaasa is coy about its exact location, Republic TV is pretty sure that it’s an island close to Trinidad and Tobago, and was purchased by the godman from Ecuador. Most amusing detail: its passport offers entry not just to Kailaasa, but also “11 dimensions and 14 lokas.” Quint has many more such bizarre details.

Beijing’s alarming secret DNA project: As you may know, millions of ethnic Uighur Muslims have been imprisoned in detention centres—where they are brutalised, and often tortured and raped. Now the government is extracting blood samples from them for a chilling project. Its aim: to find a way to use a DNA sample to create an image of a person’s face. This method is called ‘DNA phenotyping.” If it works, the government can feed the images produced from a genetic sample into mass surveillance and facial recognition systems to find and detain people. (New York Times)

This is your brain on terrorism: What makes people sacrifice everything—their lives, families, even humanity—for a cause? A new study finds that “those most willing to make costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying, were motivated by sacred values and shunned deliberative reasoning.” And what are these ‘sacred values’? Anything that springs from one’s personal or collective identity—whether it is defined by country, religion or family. More importantly, from a policy point of view: “Costs, consequences, risks, and rewards—all the motivators on which classic economic and political theory rely—don’t seem to matter when sacred values are involved.” This Foreign Affairs piece is a timely and important read.

Priyanka Gandhi had unexpected guests: A car carrying five passengers drove right into her home. The occupants—a former UP MLA and her family—then walked into the garden and demanded selfies with her. Congress is calling it a massive security breach which occurred because the government removed the Gandhi family’s special protection cover. Home Minister Amit Shah insists that the incident is just a silly mix-up caused by incompetent guards. Both, of course, can be true.

A tiger’s very long walk: A tiger walked 1300 km in search of prey and a mate. It is the longest recorded journey for a big cat in India. And it reveals India’s real tiger-related problem: we may have more tigers with each passing year, but they have far less forest land in which to thrive. (NDTV)

Deepika Padukone penned an op-ed: in the New York Times. She speaks out about living with depression. There isn’t anything new here for her fans, but it is still worth a read.

The hottest decade ever! Planet Earth is setting all the wrong kind of records. According to the World Meteorological Association, average temperatures for the five-year period (2015-19) and 10-year period (2010-19) are likely to be the highest on record. Also: 2019 is on course to be the second- or third-warmest year ever recorded. (Reuters)

Feminists respond to rape: Huffington Post ran a must-read ‘corrected’ version of the Hyderabad police’s safety advisory for women in the wake of Priyanka Reddy’s murder. Also: this viral Chilean protest dance to a song whose lyrics include: "And the fault wasn’t mine, not where I was, not how I dressed. The rapist is you."

Who rules the roost on Spotify? The answer: Post Malone whose songs were streamed 6.5 billion times! Next up: Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish. In related news: the platform is slashing its India rates by 40%, and you can score an annual subscription for just Rs 699.

Your campus recruitment update is here: Forget the jobs crisis. It’s raining money on IIT campuses. Students received 1200 job offers—with annual salaries hitting the Rs 1 crore mark for many of them. The most generous employers: tech firms like Microsoft and Uber. In related news: Big firms like Goldman Sachs, Adobe and Intuit have launched women-only recruitment drives at local engineering colleges in Bangalore.

Delhi is very popular: with foreign visitors according to a new report that lists the Top 100 City Destinations. It is ranked at #8, beating New York which came in at #11. The #1 spot went to Hong Kong, followed by Bangkok. We presume these are from the pre-killer smog days. (Bloomberg)

We messed up that credit score: On Monday, in our Broadsheet guide to staying in sound financial health, we had said: “A score between 300-900 means you are in decent shape.” Umm, that should read: 750-900. Apologies for being the bearer of false hope.

Your daily quota of sunshine items: include the following:

  • A mind-bogglingly complicated—but also super scientific—method to calculate the age of your dog.

  • This Tik Tok challenge involving a chair that allegedly proves women are superior to men—though in the most useless way possible lol!

  • This mesmerising 1815 portrait titled ‘A Dancing Girl called Khander Baksh’.

  • This Hyundai ad for a driverless car that brilliantly uses a dog to make its point.

  • A pitbull and a parakeet. Enuf said.

  • A Japanese method of wrapping a gift in 15 seconds—narrated in a 2:30 video 🙄. But still super useful during the holiday season.

  • Serious eye candy from the red carpet at the British Fashion Awards.

  • A cover version of Smashmouth’s ‘Rock Star’ played on, umm, hollowed out melons. Honest! And it’s oddly compelling

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Everything we don't know about human desire

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A ‘meet up’ generation of dating apps

The ugly truth about Tinder etc. is that most swipes don’t lead to dates IRL. There’s lots of texting, flirting and then… inevitably ghosting. But the hottest new apps want you to make eye contact—be it in person or over a video call. And they claim to have a better success rate than their more mainstream peers.

Read: Dating apps are turning to message-free meetups | Insider

Sex, Love etc 2

I love you, hate you, love you…

We’ve all been there—in rollercoaster relationships with dramatic breakups and equally dramatic make ups. But as exciting as ‘relationship cycling’ may feel, it is scientifically proven to be awful for your mental health. Here’s why you should say no to that on-again, off-again bae. 

Read: Why Getting Back Together With Your Ex May Be Bad For Your Health | Time

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