Thursday, December 12, 2019

Country of the day

The global roster of nations will soon have a new entrant: Bougainville. The collection of islands in the South Pacific has voted overwhelmingly to separate itself from Papua New Guinea, and form an independent nation. And it may set a precedent for others. The New York Times notes, “With such a resounding vote for self-determination, Bougainville has become a visible inspiration for other independence movements in the Pacific, from West Papua, which is seeking to secede from Indonesia, to New Caledonia, which will hold a referendum next year about possibly breaking away from France.”

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The biggest news story today, explained.

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Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’: Greta Thunberg

Time magazine has chosen the youngest person ever to receive the honour this year. But who is this 16-year old girl? And how did she become an international icon? We explain Thunberg’s rise to global fame.

The Thunberg family: She was raised by an upper middle class Swedish family. Her mother Malena Ernman is a leading Swedish opera singer while her father Svante Thunberg is an actor. She has a 14-year-old sister and two dogs, Moses and Roxy.

A depressed child: Thunberg first heard of climate change as an eight-year old when a primary school teacher showed her class a video on its effects: starving polar bears, extreme weather and flooding. The other kids were sad but got over it. But Greta couldn’t shake off her sadness. By the time she was 11 years old, she fell into a deep depression: “For months, she stopped speaking almost entirely, and ate so little that she was nearly hospitalized; that period of malnutrition would later stunt her growth.” She couldn’t understand why no one was doing anything to stop global warming.

A child with a special ‘superpower’: Thunberg has Asperger’s syndrome. Unlike autistic children, she has strong language and cognitive skills, and seeks social interaction. But children with Asperger’s often are socially awkward and do not know the rules of social engagement. They also tend to develop an obsessive interest in particular subjects. Speaking candidly of her condition, Thunberg says, “If I were like everyone else, I would have continued on and not seen this crisis.” If her brain worked differently, she explains, “I wouldn’t be able to sit for hours and read things I’m interested in.”

Thunberg’s journey began: with a solitary strike. She decided to skip school to pressure the Swedish government to meet its climate goals. On August 2018, she camped outside the Swedish Parliament, holding a sign that said ‘Skolstrejk för klimatet’ (School Strike for Climate). She distributed flyers that read: “My name is Greta, I am in ninth grade, and I am school-striking for the climate. Since you adults don’t give a damn about my future, I won’t either.” The strike also finally brought Thunberg “back to life” and out of her depression. 

The rise to fame: First a handful joined her on that first strike, and soon the number grew to thousands, and the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement was born. 

  • By the end of 2018, tens of thousands of students across Europe were skipping school on Fridays to protest the lack of political action on climate change. In January this year, 35,000 schoolchildren joined the protest in Belgium.

  • By September, the climate change protests had spread outside Europe, and the numbers were even greater. New York City: 250,000. London: 100,000. Germany: 1.4 million. Time notes: “From Antarctica to Papua New Guinea, from Kabul to Johannesburg, an estimated 4 million people of all ages showed up to protest.”

  • 11-year-old Ridhima Pandey and 15 other kids—including Thunberg—filed a complaint to the UN against Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey. They argued that their failure to tackle global warming was a violation of children’s rights.  

The pushback: Thunberg has since addressed—and angrily scolded—world leaders at the United Nation, met with the Pope and Presidents. But not all the attention has been positive. A far right leader in Canada described her as “clearly mentally unstable.” Trolls have viciously attacked her appearance and mental health. And world leaders like Vladimir Putin have dismissed her as a “kind but poorly informed teenager.”

Thunberg’s ‘Ok Boomer’ style: Perhaps it is her Asperger’s or just her personality, Thunberg has remained unfazed by both the adulation and attacks. When Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro called her a "pirralha"—the Portuguese word for ‘brat’—Thunberg changed her Twitter bio to ‘pirralha’. When Democrats in Congress talked her up, she responded: “Please save your praise. We don’t want it. Don’t invite us here to tell us how inspiring we are without doing anything about it. It doesn’t lead to anything.”


Point to note: The climate change movement is powered by tens of thousands of brave activists around the world—many of whom pay for their activism with their lives. Fact: 1,500 people across 50 countries were murdered in retaliation for protecting land, water, forests and other natural resources between 2002 and 2017. Greta is just the most visible symbol of a powerful movement for change.

The bottomline: As BBC News notes, at the UN Climate Summit underway in Madrid, Thunberg is being treated like a rock star. Yet when she actually addressed the summit, most of the national delegations didn’t bother to show up. But then again: the European Union just announced a number of environmental proposals called the European Green Deal—and it’s being dubbed Europe’s "man on the Moon moment.” Just maybe the ‘Greta Effect’ is real, after all. 


Learn more: Here is Time’s long-read profile of Thunberg, and the editor’s note explaining the magazine’s choice. Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky penned a New York Times op-ed explaining why Thunberg is the icon the world desperately needs. Vox has a must-read on why trolls and other angry critics have no effect on Thunberg.

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giving many thanks to a dead fruit fly

Rajya Sabha approved the citizenship bill: by a narrow margin: 125-105. 

  • Point to note: The support of AIADMK’s 11 MPs was critical, since the Shiv Sena walked out before the vote. 
  • The Telegraph points to the mystifying absence of the word ‘persecution’ in the final bill.

  • Meanwhile protests against the Bill intensified in the northeast. The Assam government has imposed an indefinite curfew in Guwahati and—surprise, surprise—suspended mobile internet services in ten districts.  

  • One BJP MP admits: “It’s not good… I don’t know about tomorrow. There is misunderstanding and misinterpretation. People should understand things correctly. It’s getting worse.” 

  • Also: 5,000 paramilitary personnel have been sent to the region to maintain law and order. In other words, it all feels far too familiar.

The Nanavati report lets Modi off the hook: After 12 years, the Gujarat government released the final report of the Nanavati Commission—appointed to investigate the Godhra train carnage and the riots that followed. Here’s what it says:

  • “The Commission has concluded that the post-Godhra riots were not a pre-planned conspiracy. Neither the then CM Narendra Modi nor any of his Ministers were complicit in the riots. Also, none of the state government officials had involvement in the riots.” 

  • It indicts three former IPS officers—RB Sreekumar, Rahul Sharma, and Sanjiv Bhatt—for their “negative” role. Each had alleged a top-level conspiracy to incite and allow the massacre of Muslims. Bhatt claimed that he was present at a meeting where then CM Modi ordered officials “to allow Hindus to vent their anger.” The Gujarat government will now take action against all three. Bhatt is already behind bars on separate charges related to planting drugs.

  • The only person blamed for the mob killings: then Joint Commissioner of Police (JCP) MK Tandon for his failure to “assess the seriousness of the situation and bring in additional force to control the mob.”

Merriam-Webster’s word of the year: is “they”—which is certainly cheerier than Oxford Dictionary’s pick: climate emergency. And suggests we are moving toward more inclusive words—if not world. (Time)

Saudi Aramco is the world's largest listed company: The state-owned company is the crown jewel of the Saudi economy—pumping out 10 million barrels of oil a day. And the decision to take it public was a big gamble—and, as it turns out, a highly successful one. The company’s shares surged by 10% on opening, taking its valuation up to $1.88 trillion—which is far higher than that of Microsoft and Apple. The IPO is also the biggest on record—topping the $25 billion Alibaba stock market debut in 2014. Point to note: Aramco sold only 1.5% of its shares. (CNBC)

A new music app for India: TikTok's owner ByteDance is testing a new streaming app in India and Indonesia called Resso to challenge the likes of Spotify and Apple Music. How does it work: "Resso displays real-time lyrics and lets users post their comments under individual songs. They can also generate music-accompanied GIFs and videos, emulating a favorite feature of TikTok.” The price per month: Rs 119 rupees, which is exactly the same as Spotify. (Economic Times)

Peacocks, peacocks everywhere: Kerala is experiencing a very odd wildlife phenomenon. A farmer in Palakkad had never seen a peacock near his village until a few years ago: “Now they are everywhere. They roost on coconut trees, have lots of chicks and are even eating some crops.” But the reason for this sudden proliferation isn’t a happy one. Peafowl do well in arid conditions, and vast parts of Kerala are becoming drier thanks to climate change. (Mongabay

Facebook, Google are no longer Silicon Valley’s sweethearts: The two companies have long been on the ‘Top Ten Places to Work’ list—prized for their countless perks and employee benefits. But both companies appear to have rapidly lost their appeal. Facebook—which was #1 on the 2018 list—nosedived 16 places from #7 (in 2019) to #23 on the 2020 list. Google dropped three spots to #11. (Bloomberg)

In related employment news: The most sought-after jobs in India next year will be: Blockchain developer, artificial intelligence (AI) specialist and Javascript developer. Yeah, all us non-techies are screwed. (Quartz)

The state of tigers in America: Did you know that there are more tigers held in captivity in the US than there are in the wild? Tiger trade is booming in the country and its biggest victims are cubs. This is a disturbing and important read about an issue that receives very little attention. (National Geographic)

Pollution pods to scare world leaders: Attendees at the COP 25 Climate Conference in Madrid got a taste of shuddh Delhi smog thanks to pollution pods constructed by artist Michael Pinsky. He recreates breathing conditions in cities around the world: “I have tried to distil the whole bodily sense of being in each place through these pollutions pods. Being in Sao Paulo, for example, seems like a forest sanctuary as compared to living in the Indian capital New Delhi, until your eyes start to get wet from the sensation of ethanol.” Also: “Most of the people leaving the pods are seen with expressions of shock.” (Hindustan Times)

An origin story of cheese: Once upon a time—6,000 years ago—a fruit fly fell into a vat of milk and died. Then this happened: “The theory is that the fly died, but the yeast it carried, K. lactis, lived within the milk and reproduced with its cousin, Kluyveromyces marxianus, which was already growing in the milk. This familial reproduction resulted in two new genes that had the ability to grow in lactose without dying.” Yup, that’s the reason we now have chili cheese toast. (Popular Mechanics)

Things that make you go WTF: include the following:

  • During a Rajya Sabha discussion on a bill aimed at curbing illegal firearms, two women MPs sought permission to speak. The presiding chairman and Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu responded: “In my opinion, women don’t need firearms, others will protect you.” Somebody send Mr Naidu a copy of ‘Saandh Ki Aankh’ ASAP. 

  • Remember the $120,000 banana that was eaten by a performance artist? After that debacle, the exhibit was taken down. Then some guy used red lipstick to scrawl in the empty space: “Epstien (sic) didn't kill himself.” Sadly, as the man wasn’t a ‘performance artist,’ he was promptly arrested by the cops. Daily Mail has the video.

  • Boris Johnson’s election campaign video that recreates that iconic scene from ‘Love Actually’. Watch it here. Also: Hugh Grant’s reaction.


Your daily quota of sunshine items: includes the following:

  • This priceless photo of two-toed Moe the sloth being introduced to his new girlfriend, Lightning.
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Unexpected, thought-provoking and always worth your time

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The ‘Stress Buster’ Edition

The irony of modern life is that we spend a lot of money and time reducing our stress—visiting fancy spas, yoga retreats etc. Here are two remedies that won’t cost you a dime: hugs and music.

A dose of touch therapy

Here’s what happens when someone touches us: “Receptors in the skin detect pressure and temperature and movement, and these signals shoot up the spinal cord and into the brain, which adjusts its chemical output accordingly.” The simple act of being touched can help alleviate depression, lower blood pressure and even reduce pain. Yet we are increasingly wary, even unwilling to touch one another.

Read: Can We Touch? | The Atlantic

Sex, Love etc 2

Music to soothe the beast of anxiety

We all know music can help dial down our stress levels. But research shows that only a specific kind of tune can do the trick: “The speed of the music should be relatively slow, the melody should be simple, and the beat and harmony should not hold too many surprises.” So here’s a playlist of songs that meet the criteria. (sadly, Indian music not included).

Read: A playlist to calm the mind from a music therapist | The Conversation

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