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When the satellite Cosmos 2519 was launched into space by Russia last year, the world did not know why.
Now, a US diplomat warned a global arms control conference in Geneva on Aug. 14 that “we are concerned with what appears to be very abnormal behavior by a declared ‘space apparatus inspector.’ We don’t know for certain what it is, and there is no way to verify it.”
A Russian diplomat called the comment “slanderous.”
The official statement from Yleem Poblete, the top US diplomat on arms control issues, suggests American intelligence agencies have reason to believe the satellite may be surveilling US space assets—or practicing to attack them in the future.
After launch, Cosmos 2519 deployed two smaller satellites, and maneuvered to rendezvous with them. Because bringing propellant to space is difficult, most satellites are designed to fly to a designated orbit and then make small adjustments to their position. A satellite that can travel between orbits to check in on other satellites is relatively unusual.
Such a vehicle could be used for many purposes: To perform maintenance on or re-fuel older satellites, extending their lives, or to clean up space debris, even sending old satellites to storage orbits or to burn up in the atmosphere. It could also be used to spy on other satellites and attack them with lasers, robotic manipulators or simply by crashing into them.
The US military is certainly tracking the Russian satellite’s position using ground-based radar, but the ability to ascertain what it is doing is limited. Powerful cameras at ground bases or on spy satellites can zoom in on passing spacecraft only if its orbit aligns with their field of view.
China and Russia have been performing more tests of “dual use” space hardware that could be innocuous or a weapon. Vladimir Putin announced a package of new weapons programs earlier this year, including an anti-satellite laser. That escalation is one reason why the US is considering the creation of a dedicated military force for space.
The US, of course, has its own military capabilities in space. It tested an anti-satellite missile in 2008, and regularly operates the X-37B spacecraft, a miniature space shuttle that can also maneuver in space and whose purpose is the subject of much speculation.
Most valuable space assets—constellations of huge navigation, communications, surveillance and missile-detection satellites—are protected largely because they are so far away from Earth and orbiting quickly. As potential adversaries demonstrate the ability to reach out and touch these, they are far more vulnerable than they appeared just a few years ago.
Failure: It’s so hot right now. Silicon Valley gurus preach the importance of “failing fast,” while schools are trying to teach girls that it’s okay to fail. Psychologist Adam Grant says parents and bosses alike should praise failure, and articles declare that failing at everything in your 20s is actually ideal. After all, without failure, there’s no success.
This is all to the good. But despite the conceptual trendiness of failure, we still tend to sweep our day-to-day, real-life experiences of failure and rejection under the rug. According to BuzzFeed journalist Saeed Jones, this is highly problematic. Having been rejected by various book agents, who told him that “memoirs just don’t sell,” Jones (who recently sold his memoir for six figures) knows both the sting of rejection and the frustration of feeling like you need to tuck away less-than-flattering professional experiences.
That’s why Jones created the hashtag #ShareYourRejections this week. Writing on Twitter, he shared that he has been repeatedly rejected from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the famous annual program run by Middlebury College in Vermont:
I’ve been rejected from Breadloaf so many times I’ve lost count. It’s all good. Maybe facing rejection would be a little easier to take if we talked about it more. #ShareYourRejections
— Saeed Jones (@theferocity) August 15, 2018
Within minutes, the hashtag #ShareYourRejections went viral, with writers, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and professionals of all kinds sharing their rejection stories. Many of these people are now highly-respected in their respective fields. But the important lesson from #ShareYourRejection isn’t that failure eventually, and inevitably, leads to mainstream success and accolades. Rather, it’s that we all need to figure out how to persevere in the face of rejection, whether that means continuing to submit a rejected manuscript to other publishers or striking out on a new venture entirely.
It’s worth noting, of course, that rejection is hardly a sign of someone’s personal or professional worth. Even people who’ve achieved widespread acclaim face rejection on a regular basis. Consider Roxane Gay, the award-winning feminist writer, professor, and author:
Let’s see. #shareyourrejections I was rejected from Breadloaf until I gave up three years ago and stopped applying.
— roxane gay (@rgay) August 16, 2018
I recently wrote a script for a TV show I was hired to write for and they hated the script and fired me. That one….still stings. But I learned from it. It was my first try. I will do better next time.
— roxane gay (@rgay) August 16, 2018
Oh! I applied for the UCLA job in fiction last year or the year before and didn’t even get a phone interview. Whew!
— roxane gay (@rgay) August 16, 2018
Furthermore, experiencing rejection isn’t a reliable indicator of how much success you’ll later achieve:
Had a voice/speech coach in college that was very hard on me about my voice. The gravelly texture and lower tone meant I wasn’t leading lady material.
Moved to LA; made a VO reel; began booking in video games. They liked my gravely texture and lower tones. #ShareYourRejection
— Marisha Ray (@Marisha_Ray) August 16, 2018
Rejection, as Jones said today on AM2DM, his BuzzFeed morning news show, is just “part of the game.”
“As kids, we’re told that we should want to be successful, but we have this idea in American culture that you should just be successful, it just happens,” Jones explained on AM2DM. “You’re not supposed to show the striving, or the hard steps, only the fun. You’re only supposed to talk about the happy ending, not everything on the way. But the problem is I think people are very lonely in their experience with rejection.”
What’s more, rejection is not synonymous with failure. “You have to stumble, you have to make mistakes and hit your head against the wall many times, but that does not mean you should stop,” Jones clarified. “Rejection is not failure, and rejection is not an indictment of who you are or the value of your work. It’s just a decision that’s been made in a specific instance. If you’re going to succeed in a career, you have to believe in your work more than anyone else—agents, editors, readers.”
Inspiring as this call to action is, it might sting a bit coming from a hyper-successful people like Jones, or any of the thousands of people whose brief, wondrous #ShareYourRejection tweets end with them successfully breaking into the cultural institutions that once locked them out. After all, not everyone’s story ends with a six-figure book deal. It’s a sentiment Claire Schwartz shared on Twitter today:
Wary of the ways #ShareYourRejections is sounding a bit like triumphalism in the form of a chorus of "i tried, failed, tried, succeeded." I hope these "failures" remind that these institutions are not designed to host us all. We need to make other ways.
— claire schwartz (@23cschwartz) August 16, 2018
The truth is that, for the vast majority of people, relentless persistence will not result in smashing success. Nor should we shame ourselves for being wounded by failure, or for taking the time to heal, as Bene Cipolla explains in Quartz. After all, there are lessons to be learned from rejection and failure, too.
As Olivia Goldhill writes in Quartz, when we think about failure as simply a step on the continuum toward success, we can blind ourselves from recognizing underlying traits about ourselves, or about the industries we’re trying to break into. This is a theory advanced by Costica Bradatan, a philosophy professor at Texas Tech University who researches failure. “When we experience failure, it makes us question our sense of who we are, our place in the world, everything,” Bradatan tells Goldhill. “Before our failure leads us somewhere else, we have to face it in its own terms, in all its ugliness and devastation, and that’s a serious business.”
Rejection may inspire us to go back to the drawing board—to rework our proposals, or scrap them altogether and come up with a better idea. Or we may make a conscious decision to stop knocking on an unresponsive door and reshape the system that doesn’t want you, rather trying to get past the cultural gatekeepers. That’s why some of the most inspirational #ShareYourRejection stories don’t end with the person getting exactly what they wanted in the first place.
Matt Cummings, for example, wrote about how rejections inspired him to change career paths—one that he’s found much more happiness pursuing.
#shareyourrejection I've been rejected after many show tests and i've always been secretly thankful because they taught me
A) good practices/skills on tests and boards
and, way more importantly
B) that i didn't actually want the career path i was moving along
— matt cummings (@EiffelArt) August 16, 2018
The poet and professor Kaveh Akbar noted that Sharon Olds, one of the most famous poets today, treats her rejections as an opportunity to learn, reflect, and grow:
— Kaveh Akbar (@KavehAkbar) August 16, 2018
Meanwhile, Ron Holt, a San Francisco-based psychiatrist, dedicated his career to spreading support and awareness for the LGBTQ community after being rejected by his family for being gay:
When I came out to my father he rejected me telling me I was never welcome home again.
— LGBTQ Shrink (@DrRonHolt) August 16, 2018
This rejection-rebound mindset is particularly valuable for women, people of color, and people from marginalized backgrounds, seeing as most professional institutions were built for, and by, white, straight, cis men. Of course, when people like Roxane Gay (a queer black woman) or Jones (a queer black man) do break into traditionally white, male spaces, their success powerfully reshapes broken systems from within. Their presence shows diverse voices matter. But when we talk about rejection and failure without acknowledging the painful truth that some people will not ultimately conquer the cultural, political, or professional gatekeepers standing in their way, we disillusion ourselves—while potentially hindering innovation.
The core lesson, voiced by many on Twitter, is that perseverance in the face of rejection must come from a core belief in yourself and your work, whatever the opinion of any publication, company, or production you aspire to join.
I'm sharing this here because some of the #shareyourrejection stories feel like the lead-up to eventual triumph, which seems kind of beside the point. Deciding to believe in my work without that recognition from professors & mentors was hard & necessary.
— Nancy Reddy (@nancy_reddy) August 15, 2018
Jones echoed this message on AM2DM, responding to a listener who asked about how you can ever know whether to have faith in your own work. “All you can trust in is how passionate you continue to feel about your work,” he said. “You don’t ever know if it’s really good enough, you only know if it’s valuable to you, and you hope that will come through to readers. In the end, you are going to have to be the biggest advocate for what you’re doing.”
Cinema stocks got a lift on word that Amazon might be getting into the movie theater business.
The e-commerce giant is reportedly bidding to buy cinema chain Landmark Theatres, which owns about 50 movie theaters in the US, Bloomberg reported today (Aug. 16).
If it comes to fruition, Amazon would be the first big tech company to enter the cinema space, which has been upended in recent years by streaming-video services like Netflix that make it easier and more affordable to watch new movies at home. Movie ticket sales declined (pdf) about 9% in the US and Canada—the world’s largest movie market—from 2012-2017. Subscription services like MoviePass have since attempted to revitalize moviegoing by changing the model of selling tickets. Landmark partners with MoviePass to offer e-ticketing, seat selection, and other perks through the app.
Shares of three of the largest US cinema chains, AMC Theaters, Cinemark, and Marcus Corp, ticked up 1-4% during intraday trading on Thursday, after word spread of Amazon’s interest in the market. The stocks initially dipped on the news, but all quickly recovered. IMAX Corp was down almost 1% on the day. The e-commerce giant shook up the grocery world last year when it acquired Whole Foods, and has since brought perks like free delivery and discounts for subscribers of its Amazon-wide Prime program to the chain.
Amazon rents and sells movies online, streams them on its subscription service, Prime Video, and makes and distributes them through Amazon Studios. It’s also a big buyer of independent films. Landmark Theatres, known for arthouse films, would give it a piece of the physical outlets where those movies play.
Unlike Netflix, which releasesits original movies online the same day they hit theaters, if they hit theaters at all, Amazon has stuck to the traditional way of releasing its films, such as Manchester By the Sea and The Big Sick. It releases them in theaters first, and waits at least three months before making them available online. The movie industry has long depended on this model, which assures that the people who want to see a movie most have to pay the most, and makes those who are unwilling to shell out the cash wait. Sticking to this model has made cinema chains more willing to working with Amazon than peers like Netflix, though the streaming-video rival does have a distribution deal with luxury theater chain iPic.
Consider postpartum depression: some 10% to 20% of mothers feel a prolonged sadness, anxiety, irritability, and inability to bond with their newborns after giving birth, for anywhere between a few weeks and six months. The condition is likely due to a set of changes that occur after a woman gives birth as her body adjusts itself once more. Medical experts still don’t know all the pieces of this complicated adjustment process, nor do they know exactly what it might due to a woman’s mental health—or whether some element of those changes mimic what happens in the body of someone with clinical depression. Because many of their symptoms are similar to that clinical depression, these women are often treated with standard antidepressants, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), even though postpartum depression might be a completely different condition.
But for the first time, a drug specifically tailored to treat postpartum depression is close to receiving approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In April of this year, Sage Pharmaceuticals, a Massachusetts-based biotech startup, submitted a new drug application for brexaolone after successful phase III clinical trials. Positive results from small phase II clinical trials spurred the FDA to give brexaolone a breakthrough therapy status, which speeds up the approval process; it’s expected to be completed by mid-December.
While SSRIs prolong the life of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, brexaolone targets a different chemical, called GABA. GABA works by telling cells in the brain to calm down. As Scientific American explains, during pregnancy, a woman’s body is flooded by all sorts of chemicals, including a steroid that activates GABA receptors. But these receptors are automatically shut down during pregnancy, because pregnant women need less of the dampening neurotransmitter. In other words, the extra steroid can’t override the GABA-receptor shutdown, and as a result, excess GABA remains in the brain.
When the woman gives birth, her body readjusts. She stops producing the steroid, and her GABA receptors wake up. Sometimes, though, the receptors don’t restart perfectly, and her brain can’t take up enough GABA—a hallmark of regular depression and anxiety.
Brexaolone works by activating more GABA receptors, enabling a new mother’s brain to utilize more of the neurotransmitter. In a phase III trial of 246 postpartum women, the majority of women who received brexaolone reported fewer symptoms of depression compared to those on a placebo. The drug is administered through an IV over the course of 60 hours; Sage is also developing a more convenient pill.
GABA may not be the only chemical change underlying postpartum depression, notes Joseph Lonstein, a psychologist at Michigan State University who was not involved in the research. Nevertheless, Lonstein told Scientific American, the discovery that targeting GABA can be an effective treatment for postpartum depression is certainly a welcome development in the field.
Should the FDA approve the drug, it would become the first treatment option specifically for women with postpartum depression, and could be used later on to treat other forms of depression or mood disorders.
As soon as next year, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft will whip around the earth at 17,500 miles per hour, ferrying two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.
Those astronauts will have little piloting to do; the spacecraft is mostly automated, as its predecessor was on cargo runs going back to 2010. Indeed, when the Crew Dragon takes flight, its emergency control pad may contain just six physical buttons. Each one initiates automated crisis procedures, a sudden return to earth or retreat from the ISS among them. If something goes wrong and the astronauts must take control, it won’t be by joystick; the pilot will point his gloved fingers at a touchscreen to manually control the vehicle.
In the 1960s, the original Mercury 7 astronauts famously demanded that NASA add a window and more controls to their space capsule to make it more flyable. Today’s astronauts are playing as big a role in designing the next generation of spacecraft, but the model is different: SpaceX and Boeing are building spacecraft to effectively replace the Space Shuttle, but NASA is buying a transportation service, not a vehicle. The balance of power has shifted. The Crew Dragon astronauts wanted more controls than the ultra-simple configuration presented by SpaceX, but the company’s engineers won out.
So far, these controls have only been used in simulations. But the four astronauts chosen by NASA to ride in SpaceX’s vehicle—all experienced military aviators—are now training for the real thing, which could come as soon as April 2019. Therein lies the paradox: The most highly trained pilots and engineers in the world are needed to break in a vehicle that is designed to fly through space without human input at all.
A control panel mock-up used to train astronauts who will fly SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.
NASA meets Silicon Valley
This new model of spaceflight is intended to put private companies to work replicating NASA achievements, such as flying humans to low-earth orbit, cheaply and efficiently, so that the space agency can set its sights on deep space exploration. SpaceX, in turn, can learn from the world’s premiere space agency, and tap into its public funding to achieve the broader aspirations propounded by founder Elon Musk, which extend to colonizing Mars.
“Human spaceflight was the reason that SpaceX was founded in the first place,” says Benji Reed, the SpaceX executive in charge of crew missions. “Every time we sit down…we always ask ourselves, would you fly on this, and more, would you put your family on this vehicle?”
The big question is whether companies operating can achieve the same reliability on a fixed budget as with traditional contracts that pay the full cost of a program plus a guaranteed profit. Both companies have talked about stripping the bells and whistles from the spacecraft, especially compared to the ultra-complex Space Shuttle. SpaceX also brings its own verve: Its spacesuit met all the requirements for being lighter and easier to work in than previous models, and in astronaut Doug Hurley’s words, is “pretty neat looking, too, which was not a requirement, but we certainly appreciate it.”
SpaceX’s “neat” spacesuit on display.
During a tour of SpaceX’s factory in Hawthorne, California, by the Crew Dragon astronauts on Aug. 13, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said the company would not launch “until we are ready to fly these folks safely.” She touched on a plan known as “load ‘n’ go,” to fuel the rocket when the astronauts are already strapped in on top. It had been criticized by some NASA safety advisers, but now meets their standards and those of the space agency.
“We were glad that we could provide the data to NASA as well as the safety advisory panel…to demonstrate to them that this was the right way to go,” Shotwell said, noting numerous safety features on the spacecraft, including that it is designed for an emergency escape from the rocket, even on the launch pad, if something goes wrong.
SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell introduces astronauts, including Doug Hurley, to SpaceX employees.
SpaceX is still working through other NASA safety requirements, like demonstrating a new engine pressurization system, that will need to be closed before crewed flight. Astronaut Bob Behnken, who will fly alongisde Hurley in the first Crew Dragon demonstration mission, compared his work with SpaceX to his time in the US Air Force, when he was a flight engineer helping develop the F-22 fighter aircraft. Both cases require significant partnership between government and private companies.
“You need a process in place that you can hang your hat on, that ensures the risks are appropriately assessed and that the folks that are going to be riding on the rocket, in our case, have the opportunity to voice concerns and have those addressed,” Behnken said. “We have a good process in place at NASA to do that.”
The SpaceX Dragon 2 is designed to carry as many as seven astronauts to the International Space Station.
For now, the astronauts are focused on simulated missions in two different trainers, a low-fi version that is essentially a control board and a pair of seats, and a life-size module for high-fidelity training in their new space suits. The astronauts and their trainers will spend hundreds of hours understanding every aspect of the launch—down to tracking the sounds made by the rocket during uncrewed test flights—mainly so that they’ll know if something is going wrong during Crew Dragon’s maiden journey.
Astronauts traditionally seek a strong bond with the people who build their vehicles, even creating an award called the Silver Snoopy to recognize those who go above and beyond to keep them safe outside the atmosphere. Although SpaceX employees were barred from speaking to the press, they did turn out on Aug. 13 to meet the astronauts who are now their most important customers (In addition to Hurley and Behnken, Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover, who will fly in the first operational mission, were in attendance.) SpaceX founder Elon Musk, now reportedly facing a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation at his electric car company Tesla, was conspicuously absent.
Ironically, it was an astronaut who voiced a fear that must be on the mind of everyone in the program. They were asked as a group what they about their mission made them fearful, and (naturally) didn’t say riding a rocket into space.
“You don’t want to make a mistake,” Hopkins responded. “When you look around here, you see all of the thousands of people here, they’re depending on us, and the last thing you want to do is let them down.”
The feeling at SpaceX is mutual.
Home-delivered meal kits are forecasted to have an annual growth rate of 25% to 30% over the next five years and become a $2.2 billion business—but that’s still just a rounding error in the multitrillion-dollar food industry. Blue Apron didn’t invent the ingredient-and-recipe meal kit service industry, but it drove it into the public’s consciousness and took off on an impressive growth run. Unfortunately, that initial success masked a problem with customer defection—churn—that unexpectedly tripped up the company just as it was celebrating early victory.
Blue Apron was founded in August 2012 from a commercial kitchen in Long Island, New York. Working from the notion that the market context was shifting due to the nexus of the internet, fast modern delivery infrastructure, and a growing population of consumers wanting gourmet food at home, the company’s three founders (CEO Matt Salzberg, Ilia Papas, and Matt Wadiak) devised, packaged, and shipped packages of ingredients and suggested recipes that consumers could cook by hand to create superior meals.
Blue Apron took off like wildfire—and within four years the company had shipped 8 million meals. By that point, Blue Apron had grown sufficiently large to open its own fulfillment centers in Richmond, California (to serve the West Coast), Jersey City, New Jersey (the East), and Arlington, Texas (the rest of the United States). A fourth center, in Linden, New Jersey, was announced in early 2017.
In November 2014, in a quick shift (and in hindsight, maybe a premature move) to a new growth path, Blue Apron also began to pursue customer and product diversification—opening Blue Apron Market, a cookware, merchandise, and cookbook store, and Blue Apron Wine, a subscription service that delivered to users six bottles of wine per month—to maximize customer acquisition cost by offering its existing base of subscribers more products to purchase—a classic product expansion strategy. But was it too much too fast? As might be expected, there were setbacks: some health and safety violations at the Richmond plant reduced customer (experience) satisfaction because delivery times weren’t met as promised, which could be blamed on the rush of such rapid growth. But all in all, Blue Apron seemed unstoppable.
It came as no surprise when on June 29, 2017, Blue Apron went public—30 million shares that opened at $10 per share were sold. That made it the first public company dedicated to meal kit delivery—and worth an estimated $3 billion. The future seemed bright indeed.
That’s when the dark clouds appeared. The first clue came in the company’s first IPO quarterly financials. The company reported revenues of $238.1 million, better than market expectations—yes, but it also suffered a loss of $0.47 a share, versus the street’s prediction of a loss of $0.30 a share. Clearly something was wrong. By September, the stock price was off nearly 50% and hovering around $5 per share. Why the plunge? Two reasons: competition and churn. In the words of Techcrunch, investors were “concerned about customer retention and the looming threat of Amazon.” Suddenly Blue Apron found itself hit by a class-action “stock drop” lawsuit—making three main claims:
- The company had cut its advertising just before the IPO, damaging revenues;
- Problems with the Linden, New Jersey, center had slowed deliveries; and the big one—
- The company was suffering diminishing customer retention—that is, greater churn—due to orders arriving late or incomplete.
The first two could either be explained or fixed. But for many, the last was the kiss of death for a subscription-based business. If you lose more customers than you gain each month, you don’t have much of a business at all. According to an analysis, the company could lose 72% of its customers within six months, which puts a tremendous strain on the cost of acquiring new customers (CAC) fast enough and at an appropriate cost, especially in light of number one on that list above. In the second quarter of 2017, it lost (via churn) 9% of its customer base. With revenues falling, the company was forced to institute a hiring freeze and, aggravating number one in the class-action suit, further cut back on marketing, customer acquisition, and spending. Blue Apron’s marketing as a percentage of net revenue decreased as it continued to pull back on marketing. This is a vicious cycle when churn gets out of control. You end up cutting spending in areas such as marketing, sales, and customer service to save on costs, but those decisions will impact the company’s top-line growth and put even further pressure on its stock price. Diversifying and expanding a portfolio of products is a calculated risk, but as is the case in many other examples, often companies forget about the interconnectedness of the decisions it makes to other parts of the business.
Diversifying and expanding a portfolio of products is a calculated risk, but as is the case in many other examples, often companies forget about the interconnectedness of the decisions it makes to other parts of the business. In Blue Apron’s case, the good news was that it was growing—the bad news was that it was growing so fast that it wasn’t able to ensure that the rest of the company could keep pace. An example was when it announced the rollout of its expanded plan and menu options at the Linden facility it was opening.
At the time, it was only able to offer those new products to half of its customers, which negatively impacted the value of the monthly subscription. Since then, Blue Apron has completed the rollout, and now 100% of its customers have access to the expanded product offering. In Blue Apron’s Q3 2017 Earnings call, Matt Salzberg, CEO, said, “Our initial indications, although early, show improvements in both order rate and retention when comparing customers who received the product expansion to those who had not yet received it.” If products aren’t consistent, if you don’t meet and exceed customer expectations in a subscription business month after month, you will lose customers.
The fact that it had acquired so many customers so quickly should have been a huge competitive advantage. Why? It now had a base of customers that it could learn from. It could use purchasing habits, average sales price and “basket size,” recipe choices, and average revenue per customer to help it design future products. Anticipating what your customers may want next has helped Netflix and Spotify stay ahead of churn and offensively mitigate customer defection. Blue Apron could have done the same thing, but didn’t.
Meanwhile, attracted by Blue Apron’s early success, the market was being flooded with other meal kit companies, including Chef’d, Hello Fresh, and Plated—while giants such as Unilever, Anheuser-Busch, and Coca-Cola were making investments in food-delivery service companies. Then, in the midst of all of this uproar, the biggest hit of all came: Amazon announced its purchase of Whole Foods.
Had Blue Apron used its early advantage to focus its attention on retaining its current customers, that is, reduced churn by developing a reputation for personalized, prompt, and quality service, instead of capturing new ones as quickly as possible, it might have found itself in a much more defensible position. The latest move from Blue Apron as it tries to navigate its way back to profitability and growth is that it replaced its CEO in December 2017 after its third-quarter earnings.
Correction: An earlier version of this article state that Blue Apron cut more than 1,200 jobs in August 2017. It moved the jobs to another facility.
Women make up little more than half the US population, but occupy only 18% of its corporate board seats. Meanwhile, more than a fifth of the 3,000 largest publicly traded US companies don’t have a single woman on the board (here’s a list). Even if women got an equal share of new board appointments, the US government estimates it could take four decades for America’s boardrooms to reach gender parity.
Not content to wait until 2058, California legislators are proposing to speed up the process. They’ve introduced a bill that would require publicly traded companies based in the state to have at least one woman on their board starting in 2020. Then, in 2022, companies with at least five directors would be required to have two female board members, and those with at least six directors would need at least three. Companies failing to meet those obligations could be fined “an amount equal to the average annual cash compensation for the directors of the corporation” for a first offense, with escalating penalties for subsequent infractions.
The bill, SB-826, passed the state senate, and now needs the approval of the state assembly by Aug. 31 to advance to the desk of California governor Jerry Brown.
While business lobbyists are lined up to oppose the bill, saying it will force them to privilege women even above more deserving male minority candidates, the concept of board quotas for women isn’t new. Businesses in Europe have been required to add women to boards since 2003, when Norway introduced the first quotas, and now economies as large as France and Germany have them in place. (In France, the target is 40%; in Germany it’s 30%.) There’s no evidence corporate governance has suffered in those countries, and there’s reason to believe its improved, by broadening the perspective around the board and by forcing companies (at least when they comply) to be more thoughtful about the talent they nurture and promote in their organization.
California, despite its progressive reputation, actually trails the rest of the US in female board representation, with 1.65 women per board, compared to 1.75 for the US as a whole, according to boardroom data provider Equilar. About 18%, or 37, public companies with annul revenues of $5 million or more would be out of compliance, Equilar says. While most are small and relatively anonymous, among them is Sketchers, the footwear company based in Manhattan Beach, which has no women on its board despite past promises to change its ways. (Skechers didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment).
There could be unintended consequences if the law passes, including giving companies yet another excuse not to go public. Still, like with many public policy initiatives, from paid weekends to seat-belt laws, quotas for women on boards may eventually be a mandate that seemed controversial at its inception, but whose logic becomes blindingly obvious after the fact.
It’s been five years since the master filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón made a film. That’s too long. But based on the mesmerizing trailer for Roma released today, the wait seems well worth it.
Netflix debuted the first look at Cuarón’s next film, Roma, a Spanish-language, black-and-white film set in Mexico City in the 1970s that’s partly inspired by the Mexican director’s own upbringing. The film, which follows a year in the life of a small middle-class family in the Roma neighborhood of the Mexican capital, is Cuarón’s most personal film ever, according to the acclaimed filmmaker.
It’s his first feature film since he won the Oscar for best director for Gravity in 2013—and that was his first film since he directed the magnificent Children of Men in 2006. Cuarón is particular about choosing his projects, but every time he does, it’s a gift:
Roma marks the rare occasion when Cuarón has not worked with his frequent collaborator, the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Instead, Cuarón served as his own cinematographer, for the first time. The result appears to be a sensuous, evocative visual journey that still bears some of the signatures of Cuarón’s earlier filmmaking, like his masterful use of long takes and the tracking shot.
Filmed on location in Mexico on 65mm, film purists eager to watch it on the big screen were understandably annoyed when it was revealed that Netflix had picked up distribution rights to the film and would release the film on its streaming service in December. But Cuarón was adamant about making his film available to as many people as possible, and Netflix ensures a wide global release. Being a Spanish-language, black-and-white film featuring unknown actors, Roma was a tough sell to traditional distributors who may not have put the film out in many theaters anyway, executive producer David Linde said in an interview with Indiewire.
Netflix, for what it’s worth, is planning a limited theatrical release for Roma, mostly to ensure it qualifies for awards. The streamer has a promising slate of films for awards season this fall, and Roma might be the best bet of them all. Notably, the end of the trailer mentions that the film is “coming soon in select theaters” before it mentions streaming on Netflix, perhaps hinting that the company plans a bigger theatrical release than normal (it usually releases films in a very small number of theaters on the same day it debuts online to Netflix subscribers). The trailer surprisingly doesn’t include the service’s watermark, which plays over many of its film trailers.
you can tell ROMA is incredible because Netflix didn’t put their logo at the start of the trailer or put their watermark *on* the trailer. and then at the end of the trailer it only mentions a theatrical release. the holy trinity. buckle up. https://t.co/lfIbSCaYt3
— david ehrlich (@davidehrlich) August 16, 2018
Zimbabwe’s beleaguered tourism sector is starting to re-engage its international markets, targeting tour operators who had ceased to package the country in recent years.
The most high-profile example this month is a major marketing campaign signed between the Zimbabwe’s tourism ministry and a Chinese firm Touchroad International which brought Zheing Zhiang TV and Radio into the country, recently, to begin filming and photographing Zimbabwe’s key tourist destinations.
Zimbabwe has been losing tourists to competing southern and east African countries after become something of a pariah state in the latter years under the rule of former president Robert Mugabe who ruled for 37 years.
During an April visit to China, president Emmerson Mnangagwa signed a number of agreements with the Chinese, including a deal to film documentaries in Zimbabwe to be showcased in China.
Zimbabwe has several world-renowned tourism hubs including Victoria Falls, Great Zimbabwe and Lake Kariba among others.
The Chinese video campaign of Zimbabwe promotional videos is expected help support a $1.2 billion opportunity in the country through the tourism sector.
Zimbabwe’s minister of tourism Prisca Mupfumira said there is also a need to recover the country’s volumes of arrivals from traditional source markets wherein the nation used to have a high market share of foreign versus local tourists of as high as 30% of travelers being foreign which had now fallen to below 20% over the past years.
There has been an increase of tourist arrivals since the nation opened its borders which were not welcoming under Mugabe regime as statistics from Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) said the country received a total of 2,422,930 tourist arrivals in the year 2017, which represents a 12% increase from the 2,167,686 tourists received in 2016. But the country whose economy has struggled in the last decade will be keen to boost those numbers especially in a quest for foreign exchange.
Chinese travelers are now the world’s top tourism spenders, spending almost $260 billion in 2017. A growing part of that spend is now happening in Africa, encouraged by relaxed visa rules, increased interest in the continent’s cultural and historical sites, and initiatives that seek to appeal to Chinese tourists.
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MoviePass members can basically only watch movies MoviePass wants them to see now.
The movie-ticket subscription service, which began rolling out a new plan this week, is limiting the movie selection that will be available to subscribers each day. MoviePass introduced a new plan on Aug. 15 that offers three movie tickets for $9.95 per month, as opposed to the movie per day subscribers used to get with the service. Members on the old, “unlimited” plan were being asked to opt into the new one when their current billing cycles ended.
A day after the new plan began, CEO Mitch Lowe said in an email to subscribers today, Aug. 16, that subscribers will now only get six movie choices per day—”for the time being.” MoviePass may also limit the showtimes available based on the popularity of the films on the app on a given day, the email said. These restrictions apply to subscribers on the annual and quarterly unlimited plan, who have not yet transitioned to the three-ticket plan, as well. MoviePass partner theaters that offer e-ticketing, like Landmark Theatres and Studio Movie Grill locations, will include all movies and showtimes.
During the heyday of MoviePass, subscribers were able to watch whatever movies were playing in the standard movie format at theaters. Then the company introduced peak pricing for popular movies and showtimes, a practice it’s now suspending. Members have complained over the last few weeks of showtimes disappearing during the day, or only having access to a few movies–and sometimes none at all—at their local theaters. MoviePass has been limiting the availability of blockbuster releases like Mission:Impossible—Fallout and The Meg over the last few weeks, as well.
The new six-movie selection introduces some order into the recent chaos of using the service. MoviePass plans to publish the daily schedule of movies available at least a week ahead of time, as the slate will change each day. Today, for example, the selection includes:
- The Meg
- The Miseducation of Cameron Post
- Skate Kitchen
- Summer of 84
- We the Animals
- Juliet, Naked
Tomorrow’s lineup swaps BlacKkKlansman and The Meg for Christopher Robin and Mile 22.
The new limitations come after parent company Helios and Matheson Analytics posted a $126.6 million loss for the quarter ending June 30, largely due to the rising cost of running MoviePass.
The fashion industry is surprisingly old-fashioned. For decades, it has relied on cheap, manual labor to do just about every job. But it’s entering a period of radical change, when future-minded brands are turning to technology to drastically speed up how they make clothes.
Levi’s has started rolling out lasers to its supplier factories that do the work of distressing jeans from start to finish in under two minutes, a job that has previously required lots of time, effort, and human hands. Big brands from Uniqlo to small labels like Ministry of Supply are working with 3D-knitting machines that can produce a complete sweater practically on demand, without any seams or sewing required. Zozo, Japan’s largest fashion e-commerce company, is turning our smartphones into measuring devices, making it possible to get t-shirts, jeans, and other items custom-made, faster and cheaper, on a mass scale.
The change isn’t coming out of nowhere. The industry is trying desperately to keep up with the world around it. Social media has meant that shoppers see every trend the moment it appears, and move on faster than ever. Fast fashion and e-commerce have trained us to expect instantaneous access to everything, while younger generations are increasingly demanding that they be able to tailor products to their preferences.
Much of the industry is still out-of-step with this reality, producing giant piles of inventory months in advance without knowing for certain what will even sell. The brands that are faster and more responsive to the market are winning in this environment, which is why the most ambitious companies are using high-tech solutions to speed up and give customers exactly what they want.
Why, then, haven’t we just automated clothes manufacturing? It isn’t as easy as it sounds. Robots still have a surprisingly hard time handling flimsy, stretchy fabric. But there are ideas on how to solve that issue too, and even the concept of a fully automated fashion production line is looking more realistic than ever.
If Walmart is getting squeezed by Amazon, you wouldn’t know it.
The retailer reported today that sales at US stores open at least a year rose 4.5% in its most recent quarter, the highest growth in a decade. Despite the threat of people staying home and ordering their stuff online—probably from Amazon—Walmart says it recorded more shoppers going to its stores, and spending more per trip, than in previous quarters.
Walmart’s grocery business was particularly strong (pdf), as the company worked to make buying fresh food easy for a larger number of customers. CEO Doug McMillon said the company now has more than 1,800 locations that offer grocery pickup, and is working to expand its grocery delivery service to cover 40% of the US population by the end of the year.
Stores weren’t the only bright spot. Walmart’s US e-commerce sales jumped by 40% in the three months to July. The company has been working to add more partner brands to the list of those it sells online, giving shoppers an increasingly large selection to choose from. It has added 1,100 brands so far this year, including Zwilling J. A. Henckels cutlery and cookware, O’Neill surf apparel, Shimano cycling products, and a host of fashion and footwear brands now available on its dedicated Lord & Taylor shop.
Along with groceries, Walmart stressed that clothing was another area showing strong momentum. The company has been making a play to bulk up those sales, keeping pace with Amazon’s growing fashion ambitions. In the past year or so, Walmart has bought up brands such as ModCloth and Bonobos, and launched several of its own private-label offerings.
The battle between Walmart and Amazon is far from over, and Walmart is showing that it’s got plenty of fight left in it.
Legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin, known widely as the Queen of Soul, died at the age of 76 in her Detroit home today, according to her publicist.
Within minutes of Franklin’s death, #QueenOfSoul began trending on Twitter, and condolences from friends and fans—as well as tributes from some of the biggest names in music, politics, and film—rolled in online.
Some of the most poignant comments were from her fellow musicians, of every genre, who told of being inspired by her voice, personality, and talent:
Let’s all take a moment to give thanks for the beautiful life of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of our souls, who inspired us all for many many years. She will be missed but the memory of her greatness as a musician and a fine human being will live with us forever. Love Paul pic.twitter.com/jW4Gpwfdts
— Paul McCartney (@PaulMcCartney) August 16, 2018
Very sad to hear the news about Aretha, she was so inspiring and wherever you were she always brought you to church. pic.twitter.com/GMCzQRkahc
— The Rolling Stones (@RollingStones) August 16, 2018
I’m very sad to hear about Aretha Franklin passing. She was one of the greatest and most emotional singers. I used to love listening to her in the sixties but her music is timeless. Love & Mercy to Aretha’s family and friends. pic.twitter.com/fFVKyjxIXT
— Brian Wilson (@BrianWilsonLive) August 16, 2018
"It's sheer gospel – the heart of God pouring out"
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) August 16, 2018
This is the face of a young man who couldn't believe he was actually singing with the GREATEST OF ALL TIME. Thank you, Ms. Franklin for blessing us with your incomparable gift. Honored to have shared the stage with you even for a moment. Always bowing down to you. #QueenofSoul pic.twitter.com/4bZVAWcqeS
— Justin Timberlake (@jtimberlake) August 16, 2018
Whether it was Gospel, Blues, Jazz, R&B, Pop,or Civil Rights, Aretha Franklin was the greatest gift and the voice of a generation. She could turn any song into a hymn. She will be greatly missed here on earth, but that band in heaven just got our Angel
Rest In Peace Aretha
— Willie Nelson (@WillieNelson) August 16, 2018
Today we have lost one of the greatest. She will always be remembered and admired. Aretha Franklin, rest in peace. We love you.
— Ricky Martin (@ricky_martin) August 16, 2018
The loss of @ArethaFranklin is a blow for everybody who loves real music: Music from the heart, the soul and the Church. Her voice was unique, her piano playing underrated – she was one of my favourite pianists. pic.twitter.com/ug5oZYywAz
— Elton John (@eltonofficial) August 16, 2018
Aretha was such a timeless inspiration to me and so many others, the ultimate queen, thank you for the gift of your voice, music and unshakeable soul pic.twitter.com/me3FXBY4WZ
— Christina Aguilera (@xtina) August 16, 2018
Salute to the Queen. The greatest vocalist I've ever known. #Aretha
— John Legend (@johnlegend) August 16, 2018
The greatest voice in American popular music has been stilled. Our beloved #ArethaFranklin has gone. For me, she was a musical lighthouse, guiding and inspiring with every note. I loved her so and love her still. Goodbye, Queen of Soul.
— Bette Midler (@BetteMidler) August 16, 2018
It was a double thrill for me to perform on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera on my 85th birthday and have the Queen of Soul (and heart) Aretha Franklin singing with me….she will be missed by the world. pic.twitter.com/74VM9IYejI
— Tony Bennett (@itstonybennett) August 16, 2018
I'm saddened to learn that Aretha Franklin has passed.The most soulful and inspirational singer of our time. / Je suis attristée d'apprendre le décès d’Aretha Franklin. La chanteuse la plus inspirante de notre époque. – Céline xx…
: Kevin Mazur https://t.co/3Tz7G2W205 pic.twitter.com/Q5DtmJ1IVa
— Celine Dion (@celinedion) August 16, 2018
We have lost the greatest singer of our time. As a songwriter, I know personally how meaningful a gifted interpreter of material can be.
No one can replace her.
– Billy Joel pic.twitter.com/7QZQ1IzSD8
— Billy Joel (@billyjoel) August 16, 2018
— Lionel Richie (@LionelRichie) August 16, 2018
— Carole King (@Carole_King) August 16, 2018
I’ve had so many influences in my life, and one of them is the Queen of Soul. Rest In Peace, Aretha. I’ll sing this one for you. https://t.co/GcwwWioHsl
— Reba (@reba) August 16, 2018
The Queen of Soul has left this earth to sit on her throne in heaven. How blessed we were to hear the best that God had to offer in her voice. RESPECT!
: Mark Seliger pic.twitter.com/v9OxtyrZ74
— Lenny Kravitz (@LennyKravitz) August 16, 2018
One of the highlights of my career was singing with #ArethaFranklin at The Tony Awards. It was an out of body experience for me. One of greatest singers of all time. You will be missed by all. https://t.co/L8dIIhyR9Y
— Hugh Jackman (@RealHughJackman) August 16, 2018
deepest respect and gratitude to the queen.
swift rebirth. #ARETHA
— k.d. lang (@kdlang) August 16, 2018
For some, getting Apple gossip from the internet just isn’t enough.
A 16-year-old from Melbourne allegedly was able to hack into Apple’s private servers and retrieve over 90 GB of private information over time, Australian paper The Age reported today (Aug. 16.)
The teen, who can’t be named for legal reasons, managed to break through Apple’s security to access the company’s internal file systems over the course of a year. It’s unclear what information he accessed.
After bypassing security measures, he was able to tunnel in and download reams of information on the company. Apple eventually caught on, blocked his access, and alerted the FBI. He pleaded guilty to the criminal intrusion in an Australian court, and will be sentenced next month.
Australian police seized two of his computers last year, and found files and information on how he accessed servers in a folder called “hacky hack hack,” according to The Age. The boy was apparently a massive fan of the US electronics giant, and dreamed of working for the company one day.
Apple wasn’t immediately available to comment on the hack.
Although the teenager may be facing serious criminal charges for his actions, he’s now possibly one of the few people outside of Apple who might know what the company is actually working on these days.
The legendary singer-songwriter Aretha Franklin, known widely as the Queen of Soul, died in her Detroit home today, according to her publicist. She was 76.
Known for hits such as “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools,” Franklin got her start singing gospel in the Detroit church of her famous pastor father, and was signed at an early age to Columbia Records. She became a worldwide star after moving to Atlantic Records in 1967 and working with producer Jerry Wexler, who took her to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where she recorded the funky, soul-baring single “I’ve Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”
The song, which includes the raw opening lines—”You’re no good / heartbreaker / You’re a liar and you’re a cheat / And I don’t know why / I let you do you these things to me”—appeared to be a reference to her own tumultuous life, which included two pregnancies at a young age and an abusive relationship.
Franklin went on to be seen as an icon of strength and power with her rendition of “Respect,” which became a feminist and civil rights anthem (paywall). Throughout her career, Franklin netted 18 Grammys, sold more than 75 million records, and was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone named her the greatest singer of all time.
At one of her last public appearances, Franklin performed a rendition of “Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center that left Michelle and Barack Obama visibly in tears. Following the performance, Franklin told Vogue: “I am a natural woman. I think that women have to be strong. If you don’t, some people will run right over you.”
Here are a few of the star’s notable performances:
Before that last performance, Soul Train host Don Cornelius said it well:
I consider myself very fortunate to have lived on Earth during her career. She deserves all the titles she has been given, for she is the queen, she is the crown princess, she is Lady Soul. She is the unbelievable Aretha Franklin.
Most current-day economists agree that trade leads to growth. A study publishedby the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that was also the case during the Iron Age.
Four economists from the Universities of Oxford, Konstanz (Germany), and the London School of Economics, studied communities along the Mediterranean 3,000 years ago. They found those most likely to trade also were likely to be more developed.
There are no import and export statistics from back then. As a proxy, the researchers looked at connectivity: how many markets merchants could reach (at that time, trade distances were dramatically increasing due to sailing ships). To measure growth, the study counted archeological remains, assuming that a more active economy results in more towns and cities.
“We find a pronounced relationship between connectivity and development in our dataset for the Iron Age around 750 BC, when the Phoenicians began to systematically traverse the open sea,” the authors write.
“Our results could be driven by migration or the spread of ideas as well, and when we talk about ‘trade’ we interpret it in this broad sense,” they added. One sign of that spread of people and ideas: thehouse mouse, which traveled as a castaway in Phoenician ships. In a matter of a few centuries, it went from being non-existent west of Greece to settling throughout the central and western Mediterranean, hence the paper’s title: “Of Mice and Merchants: Trade and Growth in the Iron Age.”
The researchers did the same analysis for other parts of the world, this time using population density as a proxy for growth, and found similar results. Here’s the map of the most connected areas based on their geography, in darker blue. (To measure connectivity, the researchers laid a grid over the coastal areas, and calculated how many other “coast” cells could be reached by traveling up to 500 kilometers— around 310 miles.)
The most shaded areas were the most connected.
To be sure, conditions have changed dramatically since those days. Today geography does not limit traders in the same way as before thanks to fuel, airplanes, and the internet. But looking at the past is useful “to understand where we are, why trade has shaped human wealth, human geography, and where humans settle for a long time,” said Stephan Maurer, one of the paper’s co-authors.
Some of the dark blue areas in the map remain among the most developed today.
Middle children are increasingly rare in the US—but their scarcity seems to be adding to their allure.
As Adam Sternbergh explains in a recent article for New York Magazine’s The Cut, the middle child is disappearing as Americans trend toward smaller families. Nearly two-thirds of US women with children now have one or two kids, down from 35% in 1976.
Yet while Americans may be having fewer kids, they certainly seem to find at least the idea of a trio appealing. As the Pew Research Center notes, a recent Gallup survey found that 41% of US adults think families with three or more children are ideal, a share that hasn’t been this high since the late 1990s.
What to make of the apparent disconnect between Americans’ attitudes toward family size and their realities? The answer comes down to the changing state of the US economy.
US attitudes toward family size
During and after World War II, a clear majority of Americans said that three or more children was their ideal number. But over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, the appeal of bigger families underwent a steep decline, as illustrated by the chart below:
The state of the economy is one reason for the evolution of demographic attitudes in the US, according to Pew. Americans’ preference for families with three or more children reached a low of 28% in 1986, after multiple recessions shook the country between July 1981 and November 1982. Today, the lack of affordable childcare and concerns about the economy are among the most-cited reasons that young adults offer for having fewer children than they’d like, as a recent New York Times and Morning Consult survey explains. Meanwhile, as Sternbergh writes for The Cut, a larger family is often a sign of financial security and economic confidence: “Three kids—which a generation ago was considered a slightly smaller brood than ideal—now seems aspirational, even decadent,” he writes.
Educational attainment is another factor that influences how many children families have. On average, the more educated a woman is in the US, the fewer children she will have in her lifetime. But as Pew notes in its report, that educational gap in fertility is narrowing: Highly educated women are increasingly opting to have families of three or more kids, and childlessness among all American women ages 40 to 44 is at its lowest point in a decade.
That doesn’t mean that US parents are rushing to recreate Cheaper by the Dozen anytime soon. Highly educated adults are still less likely than those with no college degree to say that having three or more children is ideal, according to Gallup. And there is no denying that the longer-term demographic trend has been toward much smaller American families. So what does that mean for the fate of middle kids?
The resurgence of the middle child
Many people believe that the order in which you are born has a big influence on your personality. That theory is more than a little controversial: Writing for Quartz, Jenny Anderson notes “there is little science to back up” the idea that birth order determines the kind of people we become. In fact, in the last decade, two studies have debunked that idea.
That said, Catherine Salmon, a professor of psychology at the University of Redlands and expert on middle children, says that birth order is best thought of as one of the many environmental factors that shape who people become. “If we think that almost all traits and all aspects of behavior are a combination of genes and environment,” she explains, “birth order is only one part of the environment.”
Middle children, as Sternbergh notes, have often gotten a bad rap in pop culture—dismissed as jealous, easily forgotten Jan Brady types. But he argues that middleness is increasingly understood as a strength, rather than a complex:
In this revisionist school of middleness, for example, middle children are seen as skilled diplomats by virtue of being stuck between two siblings. They’re portrayed as loyal romantic partners and friends, because they are both hungry for intimate bonds and willing to compromise to maintain relationships. And they’re believed to be natural innovators, since they’re less likely to feel the weight of parental expectation.
It’s implausible to think that any amount of good PR for middle kids will reverse a demographic decline decades in the making. But Salmon says that we should be making an effort to pass the diplomatic traits they’re known for onto all children, irrespective of their birth order. “We live in a world now where we have an awful lot of conflict,” Salmon added. “Some of the negotiating and peacekeeping skills [of middle children] seem to be in short supply these days.”
Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.
The “culture versus strategy” debate is nearly as old as the light beer ads it resembles: “Tastes Great!/Less Filling!”
And as in those classic ads, each side has had its staunch supporters. In recent years, culture advocates have become thicker on the ground, often asserting the superiority of culture on the authority of something management guru Peter Drucker probably never said—that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Cooler heads have rightly argued that it’s a false choice—strategy and culture must reinforce each other.
In a survey of 11,000 executives we conducted this year, instead of offering respondents an either/or choice, we asked them to indicate where they stood on a continuum between the two poles of the argument: “Strategy is a primary source of competitive advantage” and “Corporate culture is a primary source of competitive advantage.” Most executives see a rough balance between strategy and culture.
The raw average scores for each group fell within a fairly narrow range toward the middle of the scale. In other words, unlike extreme proponents of one pole or the other, most executives see a rough balance between strategy and culture. Nevertheless, there is a marked tilt in favor of culture in the higher levels of the organization, with the numbers moving almost steadily toward culture as you move from individual contributor to CEO.
Why are senior leaders likely to value culture more than executives further down in the organization? Several reasons suggest themselves. First, managers, unlike their superiors, have little opportunity to shape culture and are therefore likely to undervalue it to some degree. Second, as leaders rise higher they gain a more comprehensive view of the organization’s many moving parts and see culture as the means of aligning all those parts around strategy. Third, because more senior leaders manage people who manage other people, they must rely on the culture, rather than direct contact, to ensure constructive interpersonal dynamics throughout their organizations. But whatever the reason, at the higher levels of the organization a greater emphasis on culture seems to come with the territory. Managers, unlike their superiors, have little opportunity to shape culture and are therefore likely to undervalue it to some degree.
Karen West is the chief innovation officer of HLabs, Heidrick & Struggles’ R&D function. Elliott Stixrud is a consultant and senior director of methods development in HLabs.
Aretha Franklin, who died today at the age of 76 in her home in Detroit, was known for her unbelievable musical talent and majestic career, but the Queen of Soul was also a longtime warrior in the fight for social justice.
A close friend of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who visited her in her final days, Franklin was a vocal supporter of civil rights movements, often performing at benefits and encouraging voter registration. But her private and church-based work—including stepping in to financially support Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement, the families of incarcerated people, and black activist ministers—was largely under the radar, Jackson told the Detroit Free Press recently. That’s part of why she was a fitting choice to sing at the inauguration of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, where she regaled the crowd with an emotion-filled rendition of “My Country Tis of Thee” (video).
A reminder of Franklin’s ready activism came this week with the resurfacing of a 1970 article from the magazine Jet (p. 54), reporting her intention to post bail for the black power activist Angela Davis, who was being held in prison in connection with the escape attempt of prisoners from a California courtroom, in which several people were killed. (She would eventually be acquitted.)
At a time when Davis was called a “dangerous terrorist” by president Richard Nixon, Franklin didn’t hesitate to risk her her reputation and money to support the now legendary civil rights activist.
Aretha Franklin on Dr. Angela Davis' bond:"…Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in." pic.twitter.com/zJgK5XQO7V
— Charles Preston (@_CharlesPreston) August 13, 2018
Discussing her offer to pay—”whether it’s $100,000, or $250,000″—to free the University of California, Los Angeles philosophy instructor and “admitted communist” Davis, Franklin explains that she was going against the advice of her own father, a Baptist minister and close associate of Dr. King, in making the offer. Her argument for why she did so is a poignant, pithy defense of the fight for freedom and racial equality:
My daddy (Detroit’s Rev. C.L.Franklin) says I don’t know what I’m doing. Well, I respect him, of course, but I’m going to stick by my beliefs. Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people. I have the money; I got it from Black people—they’ve made me financially able to have it—and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”
Aretha Franklin was revered on all the stages that stretched across her many realms, from awards shows to academia. One story linking those two worlds stars David Bowie alongside the Queen of Soul—though it didn’t happen quite as he later recounted it.
Yoko Ono and John Lennon arrive for the pre-Grammys dinner in 1975.
It was 1975 and Bowie had just met John Lennon for the first time. A couple of evenings later, the two were at the music industry awards show in New York. Bowie presented the Grammy for best R&B vocal performance by a woman. For the eighth year in a row, the same singer won: the already legendary Franklin.
Bowie spun a somewhat embellished tale for the graduates on the day his honorary degree was conferred:
Before the show I’d been telling John that I didn’t think America really got what I did, that I was misunderstood. Remember that I was in my 20s and out of my head.
So the big moment came and I ripped open the envelope and announced, “The winner is Aretha Franklin.” Aretha steps forward, and with not so much as a glance in my direction, snatches the trophy out of my hands and says, “Thank you everybody. I’m so happy I could even kiss David Bowie.” Which she didn’t! And she promptly spun around, swanned off stage right. So I slunk off stage left.
And John bounds over and gives me a theatrical kiss and a hug and says “See, Dave. America loves ya.”
That’s not exactly how it went, as becomes apparent when seeing moments not shown in the official Recording Academy clip above. Perhaps Bowie can be forgiven. In 1975, he was deep into his coked-up Thin White Duke journey.
Bowie in 1975.
His first words to the Grammy audience were a playful hint at what he had been up to in those days and nights. “Ladies and gentleman and others. I am honored to have been selected to perform this particular task,” he said. “I gave it a Grammy enthusiasm, in fact,” pausing for a dramatic sniffle that drew knowing laughs at the Uris Theatre. (You can watch here, starting at 49 seconds in.)
A radiant Franklin did, in fact, lean in for a kiss on the cheek (at 3:41 in the extended video) when Bowie handed her the award. (So much for snatching the trophy without a glance!) After Franklin speaks, she walks off the stage, and steps down toward the audience without flourish. Bowie heads into the wings—on the same side of the set—at a relaxed pace. So no stage-right, stage-left business either. (See all that starting at 4:24.)
Honored in two worlds
Franklin, who won a staggering 18 Grammys, was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and received countless other music awards. Like Bowie (who himself died in 2016), she was also adored in academia. Franklin was awarded at least a dozen honorary degrees from institutions including Yale, Harvard and the New England Conservatory of Music.
She linked those worlds in spirit and in deed, taking to the piano on the commencement stage to perform the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Harvard in 2014.
When Berklee presented Franklin with her own honorary doctorate in 2006, she told that year’s class, “Follow your dreams, follow your heart, sing yourself. Go out there and let them have it.”
Fellow honoree Melissa Etheridge, the 2006 commencement speaker, told a more uplifting story than Bowie’s. The singer-songwriter cited Franklin’s role in inspiring her, a wanna-be drummer in the third grade in 1968:
I would go home and I would receive my inspiration from the radio and from the records my parents and my sister had. Thank God they had good musical taste. My parents would bring home Simon and Garfunkel and I remember when they brought an amazing album called Amazing Grace. I sat and bathed in the amazing music of Aretha Franklin. Music was a way to communicate with my family. We didn’t have much to say, but we could listen to Aretha Franklin. We could feel that way.
Smell is the ugly stepchild of the sense family. Sight gives us sunsets and Georgia O’Keefe. Sound gives us Brahms and Aretha Franklin. Touch gives us silk and hugs. Taste gives us butter and ripe tomatoes.
But what about smell? It doesn’t exist only to make us gag over subway scents or tempt us into a warm-breaded stupor. Flowers emit it to make them more attractive to pollinators. Rotting food might reek of it so we don’t eat it. And although scientists haven’t yet pinned down a human sex pheromone, many studies suggest smell influences who we want to climb in bed with.
Olivia Jezler studies the science and psychology that underpins our olfactory system. For the past decade, she has worked with master perfumers, developed fragrances for luxury brands, researched olfactory experience at the SCHI lab at University of Sussex, and now is the CEO of Future of Smell, which works with brands and new technologies to design smellable concepts that bridge science and art.
In this interview, Jezler reveals the secret life of smell. Some topics covered include:
- how marketers use our noses to sell to us
- why “new car smell” is so pervasive
- how indoor air is often more polluted than outdoor air
- the reason why luxury perfume is so expensive
- why babies smell so damn good
- how Plato and Aristotle poo-pooed our sense of smell
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Quartz: On a scientific level, why is smell such an evocative sense?
Olivia Jezler: Our sense of smell is rooted in the most primal part of our brain for survival. It’s not linked through the thalamus, which is where all other sensory information is integrated: It’s directly and immediately relayed to another area, the amygdala. None of our other senses have this direct and intimate connection to the areas of the brain that process emotion, associative learning, and memory.
Why? Because the structure of this part of the brain—the limbic system—grew out of tissue that was first dedicated to processing the sense of smell. Our chemical senses were the first that emerged when we were single-cell organisms, because they would help us understand our surroundings, find food, and reproduce. Still today, emotionally driven responses through our senses of taste and smell make an organism react appropriately to its environment, maximizing its chances for basic survival and reproduction.
Beauty products like lotions and perfumes obviously have their own smells. But what unexpected businesses use scent in their branding?
It’s common for airlines to have scents developed for them. Air travel is interesting because, as it’s high stress, you want to make people feel connected to your brand in a positive way. For example, British Airways has diffusers in the bathrooms and a smell for their towels. That way you walk in and you can smell the “British Airways smell.”
It’s also very common in food. You can design food so that the smell evaporates in different ways. Nespresso capsules, for instance, are designed to create a lot of odor when you’re using one so that you feel like you’re in a coffee shop. I’m sure a lot of those make-at-home frozen pizza brands are designed to let out certain smells while they’re in the oven to feel more authentic, too.
That’s an example of the “enhancement of authenticity.” Another example might be when fake leather is made to smell like real leather instead of plastic.
So we got used to the smell of natural things, but then as production became industrialized, we now have to fabricate the illusion of naturalness back into the chemical and unnatural things?
People will feel more comfortable and they’ll pay more for products that smell the way we imagine them to smell. Yes, that’s it. People will feel more comfortable and they’ll pay more for products that smell the way we imagine them to smell. For example: “new car smell.” When Rolls Royce became more technologically advanced, they started using plastic instead of wood for some parts of the car—and for some reason, sales started going down. They asked people what was wrong, and they said it was because the car didn’t smell the same. It repelled people from the brand. So then they had to design that smell back into the car.
New car smell is therefore a thing, but not in the way we think. It is a mix of smells that emanate from the plastics and interiors of a car. The cheaper the car, the stronger and more artificial it smells. German automakers have entire olfactory teams that sniff every single component that goes into the interior of the car with their nose and with machines. The problem then is if one of these suppliers changes any element of their product composition without telling the automaker, it throws off the entire indoor odor of the car, which was carefully designed for safety, quality, and branding—just another added complexity to the myriad of challenges facing automotive supply chains!
Are these artificial smells bad for us?
Designed smells are not when they fulfill all regulatory requirements. This question touches on a key concern of mine: indoor air. Everybody talks about pollution. Like in San Francisco, a company called Aclima works with Google to map pollution levels block by block at different times of the day—but what about our workplaces? Our homes? People are much less aware of this.
We are all buying inexpensive furniture and carpets and things that are filled with chemicals, and we’re putting them in a closed environment with often no air filtration. Then there are the old paints and varnishes that cover all the surfaces! Combine that with filters in old buildings that are rarely or never changed, and it gets awful. When people use cleaning products in their home, it’s also putting a lot more chemicals into the house than before. (You should open your windows after you clean.)
In cities like New York, the indoor air is three times worse than outdoors. We’re therefore inhaling all these fumes in our closed spaces. In cities like New York, we spend 90% of our time indoors and the air is three times worse than outdoors. The World Health Organization says it’s one of the world’s greatest environmental health risks. There are a few start-ups working on consumer home appliances that help you monitor your indoor air, but I am still waiting to see the one that can integrate air monitoring with filtering and scenting.
Manufacturing smell seems to fall into two camps. The first is fabricating a smell when you’ve taken the authenticity out of the product. But then other brands simply enhance an existing smell. That’s not fake, but it still doesn’t seem honest.
Well, to me they seem like the same thing: Because they are both designed to enhance authenticity.
There’s an interesting Starbucks case related to smell experiences and profits. In 2008 they introduced their breakfast menu, which included sandwiches that needed to be reheated. The smell of the sandwiches interfered with the coffee aroma so much that it completely altered the customer experience in store: It smelled of food rather than of coffee. During that time, repeat customer visits declined as core coffee customers went elsewhere, and therefore sales at their stores also declined, and this impacted their stock. The sandwiches have since been redesigned to smell less when being reheated.
This is starting to feel a bit like propaganda or false advertising. Are there laws around this?
No, there aren’t laws for enhancing authenticity through smell. Maybe once people become more aware of these things, there will be. I think it’s hard at this point to quantify what is considered false advertising.
There aren’t even laws for copyrighting perfumes! This is a reason why everything on the market usually kind of smells the same: Basically you can just take a perfume that’s on the market and analyze it in a machine that can tell you its composition. It’s easily recreated, and there’s no law to protect the original creation. Music has copyright laws, fragrance does not.
That’s crazy. That’s intellectual property.
It is. As soon as there’s a blockbuster, every brand just goes, “We want one like that!” Let’s make a fragrance that smells exactly like that, then lets put it in the shampoo. Put it in the deodorant. Put it in this. Put it in that.
Well if the perfume smells the same and is made with the same ingredients, why do we pay so much more for designer perfumes?
High fashion isn’t going to make [luxury brands] money—it’s the perfumes and accessories. What differs is the full complexity of the fragrance and how long it lasts. As for pricing, It’s very much the brand. Perfume is sold at premium for what it is—but what isn’t? Your Starbucks coffee, Nike shoes, designer handbags… There can be a difference in the quality of the ingredients, yeah, but if it’s owned by a luxury brand and you’re paying $350, then you’re paying for the brand. The margins are also really high: That’s why all fashion brands have a perfume as a way of making money. High fashion isn’t going to make them money—it’s the perfumes and accessories. They play a huge, huge role in the bottom line.
How do smell associations differ from culture to culture?
Because of what was culturally available—local ingredients, trade routes et cetera—countries had access to very specific ingredients that they then decided to use for specific purposes. Because life was lived very locally, these smells and their associations remained generation after generation. Now if we wanted to change them, it would not happen overnight; people are not being inundated with different smell associations the way they are with fashion and music. Once a scent is developed for a product in a certain market, the cultural associations of the scent of “beauty,” “well-being,” or “clean” stick around. The fact that smells can’t yet transmit through the internet means that scent associations also keep pretty local.
For example, multinational companies want to develop specific fragrances and storylines for the Brazilian market. Brazilian people shower 3.5 times a day. If somebody showers that much, then scent becomes really important. When they get out of the shower, especially in the northeast of Brazil, they splash on a scented water—it’s often lavender water, which is also part of a holy ritual to clean a famous church, so it has positive cultural connotations. Companies want to understand what role each ingredient already plays in that person’s life so that they can use it with a “caring” or “refreshing” claim, like the lavender water.
Lavender is an interesting one. In the US, lavender is more of a floral composition versus true lavender. People like the “relaxing lavender” claim, but Americans don’t actually like the smell of real lavender. On the other hand, in Europe and Brazil, when it says “lavender” on the packaging, it will smell like the true lavender from the fields; in Brazil, lavender isn’t relaxing—it’s invigorating!
In the UK, florals are mostly used in perfumes, especially rose, which is tied to tradition. Yet in the US, a rose perfume is considered quite old-fashioned—you rarely smell it on the subway, whereas the London Tube smells like a rose garden. In Brazil, however, florals are used for floor and toilet cleaners; the smell of white flowers like jasmine, gardenia, and tuberose are considered extremely old-fashioned and unrelatable. However, in Europe and North America, these very expensive ingredients are a sign of femininity and luxury.
Traditional Chinese medicine influences the market in China: Their smells are a bit more herbal or medicinal because those ingredients are associated with health and well-being. You see that in India with Ayurvedic medicine as well. By comparison, in the US, the smell of health and cleanliness is the smell of Tide detergent.
Are there smells we can all agree on biologically, no matter where we’re from, that smell either good or bad?
Yes: Body fluids, disease, and rotten foods are biological no-nos. Also, natural gas, which you can smell in your kitchen if you leave the gas on by mistake, is in reality odorless: A harmless chemical is added to give gas a distinctive malodor that is often describes as rotten eggs—and therefore act as a warning!
The smell of babies, on the other hand? Everybody loves the smell of babies: It’s the next generation.
Do you wear perfume yourself?
I wear tons of perfume. However, if I’m working in a fragrance house or a place where I smell fragrances all the time, I don’t wear perfume, because it then becomes difficult to smell what is being created around me. There is also a necessity for “clean skin” to test fragrances on—one without any scented lotions or fragrances.
Why does perfume smell different on different people? Is it because it reacts differently with our skin, or is it because of the lotions and fabric softeners or whatever other smells we douse ourselves in?
Cancers and diabetes can be identified through body odor. Generally, it’s our DNA. But there are different layers to how we smell. Of course, the first layer is based on the smells we put on: soaps and deodorants and whatever we use. Then there’s our diet, hydration level, and general health. An exciting development in the medical world is in diagnostics: Depending upon if we’re sick or not, we smell different. Cancers and diabetes can be identified through body odor, for instance. Then on the most basic level, our body odor is linked to the “major histocompatability complex” (MHC), which is a part of the genome linked to our immune system. It is extremely unique and a better identifier than a retinal scan because it is virtually impossible to replicate.
Why don’t we care more about smell?
The position that our sense of smell holds is rooted in the foundation of Western thought, which stems from the ancient Greeks. Plato assigned the sense of sight as the foundation for philosophy, and Aristotle provided a clear hierarchy where he considered sight and hearing nobler in comparison to touch, taste, and smell.
Both philosophers placed the sense of smell at the bottom of their hierarchy; logic and reason could be seen and heard, but not smelt. The Enlightenment philosophers and the Industrial Revolution did not help, either, as the stenches that emerged at that time due to terrible living conditions without sewage systems reminded us of where we came from, not where we were headed. Smell was not considered something of beauty nor a discipline worth studying.
It’s also a bit too real and too closely tied to our evolutionary past. We are disconnected from this part of ourselves, so of course we don’t feel like it is something worth talking about. As society becomes more emotionally aware, I do think smell will gain a new role in our daily lives.
This article is part of Quartz Ideas, our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.
Lithium-ion batteries are the workhorses of modern life. The batteries pack enough energy to power our smartphones and electric cars. But smartphones still die after less than a full day of use and electric cars give people “range anxiety” because, even fully charged, they can’t travel as far as a gasoline-powered car on a full tank.
Incremental advances in lithium-ion-battery technology aren’t going to break those barriers. The tech needs to undergo a step change, and there are many startups currently trying to make it happen. Venture capitalists have invested billions of dollars in the last decade (paywall) in hopes of finding a winning bet.
Sila Nanotechnologies, based in Silicon Valley, is one of the most promising of those startups. Today (Aug. 16) it announced raising $70 million, which bring its valuation to $350 million, according to Pitchbook. The company claims its technology can boost the capacity of a lithium-ion battery up to 40%—in comparison to the annual 5% or so improvement that old lithium-ion technology has been able to eek out by optimizing already existing materials. Sila will use the latest investment to scale up its technology from prototypes to commercial scale. It expects the batteries to be inside devices starting early next year.
Lithium-ion batteries have two electrodes: cathode and anode. When the battery is fully charged, the lithium ions are packed into the anode. As the battery’s energy gets used, the lithium ions travel to the cathode. When it’s recharged, the lithium ions move back to the anode.
The most straightforward way to boost a battery’s capacity is to increase how many lithium ions can be stored in either electrode. Most of the improvements in battery life so far have been made by manufacturers creating cathodes out of some combination of nickel, manganese, and cobalt. The crystal structures of these metals, when combined together, store lithium ions more efficiently. They also make the ions’ movement through the cathode to the anode easier than other materials.
All that while, however, anodes have basically all been made with the same material: graphite, a form of carbon.
A number of companies—including Sila, Enovix, Enevate, and Angstrom Materials—are currently trying to build a higher capacity anode using silicon, which can, theoretically, store 25 times as many lithium ions as a similarly sized graphite anode. But none yet have succeeded, because silicon anodes break apart under the stress of so many lithium ions and the battery stops working. (Another route to increase the capacity of a battery is to use pure lithium on the anode.)
Sila is trying to solve this problem by packing silicon atoms inside a matrix of relatively empty nanoparticles. That way, when the silicon anode absorbs the lithium ions, those ions fill up the empty spaces, rather than pushing the silicon atoms apart. Thus, those empty spaces ensure that the structure doesn’t swell and shatter (paywall).
Gene Berdichevsky, the startup’s CEO, believes that, after seven years in development, its silicon nanoparticles are good enough to go into small electronic devices, such as wireless earphones, smartwatches, and smartphones. The latest injection of cash from its investors, which includes the likes of Samsung and Siemens, will help Sila build a facility in Silicon Valley capable of producing up to 20-MWh worth of batteries annually—enough to power 2 million smartphones or 10 million smartwatches.
That’s a tiny fraction of the more than 1 billion smartphones sold each year. But it’s enough to show whether the company’s technology can live up to its promise. If it succeeds, Sila will next turn to building larger batteries, big enough to power electric cars. Earlier this year, the startup announced that it had formed a partnership with BMW, which said it would be willing to be the first auto-manufacturer to use the startup’s silicon-lithium battery.
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Kenya’s president has lost friends and allies in recent weeks—many, many of them.
Uhuru Kenyatta recently said his administration’s war on corruption cost him supporters but vowed nonetheless to continue efforts to stamp out graft. In the last few weeks, the public prosecutor has ordered the arrest of current and former public officials on charges including abuse of office, conspiracy to steal public funds, and fraudulent compensation claims for land use.
The government also earmarked 4,000 buildings in Nairobi for demolition, claiming they were built illegally on riparian land. And in a bid to stop wastage of resources, Kenyatta issued a directive freezing the implementation of new projects until all ongoing ones were completed.
Responding to those who called him with complaints, Kenyatta said he told them it was vital to fight impunity to achieve the dream of a better Kenya. “A time has come for us to fight impunity. A time has come for every Kenyan to realize no matter how powerful you think you or how much money you have… That will not save you.”
— The Standard Digital (@StandardKenya) August 10, 2018
Kenya is ranked 143 out of 180 on Transparency International’s corruption index, and for years, pervasive graft, cronyism, coupled with ethnic rivalries exploited by political leaders has undermined successive administrations. The lack of public accountability, centralized power, and the absence of strong state agencies have also strengthened officials’ seemingly insatiable appetite for graft. The shift in government sentiment about corruption has led ardent critics to declare that officials were finally outshining themselves.
But it’s unlikely to herald a new dawn for Kenya.
Rooting out corruption and introducing systemic reforms will take more than demolishing a few buildings. This is especially true of Kenyatta’s administration, which former anti-corruption czar John Githongo once called the “most rapacious administration that we have ever had.”
The current fuss over corruption also isn’t new and high profile cases of corruption continue to recur without much action. For instance, the National Youth Service is currently roiled in a $78 million scam involving ghost companies. Yet the state agency was caught in a similar multi-million-dollar scandal in 2014 which involved money laundering and the purchase of sex toys and condom dispensers at inflated prices.
Similar investigations have taken place at the national cereals and produce board both in 2018 and 2010 after brokers took advantage of opaque vetting systems. Allegations of corruption have also defined the country’s power agency for years, with millions of shillings lost over the supply of defective transformers and unaccounted labor and transportation costs.
The entrenched nature of corruption has also reared its ugly head in recent days. On Wednesday (Aug. 15), the Kenya civil aviation authority announced a hotel belonging to deputy president William Ruto was built on a parcel of land it owned. And as Kenyatta ordered a lifestyle audit of all public servants and their families including himself, a preliminary audit showed a third of all workers couldn’t account for how they amassed their wealth.
As both large-scale and petty corruption practice continue, Kenyans remain skeptical about the fight on corruption. A 2015 Afrobarometer survey showed many believed the police, government officials, and lawmakers were the most corrupt. Those assertions were proved real this week when reports surfaced that legislators were paid a mere $100 in the parliament’s toilets to reject a critical probe into corrupt sugar deals.
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Former Indian prime minister and statesman, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, passed away on Aug. 16 in New Delhi following prolonged illness. He was 93.
He breathed his last a little after 5pm at the capital’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The veteran politician had been admitted there since June 11 following urinary and chest complications.
A long-standing parliamentarian and deeply respected leader across the political spectrum, Vajpayee served as the head of the Indian government three times. He is best known for reinforcing India’s credentials as a nuclear power before the world.
He had announced his retirement in December 2009 after over six decades in public life. His first shot at prime ministership came in 1996, but the coalition led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of which he was a founding member, lasted just 13 days.
Vajpayee formed the government again in 1998. This time it lasted 13 months and proved to be deeply tumultuous for the country.
Eventually, he formed the government again after the BJP emerged as the single largest party in the 1999 general elections. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that his party then led became the first non-Congress entity—and coalition—to complete a full five-year term. Coming after years of unstable permutations at its helm, his government provided India some stability as it turned the millennium.
His eventual success is, however, perceived differently by people depending on their location on India’s political spectrum. Critics of his party’s Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist, DNA see the “Vajpayee years” as having played the Critics see the “Vajpayee years” as the Trojan horse for extremist elements. Trojan horse for extremist elements to get ensconced in the establishment after decades on the margins. The Hindutva proponents look up to it fondly for finally having begun dismantling the centre-left edifice represented by the Congress party and dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi family.
A well-regarded Hindi poet, he may also have been the last leader from the right to have found broad acceptability and respect across the board. This despite being a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the fountainhead of Hindu nationalism and the BJP’s ideological parent. For he was among the youngest politicians to get seasoned in the moderate parliamentary politics that marked the first few decades of Indian independence.
The freedom fighter
Born to Brahmin parents in Gwalior (now in the state of Madhya Pradesh) on Christmas day in 1924, Vajpayee’s association with the RSS began at the age of 15. He completed his master’s degree in political science as a student of DAV College, Kanpur (now in Uttar Pradesh).
Post-independence, Vajpayee joined the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the BJP’s predecessor, headed by his mentor, the late Syama Prasad Mookerjee. He was elected to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament, for the first time in 1957 from Uttar Pradesh’s Balrampur constituency.
His fine oratory and skillful interventions in parliament caught the eye of Jawaharlal Nehru. Once, while introducing the young parliamentarian to a visiting foreign dignitary, the then prime minister is reported to have said, “This young man one day will become the country’s prime minister.” And despite being his fierce critic, he also looked up to Nehru, and mourned his demise in 1964 thus: “…[a] dream has been shattered, a song silenced, a flame has vanished in the infinite.”
Vajpayee’s relationship with Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, was far more adversarial.
He was among the country’s top leaders to be jailed by her regime after she declared an internal emergency in India in 1975, assuming almost dictatorial powers and suspending civil liberties.
His first taste of power came in 1977 as India’s external affairs minister in a rag-tag coalition—India’s first-ever non-Congress government—led by prime minister Morarji Desai. During his short tenure then, he attempted to mend ties with China, against whom India had lost a brief war in 1962.
In 1980, having lost power to the Congress again, Vajpayee, along with long-time colleague and friend Lal Krishna Advani and others, formed the BJP, disbanding the BJS.
A series of events since then slowly but surely put the Vajpayee-Advani duo in the national limelight.
The 1980s saw grassroot Hindutva gain strength following several mis-steps by the Congress, by then led by Nehru’s grandson, Rajiv Gandhi.
All through that decade, the BJP played on India’s identity politics, dipping into rising Hindu anger. The party found a vehicle in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement which sought to replace a medieval mosque in Uttar Pradesh with a temple at a spot where Hindutva proponents believe the Hindu god Ram was born. The movement reopened age-old social fissures in the country, culminating in the destruction of the Babri mosque in December 1992 and leading to a period of violence and instability.
While it was Advani who spearheaded that movement, Vajpayee was right behind, using his incendiary oratory and rhetorical skills to fan passions. While there are claims and counterclaims, Vajpayee, through one of his fiery speeches, is said to have given that last push to the mob that ultimately brought down the mosque in Ayodhya.
Earlier, in 1983, the veteran is alleged to have fanned passions in Nellie village of Assam state in India’s northeast. The target at that time were the illegal immigrants, mostly Muslim Bengali speakers from neighbouring Bangladesh. By one account, the violence that followed his speech saw nearly 2,200 people being massacred.
Despite all this, Vajpayee was never perceived as the typical rabble-rouser that Advani was seen as. His sophisticated language skills and sharp political acumen perpetuated his soft-nationalist aura. His critics, though, often suspected his softer side to be a facade. At one time, even one of his long-time associates referred to him as merely “the mask” that hides the BJP-RSS’s real intentions for India.
Nevertheless, by the mid-1990s, the Vajpayee-Advani duo had built up the BJP into a major political force.
The prime minister
Vajpayee’s three terms as prime minister were transformative, to say the least, for India in many senses.
Months into his second term in 1998, India tested five nuclear devices, their shock-waves felt around the world. India’s traditional rival Pakistan followed suit with six of its own tests. His regime’s skillful negotiation of the diplomatic minefield that this development threw up is well-documented by former US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott.
Vajpayee, however, didn’t let the tests themselves be the last stand in his approach to Pakistan. Shortly after, he took the now-famous bus trip to Lahore, in a strong peace overture. The resulting bonhomie was short-lived, though. Just months after the high-profile visit, Pakistan was found to have encroached upon Indian territory on the sly in the restive state of Jammu & Kashmir. A limited war ensued. But to his government’s credit, the Kargil conflict did not spread to a larger theatre.
He counted on a surge in war-time nationalist sentiments to sail through the 1999 elections after an estranged ally brought down his government. While the BJP, surprisingly, failed to improve on its 1998 tally, it remained the single-largest party and formed a government again. This time, it lasted its full term, but not without trouble.
By his third term, India’s economic surge was fully on. The software boom at the turn of the millennium revealed the country’s immense talent in the field of technology. The prime minister bolstered this by laying emphasis on infrastructure building. The Golden Quadrilateral project, which saw vast stretches of modern highways being laid, remains one of Vajpayee’s many legacies.
Yet, there was bitterness, too.
The first signs of the Hindutva project—attempts to repaint the country in unabashedly Hindu colours, discounting its multiple religious and cultural threads—began to surface under Vajpayee. School textbooks got re-written to suit a Hindu nationalist worldview. Top artists and authors were hounded, often violently, for supposedly hurting Hindu sentiments through their works.
The worst came in 2002 when large scale communal riots broke out in the western state of Gujarat. The chief minister of the state was variously described as having been ineffective or disinterested in stopping the violence. While Vajpayee is said to have had serious issues with state government, he hardly took a stern public stand.
Ultimately, after he lost the 2004 national elections to a Congress-led coalition, Vajpayee himself admitted that the Gujarat riots were one of the reasons for his shock defeat. The loss followed much bravado from the BJP ranks, overconfident of an easy victory given the economic strides India had taken under their leader.
It would be a decade before India got another BJP government. And this time it would be Narendra Modi, the very Gujarat chief minister whom Vajpayee had failed to rein in in 2002, who’d storm the centre.
By this time, though, Vajpayee was mostly immobilised by a stroke he suffered in 2009. His generation was being surpassed by a new flock in BJP, much more abrasive and unabashed about its Hindutva credentials.
So much so that even opposition leaders today express their grief at not having someone like Vajpayee at the helm of affairs in today’s Hindutva dispensation.
The ultimate compliment for the former prime minister was that he was the right man in the wrong party.
With inputs from Kuwar Singh.
Asylum-seeking families and children who turn up in Mexico and at the US southern border from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are escaping terrible violence and poverty.
A newly published UNICEF report titled Uprooted: Central America and Mexico found that the Trump administration’s tougher immigration policies, along with Mexico’s own efforts to deport immigrants, are making their situation even worse.
The report, based on data from the United Nations and interviews with deported migrants, found that the conditions they face when they return to their home countries are worse than when they fled. That’s because migrant families typically spent all they had to make the journey north, and on top of that, took on debts they still owe. This makes them more vulnerable: They are poorer, and often face social isolation for having decided to leave.
For children, reintegrating in schools is especially hard. That puts them at a higher risk of joining violent gangs or, of having to leave home in order to escape them, says María Cristina Perceval, UNICEF director for the Caribbean and Latin America.
Fleeing violence and poverty
The report offers details about the conditions the families and children escape—and that they re-encounter when they go back.
In Honduras, the state that fares worst, nearly three children in four live in poor households; fewer than half of teenagers between 12 and 14 are enrolled in school, and that number drops to fewer than one in three for teenagers between 15 and 17.
Data from InSight Crime Foundation, an organization working on violent crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, shows that the homicide rate in the three countries where most migrant children come from is horribly high. In Honduras, a country of nine million citizens, a child was murdered every day between 2008 and 2016, and the same is true for children in El Salvador, which has a population of 6.3 million, in 2017. Guatemala, which has 16.6 million people, had nearly a thousand violent children deaths in 2017. That is more than all of the violent deaths of children in North America in 2015 (latest UNICEF for Canada and US) for a population that is over 10 times bigger.
Gang violence is especially risky for children because they aren’t just targeted by the gangs, but recruited by them, explains Christopher Tidey, who authored the UNICEF report.
Deterrents don’t work
From 2016 to April 2018, nearly 68,500 children have been detained in Mexico; the vast majority of them—91%— were deported to northern Central America (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador). More than 96,000 migrants from northern Central America were returned to their countries, overwhelmingly by Mexico.
But the harsher conditions they encounter back home are enough to push some families to attempt entering the US again, even if they failed the first time around. Being separated from their children—as thousands of parents were under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy earlier this year—is unlikely to keep them away, as isn’t the prospect of that happening. “Based on the interviews that we did,” says Tidey, “there is no question that family separation was the most traumatic experience [migrants] went through, but it wouldn’t be a deterrent.”
Neuroscientist Tania Singer is the world’s foremost empathy researcher, an expert in the science of kindness. She’s also accused of bullying colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany.
Singer’s brain-imaging work has shown that empathy emerges from a vast cognitive network connecting vision, language, perception, analysis, and interpretation. But mapping brains and controlling one’s own mind are not the same thing. In the lab, Singer was allegedly harsh, intimidating, and controlling, as well as discriminatory against pregnant women, according to an Aug. 8 report by Kai Kupferschmidt in Science.
Singer denies some of the more serious claims levied against her, including the discrimination allegation. But she apologized for her behavior during a 2017 mediation process with her colleagues and volunteered to go on a temporary sabbatical in an effort to ameliorate the problems. (Quartz reached out to Singer for further comment.) She also admitted in a statement to the Washington Post that “stress and strain” had led to friction with her colleagues.
All this sounds pretty ironic. Yet we really shouldn’t be so surprised. Singer’s far from the first scholar to demonstrate a gap between their principles in theory and in practice. “The academic understanding of a concept does not insulate a person from their very human response to a situation,” as psychologist, author, and business strategist Liane Davey tells Quartz. “In my experience, some academics lose sight of the importance of interpersonal relationships while others simply lose control of their behavior in the race to innovate, to create a breakthrough, and to secure funding.” The same tendency applies to lots of other people in powerful positions.
There is some heartening news, however: Society’s willingness to accept bad behavior from superstar jerks seems to be dwindling. Research on power points to to the fact that influence is maintained through cooperation, not intimidation. And the #MeToo movement, which aired the dirty secrets of powerful abusers, may have made people who would have previously kept silent feel more empowered to push back against bullying in general. “It’s very early days, but I do see less tolerance for people who abuse others either to get ahead or simply to exert their power,” Davey says.
Avital Ronell and sexual harassment
Singer’s case is unfortunately reminiscent of another awkward academic matter that recently came to light. New York University’s Avital Ronell, an internationally acclaimed philosopher, feminist, and literature professor, was suspended after a Title IX investigation found that she had sexually harassed a male doctoral student, Nimrod Reitman, over three years.
Ronell denies the allegations. Reitman is “comparing me to the most egregious examples of predatory behaviors ascribable to Hollywood moguls who habitually go after starlets,” the New York Times (paywall) reports her as saying. Presumably, she’s alluding to the likes of movie producer Harvey Weinstein, who now faces criminal charges for forcing women who wanted to work on the big screen into sexual relations. But Reitman argues that Ronell’s disproportionate power as a superstar professor who could impact his future career prospects is precisely why he succumbed to her advances and made no formal accusation during his studies. That’s what starlets said about Weinstein.
Many esteemed scholars defended Ronell against the accusations without knowing much about the matter, including American gender theorist Judith Butler and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. They said the student was motivated by malice and that the professor’s stellar professional reputation made it impossible to believe she did wrong.
In other words, Ronell’s champions maligned the accuser and defended the accused, on the basis of Ronell’s professional power. In that sense, too, her case resembles those of media moguls whose indiscretions were allowed to go unchecked for so long simply because their work was widely admired.
The power paradox
The question all of these matters raise is whether power is fundamentally a corruptive force. Davey says the answer isn’t quite that simple.
“There is fairly new research that power actually causes changes in your brain,” she explains. Power doesn’t necessarily corrupt as much as it does interrupt the brain’s ability to mirror emotions, which results in less empathy. “Normally, we are keenly aware of the emotional states of those around us. Those given positions of power seem to be less tuned in to the impact of their behavior on those around them, making it easier to persist with harmful or abusive behavior,” Davey notes.
Or, as The Atlantic put it last year, “Power causes brain damage.” Psychological studies show that the ability to connect to others—the very quality that makes leaders so attractive initially—can dwindle with time and as power continues to accumulate. The powerful become increasingly out of touch as they gain stature. They lose sight of what matters to people around them and thus become less insightful and, ultimately, less influential, like Singer, Ronell, and Weinstein.
This is what’s now known as the power paradox. “[W]e rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst. We gain a capacity to make a difference in the world by enhancing the lives of others, but the very experience of having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths,” explains Dacher Keltner, a University of California, Berkeley psychologist, in his 2016 book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. To remain powerful, leaders need to wield their strength mindfully.
The out-of-touch Elon Musk
Many leaders fall short of that goal. Take Elon Musk, for example. He is famously charismatic and driven, so much so that Wired recently called him a “science-fiction character.” His talent lies in part in his ability to convince people that the impossible can happen—from driverless cars to terraforming Mars, he relentlessly pursues his goals and gets others to go along, however farfetched his idea.
Yet he also seems to forget what makes people tick. Jeremy Hollman, a former test engineer at Musk’s space exploration endeavor, SpaceX, tells Wired that Musk has a low tolerance for basic facts of human life. “I got married during the lead up to the first ever Falcon 1 launch. Elon did not take that well,” Hollman recounts. “He did not think that was a good reason for me to be missing. He called me into his cubicle and asked me how much it would cost to change the wedding date. My response was it would cost more money than he had. He didn’t quite get what I was going at because he had quite a bit of money, but I said it would cost me a wife, and you can’t afford that.”
In fact, Musk responded to Hollman’s marriage much like Singer allegedly responded to researchers announcing their pregnancies. Bethany Kok tells Science that Singer screamed at her after learning that Kok was pregnant, calling her a slacker and warning she wasn’t running a charity. Kok miscarried one of her twins a few weeks later and missed a lab meeting. She says, “I got an email from Tania telling me that she wasn’t paying me to go to the doctor, that clearly I wasn’t using good judgment, and I was no longer allowed to go to the doctor during work hours.”
Instead of being happy for employees who are living full lives—and understanding when life interferes with work—some bosses want total devotion to their cause, their dreams, the job. Because they’re so motivated by their own goals, they expect everyone to share their passion and punish them when they don’t. For employees, just having an existence beyond work becomes a problem. And ultimately, that kind of job is not sustainable.
This all-consuming mode also creates dangerous situations, with employees trying to please the boss at all costs. Dave Lyons, a former director of engineering at Tesla, Musk’s car company, tells Wired that the founder created “a completely results-oriented culture from the top down… [which] can drive a lot of people to start cutting corners… [and] incentivized dangerous choices.” The people who succeed in that environment are not necessarily those doing great work, but people willing to do what it takes to win Musk’s praise, Lyons says.
Davey doesn’t believe it is inevitable for leaders to lose their humanity, however. Powerful people can remain grounded by being aware of the dangers their stature creates. They can cultivate empathy by taking criticism, asking employees for input, and working with coaches on learning to see multiple points of view, she says.
There’s a distinction between leaders who have high standards and those so driven by their goals they just want what they want, the psychologist notes. “Demanding bosses focus on the work. They make it clear what is expected, provide the appropriate time and resources (at least within reason) to get the job done, and ensure the hard work is recognized and rewarded.”
Bullies, on the other hand, make everything personal. “They use people to fulfill their demands without thought of the cost to the individual,” Davey explains. Bad bosses berate and torment those who fall short of their high bar.
The myth of anger
Increasingly, bosses aren’t the only ones articulating standards at work. Employees are are raising the bar as well. Societally, we’re starting to expect more from superstars, demanding they be humane as well as exceptionally accomplished in their fields. With more and more bad bosses being outed, the notion of the talented genius who can’t be bothered with people’s feelings is falling out of fashion, it seems.
Likewise, the myth of anger as inherent to the creative process is being debunked in industries as distinct as entertainment and academia. And cases like those of Singer and Ronell make it evident that abuse of power isn’t a gendered issue. It’s becoming obvious that the effect of power, this heady drug—and the brain damage it causes—is an equal concern.
Still, “the true test” of whether we’ll create a better, kinder society lies in the way institutional authorities handle accusations of abuse, according to Davey. In widely publicized cases, it’s often in a company or institution’s best interest to oust a star player rather than deal with the risk to reputation and revenue. But when the bully in question isn’t as well-known, the choice isn’t as obvious to people in charge. Davey suggests, “Employees will need to keep up the pressure to ensure organizations continue to have meaningful consequences for those who are abusive.”
More broadly, Davey says, Singer’s case is a reminder that expertise doesn’t ensure right action. “This story reminds us that simply understanding that something is important isn’t enough to reliably and consistently produce the behavior,” Davey concludes. “We need to be vigilant about the impact of our behavior on those around us. And those of us with less power need to find ways to provide feedback that counteracts the numbing effects of power.”
Island Seafood, a $40 million in annual sales lobster wholesaler that’s been operating on the Maine coast for over 20 years, got a distressing message from a long-time Chinese customer at the end of July.
“I don’t think there is way to import US lobster,” he wrote.
Chinese customs officials have begun to strictly inspect US lobster, requiring “all kinds” of new documents, wrote the importer, who represents hotels in major Chinese cities. Making matters worse, Chinese importers are now being forced to pay tariffs for the lobsters based on a price set by Beijing, not the price agreed with US distributors.
These measures are the Chinese government’s way of fighting back “against the Trump tariff policy,” he explained, “and we fully support our country since all human being are face challenge [sic] for free trade from Trump government.” I hope you can understand, he wrote in closing, adding “I hope the world trade will resume soon, which seems impossible with reign of Trump.”
The US lobster industry is getting slammed from all sides, as Donald Trump escalates a trade war with China, the administration clamps down on seasonal worker visas, and the European Union plans new free trade agreements with Canada. Beijing slapped a 25% retaliatory tariff on US lobster imports in July, as it taxed billions in US goods. Now it has become virtually impossible for Chinese buyers to import any US lobster at all, thanks to a host of Beijing-directed behind-the-scenes measures, lobster wholesalers and industry trade groups told Quartz.
These “behind the border barriers” are a sign of just how serious Beijing is about fighting Trump’s trade tariffs. The near shutdown of the US-China lobster trade suggests that more of the $125 billion in goods sold from the US to China could be impacted by the trade war than trade experts have forecast.
President Xi Jinping controls the wealthiest, most powerful Chinese Communist Party in history, an advantage in any trade war because he can essentially dictate how Chinese companies treat US exporters unlike Trump who heads a divided democracy. Lobster may be just the beginning.
China’s new love of lobster
Lobster exports to China have skyrocketed in recent years, thanks to US lobster wholesalers and industry representatives who put in long hours pushing the crustaceans at Asia trade shows and to Chinese hotels and banquet halls. Often called “Boston lobster,” even though most of it comes from Maine, it is featured as a special treat for Chinese New Year or the mid-autumn festival, stir-fried in a chili-crab sauce, or eaten raw as sashimi.
The distinctive cold water North American lobster with two big claws can’t be farmed (they’re cannibals).
Driven by a freak boom in lobster catches that threatened to create a glut, the US industry has essentially created a new market in Asia, and particularly China, since 2012. Now China is responsible for more than 50% of all US lobster exports by value.
But exporting live lobsters on ice (about 80% of all US lobster exports to Asia by value) relies on seamless airport connections within a 60-hour transportation window. Any longer, and they risk arriving dead—and no one wants to cook or eat a dead “live” lobster. That’s where Beijing’s new restrictions are biting.
They “don’t buy our lobsters anymore, they buy Canadian lobsters” Chinese importers “don’t buy our lobsters anymore, they buy Canadian lobsters,” said Stephanie Nadeau, owner of the Lobster Company, an Arundel, Maine wholesaler that did that did $30 million in annual sales before the trade war started—about one-third of it with China.
US lobsters used to clear Chinese customs quickly, as an express product, which helped make sure they were still alive when they got to their final destination, Nadeau said. Now Beijing is requiring each shipment to be manually inspected, Nadeau said, with customs agents opening individual boxes, taking up precious hours and threatening profits. “If they are dead, we don’t get paid,” Nadeau said.
Beijing’s strategic move
As China and the US escalate their trade war, Maine’s lobster industry isn’t alone in facing unexpected hurdles. “Those types of ‘behind the border’ barriers have been a major concern for a lot of industries,” said Jack Caporal, an associate fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Things are happening too fast for the WTO to keep up” Beijing is attempting to inflict pain on US exporters in sensitive areas, in addition to the retaliatory tariffs, he said. Soon after the US said it would tax all steel and aluminum imports, for example, Ford vehicles faced unusual delays in Chinese ports, sources told Reuters.
While Beijing may be breaking World Trade Organization rules about putting up technical barriers to trade related to customs and documentation, Maine’s lobster industry shouldn’t expect immediate relief. “Things are happening too fast for the WTO to keep up,” Caporal said. Challenges at the WTO take years to litigate, “and at that point the lobster industry in Maine is decimated.”
Besides, China and the US “have thrown the rule book in the garbage can,” he said. Another worry: Chinese consumers might start to outright reject US products as a sign of patriotism, Caporal said, as they did with South Korean products and tourism after Seoul installed a US-made missile defense system in 2017.
The Maine problem is ahead
The Maine lobster industry—which dominates the US—takes in approximately $500 million in annual revenue and puts an estimated $1 billion into the state economy every year. Since the trade war started, Chinese buyers are choosing Canadian lobster instead, and Maine wholesalers, in particular, worry they’ll be crushed. Trump “has handed all of the exports to our competition”
Fishermen hold individual licenses. Wholesalers buy directly from them, do the lion’s share of marketing to grow exports, and lay out millions of dollars on infrastructure to move and process large numbers of lobsters.
“Our commander-in-chief has handed all of the exports to our competition,” said Mark Barlow, co-founder of Island Seafood, whose head of sales received the text from China. “He’s given everything to Canada, a gift. It is not a rosy picture going forward.”
Because it is peak tourism season in the “Vacationland” of Maine, the brunt of the China downturn hasn’t yet been felt. Tourists are eating up much of the catch, as they do every year. Wholesalers say the situation is going to turn desperate as tourists head back to work and school in coming weeks, unless the trade war with China is ended.
“There is no way the domestic population in the US will ever be able to consume all these lobsters,” Barlow said.
Already, The Lobster Company is scaling back, not hiring new workers to replace those who leave. In the months to come, “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Nadeau said.
A judge in Malaysia found today (Aug. 16) that there’s enough evidence to continue with the trial of two young Southeast Asian migrant workers on charges of murdering Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, last year in Kuala Lumpur’s airport. If convicted, they’ll face the death penalty.
The ruling, which came after the prosecution began presenting its case last October, means the trial now moves into its defense phase. Ahead of the ruling, the families of the women had hoped the judge might acquit the women, who maintain they were duped into taking part in the audacious assassination.
Siti Aisyah, from Indonesia, and Doan Thi Huong, from Vietnam, both in their 20s, were arrested just days after security camera footage recorded them going up to Kim in the airport and touching his face on Feb. 13, 2017. Kim, who had been living in exile in Macau since falling out of favor with his family, was immediately taken ill and died before he could get medical help. The investigation later showed that Kim was exposed to nerve agent VX, a banned chemical weapon.
Huong (shown above), the daughter of a rice farmer, left home at the age of 18 and was working in the entertainment industry, according to Malaysian police. Aisyah, meanwhile, had previously worked in tailoring in Jakarta, where she had a young son, whom she had visited just two weeks before the crime, Reuters reported last year.
Lawyers for the women say their clients thought they were pranking Kim for a reality show. But Malaysian prosecutors argued the women had to be trained to carry out the crime successfully, and that they were part of a conspiracy with a group of North Koreans. The judge said aspects of the women’s behavior—such as running away to wash hands after the incident—left him unconvinced this was a prank.
No North Koreans are on trial.
Soon after the killing, Malaysian police arrested a North Korean, Ri Jong Chol, and named at least six other North Korean men as suspects or people sought in connection with the investigation. The names included an official at the North Korea embassy in Malaysia. But later, Malaysia released the body of Kim to North Korea, and also let several North Koreans return home.
Lawyers for the two women say their clients have been left to take the fall.
“I really believe that these two naïve girls have actually been used by [North Korea], to carry out acts on their behalf, unknown to them that they were using poison,” a lawyer for one of the women told Quartz last year.
The trial will resume in November, and Aisyah is expected to testify first.
Last year was the worst for the US dollar since 2003. The greenback fell almost 10% against a basket of major trading partners, and analysts expected the decline to continue in 2018.
The thinking was that tax cuts hadn’t done much to buoy the currency at the end of the year, and other major central banks in Europe and Japan would start raising rates to close the gap with the US. If the dollar was going to appreciate it would only be a little at the start of the year, before resuming its downward trajectory. Goldman Sachs predicted a “soggy dollar,” while UBS, Lombard Odier, and Société Générale all forecast a decline against the euro.
It hasn’t played out that way. The dollar currently sits at its highest level in a year:
Since the start of the year, an index of the dollar versus other major currencies has gained more than 5%. The US currency has gained more than 6% against the euro, its most commonly traded counterpart.
The surge isn’t showing signs of stopping. There is a net long position in the US dollar at the moment, meaning the balance of traders think the currency is going to appreciate rather than decline. This is near the most bullish positioning since February last year, according to a Reuters calculation of data collected by the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
The unexpectedly strong dollar has even caught Donald Trump’s attention, who generally boasts about such things. An overly strong dollar could hurt companies, as exports become more expensive and foreign earnings are worth less when translated back into dollars. The president blamed the Federal Reserve for the dollar’s recent gains, but it’s largely his own doing.
Tax cuts, spending increases, and deregulation helped lift US economic growth to an annualized rate of more than 4% in the second quarter, at a time when many other countries are losing economic momentum. Even if it’s just a temporary boost, it’s been enough to make the dollar a more appealing place to park funds than the alternatives.
Meanwhile, Trump’s trade war has also bolstered the greenback. The currencies of countries facing US tariffs, such as the Chinese yuan, have declined as traders fear a trade war with the world’s largest economy will hurt economic growth. (At the same time, however, a weaker currency softens the blow of the tariffs by making exports cheaper for foreign buyers.)
The dollar’s strength is a danger for some emerging markets. Take Turkey, whose currency has been in freefall as the president rails against higher interest rates despite double-digit inflation. Instead, Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames the lira’s collapse on a US-led conspiracy, and called for a boycott of American products, increased tariffs on other US imports, and said his countrymen could rely on the protection of God.
Turkey’s large stock of dollar-denominated debt (paywall) means its troubles won’t go away soon, as investors worry about how it will pay back the debt as the dollar appreciates. The jitters have also spread to other countries with high levels of foreign currency-denominated debt. The Indonesian rupiah recently fell to its lowest level in three years, forcing the central bank to raise rates for the fourth time in three months (paywall). Argentina’s central bank hiked its benchmark interest rate to 45% this week.
Amid the turmoil, a traditionally popular haven asset—gold—is also sinking. Gold prices are currently at the lowest levels since January 2017. Analysts suggest that yellow metal has lost its allure as a haven because of the dollar’s strength (paywall), the currency it’s usually denominated in. In the first half of the year, global gold demand was its weakest since 2009, according to the World Gold Council. Other precious metals are faring no better.
Many analysts remain convinced that the unexpected bout of dollar strength is just a blip. Morgan Stanley says the dollar’s downtrend should resume soon, while UBS says this is just a corrective rebound that can be undone by even a small change to interest-rate expectations in Europe. Lombard Odier suspects that the dollar’s rally will come to an end soon, if not because global interest rates will converge then because of something Trump does.
“In his electoral campaign in 2016, Donald Trump promised higher economic growth, and a stronger dollar does not act as a support for growth-oriented policies,” said Stéphane Monier, the firm’s chief investment officer. Although Trump has spoken out against the stronger dollar, the consequences of his actions don’t always match the intentions of his statements.
An overwhelming 77% of professionals awaiting US green cards are Indians.
However, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which deals with this issue, won’t back easing the 7%-per-country cap since doing that may skew the diversity of immigrant workers in the country.
“It (removing the cap) would fix the problem more or less for people from India. Their wait times would go down,” USCIS director Lee Francis Cissna said on Aug. 15. “But as a result, most of the flow of immigrants who come through employment visas would be from India almost exclusively for many years…That’s an issue.”
This would compromise the diversity in the pool of employment-based immigrants coming to the US, he added.
Besides what Cissna said, where he said it is also a major concern. He was speaking at the “Immigration Newsmaker” event organised by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), classified as an anti-immigrant hate group. It has long published works by white nationalist and anti-semitic writers and hyped the criminality of immigrants, among other things.
Earlier this year, two other Trump administration officials–Executive Office for Immigration Review’s director James McHenry and former Immigration and Customs Enforcement director Thomas Homan–appeared at similar CIS events.
If Cissna is to be believed, getting a green card could only get harder for professionals.
So far, only green card applicants who were taking the family reunification and marriage route were interviewed as part of the process. Now those taking the employment route may also be interrogated, he said, while also sharing discouraging views on various visa categories extensively used by Indians.
Among other things, there has been a sharp increase in the number of additional documentation required to prove employment.
“That is a completely rational thing to do; if it requires more evidence…so be it,” said Cissna. “Let that evidence be produced. There is absolutely nothing malevolent about that.”
Meanwhile, the Donald Trump administration is yet to decide if spouses of H-1B visa holders may work or not, Cissna said. A decision on this was earlier expected by the end of June.
Indians would be worse off if the proposed change comes through, as they hold nearly 80% of the H-4 visas. An overwhelming majority of these Indians are women.
Cissna tried to make a case against letting H-4 visa-holders work.
He said spouses of several other types of visa-holders are allowed employment, while H-1B dependents were never meant to get work permits. “(Congress) didn’t talk about H-1Bs…I think that is an important reason why we should propose rescinding it,” he said.
In 2015, president Barack Obama had passed a rule to allow H-4 holders, whose spouses await green cards, to work.
Experts are, meanwhile, unconvinced by Cissna’s argument.
“He is arguing that because Congress did not expressly authorise H-4 visa holders to work, he lacks the authority to grant it…if that was the standard, USCIS would have to abandon 90% of its current operating practices,” immigration attorney Jonathan Wasden told Quartz. USCIS has the authority to give just about anyone employment authorisation, unless a law states otherwise, he added.
Ana Campoy contributed to this story.
Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president whose brutal war on drugs has killed thousands, has signaled he’s willing to step down. But the scenario for his resignation, like so much of his presidency, could prove to be highly controversial.
Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque said today (Aug. 16) that Duterte plans to resign if Ferdinand Marcos Jr. becomes the country’s vice president, which would pave Marcos’s path to the presidency. Widely known as “Bongbong,” Marcos is the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., whose regime from 1965 to 1986 was marked by violence, corruption, and human-rights abuses.
In 2016, Bongbong Marcos, a former senator, had run for vice president but narrowly lost to Leni Robredo, who’s become the face of Duterte’s opposition. (In the Philippines, the president and vice president are often from rival parties.) Marcos, however, has always challenged the results, and a recount started last April. A tribunal, made up of the country’s supreme court, will decide on the case.
For Marcos, his challenge is a hedge to get back into the presidential palace. He also plans to run for president (paywall) in 2022, when Duterte’s term will come to an end. Despite the Marcos family’s dark history in the Philippines, Duterte appears to enjoy a particularly cozy relationship with them. In November 2016, he played a role in giving Ferdinand Sr., who died in 1989, a hero’s burial, complete with a 21-gun salute. The move sparked outrage, with young Filipinos protesting for weeks.
Duterte, who is 73 years old, has publicly mused about retirement throughout his presidency, but has said he’s unwilling to do so while Robredo is his vice president. “At this time, I am telling you, I am ready to step down and retire,” he said on Tuesday (Aug. 14). ” I have nothing against Robredo. She’s a lawyer, you have heard her talk, but I do not think she can improve on anything here.” He has, however, indicated that he would like someone like Marcos or senator Francis Escudero, who also lost the 2016 election for vice president, to succeed him.
Duterte’s spokesman reiterated today that “he thinks senator Bongbong Marcos is one of the better qualified persons to succeed.” And if the tribunal decides in Marcos’s favor, he said that Duterte “will make true his word.”
The context of war is changing for India too.
On its western border, Pakistan, though numerically inferior to India, is trying its best to modernize its armed forces. It has been generously helped by China in the development of missiles and nuclear arsenal. The gap between the Indian and Pakistani militaries, though significant, is narrowing in some areas. Pakistan has also sought to cultivate Russia, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic for sourcing high-tech equipment. Over the years, it has tried to establish an indigenous military technical complex with Chinese technical assistance.
However, it is China that has made big strides in manufacturing a wide variety of weapons platforms ranging from ships to aircraft and anti-ship missiles, anti-satellite weapons, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). It has set up extensive defence R&D and defence production systems. China’s defence expenditure in absolute terms is now second only to that of the US. It is also emerging as a leading exporter of arms. China-Pakistan collaboration in the defence sphere is a major challenge to Indian security.
To meet these challenges, the Indian military forces are being modernised. They have over the years acquired state-of-the-art platforms and other equipment and gradually prepared themselves for network-centric warfare. However, it must be mentioned that India continues to import advanced defence technologies from other countries. The acquisitions in recent years of aircraft carrier Vikramaditya and S-400 missile defence systems from Russia, C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft and C-130 medium lift transport aircraft from the US are some examples.
The armed forces have a long list of items which they intend to import in the medium to long term. The acquisition of high-tech platforms, equipment, and even ammunition illustrates the point that India has still a long way to go before it becomes self-reliant in some critical defence technologies.
India’s indigenisation effort is based largely on the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) and the DPSUs (Defence Public Sector Undertakings). The DRDO develops prototypes and the DPSUs manufacture them. For strategic missiles, the DRDO does all the work from development to productionisation. Over the years, the DPSUs and the DRDO have sought to fulfill the demands of the armed forces to some extent and their achievements are creditable. But overall, the indigenisation effort is yet to take off.
The private sector is still not in a position to meet the needs of the armed forces largely because it has been deliberately kept out of defence production. The micro small and medium enterprises (MSME) sector is yet to grow. It is dependent on the growth of larger players. The procedures are cumbersome and stacked against the private sector. This is now changing, but there is a lot of catching up to do. The Make in India programme is taking off but “Made in India” is still some way off.
The problem, however, is that many of the DRDO’s projects have been delayed. The armed forces have also raised the issue of quality. Their needs are urgent, hence they often take recourse to imports rather than wait for DRDO projects to fructify. Yet, it must be said that the DRDO over the years has done a commendable job and as an R&D organisation contributed to the development of indigenous capacities in critical technologies.
The DRDO’s problems are wide-ranging, from inadequate manpower in critical areas to the lack of proper synergy with the armed forces. The armed forces are unable or unwilling to wait for DRDO products and systems to mature; this is the nature of innovation. For it to compete with global defence R&D organisations, the DRDO has to have much larger, better-trained and highly motivated manpower, larger budgets, and more freedom in its operations. It has to be allowed to bear the risks inherent in innovation. In the risk-averse atmosphere prevailing in the country, the DRDO cannot be an exception. However, not all the blame can be put on the DRDO for delays as the above prerequisites are not available to it. At the same time, it cannot be fully absolved from responsibility.
The problem of delays should also be looked at from the DRDO’s perspective. It is a part of the innovation ecosystem that is not geared to deliver products on time. The armed forces are its only customers. They project their plans of acquisitions and technology through a document known as the LTIPP which lays down the needs of the armed forces for a fifteen-year period.
For instance, the current LTIPP of the MoD is from 2012 to 2027. From the LTIPP is derived a document known as the Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap. Ideally, this document should give the DRDO and the industry a lead time of fifteen years to plan for innovation and production.
But in practice it is too generic in nature and does not give any practical information on the basis of which the DRDO can plan. For instance, the document says that the armed forces will require space-based sensors but does not provide either the numbers that would be needed or their parameters. In the absence of such details the DRDO is unable to start its work.
The actual details are usually made available only when the armed forces begin to acquire a product. By that time it is too late to design it indigenously.
Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House India from How India Manages its National Security by Arvind Gupta. We welcome your comments at email@example.com.
One of the first albums I owned was a tape of Madonna’s 1987 remix collection You Can Dance. I’m not sure where I got it from—and I’m not sure I even liked it—but the bright red cover and Madonna’s hard, direct stare are etched in my mind’s eye even now, 30 years later.
What I know I did like was her previous studio album, True Blue—and especially the title track, which I played on repeat (of course, in the days before CDs, “repeat” meant endlessly rewinding the tape on my Walkman). But it turned out in years to come that what I was really enjoying about that track was what it was riffing on. Madonna fused the rhythms, melodies and harmonies of 1960s pop with the iconic 1980s drum machine sound to create a soundtrack to the Marilyn Monroe look she sported at the time, a look most visible in the video for “Material Girl.”
This is what Madonna is known for—at best she’s an alchemist, repackaging signifiers from the fringes of popular culture, transforming them into nuggets of commercial gold. At worst—if you believe her critics—she arguably treats popular culture like “one great big pick’n’mix counter,” taking the bits she likes best and somehow making them her own. All the while, she’s a shape-shifting shaman, mutating her own image to accompany whatever soundtrack she’s peddling—whether it’s the 1960s hippy chick style (“Ray of Light”), the African-American drag scene (“Vogue”), S&M iconography (“Human Nature”) or any of the other dozens of iconic looks she’s sported over a 35-year career.
And, at each turn, she’s needled away at conservative conceptions of identity and “appropriate” behavior. The black Jesus in the “Like a Prayer” video was one incident, strapping herself to a crucifix on the Confessions tour was another. She was threatened with arrest in Toronto in 1990 for simulating masturbation on the Blond Ambition tour and kissed both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the MTV Music Awards in 2003.
But perhaps the most challenging of her metamorphoses is the one she hasn’t been able to orchestrate completely herself, the one that which we can mark every August 16—her ageing. “Age is just a number,” we might proclaim (louder as each year passes), or “You’re only as old as you feel.” If we do go as far as setting store by a specific number, then let’s not forget that “life begins at 40”—or even, as has been asserted in recent years, that “60 is the new 40” (I turned 40 recently myself, so this is excellent news).
Age as sexism
So what does age mean for Madonna, as she turns 60 this week? Even as long ago as 2005’s Confessions on a Dancefloor, at the tender age of 47, she found herself at odds with the standards of the popular music industry—which often have operated at the intersection of ageism and sexism.
The video for the lead single from the album “Hung Up” saw Madonna writhing around on a dance studio floor in a pink leotard. This quickly turned out to be ripe for parody: pregnant mums, Naomi Grossman and French & Saunders all had a pop. The parodies themselves are obviously not conclusive evidence of misogyny and ageism in the industry, but we should certainly pay them some heed—given that the video was voted the “least sexy” video of all time in 2009 by music video website Muzu.tv (and reported on with glee by the Daily Telegraph).
And we should certainly start to get worried when we compare them with The Sun’s description of a 64-year-old topless David Hasselhoff as “flashing his honed body.” Or how about The Daily Mail’s reassurance in 2015 that Richard Gere had “still got it” at 65 as he was spotted sunbathing with his 32-year-old girlfriend.
Popular culture points to these men and so many others like them with admiration, framing the visible signs of their ageing as evidence of sophistication, not degeneration. Nobody’s telling them to “put it away”, like (oh, so predictably) the Daily Mail did to Madonna nearly ten years ago.
Age as triumph
But Madonna remains visibly physical at 60. She emphasizes her body instead of hiding it “gracefully”—in outfits like the one she wore at the Met Gala in 2016, or by spreading her legs for a Louis Vuitton ad in 2009. She sets out to situate herself in a provocative position in popular culture—as has been her trademark ever since “Like a Virgin.”
Although the Twitter storms of disgust rage on in response to her persistently unapologetic embodiment, there is in turn a backlash against those storms, with The Huffington Post reminding readers that the underlying cause of the discomfort is the lack of potential to commodify the body in question.
Madonna has consistently railed against contemporary taste, battling fiercely on the fronts of race, religion, age, gender, and sexuality. In so doing, she paved the way for the likes of Lady Gaga, who will carry the torch as we continue to explore new expressions of identity in all these areas. But Madonna still has the edge, simply because what she’s doing now cannot be done by someone younger.
“When it comes to food, you can start with whatever you have. Even if it’s just enough to buy two eggs. You can boil them and go to the street and sell them. Slowly you work your way up. We help each other here. That’s how it works,” says Fatima. She was born in Somalia but now runs a small kiosk in Belleville, also known as Somali Town, in Cape Town.
Stepping out of the car in Somali Town is like crossing a threshold into a different city. Though it is a mere 15 minutes’ drive from downtown Cape Town with its hustle and bustle, it seems far away.
Repeated waves of xenophobic violence have swept across South Africa in recent years. Human Rights Watch estimates that in April 2015 alone, more than 2,900 people were internally displaced because of the violence. As a result, migrants have gathered together to form their own communities – Somali Town is one of these.
In the midst of the tension, between the shadows of crumbling apartment buildings and the flickering glow of fluorescent strip lights, these run-down inner-city blocks have become a rallying point and a place to belong. In South Africa, communities such as Somali Town serve as platforms for re-establishing some sense of normality, in a country where migrants face threats of violence and lack access to state support.The informal food economy offers opportunities for livelihoods and a way to stay connected to families and communities far away.
And globally, migration is at an all-time high. Now more than ever, people move across the planet, sometimes searching for adventures and new opportunities, but often to escape poverty, crises, and conflicts. Increased migration inevitably affects social and economic systems, creating both challenges and opportunities for society.
The informal food economy, which falls outside official regulation, plays a key role in many migrants’ lives, as it offers opportunities for livelihoods and a way to stay connected to families and communities far away. The International Labour Organization estimates that the informal economy accounts for 85% of all jobs in Africa and that especially vulnerable and marginalised groups, including women and children, often find it is their only livelihood option.
In/Between is a project that uses a collection of film and photography to explore the role of food in memory, migration, and livelihoods in Somali Town. Through interviews with migrants, the project raises questions around our understanding of informal livelihoods and remittance flows (the payments that migrant workers send to their families back home) that support millions of families globally.
Migration and remittance flows in the 21st century
While media attention on African migration has tended to sensationalise the “exodus” of Africans to Europe, current data shows that most of the migration takes place within the continent.
Driven by conflicts, climate change, environmental degradation, or the search of a better life, these numbers are on the rise. People are on the move, and money flows along their migration paths. The annual global remittance flow in 2013 exceeded foreign aid funding worldwide – US$350 billion versus US$130 billion respectively. Global remittances have become central to questions of global development funding.
However, with rising levels of unemployment in Africa and Europe and tensions around migration, migrants may find it increasingly difficult to find work abroad in future. Considering the scale of remittance flows, the ability of migrants to settle in safety and establish basic levels of livelihoods affects people across the globe.
Small enterprises in the informal economy play an important role in migrants’ survival strategies, and the prevalence of food-related businesses within this economy warrants attention. A study from 2016 showed that more than half of 10,000 small businesses in the informal economy in South Africa sell food or beverages.
Local traders and newcomers
A small kiosk owner, speaking on condition of anonymity, recounts how she fled Somalia with nothing but the clothes on her back. Without a passport or money, she made the 8,000-km journey, illegally crossing countless borders to end up in Cape Town. An informal network of Somali safe houses supported her through the journey. The network reflects the same spirit of solidarity that helped her set up a food kiosk in Cape Town on arrival. She now earns just enough to send money back to Somalia to support her two children, and her eyes light up as she recounts her mother’s recipes that form the basis of her trade here.
Everyday convergences: a traditional Tanzanian fish dish, served in a Somali restaurant in Cape Town.
Unfortunately, this ability to overcome adversity and band together in harsh environments is fuelling resentment towards Somali traders in South Africa. Collective buying power and sharp business practices are creating competition for local traders, forcing some out of business. A report from the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation warns that “price competition and ‘jealousy’ have resulted in tensions and conflict between South African and foreign shop keepers”. This competition between small (locally operated) and larger (immigrant operated) businesses has resulted in many South Africans closing shop and immigrant entrepreneurs increasingly dominating the sector.
To steer away from this kind of competition, researchers suggest that there is a need for better regulation of the informal employment sector. Policies are needed to limit the practices that force family-run survivalist businesses to close. A recent report from the International Labour Organization also emphasises that many of those employed in the informal sector lack social protections, workers’ rights and decent working conditions.
There may also be a role for local government and civil society organisations to act pre-emptively to mediate conflict between local traders and newcomers. For example, arts-based forms of dialogue (such as Empatheatre) can help build empathy and understanding, deconstructing notions of “them and us”.
However, framing this only as a tension between local residents and migrants would be short sighted. There are broader shifts taking place in the food system. Migrant traders may bear the brunt of local frustration around informal trade, but at the same time large national and international retail chains are rapidly establishing in townships. A market dominated by big players can also force smaller businesses to close down. To address the potential conflicts, there is a need to consider how businesses currently in the informal economy can be supported.
Questions arise about how to address issues of economic power in the context of high inequality, as well as how economies can be structured so that capital stays in vulnerable communities through local businesses, rather than supporting a retail system where profits in large retail chains leave the local area.Food brings us together, bridging perceived gaps between people and cultures.
Robert arrived from Kenya in 2010 and works six days a week in a Somali-owned restaurant in Somali Town. He came with a group of people during the World Cup and decided to stay. “Arriving in Cape Town, I was so excited to see this place I heard of as the ‘land of honey’. But it was not exactly what I expected. Life challenged me and forced me to build my future myself… I had to start from scratch,” he says.
However, not everyone is as comfortable sharing their stories. Misrak is originally from Ethiopia and came to South Africa in 2002. “Of course, I left the country for political reasons, but I don’t really want to go into that.” She smiles and looks away to indicate the end of that discussion. She says she is happy to be able to serve and eat food from her home country, and she enjoys the service industry and meeting people: “That missing or longing you get for home – a good meal cools it down.”
The role of food for development
Countless narratives like these, of individuals who left their homes but still support family members that stayed behind, personify how social tolerance in stable economies is linked to economic and social well-being in regions in crisis. On closer inspection, the migrants’ stories illustrate how the informal food economy is linked to remittance flows all across the continent of Africa, connecting some of the wealthiest parts of the African continent with some of the least stable and war-torn regions.
And unlike the formal food industry, the informal food economy serves as an important social safety net of last resort for migrant communities. It is central to building resilience among vulnerable communities and the global social networks they support. Beyond the economic importance of the informal food economy, the stories also highlight how food brings people together and explore the universal love of a home-cooked meal, celebrating the simple act of coming together to eat, and the power this holds in bridging perceived gaps between people and cultures.
Insights around this dual role of the informal food economy highlight the need to consider the economic importance as well as the social values of food, in the places people leave behind and in the communities they arrive in.
This piece was originally published in Re:Think, resilience thinking for global development. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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The year was 1988. For Benny NA, it marked a watershed—it was the year he made a major contribution to popularising the nightie in Kerala. His wife Sherly Benny narrated his story. “Benny had Rs3,000 ($43) on him,” she said. “He didn’t put it in the bank like everybody else. He invested it in a small business of making nighties. He had three workers.” Today, Benny NA and Sherly Benny are the owners of Kerala’s largest nightie brand, N’Style. The company says it has revenues of over Rs100 crore a year.
Though a staple of women’s wardrobes in the state, the nightie is not Kerala’s sartorial prerogative—it is commonplace across many parts of India. Made out of cotton or polyester, it usually follows a standard design: gathered from the yoke, puff sleeves, with a rickrack or lace trimming, and usually floor-length. Its largely unflattering shape means it doesn’t rate highly with the fashion conscious. Curiously, the flappy garment has attracted its fair share of controversy. In 2013, a Chennai school asked the parents of their students to stop wearing nighties for the morning school run as they felt it was distracting. The next year, a women’s group in Gothivli in Navi Mumbai tried to impose a fine of Rs500 on residents wearing nighties outside their homes, describing the garment as indecent. In both cases, the nightie won the battle.
Despite the mild horror it sparks in some quarters, the nightie’s stock seems to be on the rise. In fact, it may even be a sartorial highlight of this year’s American summer. Only in July, The New York Times ran a story on the garment under the headline “Wear Your Nightie Out.”
Prasad Bidapa, a fashion stylist and choreographer from Bengaluru, believes the reason for its popularity is the comfort that the garment affords. “A few years ago, corporate women in America were wearing lacy satin chemises under their jackets, adding a touch of femininity to workwear,” he said. “It was only a matter of time before the comfort of nightwear was translated into what we now call lounge or active wear.”
Comfort is key
In Kerala, the nightie is everywhere. Sherly Benny has been the CEO and chief designer of N’Style for almost a decade and reckons that most working-class women in Kerala own at least one nightie, if not two. “She wears one not just at night but during the day, when she’s working, even when she’s walking the children to school,” said Sherly Benny. “Young or old, it doesn’t matter.”
She believes the state’s weather has something to do with the popularity of the garment. “Kerala is where the nightie has flourished because in this humidity, wearing a salwar kameez or a sari is uncomfortable,” she said. She says her husband’s experience as a bra salesman and in textiles gave him insight into what women wanted: “A good, comfortable, airy garment that they could work and sleep in.”
In addition, there’s its sheer practicality. “The Kerala nightie is 90% cotton and 10% polyester or rayon, which makes washing and drying easier too,” said Sherly Benny. “Plus it lasts longer.”
Sherly Benny is the CEO and chief designer of N’Style.
N’Style has a production unit in Piravom, an hour and a half from Kochi. It employs 600 people and sells its products through 400 retailers. “We make 10,000 nighties a day,” said Sherly Benny. A Kerala nightie can retail for anywhere between Rs200 and Rs800.
Most of the tailors who are stitching the nighties are women, said Sreejith Jeevan, a fashion designer at Rouka in Kochi. “…It’s easy to cut—just shoulders and neck,” he said. “And an easy straight stitch. That made me think of just how high the consumption of the nightie is in Kerala.”
Jeevan describes the nightie as a “boxy garment which doesn’t give any shape to the body.” But he admits to having used the shape in his designs quite frequently as “it’s not always about the curviness, but also about functionality.”
The nightie is preferred for its functionality.
The nightie is believed to have made its first appearance in Victorian times as the nightgown when, according to Bidapa, the women would wear “usually decorously floor-length” garments made of Indian muslin in the summer. “English ladies in colonial India wore it through the year as sleepwear,” he said. “But I think nightwear existed even before that, especially with ancient Egyptians and later the Romans.”
In the 18th century, the nightgown made an appearance in India. “It travelled back with the Fishing Fleet, those ambitious young women from England who came out in droves to India to find husbands,” said Bidapa.
Nightwear in 1920s America, courtesy the Brox sisters.
According to Anu Moulee, a vintage fashion blogger, while the British nightgown did familiarise the Indians with the concept, it wasn’t necessarily adopted by the subcontinent immediately. “In the early 20th century and even up until the 1960s in India, the leisure-wear gown is high end, like the ones Nargis wears in Andaz or Saroja Devi in Anbe Vaa,” she said.
Another garment that was popular as daywear in early 20th-century America was the housecoat. It didn’t catch on in India though, because it “ended well before the ankle.” “Apart from [in] Goa, women [in India] were averse to midi-style garments,” explained Moulee.
She believes that the Gulf boom, with large numbers of Malayalis travelling to west Asia for better jobs, may have had something to do with the nightie’s spread in India. “…Migration to both the Gulf and the West may have spurred the adoption of nightwear, as returnees or visitors home got back these styles,” said Moulee.
Also, by the 1970s, maxis and kaftans for women had made an appearance and become an acceptable day garment. The sari was already established but, as Moulee explains, it needed a blouse and a petticoat as undergarments. “The nightie therefore served the purpose of replacing the sari once you came home,” she said. “You could slip a maxi or a kaftan over a petticoat for housework, errands and the like. The cultural requirements of modesty and comfort are met by the style and fabric that has remained constant over the decades—a sleeved gown with a yoke made of cotton or blends.” These adaptations have remained a constant for the Indian market. In Mumbai, in the 1980s, Gujaratis and Maharashtrians began to use the nightie.
Feminist historian J Devaki also believes that the garment’s popularity in Kerala was a result of the Malayali men “going to the Gulf to work and then coming back home with nighties in their suitcases.” Devaki says this was commonplace in the 1970s and 1980s. “They would bring in these luxurious Egyptian cotton maxi-type long dresses for their wives. In the Gulf countries, women wear robes in the day and at some point, as Kerala’s ties with the Gulf got stronger, the nightie got adopted as day-wear.”
Cooking, shopping or a school run: the nightie is a ubiquitous fixture in Kerala.
In Kerala, the sari is draped in a manner quite unlike other parts of India. The mundu-neriyatham consists of two mundus, or a skirt-like garment. One covers the lower part of the woman’s body, while the other is worn with a blouse and draped across the torso. “Women in north India were quicker to adopt the salwar kameez or palazzo-type trousers,” said Devaki. “In Kerala, it was all about the drapes. It was probably why the nightie as a garment became quickly accepted. Over time, the Gulf nightie became a rural garment in Kerala. It became representative of the lower-class woman. They adapted it into this cheap, shapeless garment which is easy to wash and maintain.”
Bidapa said women in rural areas embraced the nightie as it was both “modest and decorous.” “The great Indian nightie allowed women to go to the public tap, fill up two plastic pots with water, and lug it back home without having to worry about a sari unravelling.”
The nightie is so much a part of the state’s psyche that leading actresses are seen wearing them in the region’s movies. In the super-hit Nivin Pauly starrer 1983, lead heroine Srinda Arhaan wears a nightie for the most part. So also in Kaliveedu, in which one of Kerala’s biggest stars, Manju Warrier, is seen clad in one.
“She [Warrier] played a young housewife,” said Anju Shyam, 25, who lives in Alapuzzha. “I thought how beautiful she looks in that nightie.”
While Anju has been wearing the nightie since her teenage days, she prefers wearing an “A-line one” over the more traditional favourites. “It’s more fashionable,” she said. “It can pass off for a long dress and it gives me a nice shape.” She wears one right through the day, draping a dupatta or a torthu (a thin cotton towel) around her neck when she goes to the nearby market or drops her child at school.
he nightie is a staple in most markets (and wardrobes) across Kerala.
But Betty Joy, a domestic worker in Kochi, has mixed feelings about the nightie. The 56-year-old wears it when at work but changes back into her sari when it’s time to go home. “So the nightie is my workwear,” she said.
Meanwhile, after close to two decades of manufacturing nighties in Kerala, Benny NA and Sherly Benny have decided to shift base. N’Style is moving to Ahmedabad where “labour is cheap, unions nonexistent, and there aren’t so many forms to fill.” Despite the shift, customers can expect what they have always associated with N’Style, the firm’s website promises an “incredible wide range, eye-glowing selections, beautiful styles, comfortable fits, and quality fabrics.”
This piece was first published on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
India’s aviation sector has faced the same issues for years but failed to find a solution.
Over the last one month, two of the country’s largest airlines have faced mounting pressure from a depreciating rupee and the resultant surge in fuel prices.
India’s biggest airline by market share, IndiGo, saw net profit nosedive 97% year-on-year to Rs278 crore ($40 million) in the April-June quarter of the financial year 2019. The company’s fuel expenses alone rose 54% year-on-year.
Jet Airways, on the other hand, is struggling to keep flying. The company reportedly plans to lay off employees. On Aug 09, it indefinitely deferred the announcement of its financial results, which has led to an audit by sector regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation.
All this comes after the airline posted a loss of Rs10,360 crore for the January-March quarter of 2018. “Financial performance…was weaker due to the continuing increase in price of Brent fuel without a corresponding increase in airfares, as well as mark-to-market adjustments due to a weaker rupee,” Jet Airways CEO Vinay Dube had said on May 23.
And on Aug. 14, budget-carrier SpiceJet posted a net loss (pdf) of Rs38.1 crore year-on-year for the June quarter citing the same reasons.
Analysts, however, say airlines can’t keep blaming the macro-economy for everything.
If past examples are anything to learn from, they should have been better prepared to handle such an unforeseen situation, analysts say. After all, fuel prices and rupee volatility were among the top reasons for one of the biggest aviation disasters of recent times: the shutdown of Vijay Mallya-owned Kingfisher Airlines in 2012.
The root cause for these troubles, according to experts, is airlines’ inability to balance volume and value.
“Over time, checks and balances should have been built,” a Delhi-based aviation analyst said, requesting anonymity. “They are not even sure of whether they want more volume or should they concentrate on a feasible plan that will help them keep their house in order.”
Passsengers or profits?
India’s airlines have been trying so hard to capture market share that they’ve lost focus on making money.
“Indian aviation companies have been unable to value sustainability over volumes. Choosing profitable routes would have made the losses less pinching,” said Ashish Nainan, research analyst with CARE Ratings.
A lot has changed since Kingfisher Airlines went bust in late 2012. The demand has grown faster than supply, but airlines haven’t been able to cash in. For instance, while demand surged by 17.6% year-on-year in June 2018, carriers remained obsessed with promotional discounts. On Aug. 11, Jet announced an up to 30% discount on its international routes; Air India and GoAir followed suit.
“When you launch something, competitive fares make sense. But there has to be a point beyond which you can’t go. And for established brands, being unable to decide that limit is worrisome,” the aviation analyst said.
At a time when inflation is high and most global factors unfavourable, established players must stop haggling for market share. “You need to choose routes that are most profitable. Else, you should have the financial bandwidth to keep pouring money. If you have a sizeable market share, why should you haggle for an extra 1-2%?” asked Nainan.
Besides, the companies have also failed to put their own houses in order.
On Aug. 14, the rupee touched the 70-mark against the US dollar.
Many sectors have somewhat learned to deal with such circumstances.
Most IT outsourcing companies, for instance, get over 80% of their revenue from overseas. Yet they have devised solid hedging practices, which partially protect them against sharp currency movements.
The aviation sector, however, hasn’t done much about it. “No airlines company has been able to devise a credible currency policy till date,” the aviation analyst said.
The problem is less chronic for companies operating on international routes as remittances are in dollars. “But the domestic routes are a problem and companies that have more domestic routes need to think of a policy,” Subrata Ray of ICRA said.
IKEA’s first Indian store has seen so much rush in the first week of its opening that the retailer is now having to dissuade shoppers from coming.
The world’s largest furniture seller’s flagship Indian outlet in the southern city of Hyderabad has received an average of 28,000 daily visitors since its inauguration on Aug. 09.
On Aug. 15, to handle the situation better, IKEA put up a live ticker on its website displaying how long it would take for a shopper to get inside the store. The idea was to help shoppers plan their visit better and for the company to manage the crowds more effectively.
For IKEA, which has 400stores in 50 countries, this is a first.
IKEA’s Instagram handle announcing the waiting period.
At 1:30pm on India’s Independence Day, the waiting time on the ticker was up to two hours; by 2.30pm it rose to three hours. Seeing such long waiting hours could potentially discourage some buyers, reducing the rush at the store.
Calm down, India
IKEA expects six million visitors at its Hyderabad store in the first year. If the initial response is anything to go by, it is off to a good start.
Some 40,000 shoppers had showed up on day one, leading to chaos and two-hour long queues just to get inside and a long winding traffic jam outside. Social media was flooded with scary videos and images of the situation.
— RJ Chaitu (@RJChaitu) August 9, 2018
Since then, IKEA has been treading with caution.
Over its first Indian weekend, the retailer put out a message on its Instagram handle announcing that it was housefull. It even sought to bring down the excitement a notch even by assuring customers that it was here to stay and that they needn’t rush immediately.
Hej Hyderabad, your excitement has overwhelmed us (literally). Our store and parking are currently full. But there’s nothing to lose as we are open 365 days and our low prices are valid everyday. So take all the time you need.
The craze is primarily the result of IKEA’s months-long promotional efforts through front-page newspaper ads and large hoardings across the city. In Hyderabad, awareness of the brand went from a mere 5% when IKEA was still building the storeto nearly 80% as the opening date approached, IKEA India’s creative director (Life at Home), Mia Lundstrom, had told Quartz in an interview last week.
However, despite this excitement, it is still too early to determine how many visitors are actually shopping. There are past examples of how footfalls have not translated into sales for IKEA. For instance, its store in Beijing, China, initially struggled to deal with visitors who simply stepped in to eat cheap meals and rest on its couches.
Ronald Reagan National Airport, one of the primary airports serving the Washington DC area, registered a power outage beginning at approximately 9:45 pm ET, forcing the airport to put at least some flight takeoffs on hold, and divert others, with many computer systems down. The airport said via Twitter that flights were operating, albeit slowly during the blackout. A little over an hour after lights went out, it said power was restored. The airport didn’t specify a reason for the outage.
11:13pm: Power is restored to the airport and systems are coming back online. Some flights may be delayed. Thank you for your patience.
— Reagan Airport (@Reagan_Airport) August 16, 2018
We are aware of an airport wide power outage and investigating. Updates to follow. (950pm)
— Reagan Airport (@Reagan_Airport) August 16, 2018
Flights are operating, however mechanical systems without power is slowing boarding and deplaning. (10:41pm)
— Reagan Airport (@Reagan_Airport) August 16, 2018
Quartz’s White House correspondent Heather Timmons had flown into the airport and was by the luggage belts shortly before the outage. Lights flickered and the luggage belts stopped and started, before the power went out for good. Overhead back-up lights were on for about 20 minutes before also going out.
Virginia Power has confirmed the airport isn't getting any electricity, a garbled announcement said. (I think) The backup lights just went out
— Heather Timmons (@HeathaT) August 16, 2018
“Have a seat it’s going to be a while,” was one of the first PA announcements from the airport.
The electricity just went out at Reagan National Airport and folks are wandering around trying to find their stranded bags on the stalled luggage belt by phone light. Infrastructure week? pic.twitter.com/iMUAV3ufiy
— Heather Timmons (@HeathaT) August 16, 2018
In the luggage area one man handed out luggage bag by bag, before saying, “I can’t do this all night.”
— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) August 16, 2018
Crypto crime turned a $24 million robbery into a $224 lawsuit against AT&T, which an investor blames for enabling identity theft.
Oatmeal, with its hearty dose of fiber, is a great breakfast choice for staying full and energetic. It feeds a crowd for pennies. It also, likely, contains a hearty does of glyphosate, better known as the Monsanto weedkiller Roundup.
Today (Aug. 15), the Environmental Working Group released a study that tested 61 oat products, including oatmeal, granola and granola bars, for glyphosate. Of the 45 items made with conventionally grown oats, 43 tested positive, with 31 above the EWG’s threshold for safety. Five of the organic products tested positive, as well.
One of the healthiest foods on the list, Quaker Old Fashioned Oats, were actually found to have the highest levels of glyphosate, at more than 1,000 parts per billion—the EWG’s child-protective benchmark is 160 parts per billion. Cheerios, Lucky Charms, and Barbara’s Multigrain Spoonfuls were also found to contain significant amounts.
In a statement to Fortune, Quaker said: “We proudly stand by the safety and quality of our Quaker products. Quaker does not add glyphosate during any part of the milling process. Glyphosate is commonly used by farmers across the industry who apply it pre-harvest.”
More than 200 million pounds of glyphosate are sprayed on crops in the US each year. Glyphosate is most often used in Roundup Ready corn and soybean crops that have been genetically modified to be resistant to the powerful herbicide—weeds die, the crops remain for better growth and ease of harvesting. The practice of spraying glyphosate on other crops, including oats, lentils, and sugar beets, prior to harvest to dry them out and speed ripening, while not standard, is a strategy farmers sometimes employ.
In an emailed statement to Quartz, Monsanto wrote:
When it comes to pesticides residues, the EPA and other regulatory authorities have strict rules. The EPA sets daily exposure limits at least 100 times below levels shown to have no negative effect in safety studies. Even at the highest level reported by the EWG (1,300 ppb), an adult would have to eat 118 pounds of the food item every day for the rest of their life in order to reach the EPA’s limit. These numbers translate to 9 ½ servings every hour of the day without sleep for a person’s entire life. The EWG’s claim about cancer is false. Glyphosate does not cause cancer. Glyphosate has a more than 40-year history of safe use. Over those four decades, researchers have conducted more than 800 scientific studies and reviews that prove glyphosate is safe for use.
There is not a broadly accepted safe level of glyphosate exposure, in food or as an agricultural worker. The World Health Organization has called it a probable carcinogen, as has the state of California. The US Environmental Protection Agency has a glyphosate risk assessment in draft form that “concludes that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. The Agency’s assessment found no other meaningful risks to human health when the product is used according to the pesticide label.” Last week, a San Francisco jury awarded a school groundskeeper who had repeatedly been exposed to glyphosate and subsequently developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma $289 million in a lawsuit against Monsanto.
This is not the first time glyphosate has been found in popular packaged foods. In 2017, Ben & Jerry’s suffered a blow to the brand’s crunchy image when the Organic Consumers Association announced that they had found low levels of glyphosate in 10 varieties of its ice cream.
Earlier this year, The Guardian reported on internal US Food and Drug Administration documents that found elevated glyphosate levels in crackers, corn meal, and, yes, oatmeal. In an email to his colleagues about testing methods, an FDA chemist wrote that broccoli was the only food from his home that he had found to be glyphosate-free, noting, “I have brought wheat crackers, granola cereal and corn meal from home and there’s a fair amount in all of them.”
Atolls are tantalizing in their size, shape, and isolation. The tiny ring-shaped islands formed by build up of coral from previous volcanic islands evoke the desert islands of our dreams: lonely stretches of sand in the middle of crystal clear waters, with few if any people around.
Satellite images and photos taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station accentuate what makes them so beautiful—thin wisps of coral and sand encasing deep blue lagoons.ISS018-E-018129_lrg Atafu Atoll, Tokelau, NASA Atafu Atoll, Tokelau iss045e000837_lrg Manihiki Atoll, Cook Islands NASA Manihiki Atoll, Cook Islands ISS013-E-28610_lrg Nukuoro Atoll, Federated States of Micronesia NASA Nukuoro Atoll, Federated States of Micronesia nikumaroro_oli_2014209_lrg Nikumaroro Atoll, Kiribati NASA Nikumaroro Atoll, Kiribati arnoatoll_l7_2000137_lrg Majuro and Arno Atolls, Marshall Islands NASA Majuro and Arno Atolls, Marshall Islands ISS024-E-011914_lrg Mataiva Atoll, Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia NASA Mataiva Atoll, Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia maldives_ast_22dec02_lrg North and South Malosmadulu Atolls, the Maldives NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS North and South Malosmadulu Atolls, the Maldives kanton_etm_2000037_lrg Kanton Island, Kiribati NASA Kanton Island, Kiribati ISS020-E-16279_lrg Millennium Island, Kiribati NASA Millennium Island, Kiribati STS088-707-6_lrg Tarawa and Maiana Atolls NASA Tarawa and Maiana Atolls, Kiribati tureia_ali_2006158_lrg Tureia, in French Polynesia NASA Tureia, in French Polynesia
For thousands of kids in the US, going back to school this year won’t be quite so painful. That’s because they will attend schools with four-day weeks.
Colorado district 27J, serving 18,000 kids, is the latest major school district to try and save money by cutting a day from its schedule—in this case, Mondays—while extending the other four days by 40 minutes each. The superintendent said saving would total about $1 million on busing, teacher salaries, and utilities, according to NPR. It is the 98th district in the state to move to the shorter schedule.
Many Western and Midwestern states, including Montana, Idaho, Missouri, and Nebraska, have adopted similar measures. According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy group, 25 states currently have at least one district using a four-day school week, totaling 550 districts nationwide. Most of these districts are small and rural, but some are more urban.
Chris Fine, superintendent for Lathrop, Missouri, took his district to four days for the first time in the 2011-12 school year when it was cash-strapped after the financial crisis. It was not only effective, he told EdWeek, but even if he could go back to five days, he would not:
The improvement in our professional development opportunities has been a big plus. We increased the number of hours of instruction on the course of the year without increasing teacher time. That was a benefit, and we do believe that that is a good selling point for us in recruiting and attracting good teachers. Some of the other benefits far outweighed the financial benefits.
Research has raised doubts about whether the cost-saving measures really work. One study by the Oklahoma Department of Education found no conclusive evidence that the change actually saves money. It analyzed expenditures for 16 school districts that moved to a four-day school week during the 2011-2012 school year, comparing spending on utilities, food, transportation, and support staff from fiscal year 2008-2009 through 2015-2016. Nine districts spent more and seven spent less, with the average increase in spending of $8,542 more on support staff and $4,523 more on utilities, while spending $2,714 less on food and $1,971 less on transportation.
Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and a professor at the University of Washington, Bothell warns that the measures could also be harmful to student learning. “[A]re these districts adopting the shorter week without both considering other ways to save money and counting the risks to students?” he asked in a recent EdWeek piece which argued that a shorter week might hold students back:
Nobody seriously argues that less time in school will increase student learning. And here’s the rub: The hundreds of four-day-week districts in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oklahoma, and Oregon are overwhelmingly rural districts, which, on average, fall below state means on student achievement, graduation rates, and college attendance. A policy that just holds student results to previous levels will not expand students’ college options or help communities attract new businesses and jobs.
Indeed, it’s not clear how the US, which lags behind many developed and developing countries in international tests, will catch up if American kids are spending less time in school than their peers abroad. Unfortunately, other attempts to save money seem equally grim. Hill suggests these: “reducing the time that school libraries are open, cutting vice principals in the high school, eliminating substitutes, and expecting administrators to cover for absent teachers.”
The four-day school week also has an obvious downside for working parents: That’s one more day they need to worry about child care. Clearly, Colorado got the memo: district 27J will offer child care on Mondays for $30 per child.
Beer, wine, and liquor seller Constellation Brands is pumping another $4 billion into Canopy Growth, Canada’s top weed producer, in the biggest investment into the industry yet.
Constellation, which owns brands like Corona and Modelo, already invested $191 million into Canopy last October. But with the purchase of 104.5 million Canopy shares at a 51.2% premium to Tuesday’s stock closing price, the most recent deal increases Constellation’s ownership of the cannabis company from 9.9% to 38%.
In an earnings call on Wednesday, Canopy CEO Bruce Linton called Constellation’s new investment “rocket fuel.”
Canada will become the first G7 country to legalize recreational use of cannabis this October, and many beer companies like Constellation see the drug as a way to hedge their bets for the future. While the beer business is stagnating as Millennials increasingly opt for wine and spirits instead, the cannabis business is expected to grow to $57 billion globally by 2027.
Cannabis products will likely extend well beyond the traditional cigarettes. Linton has previously told CNBC that Canopy hopes to market cannabis beverages and sleep-aids. And earlier this year, Molson Coors similarly announced that it was partnering with The Hydropthecary Corp, a Canadian cannabis producer, to design a line of non-alcoholic and pot-infused beverages.
At the time, Spiros Malandrakis, head of alcoholic drinks at market research firm Euromonitor, told the Wall Street Journal that “a transition towards a holistic, responsible intoxication model will be the end game.”
Satellite imagery across the visual spectrum is cascading down from the heavens. The challenge is to figure out how to process it, learn from it—and monetize it.
Advances in distributed processing and machine learning have made it possible for researchers to manipulate and analyze data on, well, a planetary scale. Descartes Labs, a company spun out of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, is one of the leaders in the field. Now, its tool for leveraging Earth-observation data on a large scale is now available.
The lofty ambition is to model the world.
“After SimCity but before SimAnt, there’s this forgotten game called SimEarth,” Mark Johnson, Descartes’ CEO, recalled in a conversation with Quartz. “The idea was to try to take a planet from single-cell life to multi-cell life. When we were first starting the company, we thought, could we actually build a SimEarth? That’s a lofty goal but that’s the kind of thing, with computational power and new data coming online, that may be decades out rather than centuries out.”
Another analogue might be Mathematica, the computation program that became de rigueur for anyone doing advanced work in statistics, physics and other calculation-heavy fields. “Right now, data science requires a lot of skill, there’s no way to avoid math, stats, computer programming,” Johnson said. “But making the data easier to manipulate, that’s the job of a data refinery.”
Farm data to count on
Descartes is offering users, mostly scientists, the ability to run machine-learning algorithms on a massive set of satellite data, including exclusive access to imagery collected by the European aerospace giant Airbus, which snaps photos of the entire world once a quarter at a resolution of half a meter per pixel. The platform also integrates a database of weather information, which can help analysts looking for information about agriculture and shipping.
One researcher, Caitlin Kontgis, came to Descartes from her Ph.D. program in geography at the University of Wisconsin. She had focused her work on the Mekong Delta, the multi-country region that produces the majority of the rice in the world and can harvest three times a year, thanks to Southeast Asia’s climate, water and modern strains of rice.
Our information about global rice production is fairly limited, however. Descartes’ first major project was building a model of global corn production, which it could do thanks to the distinctive look of corn from orbit and the large-scale, industrial nature of its production. Rice paddies are often obscured by clouds and flooded with water, making them hard to distinguish from orbit, and typically tilled on a small scale by individual farmers.
One of the data sets at Descartes, synthetic aperture radar from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellite, can see through clouds to the earth’s surface. Using that data and her experience doing on-the-ground fieldwork in Vietnam, Kontgis was able to “train” an algorithm to identify rice-growing acreage on the Mekong Delta from space.
A visualization of the rice production data produced by Descartes Labs.
What happened next, she says, demonstrates the robustness of Descartes’ tools. With the algorithm developed, Kontgis could use the company’s platform to deploy it across southeast Asia, automatically counting rice acreage throughout the region.
“The models I was running during my Ph.D. on the Mekong Delta on a university server would have to run overnight,” she says. “This is doing it for every Sentinel 1 pass over all of Asia, and it’s just taking a couple of hours.”
The data will interest everyone from local governments to food security NGOs to agribusiness. DARPA, the US military’s advanced research office, working with Descartes to track grain production in the Middle East as a leading indicator of potential conflicts, is interested in looking at rice harvests as well.
As the company grows its product offering, it hopes that “the information advantage from owning assets will erode.” That’s a pretty radical proposition—that anyone will be able to know as much about rice production—or copper shipping, or oil extraction—as the people who own rice paddies, copper mines and oil refineries.
Descartes, which raised $30 million last year in its second fundraising round, isn’t the only player in this field. Orbital Insight is another firm that promises to use data science to monetize information from space. Planet, a company that now operates the most commercial satellites in the world, is now focusing on developing its own platform to serve data from their spacecraft and others directly to customers.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misreported Caitlin Kontgis’ alma mater.
With bags under his eyes and a ring in his nose, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sat down with NBC’s Lester Holt on Wednesday (Aug. 15) to talk about the decision to temporarily suspend the account of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from the social-media platform. But instead of sounding like the leader of two multibillion-dollar companies, Dorsey came across like a disappointed father.
“I believe we put [Jones] in a timeout, removing his ability to tweet for a time period,” Dorsey said.
One week prior, Dorsey had tweeted his decision not to ban Jones or his media company, Infowars, from the platform. After a week of inaction, Dorsey reversed course. Yesterday, Twitter froze Jones’s account for seven days, after he posted a video calling on his supporters to get their “battle rifles” ready to fight the media. Today, Twitter extended the seven-day suspension to Infowars for sharing the same video.
Holt pushed back on Dorsey, claiming that a timeout seemed like a minor punishment compared to the implications of someone suggesting a call to arms against a particular group. But Dorsey held his ground. “Any suspension, whether it be a permanent one or a temporary one, makes someone think about their actions and behaviors,” he said.
Some news: Twitter has temporarily limited the Infowars account for 7 days. According to company spokesperson, Infowars shared a video that violated terms of service. This is the same video shared by Alex Jones. Infowars will be prevented from tweeting, RTing and liking.
— Ryan Mac (@RMac18) August 15, 2018
Though the decision to take action against Jones is arguably overdue (Apple, YouTube, and Facebook all removed the majority of Jones’s content from their platforms last week), the relatively light punishment seems indicative of a CEO struggling to figure out how to manage the platform he helped create.
Tech journalist Casey Newton at The Verge likened Twitter’s punishment to a digital detox.
I love that a common form of internet self-care (quitting Twitter for a week) and a common form of internet punishment (getting banned from Twitter for a week) are functionally identical https://t.co/KmuBvIi7OD
— Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) August 15, 2018
The drama of the last week—in which Twitter was criticized by current and former employees for its initial stance—highlights the tension between Twitter’s desire to stay consistent in the enforcement of its policies while at the same time evolving its policies to better protect its users.
Definitely not happy with where our policies are. They need to constantly evolve. Doing that work. Thanks for the thoughtful tweets and push, Mike https://t.co/UyY1wlvv4D
— jack (@jack) August 8, 2018
Hopefully seven days will give Dorsey enough time to figure it out.
Three months after its films were barred from competing in Cannes, Netflix is getting ready to open the Toronto International Film Festival with what it hopes will be one of several Oscar contenders.
Outlaw King, an upcoming historical epic film starring Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce, will be the opening night gala presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September, festival organizers announced yesterday (Aug. 14). The film, directed by Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie (2017 Oscar nominee for Hell or High Water), gives Netflix easily its most prominent fall festival screening since it started distributing original films in 2015.
It’s just one of many Netflix films that have found a welcome home this year at TIFF, which in recent years has become the biggest and most important fall festival in North America as distributors kick off their award season campaigns. Netflix’s Toronto slate is stacked. In addition to Outlaw King, it includes:
- Roma, the highly anticipated film from Alfonso Cuarón—his first since 2013’s Gravity
- 22 July, director Paul Greengrass’ film about the 2011 Norway terrorist attacks that killed 77 people
- The Land of Steady Habits, Nicole Holofcener’s (Enough Said) drama starring Emmy winners Ben Mendelsohn and Edie Falco
- Hold the Dark, a star-studded thriller by rising filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier
- The Kindergarten Teacher, a Maggie Gyllenhaal vehicle that Netflix picked up after it impressed at the Sundance Film Festival in January
All of these films except Hold the Dark will also screen at the Venice Film Festival, which starts a week before Toronto and overlaps for a few days in early September. Netflix is also premiering two potential awards contenders in Venice that won’t show in Toronto: The Coen Brothers’ “western anthology” film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and The Other Side of the Wind, a film directed by Orson Welles in the 1970s that’s finally been completed 40 years later.
When you’ve got new films by Alfonso Cuarón (Oscar winner), the Coen Brothers (Oscar winners), and Paul Greengrass (Oscar nominee), you’re positioned pretty well for the award season gauntlet. Altogether, these eight films represent the streamer’s best chance yet to win its coveted Oscar. (Netflix won its first feature Oscar last year for the documentary Icarus, but has yet to win one for a scripted film.)
Clearly aware it has a promising array of films to show off this season, Netflix hired one of Hollywood’s top awards strategists, Lisa Taback, to lead its Oscars campaign. Netflix had a somewhat promising awards slate last year, which included the searing World War II era drama Mudbound, but it didn’t receive the publicity push it needed to contend with the films of traditional studios.
Netflix will need a huge, creative PR push if it’s to seriously compete for Hollywood’s biggest film prize. Cannes wouldn’t even let Netflix films compete at the festival this year because they didn’t receive a theatrical release in France. Toronto and Venice have been more open to the streaming service, but that doesn’t mean the film Academy, which votes on the Oscars, will be.
Despite becoming younger and more diverse, the Academy still contains a large contingent of filmmakers and industry professionals who don’t think Netflix movies are even real movies, let alone legitimate Oscar contenders. Until Netflix moves away from its “day-and-date” strategy of releasing its films online on the same day they’re shown in a (very) select few group of theaters, its films will meet resistance with those deciding who should win awards. But Netflix’s slate this year will be really hard to ignore.
Marine-life carcasses are washing ashore in a dramatic red scare that has prompted Florida’s governor to declare an official state of emergency.
The limp bodies of fish, eels, manatees, and even a whale shark were counted among the victims along Florida’s gulf shore, laid waste by a red-algae bloom that has crept steadily north in the state, gumming up rivers and sending irritating vapors inland, causing some people to experience mild respiratory discomfort. All of which has diminished summer tourism.
Red algae isn’t new to Florida: According to the Washington Post (paywall), red algae has been documented regularly since the 1840s. There are accounts from as early as the 1500s in which Spanish explorers described seeing fish laying dead, presumably as a result of a bloom. What’s mysterious to scientists is that so-called “red tides” have become more frequent in the past 60 years. Some speculate that rising sea temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico might be to blame.
Others have noted an increase in housing developments and agricultural operations, which have imprinted the land with canals, ditches, and levees that affect water flow. Rainwater that used to flow through natural filtering systems such as estuaries now rushes across developed lands. This pushes more nitrogen and phosphorous—commonly found on farms—into water systems, which in turn feed the algae.
This year, that has translated into some 267 tons of marine life being killed, including more than 300 sea turtles, 72 Goliath groupers, nine bottlenose dolphins, and the 21-foot whale shark. Sarasota County reported that businesses saw an overall decline of a 6% in sales compared to the prior year.
“While we fight to learn more about this naturally occurring phenomenon, we will continue to deploy all state resources and do everything possible to make sure that Gulf Coast residents are safe and area businesses can recover,” Florida governor Rick Scott said in a statement.
To assist in that effort, the state is paying out around $1.5 million toward clean-up efforts and scientific research.