Monthly Recommendations (November 2021)

The theme for November’s list is Nature. Movies starting with Jurassic Park have tried to show humans that Nature’s powers are wielded at the most uncomfortable times for human beings and that there is really no consideration for us. This does not stop us from wanting to change the natural course. And this forceful change in nature’s course that we effect through our actions, our scientific understanding of fundamentals, our engineering acumen to build huge structures, and our knack for planning long, complex adventures with far-fetched goals in mind is the theme of this month’s recommendation list. It includes one article about a ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal, a team of people who want to set a world-record and thus circle the globe 1.5 times in their pursuit, and the story of a government’s need to do data-driven policy gone haywire.

  1. Six Days in Suez: The Inside Story of the Ship That Broke Global Trade (Chellel, Campbel, Ha)

    Bloomberg Businessweek (archived). 24 Jun, 2021

    Great investigation and very interesting notes from the people who were deeply involved in the operation to dislodge the ship.

    The Ever Given disaster was perhaps one of the most interesting news story of the past year. It was a welcome relief from the constant grief that COVID19 stories cast on all news coverage. It was also a problem that seemed so tractable. After a year of coverage about variations in virus genomes and vaccine efficacy, the sudden blockage of a canal because a ship got lodged in it and blocked it seemed almost unreal. At the story’s beginning, there were very few images and most of the coverage repeated the same few refrains. Bloomberg managed to get the first eyes on the ground and returned some footage that showed the massive scale of the problem. Soon after, the outlook was pessimistic enough that shipping major Maersk decided to re-route ships through the Cape of Good Hope. The solution to the sideways ship was also surprisingly quick. Helped along by a high tide caused by a full moon, the ship was dislodged in about a week. The backlog was cleared in another week. The rerouted ship would take 3 weeks to travel the distance that is covered in about 14 hours through the Suez Canal. This article is an amazing recap of the whole incident.

    It’s not perfect, but that’s the story with all media coverage. The authors don’t meet the mark with their knowledge of the major languages in various regions. In particular, a cursory search would have told them that a huge number of children in India study in schools where English is the medium of education and thus, despite not being my native language, I continue to write blog posts in English. A note about the background of the people on the bridge would have been useful, such as the regions that they studied in or the language that they completed their naval training in. (I am very confident that these seamen must have completed their training from institutes in India and given their exams in English.)

    After climbing aboard, the two Egyptian pilots were led up to the bridge to meet the captain, officers, and helmsmen, all of them Indian, like the rest of the crew. According to documents filed weeks later in an Egyptian court, there was a dispute at some point about whether the ship should enter the canal at all, given the bad weather—a debate that may have been hampered by the fact that English was neither side’s first language.

    Also, I don’t see why language is an issue here. These are men trained to make snap decisions in crisis situations such as these. Their language will not hamper their communication as there is a set hierarchy that must be followed anyway.

  2. Five Oceans, Five Deeps (Taub)

    New Yorker (archived). 18th May, 2020

    The incredible non-fiction piece about a team of researchers and world-record setters who traveled all 5 of the deepest points on the planet’s oceans and descended to the bottom in their vessels. This is a story of survival, the trials that come along the way, and the importance of world records. In all the ways that one can get their name etched into history, world records are perhaps the most accessible to the normal person. Of course, it’s all relative. This particular mission required a lot of resources, and the world record was set only because the people involved in the project could come up with that money. This article also touches on that point. The other ways of getting into the halls of history involve politics or sports, both of which require atleast a little bit of skill that the person must be born with. There are some who like to believe that politics is completely random because people form their opinions well before they vote in an election and that sports is completely random because athletes can be good if they are trained early and relentlessly. I am not in both those camps yet and firmly believe that something innate is a requirement; however small that might be, there’s something that’s required. To someone who believes that, setting “one of the last meaningful records” would definitely seem to be worth the hefty price.

  3. Black, No Sugar. (Gopnik)

    New Yorker (archived). 27th April, 2020

    Coffee is everywhere and it’s the most common drink that one finds in the newest of places. There is a lot of fuss over the taste of coffee; I don’t have a taste palette refined enough to understand even 10% of the conversations about coffee among connoisseurs. But the history of coffee is a fascinating topic to me because it tracks the emergence and spread of a caffeine delivery system. Gopnik chronicles the books about the corrective history of coffee that questions coffee drinkers around the world about the moral costs of their constant consumption, and also questions the basis of their consumption itself; the relation between caffeine and productivity may have been slightly overstated by the coffee lobby inside political institutions, making it a phenomenally easy commodity to trade. Gopnik uncovers such tricky truths in his piece.

  4. The Pandemic Made Cities Quieter, But Not Less Stressful (Sullivan)

    Bloomberg Businessweek (archived). 2nd September, 2021

    Sound is everywhere but we barely notice it in most situations. When we do notice it, it is with either the at most pleasure or the vilest displeasure. The Vox, Explained episode about Music is also a great reminder of this core role that sound (noise and music) plays in our lives. With the reduction of some city noises over the past year, as economies came to a screeching halt, other noises have become prominent. The uncomfortable silence in a city is comparable to the uncomfortable silence inside your office, where you can here your own voice clearly, for there is no other background noise. This is an article about how soundscapes and well-designed cities might be the way to solving the noisy city problem, once-and-for-all. If we would want to make the city less noisy is another question altogether. I am not yet convinced that we need to live in a relatively silent city to be less stressed. To me, the noise that runs through cities is the key to separate them from the countryside.

  5. India’s Air Pollution Mitigation Strategy Needs More Direction (Shah)

    The Wire (archived). 7th June, 2021

    Government policies take a lot of time to be drafted and even when they become bills they are huge documents without a straightforward explanation of their goals. This is clearly hard; I concede that it might even be impossible: How do you design a straightforward system for hundreds of millions of people where even a corner case that occurs 0.1% of the time will affect the lives of 100,000 people?

    However, the dense regulatory framework benefits corporations that have the revenue to pay lawyers to parse through policies and find ways to use them to their advantage. This article views the problem of policy making from the government’s side: Why does the government not make a policy to reduce pollution in India’s metro areas? The government is criticized for taking steps which are not backed by “real numbers.” To get these real numbers, the government commissions studies and forms committees.

    This article rails against such actions; and specifically, again “source apportionment studies,” which (presumably) attribute the existing pollution to various sources and try to apportion blame to each source. The results of such studies are used as the basis of “data-driven policy.” However, as the author demonstrates, these studies have not discovered anything useful or new in the 15 years between 2001 and 2017. Institutions like IIT Madras and IIT Kanpur are involved in the conduction of these studies; I know that studies like these are a major source of revenue and research papers for the academics at these institutions. Publishing at a high rate is one of the assured paths to great publicity for academics; and thus, the incentive structures line up perfectly between governments and academics. These studies deliver no value to the government. So, the incentive structure to reduce air pollution? Well, it is dysfunctional.