Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali & Aarthi Ramnath
A toxic mess in Kochi
On March 2, firefighters scrambled to put out a fire at a solid waste treatment plant in the area of Brahmapuram. The Brahmapuram waste plant is infamous for the massive mounds of waste—and is owned and operated by Kochi city authorities. The three-day-old fire is still smouldering—and has caused severe air pollution. Over the weekend, authorities shut down malls, declared a school holiday for primary schoolkids—and asked residents to stay indoors. A petition with the Kerala High Court has demanded an inquiry—alleging corruption in the State Pollution Control Board. (BBC News)
A big lithium find in Iran
It is a lithium gold rush! In less than a month after India announced a major discovery of the mineral, Iran has joined the club. Tehran claims to have uncovered a deposit of 8.5 million tons—the largest reserve in the world outside South America. The Indian deposit in Kashmir is much smaller—5.9 million tons. Why this matters: lithium is critical for electric vehicle technology—and is used in cell phones, laptops etc. That’s why Russia is already gloating that Iran’s reserve makes Western sanctions irrelevant. It is also great news for Beijing which is one of Tehran’s few allies—and has been on a global hunt for lithium. (Quartz)
An unusual anti-inflation move in France
Read it to believe it! French retailers have voluntarily agreed to cut food prices "to the lowest possible level"—in a bid to curb the country’s soaring inflation rate. Food inflation in France is at 14.5% right now. And they have agreed to bear the resultant loss which could amount to "several hundreds of millions of euros.” While some consumer groups are sceptical, the government has promised that the anti-inflation prices will be clearly marked with an "anti-inflation quarter" logo. (France24)
The latest Djoko vaccination row
As you may know, the world’s number one player—Novak Djokovic—has steadfastly refused to take a Covid vaccination. Djoko had to withdraw from the US Open last year—and has now dropped out of the Indian Wells event in California. This has been an ongoing problem for him. He had to withdraw from the Australian Open in 2022 but was allowed to participate in 2023—and won the tournament. But the US has not bent its rules—and won’t allow unvaccinated individuals into the country as of now. Djokovic applied for an exemption—given if a person’s presence in the US is deemed to be in national interest—and was denied (duh!). His absence puts his #1 ranking under threat. (The Guardian)
Chatbots, chatbots, chatbots: The latest Bing update
Not a day goes by without some AI story making the headlines. Today, we learned that Microsoft’s Bing search engine—which is powered by ChatGPT—has been given three distinct personalities. You can now pick between "More Creative," "More Balanced," and "More Precise":
Choosing Creative gives you Bing in its wackiest unbridled state. "Responses are original and imaginative, creating surprise and entertainment for you," reads the description. Balanced responses "are reasonable and coherent, balancing accuracy and creativity in conversation." The precise setting says "Responses are factual and concise, prioritising accuracy and relevancy for you."
Want more Bing bonanza? The AI chatbot also has a secret celebrity mode—and can mimic their speech patterns. But it firmly draws a line when it comes to politicians like Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Point to note: it will only reflect what a famous person already has said—or is likely to say. So you can’t get a Matthew McConaughey to spew racist crap, for example. (Gizmodo)
Meanwhile, in Romania: The first AI advisor to the Prime Minister had a rough first day at work. ION was accused of plagiarism—specifically, stealing a film clip for its presentation. Haw, bad chatbot! (Romania Insider)
Women rule global universities!
For the first time, four of the five top universities in the world—University of Oxford (#1), Harvard University (#2), University of Cambridge (#3) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (#5)—will be run by women. This is part of a broader trend in higher education. The number of women presidents/vice chancellors at the top 200 universities has jumped to 48 in 2023—a 41% jump in five years. For more check out the World University Ranking 2023. (World Economic Forum)
India takes the big cat initiative
New Delhi plans to launch a global alliance to protect the big cat species—such as lions, tigers, leopards etc. Membership will be open to 97 “range” countries—that are home to the natural habitat of big cats—plus other interested organisations. And India is prepared to put in $100 million over five years to make this happen. The bright idea was sparked by the arrival of cheetahs in India in 2022 (explained here):
Since we got the cheetahs, we are the only country in the world to have tigers, lions, leopards, snow leopards and cheetahs in the wild. We have all the big cats, except the pumas and jaguars, today. So it is only befitting that India takes the lead to bring together all big cat range countries under an UN-like umbrella.
Indian Express has lots more on this proposed alliance—though it does not mention how many countries have agreed to jump on board.
Farewell, Toblerone logo!
The chocolate company is getting rid of the iconic Matterhorn peaks—and will replace them with a more generic mountain. The reason for axing the Alps: the US owner Mondelez is shifting some of the production from Switzerland to Bratislava, Slovakia. And Swiss law forbids using national symbols to promote milk-based products that are not made exclusively in Switzerland. The good news: the hidden bear will remain on the packaging—to delight unwary chocolate lovers. Didn’t know about this one? Play ‘spot the bear’ below. (Washington Post)
One very fun thing to see
ICYMI, Bill Gates is on a Bharat Yatra—giving prophetic speeches about the future of India, the next pandemic etc. But he took time out to drive a Mahindra electric rickshaw. What makes it truly delightful is the background score:)