Researched by: Rachel John, Nirmal Bhansali & Aarthi Ramnath
Indonesia’s cough syrup mystery solved
Over 200 kids have died in Indonesia since last year due to adulterated cough syrup. Mercifully, the syrups were not made in India—unlike the meds that killed babies in Gambia and Uzbekistan (explained in this Big Story). The lethal contaminants in all these cases, however, are the same: ethylene glycol and diethylene glycol. The Indonesian investigation has now revealed the main culprit: a local trader who swapped out pharmaceutical-grade propylene glycol for "industrial-grade" EG and DEG—and supplied them to distributors of local drug-makers. Most experts suspect something similar happened in the case of the contaminated Indian syrups—but the Indian authorities have mostly focused on denying adulteration rather than finding its cause. (Bangkok Post)
A US general’s explosive war memo
General Mike Minihan—who heads the Air Mobility Command—penned a memo predicting war with China—as early as 2025. The likely trigger: Taiwan:
Minihan said in the memo that because both Taiwan and the U.S. will have presidential elections in 2024, the U.S. will be “distracted,” and Chinese President Xi Jinping will have an opportunity to move on Taiwan.
The tone of the memo to his subordinates is fairly dire—urging the soldiers under his command to “fire a clip into a 7-metre target with the full understanding that unrepentant lethality matters most. Aim for the head.” Of course, the Department of Defense has rushed to distance itself from his views—but it does offer a useful glimpse of the rising anxiety about China within the US military. (NBC News)
Two data points of note
Engineering degrees: Believe it or not, the perennial favourite degree of Indian parents is losing popularity. Engineering is the only undergraduate program that has declined in student enrollment over the last five years. The drop of 10% is all the more notable given that overall enrollment in Bachelor’s degrees has increased. This isn’t a new or an overnight phenomenon. A 2017 Indian Express investigation found there were no takers for 51% of undergraduate seats in 3,291 engineering colleges. The reasons:
The investigation found glaring gaps in regulation, including alleged corruption; a vicious circle of poor infrastructure, labs and faculty; non-existent linkages with industry; and the absence of a technical ecosystem to nurture the classroom. All this, it found, accounted for low employability of graduates.
Indian Express has more numbers—including female and Muslim enrollment in undergrad education.
Death penalty: In 2022, 165 death sentences were handed out by trial courts—the highest since 2000. And as of December 31, 2022, there were 539 prisoners on the death row—the greatest since 2016. But much of this jump is because of a single case—the 2018 Ahmedabad serial blasts. The bombings—carried out by members of the Indian Mujahideen—resulted in the death of 56 people. Of the 77 who tried for the crime, 38 were sentenced to death. That too was a record-setting number for a single case. The Hindu has more details on why death penalties in India rarely match the legal criteria for sentencing.
A telling example from this morning’s headlines: the death sentence handed out to a mentally ill man who attacked two police constables with a sharp-edged weapon while trying to enter the Gorakhnath temple in Uttar Pradesh. The police claim the IIT grad was “highly radicalised” and in “direct touch” with ISIS extremists—but with very little evidence.
AirPods manufacturing comes to India
A Pune-based supplier is now making the plastic bodies of AirPods—and exporting them to China and Vietnam where the earbuds are assembled. This marks an expansion of Apple’s manufacturing footprint in India—which has been limited to iPhones thus far. What to expect next:
Making enclosures is typically the first step for full-fledged production of AirPods. Now that Apple has won initial approval for some suppliers… they are obviously building a supply chain for the end product.
Bloomberg News has the exclusive or check out the summary in Reuters.
A cure for antibiotic resistance?
One of the greatest medical perils facing the world is increasing resistance to antibiotics—a problem caused by indiscriminate overuse. And pharmaceutical companies rarely develop new antibiotics since it isn’t profitable. So it’s very good news that scientists have identified a plant toxin called albicidin—which is produced in sugarcane to fight a terrible disease called leaf scald:
We could not elicit any resistance towards albicidin in the laboratory. That is why we are really excited — because we think it will be very hard for bacteria to evolve resistance against albicidin-derived antibiotics.
The Guardian has more on how it works.
A tiny/big radiation scare in Australia
A truck owned by a big mining company in Australia dropped something as it travelled from Newman to Perth. The ‘lost item’ is a tiny—measuring 0.3 inches by 0.2 inches— sensor that is part of a gauge used to measure the density of iron ore feed. The size of the search area: 1,400 km long. But here’s why everyone is scrambling to find this needle in the outback-sized haystack:
The capsule, which contains a small amount of cesium-137, is dangerously radioactive, according to the authorities. An hour of exposure at about a meter away is the equivalent of having 10 X-rays, and prolonged contact can cause skin burns, acute radiation sickness and cancer, they said.
The slightly better news: “What we are not doing is trying to find a tiny little device by eyesight. We are using the radiation detectors to locate the gamma rays, using the metres that will help us then locate the small device.” (New York Times)
China’s new push for babies
A government that once enforced a brutal one-child policy is now scrambling to encourage its citizens to have babies. A rapidly ageing population and falling birth rates have necessitated extreme measures—like recognising children born outside wedlock. One of China’s largest provinces will now allow unmarried couples to register their babies—and make them eligible for government benefits. According to Sichuan authorities, the new policies “shift the focus of childbearing registration to childbearing desire and childbearing results.” Does anyone do bureaucratic-speak better than the Chinese? We think not. (The Guardian)
Hamari Alka Yagnik beats BTS
The singer has become the most streamed artist on YouTube—topping the likes of BTS and Taylor Swift. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Yagnik’s songs were streamed a whopping 15.3 billion times in 2022—an average of 42 million streams every day. Coming in at #2: Bad Bunny. Interestingly, Yagnik isn’t even in the top ten streamed Indian artists on Spotify. The likely reason for the difference: more Indians have access to YouTube—which has 467 million users in the country. In comparison, Spotify has a global audience of 456 million. (Economic Times)
Three things to see
One: Shah Rukh Khan finally did a press conference for ‘Pathaan’—and offered this ‘Amar, Akbar, Anthony’ analogy that went instantly viral:
Two: Hindi TV news channel AajTak unveiled this cutting edge version of TV programming just in time for the union budget—transporting us to soaring heights, no doubt.
Three: We can’t resist animal-themed items—especially not this one about a seriously selfie-obsessed bear in Colorado. This one put Insta influencers to shame by taking 400 mugshots with the help of a motion capture camera. Our fave take on this unusual phenomenon: “The photo series, which appears to meditate on the ephemeral nature of life, has pioneered a bold new hybrid of self-portraiture and wildlife photography.” Below is one good example—the others are here.(NBC News)