Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali & Aarthi Ramnath
A new splainer series on YouTube!!
We have launched exclusive video explainers on YouTube, hosted by our editor Lakshmi Chaudhry.
Our first video looks at the seemingly never ending war in Gaza. What is the endgame for Israel? What will postwar Gaza look like? The answers to the present lie in the past—dating all the way back to the Ottoman empire. Also: a map of a ‘new’ Middle East waved around by Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN.
Check it out below. And stay tuned for more such explainers on the big fat election coming soon. So be sure to hit the notification button.
PS: this is also a great way to share splainer with your friends and family—especially anyone who is kinda text-averse :)
US & UK attack the Houthis
Warship-launched Tomahawk missiles and fighter jets bombed more than a dozen sites used by the Houthis in Yemen on Thursday. This is retaliation for the Houthi campaign targeting cargo ships in the Red Sea—which threatens global trade (explained in this Big Story). The US and its European allies had issued a ‘final warning’ to the guerilla group last week—which was ignored.
Why this matters: Houthis—who are backed by Iran—have promised that any US attack on Yemen “will not go unanswered”—saying the response will be “much more” than targeting US ships in the sea. Also: It isn’t clear if a widening war is going to make it any easier for commercial ships to pass through the Red Sea—and on to the Suez Canal. (Associated Press via The Hindu)
The genetic roots of multiple sclerosis
Scientists compared ancient DNA to that of modern humans and made an astonishing discovery. Around 5,000 years ago—at the start of the Bronze Age—livestock herders called the Yamnaya migrated to Western Europe—from an area that today spans Ukraine and southern Russia.
They carried genes that protected them from diseases spread by their sheep and cattle. But over the millenia, that same gene makes humans more prone to developing multiple sclerosis. And that’s why north Europeans are 2X more likely to get the disease than those in the south. Why this is fascinating: "We are a product of the evolution that happened in past environments, and in many ways we are not optimally adapted to the environment we have created for ourselves today." (Reuters)
In more fascinating evolutionary stuff: Another study has uncovered the reason why the world’s largest-ever primate became extinct. Gigantopithecus blacki—lovingly called ‘Giganto’—were 10-feet-tall and weighed between 440 and 660 pounds. These distant cousins of the orangutan went extinct around 295,000 and 215,000 years ago. The reason: They switched their diet from fruit to bark and twigs—in an attempt to adapt to climate change—as our very wet planet dried out.
Giganto lost access to softer, more nutritious fruit early in the climate transition. While orangutans were able to harvest from the upper canopy and make longer foraging trips, their massive cousins were too large to swing through the trees and were instead stuck scrounging whatever they could on the ground—and it cost the species its survival.
Why this is important: It helps us understand why certain species are more vulnerable than others: “We desperately need to understand what drives primate extinction.” Also, we really wanted to include Giganto—whose sketch you can see below:) (Scientific American)
Netflix & Zee cave to Hindutva outrage
On December 1, the Tamil film ‘Annapoorani’ was released to theatres—and didn’t make any waves. But the moment it migrated to Netflix on December 29—and came to the notice of the Hindutva gang—it became a kalank against Hinduism. The reason: It’s the story of a Brahmin woman who becomes a chef—and teaches herself to cook meat. Also: she has a Muslim friend. An FIR was filed this week in Mumbai against the actors and makers of the film—which lists all the other ‘insults’:
A daughter of Hindu Poojari, offers Namaz to cook Biryani. Love Jihad is promoted in this Film. Farhan (Actor) persuades the actress to eat meat saying that Bhagwan Shri Ram was also a meat eater.
The fallout: The movie has been pulled by Netflix and the makers Zee Studio have profusely apologised. Good news for non-resident Indians: You can still watch it overseas on the streaming platform Simply South. FYI: There are many devout Hindus who happily eat meat—and it is not prohibited by their religious tradition. But they have not expressed their views on the matter. (The Hindu)
A bad year for snowpack
There’s been great concern about the lack of snowfall in places like Gulmarg—due to an unusually dry winter. According to a new study, this is a global phenomenon. Climate change has affected the amount of snowpack across the Northern Hemisphere. Snowpack refers to the amount of snow that remains on the ground—and melts when temperatures warm. They represent a critical water source in these regions.
Also interesting: There seems to be a tipping point:
[T]he researchers found that when a region warms to an average temperature of 17 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 8 degrees Celsius, over the whole winter, it appears to reach a tipping point that snow starts to melt away quickly. “Beyond that threshold, we kind of see everybody go off a cliff,” said [co-author] Justin Mankin.
New York Times has lots more on the findings.
A wave of AI girlfriend bots
Earlier this week, OpenAI opened its GPT dukaan—a platform that offers customised versions of ChatGPT created by other developers. The GPT Store’s policy specifically bans GPTs “dedicated to fostering romantic companionship or performing regulated activities.” Of course, the store is already teeming with girlfriend bots like ‘Korean Girlfriend’, ‘Virtual Sweetheart’, ‘Your girlfriend Scarlett’ and ‘Your AI girlfriend, Tsu’. It is unclear how OpenAI plans to track such violations—which are guaranteed to skyrocket as with any platform. Data point to note: “In the US, seven of the 30 AI chatbot apps downloaded in 2023 from the Apple or Google Play store were related to AI friends, girlfriends, or companions.” (Quartz)
Two things to see
One: The trailer for the Amy Winehouse biopic—‘Back to Black’—just dropped. She will be played by rising star Marisa Abela. Our question: Will it be as good as Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary ‘Amy’? For more on Winehouse’s legacy, check out this Far Out Magazine profile. Harper’s Bazaar has more on the flick.
Two: A bull in Uttar Pradesh felt very cold. So he walked into a State Bank of India branch office—and hung out politely in the corner. That’s it. That’s the story—but the vid is priceless. (Indian Express)