Researched by: Rachel John, Nirmal Bhansali, Aarthi Ramnath & Anannya Parekh
Splainer has been hit by a couple of simultaneous emergencies—leaving us extremely short-staffed. Hence the scramble to claim the Makar Sankranti holiday. But we are determined that the show will go on, albeit in an abbreviated fashion. We will not feature the big story over the next couple of days. All our other sections will be published on cue. We hope to be back on track by next week. Thank you for your patience and understanding.
Researched by: Rachel John, Nirmal Bhansali, Aarthi Ramnath & Anannya Parekh
We have launched exclusive video explainers on YouTube, hosted by our editor Lakshmi Chaudhry.
Our second video explores the history of electoral financing in the country, and the introduction of electoral bonds in 2017 which are used to make donations to political parties. Everything about them is astonishing—especially the fact that voters have no right to know who gave how much money to which party.
Check it out below. Stay tuned for more such explainers on the big fat election coming soon, and 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 :)
The context: Since Israel’s military assault on Gaza started in October, the Houthi militia in Yemen has been targeting ships that pass through the Red Sea (explained in this Big Story). In retaliation, the US and the UK launched missiles and fighter jets on a dozen sites used by the militant group in Yemen—and the back and forth of missiles continues.
What happened now: The US has reinstalled the Houthi movement on its list of “specially designated global terrorists”. This is the second time the militant group is on the list—it was earlier added in January 2021 under the Trump administration. However, the civil war in Yemen brought about unparalleled devastation that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. It is often referred to as “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” As a result, the Biden administration had removed Houthis from the list.
What this means: The US can now impose sanctions and financial penalties on Houthis. American officials say the penalties will be designed specifically to avoid harming Yemenis in the process. This is required as “more than 75% of Yemenis depend on aid to live, amid a severe economic crisis caused by the war, the collapse of the currency, and restrictions imposed on imports and trade with countries abroad.”
The Houthis, meanwhile, responded by attacking a US-owned cargo ship with a kamikaze drone, just hours after the announcement was made by Washington. They also said that they will view any sanctions by the US and UK as “a declaration of war.” (The Guardian)
According to the Annual State of Education Report—that surveys students between the ages of 14 and 18 in private and government institutions—one in every four students in rural India cannot read a Class 2-level textbook in English fluently. Also: about 42.7% cannot read complete sentences in the language. According to experts, this gap can be blamed on the pandemic.
Data from ASER 2023 indicates that building foundational literacy and numeracy may be needed for about a fourth of youth in the 14-18 age group. The NEP 2020 recognizes the need for “catch up” in the case of those who have fallen behind. Thus, programs could be put in place, if they do not already exist, to help students from Std VIII and higher grades who are lagging behind academically.
The report also revealed that over 86.8% of children were enrolled in educational institutions—and more than half of them opt for the humanities stream. While there is minimal gender gap, the age gap is more significant: older children are more likely to opt out of studying after Class 12. Women are also less likely to opt for STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. (Hindustan Times)
The country’s population fell for the second year in a row in 2023—dropping by 2.08 million. This was much higher than the decline of 850,000 seen in 2022. The birth rate also fell to a record low of 6.39 births per 1,000 people—with new births declining by 5.7%. China’s population growth has been hindered by its previously strict family planning rules including the one child policy. Not helping matters: record youth unemployment, falling wages, a property crisis—as well as traditional gender roles.
The declining population is a serious concern for China and its GDP:
The fresh data adds to concerns that the world's No.2 economy's growth prospects are diminishing due to fewer workers and consumers, while the rising costs of elderly care and retirement benefits put more strain on indebted local governments.
According to the UN, this trend of declining population will continue, with China's population expected to shrink by 109 million by 2050. A reminder: In 2023, India overtook China as the world’s most populous country. (Reuters)
Also falling: France’s birth rate. Just 678,000 babies were born in 2023—which is the lowest number since 1946. The country’s population did increase slightly but it was primarily due to fewer deaths. (Radio France Internationale)
Tobacco smoking has dropped from one in three in 2000 to one in five. According to WHO, this drop was achieved despite extensive lobbying by the tobacco industry to influence health policies.
The global report said 1.25 billion people aged 15 or over used tobacco in 2022 versus 1.36 billion in 2000. Tobacco use is set to fall further by 2030 to around 1.2 billion people even as the world's population grows, the study said.
But, but, but: There are still regions where tobacco use is on the rise and the biggest smokers are located in Southeast Asia and Europe. Countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Indonesia also saw an uptick in smokers. Point to note: Tobacco use kills more than eight million people every year, and there are an estimated 37 million adolescents who use tobacco or smoke. (Reuters)
Elon Musk and his demands are back. On X, Musk posted that he wanted 25% of Tesla’s stock (approximately worth $80 billion), if the company wants him to continue developing AI-based products. He said that he wanted to have enough control over the company to avoid takeovers while it develops robots and artificial intelligence:
If his demands are not met, Mr. Musk said, he would pursue unspecified ventures outside of Tesla. In addition to electric cars, Tesla has been developing a humanoid robot called Optimus, and uses artificial intelligence to develop self-driving technology, a cornerstone of the company’s strategy.
He used to own around 22% of the company but sold off a significant chunk of it in 2022 to buy Twitter—and is now left with just 13%. Obviously, this is not how information is usually relayed to investors—but Musk is being Musk. A lawsuit has already been filed against him by a Tesla shareholder—and the ruling is awaited. (New York Times, paywall, Axios)
In X-related news: The account of Hindutva Watch—a group that tracks hate crimes against religious minorities in India—was withheld in the country. According to X, it was based on an order by the Indian government, which said that the account violated the Information Technology Act: “Under Section 69A of the Act, the Centre can send content removal requests on the grounds of protecting national integrity and security, and ensuring friendly relations with foreign states, among other reasons.” (Scroll)
As campaigning for the US elections heats up, there are deep concerns about the creation and dissemination of misinformation and misleading content with the help of AI. To counter this, OpenAI has introduced a new set of policies for the upcoming 2024 elections. The most significant move? Politicians and their campaigns will not be allowed to use the company’s AI tools:
The restrictions also extend to impersonation. Under its policies, OpenAI said in a blog post, users may not create chatbots posing as political candidates or government agencies and officials, such as the secretaries of state who administer US elections.
But, but, but: There is a lot of scepticism around how successful it will be:
[E]ven social media firms that are much bigger than OpenAI, and that dedicate massive teams to election integrity and content moderation, have often shown that they struggle to enforce their own rules. OpenAI is likely to be no different — and a lack of federal regulation is forcing the public to simply take the companies at their word.
Every year, YouTube has been making $13.4 million from ads on channels that promote a new form of climate denialism. According to a report by the non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), these channels promote content that undermines research proving that human behaviour (like using fossil fuels) causes climate change. FYI: Google has a strict policy on this and climate denial videos are banned from being monetised. However, a new form of climate denialism has emerged that manages to circumvent this policy:
[C]ontent creators who could no longer monetize videos spreading "old" forms of climate denial—including claims that "global warming is not happening" or "human-generated greenhouse gasses are not causing global warming"—have moved on. Now they're increasingly pushing other claims that contradict climate science, which YouTube has not yet banned and may not ever ban. These include harmful claims that "impacts of global warming are beneficial or harmless," "climate solutions won’t work," and "climate science and the climate movement are unreliable."
YouTube responded by de-monetising some of these videos, but also confirmed that a majority of the ones analysed by the study complied with their ad policies. (Ars Technica)
Scientists in China have managed to successfully clone a healthy rhesus monkey named ReTro. The monkey has survived two years after being cloned without any major developmental defects—in a first. ReTro was cloned using a modified version of a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT)—which was used to create the first-ever successful mammal clone, Dolly the sheep, in 1996. This process involves using somatic or non-sexual cells such as skin or organ cells:
Scientists essentially reconstruct an unfertilized egg by fusing a somatic cell nucleus (not from a sperm or egg) with an egg in which the nucleus has been removed.
Why this matters: Rhesus monkeys are very similar to humans physiologically and are widely used for medical research and drug testing. According to scientists, this breakthrough could eventually help in the research to treat Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
But, but, but: Animal rights groups expressed their concern with this development—noting that the suffering caused to animals far outweighed any perceived benefits to humans. This is because the researchers used 113 embryos, of which 11 were implanted, resulting in two pregnancies and just one live birth:
There is no immediate application for this study. We are expected to assume that human patients will benefit from these experiments, but any real-life applications would be years away and it is likely that more animal 'models' will be necessary in developing these technologies… Primates are intelligent and sentient animals, not just research tools.
BBC News has lots more. See ReTro below:
People who play video games for hours with the volume turned all the way up—be warned. A new study states that gamers are at risk of developing irreversible hearing loss or tinnitus—a condition that causes constant ringing in the ears. This is because video gamers often listen to sounds that are way past permissible levels for hours on end. Therefore, just turning down the volume will also not help—because the duration is equally important.
According to the World Health Organization, adults can be safely exposed to 80 decibels of sound for 40 hours a week—this is the noise level of a doorbell. The average headphone noise in shooting games are between 88.5 and 91.2 decibels. Impulse sounds like shooting noises can go all the way up to 119 decibels! (The Guardian)
2023 was a big year for the Indian streaming industry—with all OTT platforms flooded with original web series and movies. A new report from Ormax Media looked at the streaming trends in the country and there were quite a few surprises. Indian viewers preferred stories that dealt with realism and social issues, which is why the most viewed Hindi show was ‘Farzi’, made by directors Raj and DK, with 37.1 million tuning in for it. This was followed by Aditya Roy Kapur-starrer ‘The Night Manager’ which got 28.6 million streams and Bhuvan Bam’s show ‘Taaza Khabar’ which was seen by 23.5 million people.
Interestingly, Nitesh Tiwari’s ‘Bawaal’ was the most watched Hindi film with 21.2 million viewers—looks like there’s nothing called bad PR. The most watched international show was Priyanka Chopra’s ‘Citadel’, which was seen by 17 million people. A big trend of note: The popularity of Marvel movies has dropped significantly while non-fiction and non-scripted content has seen a significant rise in consumption—think Big Boss and Koffee with Karan. Film Companion has lots more analysis. (Indian Express)
One: Researchers in Oregon have found a fossil of what they believe is a grasshopper nest from 29 million years ago. These eggs are tiny—much like the eggs of its modern day counterparts—at about 0.18 inches (4.65 mm) long and 0.07 inches (1.84 mm) wide. Why this is significant: “Insect eggs are extremely rare in the fossil record, and intact egg cases are even rarer.” CNN has lots more on the discovery and you can read the study here.
Two: Adam Sandler is back with his serious acting chops—this time in an intense sci-fi drama called ‘Spaceman’. He plays an astronaut named Jakub who is on a solo space mission and is befriended by a talking spider who offers him “emotional support”. Eeks, but also intriguing? The film is set to release on March 1 on Netflix. (Variety)
The govt’s notion of surrogacy is rooted in marriage and discriminates against single mothers, queer couples.Read More
The fascinating and controversial claims surrounding the ruins of the ancient city of Dwarka.Read More