Saturday, December 21, 2019

One Life. Many Masterpieces.

"The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark."

Everyone is talented but only a few make use of some of our talent. Only a tiny fraction of humankind is able to rise above the ordinary and not only realise our full potential but do more. Today’s story is about Michelangelo, who did all this and much more!!

Michelangelo was a painter, architect, sculptor and poet. He was born on March 6, 1475, in Caprese, Italy, the second of five sons. His father was a banker but was serving with the government when he was born. The family soon realised that Michelangelo had no interest in the business of money but had a longing for art. His mother was ill so he was placed with the family of stonecutters at a young age where he got fascinated with marble and the tools of the stonecutters. At the age of 13 he was sent to Ghirlandaio and the Florentine painter's fashionable workshop. The next year he was studying sculpture in the palace gardens of the Medici Family – the powerful rulers of Florence. It is fascinating how he got there – he would secretly copy the original sketches reserved for much older students in the studio and he was so good at it that it was impossible to distinguish the copy from the original.

"If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all."

Michelangelo was a perfectionist. He wanted his works to be real. So he spent hours in the common baths, quarries of stonecutters, wrestlers and any other place where he could see the human body in motion. He even dissected the dead bodies to take a look at the muscle beneath the skin (it was illegal then). All this led to a distinctive style – muscular precision and reality combined with beauty. His “Battle of the centaurs” and “Madonna seated on a step” are proof of this, created when he was only 16 years old.

"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

Michelangelo reimagined a lot of things. He read and re read the Bible to imagine David from “David and Goliath” not to be the timid and skinny boy that had been created thousands of times earlier, but a muscular and fearless boy. After all David would regularly wrestle with both lions and bears to rescue the sheep that they stole from the flock. Michelangelo took 3 years to turn a 17-foot piece of marble into a dominating figure of David. The strength of the statue's sinews, vulnerability of its nakedness, humanity of expression and overall courage made "David" extremely special.

Michelangelo spent 4 years painting the Sistine Chapel, suspended mid air on his back with his hands raised for hours at a stretch to paint the roof. The project fuelled his imagination, and the original plan for 12 apostles morphed into more than 300 figures on the ceiling of the sacred space. (The work later had to be completely removed soon after due to an infectious fungus in the plaster, then recreated.) He fired all of his assistants, whom he deemed inept, and completed the 65-foot ceiling alone.

Michelangelo worked for nine consecutive Catholic pontiffs from Julius II to Pius IV. His breadth of work for the Vatican was vast, and included everything from crafting ornamental knobs for the papal bed to spending four gruelling years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s dealings with his holy patrons were not always pleasant. He had a particularly fraught relationship with the combative Pope Julius II, and once spent three years working on a marble façade for Leo X, only for the Pope to abruptly cancel the project. The artist later enjoyed more convivial partnerships with other pontiffs, and found a famous champion in Pope Paul III, who defended his work “The Last Judgment” after church officials deemed its many nude figures obscene.

Not only was Michelangelo great at what he did but he was also prolific. Sadly many of his works have been lost to the wars of Europe. The fact that he could do so much in so many fields is a testimony to his talents. Not satisfied at being able to work only during daylight, he would spend many nights with a candle atop his hat with the wax dripping on his clothes and hands. He was lovingly called IL DIVINO – the divine one. He was working till the last week of his death.

Whenever you are short of inspiration, do not hesitate to pick up “Agony and the Ecstacy” by Irving Stone which is a biography of Michelangelo. Talent is overrated. Hard work is underrated. A combination of both talent and hard work creates legends. I wish you all the best with creating your own masterpiece!! Enjoy your weekend 😊

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Flywheels and Feedback Loops

I wonder if so many people would still be smoking if one cigarette killed you? It seems ok to smoke till one day (far away in the future, hopefully) all the years of bad behaviour catches up and manifests into a scary medical report. This is a classic long negative feedback loop. You push things far away into the future till one day, future arrives (Thanos is smiling).
Ideally one would want shortest feedback loops as the effects are known immediately and one can course correct. Trading vs Investment. The daily P&L in trading is a short feedback loop – you know every day if it’s working or not. In investments you have a long feedback loop so you can console yourself that even if the results are not encouraging, your process is correct and the markets will eventually see what they are missing today.
Short feedback loops can be painful but can encourage good behaviour by eliminating bad ones. Long feedback loops can mask bad behaviour and make it harder to inculcate good behaviours. Thinking of climbing Everest? Or learning a musical instrument? Or becoming the best version of you? All the best with the years of dedication. Same with good health. Easier to follow fad diets that show immediate results than following an approach that will work but requires lot of dedication and discipline.
Feedback loops also reinforce themselves. That’s why good keeps getting better. And maybe that’s why bad gets worse. Until things reverse. Nothing lasts forever. Feedback loops and flywheels.
Jim Collins originally used the Flywheel as a metaphor in Good To Great:
Picture a huge, heavy flywheel — a massive metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle, about 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet thick, and weighing about 5,000 pounds. Now imagine your task is to get the flywheel rotating on the axle as fast and long as possible.
Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptibly at first. You keep pushing and, after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn.
What all can we derive from this -
Momentum — An object at rest tends to stay at rest, and object in motion tends to continue in motion. Newton’s first law, applied to business and life. Flywheels (being massive heavy objects) are hard to get moving. If they get moving, they are likely to continue.
Feedback Loops — The faster the wheel is spinning, the easier it is to add incremental speed. The faster it moves, the more energy it generates. And the more excited everyone (and you) is about how great this Flywheel is!
Compounding Return on Effort —No “one push” makes it happen. Continuous small inputs add up into an impressive output, eventually.
Direction — Sustained effort must be focused in one direction in order to maintain momentum and compounding returns. Misplaced effort is either wasted or counterproductive. That is why it is immensely difficult to change behaviours.
Continuous Process – Need to keep working so that the flywheel is in perpetual motion. The momentum that it has will keep it going for some time, but not forever. And remember, it is difficult to get a flywheel in moving in the first place. 
There is a limit — these things don’t go to infinity and beyond!! Too fast and the entire thing can come apart. The laws of physics apply to all things.
You can see each of these concepts in this one paragraph from Good To Great explaining the effect:
The momentum of the thing kicks in your favor, hurling the flywheel forward, turn after turn … whoosh! … its own heavy weight working for you. You’re pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster. Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort. A thousand times faster, then ten thousand, then a hundred thousand. The huge heavy disk flies forward, with almost unstoppable momentum.

Flywheel Effect: Feedback loops that build momentum, increasing the payoff of incremental effort. Unfortunately it works both ways – positive and negative.

I hope we are working on our own feedback loops to achieve the impossible!! Enjoy your weekend :-)

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Friday, November 1, 2019

The Pursuit Of Happiness

What is happiness?
Do we want to be happy?
Do we know what makes us happy?
The dictionary defines Happiness as that feeling that comes over us when we know life is good and we can't help but smile. It's the opposite of sadness. Happiness is a sense of well-being, joy, or contentment. When people are successful, or safe, or lucky, they feel happiness.
It is a well-researched topic and many benefits of good health and longevity are believed to be linked to happiness. Interestingly, studies seem to indicate that happiness plateaus after certain level of financial achievement. Many studies also indicate the below characteristics exhibited by happy people –
Satisfying Social Connections
Looking at the bright side
Having a meaning and Purpose in life
Adequate rest and physical activity
But again, what is happiness?
Is it objective or subjective?
Is happiness the absence of sadness? Or do both co-exist?
Is it in small joys or the big moments?
Is remembered happiness more cherished as compared to current happiness?
Are there levels of happiness – is it the same in small and easy to achieve tasks vs big but difficult to get tasks?
Is it a goal or it comes from achieving ones goals?
Is it defined by our genes or is it an attitude that one can cultivate?
Can we influence it or is it defined by the environment we are in?
Is it in being selfish (doing things for oneself) or in selflessness (doing things for others)
Is it fleeting or everlasting? Or somewhere in the middle?
Is it in keeping control or giving it up?
Can one be worried and happy at the same time?
Is Happiness in the journey or the destination?
As you see I don’t have the answers. Like most emotions, it’s complicated. If we are able to look inward and better understand ourselves, I am sure we will know what makes us happy. In my case I have come to realise that I cherish the time spent in misery to achieve something that gives me happiness rather than doing things that give happy moments now but create dissonance later (eating sweets and not working out, binge watching, procrastinating on an important task etc).
So what makes you happy? Go figure.
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Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Supercomputer We Cant Do Without

All of us have a very powerful processing machine that is faster than the fastest supercomputers on the planet. While most of our bodies (and almost everything that mother nature has created) is fascinating, our brains are a totally different level altogether. Some fun facts worth knowing -
The brain’s storage capacity is considered virtually unlimited. It doesn’t get “used up” like RAM in the computer. Research shows that the brain’s memory capacity is a quadrillion, or 1015, bytes. Astoundingly, this is about the same amount needed to store the entire internet! The human brain is capable of 1,016 processes per second, which makes it far more powerful than any existing computer. Researchers involved in the AI Impacts project have developed a way to compare supercomputers to brains — by measuring how fast a computer can move information around within its own system. By this standard, the human brain is 30 times more powerful than the IBM Sequoia, one of the world’s fastest supercomputers. Information in the brain travels up to an impressive 268 miles per hour. This is faster than Formula 1 race cars which top out at 240 mph. It also generates about 12-25 watts of electricity, enough to power a low-wattage LED light. 
The typical brain comprises about 2% of the body’s total weight, but uses 20% of its total energy and oxygen intake. It is also 73% water. It takes only 2% dehydration to affect our attention, memory and other cognitive skills. Sixty percent of its dry weight is fat, making the brain the most fatty organ in the body. 25% of the body’s cholesterol resides within the brain and without adequate cholesterol, brain cells die. The brain needs a constant supply of oxygen, as little as five minutes without oxygen can cause some brain cells to die, leading to brain damage. A 2-year-old’s brain is 80% of adult size, but it isn’t until about the age of 25 that the human brain reaches full maturity. Our brain has the capacity to change throughout our lifetime. It can also continue to form new brain cells via a process known as neurogenesis. Brain cells need a constant supply of fuel to stay alive, yet they lack the ability to store energy. Fortunately, there’s a backup system. The liver breaks down stored fat to produce ketone bodies that can be used as a substitute fuel when commonly-used blood glucose is not available.
Chronic Stress and depression can cause measurable brain shrinkage. The modern diet is low in omega-3 essential fatty acids. Low levels of omega-3s result in brain shrinkage equivalent to two years of structural brain aging. Our brain can’t learn or concentrate on two things at once. What it can do is quickly toggle back and forth between tasks. But doing so decreases our attention span, ability to learn, short-term memory, and overall mental performance. Brain cells cannibalize themselves as a last ditch source of energy to ward off starvation. So, in very real ways, dieting, especially low-fat diets, can force the brain to eat itself. Over 140 proteins in the brain are negatively impacted by exposure to electromagnetic frequencies, the kind emitted by our mobiles and other electronic devices. Nicotine rushes into the brain in a mere 7 seconds. Alcohol, on the other hand, takes 6 minutes.
The popular myth that we use only 10% of our brains is flat-out wrong. Brain scans clearly show that we use most of our brain most of the time, even when we’re sleeping.  The brain starts slowing down at the ripe old age of 24, but peaks for different cognitive skills at different ages. In fact, at any given age, we are likely getting better at some things and worse at others. An extreme case is vocabulary skills which may peak as late as the early 70s! While we are drunk, the brain is incapable of forming memories. Most memory masters recon that having an outstanding memory is a skill they developed by employing the best memory techniques.
Human brain tissue is not dense. It’s very fragile — soft and squishy similar to the consistency of soft tofu or gelatin. When surgeons operate to stop seizures, they remove or disable half of the brain in a procedure known as a hemispherectomy. Shockingly, patients experience no effect on personality or memory. Although pain is processed in the brain, it has no pain receptors and feels no pain. This explains how brain surgery can be performed while the patient is awake with no pain or discomfort. Headache pain feels like it starts in the brain, but is caused by sensations from nearby skin, joints, sinuses, blood vessels or muscles.
There are almost 200 known cognitive biases and distortions that cause us to think and act irrationally. Memories are shockingly unreliable and change over time. Emotions, motivation, cues, context and frequency of use can all affect how accurately we remember something. Of the thousands of thoughts a person has every day, it’s estimated that 70% of this mental chatter is negative — self-critical, pessimistic, and fearful.
I am hoping that being more aware of this amazing organ will help us make the best use of it!!
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Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Most Impactful Obituary

In 1888, when a humble Swede by the name of Ludwig Nobel died, the French press confused him with his younger brother Alfred and ran an obituary celebrating the demise of this “Tradesman of Death.” Consider this "Dr Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." Having the rare misfortune of reading his obituary while still alive, Alfred found himself heartbroken and determined to change his life’s story before it was too late.
Alfred Noble was born on October 21, 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden who was to become a famous scientist, inventor, businessman, writer and founder of the Nobel Prizes. He was one of 4 sons, naturally brilliant, by the age of 17, Alfred could speak and write in Swedish, Russian, French, English and German. In his early years Alfred concentrated on developing nitro-glycerine as an explosive. Sadly, these experiments resulted in accidents that killed several people, including Alfred’s younger brother, Emil. His experiments ultimately resulted in the discovery of Dynamite, which made him very rich and also very hated. He put up factories in 90 different places. He lived in Paris but often travelled to his factories in more than 20 countries. He was once described as “Europe’s richest vagabond.” He also experimented in making synthetic rubber and leather and artificial silk. By the time of his death he had 355 patents.
Alfred died in San Remo, Italy on December 10, 1896. In his last will and testament, he wrote that much of his fortune was to be used to give prizes to those who have done their best for humanity in the field of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. In 1901, the first Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine and Literature were first awarded in Stockholm, Sweden and the Peace Prize in Kristiania (now Oslo), Norway.

What Alfred did was unique in many ways – 94% of his wealth was to go to the foundation, he did not limit the prize to a particular nationality - they were to be given to global achievers and he set up a foundation that would carry on his wishes for a long time after he was gone. The assets of the foundation have grown to more than half a billion dollars today in spite of distributing a lot of money to winners of the prize each year.

Will our story make for an inspirational read when we leave this world? Well it will be a summary of what we are doing while we are alive so let’s keep working on this masterpiece!!

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Friday, August 9, 2019

Child Prodigy or Cultivated Genius

Olympic level sports are the most competitive and in most countries kids start really young into their chosen fields. Some have to be let go at some point of time as they are unable to break into the top levels in their games so that younger talent can take their place. Some years ago a couple of countries started doing something interesting – before letting these players go they were allowed to try their hands at other sports of their choice. Something spectacular started to happen. Not only did these athletes started rising to the top of leagues in these new sports but they started breaking international records. What changed?
In India we have the tradition of Gharanas – musicians who follow a line of music across generations. Most kids also follow their parents footsteps, esp if they have large shoes to fill. Some communities have become synonymous with business and others with particular industries like software. So in the end who trumps whom – specialists who from the beginning know what that want to do and get a head start or generalists who take time to figure out their calling before getting into it? Lets find out.
The following is excerpted from RANGE: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein. Published by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by David Epstein. All rights reserved.
Let's start with a couple of stories. This first one, you probably know.
The boy's father could tell something was different. At six months old, the boy could balance on his father's palm as he walked through their home. At 10 months he could climb down from his high chair, trundle over to a golf club that had been cut down to size and imitate the swing he'd been watching in the garage. At two—an age when physical developmental milestones include "kicks a ball" and "stands on tiptoe"—he went on national television and used a shoulder-height club to drive a ball past an admiring Bob Hope. That same year he entered his first tournament and won the 10-and-under division.
At eight, the son beat his father for the first time. The father didn't mind, because he was convinced that his boy was singularly talented, and that he was uniquely equipped to help him. The boy was already famous by the time he reached Stanford, and soon his father opened up about his importance. His son would have a larger impact than Nelson Mandela, than Gandhi, than Buddha, he insisted. "He has a larger forum than any of them," he said. "I don't know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One."
This second story, you also probably know. You might not recognize it at first.
His mom was a coach, but she never coached him. He would kick a ball around with her when he learned to walk. As a boy, he played squash with his father on Sundays. He dabbled in skiing, wrestling, swimming and skateboarding. He played basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis, and soccer at school. "I was always very much more interested if a ball was involved," he would say.
Though his mother taught tennis, she decided against working with him. "He would have just upset me anyway," she said. "He tried out every strange stroke and certainly never returned a ball normally. That is simply no fun for a mother." Rather than pushy, a Sports Illustrated writer would observe that his parents were "pully." Nearing his teens, the boy began to gravitate more toward tennis, and "if they nudged him at all, it was to stop taking tennis so seriously."
As a teenager, he became good enough to warrant an interview with the local newspaper. His mother was appalled to read that, when asked what he would buy with a hypothetical first paycheck from tennis, her son answered, "a Mercedes." She was relieved when the reporter let her listen to a recording of the interview. There'd been a mistake: The boy had said "mehr CDs," in Swiss German. He simply wanted "more CDs."
The boy was competitive, no doubt. But when his tennis instructors decided to move him up to a group with older players, he asked to move back so he could stay with his friends. After all, part of the fun was hanging around after his lessons.
By the time he finally gave up other sports to focus on tennis, other kids had long since been working with strength coaches, sports psychologists and nutritionists. But it didn't seem to hamper his development. In his mid-30s, an age by which even legendary players are typically retired, he would still be ranked No. 1 in the world.
In 2006, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer met for the first time, when both were at the apex of their powers, and they connected as only they could. "I've never spoken with anybody who was so familiar with the feeling of being invincible," Federer would describe it.
Still, the contrast was not lost on him. "[Tiger's] story is completely different from mine," he told a biographer in 2006. Woods's incredible upbringing has been at the heart of a batch of bestselling books on the development of expertise, one of which was a parenting manual written by his father, Earl. Tiger was not merely playing golf. He was engaging in "deliberate practice," the only kind that counts in the now-famous 10,000 hours rule to expertise. Reams of work on expertise development shows that elite athletes spend more time in highly technical, deliberate practice each week than those who plateau at lower levels. And Tiger has come to symbolize that idea of success—and its corollary, that the practice must start as early as possible.
But when scientists examine the entire developmental path of athletes, they find that the eventual elites typically devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will later become experts. Instead, they undergo what researchers call a "sampling period." They play a variety of sports, usually in an unstructured or lightly structured environment; they gain a range of physical proficiencies from which they can draw; they learn about their own abilities and proclivities; and only later do they focus in and ramp up technical practice in one area.
In 2014, I included some of the findings about late specialization in sports in the afterword of my first book, The Sports Gene. I was struck by what I found. One study showed that early career specializers jumped out to an earnings lead after college, but that later specializers made up for the head start by finding work that better fit their skills and personalities. I found a raft of studies that showed how technological inventors increased their creative impact by accumulating experience in different domains, compared to peers who drilled more deeply into one.
I encountered remarkable individuals who succeeded not in spite of their diverse experiences and interests, but because of them. And I found more and more evidence that it takes time to develop personal and professional range—and that it is worth it. I dived into work showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident—a dangerous combination. And I was stunned by an enormous body of work demonstrating that learning is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks a lot like falling behind.
The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyper specialization. While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger's precocity and clarity of purpose, we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.
My take – we can’t choose to be born a genius but with the right application of our talents and an open mind towards learning we can certainly realise our true potential.
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Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Gut Instinct

The human gut has a staggering number of microbes in it – an estimated 3 times more than the cells in our body (100 trillion bacterial cells as compared to 30 trillion human cells). Despite the staggering number of microbes in and on the human body, very little is known about their roles in human health and disease. gut flora or gut microbiota as they are called are the microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts. This is also common in many animals, including insects. In humans, the gut microbiota has the largest numbers of bacteria and the greatest number of species compared to other areas of the body. Many of these have not yet been successfully cultured, identified, or otherwise characterized. In humans, the gut flora is established at one to two years after birth and keeps evolving throughout our lives.
The relationship between some gut flora and humans is not merely commensal (non-harmful coexistence), but rather a mutualistic relationship. Age, Diet, Geography, level of physical activity, use of antibiotics is known to influence the gut flora. It is a diverse ecosystem in and very important for our good health. The absence of some of these microbes leads to diseases and development of some conditions.
We know that the gut flora was important. Two recent studies show how important they are.
Autism-Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterised by repetitive, stereotypical and often restricted behaviour such as head-nodding, and by the difficulties those with it have in reading the emotions of, and communicating with, other people. These symptoms are noticeable in children from the age of two onwards. Currently, in America, about one child in 59 is diagnosed with ASD. What causes ASD has baffled psychiatrists and neurologists since the syndrome was first described, in the mid-20th century, by Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner. But the evidence is pointing towards the bacteria of the gut. That suggestion has been reinforced by two recently published studies—one on human beings and one on laboratory rodents.
Researchers Dr Krajmalnik-Brown and Dr Adams performed their study on 18 autistic children aged between seven and 16. Of their participants 15 were regarded, according to the Childhood Autism Rating Scale, as having “severe” autism. Their studies found that the guts of these kids had a notable absence of Prevotella, the bug, which makes its living by fermenting otherwise-indigestible carbohydrate polymers in dietary fibre. When they were given a dosage of this bacteria significant changes began to appear in the kids behaviour. Even 18 weeks after treatment started the children had begun showing reduced symptoms of autism. After two years, only three of them still rated as severe, while eight fell below the diagnostic cut-off point for asd altogether. These eight thus now count as normal. Also Bifidobacterium, had quadrupled in the kids guts. Bifidobacterium is what is known as a “probiotic” organism—something that acts as a keystone species in the alimentary ecosystem, keeping the mixture of gut bacteria healthy. This, says Dr Krajmalnik-Brown, suggests the children’s guts have become healthy environments that can recruit beneficial microbes by themselves.

Can your gut also give you a competitive advantage in athletics? Molecular biologist Jonathan Scheiman, first author of the study, were able to single out a specific group of bacteria, of the genus Veillonella, that was more abundant in the athlete’s gut after the 26.2-mile Boston marathon but not in 10 non-runners. The Veillonella bacteria use lactate as their main food source. During exercise, lactate is produced by the muscles and released into the bloodstream. It’s also responsible for the feeling of muscle burn. “We have a bug that responds to exercise and its natural function is to eat a metabolite that is associated with fatigue,” said Scheiman. The researchers next wondered if the Veillonella bacteria influenced running performance, so they isolated one strain, V. atypica, from one of the marathon runners and implanted it in the guts of mice. Animals with the critter ran 13 percent longer in a treadmill than control mice implanted with another type of bacteria, L. bulgaricus, that does not use lactate as food. Woods notes, however, that the test the researchers used is not representative of a marathon in humans.

Are we hindering the health of our gut by living in too sterile an environment and eating junk? A good “food for thought” for the weekend. Have a great one.

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Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Prediction that (thankfully) was completely wrong

Norman Borlaug (March 25, 1914 – September 12, 2009)
Does the name sound familiar? If you are reading this post you should be very thankful to Borlaug for he can be single handedly credited for survival and well being of billions of people. He was the father of the Green Revolution.
In the 1950’s and 60’s the view in the west was that the world population was growing too fast and food production wasn’t keeping pace so at some point of time the world will run out of food with dire consequences. This culminated in Stanford Biologist Paul Ehrlich 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over ... In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich said. He had special fondness for India "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971," and "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.
Turns out that till then Ehrlich also had not heard of Borlaug.
Borlaug received his B.S. in forestry in 1937 and Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1942. He worked at DuPont from 1942-44 where, through his lab, he did a great job of supporting the US push back in WW2 after the attack on Pearl Harbour. In 1944 after rejecting DuPont offer of doubling his salary he went to Mexico to work for a programme funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to focus on soil development, maize and wheat production and plant pathology. He spent the next 16 years at the project producing a series of remarkably high yield, disease resistant semi dwarf wheat.
Life in Mexico was not easy. His team worked under difficult conditions but persisted. He encountered hostility from the local farmers but was also fortunate to receive the kindness of strangers (topic of a blog some day). His group made 6,000 individual crossings of wheat and kept track through notes. Mexico due to its geography had 2 sowing seasons and that helped them carry the experiments throughout the year. Their work resulted in development of varieties resistant to disease with a higher yield due to short and stout stem that could support a larger seed head that contained more grain.
In May 1962M. S. Swaminathan (the father of green revolution in India) requested for the visit of Borlaug to India. In March 1963, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government sent Borlaug and Dr. Robert Glenn Anderson to India to continue his work. Famines and shortages were common in the Indian subcontinent till then.
The Impact – All the countries where Borlaug worked transformed from net importers to exporters of grains.
By 1963, 95% of Mexico's wheat crops used the semi-dwarf varieties developed by Borlaug. That year, the harvest was six times larger than in 1944, the year Borlaug arrived in Mexico.
In Pakistan, wheat yields nearly doubled, from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 7.3 million tons in 1970; it was self-sufficient in wheat production by 1968.
In India, yields increased from 12.3 million tons in 1965 to 20.1 million tons in 1970. By 1974, we were self-sufficient in the production of all cereals.
Borlaug was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1970.
Ehrlich continued to defend his theory till his last days.
Brings us to one of my favorite anecdotes. An astrologer told a visiting gentleman that he has only 2 months to live and that he will die of malaria. A year later when the two came face to face the astrologer took the credit of the good health of the gentleman as he would have taken special precautions of his heath due to the warning!!
On similar lines some decades ago the “peak oil” theory estimated that the world will run out of oil. Turns out we underestimate the progress of technology and innovation. Or there is someone working tirelessly to prove the naysayers wrong. However if we become too overconfident in our abilities issues like climate change can still hurt us in a big way.
I will end with gratitude to all the discovered and undiscovered heroes - all the Borlaug’s who give their lives to bring about changes that have a phenomenal impact on the world.

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