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The Signal

July 19, 2021

Good morning! Tesla is selling subscriptions for the self-driving part of autonomous vehicles. This will now arm the car with “Full Self Driving Capability”, according to a report by Reuters. The car will now assist in changing lanes on a highway or park. But this new innovation comes with caveats, the driver needs to be fully alert, with hands on the wheel. So, it isn’t really self-driving then?

Anyway, on to the day’s stories:

  1. Wary world watches Covid surge

  2. Fires are howling

  3. We're in the middle of a billionaire space race

To all our new readers, Óla. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, consider subscribing, it’s free.

Today's newsletter was curated, written, and edited by Dinesh Narayanan, Debarati Bhattacharjee, Patanjali Pahwa, and Venkat Ananth and is a five-minute read.






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*As of market close

Stocks: Trading for this week could be influenced by quarterly results announcements, the outcome of the European Central Bank’s policy rate meeting, and the possibility of Chinese banks lowering the benchmark loan prime rate after the recent infusion of money into the system.

Cryptocurrencies: Bitcoin found support around $31,000 after Jack Dorsey announced that Square would launch a decentralised finance platform based on it.



Joe and Mark: It's (Beyond) Complicated

Joe and Mark: It's (Beyond) Complicated

The past few days have revealed a rather tense relationship between Facebook and the White House. First, it was the US surgeon general Vivek Murthy, who set the ball rolling, likening misinformation on social media platforms to a “serious threat to public health.”

Strong words: White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, followed saying Facebook was not doing enough to stop misinformation about vaccines. President Joe Biden weighed in on Friday, remarking that platforms like Facebook were “killing people.”

The White House dubbed 12 personalities as the “disinformation dozen” primarily responsible for anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. Facebook swatted away Biden’s claims first with figures and later, a blog by its leadership.

Hesitancy and hostility
: Biden’s comment also comes amid increased vaccine hesitancy, predominantly among Republicans in so-called ‘red’ states like Tennessee. Several elected Republicans have decried Biden’s calls to vaccinate the majority of Americans, as moves by “big government”.

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Climate Change Red Flags Across The World

“The sirens are screaming and the fires are howling.” That’s how Bat Out of Hell, one of the most popular motorcycle songs of all time, goes. It was written as an ode to the destruction of something pure.

The sirens are screaming: There have been floods across the world. In Western Europe, over 100 people have died and scores are missing after unusually heavy rainfall burst river banks and caused unprecedented damage to major cities in Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland. Closer to home, in Mumbai, over 25 people died due to rain and related incidents after a thunderstorm lashed the city Saturday night. 

Fires are howling: Meanwhile, on the US West coast, fires are spreading at 1,000 acres an hour. Normally associated with snow and ice, Siberia is burning up. And the Amazon forests, once the world’s largest carbon sink, now spew more carbon dioxide than they absorb. 

“I never see the sudden curve till it's way too late.” This was Meat Loaf’s excuse. What is ours?

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Covid Is Not Going Away

Covid Is Not Going Away

After a lull, the Covid-19 graph has turned upward again. While East Asia is still reeling under the virus’s onslaught, the US, Europe, and India are seeing a trend reversal. Overall cases in India rose by 7.4% on Sunday. Maharashtra, the frontrunner of the second wave, reported 8,172 new cases on Sunday.

The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans to open up may backfire, experts have warned. More than 100 scientists wrote to Lancet medical journal that it’s “dangerous and premature”. In the Netherlands, Covid-19 infections surged 500% in a week. 

In the US, infections in all 50 states rose 70% in a week, driven mainly by unvaccinated citizens. CDC director Rochelle Walensky called it the ‘pandemic of unvaccinated‘. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious diseases official has warned the nation of an “extraordinary surge” of the new Delta variant. Across the Pacific, Japan has reported that two Olympic athletes have tested positive for Covid-19.

The Signal

Despite the contagion, the US and Europe have shown that vaccination reduces deaths and hospitalisations. Over 87% of the UK’s adult population has got one shot and more than two-thirds have got both the jabs. The US’ experience clearly shows why coverage should increase. India is still far behind with only about a third of the population having received the first shot. Only 8% have received the second one. A jittery government has warned that a third wave is around the corner even as many states are reporting vaccine shortages.

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Auto Sales Are Wobbly

More data is pouring in that is reaffirming India’s lopsided growth trajectory. Automobile sales numbers for June show the rich are lapping up luxury vehicles but small-car and affordable two-wheeler sales are slipping.

The K-shape: Quoting vehicle registrations data, the Economic Times reported that two-wheeler sales were lower than the June 2019 level by 30%. Car sales were down 10% too. Mercedes Benz, meanwhile, said its sales were back to pre-pandemic levels and several of its models were sold out for the year, a reflection of rising corporate profits and income of top-level executives and professionals.

Save not spend: The trend clearly points to middle-class and lower-middle-class customers putting off vehicle purchases, preferring to save up for a possible third wave of the pandemic. High fuel prices will also act as a dampener.

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Get Ready For A Space Jam

Get Ready For A Space Jam

Earth is too boring. At least for billionaire astronauts. They’re happy to take along others who can stump up a few tens of millions of dollars. What was once a government monopoly is now open game. It’s a new era, the real space race, and it goes far beyond sightseeing tours with Branson or Bezos.

It’s business
: Private companies have already delivered astronauts to the International Space Station. They’re launching their own satellites, beaming down the internet, and more. Asteroid mining and colonisation of Mars could be next. Many of them are bankrolled, of course, by the usual suspects of Wall Street. Soon, frequency of flights and innovation will reduce costs drastically.

A chance missed? India recently released a draft National Space Transportation Policy which opens a window to private companies. But it may have already missed the opportunity as ISRO, which had an early lead in low-cost rocketry, has been slow in co-opting local companies. The real competition may, however, come from China which recently landed on Mars and flew astronauts to its own space station.

Fun fact: Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk had a rare meeting in 2004 to discuss space. Catch some snippets.

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No fakes please: Cryptocurrency exchange Binance stopped selling digital tokens mirroring popular stocks such as Apple and Tesla after regulators in multiple countries raised a concern about the product. 

Goodbye: Pulitzer Prize-winning Indian photojournalist Danish Siddiqui was killed on Friday while covering the war in Afghanistan. The Reuters journalist was embedded with Afghan forces fighting the Taliban. Here’s his finest work.

Endgame: China is selling off the remains of Anbang, the conglomerate that epitomized the country’s overseas expansion, including buying the New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, in a test case of how the country deals with corruption and business collapse.

Pot and kettle: The New York Times has reported that Israel secretly authorized a group of cyber-surveillance firms to work for Saudi Arabia despite accusations that their services were being misused to literally silence the regime’s critics.

Cool off: Oil prices will likely ease as OPEC and other producers have agreed to pump an extra 400,000 barrels per day until the end of September 2022.

Birds of a feather: Apple has removed Fakespot — a popular app for detecting fake product reviews — from its App Store after a complaint from Amazon, allegedly with no prior warning.



Die another day: In case you hadn’t heard, the space community spent much of last week fretting over and saddened by what seemed to be the demise of the beloved Hubble telescope. Well, they needn’t have. It’s alive!

Rhythmic revolt: Thousands of Cubans have been protesting for more freedom and an end to high prices and economic turmoil. Many of them are voicing their outrage through a hip-hop song called Patria y Vida — homeland and life. Listen.

Better early than never: Acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee made a gaffe at the Cannes film festival by accidentally announcing the main award — the Palme d'Or — well ahead of time. French filmmaker Julia Ducournau’s Titane became only the second movie directed by a woman to win the award.

*Our July 16 edition spelt the Chinese President’s name as Xi Jingping instead of Xi Jinping. We apologise for the inadvertent error.

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