Curious Bends — commoner panthers, space diplomacy, big data sells big cars and more

1. Why the GM debate in India won’t abate

It is a sign of its inadequacy that the debate on genetically modified crops in India is still on, with no end in sight. Although public consensus is largely polarised, the government has done its bit to postpone resolution. For one, decisions on GM crops are made as if they were “technical answers to technical questions”. For another, no formal arena of debate exists that also addresses social anxieties. (8 min read)

2. Black panthers are commoner in India than thought

Camera traps installed by the Wildlife Conservation Society of India have shown that about one in ten of all leopard images belong to black leopards (that is, black panthers). These melanistic big cats have been spotted in wildlife reserves in Kerala and Karnataka, and seem commoner in the wetter forests of the Western Ghats. In fact, written records of sightings in these parts date from 1879, and could aid conservation efforts in a country that lost its cheetahs in 1960. (2 min read)

3. One foot on Earth and another in the heavens

For smaller and middle income nations, strengthening institutional and technical capacity on the ground might be a better option than to launch satellites because more than vanity, the choice makes them better positioned to gather useful data. And if such a nation is in South Asia, then India’s planned SAARC satellite could make that choice easier, providing a finer balance between “orbital dreams and ground realities”. (5 min read)

+ The author, Nalaka Gunawardene, is a journalist and science writer from Colombo, Sri Lanka.

4. Do big carmakers know their way around big data?

When sales slumped, Mahindra & Mahindra, an Indian car-maker, used data gleaned from the social media to strip its former best-selling XUV500 model of some features and sell it cheaper. The company declined to give further details. This isn’t unique—big car-makers around the world are turning to big data to widen margins. But do they know how best to use the data or is it just that putting the squeeze on this lemon is a fad? (6 min read)

5. A geothermal bounty in the Himalayas

As the developing world edges toward an energy sufficiency crisis, scientists, environmental conservationists and governments get closer to a Mexican standoff. This is no better highlighted than with the gigawatts of geothermal energy locked up in the Himalayas. A 20-MW plant could “save three million litres of diesel”, $2 million and 28,000 tons of carbon dioxide in northern India per year. Why isn’t it being used? (2 min read)

Chart of the week

20140726_irc374-e1406691005265

“Both [female genital mutilation and child marriage] stem from deeply rooted social norms which can only be changed by educating parents about the harm they cause. Making foreign aid conditional on results gives governments an extra incentive not just to pass laws, but to enforce them. Police and women’s activists in some countries have set up phone hotlines and safe houses for victims or girls at risk. Most important is to make sure that girls go to school and finish their studies.” The Economist has more.

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