Reporter’s Notebook: How’s the Air in London? ‘We Should Be Worried’

By the time I reached São Paulo, I was desperate to get out.

‘It’s Dangerous’

A vast majority of the visitors to Mr. Pinsky’s pollution pods either scrunched up their faces or covered their noses as soon as they breathed in the scent of diesel.

“It’s nasty,” said Maria Jones, 35, a London resident of 10 years. “You don’t notice it that much out there, maybe because it’s spread out. But if it’s really this bad, then it’s dangerous and we should be worried.”

Anna Whiston, a 24-year-old paralegal who recently moved to London from the countryside, said the pollution in the city was invisible, but she noticed it through her physical symptoms.

“In the mornings I cough a lot, and when I blow my nose, it’s all dark,” she said.

Visitors generally started slowly in the cleanest air pod and moved faster as the air quality deteriorated. Many coughed and sneezed, and some children cried and ran out.

Meredith Pistulka, 26, who moved to London from Florida this year, kept sneezing even after she left the domes.

“London and Florida have very different air quality,” she said. “I can’t run here. I tried — and I almost died from coughing.”


Somerset House raised a new Union Jack flag that will change color as it reacts to London’s air quality in real time.

Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House

Ms. Pistulka and her boyfriend said they recently bought plants to help improve the air quality in their apartment.

“I don’t think Londoners realize just how bad the problem is,” said Madeline Corbett, a medical student who visited the pods for a second time. “Politicians talk about the issue when it’s at its peak and then people quickly forget. We need more exhibitions like this to make the issue visible to the public.”

‘A Blackened Union Jack’

Mr. Pinsky said people’s experiences in the pods were subjective and depended on what levels of pollution they were exposed to daily. He recalled the experience of one couple from a rural part of Ireland who started gagging when they entered the New Delhi room and had to exit immediately.

The pods are climatically controlled and contain various levels of ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Somerset House was chosen for the installation, which will end on Wednesday, because “this courtyard was deliberately built with no nature in it to demonstrate how mankind could make something more beautiful than nature,” Mr. Pinsky said.

To mark Earth Day, Somerset House raised a new Union Jack flag that will change color as it reacts to London’s air quality in real time. The flag, created by the artist Lauren Bowker, will transform from red, white and blue to gray and black as it reacts to levels of radiation exposure.

“A blackened Union Jack,” Ms. Corbett remarked as she drew a picture of the flag in her notebook. “That’s so symbolic of what will happen to us if we don’t act soon.”

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Overseer Faults Volkswagen’s Reform Efforts Since Emissions Scandal

Herbert Diess, who was named chief executive of Volkswagen earlier this month, delivered a stern lecture to top managers last week, complaining that the company generates too many scandals and must become more ethical.

“Ethics, integrity and compliance are core for him as a necessary foundation for our future business,” Peik von Bestenbostel, Volkswagen’s vice president for global group communications, said in an email on Sunday in which he confirmed Mr. Diess’s remarks.

Mr. von Bestenbostel said that the objectives outlined in the report by Mr. Thompson are valid and “will help to change Volkswagen in the right direction.”

Mr. Diess replaced Matthias Müller, who had prevented a collapse in Volkswagen sales in the wake of the scandal but struggled to remove the cloud it cast over the company’s reputation. A former BMW executive, Mr. Diess began working at Volkswagen only a few months before the emissions cheating became public and is less tainted by it.

Mr. Diess is likely to be less restrained by personal connections to Volkswagen managers or other employees linked to the emissions wrongdoing. Mr. Müller spent his entire career at Volkswagen or its divisions and had worked closely with some of the people suspected of playing a leading role.


Herbert Diess, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January. Mr. Diess, who was just named chief executive of Volkswagen, delivered a stern lecture on ethics last week to top managers.

Tony Ding/Associated Press

Despite promises to reform, Volkswagen remains dominated by longtime insiders, and there have been few visible legal or disciplinary consequences for people involved in the emissions cheating. Volkswagen did not keep a promise to publish an internal report on the causes of the scandal prepared by the Jones Day law firm.

As he tries to take a tougher approach, Mr. Diess is also likely to face resistance to change within the sprawling Volkswagen empire, which is famous for its insular, hierarchical corporate culture.

Mr. Thompson is one year into a three-year assignment that was part of Volkswagen’s guilty plea last year to United States Justice Department charges that included obstruction of justice and conspiracy to violate the Clean Air Act. Under the terms of the plea agreement, Volkswagen promised to take steps to prevent the same kind of thing from happening again.

Mr. Thompson’s job is to make sure that Volkswagen complies, and the report he submitted this month to the Justice Department is the first of three annual assessments.

Since being appointed the Volkswagen monitor in April 2017, Mr. Thompson has avoided the limelight but, as the report indicates, he has made his presence known at the company’s Wolfsburg headquarters. Though based in Atlanta, Mr. Thompson has an office in the same building as members of the management board and has made an effort to learn German.

Mr. Thompson has substantial leverage over the company. If he concluded that Volkswagen was violating the terms of the plea agreement, it could be voided and the company would land back in court.


Matthias Müller was replaced as chief executive of Volkswagen earlier this month. He prevented a collapse in Volkswagen sales in the wake of the scandal but struggled to remove the cloud it cast over the company’s reputation.

John Macdougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Among other things, Mr. Thompson has been urging Volkswagen to create a more effective whistleblower system to allow employees to report suspected wrongdoing without endangering their careers. He has also been pressing the company to improve its systems for vetting vehicle software.

The emissions scandal occurred after a group of employees, including some who reported to top management, devised software that caused diesel engines to emit less nitrogen oxide pollution when the engine computer detected that the car was being tested.

The software was installed in 11 million cars over almost a decade, but as far as is known no employees reported its existence to the authorities until shortly before the company confessed in September 2015.

During a long career, Mr. Thompson has worked in both government and private industry, including stints as a federal prosecutor in Georgia and general counsel of PepsiCo. In 1991, Mr. Thompson advised Clarence Thomas in his battle to win nomination to the Supreme Court in the face of sexual harassment accusations.

Though Mr. Thompson is a Republican, he has been sharply critical of Donald Trump. He was among former high-ranking government officials who published a letter during the presidential campaign in 2016 that said that Mr. Trump “would be a dangerous president and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.”

The letter also said that “Mr. Trump lacks the character, values, and experience to be president.”

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Tech We’re Using: In India, Everything Can Be Delivered (Except Clean Air)

Cellphone service in India is still spotty, so I carry one iPhone and one Android, with SIM cards for India’s three biggest carriers and power banks to recharge them both. If I have to go somewhere in heavy traffic, I often turn one phone into a Wi-Fi hot spot and work on my laptop from the back seat while the driver worries about the road.

How do people use tech differently in India compared with the United States? What are the most popular homegrown apps there?

Tech in India is mostly mobile — computers are quite rare. And smartphones are almost all Android, with Apple a bit player.


Mr. Goel’s office at his home, where Swiss-made IQAir purifiers run for at least part of every day.

Sunil Thakkar for The New York Times

Smartphone use has exploded in the past year. A price war started by a new phone carrier, Reliance Jio, in 2016 has given India one of the lowest prices for data in the world. My primary phone plan costs less than $10 a month for unlimited India calls and more data than I ever manage to use.

Cheap data has led to a surge in streaming video. YouTube is popular. But Indians also watch local services like Hotstar, a service owned by 21st Century Fox in the United States. It bundles live cricket, Indian television and American cable shows like “Game of Thrones.”

Jio offers local TV and many movies through its own apps. Amazon Prime and Netflix operate here, too.

Food delivery apps like Swiggy and Zomato are also big, although I don’t think anyone is making any money at it. Delivery is very much a part of Indian culture — you can get virtually anything delivered, from a single cup of hot coffee to furniture that they assemble in your house.

Mobile payments are another hot area. Local apps like Paytm are battling it out with Google’s Tez, Amazon Pay and a payments feature that’s coming in WhatsApp.

What are the biggest consequences of people in India getting onto the internet for the first time via their smartphones?

I don’t think we really know yet.

Most new users know little or no English. So app makers and internet companies like Google are racing to adapt their products to handle different languages. Android phones, for example, offer a choice of keyboards in 33 different Indian languages besides English. Google also says that more than one-quarter of searches in India are done by voice command instead of typing.

The combination of smartphones and cheap data has the potential to transform how poorer Indians find a job, socialize, do basic banking, get health care, even pursue an education.

One big hurdle, though, is that even a basic Android smartphone starts at about $50, which is still out of reach for a lot of people.

What is Mumbai’s high-tech scene like?

Mumbai, like New York, is still primarily a hub for finance and trade.


Paying for coffee beans delivered from a neighborhood store. For food delivery, apps like Swiggy and Zomato are big in India.

Sunil Thakkar for The New York Times

In tech, telecom is big — Reliance Jio and Vodafone’s Indian operations are based here. Two huge outsourcing companies, Tata Consultancy Services and Tech Mahindra, also have their headquarters here.

Bollywood, India’s film industry, is centered in Mumbai, too. So services like Hotstar, Amazon Prime and Eros Now are here to be close to the studios. There are a few start-ups founded by people who simply like the city, such as Cleartrip, a travel booking site, and Hopscotch, an online retailer of children’s clothing.

With so many major banks here, there is also an emerging scene of so-called fintech companies that are trying to apply technology to disrupt traditional financial services.

Tech firms have been pushing for merchants to support digital payments in India. Do you think e-wallets will ever replace cash?

Traditional e-wallets, where you store money until you need to spend it, will probably disappear. The government ordered e-wallet companies to get more identification information from customers by Feb. 28. Most customers did not cooperate, which limits their ability to refill their wallets.


A FaceTime call connecting Mr. Goel’s 2-year-old daughter with her grandmother in New York.

Sunil Thakkar for The New York Times

Still, it’s inevitable that noncash payments will play a bigger role in India’s economy over time. Debit cards are already popular, and the government is heavily promoting a technology called UPI, which instantly transfers money from one bank account to another.

I doubt cash will ever disappear, though. Even in the United States, about one-third of all transactions are still cash.

Beyond your job, what tech product are you currently obsessed with using in your daily life?

Air purifiers!

Like China, India has a big problem with air pollution in its major cities. Unlike China, the government is doing very little to address the problem.

In New Delhi, the nation’s capital, the wintertime air is so bad that its chief minister called it a “gas chamber.” In Mumbai, which is on the coast and gets nice ocean breezes, the air tends to be better. But by World Health Organization standards, the level of tiny particles in the air is still unhealthy, especially in the mornings. And sometimes it’s downright toxic.

So we run Swiss-made IQAir purifiers for at least part of every day.

Our 2-year-old is obsessed with FaceTime on our iPhones. She loves to call her grandparents in New York and carry the phone around the apartment, giving them a prime view of our ceiling as she chatters away.

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