Pandemic life

Fake news, faith, passive and tail risks

The world was hit by a once in a century pandemic, a virus that was deadly enough to kill millions but innocuous enough to spread easily and widely. We battled to scale up intensive care beds, ventilators, testing facilities. Healthcare workers battled exhaustion and heat stroke in PPE kits. We pooled all our resources in a global effort to develop vaccines. What do you think was the biggest challenge of them all?

Not the challenge of developing a vaccine faster than ever done before, not keeping economies afloat while lockdowns and shut downs ran businesses into the ground. No, the most insurmountable challenge of them all is battling the misinformation sent on WhatsApp by your friendly neighbourhood fake news uncle. The one that sends you good morning GIFs followed by critical pieces of information about the pH level of the virus and how to counter it with warm water and juice that was stirred clockwise three times at noon.

A first of its kind mRNA vaccine was developed in 2 days after getting the genetic code of the virus and deployed in a year after testing, but no one can stop WhatsApp uncle and his fake news. Not all the governments or scientists in the world. No mask can filter it, no air purifier can stop it.

What are the implications? We will probably never reach herd immunity and end this pandemic. Governments are trying to speed up vaccinations but sooner or later, they are going to hit a wall and not have any more people willing to get vaccinated. The fake news virus got to them first and immunised them against the vaccine. Why risk living a long life when you can die early from a preventable disease?

I could wax eloquent about how fake news is fake and the vaccine works, or how you are three times more likely to die from a lightning strike than the vaccine. I could tell you that the last time I checked, the number of people who got the COVID-19 vaccine was twice the number of people who were confirmed to have got COVID-19, but there are zero confirmed deaths due to the vaccine but 2.5 million deaths due to COVID-19. But I’m not going down that rabbit hole, because I am either preaching to the choir or you won’t change your mind anyway. Or maybe I’m only preaching to the choir because you read up to this point and sort of self selected yourself as open minded.

Why though? Why can’t all the science in the world save us from ourselves? The simple answer is user error. Some of you might know the concept. You can design the most beautiful systems, but you cannot design it to get over human stupidity. You can build a quantum computer but it won’t run if the user pulls the plug.

Our society is not just susceptible to this sort of user error, it was built on it. Politicians, religious leaders, cult leaders all control the world because people are willing to disregard reason and believe in whatever they want to believe. Of course it can’t get over itself to fight a pandemic that arrived last year.

If I can distill the problem into its fundamentals, I think you have three issues – the glorification of faith, choosing passive risks over active risks and finally, an inability to understand tail risks.

1. Faith

I was watching the new Justice League Snyder Cut the other day, and there’s a scene where Alfred warns batman not to try and revive Superman from the dead. Gives him logical reasons for how the risk-benefit calculation is overwhelmingly against the idea. Batman’s replies, “Alfred, for the first time in my life, I am operating purely on faith” and goes off on his self righteous mission. You would have seen this trope in countless blockbuster movies. A reasonable hero or heroine finally embraces faith. They say “I don’t know, but I believe”.

I often wonder if this propaganda is deliberate or just self perpetuating. It’s probably the latter, because our society values and prizes faith over everything else. Religions, especially the big monotheistic ones preach unquestioning faith. Other religions or cultures ask you not to question your elders or traditions. Governments function because you believe governments exist. Even the money you use every day works only because we all believe it is worth whatever it says it is worth on the currency note. When governments tell you the value of it has changed the next day, you believe that too, and it becomes so.

This is not to say you should stop believing in the value of money in your pocket, but the problem is that we believe things without ever knowing why we even have to.

People are brainwashed from childhood to have faith. I grew up as a Christian and heard about the virtues of faith in church every Sunday. Priests often spoke disparagingly about doubting Thomas, who incidentally was the one who founded our church, according to legend. The story goes that when Jesus was resurrected and seen by some, Thomas who was one of his disciples, refused to believe it unlike the others. Finally, Jesus appears to him, and Thomas still wants to touch and see if he is real. Afterwards he is sufficiently humbled and chastised for not having believed it as soon as he heard it. Think about that for a second. The moral of the story is that you should believe someone came back from the dead without seeing it for yourself. Do you really expect people who grew up hearing that story to question the scary and convincing WhatsApp forward they received today morning?

We should be telling our children better stories. Of course there are people who grow up religious but still have the sense to know fake news from truth, but that is not because of their upbringing. It is in spite of it. Those people have an admirable talent for cognitive dissonance or double think. They can have faith in one compartment of their mind but be practical and logical in everyday life. It is a complicated type of mental gymnastics not everyone can perform.

If you have to tell your kids about doubting Thomas, talk about how sensible he was. How he avoided being everybody’s puppet by believing anything they said and verified the truth for himself before embarking on a missionary quest.

2. Passive risks over active risks

This one is pretty simple and obvious once you hear it. People are risk averse, but they are primarily averse to active risk taking. Active risks are risks associated with actions you take or choices you make. Getting a vaccine is an active risk, no matter how small. I have heard countless variations of this. “I haven’t got the virus so far thanks to God’s grace, why go and take the risk from the vaccine?”. “I don’t want to push him to take the vaccine. What if something happens and I am blamed?”.

People don’t think much about passive risk – risks you take simply by sitting on your behind and doing nothing. Choosing not to do something is as much of a choice as choosing to do something but most people do not see it that way. If you do nothing, you can blame it on fate, or God’s plan. If you do it, you have no one else to blame and nowhere to hide. And of course we should have faith in God’s plan and be humble.

In my opinion, the government really screwed up by not registering all eligible citizens for the vaccine automatically. It’s fine for them to make it voluntary, but it could have been voluntary in the sense that you could choose not to show up. Then it becomes an active risk people want to avoid. The government enrolled you for it on a certain day and it is on you that you did not get it. Of course this poses some practical challenges in predicting how many people would actually turn up, but I think there are ways to manage that. Most centres treat walk ins and registered citizens the same anyway.

What can you do? Enrol whoever you can among close friends and family. Tell them they can choose not to show up if they are afraid. Chances are most of them will turn up, because it is now a passive risk for them and choosing not to turn up is an active one.

3. Tail risks

Tail risks are risks which have very low chances of occurring but ruins everything if they do occur. Classic example – lightning strike. It’s quite unlikely that you will get hit by one, but it still makes sense to have a lightning arrester on top of your building.

Humanity as a whole is terrible at dealing with tail risks. We mostly just ignore it and hope it never happens. The pandemic was a classic case. Scientists have been warning us about an inevitable pandemic for long. History is full of pandemics that happen every so often and yet we remained unprepared. Since the probability of a pandemic occurring was low in any given year or term of office, no one ever did much about it. And then we suffered for it.

The same thing happens to people in every day life. You put off taking that insurance policy, you do not save money for a rainy day. I’m guilty of it too.

When it comes to the current pandemic, the problem is that this inability to understand or counter tail risks hurt us really bad. It would have been different if the mortality rate of COVID-19 was 80%+ like some other diseases. It is so certain an outcome that it terrifies us into action. But when only 3% die, you can think “oh it won’t happen to me or us. I have faith”. But the problem is, the relatively low mortality rate is exactly what makes the disease spread easily and kill more people. If most people who got it dropped dead, the spread would stop, or we would notice that they dropped dead and hunt down all their contacts. In this case, many people just get a minor illness or stay asymptomatic, so you can never find or stop it completely. More people get infected and more people die in absolute numbers. 3% isn’t that low if everyone gets infected. Think of how many people were in your class, school bus or church and count the deaths. Look at the number of Facebook friends you have and see how many would die if you multiply by 3%.

Yes, most people recover, but you don’t know if you are most people. Just yesterday I spoke to someone who left his job for a year because 11 people in his family got COVID-19 and 3 people died, including his wife’s brother, who must be young.

I don’t know if I have a tip on countering this, but maybe explain the concept, or give analogies like a lightning arrester for the house. But there is an important distinction. This not as unlikely as a lightning strike. It spread from one part of China to every corner of the world. Sooner or later, you will get exposed to it. If you choose not to get vaccinated, you choose to face the disease at some point and pray.

I want to conclude with something I heard in a podcast featuring one of the makers of the Netflix documentary Social Dilemma. We can never spread facts as fast as fake news. I read a study that said fake news travels 6 times faster than the truth on Twitter because fact checking is cumbersome and by definition chases it after the fact (pun intended). The only thing that can move quick enough to counter this threat is culture. We can build micro cultures in our communities and friends circles to value facts over fake news, to be sceptical and ask for proof. You cannot predict the next WhatsApp forward but you can learn to be sceptical of bullshit. You can learn not to believe something just because you want to believe it.

And finally, we can retell the story of doubting Thomas to make him a hero of reason instead of a story of redemption into the way of faith.

Pandemic life

Little things changed by COVID-19

When we think about how the world has changed because of COVID-19, we tend to think of the big things – everyone (who can) working from home, schools staying closed, international trips becoming a distant memory. But a lot of these big changes will probably roll back to some degree after the pandemic is over. I was curious about the little things that changed and will probably stay changed. This is a quick list from my observations, but would love to hear about additions to this:

1. Wallets

I think I’ve always hated the two fold wallet but lived with, without thinking too much. Its too thick and is literally a pain in the ass. I would take it out of my pocket and put it on my desk, or stuff it in front of the gear shift in my car, but for some reason I would never leave the house without it, although I rarely use cash and keep little of it in my wallet. I have an assortment of cards and then an assortment of receipts and all kinds of junk that accumulated over time.

Since I became a near complete homebody, I’ve got used to not having the familiar weight of the wallet in my pocket, and consequently keep forgetting it. It also seems even more stupid than before to sit on a block of leather when I do remember to take it. I therefore started hunting for other options – a phone case that can carry a cards, a small card holder. While I was searching for this, I stumbled upon this CNET.com article about exactly this, and realised I’m not alone in thinking this. Link: https://www.cnet.com/news/a-slim-wallet-is-how-i-learned-to-ditch-cash/

Prediction: Traditional two fold wallets are on their way out. I don’t have sales data to back this up, but if I was a wallet maker, I would consider launching some new products more suited to the times. Here’s what I picked: Spigen Slim Armor CS Back Cover… https://www.amazon.in/dp/B07SZJKW4C?ref=ppx_pop_mob_ap_share

I wish there was an option to fit in some emergency cash too, but a couple of cards embedded in my phone case seemed like the best option for now

2. Luggage tags

You know those small tags that come with most suitcases or bags? I honestly thought it was meant to hold a card with your name on it. Only recently did I realise its meant to hold a luggage tag that you print along with your boarding pass.

For a long time, we’ve been doing web check ins but doing ridiculous things like waiting in a queue to get airport personal to print and stick luggage tags on our bags. It’s like the process went 70% digital but still had a 30% physical component, which defeats the whole purpose.

But when I took my first flight after a year of COVID-19, the airport had finally figured out how to go fully digital. You can show boarding passes on your phone, print luggage tags at home and just drop your bag and walk in. I am going to check all my bags to see if it has a luggage tag and buy a few tags if not.

3. Jeans, belt, socks

Ok that’s several items, but I didn’t want to write a paragraph for each. This might be less relevant in colder climates, but if you live in most of India where it is hot and humid, jeans, belt and socks make no sense. It never made sense, but somehow we all got used to wearing it every day.

Since the pandemic, I have practically been wearing only joggers or track pants and light cotton T shirts. I have a pair of puma slip ons which are breathable, and I wear that without socks, if I’m not wearing sandals.

Once in a month or so when I wear a pair of jeans complete with belt and shoes and socks, I feel like a trussed up chicken. It is outrageously uncomfortable. So much so that I cannot believe I have been living like that forever.

Wear decathlon cotton T shirts and breathable jogger’s or tracks for a week and see the difference. You literally feel like the climate cooled down. I’ve been in Kerala for almost a year thanks to the pandemic, and it was weirdly seeming cooler than I remember living here. No global warming is not a myth, I just started wearing clothes which are appropriate for the climate.

A belt is another accessory that seems ridiculous now. Uncomfortable to drive, lounge in a chair, pointless in every way. Joggers with a drawstring is a simple upgrade.

I’m not sure if this trend holds in cooler cities like Bangalore, but I think I am going to replace 80% of my wardrobe with comfortable clothing instead of some western ideal that got imposed on us at some point without us realising it. To hell with jeans in 30 degree temperature and 80% humidity.

4. Online events

This might sound strange because we have had online events for a long time. But I don’t mean the garden variety webinars. There were so many clubs, courses and events that were always in person, like a literature festival. It’s definitely better when in person but virtual is better than not being able to make it at all.

I was part of a writing club which I stopped going to because it was too far and took up most of my Saturday. There was a ham radio class which I wanted to do but discontinued because I couldn’t get to that place on Saturday mornings. I liked cult fit but same problem, didn’t have the time to go to the center.

I was talking about this with my mother in law and just checked the ham radio place’s website to test my hypothesis and sure enough, they have an online class now. Cult fit has cult live. People can do therapy online. I contacted Kent for a water purifier and they had a video call option on the website.

In future, my prediction is that anything that can be done virtually will be done virtually, or at least have both options. Over time, virtual will win in most cases, even if there are some cons. It’s just too convenient to hold back once people experience it for a while. It will be like fighting the tide.

Anyway, that’s my list for now. Not the best researched or most comprehensive, but I have decided to prioritise quantity over quality in blogging. It sounds bad at first but I did not write for a year or two, then wrote this. It’s just like the virtual class vs. the in person one. Yes the second is great in theory but just doesn’t happen. Something is better than nothing. Perfection is the enemy of getting stuff done.

Let me know if you have any additions to this list. How has COVID-19 changed the little things in life for you?

Tech

Tata Nexon Electric: A layman’s review after a test drive

tata-nexon-ev

If you didn’t get here while searching for information about electric cars, it’s quite possible that you’re a layman like me who just didn’t realize electric cars had suddenly become mainstream, or is about to. Till recently, I thought electric cars in India are one of those things that will come some day, but that was before I read there are more than 10 electric cars from different manufacturers releasing this year. Looks like 2020 is going to be as cool and futuristic as it sounds.

I also thought electric cars with the exception of Tesla (another ‘someday’ thing for India) look like a cross between an auto-rikshaw and a Tata Nano. I don’t know if you feel differently but I HATE the look of a Reva. To me a Reva looks like one of those ugly little dogs some women carry in handbags. I acknowledge that they exist and there are people who are into it but wouldn’t be caught dead with one. In fact, I hate the Reva so much that I stopped typing for 5 minutes to try and think of a more insulting analogy. I couldn’t but I’m going to come back and edit that in if I think of something later. Because Reva had reserved the top slot in my brain’s image search for electric cars in India, I didn’t even bother reading up much about the space till I saw the MG EV and the Hyundai Kona and realized there were companies making electric cars that actually looked like cars. The second shock was that these cars now have ranges of 300-400 km on a single charge, which makes it feasible go a week in the city without worrying about range. You’ll need a home charging point which was another hurdle, but all manufacturers are offering free charging point installations even in apartments, provided you get approvals from the society and let them do the wiring. I was finally taking electric cars seriously, and out of curiosity started looking for cheaper ones than the MG and Hyundai, which led me to the Tata Nexon.

Continue reading “Tata Nexon Electric: A layman’s review after a test drive”

Politics

Why Kejriwal, the fallible mortal must win

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Ask anyone from the urban middle class in India (sans Delhi) about how their political preferences evolved (chronology samjhiye), and they’ll probably tell you a story about how they once supported Kejriwal before he ‘sold out’. I too was one of those people. After a while though, I started to question this universal truth we all seem to have accepted. We seemed to be judging Kejriwal by a different standard than other politicians who can break promises at will and suffer no long-term credibility loss. Of course, the easy answer is that expectations were higher, but I don’t buy that. People had expectations about India becoming a superpower by 2020 and 15 lakhs in their account too, but falling short of lofty expectations wasn’t a high crime in those cases.

What explains this dichotomy, I wondered. One possible answer is that Kejriwal was a mortal hero. He was slapped multiple times, had ink splashed on his face on live TV, did stupid things like resigning without consulting the people, sharing a dias with Lalu Prasad Yadav and then most damning of all, he apologized multiple times for mistakes, giving conclusive proof of his fallibility. In short, we wanted a God and he just wasn’t. Legendary heroes don’t get slapped in public, not once but twice.

Continue reading “Why Kejriwal, the fallible mortal must win”

Stream of Consciousness

Stream of consciousness blogging

Do you know how awkward it is to start writing in a blog you haven’t written in for nearly a year? Its a little like that neighbor or colleague you should have smiled at a year ago and find it weird to say good morning to anymore. Everytime I think of writing something I feel like I should have something momentous to talk about which justifies asking for someones attention after so long. Its nothing more than complacency and inertia of course, but complacency is a bigger road block than anything else in life I guess. Anyway, I had this epiphany the other day – instead of trying to come up with great content, why not just write a stream of consciousness variety of blog posts when I don’t have a fleshed out topic to write about? It reduces the burden of research and thought required, extensive proofreading, etc. and might branch out into more substantial, well thought out blog posts at some point. Most importantly, it reduces the entry barrier, or in my case, re-entry barrier to writing or blogging. It is possible that a reader might think the quality of posts is going down, but my last post was in April 2019. Its hard to go down from absolute silence. At least one other person seems to have had this idea before me – I DuckDuckGo’d ‘stream of consciousness blogging’ and found this nice post: http://webtrafficroi.com/how-to-write-stream-of-consciousness-blog-post/

Continue reading “Stream of consciousness blogging”

TV Shows

The impending tyranny of Daenerys Targaryen

Daenerys riding into winterfell with a smug look as dragons fly overhead
Courtesy: Hotstar

Spoilers ahead:

The new season of Game of Thrones aired today and the highlight of the episode was Jon discovering his true parentage and right to the iron throne. However, the bigger question is what Sam brought up when he asks Jon “You gave up your crown for the good of your people. Will she do the same?”.

The important question is not whether Daenerys will let Jon be king. She might, especially since they are pretty much an incestuous couple now in true Targaryen style. Calling themselves king and queen of the seven kingdoms wouldn’t be that hard or take away any power. The question is if Daenerys truly thinks of her crown as something she wears for the good of the people. Of course she keeps talking about making a better world and leaving the world better than how she found it, but it’s always a secondary theme in her stump speech. The primary theme is always “I am the rightful queen of the seven kingdoms” and “kneel or burn”. In her head, she is justified in most of her actions because she was wronged as a child and hunted, sold and abused across the narrow sea for a good part of her life. In many ways, many of her actions were justified, but what happens when the justifications run out and she still needs to rule and act?

What happens after they win the great war and Daenerys is on the throne in peace, a peace she brought? If she and her dragons play a pivotal role in defeating the Night’s King, she would quite naturally see herself as the savior of the seven kingdoms and beyond, in addition to being the rightful queen. Post that, if she runs into a group of people somewhere who do not want to kneel to the dragon queen, what will she do? What will she do when her dragons eat children, as they have done before? If she and her dragons rule over King’s Landing in perpetuity, will the occasional dragon kill of a citizen or a child be considered the price of the dragon queen’s protection? A sacrifice for the greater good?

The show has enough insight into her thinking to make reasonable predictions and what we know doesn’t make the future look rosy for Westeros. Let’s detail it out.

1. What does Daenerys believe in?

Don’t need to work hard to figure this one out. Here’s a direct quote:

“Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile? Faith. Not in any gods, not in myths and legends. In myself. In Daenerys Targaryen. The world hadn’t seen a dragon in centuries until my children were born. The Dothraki hadn’t crossed the sea, any sea. They did for me. I was born to rule the Seven Kingdoms, and I will.”

Extrapolate this a bit with references to how she defeated the Night’s King and saved humanity and you can underscore and bold that last bit about being born to rule.

Food for thought – If she was born to rule, and lived up to to that promise so splendidly, wouldn’t she naturally consider any future children to have a similar birthright to rule and believe in themselves and nothing else? Would they have grown up in humbling circumstances like hers to temper that sense of entitlement?

2. How deeply does Daenerys think of the fate of her people after her rule is ended?

Not much. Tyrion has raised the question of succession a couple of times and the reception wasn’t great.

Quote:

“Tyrion Lannister: Because I believe in you and the world you want to build. But the world you want to build doesn’t get built all at once. Probably not in a single lifetime. How do we ensure your vision endures? After you break the wheel, how do we make sure it stays broken?
Daenerys Targaryen: You want to know who sits on the Iron Throne after I’m dead?
Tyrion Lannister: You say you can’t have children. But there are other ways of choosing a successor. The Night’s Watch has one method, The Iron born folk, although many flaws
Daenerys Targaryen: We will discuss the succession after I wear the crown.
Tyrion Lannister: Your Grace, I saw hundreds of arrows fly towards you when you fought on Blackwater Rush, and I saw hundred of arrows miss. But any one of them could have found your heart and ended you.
Daenerys Targaryen: You’ve been thinking about my death quite a bit, haven’t you? Is this one of the items you’ve discussed with your brother in King’s Landing?
Tyrion Lannister: I’m trying to serve you by planning for the long term.
Daenerys Targaryen: Perhaps if you’d planned for the short term, we wouldn’t have lost Dorne and Highgarden. We will discuss the succession after I wear the crown.”

Her priorities seem quite clear from this exchange: Daenerys’ conquest of Westeros > Good of the realm

3. How steady has Daenerys’ moral compass been, especially as she grew in power?

Daenerys has done a lot for the downtrodden. She’s freed and saved thousands of slaves. However, what about excesses from her side?

At Slaver’s Bay, she was justifiably angry when the slavers crucified slave children to send a message to her, but what did she do in response? She crucified all the masters without differentiating between them. She assumed her enemy is a homogenous entity, equally complicit in a collective crime, only they weren’t. As explained by Hizdahr zo Loraq the son of a crucified master who joins Daenerys on the show and explained in more detail in the books, many of the masters she crucified were ones who fought against the murder of the children and were reformists who fought with their own people. They were crucified just like the children they tried to save, only by a different monster this time.

After the battle of the gold road, Daenerys chooses the shock and awe of burning two men to death over imprisonment or taking the black, in order to send a message. Did she really need to burn both? Couldn’t she kill the father and imprison the son at least? Or if she really had to execute them, weren’t there more humane ways to do it? Dragon fire isn’t a mandatory circus trick to please the audience.

Now you might justify this saying this was war and such things happen, but does Daenerys introspect about her own crimes or brutality? She used to, but it’s clearly changing now.

For example, her dragons once burned and ate an innocent child and the father brought her the charred remains. A visibly horrified Daenerys locked up her dragons after Jorah explained that dragons don’t know to differentiate between ours and theirs. But later, when the slavers burned her ships and came for her, Dany triumphantly let out her dragons, never to reel them in again. At the end of season 7 when she sees the dragon pit at King’s Landing, she comments on how her family was mistaken to lock up dragons and diminish their own power, a sentiment which has clearly superseded concerns about dragons flying around populated areas and preying on citizens without recognizing friend or foe. At Winterfell, Sansa raises a very relevant question – how are they supposed to feed two armies and two full grown dragons when they have no spare provisions in winter. When she asks “what does a dragon eat anyway?”, Daenerys smugly says “whatever they want”. If Winterfell runs out of cattle, what do you think ‘whatever they want’ becomes? The fact that she cares so little about it, in spite of them having killed a child before is cause for concern.

The disturbing trend evident from all this is that Daenerys is losing her ability to introspect, self correct or even experience remorse for any of her more extreme actions as time goes by, defaulting to her birthright and a belief that dragons can do what they want and in advice such as “you’re a dragon, be a dragon”. Whatever conscience she has now is outsourced to Tyrion, and she doesn’t defer to him like she once used to defer to the advice of Barristan the bold or pre-betrayal Jorah. How long can you depend on other people to check your worst impulses, especially when your own power grows?

Daenerys will undoubtedly win the war and the save humanity, but if the writers continue her story arc in true George RR Martin style, the hero might become the villain. In an interview early on, George RR Martin famously said what he didn’t like about Lord of the Rings was the lack of nuance or shades of grey. He said he was more interested in knowing what Aragorn did after he won the war – did he commit genocide of all the Orcs left alive in Mordor, what was his tax policy, how prosperous was kingdom and so on. In the case of Daenerys, the question is, will she break the wheel, or just stop it with Targaryens on top with an almost absolute belief in a divine right to rule?

There is one way out of course. Daenerys has to die in the great war, leaving Jon Snow aka Aegon Targaryen on the throne, someone who doesn’t really want to be King. I have a feeling he will be more receptive to Tyrion’s advice on experimenting with proto-democracy in Westeros. Daenerys dying would even match the old Azor Ahar prophecy in a way. The original Azor Ahai was supposed to have tempered the sword lightbringer by plunging it into the heart of his wife Nissa Nissa (disturbingly sexist). If I remember correctly, the prophecy is only that Azor Ahai will return and wield lightbringer again, not that he has to kill his wife personally. But maybe it will be an interesting parallel if Jon Snow sends his wife to her death on a dragon during a battle? Or maybe she chooses to do so herself and becomes ‘lightbringer’ with dragon fire? Bran should connect to Weirwoord.net and play The Dark Knight to Dany, so that she can internalize the quote “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” and choose wisely.

If she does and her dragons go as well, maybe just maybe, little Ghost will come out and play with Jon?

 

Rants, Tech Culture

The internet and the constant appeal to our tribal instincts

1493gw

We were having a debate about an article about the supposed demonization (not de-monetisation) of male bonding on a Whatsapp group. The article talked about how popular culture stigmatized men who wanted to spend time with their male friends, rather than their wives. Several people objected saying marriage changes everybody’s lives and women spend less time with friends too and just don’t crib about it. Notice what happened here? The debate was about how this applies to men vs. women although the real issue or topic was actually whether people are demonized for spending time with friends, or maybe about the correct balance between spending time with friends vs. family. However, the author chose to paint it as ‘demonization of male bonding’ and instantly got men and women to debate about it on the basis of gender. I don’t know what exactly to call that – click-bait? attention-bait? debate-bait? I’m going with debate-bait- its got a nice rhyme to it.

How does this help the author or the publication? Let’s break down the formula for getting a large audience for an opinion piece.

  1. A catchy headline that will get a few people to pause the repetitive scrolling motion of their finger on a screen.
  2. An appeal to the reader’s sense of belonging to some group – man, woman, liberal, orthodox, Modi fan, non-Modi fan, patriot who wants the national anthem before a movie, people who should go to Pakistan, you know, simple, undeniably mutually exclusive groups.
  3. Content matter that fills the reader with glee, glorifying their group or talking about how they are victimized by the ‘others’ and prompting them to use it in a battle cry and a challenge to everyone else. This of course gets everyone else incensed enough to counter-attack, for which they will probably read the article to look for loopholes or reasoning flaws or maybe just to share it with a derogatory comment about how the author and his or her group is completely retarded and evil or hypocritical (insert any insult that can be applied to a group at large).

Ta-Da…pretty effective right? Of course, most authors are probably not consciously aware of following a formula. It comes to all of us quite naturally, which is why this formula is so common.

We are still a tribal species at heart, I believe. We evolved as a tribal species and we managed to make up institutions and concepts that helped us find a sense of allegiance to very large groups across distances, even when we don’t know all of them personally. We feel a kinship to our countrymen, people of our religion across countries, people of our social class, people of our skin color, and many other such groupings. But there are still tribes, just that they are a lot bigger and fluid. When you are log onto social media after reading the morning news, you’re ready to shit post on behalf of your political tribe. Once you reach your workplace, you belong to the tribe that goes to coffee together. When you’re watching an IPL match, you’re in another, and on and on it goes. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Feeling kinship on the basis of a shared belief system or ‘fiction’ is actually what sets up apart from other primates and lets us co-operate in large groups without knowing each other personally, a point made forcefully by Yuval Noah Harari in ‘Sapiens’. However, it’s important to realize this, because there are other people who do understand this instinctively and use it for their own ends.

Next time you read an article, ask yourself if it is unnecessarily appealing to your tribal nature. Does every topic or issue that applies to you apply to ‘people like you’ or are you just trying to turn it into that? If at all you have to go with the tribe vs. tribe mentality, try to do it with a little more sportsmans spirit, like sports fans or teams who compete based on the basis of these made up tribes but can shake hands or have a beer afterwards. Don’t let your outrage simmer, because that’s what translates into easy votes or magazine sales at your expense.

Privacy

This women’s day, let’s consider how safe it is to let stalkers look up a woman’s name using her car registration number

stalker-following-woman-&-checking-registration-number

I recently came across an app that lets you enter just a car’s registration number and get the owners full name, area where the car was registered, year and model of the car and even the chassis number. I could not believe it till I tried entering my own vehicle number and saw how accurate the information was. Now imagine a pervert on the road wants to stalk a woman or someone they got into a tiff with. All they need to do is use this app to find their name and then look that up to find their social media profiles.

I initially thought maybe its a good idea to keep this a secret but guess what, this app “RTO Vehicle Information India” has 19 K ratings with 4.6 stars and is no.13 in the utilities category in the Indian app store!! And this is hardly the only one. There are dozens of others which offer the same service on both iOS and Android. And its not like the app makers are doing anything illegal. The description of the app I checked says “We show information available in public domain only“. They also go on to say “We do not plan to incorporate phone number or address of users for safety and security purposes“, but how difficult is it to find that information when you can easily look up that person on various social media platforms or LinkedIn to find out where they work? Continue reading “This women’s day, let’s consider how safe it is to let stalkers look up a woman’s name using her car registration number”

Not Yet An Expert

Announcing the ‘not yet an expert’ series of self help and how-to guides

I’m sick and tired of reading articles that give you fitness advise from supermodels, writing advice from best-selling authors and financial advice from millionaires. The click-bait formula is quite simple. Write the most obvious advice possible and slap a famous person’s face on top of it. Of course no one mentions that the difficult part is in sticking to it or you know, being able to pay for an in-house dietician and personal trainer who can stop you from eating a cookie before doing 200 push ups. As if the 50 rupees in your wallet will suddenly turn into 5 crore because you read an article about Warren Buffet’s investment habits. And yeah, the only thing stopping you from getting a size zero figure is not reading a 500 word article about Kareena Kapoor’s daily diet.

The problem with all these advice posts is that they are written retrospectively from the perspective of a very limited number of people who found success but does not give you any idea about how many people tried those methods and failed. For these tips to be called scientific advice, they need to be repeatable and reproducible. When you read one of those advice columns, ask yourself if everyone who follows that advice has achieved the same results or if following that advice will achieve the same results every time or most of the time. The answer is probably no. Everybody who joined that gym or followed that diet plan didn’t end up with 6 pack abs. Everyone who wrote 2000 words per day didn’t become a best selling author. Sometimes you don’t have the resources or time to stick to an exercise regime. Sometimes you can write all you want and it just won’t get published or make money because good luck and timing is often critical for success. How else do you think a crappy novel like Twilight became a bestseller and got turned into a movie? Advice from successful people might be occasionally useful but most of the time, its a good way for them to feel good and make more money rather than you.

In that spirit, I am starting a series of columns and how-to guides from the perspective of somebody who isn’t particularly famous or awe-inspiringly successful. I would say ‘not yet’ successful, to make myself feel hopeful about future success and to convince you that this isn’t akin to sobriety advice from a drug addict. My only qualification for giving advice is that I’m in the same boat as you in most ways but maybe know 1 or 2 things more about one thing or the other. You might learn how to be marginally better at a few things I got marginally better at something and hopefully you can return the favor. I would be very surprised and quite jealous if you become famous at any of these things following my advice. What have you got to lose? Its not like you wrote a best seller last week (if you did, please give this blog a shout-out on social media?). At the very least, we can laugh at each other rather than mope around while somebody on a billboard smiles down at us from unreachable heights.

As of now, I’m planning on writing about some or all of the below. Vote for your pick:

 

 

 

Rants, Smartphones

Stop overreacting. Apple was only trying to stop your phone from randomly turning off

Anti Apple fanboys have been sharing the news about Apple throttling the speed of older phone’s on their walls or commenting about it on all kinds of unrelated posts for weeks now. I get that it’s cool to jump on the bandwagon and a lot of you will just read the headline of this post and call me a fanboy without ever opening it, but just in case you did open it, here goes:

In iOS 10.2.1, Apple made changes in the power management function to prevent unexpected shutdowns when you’re using a phone with an old AND degraded battery. All batteries degrade over time as you run through charge cycles. If you consistently plug the phone in before it runs too low on juice, the battery stays in good condition for much longer- mine is 2.5 years old and in good condition. However if you’re one of those people who waits till your battery is almost dead before charging, your battery probably isn’t in great condition anymore. When your phone tries to hit peak processing power, the battery you abused is not able to provide enough power and your phone turns off suddenly, something I’m sure you wouldn’t enjoy. To stop such shutdowns, Apple made a logical choice to stop the processor from hitting those speeds if it looks like the battery won’t be able to power it, but ONLY at such times. It doesn’t slow down your processor all the time unnecessarily. Think of it like your car had a feature that stopped you from going any faster if the whole thing started shaking like a leaf.

Continue reading “Stop overreacting. Apple was only trying to stop your phone from randomly turning off”