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”

Movies

Hugh Jackman gets into Bollywood’s turf in ‘The Greatest Showman’

Before I book a movie ticket, I usually check the rating on both IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. If the IMDB score is high, I factor in how big the film franchise is to give a lower weightage in my head to the IMDB score in the initial days as I assume most votes are from die hard fans who would vote only one way. I believe I’ve got it down to a science. Of course you might disagree with my choices but judging solely by how happy I am coming out of a movie theater after paying for that overpriced ticket, my system is pretty sound.

Usually, my system keeps me far away from any movie that says ‘musical’ in the description. The aversion started with the 2011 Ralph Fiennes & Gerard Butler movie ‘Coriolanus’, which my roommate and I went to with great expectations. We had seen just a trailer and it looked bad-ass. My roomie got an extra large tub of popcorn and we settled in for what looked like a good movie which started with Gerard Butler sharpening a knife while watching the news on TV. A little later, Ralph Fiennes started giving a speech to his army and started off with what sounded like a Shakespearean quote. Slightly weird but we rolled with it, only the Shakespeare quotes never stopped. For the rest of the movie, both the lead actors kept talking in Shakespearean prose to each other and everyone around them, talking about how they will ‘smite thee down with my sword’ or about the sound of war-drums while wearing Kevlar and shooting machine guns. My roomie forgot all about the popcorn and we just kept asking ‘what the fuck is this’ to each other for 2 hours. We were so mystified we thought of asking the theatre folks if they put the wrong audio track on. Even after the movie we had to Google it to finally believe this was actually what was intended. And the worst thing was all the critic reviews praising the movie. The Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus says: “Visceral and visually striking, Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus proves Shakespeare can still be both electrifying and relevant in a modern context“. It was about as fitting and relevant as the middle aged uncle next door suddenly speaking only in hip-hop rap would be. Technically I guess Coriolanus wasn’t a musical, but I don’t know what the fuck else to call it. After watching it I decided I’m never watching a Hollywood movie in which people don’t speak in normal English. My resolve was further strengthened when I asked my roomie how another musical he watched with his girlfriend was and he just said ‘Man. Hugh Jackman….Wolverine singing and dancing… WTF”

Continue reading “Hugh Jackman gets into Bollywood’s turf in ‘The Greatest Showman’”

Privacy, Rants

Forget Aadhaar, when did our phone number become mandatory for everything?

Courtesy: A helpful forehead model available nearby, who wasn’t harmed during production

Compared to the rest of the world, Indians assign particularly little value to privacy. Maybe its because we are all used to living in joint families where everyone gets into everyone’s business. In most Indian families, you aren’t allowed to lock your bedroom door till you’re married. And you’re probably not allowed to lock it again after you have a socially acceptable number of kids, so I guess it shouldn’t surprise anybody that we don’t give a rat’s ass about the government or companies tracking us everywhere. In fact, when a company provides us an option to put a tracker on us through which they can watch us day and night to help us reach where we want or to stay safe from criminals, we all get a warm and fuzzy feeling we haven’t got since the days when our mom used to feed us khichdi and tuck us into bed safely. This is of course why the government and mobile companies can blast us with ‘link Aadhaar’ messages through every online and offline channel possible without sparking public outrage. There is one thing that can terrify Indians about the implications of losing privacy though, and that’s the prospect of actually having to pay taxes. As a result, the prospect of linking Aadhaar to all bank accounts and investment accounts have suddenly made many people seek their fundamental right to privacy for the first time.

You would think the newly privacy aware tax dodging populace would now care about other infringements on their privacy but if you want evidence that isn’t happening, just go buy groceries in any big supermarket or to the mall. The cashier scans the bar code on everything in your cart and then matter-of-factly asks for your phone number. If you ask why, the responses range from a puzzled ‘for billing sir’ to ‘loyalty points’ or ‘warranty’. If you look around, you’ll notice that pretty much everyone immediately gives it.The KFC outlet at an airport domestic terminal asked to scan my boarding pass, saying ‘for customer service’ when I asked why. I wonder what service the customer will get from handing over all that data? A discount? Decathlon asks for your number to keep all your purchases linked to your account and provide warranty using just that information. Some would argue that some of these are legitimate use cases and that you are free to say no. I would agree if you always had that option but worryingly, a phone number is now mandatory in the billing software systems used in many places.

Continue reading “Forget Aadhaar, when did our phone number become mandatory for everything?”

Movies

Viggo Mortensen’s ‘The Road’ ruined the apocalypse for me

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘apocalypse’? Zombies I bet. What about the people left alive fighting those zombies? Or people left alive in another kind of post apocalyptic setting? I bet the picture in your head is something like this:

Norman-Reedus-as-Daryl-Dixon-on-The-Walking-Dead-Season-6-Episode-6

walking-dead-rosita

and you hang out with people who look like this:

the-walking-dead-fandom

An array of movies and TV shows have assured us the apocalypse is pretty cool. The life of survivors is hard, but in an uber cool and sexy way. Men become men and women become bad-ass warrior queens, everyone wears leather and gets a Clint Eastwood glint in their eyes and there’s no shortage of quality hair dressers and fashionable clothes. I mean the way they sell it, you would fantasize about living in such a world. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world where accountants and business analysts can become warlords and call the shots with sawed off shotguns and unlimited ammo?

And then, I saw a Netflix suggestion for the 2009 movie ‘The Road’, starring Viggo Mortensen, who you might remember better as Aragon from Lord of the Rings, the man who put the ‘King’ in The Return of the King. Who wouldn’t want to see Aragorn and his son taking on what’s left of the world? The last time he was on the road, he took on 5 (or 6?) of the Nazgul by himself and came on top like a champ.

Continue reading “Viggo Mortensen’s ‘The Road’ ruined the apocalypse for me”

Aadhaar, Rants

Why on earth do we need to update our credit cards with Aadhaar numbers?

I’ve been meaning to write about Aadhaar for a while but never got around to it. But then today morning I got this message from my bank.

credit card

We have already linked our PAN cards with Aadhaar. Credit card companies already do their own checks to ensure you are credit worthy. No one gives you money without checking if you can pay it back. So how is this justified in any way? I posted this on Reddit today morning and of course Younews.in and the India Community Digest Facebook page lifted it by evening and acted like its their own post without ever crediting the India sub-reddit as usual. Anyway, on the original Reddit thread, there were over a 100 comments with different viewpoints. Let me summarize some of the views supporting this move and give my thoughts on each:

1. It helps detect fraud:

My response: No doubt it will. But the question is if the benefit outweighs the risks. I don’t think so. How about if I said we should give the keys to our front doors to the government or tap all our phones to make sure the cops can detect any wrong doing? The problem with these things is that you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, there will be some criminals you can find and catch by making everything and everyone track-able, but such a surveillance system can also be misused against everyday people, journalists, whistleblowers and anyone who gets on the wrong side of the ‘system’, whether its their fault or not. Who will watch the watchers?

2. This is just to verify your identity. Credit card companies use this to check who you are. The info is not collected by the government

My response: I’m not saying the government is building a database of your credit card transactions with Aadhaar numbers. Not yet at least. But, when you link your Aadhaar to your credit card, bank accounts, phone number and so on, what’s to stop the government or someone in power from asking credit card companies for transaction data with the Aadhaar number filled in and search for someones Aadhaar number to track all their purchases? Or do the same with mobile number to track all their calls? Are there safeguards in place against such things? Has this been thought through? At the pace at which Aadhaar is being seeded into everything, I really doubt anyone is taking the time to plug vulnerabilities in each one. Can we trust that banks and credit card companies will keep the data safe? There have been so many cases where I applied for a credit card and immediately started getting spam calls for all kinds of financial products from every company. There’s obviously leaks, especially in PSU banks. How do you make sure an employee doesn’t leak Aadhaar number along with phone number of target customers? What if an insurance company got that data and started using it to decide whether you should be given a health care coverage policy? Same question about telecom companies- what systems do they have in place to control all this? Even if some of them do have systems in place, do all of them have them? Who is checking the quality of each system? What legal protections do we have against such misuse of data?

3. In the U.S.A, social security numbers need to be given for credit card

My response: The U.S.A is not the panacea for all evils. What they do there is not necessarily the best way to do things. They have major problems with burgeoning domestic surveillance themselves. Lets try to stop our country from becoming a surveillance state instead of saying its OK if other countries have already done it. And if we are comparing, the U.S chose not to link things like fingerprints and biometric data to social security numbers due to privacy risks. Why aren’t we emulating that too

My biggest problem with all of this that none of this matches the official ‘Aadhaar is voluntary, not mandatory’ slogan. How is it not mandatory when you cannot have a bank account, mobile connection or credit card without it? How many things will require this before we start calling it mandatory? Will we one day need it to eat out, buy food or get treatment? Will we call it ‘mandatory’ only once someone says it is mandatory to have Aadhaar to breathe? Or will we still say ‘well, you don’t HAVE to live. Its your choice’?

I’m not saying a national system to authenticate citizen’s ID has no merits. Using it to make sure government welfare goes to the right people seems fair, although there has to be mechanisms to address cases where your fingerprints have faded and things like that. Using it to get things the government is offering for free is still fair. But I have to add a disclaimer that I’m not sure it is. It looks like that to me but if someone had put me in charge of deciding whether to make it mandatory for government welfare, I would try listening to people who caution against it instead of thinking whatever idea I had was sent down from heaven by the gods.

Seeding Aadhaar into every aspect of life is a sure fire way of making sure our lives are completely ruled by a number. I don’t think it is even possible to build in safeguards against misuse given the current scope of usage. Limit usage, build safeguards and expand only if you can figure out safeguards for expanded use. Don’t act like everything is a nail just because you have a hammer to hit them with.

If you want to see the original Reddit discussion, here’s the link: https://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/7csv46/why_do_we_have_to_link_credit_cards_to_aadhaar/

I’ll be writing more about Aadhaar on this blog from now as well.

Modern Code of Conduct

Who Is A True Indian? The No True Scotsman Fallacy

If there’s one thing most of India will rabidly fight each other over, its about who gets to be called a true Indian. Some people say a true Indian is secular, others say true Indians live by Vedic principles. True Indians are Sachin fans, true Indians don’t mind standing in ATM queues for our Jawans, true Indians are liberal, true Indians know jugaad, true Indians believe in Gandhi, true Indians make fun of Gandhi, on and on the fight goes.

Here’s my two paisa (true Indians don’t use the expression two cents) on the debate. There is no such thing as a true Indian. Nada, nil. The count is zero, as invented by the true Indian Aryabhatta, although he wasn’t one either.

No, I’m not saying the present generation has completely lost their Indian-ness (related post on that) till there is no one left in the country who qualifies to be in it. I’m just saying the prefix ‘true’ is completely meaningless, except as a tactic to get votes maybe. An Indian is a person who is a citizen of India, but that rules out everybody’s favorite true Indian Akshay Kumar so here’s a more relaxed definition- ‘A native or inhabitant of India, or a person of Indian descent’.

The true Indian claim is a perfect example of an informal logical fallacy known as ‘No True Scotsman’. As you might have surmised from the name, we are not the first country to have this problem. It is a fallacy because the debater is claiming that the definition of a group includes certain characteristics such as having a certain culture or having a certain set of political or religious beliefs. However when confronted with evidence that there are people in that group who don’t have those traits or beliefs, the debater says they weren’t true members of that group. For example a guy I know keeps claiming that a certain political party is very clean or good for the country. When I asked him about specific quotes or incidents involving members of that party, he would say they are not ‘real’ party men. How convenient right?

Here’s the algorithm for how this works:

Person 1: All X are Y
Person 2: Clearly, not all X are Y
Person 1: All true X are Y

Here’s some examples:
P1: All Indians speak Hindi
P2: People from many southern states don’t
P1: All true Indians speak Hindi

P1: Hindus don’t eat beef
P2: Kerala, N. East
P1: True Hindus don’t eat beef

P1: South Indians are dark, North Indians are fair
P2: First of all it doesn’t matter. Second- example here, example there
P1: Real South Indians are dark and real North Indians are not

P1: We should all stand in ATM queues without complaining. Our Jawans at the border don’t complain
P2: Here’s a retired Jawan who’s not happy about standing in the queue and don’t like being brought into this
P1: True Jawans don’t complain

P1: Men don’t cry
P2: Baw-haw, boo hoo
P1: Real men don’t cry

This logical fallacy is used not just to defend group stereotypes, but also to deny any kind of belief that can be invalidated with evidence. Its a great defense mechanism. For example:

P1: Global warming isn’t real. The science isn’t in
P2: Points out three truckloads of evidence
P1: The real science isn’t in. All those scientists are bought and their research is paid for by vested interests

Evidence is useless because the debater goes back in time and changes the definition at its source. Don’t get trapped into pointless arguments with such people. Instead call out what they are doing by name. Say “oh yeah, there’s no true Scotsman’. Its a catchy phrase to start making your point and more importantly, the only way to really counter a logical fallacy used in debate is to call it out by name and explain exactly how it works. People use these logical fallacies even unknowingly because they play on emotions and distract listeners from the truth.

At the beginning of the discussion, ask them how would we know if what they are saying is right. Ask them to agree upon some way of checking its validity before you question it. If they say a certain political party is clean, ask them how to measure that exactly. Should nobody in the party have been convicted or prosecuted for corruption? Or should they simply be less corrupt than another party? If so, how do you measure that. Then go about presenting evidence

Any hypothesis needs to be falsifiable. That doesn’t mean it has to be false but there has to be some way of checking. If somebody says its dark outside, you should be able to open a window and see if its dark and they should agree that they were wrong if you show them its still sunny outside, not say that’s not true daylight.

If you want to read more about logical fallacies used in argument, try this website yourlogicalfallacyis.com or find the follow by email or Twitter button on this blog for more in this series

City In Space
Rants, Science Fiction

Why do we like science fiction?

Science fiction, a genre that was once considered to be just a source of comfort and imaginary friendships for the earlier despised and now celebrated human sub-species known as nerds. I’m not sure exactly when nerds became cool. Maybe when guys who looked like they will never get laid started making million dollar companies from their garages. I personally think Hugh Jackman definitely played a role by making comic book superheroes seem cool, unlike the kids who read the comics before they were made into movies. I was personally unaffected by the anti nerd mentality of the time because of my remarkable lack of respect for academic achievement, but even my friends thought my taste in movies and books was kind of weird.

Nowadays though, superhero movies, Star Trek movies, Star Wars movies are all accepted and mainstream. The big money of course brought bigger on screen explosions and hotter actresses. But there was a time before people got to ogle Megan Fox in a movie about space robots that look like sports cars. In the pilot of the original Star Trek series (which I saw recently on a dull Sunday), a beauty who was stranded on Talos IV did an utterly cringe worthy dance in green paint, which was apparently supposed to be seductive.

Look at her, she's glistening greenI'm glistening green

And yet, there were sci-fi fans even back then. Even now, there are movies which do not have enough action or sex or drama to sell a lot but still get a flock of devotees. What then is the true allure of science fiction books or movies apart from entertainment value, which works universally?

An article I read recently made a distinction between science fiction and fantasy which made me think about this. It argues that true science fiction according to authors of that genre takes up a big scientific advancement or discovery and uses that as a lens to examine the true nature of things we are already used to. Fantasy stories on the other hand merely sets the story in a fantasy world which might or might not be a futuristic one. The key difference is that the science or tech in that is not integral to the story. The article argues that Star Wars is a space fantasy movie and not a science fiction movie, although I think that will be debated to the end of the world and back through a time loop. Leaving aside the debate about which movies qualify, lets focus on the idea that science fiction is a premise to look at our own world and lives.

mild spoilers for Blade Runner 2049 and Her ahead

Continue reading “Why do we like science fiction?”