Nattil Evideya

A dull evening, with worries dipped in whiskey and clouds shrouded in rain, I rummaged in my cupboard for a change of clothes and found something familiar. A T-shirt I picked up at a stall at Soul Sante, in a world before the virus. A black tee with white stenciled letters, written in a style that is hard to make out quickly as Malayalam, printing out two words unmistakable to every Malayali stuck in lands across the sea or ghats.

‘Nattil Evideya’.

Words that light up many unsure eyes, new to foreign lands. If you are a Malayali, or mallu as if we are known in the lands that knew us first for our porn, you know what they mean. For the others, you probably heard this, or will if you listen closely when two mallus meet for the first time.

It translates to ‘Where are you in the homeland?.’ Like all translations, it’s a crude approximation. In Malayalam, it’s an easier, shorter, very obvious question. In Malayalam, veedu is your house, and nadu is your land, and it often means nearly the same thing.

A typical tongue twist would have made it ‘Nattil Evidunna’, which means “which part of the homeland are you from?” But I have never heard anyone ask that. The question is always ‘where are you?’ as if they know a part of you is still there.

For the many haters of our land, this question simply proves that no one can stay in Kerala because of a lack of jobs. I don’t want to argue with that because there’s some truth in it. Pravasi Malayali (migrant) is a term that is so mainstream that we have ministries for them, or us to be precise.

But I think the phenomenon predates the current lack of jobs, albeit at a smaller scale. Kerala is oddly shaped, a long, narrow slice of the coast. There is no point in Kerala that is farther than 120 km from the sea. Countless generations lived with their backs to the ghats and their eyes on the open seas. Of course we sailed out. It must have been hard not to.

Continue reading “Nattil Evideya”

Why do we put silence on a pedestal?

Indian mother looking outraged and dad looking like he wants to beat you
Exhibit A: When you’re young and want to speak your mind in India

If you were asked to choose who is better – a person who stays quiet and keeps their opinions to themselves or a person who is vocal about their opinions, I bet most of you would select the former. Staying quiet = being good has been drilled into our heads since childhood. Don’t talk back, don’t question your elders. After all that quiet time you would think we would be a nation of good listeners but our most viewed TV anchor is a man named Arnab Goswami, so what exactly is going on?

Truth is, we do like it under certain strict conditions. You are allowed to have opinions. You’re just not supposed to let anyone know what they are until you are above a certain age, or you get rich or famous. The rules are kind of like the ones governing underwear use. It’s OK to wear them as long as you don’t let anyone else see them. Unless you wear khaki shorts, in which case you exhibit it in public events and get called a patriot. If you’re young and unproven, you have no choice but to swallow your opinions and dream of a day when you too can wear your underwear outside your trousers and your heart on your sleeves, like a Desi superman.

Govinda in Superman costume.
Exhibit B: When you’re all grown up and ready to express yourself
Continue reading “Why do we put silence on a pedestal?”

A place to play the fool

The Fool, Tarot, Card, Magic, Fortune, Divination

Buying a domain for your blog is very much like getting your first business card. It’s like that photo Will Smith takes in The Pursuit of Happyness. The one where he’s standing in front of all the handheld scanner machines he has to sell with a big hopeful grin.

The rest of the movie however looks like this.

You burst out onto the world wide web with a song on your lips, ready to share your life-changing ideas and middle-of-the-night philosophical discoveries with a waiting, appreciative world. And then you realize 10 people including your mom read the last 3 things you wrote.

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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?

Continue reading “Fake news, faith, passive and tail risks”

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/

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Why Kejriwal, the fallible mortal must win

kejriwal

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”

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.

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”

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:

 

 

 

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