The business of busyness

In the movie Iron Man, Tony Stark (Iron Man) tells Pepper Potts, his assistant, the following:

There is nothing except this. There’s no art opening, no charity, nothing to sign. There’s the next mission, and nothing else.

Another Tony, this time a real-one, Tony Schwartz in a HBR article a few years ago wrote about how being really busy is a way to avoid feeling anything because you have no time to think or feel. By extrapolation, you could say there’s just the next task to complete, the next deadline to hit, and nothing else.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve been busy in the same way that Tony Schwartz mentions and it leads to a single-minded focus to finish stuff; it also leads to your neglecting everything else. I’ve been busy to the point of working long hours and on weekends but it’s not something that I can see myself doing for months on end. But, I know people who do it project after project and I’ve wondered about how.

One way to do it is to neglect everything else as I’ve mentioned above; this means, if you have almost no family life, no social life, effectively no personal time or life. The other thing about why people do it is more interesting and I believe that money is a (small to medium) factor. Another factor is the feeling of accomplishment such work can bring. A big factor, though, is the thrill and excitement of meeting deadlines or working in a fast-paced (read: exciting) environment; as in, there are people who enjoy this kind of working. I’m not one of them; when you’re working in such a way that you’re not sure what day it is, I think that’s taking things too far.

In general, people seem to think that there’s something heroic about working extremely hard to a point where you’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. We tend to admire people who do the working on late nights [1], long hours, or weekends but not the people who manage a great balance between their work and personal lives while still producing quality work. Who hasn’t heard admiring stories about people (in government, tech, business, or medicine) who survive on lesser sleep than other mortals?

Maybe it’s a human thing to we admire the superhuman effort but there are costs because, unfortunately, we are not super-humans. You can do this sort of crazy working hours for a limited period (a few weeks) but if you keep pushing yourself for longer periods, then there are negative consequences. Your physical health is one, your emotional and mental health are the other, and then there are the consequences to your family and social life, and so on.

For companies too, I don’t think this sort of busyness is good for business. Lack of sleep, exercise, down time, and so on will lead to a decrease in the performance and quality of work [2]. So, rewarding unsustainable hard work is not a good example for companies to set either. Sadly though, I don’t think this mindset is going away anytime soon. So, it’s up to individuals to manage their work lives and set expectations boundaries.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to get back to work.

[1]: Notice though that it’s almost always about the late nights but not so much about the person who wakes up early. Maybe there’s something more heroic about soldiering on well into the night as compared to taking a break and waking up early (and refreshed)?

[2]: Tony Schwartz, who founded The Energy Project, is also the co-author of a wonderful book called The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working; sub-title: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance.


A couple of weeks ago, I watched a documentary called Kakkoos. I had watched a trailer before and wanted to watch the full film, so when I found out that it was released on YouTube, I decided to watch. I remembered, from the trailer, that the documentary was about manual scavenging and that it seemed interesting but not much else.

When I started watching it though, I was shocked; some of the scenes were stomach-churning and sometimes so bad that I could not watch.

Let that sink in for a moment: I couldn’t watch scenes from a documentary where my fellow citizens clean shit (oops, human excreta) as part of their daily job.

Here’s the government’s definition of a “manual scavenger” (emphasis mine):

“Manual scavenger” means a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central Government or a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed, and the expression “manual scavenging” shall be construed accordingly.

The definition is descriptive but does not capture how horrible the task is and the term “manual scavenging” itself seems so sterile. Scavenging is not a word that you feel repulsed by, so manual scavenging seems benign. Maybe that’s why the bureaucrats chose the term; it doesn’t evoke disgust.

But, the documentary, which is shot in multiple locations in Tamil Nadu and has interviews with numerous folks engaged in this inhumane and soul-crushing work, does. It is a searing film because it exposes the reality of this work and the manner in which people are exploited and suppressed.

I can easily recall the faces of the people in the documentary and remember the despair, anger, and resignation in their voice; their stories are haunting and will jolt you. The genius of this documentary is that it makes you uncomfortable when you watch and disturbs you when you think about this later.

So, why even watch? Because if you live in your bubble and think that your country has “made it” because it’s going digital or because marketing slogans (Swachh Bharat) make you feel proud, this documentary will show the depths to which our fellow citizens have to go simply to survive.

It should shame us that even though there are machines to do this kind of work, we still have no problems with asking people risking their lives (yes, there have been deaths in sewers) and their health to keep our surroundings clean.

This is exploitation and it is oppression and we are complicit because of our silence and because we don’t want to know. So, make the time and watch Kakkoos ; I guarantee that you’ll be disgusted, horrified, and moved. And, it’ll be something concrete that people face daily and not an abstract term like “manual scavenging”. You owe it to the folks who do this every day to, at least, watch.

Sorry for the radio silence

Sorry folks for not posting in a while. Things have been busy at work, so a lack of energy has contributed to my prodigious output here over the last two months. I’ll post at least once for the next couple of months and hope to be back to more regular posting after that.

I’ll keep you posted. (Yeah, yeah, I know.)

The Heretics (by Will Storr)

The tag line of Will Storr’s The Heretics is Adventures with the Enemies of Science and it is a book about science and about people who don’t believe the scientific “facts”. It is also a deeply thought-provoking book because it forces you to question your assumptions about the things that you believe.

Storr meets a variety of people, from Creationists to people who believe that they’ve been abducted by aliens to rationalists, and actually listens to what the people are saying with an open mind and, in the process, ends up opening your mind to the unstated assumptions that we all make about the things that we believe in.

I hesitate to write about the book in these terms because it sounds like I’m talking about a book about thinking or philosophy. At its heart, The Heretics is a fascinating reportage-cum-commentary on different “belief systems” that people have and the sort of continuum on which those belief systems lie.

In the aftermath of the Donald Trump election, when people were talking about books to recommend to understand liberal versus conservative perspectives, I thought that The Heretics would be a good book to read because it shows you how to understand points of view that you think might even be absurd and with that understanding there is a chance of empathy.

I think that we could all use a little more empathy in our lives.

PS: I’ve a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that this “review” has not done justice to the book, so if you feel that way, please check out this interview with Will Storr, which has a nice background of the book and the author explaining why he wrote the book.

The year(s) that changed the Indian media

In 2014, when Mr. Modi swept to power as the PM, people spoke and wrote about a changed India. Now, 3 years later, I think that what it changed more was the Indian media and journalism landscape and that in turn has led to the changes in India we’re seeing now.

(I get that some of these are generalizations and that they are not always true about all issues but they are true about many issues a lot of the time.)

Think about it: you have a Prime Minister, who calls himself the pradhan sewak, but refuses to hold press conferences, does a few interviews, maintains only one-way communication (radio, election speeches, Twitter) and the media accepts it without putting up a fight.

Even that would be okay if the media decided to spend its time researching policies, trying to deconstruct the one-way communication, and doing whatever it could to compensate for the loss of direct questions. What did the media do? They simply accepted the change of communication rules and reported what the PM said, throwing a critical opinion in every once in a while.

Compare that with what the media did during the UPA II regime. It was the media that brought the corruption and other issues to the fore and harangued the government. Now, next to nothing!

The media now spends an inordinate amount of time outraging about issues that are peripheral, or important but not critically important while letting the critical issues go by. Instead of applying critical thinking to the government’s actions, the media accepts what the government is saying and chooses to focus on the “distractions” that conveniently seem to crop up. What the public loses when this happens is the right to be informed about what the government is doing and this in turn slowly leads to weakening of the institutions that are supposed to do the checks and balances.

As I was writing this, here’s what the Executive Editor at India Today tweeted:

More than 350 cows at the Gorakhnath temple Gaushala. Several calves ran to Yogi Adityanath as he reached & gave them Gur & their feed

Of course, this is not a representative sample, and this is a tweet, but it is exactly the sort of thing that the government is happy to have the media focus on, while it does bigger things that don’t get reported too well or not at all.

And, what better way to end this post than to point you to the excellent Meghnad‘s column at Newslaundry: Finance Bill 2017: You’ve just been punked. (As, an aside, while the Finance Bill 2017 was being passed, the media was focused on what the UP CM ate for breakfast and other food-related issues.)

This is peak crisis time for Indian journalism. I really hope that they make it. In the meanwhile, go to the non-traditional media sites like Scroll, The Wire, Newslaundry, which have done a way better job of reporting and critical analysis than the traditional media.

PS: Meghnad’s piece Media failed to cover Finance Bill because Parliament reporting is non-existent gives an excellent account of how the media fails in reporting what goes on in our Parliament.

Speaking up as a way of providing cover and more

A couple of weeks ago, when there was outrage in the US about the ‘Muslim ban’ order, I read a piece [1] by an entrepreneur who explained why he was speaking up against the order. He said that when people like him spoke up, it would provide cover for others to speak up as well. That bit about providing cover resonated with me deeply and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Earlier today, I read this Twitter thread (by Anand Giridharadas) about the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas, and one of the things said was this:

Please understand, Mr. President, that this too gives permission, by dog-whistling to drifters that they might do what the government can’t.

Reading this my thoughts went to the violent incident at Ramjas College where ABVP members used violence against students and journalists. I started thinking about the increase in the frequency of such incidents in colleges and about how the narrative from the ruling party has always been that “we will not tolerate being anti-national” or that “free speech has its limits” and so on.

What is this, if not providing cover for such incidents to happen? Is it a coincidence that the language, the threats, the violence have been ratcheted up after the BJP came to power? I think not. Look at what the BJP national president said recently comparing the Congress, SP, and BSP to a terrorist. Of course, our PM was not far behind with his concern over electricity and cemeteries in an election speech.

This kind of dog-whistling provides cover for people to openly indulge in hate on Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, and even more dangerously in the “real world” by threats and acts of violence.

So, given that the cover is being given to support hate and divide, it is even more important for people to speak up against such incidents and call out bigotry and bullshit when they see it. And, if you think it doesn’t make a difference, it does. Acts of courage and defiance are inspirational; they can give rise to movements and can act as catalysts.

There are people who are now being courageous and providing cover against the assault on free speech and dissent, and the trend towards toxic nationalism. But, to resist, you need more people to speak up and amplify the voices.

Speak up. It is hard but if you want to preserve a democracy, you have to fight for it.

[1]: I can’t for the life of me remember where I read this.

Digital this, digital everything: where’s the power coming from?

The world seems to have been so caught up in moving everything to the digital way of life that only a few people have paused to ask where the energy is going to come from. Take smartphones for instance; it used to be that phone batteries lasted for days and now they’re a day or two tops. It’s not that the battery capacities have stayed the same, it’s that the phones consume so much power because they’re basically miniaturized laptops that the technology can’t really keep up. So, we’ve gone to a situation where we now need more power to feed the smartphone and tablet usage.

In India, the government has committed itself to building a Digital India. To go digital, you need compute (servers), networking (to move data), data centers (storage); all this takes power, more power than we’re currently using. And, you need power to cool the “machines” that are providing the infrastructure for going digital.

Then, consider the Internet of Things (IoT); you are basically looking at connecting millions of devices to the Internet to enable them to talk to each other, for applications to use, etc. More power needed.

The whole thing is one giant power sucking machine that gets hungrier and hungrier. Just take a look at this Wikimedia graph: World Energy Consumption Chart and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s been increasing and will continue to increase. Right now, less than 7% of the world’s power is met by renewables (see this tool). A BP projection says “The share of renewables in the US fuel mix grows to 13% in 2035.

While you keep hearing about renewable energy (solar, wind, etc.) and biofuels (still polluting, by the way), the growth isn’t fast enough to meet the energy demands. So, where is the power going to come from? A significant portion of our energy wants (not needs) will still come from coal, oil, natural gas, etc., often lumped together as fossil fuels. (I think they should be called buried-CO2-releasing fuels but that’s just me.)

So, you still need fossil fuels and all this talk of renewables and smarter technologies are not going to help unless the power consumption levels out. I’ve seen no sign that this is going to happen anytime soon.

This talk of digital this and that makes me weary and circumspect because it is so easy to get swept away by the hype and the utopian promises. If you think about more digital in terms of more energy consumption, it’s not such an attractive proposition anymore.

As is the case with such posts, I have to say that I’m not a Luddite and that I realize that this is being written inside a browser, stored in a data center, and published on a server. Not to mention the broadband, the laptop, and all the accoutrements.

I get the allure of technology and i get that it has improved things. But, ultimately I think that the path that we are going down is not worth it because what it is leading to is the destruction of the natural world. My fear is in knowing that I am in the minuscule minority of people who think like this.

I want to end with a paragraph of Paul Kingsnorth’s essay Dark Ecology (which, if you haven’t read, you must):

There is always change, as a neo-environmentalist would happily tell you; but there are different qualities of change. There is human-scale change, and there is industrial-scale change; there is change led by the needs of complex systems, and change led by the needs of individual humans. There is a manageable rate of evolution, and there is a chaotic, excitable rush toward shiny things perched on the edge of a great ravine, flashing and scrolling like sirens in the gathering dusk.

Maybe we could all pause and consider this “chaotic, excitable rush toward shiny things perched on the edge of a great ravine“.

Ideas are cheap, ownership is hard

A few months ago, in a meeting, in response to something that I’d worked on along with a different team member, someone said, Why don’t we do…? The “do what” does not matter; it was the “we” that I’d like to focus on. The use of “we” in such situations looks like a benign word but it hides a more pernicious agenda of why doesn’t someone do this as long as this someone is not me.

Before you accuse me of reading too much into this one incident, this is something that I’ve noticed time and again, so it’s not just about one incident. Also, I’m pointing this out about people who make suggestions (i.e. give ideas) but do not take the initiative to actually implement any ideas or improve processes, i.e. take ownership of something and execute on the idea.

I think it’s because ideas and suggestions are so easy to throw out there. “We should do x to improve y”, without specifying the we and without further action is what empty vessels do. lots-of-metal-hearts-with-messages-attached-to-a-wall

To give an idea or a suggestion, to follow it up with a well-thought out execution plan, and to execute the plan is hard work. Also, it makes you responsible for implementing the idea and when you actually take responsibility, you see what executing your brilliant (in your mind) idea actually entails.

I have been in meetings where people have tossed out ideas and when you ask them to come back with even a high-level explanation of the how (regarding the execution), they have no clue about how to proceed. Sometimes it is because the ideas themselves are superficial, other times it is a lack of critical thinking and understanding that prevents folks from seeing bottlenecks and issues that could crop up.

I’m not against giving ideas but against the notion that ideas are enough; they’re not. Ask anyone who has created something based on an idea or implemented something based on an idea and you’ll understand how much effort the execution actually takes. While ideas are important, they are only one part of the process–the execution is far more important and far more difficult than the generation of the idea.

So, go ahead and keep generating ideas but take ownership of some and bring the ideas in your head to fruition by doing the hard work of executing them. You will gain a new sense of appreciation for the people who generate ideas and successfully execute them. And, even if you fail, you’ll learn something about how to actually do stuff rather than talk about stuff.

That’s a win-win situation if you ask me.

The best books that I read in 2016

Since this is a time of lists and more lists, I’m adding my list to the lists.

These are the best books that I read in 2016, not the books that were published in 2016. In the order that I remember them now.

  1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (my review): I read it twice and I’ll probably go back to it again.
  2. H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald: About training a hawk (goshawk actually) to deal with the aftermath of her father’s death. Riveting book
  3. The Heretics by Will Storr: I need to review this book at some point but until that point suffice to say that this is a brilliant, thought-provoking, well-researched, fascinating book .
  4. Woodsmoke and Leaf Cups by Madhu Ramnath (my tweet about book): A masterpiece of anthropological reporting, which, sadly, according to the publisher did not do well.
  5. Nickel and Damned by Barbara Ehrenreich: Quite an old book actually buy but still relevant. A reporter goes undercover doing minimum-wage jobs and documents the hardships that she faces.
  6. Technopoly by Neil Postman: The sub-title of the book is “The Surrender of Culture to Technology”. Another one that I must review and another that is just brilliant.
  7. Eating Animals by Jonathan Saffran Foer: If you eat “non vegetarian” food, as we Indian’s call it, this is a book that you should read. Excellent book, thought-provoking, and disturbing to meat eaters everywhere, myself included.
  8. Cod by Mark Kurlansky: You would think the story of a fish being fished would not be that interesting and you would be wrong. Cod is a masterpiece.
  9. Liar’s Club* by Mary Carr: Breathtaking, heartbreaking memoir. Transports you to the world of Carr’s childhood. I could not put this book down.
  10. The Watcher by Charles Maclean: The first (and so far only) fiction book on this list. I bought this book because of a Guardian recommendation and I was not disappointed. The writing was phenomenal, the story and suspense simply gripping. I finished this in a day or so I think.
  11. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson: If you are on social media, this is a must read. If you aren’t, it is still a must read for knowing about the culture of shaming that exists online today.
  12. Essentialism by Greg McKeown: Essentialism is about the “disciplined pursuit of less”. Essential reading for our “I want it all” age.
  13. Give and Take by Adam Grant: Fascinating book about givers and takers.
  14. Things That Can and Cannot be Said by John Cusack, Arundathi Roy et al: Short, but super sweet (my tweet about book)

It’s late and this is all from memory, so I’m stopping now. If I missed something else that I read and found really good, I’ll update the list. Or not. Oh, the suspense.

* – [4-Jun-17] Corrected this based on a feedback via Twitter