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

On the periphery

When I was walking my friend to the car today, a family of four or five people walked past and one man tapped my arm and asked me (in Hindi) if I spoke Hindi. I instinctively said No (in Hindi) and kind of turned away; I heard a woman ask (in Telugu) if I spoke Telugu. Then, another man muttered something to her and they walked away.

I’ve had a variation of this experience several times in Bangalore and every time they leave me deeply unsettled. They’re always families and they seem to be from small towns and I always wonder what their story is. Maybe they came to Bangalore and are lost; maybe they were promised a job and were duped by someone they knew. Could they be running a scam? I don’t really know the answer and though the experiences always leave me conflicted, I’ve never sought to find out about their stories.

I’m always going somewhere when these encounters take place and in some cases stopping would make me late; in other cases though, I’ve had the time and I’ve still walked away. I’ve meant to ask about such people but Google doesn’t seem like the right place to find out. Who do I ask?

I don’t talk to ragpickers either; they’re unkempt, usually have a sack slung over their shoulder and scrounge for trash they can sell; I can’t meet their eyes. I wonder what their story is–where did they come from and how did they end up like this?

Yesterday, while going to the office, our cab was stuck behind a garbage truck and a man was in the back, which was filled with garbage, emptying a can of garbage from a restaurant around the place that he was standing. I’ve seen men shoveling garbage from the side of the road on to trucks that reek from twenty or thirty feet away. Where do these folks come from and what has led them to this line of work?

In the movie The Dark Knight Rises, Selina Kyle, a cat burglar, tells Bruce Wayne, the billionaire, says (emphasis mine):

There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little to the rest of us. [1]

The part that I emphasized in the above quote keeps playing in my mind every now and then, especially when I see people struggling around me. I wonder about what millions of Indians must have felt when we became independent and what their dreams and aspirations must have been. And, I know we’ve obviously had progress and we have made things better for some people but I can’t shake the feeling that overall we’ve failed a great many people.

It is an inescapable fact that for millions of Indians life is a daily struggle and this is not just for the BPL (Below Poverty Line) families. This article asks an interesting question: does exiting extreme poverty really guarantee that the poor can attain a decent life? Later, in the article, this is a striking assertion:

India has already made striking gains against extreme poverty, but the harsh reality is that 680 million of its citizens live with various forms of deprivation.

You can argue about whether it’s 680 million or 250 million  but you cannot argue that millions of people “live with various forms of deprivation”. How do we reconcile this with the lives that we get to lead? We can’t; we’re just lucky that we had opportunities that were even available to us that we could take advantage of; sure, we worked hard but some people don’t get these opportunities no matter how hard they work.

It’s not fair and the odds are stacked against such people. So, when I hear people talking about sacrificing for the good of the nation or in the national interest, it makes me angry because the people saying this are privileged and for them, sacrificing is standing in a line to withdraw cash or worrying about how to pay salaries to domestic help, and so on. I don’t want to wade further into the great cashless debate, so I’ll stop.

When I thought about this post, I wanted to segue into a book that I’m reading, but this went in a different direction after I started writing. I know this might be a depressing post to read but this isn’t about guilt-tripping or about shaming, but about acknowledging. I think we get desensitized in India because most of the time, things around us are too overwhelming.

But, maybe, if we force ourselves to feel every once in a while, by wondering about people’s stories and imagining living their lives, we have a chance of letting the reality of others disturbing the distortion field around us.

Evolution gave us a marvelous tools, the prefrontal cortex, which allows us to run simulations in our head, mirror neurons that fire when we observe the actions or behaviors of others–all this means that we don’t necessarily have to immerse to experience. We can imagine what it might be like and we can listen to the emotions that follow.

And, then, maybe we’ll get to what John Lennon sang in his beautiful song (watch/listen here):

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

[1]: Here’s a link to the movie’s script, which obviously has spoilers.


Eating, only eating, and nothing but the eating

Recently, there was a discussion in the office about which TV news channel would be aired in the cafeteria. Multiple people chimed in about different channels, some even said that they wouldn’t mind not having the TV on so that people could talk to colleagues. The TV-on brigade won out, so we now get to watch politicians and their rhetoric, which does wonders for my blood pressure.

This got me thinking, however, about how eating is now a multi-task activity. People watch TV, talk, read, or watch stuff on the phone, read something, etc. when they are eating. You hardly ever see someone doing nothing else but eating. I get that eating is a social activity and it is nice to eat with friends and family and I think that this is one thing that is okay to do because you can’t talk with your mouth full; not most people anyway.

But, the next time you’re eating alone, just watch what you do when you are eating.I’ll bet you do something other than eating most of the time. I do this pretty much all the time when I eat alone. The problem with eating and doing something else is that the ‘something else’ takes you away from the act of eating. This really is a shame because eating is one of life’s great pleasures, something that we do at least once a day, and that a lot of us do thrice a day.

When I was a child, I remember people telling me that Gandhiji used to say that we should chew our food 32 times or some number like that. I remember trying it and finding that it was difficult and giving up and then forgetting about it. I recently read something about chewing your food properly and started concentrating on chewing my food and realized that for solid food, you end up chewing anywhere between 20 to 30 times (or more) if you  chew your food to a pulp like you’re supposed to.The thing is that chewing your food like this actually makes the food taste better. This is best illustrated with something that’s not cooked, like a vegetable (cucumber, carrot, tomato), or a fruit (orange or sweet lime, grapes, watermelon, pretty much every fruit).

Since it’s orange season, let’s talk about this wonderful fruit. Take an orange, peel off the skin, take a wedge out, take out the white “hairs”, optionally take the seed out, and pop the wedge in your mouth. Close your eyes and concentrate on the chewing. The first time the juice squirts into your mouth and hits your tongue and the insides of both cheeks, you get that mixture of tartness and sweetness and an explosion of freshness that is delightful. [1] This continues but diminishes, as per law of diminishing marginal returns [2], as you chew the wedge into a pulp.

Don’t take my word for this; try it with any fruit or vegetable and you’ll really appreciate the different tastes and textures that you can sense in your mouth as you chew. And, the food tastes appreciably better. After you’ve done this with uncooked food, try it with cooked food. You’ll notice a similar effect.There’s nothing earth shattering or new in what I’m suggesting. It’s what we are supposed to do when we eat because it aids digestion–our salivary glands kick off the whole digestion extravaganza. You might have also heard about eating like this in articles on mindfulness or mindful eating.

We can eat mindlessly or mindfully but I think most of us do a lot more of the former than the latter. I also think that it’s not necessary to be alone to eat mindfully; we can do it even if we are not alone because it’ll also help us listen more than we talk, which is not necessarily a bad thing. You don’t even have to try this for a full meal; try it when you’re eating part of your meal or a small snack and see how different the experience of eating is, how much better food tastes.

There are many benefits to eating in this way; you’ll probably eat less because you’ll eat slower, you’ll enjoy your food more because it will taste better, you’ll calm down because if you concentrate on chewing and tasting your food, your mind will stop behaving like a crazy monkey [3].

So, just try it and if you don’t like it, you can always go back to eating mindlessly.

This blog post was written without eating and in a mostly mindful fashion. The result is that I’m hungry. So, if you’ll excuse me, I can hear an orange whispering my name softly.

[1]: My mouth is watering as I write this.

[2]: Gratuitous economics mention in this age of demonetisation.

[3]: To be fair, this might just be me.