On speaking truth to power

A few days ago, our Prime Minister, who, in the past has called the media “baazaru”, was chosen to give out the Ramnath Goenka awards for excellence in journalism. This is a PM who refuses to have press conferences, who gives creampuff interviews to friendly journalists, but I’m going off track here.

Raj Kamal Jha, the editor of the Indian Express, in his vote of thanks to the PM, gave a 5-minute speech that was hailed as courageous and exemplary. I had a Twitter exchange with Mitali Saran, someone who regularly speaks truth to power in her column, about this in which she said that the courage that Jha exhibited should be the baseline in journalism.

After Donald Trump won the US presidential election, some of the pieces written by journalists, columnists, writers in the US were great examples of speaking truth to power. Here’s the first paragraph of David Remnick’s piece in the New Yorker:

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President—a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit—and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.

I can’t recall reading anything as withering by someone in India about anyone so powerful. The US has a great commitment to freedom of speech but it still takes courage to write something along these lines. So, I was thinking about what Mitali said about the courage being a baseline for journalism and wondering why it is not also a baseline for citizens in democracies.

Why should we not expect (us) citizens to speak the truth to power in their own way? Why should it fall only to the activists and the journalists to tell the truth, especially given how easy it is for anyone to publish what they write or create? One reason might be the intimidation tactics used, for example, where a post on Facebook might get you arrested. I get that the fear of intimidation is real and you wonder whether speaking up is worth it, but the problem in such a situation is that it serves to embolden the powerful. And, unless more people refuse to be intimidated and cowed down, how is this situation going to change?

Also, as long as you don’t indulge in hate/racist/misogynist/etc. speech, there should not be be a fear of speaking your mind or the truth to power whatever that power might be. A democracy will be more vibrant when citizens speak truth to power. India’s current laws are not super-friendly to free speech–at least free speech the way it is in the US–but we are a democracy and we do have some freedom of speech.

If you have a “this is not my problem” mindset, I’ll just share what Garry Kasparov, yes that Kasparov, said in a tweet:

Famous last words throughout history. People saying “It’s not my problem!” until it is a bigger one. Small battles now or big ones later.

With Brexit and the US election, the world seems to be moving towards a situation where the discourse is being dominated by the far right. The discourse tends to be one of xenophobia, of faux-nationalism, of racism, and other such things that should’ve been left behind a long time ago. But, these things are making a comeback, and in a tangible way. Just read the timeline of Shaun King to get an idea of the number of racist incidents in the US just days after the US election.

The threats are real. The question is whether you are going to speak up when you can or wait until maybe you won’t be allowed to or when it’s too late.

I think it’s time.

[1]: Ms. Saran seems a bit too formal

Your mindset for different situations

A few months ago, I read a fascinating book called Mindset by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. The gist of the book is that people have two mindsets: a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that any talent is something that’s innate or something that they have or don’t. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe that talent is not innate but something that can be learned.

It seems simple enough but if you think about it, the implications are staggering. As Dweck mentions in her book, people with fixed mindsets will tend not to attempt stuff because of the fear of failure or or making mistakes or simply because they can’t. People with growth mindsets on the other hand look at anything as a learning opportunity and don’t worry about making mistakes or about failure but frame this as part of the learning process. [1]

So, if you have a fixed mindset about something, you may believe that you can’t draw (no talent for drawing), can’t sing (can’t carry a tune), can’t speak in public, can’t dance (two left feet), and so on. The problem is that none of the examples that I gave are innate. I used to think that I couldn’t draw until I *really* wanted to and started learning how to and I realized that it is a skill that can be learned. Singing too is something that you can learn, the same goes for public speaking (see Toastmasters), and so on.

If you think about this though, it is strange that we have fixed mindsets because if there’s one thing our brain is terrific at doing it is learning new things. If we didn’t have that capability, we would never have rolled, crawled, sat up, stood up, walked, run, learned to grasp things, talk, and so on. If you notice how a baby or a child learns new things, you’ll see how they experiment without realizing that they are experimenting.

So, where does this experimental behavior go and why do people start having fixed mindsets? Dweck believes that it’s because of the tendency for parents and teachers to praise only achievements or outcomes and not the effort that leads to the outcome. If you do the former, what happens is that children start (unconsciously) focusing only on the outcome and will try to avoid making mistakes and even stop attempting difficult things because they “fail” at them.

This is not just limited to children; adults too have fixed mindsets about intelligence, creativity, and so many things. I point out intelligence and creativity because those are the things you hear so much–he’s so smart, she’s so creative–, which sub-consciously is “I’m not that smart” or “I can’t be creative” or something equivalent.

Note that having a growth mindset is not about saying that you can be the best at anything if you try but about opening yourself up to the possibility of trying. If you read this and started feeling that you have a fixed mindset about some things, that’s normal–we can have growth mindsets about certain things and fixed mindsets about other things. What you have to realize though is that you can change your mindset and approach things with a different mindset.

So, what are the fixed mindset areas in your life? Think about them and think about why they elicit that mindset in your mind. Maybe it’s because of something you were told as a kid (or an adult) or because you’ve developed a fear of making mistakes and/or failure. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter; what matters is that you can change that mindset and break that mental block that keeps you from even trying or learning or getting better.

To paraphrase a popular quote, It is better to have tried and made mistakes than to have never tried at all.

If you want to learn more (hey “growth mindset”), here are some interesting articles about mindsets:

  1. Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives
  2. What Having a Growth Mindset Actually Means (article by Carol Dweck)
  3. The Stanford professor who pioneered praising kids for effort says we’ve totally missed the point

[1] – Obviously, this is a brief summary of the book and the argument is much more nuanced and the experiments and research are fascinating to read. But, this is not meant to be a book review, so I’m keeping this short. If you liked this post, consider reading the book–it really is worth it.

On scheduling stuff to do

I’m a productivity junkie in the sense that I’ve been reading articles about productivity and productivity “hacks” for a long time. At one point, I was even reading more articles about productivity than doing  anything productive, but it’s become “the period that must not be named” part of my life. I’m kidding of course.

The reason that I’m writing about this is because I got myself in a bit of a pickle with posting twice to the blog last month. Somehow, I ended up doing the second post just about in time (1 day left). This time too, I thought I’d get a head start and we’re just over halfway through October and this is my first post.

I think that this is because the two posts per month “guideline” is fluid and at the beginning of the month it doesn’t look all that bad and then suddenly I’m scrambling [1]. The reason is that I don’t schedule a time to do the blog posts. I’ve told myself that I’ll do them over the weekend, because I can’t make time during the week but I don’t tell myself that I’m going to do it this weekend–you see, the weekend’s fluid too.

Contrast this with two tax-related things that I had to do this Saturday, which I scheduled and wrote down on Friday and did on Saturday. I’ve found this true with tasks at work as well; the moment I schedule something and tell myself that I’m going to get something done by the next morning or whatever, I tend to get things done. When I don’t, I end up feeling like I’ve been doing a lot of tasks but not the important stuff.

Here’s the big idea: Scheduling tasks, i.e. giving them a concrete date and/or time, makes you more likely to do them. This is not a new idea or even my idea; people have been saying this for quite a while now [2] but it’s so simple in its elegance and effectiveness that maybe it seems too simple. Also, my brain, being the monkey brain–no disrespect to monkeys–resists scheduling because there is an impending deadline and a sense of commitment that is now attached to a task.

Now, just to be clear, I’m not saying that you have to schedule everything–that would be extreme and like anything taken to its extremes would likely be counter-productive. What I am saying is that it makes sense to schedule your important tasks because if you don’t, other urgent, and possibly unimportant, tasks will take away your time your attention.

Just to reiterate that this is not new, it seems pretty obvious, and you probably already know this, but, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the things we know because we forget them. So, try it out, schedule an important task or two and see if that helps you get the task done.

PS: If you’re interested, there are a bunch of articles around scheduling that you can read. Here are two from HBR:

When to Schedule Your Most Important Work

How to Schedule Time for Meaningful Work

[1]: Yes, I know it’s two posts a month and maybe I’m being a tad dramatic

[2]: I’d cite research on this but I’m too lazy to do so and I didn’t really schedule research time for this blog post.

Polar bears, lions, endings

A little while earlier, I was reading the newspaper and saw a photo of a polar bear that had been tranquilized. My first instinct when I saw the polar bear lying on the ice was that the bear was dead but I was relieved to know that it was not.

However, I read a little bit of the accompanying article and in that it said that in Norway, because more people are visiting and because of the thinning ice, more people are coming into “contact” with polar bears and polar bears are being killed. I couldn’t read more. Our actions are causing the polar bears’ habitat to shrink and we’re killing them because they “threaten” us. I couldn’t read further.

Then, I read another piece about how lions bred in captivity are sometimes being used for trophy hunting.

A new report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) says, in the decade between 2004 and 2014, 1.7 million animals were killed for their ‘trophy’. At least 2,00,000 of them were threatened species such as elephants, rhinos or lions. IFAW found that the US was the biggest importer of stuffed animal heads, while South Africa was the biggest exporter — and lions were by far the most traded.

I get the whole hunting for meat thing, but what is trophy hunting if not entertainment or thrill-seeking? How do we reconcile killing defenseless animals just for a photograph or for their heads? And, it’s not just land-based animals; trophy fishing is a “sport”.

Are we so bored out of our wits that killing is now something to be done for entertainment? How much more extreme does it have to get before we say enough? I think it won’t ever be enough because we’re a species that wants to dominate at all costs. All species do but we have the ability to reason but we use that reasoning to rationalize the choices we make. Also, if we can, throughout our history, commit genocide at fairly regular intervals, why would we discriminate against animals?

Maybe I’m wrong and it’s not entertainment; maybe it is power and the pursuit and application of it that we are after. Perverse power but power nonetheless. I’m simplifying a complex argument; there are other reasons I’m sure, but maybe the impotent anger and sadness that I feel blind me to other reasons.

Paul Kingsnorth wrote these great lines in one of his essays.

The nature of this Earth is change. The nature of this Earth is endings. The nature of this earth is extinction.

The one that sticks in my mind every time I think about what we’ve done to the natural world is, “The nature of this Earth is endings.”

And, we are in one–except this one is one that we created.

When will it be enough?

From time to time, my broadband provider calls me letting me know that I can double my broadband speed and increase my usage quota for a minor increase in my bill; I think less than 10% per month. It seems like a good deal but I always decline because I’m happy with my broadband speed. One customer care representative was actually baffled that I did not want an increase in speed and quota–why not?

Because when I ask myself, “Why?” I’m unable to give a good answer. I don’t watch many videos or stream music or movies, so I don’t really need a faster speed. Plus, except for one time when I downloaded music (free and legally), I have never used up my quota–I rarely use up half of it.

In case you think I’m nuts, you haven’t heard the full story. My cable guy told me a few months ago that they were offering HD channels and I said I didn’t want HD. Till recently, I didn’t even have a TV that was HD-compatible, so having a non-CRT TV itself was a big step. I wouldn’t have changed my TV if the old one hadn’t stopped working but that’s another story.

The cable guy said something like, “It’s your wish, sir”, but I could hear the disapproval and bafflement in his voice. Again, it’s not like I can’t afford it–I don’t really see the need for it. I think it would actually be better not to have a TV itself but this is not an opinion that the rest of my family shares.

Now, I am not a Luddite: I am typing this on a really nice laptop, using one of the world’s most popular blogging tools piggybacking of course on my fast broadband connection. (I’ll have to get back to you on whether the usage of ‘blogging’ is now allowed on the Internetworks.)

The problem for me is that I’m never able to convincingly answer myself on why I need that “upgrade”. But the larger question in my mind is: When will this end? At what point are we going to say, “this resolution, this speed, this technology–is enough?”

The problem is also with the way that our brain works; the new thing that was exceedingly superior a few months or year ago is now the new normal in your brain. So, you get used to the new thing and it’s not new anymore.

Of course, it doesn’t help that what was exceedingly superior a few months ago is now second best or, God forbid, third best. And, the ad people are great at telling you how much better your life is going to be or how much you’re missing out (tapping into our FoMO) if you don’t have the latest and the greatest.

Plus, the “technology” is so seductive–if, for example, you’ve held a recent Apple product in your hand and felt its lightness, caressed the metal–you know what I’m talking about. The sharpness of the TV picture, the speed of Internet connectivity, the new features of the latest phone–some of this stuff is great, there is no disputing that. But, how much greater than what was there before? And, more importantly, how much greatness before we say, “that’s great enough”?

Or good enough? Or, simply, enough?

I’ve focused only on technology in this piece but you can ask this about anything in your life because this applies to everything. What I’m saying is nothing new but it’s good to remember every once in a while.

So, ask yourself; then, slow down or, even better, stop, and listen.


When Breath Becomes Air

Every once in a while, not too often, you come across a book that blows you away. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is one such book.

I first heard of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon, when I read his article How long have I got left? I then read another piece Before I Go and I was fascinated by his story and his powerful writing. I was sad when I heard about his death and when his book came out earlier this year, I bought it fairly quickly.

I think I started the book sometime in the afternoon and could not put it down until I finished it later that night. The story was heartbreaking, honest, deeply moving, and yet, in a strange way, uplifting.

What blew me away was the quality of the writing–it is terrific and in some places, it sings like poetry (in prose) on the page. It is incredible that someone who trained to be a neurosurgeon could also write in such an accomplished way because doing one of those things is hard enough, being able to do both is amazing.

When I finished reading the book and thought about it later, I was sad because there is no great body of work of Paul Kalanithi’s that we can read–there are only a couple of articles and this book. But, if you had to write a book about your life while dying of cancer, what a stunning book to write.

The quality of the book is enhanced by the foreword, written by Dr. Abraham Verghese, author of the beautiful book ‘The Tennis Partner’, and the epilogue, written by Paul’s wife, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, who, Paul asked to “shepherd the manuscript of his book to publication.” Lucy Kalanithi’s essay in the NY Times is also a must-read.

If you have not yet read When Breath Becomes Air, you are really missing something. It’s the best book that I’ve read this year and considering that I’ve been lucky to read some terrific ones, that’s really saying something.

Seriously. Go read it; you’ll be glad that you did.

On sharpening knives and scissors

It turns out that I knew diddly squat about sharpening knives. And, even less about sharpening scissors.

My Dad gave me a knife sharpening stone called a whetstone a few years ago and I used it without knowing how to use it. I tried my own methods but the knives never really got sharp. Then, I found out about this thing called the Internet (this is a few months ago)  and looked for videos about how to do this.

It turns out that there are different types of stones that you can use and how you use them depends on the type of stone. The stone that I have is a waterstone, which means that you actually have to soak the thing in water before you use it. Then, there’s a specific way to actually sharpen the knife on the stone.

The best video that I found on this subject is Howtocast’s How to use a sharpening stone but after you watch it, you have to actually practice doing this before you actually learn. The first time I sharpened a knife properly–and it took a few tries–it was pure joy because it was that sudden moment of clarity that comes when you actually learn something and internalize what you learn.

The interesting part about this is that I now actually enjoy sharpening knives–it takes skill, it takes time (soak stone for 20 minutes), it’s not easy, and you have to be careful dealing as you are with objects that can actually maim. I think the family finds it mildly amusing and doesn’t really get it but because I have sharp knives they don’t say anything. Either that, or they’re polite.

So, why stop at knives? How about that other sharp instruments that you find around: scissors?

A scissor by any other name is not a knife

Turns out, sharpening scissors is slightly different from sharpening knives and I learned this after I had taken my best scissors, which could cut cloth, and proceeded to dull it down to where it wouldn’t cut paper. I was close to distraught because the scissors were a gift and I thought I’d ruined them.

So, I went to the Internet and asked the wise old Google for answers. After reading and watching a few articles and videos, I came upon a gem. Now, before I give you the link, this is a 17 minute video, so given that I have an attention span of the gerbil (only on the Internet), this was like asking me to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. 17 minutes on the Internet? Why, I have better things to do like check my notifications on Twitter.

The person in the video is Paul Sellers and he’s got a calm, unhurried voice, and he knows how to sharpen scissors. So, I actually watched the video and it made sense. Then, I realized that I didn’t have a file, so I went ahead and bought two. And, I tried his method. Remember the scissors that I actually screwed up; I’m pleased to report that they now work beautifully. It took hard work (trying different methods before I settled on Mr. Sellers’) and sweat but the sweet sound of that the two blades when I made a cutting motion was worth it.

So, here’s the link to the video: Scissor Sharpening – with Paul Sellers and I hope you’ll watch it.

I tried the method on another pair that was bad from the start and I’ve been able to get it to a point where it’s pretty good–it actually cuts. There’s still work to be done but I’m pleased. There are no scissors in my house now that are not sharp; I even resurrected another scissors that was dead and about to be thrown away.

The thing is that sharpening knives and scissors is they are the get-your-hands-dirty kinds of work and you’d think that doing this wouldn’t be fun but you’d be wrong. I’ve even gushed about this to my family and they are distinctly not impressed.

I’ve been thinking about why I enjoy this and I realize that it’s because these are skills that take time to learn and need practice and patience. (Yes, I realize that I’m not learning the violin.)

The fact that there is a degree of difficulty is what makes doing this fun. And, there’s something about working with your hands that is fulfilling in a way that I can’t explain–you have to do it to really get it. And, because you’re dealing with objects that can cause you physical pain, you really have to be in the moment, paying attention, concentrating. Sounds like a lot like flow doesn’t it?

Don’t take my word for it, go and try it. But, be careful though–remember that sticks and stones can break your bones, but knives and scissors can cut, sometimes to the bone.

Flogging a dead horse

So, I’m thinking that if I have the time to spend on Twitter–mostly constructive–then I can make the time to write on here again.

I’m (gulp!) committing publicly to two posts a month because one feels like I’m weaseling out and two feels like a hundred percent better.

Why commit? Because I’ve tried to jump start this blog before and without putting too fine a point on it, I didn’t follow through.

So, wish me luck. And, if I don’t post two* more times this month, feel free to remind me. No, really.

(Takes deep breath and hits publish)

* – To show that I’m not weaseling out, this post is not counted because it’s meta.

Who is Paul Kingsnorth and why you really should hear what he has to say

If you’ve been following me on Twitter (see feed on the sidebar), you may have already seen these articles that I am linking to in this post. I came across Paul Kingsnorth via an article in Grist. The article (or blog post) was intriguingly titled ‘I withdraw’: A talk with climate defeatist Paul Kingsnorth. The post is basically a discussion between him and another writer Wes Stephenson.

The ideas that Kingsnorth mentioned in the article were interesting enough that I wanted to read more. So, I read Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, an essay that Kingsnorth wrote and that was published in Orion magazine, and the stuff he wrote in the essay resonated with me.  Here’s an excerpt:

A two-month break from my country, my upbringing, my cultural assumptions, a two-month immersion in something far more raw and unmediated, has left me open to seeing this place as it really is. I see the atomization and the inward focus and the faces of the people in a hurry inside their cars. I see the streetlights and the asphalt as I had not quite seen them before. What I see most of all are the adverts.

For the first time, I realize the extent and the scope and the impacts of the billboards, the posters, the TV and radio ads. Everywhere an image, a phrase, a demand, or a recommendation is screaming for my attention, trying to sell me something, tell me who to be, what to desire and to need. And this is before the internet; before Apples and BlackBerries became indispensable to people who wouldn’t know where to pick the real thing; before the deep, accelerating immersion of people in their technologies, even outdoors, even in the sunshine. Compared to where I have been, this world is so tamed, so mediated and commoditized, that something within it seems to have broken off and been lost beneath the slabs. No one has noticed this, or says so if they have. Something is missing: I can almost see the gap where it used to be. But it is not remarked upon. Nobody says a thing.

After reading the essay, I felt despair. Despair, because what Kingsnorth wrote about was something that I had felt sometimes, fleetingly, but that I’d not paid attention to; reading about it suddenly made things explicit. The best way to explain it is that it’s like the lens with which I was viewing the world had changed and I could not see things the old way anymore. A burst of clarity. (I will write more about this later; for now, let’s keep the focus on Kingsnorth.)

I decided to read more about Paul and found out that he co-founded something called The Dark Mountain Project, which you can read about via that link. Here’s another excerpt:

The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.

I also started following him on Twitter (@paulkingsnorth) and then read another one of his essays (published again in Orion). Dark Ecology is a powerful and brave essay about “searching for truth in a post-green world”. Here’s an excerpt:

I’VE RECENTLY BEEN reading the collected writings of Theodore Kaczynski. I’m worried that it may change my life. Some books do that, from time to time, and this is beginning to shape up as one of them.

It’s not that Kaczynski, who is a fierce, uncompromising critic of the techno-industrial system, is saying anything I haven’t heard before. I’ve heard it all before, many times. By his own admission, his arguments are not new. But the clarity with which he makes them, and his refusal to obfuscate, are refreshing. I seem to be at a point in my life where I am open to hearing this again. I don’t know quite why.

You may read Kingsnorth’s essays and feel that he’s being defeatist or that he’s a pessimist. For me though, what he’s doing nothing short of heroic. It takes an incredible amount of courage to write what he’s written, and to, in his words, “withdraw”. I’m not sure that I have that kind of courage; if I do, I am still finding it.

So, do me a favour and please do read these two essays that I’ve linked to. They’re long but they are worth the effort. So, go on now; I’ll be here when you get back.

Bangalore’s summers get a new dimension

I’ve been in Bangalore for more than a decade and yet I can’t remember a Bangalore summer like this. The ceiling fan chops hot air on to you, the mattress seems to radiate heat and yet the temperature is not in the mid-40s. I read an article in Deccan Herald a few weeks ago where one of the weather folks was explaining that the pollution in the city is not allowing the heat to escape thus making Bangalore much hotter than the temperature would suggest.

So far, it has been a miserable summer, and the only respite has been some spells of rain here and there. Even when that happens, the cooling doesn’t seem to last very long–it’s back to hot weather the next day.

Rapid urbanization, the explosion in cars and vehicles, the unnecessary usage of A/C units–I think all of these have been a major factor in changing Bangalore’s climate. And, I fear that this is going to get worse not better because I don’t see people changing lifestyles to reduce the amount of power they consume, to reduce vehicle usage, and so on. Heck, it’s the opposite; I personally know 2 people who have bought A/C units in the last two weeks. Think of it as more CO2 being pumped into that “great big sewer in the sky” (as Franke James would probably say) from the coal we’re burning to get our electricity.

We need to solve this problem but I am afraid we’re not going to start making changes until it’s too late. Now, if you’ll excuse me I will go and dunk my head in a bucket of water.