Sunday, April 29, 2012

Internet as fast food for the brain

Internet is fast food for the brain.

Content on the Internet is easily available, quickly consumed, providing an instant high, forgotten after a few minutes, but leaving you hooked and hungry after the effect has worn off.

I came across this epiphany of sorts today morning.  During my morning cup of tea, I was reading the latest Sunday column by SA Aiyar on India.  It was quite pessimistic, in effect asking the government to introduce reforms by stealth.  With the S&P downgrade of India's economic outlook, and a real risk of the rupee crashing, my thoughts wandered to investing in gold and whether it is a good hedge against India.

That's a topic for another post.

Immediately, as I thought of the gold market in India with its frauds, low acceptance of banks' gold offerings, the jewelery-shop scams, the VAT on gold, and so on, I became painfully conscious of my ignorance as a relative outsider.  I wondered if I could find an FAQ on buying gold in India, somewhere on the net.

Before I could proceed on the search, however, I reflected on what I was doing: I was searching for distilled wisdom, quick solutions, instead of spending years and learning the nuances of this particular domain.  In effect, I was aiming to be an expert without wanting to spend the effort.

As I reflected more widely on this, I realized that that's what FAQs do: They make a neophyte feel like an experienced fellow with years of experience, one who is aware of the common issues and gotchas.

They lead to a "cognitive high" without the "cognitive roughage".  They give you a fast effect (akin to the insulin high), without the cooking or digestive effort.

As I reflected even more, I realized that the cycle of attention deficit leading to quick punch-lines and shorter/easy-to-digest articles/videos leading to even shorter attention spans is a vicious cycle which is going to be extremely hard to break.  Unless you realize this malady in yourself and in the environment.

A photo on FB is a quick social attention winner, an aphorism the next best, a small article/anecdote is next, and a "ten best list" etc. is still readable.  But share a long, carefully argued article and you might as well have no audience at all: who has the time and the mental space?

In recent years, there is an increased occurrence of the "tl;dr" phenomenon.  For the uninitiated, the phrase means "too long; didn't read".  In amateur writing or forum posts, when the writer is aware that a long article is going to bore/stress the reader and compete with other juicy stuff competing for the reader's attention, the writer provides a very short summary at the end of the post: The tl;dr.  In effect, it indicates: "I understand you are pressed for time, but I want your attention too.  Maybe your interest will be aroused after you read the summary."

Familiarity with a subject that is gained after months or years of study is quite different from the one gained after reading a list of FAQs.  Which kind of familiarity is the Internet encouraging?

After going through a few sites on the Internet, am I going to be a knowledgeable gold investor, or one who merely THINKS he is a knowledgeable gold investor?  Sure, maybe I will avoid a few common pitfalls, and that may make me feel smart, but that is not the same as being intimately familiar with this field.

I've heard that doctors are complaining about their patients having an excess of superficial, or just wrong, information from the Internet after they try to find out more about their "symptoms".  Let's leave aside the diagnosis.  The fact is, in most cases people are wrong even about the symptoms.  They are unable to distinguish between an abdominal pain and a pain in their appendix, between heartburn and a heart attack.

A long, carefully written article, or a long educational video (TED lectures generally limit themselves to 18 minutes) are going to lose in the battle for attention.  Newspapers, which have an online presence, are dumbing down their content to attract more Internet readers.

One of the main features of the Internet, compared to traditional media, is "choice" and "availability".  If you got a newspaper at home and that was your only world-news input for 24 hours, you might find yourself browsing through the editorial page as well.  But Internet, like cable TV, offers you instant choices through-out the day.  Why will someone ever switch to a one-hour lecture on TV, or to a three-thousand-word essay on the Internet?  Even the availability of Internet at home means there is immediately a RELATIVELY lower incentive to read a long novel or an editorial essay.  Why not just log on to Facebook and see what latest gossip is going on?  For most people, it requires a great deal of will-power and focus to do otherwise.

Even if you're interested in a topic, I'm saying, Internet works against your gaining an in-depth knowledge about it.

The very syntax of web pages, the central feature of HTML, the language of the internet, prevents an in-depth study.

The one difference, and I think one of the most important, between Britannica and Wikipedia is that while reading the latter, you are constantly urged (via hyper-links) to click and read something else.  Holy hell it is distracting!  I think it might be useful to read Wikipedia with all hyperlinks converted to plain-text, but then again, maybe not.  Wikipedia wants its articles to be narrowly focused and not too long.

Wikipedia articles, say about Democracy,  ask you to read another article (in this case, Criticisms of Democracy), if you are interested about a nuance, whereas Britannica would probably include the other article within the main one.

Too much choice is always going to lead to people choosing the pleasant over the insightful.  A veiled distraction is always going to attract a click, compared to a long article for which the pay-off is still far off.

The brain will get fat with all this fast-food like content, and like an overweight body, unable to hike or trek to a meaningful discussion, but only wanting more of the same.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Modest Proposal

There is an epidemic of lifestyle diseases and obesity in the Indian middle class.  Middle class folks, both men and women, complain that there is very little requirement of physical activity in their lives.  Nobody would argue that this complaint is frivolous or imaginary.

There is also a growing awareness of human rights and of the rights of the disenfranchised.  The daily wagers, the bonded laborers, the child workers, and so on, arouse a lot of sympathy and pity in the hearts of the privileged lot.  I have no reason to doubt the genuineness of their feeling.

Lastly, people emphasize that they want to indulge in physical activity, but gyms are inconvenient (traffic, gym memberships being costly, and so on), there are no public spaces in big cities in India to jog or exercise in the open, and therefore exercising is logistically tough.

I have a modest, simple, easy-to-implement proposal which can solve, to at least some extent, all three of these problems.  The proposal's simplicity, however, should not lull or delude you into thinking that it will be found acceptable or agreeable.  The reasons for rejecting this proposal can lead to many an interesting coffee-table conversation.

The proposal is simply this:

Give a weekly, or the weekend, off to your household maid or full-time house-servant.  And having given them their holiday(s), proceed to do the household work yourself.

I am assuming that you value the respite from going to office at the end of the week.  There is no reason to withhold this very essential of reliefs from your maid or your servant.

Household work includes cleaning the floors and the kitchen, and doing the cooking, laundry and ironing.  Done properly, a moderate-sized house should occupy the better part of a couple of hours of your weekend mornings, on both Saturdays and Sundays.

This work will not only lead to physical exercise, but will lead to many other benefits.  You will finally clean the nooks and crannies that your maid has been ignoring, you will wash the clothes properly (cuffs and collars getting special attention), and you will finally put to use those cookery books that had been gathering dust.  Also, you won't need to spend money on those expensive good-looking breathable exercise clothes.

If both the husband and wife are employed, both should collaborate in the housework, dividing the responsibilities so that there is minimal possibility of coming across each other in what is sure to be an irritated bunch of mornings.  If only one of the spouses is employed, or if you are single, then it is a no-brainer as to who should be sipping coffee reading the paper and who should be sweating it out.  But I have compassion for the employed as well.  Why should his or her body not get this most valuable of opportunities for physical exercise?  I suggest that he or she should volunteer to clean the public spaces around his/her house.  The civic sense this is sure to inspire will be invaluable.

Moreover, if you are married and only one of you is gainfully employed, dispensing with the maid altogether may be an excellent decision.

(The title of this essay is inspired by its namesake by Jonathan Swift.  Also relevant is an excellent illustration of the value of housework from a rather unknown film, Carnal Knowledge.  The film comes highly recommended.).

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Caste Bias in Bollywood

The main male protagonists in Bollywood films are almost always Brahmins, warrior Rajputs, upper castes, well-known business house castes, or those from ruling/landowning classes. Never Baniyas or Shudras.

No prizes for guessing that the mainstream view is that a hero in a formula Bollywood film has to be from the upper castes. Otherwise the girls won't swoon over him and the boys won't try to emulate him. It is the same story as is common in Mills and Boon series (aka emotional porn) where a rich, alpha, dominant badboy has pedigree, genes, old money, and has won the battle of seduction without lifting a finger.

A sampling:

Salman Khan

Bodyguard: Lovely B. Singh
Dabangg: Chulbul Pandey
Ready: Prem R. Kapoor
Veer: Veer Pratap Singh
London Dreams: Manjeet 'Mannu' Khosla
Main Aurr Mrs Khanna: Samir Khanna
Chori Chori Chupke Chupke: Raj Malhotra
Kahin Pyaar Na Ho Jaaye: Prem Kapoor
Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya: Suraj Khanna

Amitabh Bachhan

Aarakshan: Prabhakar Anand
Kandahar: Lokanatha Sharma
Teen Patti: Professor Venkat Subramaniam
The Last Lear: Harish 'Harry' Mishra
Baabul: Balraj Kapoor
Ganga: Thakur Vijay Singh
Waqt: Ishwarchand Thakur
Deewar: Maj. Ranvir Kaul
Khakee: DCP Anant Kumar Shrivastav

Aamir Khan

Talaash: Surjan Singh Sekhawat
Ghajini: Sanjay 'Sanju' Singhania
Dil Chahta Hai: Akash Malhotra
Sarfarosh: Ajay Singh Rathod
Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke: Rahul Malhotra
Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar: Sanjaylal Sharma
Parampara: Ranvir Prithvi Singh
Daulat Ki Jung: Rajesh Chaudhry

Akshay Kumar

Chalo Dilli: Lt. Col. Vikram Singh Rana
Action Replayy: Kishen Chopra
Blue: Aarav Malhotra
Kambakkht Ishq: Viraj Shergill
Bhool Bhulaiyaa: Dr. Aditya Shrivastav
Heyy Babyy: Arush Mehra

Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Cosmo chick and the Village woman

(Adapted from that apocryphal tale of a corporate honcho's conversation with a fisherman napping in his hammock)

So the cosmo chick was on a guided weekend tour of the rustic hinterlands. Presently, as their group was roaming around in a village, she came across a woman taking care of her home and cooking a meal.

Disgusted, the chick started querying the village woman.

Chick: "What a life! Why don't you do something else?"
Woman: "Like what, dear visitor from the city?"

"Like get some expensive education!"
"I AM educated, dear lady..."

"No, no. A professional degree. Like a degree in corporate law or an MBA in HR."
"And then what?"

"Then you will be able to get a job in an MNC, and spend ten hours everyday in a cubicle!"
"And then what?"

"Then you will be able to afford all the things and will be able to go to spas and travel to Morocco!"
"I have a lot of useful things and I take a pilgrimage once in a while. What things are you referring to?"

"Look at my manicured nails, my Gucci handbag, my D&G watch, and my Revlon mascara!"
"Aha. And what are these things useful for?"

"Well, look at me, I am glamorous. Men desire me and women envy me!"
"And what does that get you?"

"Stupid! Now I feel empowered and confident. I am confident, more than ever before, of attracting a good man who will want to marry and take care of me!"
"Well, that could happen, theoretically. But what after that?"

"Then I can finally bask in the warmth of a long term relationship, have a few children of my own (if I can, in my late 30s), have a place which I can call home, and be happy forever after."

"Well, I didn't wait till my late 30s. I have all that now."

Monday, April 02, 2012

On Corruption, part IV

Part I, Part II and Part III.

If public services, governance and statutory institutions are failing, is it advisable for NGOs and individuals to assume the responsibility? If a river is getting polluted, is it good for a charitable trust to address that pollution? Should concerned citizens start cleaning their streets littered with garbage, and in the absence of sewerage, dig their own septic tanks?

I regard these as short-term measures, which contain within themselves a grave possibility of leading to letting those responsible off the hook. What is the pollution control board doing? Where are the sanitary workers? Where is town planning?

It is far more useful, though requiring far more tenacity and paperwork, to address a lapse in governance through a process of grievance redressal. Admitted, this process is sometimes horribly broken and one doesn't know who to approach, who to write to, how to pursue one's application, and so on. But one must understand that the process of grievance redressal cannot be much better than the state of affairs which lead to the grievance. But the process exists, and there are ways to escalate an un-redressed grievance.

It is a great favor to others if someone can document the grievance-redressal mechanism for a particular facet of public infrastructure or governance. How to write a complaint, whom to address it to, how to request for an Action-Taken-Report, how to ask for a time-bound-action via RTI, how to escalate to higher officials, how to use various kinds of media (print, online) to publicize the issue, etc.

When it comes to one's own home, it is usually much easier to just solve the issue for oneself and to hell with the world and who wants to spend time approaching the authorities. Almost universally, every urban home in India has its power generation/backup system, water storage/purification system, and uses various kinds of insect and mosquito repellents.

Unfortunately, there is a very strong reason why citizens solve the problems on their own without involving the authorities. It is a simple matter of economics. An average citizen or charitable organization cannot bear the cost (time, money, effort, stress, the cost of living with a bad state of affairs) of waiting for the authorities to act. While one is busy pleading the electricity department for a regular supply of stable power, the appliances in one's home will get burnt out by low voltage and one's infants will be crying in the heat. While a citizen is waiting for the roads department to fix the potholes and broken traffic lights, the citizen naturally learns to adjust and live with the state of affairs instead of breaking his head against the wall.

There is no recourse available to a citizen for harm caused due to a failure of governance. Families of those killed in public transport accidents are usually granted a princely sum of a couple of lakhs. There is no punitive fine for a wrongful arrest (except in extremely rare cases), and more interestingly, the punitive fine comes from the coffers of the treasury, not from the offending employee's pocket.

And the grievance-redressal processes in India are horribly designed and can test the patience of a saint. They are, again, a relic of colonial items.

But still, if a citizen wants to hold his government responsible, and wants to get at least some value out of his taxes, he must not give up and start cleaning the road himself, which is to surrender and admit defeat.

He must at least try to work within the system and see if the problem can be solved. Writing a few letters is not hard, and one may be pleasantly surprised to see the effects it can have.

I once heard of a man who, in his retirement, formed a habit of writing at least ten letters to public authorities every day to correct some government malfunction that he saw in his locality. Most of his letters went unheeded, but like Andy Dufresne in the Shawshank redemption, he kept reminding them. And even if only 30% of his letters eventually resulted in some action, I think he did a great deal just sitting at home.

The situation is objectively quite hopeless, but I would like to believe that it is not completely over till one says it is over. And the will to fight against tremendous odds is what heroism is all about. The urge to improve oneself and the surroundings, despite an almost hellish state of affairs in which there is no ray of hope or light, is what makes man transcendental.

Be the change that you want to see. By being strong, by choosing your battles, and by fighting in a way that blazes the trail for future heroes.