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Here’s why everyone should read ‘The Tyranny of Merit’

I grew up believing that opportunities in life – from job to everything else – should be merit-based. May be you did too. This book challenges all of that. When you do read the book, I hope you find the arguments as fascinating as I did. Let me take you through some of them.

Meritocracy or the idea / philosophy that society should allocate economic rewards according to merit is appealing for two primary reasons – efficiency and fairness. As per the meritocratic ethic, we do not deserve to be rewarded, or held back, based on factors beyond our control. So far so good. But wait a second, do you notice the contradiction? Is having (or lacking) certain talents really our own doing? And if not, is meritocracy really all that ‘fair’?

All of us will agree that our having this talent or that is not our doing. It’s just a matter of luck. We do not merit or ‘deserve‘ the benefits (or burdens) that derive from luck. But what about those of us who ‘work hard‘? Talent or luck is not everything, right? Really? Just look around at any poor person – your maid, your driver, the guy who delivers you Swiggy or Amazon. Do you really believe they don’t work as hard as you do?

For decades, meritocratic elites have believed and propagated the mantra of the “rhetoric of rising” – those who work hard and play by the rules deserve to rise as far as their talents and dreams will take them.

But the same elites often fail to notice that for those stuck at the bottom or struggling to stay afloat, the rhetoric of rising is less a promise, and more a taunt!

In the book, the author sums up the issue beautifully (an eye opener for me): the meritocratic ideal is about mobility, not equality. And that’s where the problem lies. Meritocracy does not say there is anything wrong with yawning gaps between rich and poor; it only insists that the children of the rich and the children of the poor should be able to, over time, swap places based on merits. How often does that happen though?

In reality, the explosion of inequality in recent decades has not at all quickened upward mobility! To the contrary, it has enabled those on top, to consolidate their advantages and pass on to their children. Today’s meritocracy has hardened into hereditary aristocracy.

The meritocratic ideal is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality.

There is another consequence – under conditions of rampant inequality and stalled mobility, reiterating the message that we are responsible for our fate (“rhetoric of responsibility”) and deserve what we get, erodes and demoralizes those who get left behind. The principle of merit can easily take a tyrannical turn, not only when societies fail to live up to it, but also – indeed especially – when they do.

Allocating jobs and opportunists according to merit does not reduce inequality; it re-configures inequality to alight with ability. This reconfiguration creates a presumption that people get what they deserve.

The Tyranny of Merit – Michael J. Sandel

Confusing value with price

The assertion that people morally deserve whatever income a competitive free market assigns them goes back to the early days of neoclassical economics. In reality, what people earn depends less on their native abilities and more on the vagaries of supply and demand! Water is more valuable than diamond but priced at a fraction of what diamond costs.

Isn’t meeting a demand a valuable thing to do, you ask? Sure, but most of the times, the demands which the economic system operates to gratify are largely produced by the workings of the system itself.

Being good at making money measures neither our merit nor the value of our contribution.

All the successful can honestly say is that they have managed – through some unfathomable mix of genius or guile, timing or talent, luck or pluck or grim determination – to cater effectively to the jumble of wants and desires, however weighty or frivolous, that constitute consumer demand at any moment.


Education & Meritocracy

To the liberal class, every big economic problem is really an education problem, a failure by the losers to learn the right skills and get the credentials everyone knows you’ll need in the society of the future. But it’s really not an answer at all – it’s a moral judgement.

In the mid 1970s, Stanford accepted nearly 1/3rd of those who applied. In the 1980s, Harvard and Stanford admitted about one in five. In 2019, they accepted fewer than one in twenty. It is difficult to emerge from this gauntlet of stress and striving without believing that you have earned – through effort and hard work – whatever success may come your way.

But the fact remains that even the best, most inclusive educational system would be hard pressed to equip students from poor backgrounds to compete on equal terms with children from families that bestow copious amounts of attention, resources and connections.

On this topic I highly recommend you watch the new Netflix documentary on the 2019 US college admission scandal.

Back to the book. See, encouraging more people to go to college is a good thing. Making college more accessible to those of modest means is even better. But as a solution to inequality, the single-minded focus on education has a damaging side-effect – it erodes the social esteem accorded those who have not gone to college. The notion that the system rewards talent and hard work ends up encouraging the winners (wrongfully) to consider their success their own doing and in turn they start to look down upon those less fortunate than themselves.

One last thing – dumb Vs. smart

In every age, politicians and opinion makers, publicists and advertisers, reach for a language of judgement and evaluation. Such rhetoric typically draws upon evaluative contrasts: just vs. unjust, free vs. un-free, progressive vs. reactionary, strong vs. weak, open vs. closed and so on and so forth.

In recent decades, with the rise in meritocratic modes of thinking, the reigning evaluative contrast has become “smart vs. dumb”.

Everything and everybody must be smart – smart city, smart-phone, smart parents, smart students, smart thinking, smart farmers and on and on.

You are opposed to climate change? You are not smart. You are dumb. But is that always true?

If the primary source of opposition to action on climate change were lack of information or a refusal to accept science, one would expect opposition to be stronger among those with less education / scientific knowledge. It so happens that this is not the case really. Studies of public opinion show that the more people know about science, the more polarized are their views on climate change (rather than converging). What about those who oppose government action to reduce carbon emissions, not because they reject science, but because they do not trust the government to act in their interest? Meritocracy creates the illusion that everything can be split into smart vs. dumb.

Sorry for making this post so long. I appreciate your patience. Let me try to wrap it up now.

The term meritocracy was invented by a British sociologist Michael Young who wrote a book in 1958 called The Rise of Meritocracy. But for Young himself, meritocracy described a dystopia, not an ideal. In his book, he already anticipated that the toxic brew of hubris and resentment created from meritocracy would fuel a backlash. In fact he concluded his dystopian tale by predicting (all the way back in 1958) that in 2034, the less educated classes would rise up in a populist revolt against meritocratic elites. I guess his prediction came true 18 years before time (both Brexit and Trump happened in 2016)?

May be the real problem with meritocracy is not that we have failed to achieve it, but that the ideal itself is flawed.

If you learnt something useful by reading my blog, I’d appreciate if you dropped in a comment. Thanks.

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Slaves, sugar, honey and tea.

Did you know that the entire sugar industry in the Americas, until the mid-nineteenth century, was based on slavery?

Slaves were acquired from Africa and transported to the Americas to be exchanged for sugar. Sugar was then exported to England (and other parts of Europe). From there, the ships would carry goods to be exchanged for slaves in Africa. And then from Africa, the slaves were transported to America (the Caribbean) to work on sugar plantations. This became known as the ‘Triangle Trade’.”

I found out about this while reading Sugar: A Global History by Andrew F. Smith. The way we consume sugar all the time, even when it’s bad for our health*, fascinates me. And that’s why I felt like digging up some history books on this topic (haven’t found any worth recommending).

Honey, by the way is a relatively healthier option compared to refined sugar. But as we all read in news this week, most brands have apparently been cheating us!

Let me share one more history trivia (gathered from the same book). It’s about tea.

A random Bri-Tea-sh trivia!

During mid 17th century in England, tea was not common in houses (it was expensive). The well-to-do would visit coffee-houses to have tea there (same for coffee / chocolate). The lower classes would typically drink beer in taverns.

Only once the British East India Company began to import tea in bulk (annual imports increased from just a little over hundred thousand Kg in 1725 to almost 11 million Kg in 1800), did the price of tea fall below that of chocolate and coffee, and it became affordable for the middle class. So yeah, that’s how tea became England’s hot beverage of choice!

Now, here’s a quick question: for the not-so-well-to-do Britishers of the 18th century, what was their preferred sweetener for tea / coffee? Honey or sugar?

Right answer: Honey.

Yes, back then, honey was six to ten times cheaper than sugar!. Of course with time, the price of sugar kept falling (thanks to cheap slave labour / triangle trade) and its consumption rose from 2 kg per capita in early 1700 to 10 Kg per capita by beginning of 1800.

How much is the sugar consumption in UK today? Around 30 Kg per capita. What about India? 20. Not so sweet, right? That’s it – that was the blog.

Click on this image to open an interactive global sugar consumption map

*A quick summary of how sugar damages your health (this is not from the book; this is just basic knowledge that I have via reading, and discussions with folks from the fitness field).

Your body needs both calories and nutrients, for all the internal organs and muscles and other such things to be healthy and functional. Now technically you can consume pure sugar for calories and take all the required nutrients from different supplements but the thing with nutrients is that, there are just too many of them!

So it’s pretty much impossible to consume all that’s needed by your body, through tablets. The best and easiest and cheapest and full-proof way to supply all kinds of nutrients to your body is to just eat food that has less sugar (or carb – which gets converted to sugar) and more nutrients (vegetables > whole grain rice and wheat > maida > sugar).

When your body converts the vegetable you eat to sugar, it also ends up absorbing all the nutrients in that vegetable and you stay healthy. But when you eat just sugar, you end up providing calories to your body without nutrients. See the issue?

Even when you eat both sugar and vegetable, your body will ignore the vegetable and rather take the calories from sugar directly (nobody wants to work hard, you see). So the vegetable gets wasted. And doing this as a habit (offering the option of sugar to your body) leads you on a path of cumulative nutrient deficiency. Over time, your organs get unhealthy and you die. So yeah, in short, this is the primary way sugar fucks you up. There are other ways it harms too (by making you diabetic for example), but let that be for some other time!

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Brandolini’s principle and vaccines – what’s the connection?

Brandolini’s principle states that ‘the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than [that needed] to produce it’. But what does that have to do with vaccines? Read on!

I found this out while reading an interesting book – Calling Bullshit – by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West.

Within the field of medicine, Brandolini’s principle is exemplified by the pernicious falsehood that vaccines cause autism.

Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West – Calling Bullshit

I had to look up the meaning of pernicious by the way! 😀 It means something that is highly injurious or has destructive consequences. Lovely word – can be used to describe most of BJP’s policies! 😛

Anyway so I looked at data from USA and even when only a small percentage of the overall population seems to be definitive about vaccination causing autism in children, way many are ‘unsure’!

Look at the below graph that I created from a Gallup survey data. Only post-grads are mostly clear that vaccines don’t cause autism (longest yellow bar); next best are 18-29 year olds.

Chart created by Amrit Vatsa; data source – Gallop

The trend is even bad – while currently 10% of U.S. adults believe vaccines cause autism in children, in 2015 only 6% used to.

The Calling Bullshit book tells us that this misinformation about vaccines persists, due in large part, to a shockingly poor 1998 study published in The Lancet by British physician Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues.

THE WAKEFIELD FRAUD

There is a whole Wiki article on this scandal if you are interested, but let me quickly share what I read about it in the book, and how it connects to the Brandolini’s principle.

Wakefield’s research team raised the possibility that a syndrome involving autism paired with inflammatory bowel disease may be associated with MMR vaccine. MMR vaccine is given to children to save them from measles and mumps etc. Btw back in June, I had mentioned the developer of the MMR vaccine in my video on ‘why vaccine for Covid-19 is taking so long‘.

Anyway, back to Wakefield’s paper in The Lancet. It galvanized the contemporary “antivax” movement, created a remarkably enduring fear of vaccines, and contributed to the resurgence of measles around the world.

After millions of dollars and countless research hours devoted to checking and rechecking the Wakefield study, today it is one of the most utterly and incontrovertibly discredited studies done in the scientific world.

  • 2004 – ten co-authors of the paper formally retracted the “interpretations” section; the same year, Wakefield was found guilty of serious professional misconduct by Britain’s General Medical Council and his license to practice medicine in the UK was revoked.
  • 2010 – the paper was fully retracted by The Lancet.
  • 2011 – British Medical Journal editor in chief Fiona Godlee formally declared the original study to be a fraud, and argued that there must have been intent to deceive; mere incompetence could not explain the numerous issues surrounding the paper.

Wakefield eventually directed a documentary titled Vaxxed, which alleged that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was covering up safety problems surrounding vaccines. The film received a large amount of press attention and reinvigorated the vaccine scare.

Despite all the findings against Wakefield and the crushing avalanche of evidence against his hypothesis, Wakefield retains credibility with a segment of the public, and unfounded fears about a vaccine-autism link persist.

Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West – Calling Bullshit

What did this intentional misleading lead to? The US, which had nearly eliminated measles entirely, now suffers large outbreaks on an annual basis. Other diseases such as mumps and whooping cough (pertussis) are making a comeback.

So why has it been so hard to debunk the rumors of a connection between vaccines and autism?

This is Brandolini’s principle at work – explain the authors of Calling Bullshit. Researchers have to invest vastly more time to debunk Wakefield’s arguments than he did to produce them in the first place.

Alright, that’s the end of the story. What else comes to your mind when you think of Brandolini’s principle? Let me know!

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Bhimbetka & the first modern humans in India

I was reading a pre-history book – Early Indians by Tony Joseph – when I stumbled upon the below paragraph.

If you want to get as close as possible to the lives of the first modern humans in India, one of the best places to go to is Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh’s Raisen district, about forty-five kilometres from the state capital, Bhopal.

Tony Joseph, Early Indians

The reason I got so excited about it was that just few weeks ago, my wife and I had named one of threada.in dresses, the Bhimbetka Dress! I had never heard of Bhimbetka before!

threada (pronounced thread-aa) is her clothing brand btw. I just help her in marketing and stuff, and of course photography and illustration. Anyway, back to the caves. Below is a photograph of one of the caves at Bhimbetka (sourced from Wikipedia). How old do you think these line-drawings (technical word is petroglyph) are?

Since I have never been to this place myself, let me borrow Joseph’s description to share more about these caves and the drawings / paintings we see there.

The caves were first occupied some 100,000 years ago! Ever since, the area has never lain vacant for too long.

The paintings are not well-dated, so it is quite likely that most of them, though not all, were made within the last few thousand years, rather than many tens of thousands of years ago. But there are a few petroglyphs that could be the earliest evidence of art created by members of the Homo species anywhere in the world – a few perfect cupules (small cup-like depressions) with lines beside them.

The location itself deserves a mention too. The overall area is spread over seven hills that are full of naturally occurring rock shelters. The elevation of the hills makes it possible for the residents to keep track of who is approaching them: food or predator, nilgai or leopard!

There are perennial springs, creeks and streams filled with fish; plenty of fruits, tubers and roots; deer, boar and hare; and as many quartzite rocks as you need to make all the tools you want.

In the world of early humans, this must have been the equivalent of a much sought-after luxury resort.

Tony Joseph on Bhimbetka Caves, Early Indians

Now here’s the big question – even when we know that the caves were first occupied about 100,000 years ago, do we know exactly when the first modern humans set foot in Bhimbetka (or, for that matter, in India)?

The answer to the above question is pretty much what the book Early Indians explores. Read it if you want to (I am yet to finish it – there is a lot of info in there and I am not really a pre-history reader as such, so going slow – this is probably the first book in this genre that I have picked up).

Is there any pre-history book that you want to recommend? Do let me know! Let me end this post with an overtly dramatic 7 min History channel video on Bhimbetka (it’s in Hindi though).

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Many Indian children are left behind in education; do we know what needs to be done about it? Yes!

I read a very interesting article in this week’s Business Standard where Abhjijit Banerjee explains what India should be doing to improve the learning outcomes of majority of its schools.

To understand what one means by learning outcomes, do watch my below short-film – you will love it and it’s super insightful. Plus, it shows how the problem can be resolved in a sustainable way.

In this blog, I am sharing six insights from the Abhijit Banerjee interview, interspersed with few related short documentary films that I have made over the last few years.

#1 – The mindset needs to shift from focusing excessively on the curriculum.

The new National Education Policy (NEP) of India acknowledges that ‘learning-gap’ is a critical problem. In many places, Grade 5 children are at Grade 2 level, but they are taught as if that doesn’t make a difference. There is an overemphasis on completing the entire curriculum.

If the child is still struggling with reading, what sense will the curriculum make?

Abhijit Banerjee

As per Banerjee, the NEP also recognizes the importance of basic skills of reading and numeracy, but they have not been made explicit enough.

Let’s forget about infrastructure investments for now – testing children on basic competencies needs more focus.

Abhijit Banerjee – Business Standard interview

On the point of testing, let me share the story of a startup that I created some time back. They focus on the right way for teachers to test whether a child has really grasped a concept (the startup calls their service ‘Thinking Classrooms’). Simple but efficient. Also, this ‘testing’ can be done in every class instead of waiting for exams to find out what the children have learnt.

#2 – There is evidence to show that enough people don’t know about the benefits of education.

This was a pretty surprising insight for me (and I guess for you too). These insights are coming from a recent large scale study done by a newly formed Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel by World Bank. Banerjee is a panel member.

The panel waded through the several hundred interventions tried around the world to improve learning outcomes and then identified the most cost-effective ones. Here’s the full report if you want to check that out. The best and most credible ‘buys’ that have been identified, can be replicated by other countries – is the hope and intention.

Only after parents understand the benefits (which many don’t), they alter their behaviour in a manner that helps improve learning outcomes for the child.

#3 – India’s Right to Education (RTE) policy doesn’t care much about ‘outcomes’

It is almost exclusively focused on the size of playgrounds, classrooms etc. – trying to dictate brick and mortar standards for the schools instead of focusing on verifiable learning outcomes.

There is another major issue with implementing a super important aspect of RTE – getting underprivileged children to access good schools. I created the below story some time back to show how some folks are trying to solve this problem by sheer persistence.

#4 – Handing out tablets, computers and other similar devices to students by Govt. is a “bad buy”

ICT (Information & Communications Tech), unless you combine it with the right pedagogical tools, is pointless – shares Banerjee. There are things ICT can help with, but in a thought-out manner. Just handing out laptops or tablets with little or no guidance will probably not yield any great strides in learning.

Five years ago, I was flown to a village in Gujarat to show how ICICI bank was helping a village digitalize (so that I could bring out the story via my 3MS). I did notice a similar problem there as far as using ‘tech’ in the village school went. Digital devices had been issued to the village school – but it all looked a bit superficial. Watch below?

Banerjee shares that one of the interventions tried in Rajasthan – MindSpark (run by a private company), has proved effective with science and math learning, where it first identifies the stage at which the child is and then uses a personalized learning journey to take them to the next level.

#5 – India has an ‘elitist mindset’ issue – one of the primary reasons why so many children are left behind

A central education minister once told me that the idea that no child should be left behind is not something he sympathies with.

Abhijit Banerjee – Business Standard interview

A few privileged kids do well but the rest fall behind. The Indian education system often destroys the confidence of children in their own abilities – claims Banerjee. This reminds me of my story on Arvind Gupta – the below film literally opens with a very similar line about schools killing some important things in children.

THE VEGETABLE SELLER EXPERIMENT

Abhijit Banerjee and team conducted a small experiment in some markets in Delhi and Kolkata among young children selling vegetables. They had shoppers buying a few vegetables from each child in varying quantities. Almost all the children reverted with the exact change, meaning they were managing to multiply, total up and subtract within a few seconds. They were doing math, doing it mentally, and almost instantaneously and perfectly.

But when similar problems were given to children in a Delhi government school (incidentally, better than most other government schools), they had a hard time solving. The moment children start thinking they have to solve a math problem, they lose their confidence.

Talking about Delhi Govt. schools – below is a story I documented few years ago to show how they have been improving, year after year. The Education Alliance – a Delhi based non-profit has played a major role behind the transformation of many Govt. schools in Delhi by making it easier for non-profits to work with government.

#6 – India can learn a lot from Vietnam

Vietnam is a stellar example of a country that’s made a lot of progress in ensuring that no child is left behind. People tend to think Vietnam is a much smaller country than India, but Vietnam is like Bihar, with a population of around 100 million. And since many of the Indian states are much smaller than Vietnam, there’s no reason why every Indian state cannot replicate Vietnam’s success.

Many of the good buys identified in the report have in fact been tried in India. Some have worked but have not been fully implemented.

For instance, it is now understood that access to schooling is not a problem for younger kids – there are private and public schools that are easily accessible in villages. But for older children, especially girls, access to high schools can be a problem. In Bihar, the government’s initiative of offering bicycles to girls helped tremendously in this regard.

So yeah, these were the six insights that I gained from reading up the interview. Hope this was useful and you learnt something new. Also, do watch at least one of the films shared here – they are nice – you will like what you see.

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The beginning of migrant hatred is often benign

I follow author Puja Mehra on twitter. She has written a nice book – The Lost Decade: 2008-2018. She tweeted this recently –

Now some of you may instinctively agree with her line of thought. I would like you guys to hold on to your instinct and read my blog with an open mind to understand why we fall for this trap that sounds logical in our head – but is driven more from irritation than logic, and is often the starting point of migrant hatred / fear.

In short what a local ends up saying is – ‘if you have so much of problem, fuck off. Nobody asked you to move in anyway’. Before I explain the problem with this logic, let me share a nice video that I made about Chennai few years ago. A lot of response to this video (you can go read the comment section on Youtube) had a similar problem.

Many who you see speaking in the above video were born and brought up in Chennai itself (including some Tamils). We didn’t mention this fact in the video. And if you don’t watch the whole thing, it may look like (especially to a local Chennaite) that ‘outsiders’ are unnecessarily cribbing about a ‘great’ city and so you will find several comments on the same line – ‘if you have so much of problem, fuck off. Nobody asked you to move in anyway’.

Here’s the logical error with such annoyance / hatred – the presumptuous illusion of choice!

Just because someone has moved to a city does not mean they had the choice to work anywhere in India. Some may have that choice, most don’t! Other than job, many move simply because of marriage. Even data supports this. The thing is, shittiniess / awesomeness of a city is not the most important factor basis which people relocate and for a vast majority, that’s hardly a choice!

Here’s the second problem with such ‘fuck off’ responses – they attack only those who are not originally from the city. If you are from the city, then well, what can they be told – they apparently don’t have a ‘choice’ because they are ‘originally’ from the place. But like really? You can’t move out of Delhi just because you were born in the city? Ask around who have been buying houses after houses in Goa!

Such kind of complaints by locals, sugar-coated with logic, are essentially an expression of annoyance. They might fail the logic-test but they make the person bitching about outsiders complaining about ‘their’ city feel good. But hey, I have a news. That is exactly why anyone complains!

We complain (those of us who do) because complaining often releases stress.

It’s an emotional response to a situation. Of course, if all that we do is complain all the time about everything, then eventually we may get depressed and all that but it is one thing to be reminded of the negative effect of over-complaining and a totally different thing to be told to ‘not complain’ because ‘hey you have a choice’.

I will not blame Puja though. It is extremely easy to fall for this trap and use pseudo-logic to make the comment sensible in one’s head. It often originates from lack of empathy. When you have less empathy to relate to why an outsider complains about the city they have moved to, instead of viewing the situation as a ‘feeling’ response of the person, you end up viewing it as an ‘attack’ on your own identity. And when you feel attacked, you fight back. You tell them to go back to where they came from, or find some other city. The illusion of choice doesn’t feel like illusion at all. Some may view such a nativist rant as benign but there’s a big problem with letting it go unchecked.

When we let this nativist instinct take over, it doesn’t take much for the same argument to gradually move from a passive-aggressive tweet like Puja’s to severe case of hatred – often fueled by politicians who are masters at the art of exploiting the Us Vs. them fear.

Hostility – whether experienced by a group or an individual – stems from the same principles: seeing the adversary as wrong or bad, and the self as right and good. In either case, the aggressor shows the same “thinking disorder”: construing the facts in his favor, exaggerating the supposed transgression, and attributing malice to the opposition.

Aaron T. Beck – Prisoners of Hate

The reality is that, you will find people from Delhi working in Chennai complaining about Chennai and you will also find people from Chennai working in Delhi, complaining about Delhi. People are the same. You will obviously also have many who love their new city. There are just all sorts of people and all of them have the right to exist and be respected without being asked to fuck off (in however polite way) by any dick-acting local.

PS: Puja’s book is pretty nice and insightful – do check it out.

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FAU-G? Like really?

So I saw this update from Akshay Kumar yesterday.

It took me a while to realize this was a direct (and rather lowbrow) take on the recently banned PUBG.

It took me longer to realize that the image used in AK’s poster was just some stock image (most likely a US soldier?)

I also noticed Akshay Kumar specifically mentioned Vishal Gondal and this is where things get interesting.

Vishal is the founder of GOQii and he had invited me and a bunch of other creators / entrepreneurs to his office once in Mumbai (2018), as part of ‘GOQii fellowship‘. Nothing much happened of the fellowship except I ended up following Vishal and some other fellows on twitter and likewise + I got some freebies; still have the t-shirt, it’s nice.

I was impressed by Vishal.

After selling his former startup, Indiagames to Disney in 2011 for approximately USD 100M, Vishal Gondal founded GOQii, a one on one mobile coaching and fitness tracking service.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GOQii

But anyway, that’s that. Since then I did see Akshay Kumar’s face on cover pages of newspapers few times, advertising GOQii. I thought wow, Vishal is really cracking it – he is now able to get Akshay Kumar for his ads!

So when I saw AK tagging Vishal and this company called nCore Games in his FAU-G tweet, I wondered what the connection was. I have now figured it out and it’s interesting.

2015

Fitness Wearable And Coaching Startup GOQii Lands $13.4M Series A From NEA And Cheetah Mobile

Nov 2015, Tech Crunch

Now guess where Cheetah Mobile is based out of? Yes, China!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheetah_Mobile

Gondal says that the addition of Cheetah Mobile, the Beijing-based mobile developer best known for Android utility apps like Clean Master, and GWC, a mobile company network that hosts the Global Mobile Internet Conference (GMIC), will help it gain market share in China.

TC, Nov 2015

At this time of point, via this 2014 Forbes article we know that Vishal has already been manufacturing GOQii devices in China (like any other tech company).

“In the future we’re going to have a tsunami of personal data coming up,” Gondal says. “We’re creating a new breed of professionals whose job is to decipher human data and guide people.”

Forbes, 2014

I have little knowledge of what’s the status in 2020 or what the future plans are. Given that Vishal seems to be part of this atmanirbhar PR campaign now, I only hope GOQii is also moving out of China (if not already)?

2019

nCore Games raises funding from GOQii founder Vishal Gondal

techcircle.in
from nCore website

Yourstory’s recent article in fact mentions Vishal as a co-founder! Anyway, so the above investment happened in March 2019.

And the in April 2019, Akshay Kumar asked the most meaningful question to Modi that was clearly on everyone’s mind.

Two months after the incredible insightful interview above…

The date on the screenshot is the date the screenshot was taken – you can click on the image to see the actual date of publishing on ET’s site.

Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar has invested an undisclosed amount in GOQii, as part of the home-grown devices maker’s ongoing Series-C funding round in which it is aiming to raise USD50-70 million.

ET, June 2019

So yeah, I just find all of this very interesting. That’s all. Not all of AK’s investments are undisclosed though. Like…

When you have money, what cannot happen bro?

Here’s a little irony that someone pointed out on Twitter.

Enough food for thought. Time for some real food. 😀

Before I sign off, I want to make it clear that I don’t think I have enough insights to necessarily link all these facts up, and make any solid conclusion. I am not Saket Gokhale or Arnab Goswami.

But what remains undisputed to me is, it’s a cheap thing to use nationalism to make money like this. We Indians can do better.

Like FAU-G, really?

By the way, I have a vague feeling that by the time the game comes out, it will have Modi as a mentor character somewhere. The 3D render for that character is already out there! 😀

That’s all for this blog! Let me end it on a lighter note! 😀

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The Linda problem and a celebrity death case

Let me ask you a question. Imagine a 25 year old guy named Raju. He is from a village in north India, son of farmer parents. He is a recent graduate. His entire schooling was in Hindi medium.

Now if just with this information, I ask you to guess which of the two options below is more likely / probable, what would you pick? Just go by your intuition – this is not a trick question or anything.

  1. Raju has a VC funded startup
  2. Raju has a VC funded startup and the startup is around farming / improving lives of farmers

If you choose 2, you are not alone. Also, your decision is illogical.

The probability of Raju having a startup will always be higher than the probability of Raju having a startup and that startup to be of a particular type.

What I presented to you is a modification of the Linda problem from Daniel Kahneman (DK). DK was awarded the Nobel prize in Economics in 2002. In 2011 he published the book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ (TFS). He explains the Linda problem in chapter 15 (imagine a lady named Linda instead of Raju – similar options, different profile). This book by the way, is part of my recently curated reading list.

So what do we learn from this experiment?

The reason most people choose 2 is because the ‘intuition’ (system 1) takes over the logical part of the brain (system 2). This is pretty much the premise of the whole book:

  • System 1 – fast but intuitive – is outside our control (what we feel intuitively is what we do, we cannot not feel it)
  • System 2 – logical – slow

OK, now let me ask something similar as the opening question, but with a small twist.

If you had to guess which of the below two scenarios is more likely / probable, which one will you pick?

  1. Raju is a teacher
  2. Raju is a teacher and Raju’s favourite colour is blue.

In this scenario, you know that 1 is more likely – simply because only one condition has to be met (while for II, two conditions have be to met – so less likely).

How come this time, the logical part of your thinking (system 2) prevailed?

Well that’s because, this time around, there was not enough trigger for your intuition to respond – you could only think logically.

What triggered your intuition the first time around (so much so that you couldn’t think logically – even when the logic was obvious) was exploiting the stereotype associated with startup founders – they are mostly well educated urban people. So instinctively something felt odd about Raju being a startup founder. The trigger was by design.

Your triggered system 1 tells you “a startup in the agriculture sector doesn’t feel all that odd now, does it? Raju has a farming background after all”. And so it feels more ‘plausible’ even when it is less ‘probable’. That’s the beauty (and in some sense, the danger) of plausible stories – they make it easy for you to ignore the ‘slow’ (but rational / logical) system 2.

If you found this insight interesting, do read the book. It has 400 pages. The first 100 pages are essentially about the theory and basics of system 1 (intuition) and system 2 (logic). The rest 3/4th of the book then uses the theory to explain many things / experiments (like the Linda problem), in crisp and small chapters.

I want you to now think about the applicability of the Linda problem in the ongoing press-coverage of the SSR death case.

Do you think it’s possible for an anchor or a writer to trigger your system 1 to make every ‘plausible’ story seem ‘probable’? Let me list down three stereotypes.

  • Stereotype 1 – Bollywood is a toxic place where getting depressed is common, especially when you are an outsider.
  • Stereotype 2 – If a man stops being in touch with his family after entering into a relationship with a woman, the woman uses his money and eventually leaves him abruptly – she is definitely not a good woman.
  • Stereotype 3 – The world in general and mostly men love attacking and trolling women simply because they are women.

To be honest, the third point above is not so much of a stereotype as much of a fact. One can find enough proxies for such women-bashing behavior in the male dominated society, including data as proof.

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I observed three different sets of people, triggered by three separate reasons, who then propagated their intuition.

First came the “Bollywood is toxic, let’s talk about mental health” advocates who wrote and wrote about their issue. The issue may be valid but the news was just a medium for them to propagate their theories.

Then came the mean girlfriend proponents – their triggered intuition made it easy for them to troll Rhea (which is ongoing).

And as a reaction to the above, the triggered feminists took over, pointing out how patriarchal and women-bashing this society is (which by the way it is, just that this stance altogether ignores the logical reason – the system 2 – which made the family request for an investigation of the Rhea angle in the first place). It’s a bit sad that nobody from the family has done anything to ask the trolls to keep quiet. I guess for the family, news-pressure is more helpful (in terms of maximizing the chances of justice to Sushant) even when it comes at the cost of propagating women-hatred.

DK says something nice in his book. Since system 1 (intuitive thinking) is outside our control, the best that we can do is to learn to identify the danger sign – something which most of us have managed to apply to the well known Müller-Lyer illusion.

Müller-Lyer illusion

By knowledge we know that both A and B are of the same length (and we know we can cross-check it) but there is nothing that we can do about that weird feeling that B just looks longer. What we have done is, we have learnt to identify when not to trust our instinct (if two lines that we are comparing have fins, then intuition will lead to wrong answer).

As a society, we must strive to achieve the same when we consume news. We can do better. I can only hope.

Categories
general

Is Ramayana ultimately a patriarchy reinforcing story?

One thing led to another and I realized that I had never really read the Ramayana. We all know the story but most of us haven’t read it. So I thought of summarizing it the way I remembered it. And then I threw open the question to my Facebook friends, asking them if mine was a fair summary?

I got a lot of interesting responses (although almost nobody claimed they had read the full thing – from any author, be it Valmiki or Tuslidas).

I am trying to recall the story of Ram-Sita. Broadly speaking, this is what follows right? Ram ji is an avatar of lord…

Posted by Amrit Vatsa on Friday, 14 August 2020

If there is any perspective that doesn’t get captured in the above discussion, do let me know.

While having these discussion on my FB timeline, I did think about reading Valmiki’s version (Hindi/Sanskrit) myself. But 3,700+ pages.!!

Also, when almost nobody has really read the story, I wonder what matters more – Valmiki’s (or anybody else’s) written text or how the world today in general remembers the story? If it’s generally understood for example that Surpanakha was made fun of because of her ‘ugliness’, does it matter if Valmiki wrote it that way or not? This is an open ended question – I don’t know the right answer.

Anyway, so I was also pointed to an animation film (which to an extent is a bit insulting to a “proud Hindu” but it’s witty too). I think it is pretty fascinating to watch. It might offend some of you, especially those into ram-bhakti. But if you are not that type of a person, then you may rather enjoy this.

Why did I suddenly dwell upon these Ramayana / Ram related thoughts? Well I was reading “The Ayodhya Movement” chapter from L. K. Advanis’ autobiography. Among other things, he writes about “RAM: AN INSPIRING SYMBOL OF INDIAN CULTURE”.

Ram was also an ideal human being; hence the title ‘Maryada Purushottam’ (an exemplar among good human beings) was accorded to him.

….

Many Indian Muslims, too, have seen in Ram an ideal ruler and an embodiment of great human qualities.

L. K. Advani – My Country My Life

And so I thought about it. And put together my summary, with the feeling that I must be missing something major. But now after all the comments that I have received, it seems like I didn’t miss much! Weird!

<Update – 18 Aug 2020>

Received the below detailed summary from a friend.

I have read both Valmiki (recently) and Tulsi Ramayan(in school) . my mom reads Ramayan everyday. None of the chapters give patriarchal ideas. It is Infact one of the first pro-choice story ever written. Kaikayi, Supranakha, Shabri, Sita all chose and had a command over theiir choices. Sitas choice to have a seat of Golden Deers skin made Ram take her leave for instance, Lakshman too had to obey her orders and go looking for Ram. Supranakha made a choice to court married men, the way Lakshman reacted became the reason for war. Ravan knew at every step who he would be fighting against but it was at Supranakha’s behest that he had to.Arun Govils Ramayan is a tv show, it isn’t how Ramayan is written. Valmiki has written it as a cause and effect poetry. The interpretation of Agni as Pariksha and Deh samarpan to dharti have been contectualised based on the TV representation as patriarchal, chauvinistic and what not but none of them are true. They are very specific, for instance. agni (fire) would become Sheetal (ice) on touching sita is referenced several times in Valmikis Ramayan couplets.

Sundar Kand
Hanuman Chalisa


Both these talk about how Janaki (Sita) blessed Hanuman and because she gave her the boon that Agni won’t be able to give you heat, he managed to burn down the Golden Lanka and while Lanka was on fire and the whole country burnt, fire couldn’t do anything to sita who was out in the open! The hanuman chalisa shlok talks about how Sitas blessing made Hanuman so powerful.

Sita was also World’s first single Mother. If patriarchy was a prevelant idea she would have been frowned upon but instead her kids got the best education and best teachers etc. That too was a lesson on her heroics.

Ram and Sita in the story are considered one in all this and were the operators who knew every next step before it happened as possibilities m. They were aware of everything (unlike how its shown in Govils presentation) but the lessons of right and wrong, good and evil were to be created and given through this epic.

Ramayan is actually about much more than Ram. Ram won the war against Raavan in just 13 days. So his heroism is limited to that. Rest of Ramayan is so so many things. It’s about him understanding humanity, humbleness, being an ideal king, being an ideal husband, ideal son, ideal father, ideal brother, ideal warrior etc. He didn’t shy from giving tests or cheating even in the process. His life was a conquest to teach men and women to live a life of truth and honesty. Thus Maryada Purushottam. Nowhere in all the written literature he is self doubting or doubting sita. Even the decision of Sita to leave the kingdom of Ayodhya wasn’t his. It was Sitas, her own choice. He never doubted her. Nor did she doubt Ram of malice. They just decided it was time for one last lesson to humanity when she left the luxuries of a kingdom and gave birth in a jungle house to the Kings children and herself lived without all the luxuries available at her husband’s kingdom as well as her father’s Kingdom.

Categories
general

India Covid deaths weekly projection – 26 Jul 2020 update

Every week (since May this year), I look at the existing trend of reported cases and deaths for India. Based on that, I run few scenarios to forecast two things:

  1. when will we start seeing avg 1,000 per day reported deaths and
  2. by when would we cross 1 lakh total reported Covid deaths

So what are the latest death figures that we have?

As you can note from above:

  1. this week (19-25 Jul) on an avg. 720+ people died per day
  2. as of yesterday, total death count is 31k+

The problem with projecting the future Avg. Daily Deaths based on just this information is that the weekly growth rate of Avg Daily Deaths is pretty erratic – as you can see below.

So to project deaths, I look at two things:

  • X% – at what rate does weekly total positive cases grow (it is not as erratic – you will see below)
  • Y% – what percentage of total avg weekly cases from past two weeks die in a given week

Alright, let’s look at X from past few weeks. As you see below, it has typically hovered between 20 to 30 percent (though this week – 19-25 Jul – it really shot up).

There were almost 3 lakh new cases reported this week (19-25 Jul) which is 37% higher than 2.1 lakh reported the week before (12-18 Jul).

For future projection, I expect X to be in the range of 20 to 30%.

Now let’s come to Y.

As you see above, death %age used to hover around 3% till mid June but has been more or less around 2% since many weeks now. It looks like it could drop even more.

For projections, I am going with a range of 1.7% to 2%

My three scenarios are:

  1. X=25%, Y=2% (baseline)
  2. X=20%, Y=1.7% (better – as in slower spread, lesser deaths)
  3. X=30%, Y-2% (worse – as in faster growth, more deaths)

In about a week or two, we will start seeing 1,000 avg daily deaths, which could touch 2,000 in Aug itself.

As a context, US already reached the 1,000 daily deaths figure this week (source).

Also, at this rate, we will have 1 lakh reported deaths by early September.

That’s it for this post. I’ll get back with updated projections next Sunday (02 Aug). Stay safe.