The myth of the paid subscription model for news.

If you are not paying for the product, you are the product, right? The newspapers / publications / independent bloggers that want their content behind a paywall, definitely want you to believe so.

The proposed logic is simple – when you pay, the publishers / writers don’t have to rely on ad money (or the money from rich businessmen / trusts). This we are told, leads to two things – a) freedom and b) quality.

Freedom of press refers to the freedom of the journalist / publication to pursue and put out whatever story they feel is important, without any political / commercial pressure. Quality is a broad term that I am using to refer to the many aspects of the coverage itself – how well researched the content is, how unbiased it is, insights, verification level, professionalism etc.

I took an insta poll last week asking my followers that if they had to choose between freedom and quality, what would they choose. I received about 40 responses. 60% voted for freedom, 40% for quality.

A. Freedom of Press – does ‘paid subscription’ model have a positive impact?

Without freedom of press, how will stories about atrocities / wrongdoings of the powerful come out? A Modi or an Ambani should not be able to influence what stories are put out and what buried.

It should be kept in mind that criticizing those in power is only one of the many journalistic objectives (also called playing the role of a detached investigative watchdog). Over the years, in various countries, journalists have played other roles too (and continue to). These other roles include:

  • bringing out facts (with objectivity) for the public (with some context but minimum opinion);
  • analyzing facts underpinning key issues;
  • being critical change agents (by influencing public opinion and advocating for social change – this is going beyond just being a ‘detached watchdog’ and may include actively encouraging citizen involvement); and
  • acting as opportunist facilitators (i.e. supporting those in power – which is a good thing only when a disturbed nation is seeking some stability and a new government has typically just come in power).

Anyway, so freedom of press is a big problem in our country right now. India ranks 140th in the World Press Freedom Index (of total 180 countries that are included). There is a detailed NY Times article (unfortunately behind a paywall) on this topic, if you want to read more.

Will a subscription based model really solve this freedom problem? How about we look at the top performers in the World Press Freedom (WPF) rankings and dissect them a little?


So the Nordic countries are on the top. Is news mostly free in these countries or the freedom comes from paid subscriptions?

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism / Digital News Report 2020 – link

42% of Norwegians pay for their news. That’s great – the more people pay for news, the better freedom of press, right?

But wait, look at Finland and Denmark (no. 2 and no. 2 on WPF). Less than 20% pay for news and yet US which is slightly better than them in terms of paid news subscribers, does not even rank in top ten! In fact, US ranks 45th! What’s really happening here?

In Portugal (no. 10 in WPF ranking) only 10% pay for news (same as Germany which ranks just below Portugal at no. 11).

Freedom of press and paid-subscription doesn’t seem to have any correlation.

While it is possible that if you take money from Ambani / Adani, you may find it difficult to talk against them, to make this scenario sound like the only possible scenario is a bit much. Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013. But it does not mean that the publication by default remains silent when it comes to criticizing Bezos.

In any case, even if you don’t take any money from Ambai / Adani / Amazon, if there is an overall culture where journalists are labelled ‘prestitutes‘, targeted and killed (the way it frequently happens in India – one of the main reasons why it ranks so bad in the freedom index), subscription model is not necessarily going to ensure much freedom. Arnab Goswami does not necessarily lick the BJP government’s ass because poor Arnab has no way to get subscription money. Arnab does it because that’s what he wants to do and he has access to the business model that works for him. The intent of the publication / journalist / media house comes first; the enablers and business models come later.

Let’s also for a moment think of one of the benefits of a free press – the publication / journalists can report on all important issues without pressure. Is Climate Change an important issue? I hope most of you say yes.

So say between Sweden (press freedom rank 4) and US (press freedom rank 45), if we did a poll of its citizens to check which populace took Climate Change more seriously, what do you think would the result be?

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism / Digital News Report 2020 – link

40% in US believe that Climate Change is an extremely serious problem but less than 20% of Swedes think so!

Being ‘free’ does not automatically equate to making use of that freedom as some media houses / journalists would like to believe! And in any case, you do not necessarily have to get away from ad money to exercise your freedom. Quint does a fabulous job of putting out stories that matter – 95% of its revenue comes from advertisement!

By the way, it’s not that we Indians don’t pay for our news. ~25% of the English language, internet using respondents for example, said in a Reuters survey that they have paid in some form, for some kind of digital news in the last year. [Source]

Of the respondents who do not currently pay, almost 40% said they are at least ‘somewhat likely’ to pay for news in the next year (much more than users in the United States).


It is okay if some publications / writers get the subscription model going for them. Whatever works! I myself pay for one Indian publication (Business Standard), one US publication (NY Times) and one UK publication (The Economist). But I do not necessarily do so because the free ad-based news that I also consume, has no freedom and can no way put out stories that those behind paywalls can!

There are many reasons why people pay for news – supporting independence of press is at best a justification from those who pay, than any proven positive impact on freedom.

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism / Digital News Report 2020 – link

B. Quality of news – does subscription model have an impact?

When you pay for a product, the makers have an incentive to make the product better. But is news really a product? No.

Journalism is not simply the aggregation of content. It is not a product, but a process, a way to search for truth and a conversation, not a lecture.

Richard M. Perloff, The Dynamics of News: Journalism in the 21st-Century Media Milieu

And what this means is, taking care of market economics is simply not enough (or the most important criteria) for good journalism.

If paying for news meant better news, most people who paid for news would have rated their consumption better and more reliable, right? But look at the reality.

The above chart shows us that the average trust is independent of whether something is behind a paywall or not! Below is how we Indians trust our news sources.


Most of the Indian brands listed above make money primarily from ads! The business model of a news publication and the quality does not have a proven correlation. But generally if a publication is running ads of big brands, it is unlikely for the quality to be low. So as far as quality goes, ad-model >> subscription model.

Early American newspapers like Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette and Alexander Hamilton’s Gazette of the United States were unashamedly partisan. … As they sought wider audiences in the 19th century, newspapers became more concerned with what they called “realism”. … And advertisers wanted less partisan coverage to sit alongside their messages.

The Economist, Jul 2020

Ad-money lead to news quality getting better – getting more objective.

Another way to think of why paying customers do not necessarily lead to the ‘product’ getting better is to think of mainstream Bollywood / Hollywood films – truck load of shitty movies in spite of paying customers. What about shitty Bollywood music of the 90s when we were still buying audio cassettes? When a business model depends upon a buying customer, the producer just ends up optimizing the cost of production and the sales-volume. Journalism should never work like that.

Why is everyone really talking about paid subscriptions then?

It is the failure of most media houses to retain the ad-money flow that they once had, that’s behind the push to make the ‘paid subscription based model’ work. It is not driven by a noble cause of freedom of press or quality of reportage – although both can definitely be achieved in this model too.

In fact, on the question of who should be primarily responsible for solving a key quality aspect of news – the misinformation problem – over 60% Indians think it is the government’s job.


I earlier showed how other than Norway, the other Nordic countries in the top ten World Press Freedom list have lesser paid subscriber %age compared to US. The reason they have such higher freedom of press in spite of low paid subscribers is because of their governments!

In the Nordic countries, the states have played a key role by giving the press a high degree of operational freedom and helping it financially through subsidies.

The strong position of public service media fit with the welfare ideal where the media – supported by the state – are judged to play an important role in citizens’ well being alongside other public institutions and the societal responsibility of the journalists is emphasized.

A Welfare State of Mind? – Journalism Studies, Vol 18 2017

If you read the above cited paper (behind paywall) – you will also note that the most independent press in the world (in these Nordic countries) typically restricts its role to being detached watchdogs. They generally refrain from taking on the role of ‘critical change agents’ (that I explained in the beginning, involves influencing public opinion and advocating for social change).

Irrespective of whether you make money from ads or paid subscribers, if the governments comes after journalists, would there be enough freedom? Unlikely. We need a truly free media and yet paid subscriptions doesn’t necessarily ensure it.

Anyway, so now we know that the potential benefits of the subscription model are pretty debatable (even when logically, they sound so perfect, no)?

The follow-up question is: are there any problems that the paid subscription model itself creates? Plenty!

Paywall problems

#1 Readers love opinions

Theoretically, you have the freedom to put out whatever story that you desire. But can you? When you have paying readers, you have to cater to their tastes. And unlike advertisers, readers love opinions.

The incentive to keep readers happy – and the penalty for failing – are greater than ever.

The Economist, Jul 2020

I love the below observation by an IIT senior who has been a writer for many years now.

It’s interesting that back when the New York Times was [just] a dead-tree periodical, it had a tagline that went “all the news that’s fit to print”. Now that it’s gone online, got a paywall and had to get into real time news, it’s become an outrage machine.”

Pertinent Observations, 30 Sep 2020

#2 Information inequality

Not everyone can afford paid subscriptions, so those with less money get left out from accessing it. Who do they rely on for great quality news?

We saw earlier that in US, ~20% pay for access to pay-walled news. 24% of them are also concerned about others missing out on what they read.

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism / Digital News Report 2020

#3 Subscription fatigue

Even those who have subscriptions, soon run into a subscription fatigue – how many publications can you really subscribe to? And then you have other subscriptions to take care of as well, like Netflix.

When everything goes behind paywall, you would most likely miss out on a diverse coverage at the cost of a hypothetical freedom of press / better quality.

Although the number of readers paying for online news has increased in many countries, this trend is driven by a ‘winner-take-most’ trend in which large national news brands draw the highest proportion of subscribers. Around half of those that subscribe to any online or combined package in the United States use the New York Times or the Washington Post and a similar proportion subscribe to either The Times or the Telegraph in the UK.

The average (median) number of news subscriptions per person – among those that pay – is just ‘one’ even in high-income households in the US.

To sum up, a journalist can have freedom both in a subscription model and an ad-driven model (or a mix of both, with varying ratio) or even in a charity / donation model (that say Wikipedia deploys). Indians are indeed willing to support donation models too. In a survey, 37% showed support.


In fact this is the model I advocate for my own writing – I want my wiring to be open to all, but ‘patrons’ are always welcome. If you want to fund my work, feel free. I would be grateful.

Likewise, freedom of press can be exercised both in ad-driven model and in a subscription model. There are way more factors at play than just the economics here. What matters at the end of the day is that journalists get to do a good job (and not just view their content as a product) and get paid one way or another.

I want to leave you with the following parting commentary, borrowed from here.

Journalism is facing stiff competition for attention and its connection with the public is threatened by news avoidance, low trust, and the perception that news does not help people live the lives they want to live. But in many ways, the best journalism today is better than ever – more accessible, more timely, more informative, more interactive, more engaged with its audience.


That will be all for this blog. Hope you learnt something.


Explained – why ‘be proud of Hindu culture’ pages / accounts really exist.

Let me introduce you to this beautiful insta account with 122k+ followers.

Alright let’s get going. Can’t wait to know my Bharat more. What can be as harmless as a page that is just about making one aware about ancient science?

OK. So this ‘ancient’ trivia wants us Hindus to feel ashamed that a temple was taken away from an Indian currency note?

The year ‘1954’ makes me wonder – was Nehru the fake Hindu behind it?

No wait, here’s the reality – this currency was very much in circulation all the way till 1978 when it was finally demonetized by the most anti Congress Government ever – the Janata Party. Morarji Desai of Janata Party was the first non-Congress prime minister in independent modern India’s history (there was no BJP then).

While the 1,000 rupees note was at least real, the above are fake coins! These are not currency coins but “temple tokens”!

One of the objectives of such accounts / sites is to make Hindus feel that the past was so much better for them and that the present represses their freedom.

Many of you will be surprised to note that this literally is like the fist rule of fascism – “build a mythic past”.

How fascism works!

Below is the table of content from a book that I read recently (How fascism works). Note the name of the first chapter.

Alright, let’s get back to the “ancient_science” account now…

When the mythic past is being built, a language is not just that – it is so much more – something that facilitates ‘unfoldment of higher awareness’! A language is not just a means to express ideas and discoveries (like this blog) but something that ’emulates the mantric sounds of the cosmic mind’!

Is it by any chance possible that the Vedas were written in Sanskrit because that was the *only* language that the authors knew to write in?

I crosschecked some of the above quotes and guess what, they are legit. But there are two issues with the post. First, the headline – “Influenced by Hindu Dharma”.

All these guys read some Hindu texts (like Gita). And there is a reason. They were all trying to find the connection between physics and philosophy and that meant they had to read up the well known philosophies (including eastern and Hindu philosophy of which Swami Vivekananda was a great spreader of, during this time). This explains the quotes – not endorsement of Hindu dharma.

The word dharma encompasses duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and “right way of living” – none of these scientists have ever proclaimed that the Hindu / Sanatana dharma influenced them. But of course that shouldn’t come in the way of evoking the pride that we must attach to being Hindus.

The second issue with this post is that it makes use of what’s called the halo effect to fool one’s brain. I have written about the halo effect in another blog, but in short – it is our instinctive disability that makes us believe that if someone is good in some aspects, that person is good in all aspects (and vice-versa).

For example, Tesla (quoted above) disagreed with the theory of atoms being composed of smaller subatomic particles, stating there was no such thing as an electron creating an electric charge! Today, any school student will tell that Tesla was wrong. This doesn’t necessarily make Tesla a fool. And yet it doesn’t necessarily mean that every single quote of Tesla is of value! Same goes with others.

Yes. Just like below is the beauty of Islam?

And what about this? Beauty of Sikhism?

Let’s get to the beauty of temples now…

Posts like these try to make you feel proud of the kind of amazing temples Hindus built centuries ago. Except that the construction of this ‘ancient’ structure was started in 1990!

There is a much older ancient temple (not so instagram-worthy) in the same place too. But the Gopuram that you see in the image is not that. It’s common for Gopurams to be added to older temples. Both the Gopuram and a Shiva statue were funded by NRI business tycoon B R Shetty. And it’s a great thing if religious rich folks build grand Gopurams or temples. I have nothing against them really. I am only trying to show you the overall motivation of insta accounts that put together posts like these. They don’t care about B R Shetty or the great work that he did. What do they care about? You will see for yourself. Just read on!

Is there any reason for us H for Hindus to be not super proud of such glorious past? Tell me. What else did our ancestors have in mind other than to make a ‘fashion statement’? Apparently, a lot!

This 12th-century Hindu temple was commissioned by King Vishnuvardhana in 1117 CE, on the banks of the Yagachi River in Belur (then Velapura – an early Hoysala Empire capital). The temple was built over three generations and took over hundred years to finish. It was repeatedly damaged and plundered during wars and repeatedly rebuilt and repaired over its history.

In 1774, Haidar Ali was the de facto ruler on behalf of the Wadiyar dynasty. Ali got the temple repaired (a Hindu officer was given the task). In 1935, parts of the temple was cleaned and restored with financing by the Mysore government and grants by the Wadiyar dynasty. [source]

Now here’s an interesting bit that some of you proud Hindus may find rather offensive – the temple artwork depicts scenes of secular life in the 12th century, dancers and musicians. It is a Vaishnava temple that reverentially includes many themes from Shaivism and Shaktism, as well as images of a Jina from Jainism and the Buddha from Buddhism.

One more illustrious insight? The Vijayanagara Empire sponsored the addition of smaller shrines in the temple complex, dedicated to goddesses and the Naganayakana mandapa that were constructed by collecting the war ruins of other demolished temples in Belur area and reusing them!

Posts from accounts like “ancient_science” remain silent on all such details, by design. These accounts don’t exist to teach you history. They just want to use selective / distorted and if needed, fake history to help create a mythical past for you.

If one can convince a population that they are rightfully exceptional, that they are destined by nature or by religious fate to rule other populations, one has already convinced them of a monstrous lie.

In a glorious past that fascism aims to create, members of the chosen community had their ‘rightful’ place at the top that set the cultural and economic agenda for everyone else.

“Now” this is a masjid. There are only two minor issues. “Now” = 15th century! Yes this has been a mosque since 15th century! And the second minor issue – the claim that this was once a temple is unverified! Of course. Just don’t take it to the Supreme Court because you know what happens in the end.

The photograph is real and not photoshopped if that’s what you are wondering. It is Daitya Sudan temple situated in Lonar, Maharashtra.

There is no record as such of how one of the gates has this Islamic architecture looking upper half thingy but let’s just assume an Islamic invasion it must have been. What lazy invaders, then?

It’s interesting that this insta account teaches us nothing about temple demolition beyond an Islamic war against Hinduism. So let me talk about it then. Learning some more history is not harmful, is it?

Recorded instances of Indian kings attacking the temples of their political rivals date from at least the eighth century, when Bengali troops destroyed what they thought was the image of Vishnu Vaikuntha, Kashmir’s state deity under King Lalitaditya (r. 724–60).

This is from the book India in the Persianage Age 1000-1765.

  • In the early tenth century, the Rashtrakuta monarch Indra III not only demolished the temple of Kalapriya (at Kalpi near the Jamuna River), patronized by the Rashtrakutas’ deadly enemies the Pratiharas, but took special delight in recording the fact;
  • In the late eleventh century, the Kashmiri King Harsha raised the plundering of enemy temples to an institutionalized activity;
  • In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, kings of the Paramara dynasty attacked and plundered Jain temples in Gujarat.

And you know what, I am not going to judge them. The way temples and religions and Hindus and Muslims are talked about in the present was NOT how they were viewed and talked about in the past. And therefore, using selected real / fake stories from past to influence the present thinking is nothing but a means to manipulate into imagining things a certain way!

Austrians are the biggest shiv-bhakts you see. And Shivji must have one day accidentally gone to Alps instead of Himalayas.

Every cylindrical ling / phallus shaped thing in the world is a proof of the spread of our culture. What is the lie in this? Leaning tower of Pisa? Shiv ling. The Qutab Minar? Shivling. You have to be blind to not see it.

The Eisriesenwelt (German for “World of the Ice Giants”) is a natural limestone and ice cave located in Werfen, Austria, about 40 km south of Salzburg. The cave is inside the Hochkogel mountain in the Tennengebirge section of the Alps. It is the largest ice cave in the world, extending more than 42 km and visited by about 200,000 tourists every year.

At least the ice-cave photo from Austria was factually correct. But see that “Sudhwara – Africa – 6000 years” image in the above grid? That is not even from Africa! I did a reverse image search and it turns out that structure is in Ireland!

The understanding of and the respect for our own mythological past and our own history will form the first condition for more firmly anchoring the coming generation in the soil of Europe’s original homeland.

Alfred Rosenberg – a leading Nazi ideologue and editor of the prominent Nazi newspaper the Völkischer Beobachter (1924)

Yay. Victim. But wait, not really?

India Today Anti Fake News War Room (AFWA) has found the claim to be false. Pakistani Hindus celebrated the Shivratri festival in Karachi between February 21 and 23, 2020.

India Today

In a 1922 speech at the Fascist Congress in Naples, Benito Mussolini declared – “we have created our myth. The myth is a faith, a passion. It is not necessary for it to be a reality. Our myth is the nation, our myth is the greatness of the nation! And to this myth, this greatness, which we want to translate into a total reality, we subordinate everything”.

Of course!

Fascist leaders appeal to history to replace the actual historical record with a glorious mythic replacement that, in its specifics, can serve their political ends and their ultimate goal of replacing facts with power.

Such pride inducing ancient science! Could it possibly be untrue?

The astrolabe was invented in Hellenistic Greece around the second century, but it was the Islamic world which preserved this Greek knowledge, elaborated upon it and then disseminated it eastwards up to India and westwards up to England.

In his India, Al Biruni claims to have composed a manual on the astrolabe in Sanskrit verse. The work does not survive, but it is quite probable that Al Biruni had brought the astrolabe with him and taught its working principles to his Hindu interlocutors at Multan in the first quarter of the eleventh century.

Proceedings of the 13th World Sanskrit Conference

OK, one last example and then I am done.

Aww – so beautiful. Let me quote something from a renowned Dalit activist and writer – Kancha Illaiah.

Hinduism has been claiming that the Dalitbahujans are Hindus, but at the same time their very Gods are openly against them. As a result, this religion, from its very inception, has a fascist nature, which can be experienced and understood only by the Dalitbahujans, not by Brahmins who regard the manipulation and exploitation as systemic and not as part of their own individual consciousness.

…unless one examines in detail how all the main Hindu Gods are only killers and oppressors of the Dalitbahujans, and how the Dalitbahujan castes have built a cultural tradition of their own, and Gods and Goddesses of their own (who have never been respected by the brahminical castes), one cannot open up the minds of the Dalitbahujans to reality.

Why I Am Not a Hindu – Kancha Illaiah

The dangers of fascist politics come from the particular way in which it dehumanizes segments of the population. It aims to limit your capacity for empathy, leading to the justification of inhumane treatment, from repression of freedom, mass imprisonment, and expulsion to, in extreme cases, mass extermination. Go check out the kind of comments the account attracts and you will see what is true intended outcome of running such accounts – it’s succeeding in its job. In the mean time that I wrote this blog, it added 2,000 more followers.

So now you know why accounts like “ancient_science” exist – they play their role in promoting fascism. Let someone else know too?


If everyone had friends from minority groups, would there be less bigotry overall?

In one of my Instagram stories, I wrote about the need for more Hindus to have at least one good Muslim friend. Likewise, upper castes should have one good lower-caste friend. This I proposed would make the Bhakts more empathetic (Bhakts I believe are predominantly upper caste Hindu men).

Note: You can also listen to this blog in my podcast (to subscribe to my podcast channel, search for VATSAnalysis on your favourite podcast platform)

To this suggestion, someone pointed out that this may not help at all.

“Having a friend really makes little to no difference to Bhakts / card carrying RSS member for that matter. The hypocrisy is too deep”, P commented and shared the below cartoon.

View this post on Instagram

A cartoon by @ellisjrosen. #NewYorkerCartoons

A post shared by The New Yorker Cartoons (@newyorkercartoons) on

“All these people have friends. But they consider them friends only until outside their doorstep”, P added. “They never give up on rituals and cultural processes. They stay with the family circles and with those, they have constructed beliefs that make a villain out of minorities.”

Since this ‘friendship ain’t gonna do nothing’ theory was primarily coming from the P’s personal experiences, I wanted to find out if there were studies available, where sociologists / social scientists had tried to test this hypothesis.

Life’s real answers are mostly neither here, nor there – they are somewhere in between! 🙂

Jamil Zaki is the director of The Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab. Following are some insights he shares in his book:

  • In all-white housing projects in US, 75% of residents said they’d dislike living alongside blacks; but in mixed projects, only 25% disliked having black neighbors.
  • In all-white platoons in US, 62% of soldiers opposed integrating the armed forces; but among whites who had been in a mixed platoon, only 7% opposed such integration.

Do you now think there is a possibility of an evidence based support for what I was instinctively thinking? In fact, there’s a name for it – the ‘Contact Hypothesis’.

Bigotry often boils down to a lack of acquaintance.

Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice

The antidote to bigotry that the Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport proposed in his 1954 book was simple – Bring people together – which in psychology, came to be known as the ‘Contact Hypothesis‘.

But Contact doesn’t work all the time. In fact, in some cases, it can actually make things worse.

The Boston commuter train experiment

When each morning at the same time, some Latino passengers were ‘planted’ on a Boston commuter train – and this was done for ten days – it was observed that the white commuters who saw Latinos grew less tolerant of immigration than they had been before.

“Goodwill contact without concrete goals accomplishes nothing”, Allport proposed, followed by recommendations to make such Contact initiatives truly effective (things like giving the groups mutual goals, making the interactions personal etc.)

Allport proposed that for most favorable results of such Contact initiatives, groups should be given equal status (even if one group has more power in real life). But now we know it takes more than that (in part thanks to the Sender-Responder experiment).

The Sender-Responder experiment

Emile Bruneau – Director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at University of Pennsylvania – started with the premise that if one group is silenced for most part in real life, perhaps they should be given greater status when the groups come together.

To test this idea, he paired Mexican immigrants and white U.S. citizens who had never met. In each pair,

  • one person was assigned the role of “sender” – who would write a short essay about the hardships facing their group;
  • the second person – the “responder” – would read the essay and then summarize it in their own words and pass it back.

When white Americans acted as responders (reading what Mexicans wrote and then summed it up themselves), they said they felt better about Mexican immigrants. The Mexican immigrants who acted as senders also felt the same.

But when Mexican immigrants acted as responders (where they had to read about hardships of white Americans), they felt worse about the white Americans.

Brunue tried similar experiments in different contexts and settings and the results were the same. The minority group is already well aware of the majority narrative / perspective. In a sit-down where say both men and women are supposed to share their perspectives, men get to gain real insights; women – not so much.

Women are so keenly aware of the male experience because our entire existence had to be kind of through that lens. Whereas men have never had to understand the female experience in order to exist in the world.

Sarah Silverman (from The War for Kindness)

Contact Hypothesis works, but it works best when it reverses the existing power structure, rather than ignoring it in the name of ‘equality’.

Before I end, let me share another story / experiment from the book – this one is on psychopaths. Psychopaths, by definition, have impaired empathy – they simply don’t care about other people’s emotion. So the question is – IS IT POSSIBLE TO ALTER THE EMPATHY LEVEL OF PSYCHOPATHS TOO?

The short answer is yes! I know I know…

Christian Keysers and his colleagues traveled to prisons around the Netherlands and scanned the brains of both psychopathic and non-psychopathic criminals as they were shown images of people in pain.

As expected, psychopaths didn’t show a mirroring response (activation of mirror neurons takes place in our brain when we feel someone else’s feelings / pains / movement). The non-psychopathic criminals showed such mirroring response.

This may suggest that psychopaths’ lack of empathy is “hardwired” into their brains. But then Keysers’s team ran a second version of the study – the result was no more the same!

The psychopaths were now asked to focus on victims’ pain and to do their best to imagine how it felt. And when the psychopaths did this, their brains mirrored suffering in almost exactly the same way as non-psychopaths!

Bottom-line – with the right nudge, anyone can be triggered to show empathy.

The book of course talks a lot about short-term empathy and long-term empathy and what works when and the need for more research in select areas etc. There is no way I can sum all that up in a blog (nor should I). If you like the premise and whatever little that I have shared, it’s definitely a meaningful read.

As I end, let me leave you with a Ted talk by Jamil Zaki where he touches upon few more aspects of empathy (like his Roddenbery hypothesis). That will be all for this blog – hope your learnt something useful. If you like what I write, do subscribe to my Sunday newsletter.


India is in a much better position than other countries – is Modi right about this Covid-19 claim?

If you like watching video more than reading – I have video-fied this blog – so you can just watch me explain my analysis below.

And now the original blog…
PM Modi made some claims this week.

The above video should play from 7:22. You will hear Modi claim the following:

  • India’s recovery rate is better than other countries
  • The death rate (%age of total cases who died) is less compared to most other countries
  • Losing even one life is a loss – but overall many lives have been saved
  • The danger of the virus is not yet over – we need to continue being alert (masks / social distancing / hand-washing / hygiene)

All of the above is true.

I want to make something clear though – the first three bullet points are basically the same point – when you are infected and you don’t die, what happens? You ‘recover’! So it goes without saying that high ‘recovery rate’ = low death %age = many lives saved. They are not three different things. But then Modi has always been overboard on ‘marketing’! Which politician isn’t?

Below quote is from next day – 27 Jul 2020.

You can hear him say the above quoted lines in the below video (that will play from 3:20).

And if you watch the video further, you will notice that Modi is citing the same parameters he did the day before – lower death %age – higher recovery rate.

Many Modi haters / bashers and far-left folks got extremely agitated.

How can Modi say we are doing better than most other countries, when today we clearly have the third highest case count globally?

Yes, India is indeed in top three if one looks at cases.

As on 30 Jul 2020 – WHO

Even if you consider total death toll, we are in top ten (no.6).

As on 30 Jul 2020 – WHO

But here’s the thing – neither Modi is lying nor the doubters are wrong.

The question really is – what is the right way to look at how a country is managing its Covid situation?

Modi assumes it is by looking at death rates (not total infection or total death toll). The anti-Modi camp wants the ‘total’ cases to be considered.

My general views in life often align with the anti-Modi camp but this time, I would side with Modi. I think it’s silly to look at total cases. Death is what really matters. If you don’t die, you just recover and move on with life!

With that, let’s revisit the death growth rate.

If for all the countries, one compares growth in total Covid deaths from the time when they all saw their first few deaths – below is what that graph looks like:

Source: FT

You can see above that there are 6 countries (grey lines) between US and India where deaths grew much faster than India.

Out of the six, for two of them the total death toll continues to grow rapidly – Brazil & Mexico.

For the remaining four grey lines between US and India, you can see the lines have tapered down (meaning growth in death tolls has slowed). In fact, two lines have been overtaken by India (meaning India has more people dead than them).

UK, Italy, France & Spain have tapered down. India has overtaken France & Spain in total deaths.

Then there are a bunch of other countries below India where growth has been much slower, and total deaths on an avg, seem to be hovering around 10k-20k mark (compared to 30k+ where India is today).

Now let me dissect the relative performance by breaking down comparison in three legs:

  • leg 1: first 100+ death (for each country) till India crossed 1k+ deaths
  • leg 2: first 1k+ death (for each country) till India crossed 10k + deaths
  • leg3: likewise, from 10k+ till present (when India’s death toll is over 30k)

To avoid, clutter, I will not compare all the countries. Firstly, let me take off US – the death growth rate and the total deaths for US are literally “off the charts”. Keeping US in the mix screws up the rest of the graph. We already know US is the worst by a big margin.

So let me pick Spain, UK, France, Italy, Brazil and Mexico to begin with. To this list, let me add few more countries from the lower growth rate cluster – which if you observe carefully, can be viewed in two categories:

  • cluster 1- Peru, Russia & Iran
  • cluster 2 – the bunch of grey lines further below Iran

From the bunch of grey lines further below Iran (cluster 2), let me randomly pick up few countries – say Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, Bangladesh & Philippines, to compare.

Before I proceed

I want to make it clear that at this point, I choose not to get into the data-authenticity debate (which is real). All countries probably cheat on data – some less, some more. Since we don’t have enough info on the scale of this cheating, let’s just assume that in relative comparison, the cheating-factor gets evened out.

And now to leg-wise comparison

Below is how the chart looks like for leg 1 (first 100 deaths for the select countries, to the time India crossed the 1,000 total deaths figure). Date for starting-point is obviously different for each country.

You can see here that in the 24 days it took for India’s total death toll to grow from 100+ to 1,000+, Spain, UK, France & Italy (let’s label them – SUFI) grew all the way to be in the 8,000-12,000 deaths range! So did we do better than some of these advanced countries? Yes.

Did we do better simply because there are more older people in SUFI? May be.

Graph generated from data compiled from

Lesser no. of older people in India clearly seems to have played some role. But did the strict lock-down early on also matter?

May be it did? Did the fact that our PM advocated social distancing (and later masks) and has continued to do so (in contrast to say Brazil and US) have any impact on the death toll growth? Again, I would think yes.

Let’s see how the leg 1 growth chart looks like after we get rid of SUFI (that way we can focus more on the rest of the countries where the death-toll growth is somewhat comparable to what we see for India).

In the above chart, you can see for yourself that in leg 1, India is just an average performer.

In the no. of days that it took for India’s death toll to rise from 100+ to 1k+, countries like Brazil, Iran, Turkey, Mexico and Russia reached relatively higher death toll figures (all the way up to even 2500). And other countries did better than India.

Did the countries that did worse, do it simply because they all have way more older people compared to India? Not really.

Other than Russia, most other countries have similar percentage of older people as compared to India (10 to 18% range – India being somewhere in the middle).

India has clearly managed its Covid situation better than Mexico, Turkey & Iran. The old-age logic can’t be used here. Iran in fact has an even younger demographic than India and yet it reached 2500 deaths in the same number of days compared to 1,000 for India (starting at the same point of 100).

Let’s now look at leg 2 (starting-point for each country is its first 1k+ death, plotted till India crosses the 10k total death mark).

As you see above, it took India around 50 days to travel from 1k to 10k+ . But not only did the usual suspects (SUFI) do much worse (reaching 25k to 35k deaths in the same number of days), Brazil & Mexico too reached far higher death toll figures than India (25k+ and 15k+ respectively).

So even in this second leg of death toll journey, India doesn’t seem to have performed that bad; just average. Some countries have done worse and others seem to have managed their death growth much better (keeping it below 5k – Turkey, Egypt, Bangladesh, Indonesia).

On to leg 3 now!

Even in here, India still looks like an average performer, doesn’t it?

In the time that India journeyed from 10k+ to 33k+ deaths (present), Brazil, UK and Mexico did worse. Many other countries that did better than India (lesser deaths in the same no. of days) where not drastically different – Italy, France, Spain! But then Peru, Russia and Iran did much better (may be because their journey has started only recently and they are better prepared to treat patients?)

How does it look like when we observe leg 1 (100+ to 1k+ deaths) for India, Japan, China, & South Korea?

Not too bad right? By the way over 40% of Japan is more than 55 years of age. Japan is like the class topper. India is an average student. US will need to repeat the class.

What about leg 2 (1k+ to 10k+ journey) for the above countries? Only India and China remain to be compared, because neither Japan nor South Korea have a death toll crossing 1k till date.

Clearly something happened in China once it reached 3k death toll. Since then China’s total death toll figure refuses to cross even the 5k mark. Could India have even been able to pull this feat off? There is no way to tell. Does this make India one of the ‘worst’ performers? No.

If one had to look at just one graph, what would that be?

In conclusion I would say that the best way to really look at the relative performance of any country is to look at how the death per million figure grew, when compared from a common starting-point (say 3 deaths per million – which is exactly Financial Times lets you track). 

In the above chart, all the countries on the left of India (blue line), did worse than India.

For some of them (SUFI for example), old-age was a factor. For others, death toll grew faster because the pandemic started earlier (in Feb-March – when treatment strategies were not as well developed as they are today). Then for other countries like US and Brazil, bad leadership can clearly be linked to bad performance. And of course, a mix of all these factors apply on a country by country basis.

Modi’s messaging, from the very beginning, has focused on the right things (even when he has also continuously spoken about many other random things – from tali, thali to atmanirbhar catchphrase and what not). It is hard to deny that without his sustained focus on social distancing, wearing masks etc. – India would have done worse (just look at US & Brazil). And without an early lock-down, our death-toll would have grown faster in the leg 1 (difficult to say by how much though).

What about the migrant worker issue that the lockdown caused?

Yes, that sucks. The government simply didn’t anticipate the implication and messed up the entire situation leaving it to the civil society to plug in the gap. I did document that story myself, in case you have not yet seen it.

But I guess that’s the only major blunder. And in spite of the blunder, today India is not doing as bad as many would want you to believe! That’s all I’ve got to say really. I hope you gained some good insights from this analysis.


The three theories that explain China’s border aggression with India.

You an also listen to this post below.

Has the below question crossed your mind too?

Of course, it is not just India that China has been messing up with. The list is long and growing – the Philippines, Australia, Europe, the US, and Canada.

The puzzle is why China is choosing aggression over magnanimity, or even over mere inaction. After all, China’s current leaders probably view America as a declining power that will soon organically vacate the hegemonic position that China seeks to occupy. If so, just as Deng Xiaoping, the father of China’s reforms 40 years ago, advised geopolitical patience until China became stronger, a Dengian strategy today would be to wait for the US to become weaker.

Arvind Subramanian, Business Standard 21 Jul 2020

Theory 1 – This shall unite the Chinese citizens.

One of the first few persons who I found had a theory to explain this behaviour by China, was Sonam Wangchuk.

Sonam theorizes that China is probably doing what it is doing to project the country in some kind of a big global fight with rest of the world. This perception of a common enemy (many common enemies rather) will unite all the Chinese and keep their support for CCP intact.

Why does CCP need to unite the Chinese? Are they not united already?

Sonam claims that there is a growing unrest within the Chinese populace. That may eventually lead to civil protests bigger than what China has seen in its recent history (unless of course CCP succeeds in its strategy). In the later part of his video, Sonam gets into the ‘what do we do about’ mode, which I’d like to avoid addressing.

By the way an astrologer (who did his B.Tech from IIT Madras long time ago) proclaims that China will soon get split into smaller countries (like what happened to USSR). Don’t ask me why I watch such astrology videos – let’s just call me super curious. 🙂 This same astrologer also predicts that Modi will come back to power for a third term, but will leave midway and take sanyas!

Coming back to China, one day I randomly stumbled upon a Youtuber (Winston aka serpentza) who’d published a video titled “Why I left China for Good”.

The above embedded video should play from 06:45 – where he basically says that from his personal experience of having lived in China (he is originally from South Africa), CCP does not let any criticism of the government come out in public. That to him was a very stifling environment to live in – so he decided to move out.

Most of you would instinctively agree with this claim. Me too. Of course one may say that the way a person from SA (or US, UK, even India) sees this situation – stifling – may be very different from how it is probably viewed by an average Chinese citizen. The Chinese citizens are – may be – used to such behavior from Govt. and don’t mind it as much.

Of course this view is debatable. In any case, it is something I will skip getting into, for now. All that even the internet offers on this, are just anecdotes – some Chinese tell you they don’t like their Govt., others say they are okay with it. How does one even find out what the “average” Chinese opinion is?

On a side-note, what definitely felt weird to me while watching the above video was this realization – that the very words this Youtuber chose to express his feelings for CCP, can as well be used to describe the present Indian Govt! Again, some of you may not agree with me, but let’s discuss that some other time!

Theory 2 – Message to India.

Shekhar Gupta (the below video should play from 09:41) talks about China’s need to give India a ‘message’ that it is the big boss (they apparently got triggered by major infra development by India along the border).

It sure is a theory, but a little too simple, isn’t it? A better, more plausible theory comes from Arvind Subramanian, who I quoted earlier.

Theory 3 – The time to rule the world has come.

Arvind sums it up nicely:

Perhaps China’s leaders once again see the world through a victim’s lens. As they perceive it, the powerful West had kept a weak China in check since the early 1800s. Now that the roles are reversed, the regime believes it is time to correct historical injustices. With Xi’s aggressive insecurity having replaced Deng’s calm confidence, China now places a premium on settling its borders and returning to the glory days of the Middle Kingdom.

Arvind Subramanian, Business Standard 21 Jul 2020

So yeah, these are the three theories that I have come to find so far. Do you have any other theory? Have you heard of anything else that explains why China is doing what it is doing with India? Do let me know.

If you want a quick refresher on the Indo-China border conflict, I created a 10-slider illustration some time back (mostly relying on a NY times summary article).

I had made the above deck when the Galwan valley thing had just started. As of now (24 Jul 2020), what we know is that in spite of all the talks about de-escalation and disengagement, things haven’t really cooled down.

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Anyway, other than getting inspired to draw informative illustrations and satirical cartoons, I also had the urge to read up more about China. So I got hold of few books.

I am reading the first one – by Job Fenby – on Kindle and listening to the second one on Audible (When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques). Both are insightful.

I’ll see if I ever get to the third book – ‘Has China Won’ – that I came to know about when I randomly stumbled upon the below video (where the author is interviewed). This is the second time I used the phrase “randomly stumbled upon”, didn’t I? But is anything ‘random’ on Youtube anymore? 🙂

This is not a contest between a democracy & a communist party system. It’s a contest between a plutocracy (US) and a meritocracy (CCP).

Kishore Mahbubani (in the video above)

Are you reading anything on China too? Do let me know. That will be all for this post.