10 drops

When does a war end? Is it when victory is declared? Is it when the last innocent dies? When the last shot is fired?

When is a disaster over? When the earth stops shaking or when the stormwinds fall quiet?

Is it when the last tear is shed? Is it even then, or is it when the edge of memory is dulled enough to lose its edge? Does it end at different times for each, relative like everything else?

I like to think it is when you rediscover hope. It can be fragile and easily broken, but it still rises through the mud and blooms, welcoming a new day, doomed though it might be.

Today, I got a 0.5 ml shot in my arm and watched my spouse get it, a small amount of liquid signifying a large amount of hope, fragile as it might be.

I was already one of the privileged, able to stay locked at home and safe with everyone I love. But fear is the same everywhere if you have something to lose, although we, the privileged might deserve a weaker claim to it.

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When a circle becomes a point

My desk at home has plenty of space, but I realize now that a cramped cubicle meant a friend three feet away.

The day has two hours more than before, but fewer for myself.

The air is cleaner outside, but I only get to inhale my own stale breath.

I can watch a new movie without getting annoyed by a couple making out in the next row, or a kid throwing popcorn. But I realize now that I was witnessing a hundred different stories, not one.

I realize now that my daily circular commute was a window into many worlds streaming past, unlike the swiveling door I’m stuck in now.

A home isn’t a home if you can’t leave. All my life I tried to reach my destination faster, but never stopped to think if the journey was perhaps the point.

Writers camp #332

Asif sat up in his bunk with panic spilling over from his dreams to reality. The clock showed 9 AM. He looked down and cursed to see Paul already at his desk and typing away furiously. He jumped down and promptly fell flat on his face as his foot got caught in his blanket. He groaned and tried to get up again.

“Can you keep it down, please? I lost the thread I had in my head”, Paul said. “Ay biteerally schept gown”, Asif said, pinching his bleeding nose. “What?”, Paul asked. “I literally put myself down”, Asif said with some effort. “I don’t have time for your lame jokes”, Paul said and turned to his laptop, scratching his head and trying to remember the story thread he forgot.

“It’s not like you were on the verge of turning into Hemingway with your next sentence anyway”, Asif said and sat down at the desk right next to him, his elbows almost touching Paul. The labor camp authorities didn’t see the value of providing elbow space to writers. Paul tucked his elbows in with a long-suffering look and continued typing. Asif peeped at his screen quickly. “Hey, you can’t plagiarize my bloody nose when you didn’t even give a flying fuck that I got a bloody nose,” he said, angrily.

“I’m trying something new”, Paul said.

“Plagiarism isn’t new”, Asif retorted.

“Oh fuck off”, Paul said.

“If you’re trying to keep it to yourself, I can see everything on your screen”, Asif reminded Paul.

Paul sighed. “It’s a journal, except that I substitute the boring parts for something better. Like instead of a prison cell, we are on a cramped spaceship heading to Alpha Centauri, and instead of falling from your bunk, you floated up and hit the ceiling. Your blood is balled up and floating around”, he said.

“Wow, that was a hell of a lot of exposition. Haven’t you ever heard of show, don’t tell”, Asif commented. Paul snorted.

Asif felt a sudden rush of panic as he realized he lost 10 more minutes joking around. But don’t you need to do something to get inspired? This was the most eventful day in a month, except for the day when their neighboring cell inmates got into a fistfight to get inspiration for a supposed sequel to fight club. There were no issues with writer’s block in writer’s camp # 332. You write or you die. Does wonders for deadlines, even though it messes up world-building and character development. He rushed to start a new chapter on his writing software.

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Fake news, faith, passive and tail risks

The world was hit by a once in a century pandemic, a virus that was deadly enough to kill millions but innocuous enough to spread easily and widely. We battled to scale up intensive care beds, ventilators, testing facilities. Healthcare workers battled exhaustion and heat stroke in PPE kits. We pooled all our resources in a global effort to develop vaccines. What do you think was the biggest challenge of them all?

Not the challenge of developing a vaccine faster than ever done before, not keeping economies afloat while lockdowns and shut downs ran businesses into the ground. No, the most insurmountable challenge of them all is battling the misinformation sent on WhatsApp by your friendly neighbourhood fake news uncle. The one that sends you good morning GIFs followed by critical pieces of information about the pH level of the virus and how to counter it with warm water and juice that was stirred clockwise three times at noon.

A first of its kind mRNA vaccine was developed in 2 days after getting the genetic code of the virus and deployed in a year after testing, but no one can stop WhatsApp uncle and his fake news. Not all the governments or scientists in the world. No mask can filter it, no air purifier can stop it.

What are the implications? We will probably never reach herd immunity and end this pandemic. Governments are trying to speed up vaccinations but sooner or later, they are going to hit a wall and not have any more people willing to get vaccinated. The fake news virus got to them first and immunised them against the vaccine. Why risk living a long life when you can die early from a preventable disease?

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Little things changed by COVID-19

When we think about how the world has changed because of COVID-19, we tend to think of the big things – everyone (who can) working from home, schools staying closed, international trips becoming a distant memory. But a lot of these big changes will probably roll back to some degree after the pandemic is over. I was curious about the little things that changed and will probably stay changed. This is a quick list from my observations, but would love to hear about additions to this:

1. Wallets

I think I’ve always hated the two fold wallet but lived with, without thinking too much. Its too thick and is literally a pain in the ass. I would take it out of my pocket and put it on my desk, or stuff it in front of the gear shift in my car, but for some reason I would never leave the house without it, although I rarely use cash and keep little of it in my wallet. I have an assortment of cards and then an assortment of receipts and all kinds of junk that accumulated over time.

Since I became a near complete homebody, I’ve got used to not having the familiar weight of the wallet in my pocket, and consequently keep forgetting it. It also seems even more stupid than before to sit on a block of leather when I do remember to take it. I therefore started hunting for other options – a phone case that can carry a cards, a small card holder. While I was searching for this, I stumbled upon this CNET.com article about exactly this, and realised I’m not alone in thinking this. Link: https://www.cnet.com/news/a-slim-wallet-is-how-i-learned-to-ditch-cash/

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Tata Nexon Electric: A layman’s review after a test drive

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If you didn’t get here while searching for information about electric cars, it’s quite possible that you’re a layman like me who just didn’t realize electric cars had suddenly become mainstream, or is about to. Till recently, I thought electric cars in India are one of those things that will come some day, but that was before I read there are more than 10 electric cars from different manufacturers releasing this year. Looks like 2020 is going to be as cool and futuristic as it sounds.

I also thought electric cars with the exception of Tesla (another ‘someday’ thing for India) look like a cross between an auto-rikshaw and a Tata Nano. I don’t know if you feel differently but I HATE the look of a Reva. To me a Reva looks like one of those ugly little dogs some women carry in handbags. I acknowledge that they exist and there are people who are into it but wouldn’t be caught dead with one. In fact, I hate the Reva so much that I stopped typing for 5 minutes to try and think of a more insulting analogy. I couldn’t but I’m going to come back and edit that in if I think of something later. Because Reva had reserved the top slot in my brain’s image search for electric cars in India, I didn’t even bother reading up much about the space till I saw the MG EV and the Hyundai Kona and realized there were companies making electric cars that actually looked like cars. The second shock was that these cars now have ranges of 300-400 km on a single charge, which makes it feasible go a week in the city without worrying about range. You’ll need a home charging point which was another hurdle, but all manufacturers are offering free charging point installations even in apartments, provided you get approvals from the society and let them do the wiring. I was finally taking electric cars seriously, and out of curiosity started looking for cheaper ones than the MG and Hyundai, which led me to the Tata Nexon.

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Why Kejriwal, the fallible mortal must win

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Ask anyone from the urban middle class in India (sans Delhi) about how their political preferences evolved (chronology samjhiye), and they’ll probably tell you a story about how they once supported Kejriwal before he ‘sold out’. I too was one of those people. After a while though, I started to question this universal truth we all seem to have accepted. We seemed to be judging Kejriwal by a different standard than other politicians who can break promises at will and suffer no long-term credibility loss. Of course, the easy answer is that expectations were higher, but I don’t buy that. People had expectations about India becoming a superpower by 2020 and 15 lakhs in their account too, but falling short of lofty expectations wasn’t a high crime in those cases.

What explains this dichotomy, I wondered. One possible answer is that Kejriwal was a mortal hero. He was slapped multiple times, had ink splashed on his face on live TV, did stupid things like resigning without consulting the people, sharing a dias with Lalu Prasad Yadav and then most damning of all, he apologized multiple times for mistakes, giving conclusive proof of his fallibility. In short, we wanted a God and he just wasn’t. Legendary heroes don’t get slapped in public, not once but twice.

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Stream of consciousness blogging

Do you know how awkward it is to start writing in a blog you haven’t written in for nearly a year? Its a little like that neighbor or colleague you should have smiled at a year ago and find it weird to say good morning to anymore. Everytime I think of writing something I feel like I should have something momentous to talk about which justifies asking for someones attention after so long. Its nothing more than complacency and inertia of course, but complacency is a bigger road block than anything else in life I guess. Anyway, I had this epiphany the other day – instead of trying to come up with great content, why not just write a stream of consciousness variety of blog posts when I don’t have a fleshed out topic to write about? It reduces the burden of research and thought required, extensive proofreading, etc. and might branch out into more substantial, well thought out blog posts at some point. Most importantly, it reduces the entry barrier, or in my case, re-entry barrier to writing or blogging. It is possible that a reader might think the quality of posts is going down, but my last post was in April 2019. Its hard to go down from absolute silence. At least one other person seems to have had this idea before me – I DuckDuckGo’d ‘stream of consciousness blogging’ and found this nice post: http://webtrafficroi.com/how-to-write-stream-of-consciousness-blog-post/

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The impending tyranny of Daenerys Targaryen

Daenerys riding into winterfell with a smug look as dragons fly overhead
Courtesy: Hotstar

Spoilers ahead:

The new season of Game of Thrones aired today and the highlight of the episode was Jon discovering his true parentage and right to the iron throne. However, the bigger question is what Sam brought up when he asks Jon “You gave up your crown for the good of your people. Will she do the same?”.

The important question is not whether Daenerys will let Jon be king. She might, especially since they are pretty much an incestuous couple now in true Targaryen style. Calling themselves king and queen of the seven kingdoms wouldn’t be that hard or take away any power. The question is if Daenerys truly thinks of her crown as something she wears for the good of the people. Of course she keeps talking about making a better world and leaving the world better than how she found it, but it’s always a secondary theme in her stump speech. The primary theme is always “I am the rightful queen of the seven kingdoms” and “kneel or burn”. In her head, she is justified in most of her actions because she was wronged as a child and hunted, sold and abused across the narrow sea for a good part of her life. In many ways, many of her actions were justified, but what happens when the justifications run out and she still needs to rule and act?

What happens after they win the great war and Daenerys is on the throne in peace, a peace she brought? If she and her dragons play a pivotal role in defeating the Night’s King, she would quite naturally see herself as the savior of the seven kingdoms and beyond, in addition to being the rightful queen. Post that, if she runs into a group of people somewhere who do not want to kneel to the dragon queen, what will she do? What will she do when her dragons eat children, as they have done before? If she and her dragons rule over King’s Landing in perpetuity, will the occasional dragon kill of a citizen or a child be considered the price of the dragon queen’s protection? A sacrifice for the greater good?

The show has enough insight into her thinking to make reasonable predictions and what we know doesn’t make the future look rosy for Westeros. Let’s detail it out.

1. What does Daenerys believe in?

Don’t need to work hard to figure this one out. Here’s a direct quote:

“Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile? Faith. Not in any gods, not in myths and legends. In myself. In Daenerys Targaryen. The world hadn’t seen a dragon in centuries until my children were born. The Dothraki hadn’t crossed the sea, any sea. They did for me. I was born to rule the Seven Kingdoms, and I will.”

Extrapolate this a bit with references to how she defeated the Night’s King and saved humanity and you can underscore and bold that last bit about being born to rule.

Food for thought – If she was born to rule, and lived up to to that promise so splendidly, wouldn’t she naturally consider any future children to have a similar birthright to rule and believe in themselves and nothing else? Would they have grown up in humbling circumstances like hers to temper that sense of entitlement?

2. How deeply does Daenerys think of the fate of her people after her rule is ended?

Not much. Tyrion has raised the question of succession a couple of times and the reception wasn’t great.

Quote:

“Tyrion Lannister: Because I believe in you and the world you want to build. But the world you want to build doesn’t get built all at once. Probably not in a single lifetime. How do we ensure your vision endures? After you break the wheel, how do we make sure it stays broken?
Daenerys Targaryen: You want to know who sits on the Iron Throne after I’m dead?
Tyrion Lannister: You say you can’t have children. But there are other ways of choosing a successor. The Night’s Watch has one method, The Iron born folk, although many flaws
Daenerys Targaryen: We will discuss the succession after I wear the crown.
Tyrion Lannister: Your Grace, I saw hundreds of arrows fly towards you when you fought on Blackwater Rush, and I saw hundred of arrows miss. But any one of them could have found your heart and ended you.
Daenerys Targaryen: You’ve been thinking about my death quite a bit, haven’t you? Is this one of the items you’ve discussed with your brother in King’s Landing?
Tyrion Lannister: I’m trying to serve you by planning for the long term.
Daenerys Targaryen: Perhaps if you’d planned for the short term, we wouldn’t have lost Dorne and Highgarden. We will discuss the succession after I wear the crown.”

Her priorities seem quite clear from this exchange: Daenerys’ conquest of Westeros > Good of the realm

3. How steady has Daenerys’ moral compass been, especially as she grew in power?

Daenerys has done a lot for the downtrodden. She’s freed and saved thousands of slaves. However, what about excesses from her side?

At Slaver’s Bay, she was justifiably angry when the slavers crucified slave children to send a message to her, but what did she do in response? She crucified all the masters without differentiating between them. She assumed her enemy is a homogenous entity, equally complicit in a collective crime, only they weren’t. As explained by Hizdahr zo Loraq the son of a crucified master who joins Daenerys on the show and explained in more detail in the books, many of the masters she crucified were ones who fought against the murder of the children and were reformists who fought with their own people. They were crucified just like the children they tried to save, only by a different monster this time.

After the battle of the gold road, Daenerys chooses the shock and awe of burning two men to death over imprisonment or taking the black, in order to send a message. Did she really need to burn both? Couldn’t she kill the father and imprison the son at least? Or if she really had to execute them, weren’t there more humane ways to do it? Dragon fire isn’t a mandatory circus trick to please the audience.

Now you might justify this saying this was war and such things happen, but does Daenerys introspect about her own crimes or brutality? She used to, but it’s clearly changing now.

For example, her dragons once burned and ate an innocent child and the father brought her the charred remains. A visibly horrified Daenerys locked up her dragons after Jorah explained that dragons don’t know to differentiate between ours and theirs. But later, when the slavers burned her ships and came for her, Dany triumphantly let out her dragons, never to reel them in again. At the end of season 7 when she sees the dragon pit at King’s Landing, she comments on how her family was mistaken to lock up dragons and diminish their own power, a sentiment which has clearly superseded concerns about dragons flying around populated areas and preying on citizens without recognizing friend or foe. At Winterfell, Sansa raises a very relevant question – how are they supposed to feed two armies and two full grown dragons when they have no spare provisions in winter. When she asks “what does a dragon eat anyway?”, Daenerys smugly says “whatever they want”. If Winterfell runs out of cattle, what do you think ‘whatever they want’ becomes? The fact that she cares so little about it, in spite of them having killed a child before is cause for concern.

The disturbing trend evident from all this is that Daenerys is losing her ability to introspect, self correct or even experience remorse for any of her more extreme actions as time goes by, defaulting to her birthright and a belief that dragons can do what they want and in advice such as “you’re a dragon, be a dragon”. Whatever conscience she has now is outsourced to Tyrion, and she doesn’t defer to him like she once used to defer to the advice of Barristan the bold or pre-betrayal Jorah. How long can you depend on other people to check your worst impulses, especially when your own power grows?

Daenerys will undoubtedly win the war and the save humanity, but if the writers continue her story arc in true George RR Martin style, the hero might become the villain. In an interview early on, George RR Martin famously said what he didn’t like about Lord of the Rings was the lack of nuance or shades of grey. He said he was more interested in knowing what Aragorn did after he won the war – did he commit genocide of all the Orcs left alive in Mordor, what was his tax policy, how prosperous was kingdom and so on. In the case of Daenerys, the question is, will she break the wheel, or just stop it with Targaryens on top with an almost absolute belief in a divine right to rule?

There is one way out of course. Daenerys has to die in the great war, leaving Jon Snow aka Aegon Targaryen on the throne, someone who doesn’t really want to be King. I have a feeling he will be more receptive to Tyrion’s advice on experimenting with proto-democracy in Westeros. Daenerys dying would even match the old Azor Ahar prophecy in a way. The original Azor Ahai was supposed to have tempered the sword lightbringer by plunging it into the heart of his wife Nissa Nissa (disturbingly sexist). If I remember correctly, the prophecy is only that Azor Ahai will return and wield lightbringer again, not that he has to kill his wife personally. But maybe it will be an interesting parallel if Jon Snow sends his wife to her death on a dragon during a battle? Or maybe she chooses to do so herself and becomes ‘lightbringer’ with dragon fire? Bran should connect to Weirwoord.net and play The Dark Knight to Dany, so that she can internalize the quote “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” and choose wisely.

If she does and her dragons go as well, maybe just maybe, little Ghost will come out and play with Jon?

 

The internet and the constant appeal to our tribal instincts

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We were having a debate about an article about the supposed demonization (not de-monetisation) of male bonding on a Whatsapp group. The article talked about how popular culture stigmatized men who wanted to spend time with their male friends, rather than their wives. Several people objected saying marriage changes everybody’s lives and women spend less time with friends too and just don’t crib about it. Notice what happened here? The debate was about how this applies to men vs. women although the real issue or topic was actually whether people are demonized for spending time with friends, or maybe about the correct balance between spending time with friends vs. family. However, the author chose to paint it as ‘demonization of male bonding’ and instantly got men and women to debate about it on the basis of gender. I don’t know what exactly to call that – click-bait? attention-bait? debate-bait? I’m going with debate-bait- its got a nice rhyme to it.

How does this help the author or the publication? Let’s break down the formula for getting a large audience for an opinion piece.

  1. A catchy headline that will get a few people to pause the repetitive scrolling motion of their finger on a screen.
  2. An appeal to the reader’s sense of belonging to some group – man, woman, liberal, orthodox, Modi fan, non-Modi fan, patriot who wants the national anthem before a movie, people who should go to Pakistan, you know, simple, undeniably mutually exclusive groups.
  3. Content matter that fills the reader with glee, glorifying their group or talking about how they are victimized by the ‘others’ and prompting them to use it in a battle cry and a challenge to everyone else. This of course gets everyone else incensed enough to counter-attack, for which they will probably read the article to look for loopholes or reasoning flaws or maybe just to share it with a derogatory comment about how the author and his or her group is completely retarded and evil or hypocritical (insert any insult that can be applied to a group at large).

Ta-Da…pretty effective right? Of course, most authors are probably not consciously aware of following a formula. It comes to all of us quite naturally, which is why this formula is so common.

We are still a tribal species at heart, I believe. We evolved as a tribal species and we managed to make up institutions and concepts that helped us find a sense of allegiance to very large groups across distances, even when we don’t know all of them personally. We feel a kinship to our countrymen, people of our religion across countries, people of our social class, people of our skin color, and many other such groupings. But there are still tribes, just that they are a lot bigger and fluid. When you are log onto social media after reading the morning news, you’re ready to shit post on behalf of your political tribe. Once you reach your workplace, you belong to the tribe that goes to coffee together. When you’re watching an IPL match, you’re in another, and on and on it goes. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Feeling kinship on the basis of a shared belief system or ‘fiction’ is actually what sets up apart from other primates and lets us co-operate in large groups without knowing each other personally, a point made forcefully by Yuval Noah Harari in ‘Sapiens’. However, it’s important to realize this, because there are other people who do understand this instinctively and use it for their own ends.

Next time you read an article, ask yourself if it is unnecessarily appealing to your tribal nature. Does every topic or issue that applies to you apply to ‘people like you’ or are you just trying to turn it into that? If at all you have to go with the tribe vs. tribe mentality, try to do it with a little more sportsmans spirit, like sports fans or teams who compete based on the basis of these made up tribes but can shake hands or have a beer afterwards. Don’t let your outrage simmer, because that’s what translates into easy votes or magazine sales at your expense.