Curious Bends – big tobacco, internet blindness, spoilt dogs and more

1. Despite the deadly floods in Uttarakhand in 2013, the govt ignores grave environmental reports on the new dams to be built in the state

“The Supreme Court asked the Union environment ministry to review six specific hydroelectric projects on the upper Ganga basin in Uttarakhand. On Wednesday, the ministry informed the apex court that its expert committee had checked and found the six had almost all the requisite and legitimate clearances. But, the ministry did not tell the court the experts, in the report to the ministry, had also warned these dams could have a huge impact on the people, ecology and safety of the region, and should not be permitted at all on the basis of old clearances.” (6 min read, businessstandard.com)

2. At the heart of the global-warming debate is the issue of energy poverty, and we don’t really have a plan to solve the problem

“Each year, human civilization consumes some 14 terawatts of power, mostly provided by burning the fossilized sunshine known as coal, oil and natural gas. That’s 2,000 watts for every man, woman and child on the planet. Of course, power isn’t exactly distributed that way. In fact, roughly two billion people lack reliable access to modern energy—whether fossil fuels or electricity—and largely rely on burning charcoal, dung or wood for light, heat and cooking.” (4 min read, scientificamerican.com)

3. Millions of Facebook users have no idea they’re using the internet

“Indonesians surveyed by Galpaya told her that they didn’t use the internet. But in focus groups, they would talk enthusiastically about how much time they spent on Facebook. Galpaya, a researcher (and now CEO) with LIRNEasia, a think tank, called Rohan Samarajiva, her boss at the time, to tell him what she had discovered. “It seemed that in their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook,” he concluded.” (8 min read, qz.com)

+ The author of the piece, Leo Mirani, is a London-based reporter for Quartz.

4. The lengths to which big tobacco industries will go to keep their markets alive is truly astounding

“Countries have responded to Big Tobacco’s unorthodox marketing with laws that allow government to place grotesque images of smoker’s lung and blackened teeth on cigarette packaging, but even those measures have resulted in threats of billion-dollar lawsuits from the tobacco giants in international court. One such battle is being waged in Togo, where Philip Morris International, a company with annual earnings of $80 billion, is threatening a nation with a GDP of $4.3 billion over their plans to add the harsh imagery to cigarette boxes, since much of the population is illiterate and therefore can’t read the warning labels.” (18 min video, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight via youtube.com)

5. Hundreds of people have caught hellish bacterial infections and turned to Eastern Europe for a century-old viral therapy

“A few weeks later, the Georgian doctors called Rose with good news: They would be able to design a concoction of phages to treat Rachel’s infections. After convincing Rachel’s doctor to write a prescription for the viruses (so they could cross the U.S. border), Rose paid the Georgian clinic $800 for a three-month supply. She was surprised that phages were so inexpensive; in contrast, her insurance company was forking over roughly $14,000 a month for Rachel’s antibiotics.” (14 min read, buzzfeed.com)

Chart of the Week

“Deshpande takes her dog, who turned six in February, for a walk three times every day. When summers are at its peak, he is made to run on the treadmill inside the house for about half-hour. Zuzu’s brown and white hair is brushed once every month, he goes for a shower twice a month—sometimes at home, or at a dog spa—and even travels with the family to the hills every year. And like any other Saint Bernard, he has a large appetite, eating 20 kilograms of dog food every month. The family ends up spending Rs5,000 ($80)-7,000 ($112) every month on Zuzu, about double the amount they spend on Filu, a Cocker Spaniel.” (4 min read, qz.com)

The internet is cool

The internet is cool. We all know it. But why?

Seth Godin puts it succinctly:

The dryest, cleanest environment of all is the digital one. Code stays code. If it works today, it’s probably going to work tomorrow.The wettest, weirdest environment is human interaction. Whatever we build gets misunderstood, corroded and chronic, and it happens quickly and in unpredictable ways. That’s one reason why the web is so fascinating—it’s a collision between the analytic world of code and the wet world of people.

On our digital lives

With power comes responsibility, said Spiderman.

And you know what? He was damn right. This pithy quote is at the heart of our modern lives. Technology has given us tremendous power, but it comes with a responsibility to use it properly.

In this age where the world’s greatest encyclopedia is a website, where nothing is hidden from the eyes of a google bot, where every tiny details of people’s lives are being recorded by the US library of congress in the form of ‘tweets’, and where ‘Charlie bit my finger again!’ is among the most viewed scenes in the history of time, we ought to give our digital lives a serious thought.

Technological progress has touched the every human alive today. And since the explosion of the internet, every day we are offered some new digital product that is always of some apparent value to us. I have, of course, been a part of this bandwagon for quite some time now.

I am a technophile, which means that I trial any new technology that I can get my hands on. Most times, if it is any good, then I am very keen on adopting it to my life. Internet, of course, has been one of those many technologies.

Now for a small digression – let’s go back a little in time to my early experiences with technology. I got my hands on Windows 95 the same year that it was released, I got my first email in 1996 (jammu11@yahoo.com, I had access to it till 2006 when it got hacked!), every new mobile phone that came to the Indian market up until 2004 had been through my hands and I was well aware of all the fine features of each. In 2005, my Dad bought me an IBM desktop, and I was one of the first students to have a personal computer in my hostel and it came with a cherry-on-top – a flat screen monitor!

Owning a PC enabled me to access the World Wide Web whenever I wanted. I started blogging in 2006, had a Facebook account in 2007, my first tweets were sent in 2008,  and I’ve been amongst the first users for pretty much every Google product that I could get my hands on including Wave, Buzz, and Google+. But there is nothing unique about this because, just like me, millions have gotten hooked on to the new things that the ever growing technologies have to offer us. For good or otherwise.

The ubiquitous access to internet these days via 3G on our smart phones or tablets, the constant pleasurable jolts of adrenaline because of the arrival of new emails, and the raised dopamine levels because of Facebook likes or Twitter mentions are all adding up to creating this sense of ‘busyness where you don’t remember doing very much’.

A now-famous essay by Nicholas Carr titled, ‘Is Google making us stupid?‘, questioned this very notion. The essay was such a sensation that Carr went on to write a book, called The Shallows, about how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember .

Since the very beginning, internet and social media have been fundamentally changing not just our society but also the way we think. Just like the invention of the wheel or that of the steam engine changed our society. As Kevin Kelly says, what technology wants is to keep moving forward. If there is something we can do, then we can adapt to these changes in a way that affect us positively.

I have dwindled on this subject before when I started an information diet. One that lasted for quite a while but also one that I cheated on, most of the time, inadvertently (blame the Blackberry). Ironically, these thoughts about modern-day distractions started in a conversation with a friend on twitter.

But I remain of the opinion that any technology that remains in use is benefiting humanity in some form. Maybe only until it is replaced by newer technology, but even then, any technology that persists is essentially making a positive contribution. Thus, each one of our distractions has some positives for us to gain.

Beyond the obvious benefits, social media can be used as a motivational tool. For example, I expose my writing to my close friends, some of whom I will face in real life after having written it. I share my photography to get feedback from those I care about. I make public commitments like that of learning piano or running 3 miles, and then do those things out of the fear of public shame.

Twitter gives me access to a lot of food for thought not just through the amazing variety of links that get shared, but also because of easy access to some of the smartest people in the world. Facebook, of course, serves as a fantastic tool for keeping in touch with old friends. When I need to reconnect with one, which is usually by email, I have a look at their Facebook feed and will usually have lots of things to talk about even after months or years of no direct communication.

To me none of these changes seem subtle, as my friend seemed to suggest. These changes can have a profound effect. Sometimes we don’t realise the profundity because we cannot compare our own experience with one where these technologies don’t exist.

There is an answer to this question which will console you. Consider the life of a science journalist 20 years ago. He would’ve had to wait for the physical copy of a research article to arrive. Then in order to get in touch with an author half-way across the globe, he would’ve had to send a letter which took weeks to reach and then wait for many more weeks till he got a reply which he could use as a quote.

Or consider that, only 40 years ago, one of the greatest chemists of our generation spent three years of his PhD trying to find out exactly what is the structure of a single molecule. Today, in my thesis there are hundreds of molecules which I have been able to characterise to near certainty. So life, as we have it today, is much easier than it was before the information revolution. Too often we forget this.

But this doesn’t solve our low esteem crisis because it originates from feeling less control over our lives. It seems that these constant distractions don’t let us do much. I haven’t met anyone, including some of the most successful people I know, who hasn’t lamented this fact at least once in their life. So yes, there is no denying that there is a problem. But…

The lack of motivation is the single biggest factor that leads to low self-esteem. And this lack stems from not knowing ourselves well enough. If we know what makes us tick, then we will be able to unlock the vast reservoir of motivation that each one of us has inside. Of course, knowing oneself that well isn’t easy, especially in the face of a deluge of choices.

In the past, people did not have as many choices when it came to deciding on a career. Of course, there were specialised jobs. But if you wanted to do something highly specialised, it usually happened after years of on-the-job training. So, essentially, you got recruited as a fresh graduate from either arts, commerce, or science.

Now there are undergraduate courses have sprung up that teach students about a field that was christened a few decades ago but has taken off only in the past few years (see Bachelors in Nanotechnology). The choice of college is among the most important decisions that one takes in their lives. If it’s hard for a student, then I can’t imagine how hard it must be for a parent.

Self-knowledge becomes more important than before. If we are aware of our preferences, the set choices becomes smaller. We are less stressed about the possibility of choosing wrongly. There is less ambiguity. But we are remarkably poor at understanding ourselves.

We should be taught in school how to explore ourselves and our beliefs. Maybe we should explain to kids how to use the scientific method in better understanding their own desires (and not just the world around them). There should be classes about how to deal with distractions or how to overcome temptation (see the marshmallow test). If technology is going to be such an integral part of our lives, then students should be taught how to use it effectively. A class on ‘how to use your mobile but still get your work done’ would be very popular, don’t you think?

We adults should also be more aware of how seemingly small things can make a big difference. Updating our Facebook statuses and getting ‘likes’ can seem like a good substitute for the social validation that doing good work brings. Putting in the effort to leave unhelpful comments on online forums can seem like ‘work’ and drain us of the motivation needed to do real work. Gathering followers on twitter can be a substitute for achieving something that makes a difference to people’s lives.

This brings me back a full circle to Spiderman. With power comes responsibility, of course. It is our individual choices that affect our digital lives. Accepting that there is something to fix is only the first step, albeit an important one.

What if we were to go back to the 80’s

My mum told me a story which moved me and made me think about a bunch of things. Before I tell you those things, here’s the story:

I was born in 1987 in Nashik. Only a few days after I was born, my Dad got a job in Calcutta. He moved from Nashik to Calcutta at a short notice leaving me with my mum and my nani (mum’s mum).

Without dad, my mum and my nani did a lot for me. She developed a very close connection to me spending all day and night taking care of me. Then after three months, my Dad came back to take my mum and me with him to Calcutta.

Suddenly, all the joys of having a baby around disappeared. My nani felt very lonely. At the time, the only means of keeping in touch were letters and trunk calls. Of course, I couldn’t write a letter so the only communication that happened between nani and me was that when, during a very expensive and rare trunk call, she heard me make some noises. That almost always made her cry.

If I were born today, things would have been so different for the relationship that my nani would have developed with me. We would have the modern forms of communication – she could talk to me on the mobile phone even if my dad earned the same salary as then, she could see me grow up on Skype and if she really really missed me she could even take a flight to Calcutta (because they’ve become so much cheaper than those days!).

The story made me wonder about how much technology has affected us. I tried hard to understand what it must’ve been to have a relationship in that era but I am unable to. Sure, people must’ve dealt with it and got on with things. But I am more interested in the quality of the relationship of those times. We may never realise what it meant to long for someone.

I remember my mum telling me that when my Dad went to Europe in the early 80’s, he used to write her a letter a day which she usually received in bunches after a couple of weeks. Letters from India to Europe took even longer and because my dad was travelling, I am not sure how many times he actually heard back from mum. What must it have been to be my dad who had a one-sided dialogue with his newly wed wife for months?

Somehow, I am not sure that everything is better because of newer technology. We seek immediate responses and quick replies. Many have forgotten the art of letter writing. We’ve developed LOLspeak and gotten addicted to IM. Knowing people’s ‘status’ makes us happy even if you don’t know what is really going on their life.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to be a Luddite. Technology has done lots to help. A frequent story that is repeated to show the power of technology is that of an Indian farmer who can now afford to make calls to the local market to figure out a better price for his crop. The grassroots have definitely been strengthened. 884 million Indians have a mobile phone today, that’s 73% of the population!

Even in my case, technology has done plenty. Skype is such a blessing. Every weekend when I talk to my parents for an hour or two, I leave the conversation feeling satisfied. It’s not just about knowing what they are doing but also seeing them and hearing them (so much is communicated through body language).

And yet, stories like the one about my nani make me think about the time without the internet, without mobile phones, without social media… 

The internet, social media and relationships

Whenever I sign in to my Facebook account, I am greeted by hundreds of smiling faces wanting to tell me about their lives. I can at the choice of my whim get entertained by my friends doing stupid things or choose to wonder about the beautiful world through that friend’s pictures who just spent the last month in New Zealand. I can feel nostalgic by hearing that old song which was posted by another friend or even choose to cry reading about the sad story of a friend who met with an accident and who’s ‘wall’ is full of messages from well-wishers. I can choose to feel jealous about my mate who just found the hottest girl-friend or go to the profile of my class topper and get a dose of Schadenfreude from knowing that he is on a minimum wage job. I have the whole platter of emotions served to me everyday at whatever time I would like.

The cherry on top of this platter is that I also have the choice of declining to listen to any of these stories without it being considered rude. It’s great. Even King Louis XIV could not afford this kind of social luxury with all the power and money he had.

We live today with hundreds of friends on Facebook and similar number of followers on twitter. We have the ability to broadcast are thoughts in words, written or spoken, to millions of people for free. I can build friendships across the seas and over the mountains. I can have intellectual debates or learn something that blows my mind away. I can buy gifts for my parents sitting at my desk at work. The Internet has made plenty possible and yet I can’t stop but wonder when I heard the following from my dad.

“I was at your aunt’s place the other day and had a somewhat surprising experience. I was chatting with your cousin and asking her about her work. She explained it well in detail and we had a nice chat which was interrupted only because she had to leave. When she left your aunt came to me and told me, ‘You know she has never before explained to me what she does at work, despite having asked many times before.’ On further enquiry your aunt explained that she spends most of her time at home on the computer. She’s either on Facebook or watches some videos on YouTube. Rest of the time she doesn’t talk much. And I could not disagree because this was the first conversation that I had had with her in many years where she answered in more than a few words.”

I know my cousin somewhat well. We used to have lots of fun as kids but it has been many years since we spent any substantial time together. I know that she is a smart girl and although I can’t say much about her conversational skills. It makes me wonder that if the social media revolution had happened while I was still at home, would I have fallen in to the same ‘trap’ – showing a lack of interest in the people around me but paying more attention to those on Facebook. I tried to dismiss it as a singular case but my dad retorted that it is not a singular case. He’s heard the complain from many other parents in the recent months. More importantly though, the case my dad described was of an urban Indian family. In India, Facebook hasn’t quite reached the levels of penetration that it has in the US or UK.