Nicking the notch

I got myself a new phone today – the iPhone 6S. Before the purchase, I had spent hours on Amazon looking for the right phone within my budget, and quite possibly went through at least two score models. During this exercise, I noticed many phones on the market that had unabashedly copied the fullscreen design of the iPhone X and called it their own.

The hallmark of this design is the absence of any buttons on the phone’s UI, and the presence of a ‘notch’ – a black bar at the top that’s host to two cameras, a few sensors, the mic, etc. The design by itself isn’t very revolutionary but Apple’s decision to change the look of a phone that’s maintained one specific look for a decade is, to borrow Marco Arment’s verdict, courageous.

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However, I noticed at least five other brands – OnePlus, Vivo, Huawei, LG and Asus – with phones that sported the same notch (6, V9, P20, G7 and Zenfone 5 resp.). I’m sure there are many others nicking the notch, especially the China-based rapid prototypers like Xiaomi. (This article highlights a bunch.)

One reason they’re able to get away with this is because Apple doesn’t have a patent on the design. Additionally, while Apple designed the iPhone X’s screen thus to maximise display size, those who added the notch after did so to capitalise on the trend that was sure to follow.

Second, OEMs argue that there are only so many to maximise display size and that, if anything, Apple should also be criticised for considering edge-to-edge display after Samsung popularised the idea with its Edge+ model.

Evidently, the argument (or counterargument, depending on your POV) is that there is only a finite number of ways in which to combine UI elements to achieve certain UX goals. And at the other, minimal end of the interfacial spectrum is the question of what exactly it is that you’re patenting when all semblance of creative detail has been shaved off of your product.

This line of thinking brought an amusing anecdote to mind, involving the cult sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last month. When Apple sued Samsung for allegedly copying the iPad’s design for the Galaxy tab, Samsung hit back in mid-2011 with a crazy defence: that Apple’s patent was null because the iPad’s design had been copied from devices depicted in the film.

Of course, the sitting judge dismissed Samsung’s argument: Apple may have been inspired by the design as depicted in the film but the idea of the tablet as a product as such was its own, and Samsung’s ‘defence’ didn’t address that. The iPhone X notch has a similar identity: according to Android phone-makers, it’s an inevitable design choice, and doesn’t represent any new ideas as such.

Are celebs responsible for their troll-followers?

I’ve got two things to say about my Elon Musk piece from yesterday. The piece was well-received, insofar as I was expecting it to be: there were a few bouquets, many brickbats. One troll called me “a Marxist in the garb of a science educator”. I thought that was a fine thing to be, though I’m sure he meant it to be offensive. Why can’t a Marxist be a science educator? Anyway, the two things…

First: The quality of the debate that my piece prompted on various social fora was quite poor. It just didn’t progress beyond bashing the piece, and me. I suspect the deteriorating quality of debates on the social media and in comment sections on news websites in general as well as that my piece couldn’t make its salient points effectively. And of the two, I can be responsible only for the latter. One point in particular I should’ve dwelled more on, I realise in hindsight, is about why self-regulation is the only form of regulation that can be effective in journalism.

Second: Are famous people on Twitter also responsible for the actions of their trolls? I think so. I wouldn’t have thought so if you’d asked me a couple years ago but I do now. The singular reason I changed my mind is the troll armies that the Tamil actors Vijay and Ajith command on Twitter. More importantly, theirs is not an active command but more of a passive condonement that the followers typically interpret as encouragement to continue doing what they’re doing.

Once in a while, following a particularly horrible bit of trolling, the actors issue a blanket statement saying they’re against all forms of violence, etc., and never being specific enough to be meaningful in any way. It’s clear that neither Vijay nor Ajith wants to alienate his fan base, the foundation upon which they’re both erected as “mass heroes” and on the shoulders of which Vijay has been nurturing political aspirations.

In one episode of Kaelvikkenna Badhil (‘What’s the answer to the question?’), a superb Q&A in the style of ‘Devil’s Advocate’ that Rangaraj Pandey conducts for Thanthi TV, he asks Kamal Hassan what happens when actors enter politics and bring their trolls along as party workers. Hassan slipped past the question (he has no such following) but I’m sure Vijay would’ve balked. The trolls also almost never think of what they’re doing as a form of violence, chalking up their verbal abuse to free speech.

The relationship between these actors and their troll-followers on the social media shaped all of my thoughts about culpability. Musk – like Vijay and Ajith – may not point his index finger at someone asking troubling questions and so direct a river of hate against the person, but – like Vijay and Ajith again – he must know, rather be aware, that his ire is not just his ire. It’s the ire of an institution, and that all of its supplicants will adopt it as their own. He must either actively discourage their behaviour or prepare to bear the brunt of it.

In fact, I’ve always believed that being a public figure is markedly different in some ways from being some random person. For example, if Jane Doe calls Bob an asshat and if Musk calls Bob an asshat, then we’d be in the right to be sterner in our response against Musk than against Jane. This is because public figures are not entirely individuals (as in the regular sense of the term) because they bear a responsibility that excludes them from that part of the social order – a responsibility to maintain cognisance that they don’t, rather can’t, be representative of themselves alone.

This is why Musk doesn’t get to hurl expletives at some John Doe and walk away.

The institution called Elon Musk

Jean-Paul Sartre famously refused a Nobel Prize for literature (in 1964) because, he said, he didn’t want to be “institutionalised”. His eagerness to prevent this transformation wasn’t misguided. Perhaps more famously, at least among science journalists, many Nobel laureates in the sciences have turned into institutions after winning the coveted prize. Their presence in a room is typically interpreted as the presence of a Nobel laureate more than anything else.

By this measure, they bring along the weight of their awards and other honours as well as that of the research bodies with which they are affiliated to bear. As a result, they’re often taken more seriously than they ought to be – particularly when they’re commenting on subjects they’re not experts in.

Elon Musk is one such institution. He hasn’t won any highfalutin prizes yet but his successes as an entrepreneur (with PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX) have rendered him a techno-financial laureate of sorts among the people. His triumphs in the business sphere have put a halo on his head and the subtitle reads “Midas”. He’s a champion of the masses that speak English, have at least an undergraduate education, live in cities and make enough to dream about spaceflight.

His feats with SpaceX in particular are notable in this context: the CEO was a demigod willing to take risks towards achieving his outlandish ambition of landing humans on Mars in his lifetime – a sharp departure from his early competitors, the more fuddy-duddy United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, Boeing, etc. Musk was Spaceman Spiff in an arena of Bob the Builders.

Thus, he afforded the aforementioned middle class hope. And when they hoped, they also had to clear the path for their champion – which they did by raising a troll army and finding ways to rationalise their Supreme Leader’s gaffes. We’ve seen this story unfold thousands of times already. If you haven’t, you’ve surely experienced its strongest aftereffect: self-censorship.

You hold back. You don’t tag @elonmusk on Twitter because you don’t want your mentions to explode with expletives. If you’re a woman, you don’t tag @elonmusk on Twitter because you can’t deal with rape threats and threats of physical violence. Mika McKinnon, a science journalist, told Daily Beast, “This is the only person and company I deliberately avoid tagging out of a desire to not get swamped. It makes me sad that engaging in conversation is so painful, and it took me too long to realise it wasn’t worth the cost.”

You’re wary of hundreds of people who will miss your actual point and grind your argument into a fine semantic powder. Mostly, you’ll want to stick to the ‘nicer’ side of things, the parts Musk is getting mostly right, and stay away from anything that could push you into a pit of troubled introspection.

Last week, Musk turned his attention to journalism and – ignoring the importance of self-regulation in the enterprise – declared he would set up a Yelp for the fourth estate. His next target was nanoscience, the science of things that are best measured in nanometers. According to Musk, it’s “bs”.

In capitalism, one dollar equals one vote – so Elon Musk has 20 billion votes. And when 20 billion votes call an entire field of study “bullshit”, it’s a stress test like only sudden death can be. That field will now have to justify its own existence; its proponents will have to spend valuable time and resources talking about why they do what they do, and why that’s legitimate – as Upulie Divisekara did. This how much a billionaire’s ignorance costs.

But the worst is yet to come. This may not be the first time Musk has said something stupid but it’s certainly a flashpoint as his followers and fawns in the press wake up to the possibility that, hey, he can be wrong but not have to face the consequent blowback. This is usually the precursor stage of a cult, where powerful systems of self-rationalisation, self-preservation and hero worship insulate men from criticism and safeguard their ability to violate the rights of others (cf. #metoo).

The next stage is for Musk to do something about whatever he thinks is “bs” instead of just tweeting about it, and that day is not far off. His journalism credibility rating platform is doomed to fail, and when it does, who’s to say he won’t pull a Peter Thiel and sink Reveal (whose report about injuries at Tesla invited a federal investigation)?

To be sure, this isn’t a transformation on Musk’s part himself but one of public perception. It has always been in Musk’s nature to rework ideas from scratch, reinvent systems upstream if need be to accommodate his brainchildren and accumulate the necessary capital and weight of policy to do so – all paradigmatic of Republican aspirations. They don’t belong, at least not without more regulation, within areas where the benefits of state control and a socialist approach are well-known.

When his SpaceX launched reusable rockets – so penetrating one of the least regulated human territories – and when his Tesla made electric cars and power-storage batteries – so entering a market desperately looking for ‘greener’ alternatives – it was great. Nobody stopped to think about why a man who once released the patents on his cars into the public domain also wanted to ‘clear’ news reports before they were published, or why a billionaire enabled by tax money wants to set up a gated community on another planet.

But if he’s going to bring his brand of disruption to one of the pillars of modern democracy, his ignorance into the niches of scientific research and his trolls into a space for conversations about making the world a better place he appeared to have cleared some years ago – he shouldn’t be allowed to. This isn’t a fight to reduce the number of dollar votes he has but a fight to ensure a man who has done some sensible things brings that sensibility, and sensitivity, to bear on everything else.

The stupidest six

After the IPL 2018 concluded last night, Star Sports TV has been doing reruns of the tournament, showing highlights from all the 60 matches as well as compilations of the performances by category. One of these categories is “longest sixes”.

Hitting a six is a combination of strength and skill: you need to get the ball off the middle of the bat, time it perfectly, you need a stable base for a smooth follow through, and you need muscle. For the biggest sixes, you need lots of muscle. That’s why the biggest sixes of IPL 2018 were hit by Andre Russell, Chris Gayle, MS Dhoni and (the exception) AB de Villiers. I’m surprised Carlos Brathwaite missed out.

However, I fail to understand how this is a feat worth celebrating the way we celebrate sport. The best sports are those in which those contesting a title are doing so on equal footing. What makes this the ‘best’ is the contest transcends each contender’s natural advantages and disadvantages, and forces them to draw from reserves that are available to everyone. They must only have the knowledge and the strength of will to summon them at the right place and time.

Hitting the longest six is not such a sport. Hitting a six itself may be part of a wider sport enjoyed by millions around the world but in and of itself it stands for nothing. Those able to hit the longest six are not better or worse cricketers than those who aren’t, leave alone being better or worse sportspeople.

Moreover, we don’t see such displays as those recalled repeatedly by Star Sports TV among female cricketers – it’s a man thing, it’s a masculinity thing. It’s a glamourised display of the machismo that has come to undergird much of men’s T20 cricket. This is more so in the IPL, where those who launch these tremendous hits are awarded with lakhs of rupees for just that.

On the other hand, there has been a measure of acknowledgment in women’s cricket that hitting sixes has nothing to do with being a man. In July 2017, Hannah Newman, then a PhD candidate at Loughborough University, Leicestershire, wrote in The Conversation that women cricketers hit sixes, too, and that an uptick in the number of sixes hit by the England women’s cricket team is one of the reasons the game has become more popular “among fans and players across the country”.

We can only hope that this more deliberated and less barbaric approach to the game, and to those who watch it and pay for it, is not subsumed by the same capitalist machinery that continues to devour men’s cricket.

Featured image credit: PDPics/pixabay.

The deceptive ignominy of being the first to win an award

Kamaljit Bawa is the first Indian to receive the Linnaean Medal in the 140-year old history of the Society awarding the medal.

This line is from a press release I received this morning from a PR person at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, where Bawa works. I’ve never heard of a Linnaean Medal but I’m not surprised there’s some kind of famous prize named for Carl Linnaeus.

I’ve also not heard of Bawa or his work but I’m thankful for both of them, and I’m sure they deserve their plaudits. However, my concern is about whether any prestige should also accrue with Bawa because he is “the first Indian recipient” of a 140-year-old prize. By all means, let’s celebrate Bawa for having won the prize but let’s not celebrate that Bawa is “the first”. I say this because there are two aspects of one’s scientific career that must fall in place for one to receive widespread recognition, and both aspects are centred on one characteristic: visibility.

The first aspect is easily illustrated by an example. To win a Nobel Prize, the following conditions must be met on a scientist’s part:

  • Their papers must be published in “premier” journals like Nature, Science, PRL, Cell, etc.
  • (Follow-up) Their papers must be written in English
  • They must be affiliated with a university that is already prestigious
  • They must be located in tier I cities of their respective countries
  • They must have been able to afford international travel to speak and collaborate with scientists abroad

… among others. Each of these conditions acts like a screen, filtering scientists out of consideration for a big prize even if their work deserves to paraded on the world’s stage. At the end of this checklist, a pool of scientists much smaller than it should be is leftover, the pool from which some international awards committee will pick its nominees. And when someone from this pool wins, all the fame and wealth is showered on this person, further aggravating the lack of resources at the bottom of the pyramid. The easiest way to confirm this is the case in reality is to look for winners of prestigious prizes who have bucked the trend vis a vis most of the checklist items at the same time.

The second aspect kicks in from the award committees side. It is not enough that scientists put themselves on display, so to speak; those awarded the prizes must also look in your direction. As a result, a second set of filters comes into play, this one more multi-cultural, and often giving disproportionate importance to factors like gender and race.

When the constituting members of award committees are scientists themselves, then it’s likely that they will be more aware of the accomplishments of those whose work they can access more easily – especially due to institutional or geographical proximity. (We already have empirical proof that this is the case with the editors of scientific journals.) They will also know little, if at all, about how foreign research labs apportion responsibilities as well as credit, among other things.

Effectively, we can see how difficult it is to “make it big”, as they say, as a scientist. A stupendous number of things must fall in line – not the least of which is the lottery of birth: where you’re born and to what kind of parents. In this Age of Reason, or at least an age in which sensible and culturally sensitive reasoning must be applied to all decision-making, it’s possible to see awards as being given to certain people for good work but it’s impossible to conclude that a scientist’s work is not good if it has not received an award.

The sense of humility that this line of thinking brings is what we must hold at heart before we write about Kamaljit Bawa. Kudos to him for winning the Linnaeus Medal (for his work in plant biology) but no kudos to him for being the first to do so. That’s a vacant achievement. Bandying it about – as the ATREE press release seems to do – is to buy into the discrimination and elitism inherent in winning any of these awards.

Those prizes regarded the most prestigious in each field award scientists whose work towers over all of their peers’. For example, the Nobel Prize, the Wolf Prize, the Lasker Award, the Priestley Medal, etc. These same prizes also carry a lot of historical baggage; in fact, much of their prestige is the result of their having been awarded to the most famous scientists of the early 20th century.

I find these prizes easier to put up with than those instituted in the late 20th century because we should have, by the latter period, recognised the futility of instituting international prizes, especially those that reward scientists towards the end of their research career and divert large, unqualified sums of money towards a few individuals. Most of all, these prizes are detrimental because they encourage people to think of laureates as institutions in and of themselves. (One of the more insidious ways in which this happens is when we first hear about these scientists when they win an award, not earlier.)

Even the Nobel Prizes and others like it are guilty of these effects. However, they are harder to dislodge from their pedestals than the others, and so they persist.

Reconciling multiple personalities

I watched a Tamil film today, Romba Nallavan Da Nee (You’re a Very Good Man; 2015). The story’s antagonist appears to have dissociative identity disorder. This disorder used to be called ‘multiple personality’ disorder (MPD). However, in the film all the “doctors” keep calling it “disolative” identity disorder, and constantly refer to it as a disease and treat the antagonist as a source of harm for others. This is very typical of Tamil cinema, where professional standards are often so low and its bigshots so small-minded that the social values depicted on screen often belong to the 1980s.

But that’s not the point of this post. The actors’ repeated reference to the disorder as “disolative” is what prompted me to Google it, and that’s how I found out the affliction used to be called MPD. Why was the name changed? I found the answer in a WHO document from 1993, which spelled out a new four-part definition of MPD (reproduced below) and classified it under a wider umbrella of dissociative identity disorders:

A. The existence of two or more distinct personalities within the the individual, only one being evident at a time.
B. Each personality has its own memories, preferences and behaviour patterns, and at some time (and recurrently) takes full control of the individuals behaviour.
C. Inability to recall important personal information, too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness.
D. Not due to organic mental disorders (e.g. in epileptic disorders) or psychoactive substance-related disorders (e.g. intoxication or withdrawal).

According to Psychology Today, the reason for this move was “to reflect a better understanding of the condition – namely, that it is characterised by a fragmentation … of identity rather than by a proliferation … of separate identities.” This is interesting because, as I was watching Romba Nallavan Da Nee, all I was thinking was that its central conflict was very similar to that in Anniyan (The Outsider), a 2005 Tamil film whose protagonist has three identities: a pedantic lawyer, a swaggering model and a lawless vigilante.

However, while the antagonist’s behaviour in Romba Nallavan Da Nee fit the description of a dissociative identity disorder, the protagonist of Anniyan could only be described as having MPD – and that too in its pre-1993 form: possessing three separate identities, not one identity fragmented three ways. I wonder if the film’s production team had thought these labels through or if they just got lucky. (I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the former; its director, S. Shankar, and the male lead, Vikram, are both known for their meticulous preparations.)

The WHO definition had been carried over into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. In the controversial fifth edition of this manual, published in May 2013, the list of symptoms of dissociative identity disorder was expanded to include “possession-form phenomena and functional neurological symptoms”. Moreover, according to the DSM 5 website, MPD was removed as a dissociative disorder. Now, dissociative disorders are of the following types:

  • Dissociative identity disorder
  • Dissociative amnesia
  • Depersonalisation disorder

What happened to MPD? It’s as if psychiatrists have decided that it’s impossible for personalities to proliferate later in life such that the same body becomes host to more than one of them. Instead, they’ve agreed what’s likelier to happen is that one personality becomes fragmented into multiple parts.

There’s an obviously interesting consideration here – the one of reconciliation. The post-MPD label of ‘dissociative identity disorder’ implies a person with the identities A, B and C has the overall identity signified as A+B+C. On the other hand, the label of MPD implies a person with the identities A, B and C may not be understood as having an overall identity A+B+C. In this framework, the label of ‘dissociative identity disorder’ does seem more realistic – whereas MPD seems more able to accommodate fantastical narratives (also see the syndrome of approximate answers).

If you thought this discussion was interesting, you might like to read this story of how a young woman with multiple personalities worked to develop a sense of self.

There is neither truth nor news in Elon Musk’s ‘Pravda’

Elon Musk tweeted this week that he plans to setup an online platform called ‘Pravda’, where people can “rate the core truth of any article and track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor and publication.” This isn’t a joke. Bloomberg reported on May 24, “The California secretary of state’s website shows a Pravda Corp. was registered in October in Delaware. The filing agent and the address listed – 216 Park Road, Burlingame, California – are identical to the name and location used for at least two other Musk entities: brain-computer interface startup Neuralink Corp. and tunnel-digging company Boring Co.”

The products that already exist with Pravda’s premise – and they do – are useless, and which Musk surely knows, and he thinks he can do one better. But he can’t, not for lack of trying but because it will be impossible to keep this product reliable.

Free-for-all forums where some people make decisions for other people are susceptible to being hijacked by polarised communities that can easily bias ratings. For example, search for The Wire on Google Maps and you will see we have a 3.8-star rating. It signifies nothing at all about the kind of journalism The Wire practices. More importantly, most ratings of three stars and below are by people ideologically opposed to The Wire‘s slant. Of course, Musk is welcome to try and build a platform where the numbers are more meaningful than on Google Reviews, but fundamentally, foot-soldiers of the political extrema are bound to gang up and vehemently down-vote publications that publish news they don’t like.

The false conceit in Musk’s declaration is rooted in his belief that journalists who publish stories that suggest he made a mistake are wrong and, more dangerously, the masses are always right.

The bulk of his outrage has been directed against stories on three subjects: investor concerns over the slow production rate and accidents involving his Tesla cars, his pro-Trump line and contracts and subsidies his spaceflight company SpaceX has received from NASA.

A recursive problem

This week, all of it coalesced into one anti-media tirade that he accused “holier-than-thou” journalists of bringing upon themselves, particularly by not speaking in the public interest and by basking in a regulatory blindspot where they received no sanctions for alleged misreporting. Musk also attacked the clicks-per-million (CPM)-driven revenue models of many media organisations and accused journalists of writing just for the eyeballs and ad dollars in light of the fact that Tesla doesn’t advertise while the makers of fossil-fuel-driven cars do.

However, those who want to believe that a journalist or publication is not credible already believe that anyway, and have functional communities on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. It is not as if Musk’s product is what’s missing on the scene, let alone new or revolutionary. Ironically, Musk conducted a poll on Twitter asking if a platform where journalists work to maintain credibility scores was a good idea, and 88% of the 681,097 respondents voted ‘yes’. There is no way to tell if this wasn’t another of those social media mobilisations where individual responses were centrally coordinated and many of the votes were cast via multiple accounts held by a single person and, of course, bots.

The ironies don’t end here.

Incoherent dreams

Musk wants to call this platform ‘Pravda’. The word is Russian for ‘truth’; more notably, Pravda was the name of the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It served the Bolsheviks at the time of the 1917 revolution, and was published continuously until 1991. Until the late 1980s, it published propaganda that furthered the cause of ‘actually existing socialism’ – the official ideology of the erstwhile USSR. While this ‘official organ’ of the Communist Party underwent an ideological transition towards 1990 and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union, Pravda‘s editorial positions on either side of this historic line illustrate the vacancy of Musk’s idea as well as choice of name.

Pravda‘s tagline was “Workers of the world, unite!” However, for most of its existence, especially after the Communist Party overthrew the Tsar and concentrated power in itself, it was an official mouthpiece  printing ministers’ rambling speeches and spinning all news such that the interpretations fell in line with official policy. As a newspaper, Pravda was useless except to those who wanted to know what the party line and power structure were in Moscow and the provinces. Its contents were virtually indistinguishable from those of the government-run newspaper, Izvestia, meaning ‘news’. A popular joke at the time was “There is no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia“.

Nonetheless, Pravda‘s agenda was the government’s agenda – and the government’s agenda was to control, creating an authoritarian ecosystem that brooked no dissent or freedom of speech or entrepreneurship. The system allowed for the rapid accumulation of socialised capital and high growth rates in its initial decades but eventually ran out of steam. In this world, there would have been no free press and there would have been no Elon Musk either. He is welcome to call his platform ‘Pravda’ by all means but the irony of a poster child of free-market capitalism dreaming of Soviet-style gags on the press is too delicious to ignore.

As the party’s hold on Pravda loosened in the late 1980s, its pages began to print opinions that would have been blasphemous before then. In 1987, according to the New York Times, one of them questioned various government moves, including nuclear stockpiling. Another asked why politicos didn’t have to stand in line at stores and restaurants with the proletariat instead of not having to, and deepening social inequalities. But if the original Pravda was rediscovering its socialist roots by the end of its journey, its new avatar will have to contend with Musk’s elitism.

He famously remarked in August 2017 that public transit is “a pain in the ass”. According to the International Association for Public Transport, “In 2015, 243 billion public transport journeys were made in 39 countries around the world. This figure represents an 18% increase compared to 2000.” According to Musk,

I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time. It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualised transport, that goes where you want, when you want.

A year later, he checked himself somewhat, tweeting that people without cars would be allowed to travel in bus-like pods, the plans for which he would prioritise over those for the Hyperloop.

Musk is lazy because, instead of trying to build a credibility-rating platform, he could either engage with journalists – especially women, whose credibility is constantly dragged down by faceless trolls assailing them not for their views but for their gender – and the underlying idea of journalism (together with how its purpose continues to be misunderstood). He is lazy because he thinks that by getting the numbers on his side, he can show journalists up for the phonies he thinks they are. Musk is likely to have better success at shaping public opinion if he launched a news publication himself.

The Wire
May 25, 2018

Starting over again

I read a blog post on Coding Horror this morning, where Jeff Atwood, its author, writes about how he inculcated his blogging habit to the extent that it has come to change his life, net him book deals and speaking opportunities, and makes him some money. While the last bit is not something I usually pay attention to, his overall success struck me. I’ve had a blogging habit for the past decade myself – at least that’s what I’ve been telling myself. I have two active blogs at the moment (excluding this one); one has over 3,000 followers and the other, almost 100. Both together, I’ve published over a thousand posts for collective thousands of views.

However, over the last year or so, I’ve slacked off and haven’t published much. This wouldn’t bother me if it weren’t also for the fact that I’ve not been paying attention to it, instead thinking of myself as a successful blogger still. I’ve started to bask in the glow of my dying habit and haven’t been writing as much as I should be. When I read Atwood’s post, I realised what I was able to do and what I stand on the brink of losing now. I need to shed my pride and work towards getting it back.

Both of my old blogs were mostly about science journalism (my profession) and scientific research. This one on the other hand is going to be about (re)developing my writing habit. But that’s now why I’m not publishing in one of my established blogs. I’m publishing here because of the obscurity it brings. This isn’t me trying to hide from public gaze but me deliberately choosing to labour in obscurity for as long as it takes for my output to be discovered and appreciated organically. I need to be able to acknowledge this blog’s purpose without giving myself the luxury of a pre-existing audience. As Atwood writes, I need to “always be jabbing, always be shipping, always be firing.”

Speaking of shipping, I also got distracted in 2017 by teaching myself to code. While the exercise was partly successful, I didn’t put in enough work and ended up learning a little bit about a lot of some things. This grates at me even more because now I’m left with one habit broken by my callous, overconfident attitude and another habit that’s really not a habit at all. I’m ashamed to admit this. So as a step forward, I’m going to start publishing one post on this blog every day for as long as possible– actually, for a year at least. It’s good to have closed and meaningful deadlines instead of open-ended and flexible ones.

This is the first post for today. I’m not going to let the posts be just a few lines long, commenting about an image or a quote I found on the internet. Each post will be meaningful in that it will present at least one idea in as many words as it takes. I think this is a useful constraint because it requires me to be able to come up with one idea a day, and for which I must read more, talk to people more, and consume more in general. This is fascinating to think about because it shows how only the movement of ideas between people can create more ideas, which in turn will have to be set in motion for even more ideas to be born.

Anyway, here we are… and here we go!

‘Work from home’ is about culture, not economics

Working from home (WFH) is not for everyone or for every company. It works mostly when individual employees of an organisation don’t need to work together often, or are embedded in workflows where tasks move quickly from one stage to the next. On a personal level, WFH isn’t feasible if you lack self-discipline and/or need the presence of your colleagues people around you to keep you from feeling isolated from company matters or simply, and more distressingly, lonely.

I’ve been employed with The Wire for 38 months now, and have worked from home for 34 of those. As a higher-up editor in the organisation who almost never works with a local team of reporters, I’m constantly looking for productivity paradigms, and hacks, that will keep me going as well as at the top of my game despite being removed from decision-making at HQ. In this context, I recently stumbled upon a seemingly influential study published in 2014 about how WFH can improve employee productivity by leaps and bounds.

I’ve heard a few arguments over the years from various proponents of WFH who cite studies like this to make their point: that there is empirical evidence from the ‘wild’ to show that WFH doesn’t just work but in fact improves employee performance and company prospects. As much as I want WFH to be a thing among organisations with larger workforces (50+ people) and with HQs located in metropolitan cities or megalopolises, I’ve noted with disappointment that most people eager to forward this paradigm often forget cultural impediments to implementing it.

IMO, a decision about allowing regular WFH options is predominantly cultural, particularly in ways that econometric or parametric tests in general can’t capture. For example, many organisations allow people to work from home in exceptional circumstances not because their management is old school but because it needs to be: a large fraction of the urban Indian workforce is not used to being able to work that way.

One big reason this is the case is that “going to office” is part of the traditional mindset of middle-class and lower-upper-class workers. Outside of entrepreneurial centres like Bangalore and smaller pockets of other Indian tier I cities, it’s hard to find people who even want to do this. For example, in my own home, my folks took over 18 months to believe my job was important for The Wire and that WFH was a legitimate way of doing it. The practice is certainly becoming more common but it’s not that common yet in the country.

(A subset reason is that many, if not most, offices in India are better equipped than their employees’ homes are. It’s sort of like the midday meal scheme but in a corporate context. On a related note, you’ll notice that most stock photos depicting a WFH environment show Macbooks on a clean, white table. Where’s the dust da?)

Second, the participants of the influential study cited above were all call-centre employees. This is important because call centres typically have a unique type of office (if it can be called an ‘office’ at all). Its personnel all work individually, not collaboratively, and prize – as the study’s paper notes – a quieter working environment. So the touted “9.2% minutes more per shift” and the “13% performance increase” are both results of employees moving from louder to quieter environments and so answer phone calls better, faster.

To me, this is not a characteristic feature of working from home at all. The study is simply about the effects of the removal of an impediment for employees of an idiosyncratic sector of employment. I suspect the experiment’s effects can be recreated without instituting WFH and simply making their Shanghai office quieter. As Jerry Useem wrote in The Atlantic:

Don’t send call-center workers home, … encourage them to spend more time together in the break room, where they can swap tricks of the trade.

Of course, one could argue that another factor working in WFH’s favour is that the employees are saved the commute – especially in larger cities where the business/commercial district is located in the centre, where costs of living are absolutely prohibitive, and the more affordable residential district is to be found the farther you move away from that centre. Delhi is an obvious example: The Wire HQ is located five minutes from Connaught Place whereas the bulk of its employees are housed in Mayur Vihar or beyond in the east and Lajpat Nagar or beyond in the south – both areas at least 12 km away.

This would be legit except I personally won’t buy into it because I think it’s a failure of urban planning that people have to commute so much, drawing worse lines between their professional and personal lives as well as segregating their daily lives into distinct, monotonous units with only the pursuit of higher efficiency at its soul. I say “worse” instead of “starker” because the line is disappearing in some places where it shouldn’t, such as in the form of carrying a fragment of your workplace on your smartphone, wherever you go, leading employers to assume employees are always available and employees to assume they ought to be always available.

The glamourisation of productivity is everywhere. Credit: Carl Heyerdahl/ Unsplash
The glamourisation of productivity is everywhere. Credit: Carl Heyerdahl/ Unsplash

The attitude of Silicon Valley technology towards free time has been tendentiously wolfish, so much that self-discipline has become one of the greater and rarer virtues of our time. Where workplace laws won’t go, “work anywhere” has almost always been interpreted to mean “work everywhere”. So for a WFH policy to be meaningful, you need people in the office ready to understand the difference instead of gleefully rearing for the leap. This is why I think Slack should shutter its mobile apps or, if not, equip them with features that will allow employees to truly disconnect, beyond the recurring question of self-discipline.

(Remember Fiverr’s ‘do more or die trying’ ad campaign extolling the gig economy?)

Moreover, modern cities are almost exclusively designed to be economic engines constantly looking for solutions to problems instead of being oriented towards fostering healthy communities and communitarian aspirations. By going for the urban sprawl and, as Fouad Khan calls it, the consequential suburban alienation, the modern city organically gives rise to gender bias and class discrimination. From Khan’s essay (for Nautilus):

Like the physical boundaries it draws between commercial and residential zones, sprawl enforces the boundaries set by our roles in society. Specific times must be dedicated to specific activities such as picking up kids from school or doing groceries. The organic social interaction that a city is supposed to facilitate goes missing. Even when time is allocated for socialization as a dedicated activity, it takes the character of a chore like everything else on the calendar. When activities are spatially segregated we find our identities splitting among our various roles, never quite able to bring all of ourselves to anything. Alienation rises. Just as physical access is more restricted for women in these cities than men, the role imposition is also stricter.

(And before you know it, ‘meet spaces’ are going to become commoditised: “For $50 an hour, meet random people in a quiet, safe environment at Watr Coolr. Coffee and biscuits extra.”)

Finally, WFH is most effective when the tools necessary to ensure employees lose as little as possible as they shift out of the office and into their personal workspace are efficacious. And such efficacy is a product of excellent UI/UX, lower communication latency, affordability, access to high-quality supporting infrastructure, etc. But most important is the willingness of those within the office to use the same tools to help keep you, and others like you, in the loop.

For example, a supervisor might be okay with Skyping a WFH employee or two WFH employees might be okay with running things on WhatsApp between each other. But that’s not to say other colleagues will. I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to because using Skype is not the same thing as booting Skype. There’s a cognitive cost to booting Skype: you have to stop thinking about whatever you’re thinking about, think about Skype and then decide to use Skype. This cost only escalates the more such tasks you perform.

This is why I imagine few others would use tech when they don’t have to, thus making it harder for communication-that’s-not-about-work to survive, in effect preserving the misguided prioritisation of gainful productivity above all else. On the other hand, as Useem writes,

The power of presence has no simple explanation. It might be a manifestation of the “mere-exposure effect”: We tend to gravitate toward what’s familiar; we like people whose faces we see, even just in passing. Or maybe it’s the specific geometry of such encounters. The cost of getting someone’s attention at the coffee machine is low—you know they’re available, because they’re getting coffee—and if, mid-conversation, you see that the other person has no idea what you’re talking about, you automatically adjust.

So yeah, WFH works for some people. But it’s not a good idea to expect a company to make a decision about standardising WFH options for all employees based on empirical analyses.

Featured image credit: Ashim D’Silva/Unsplash.

‘Weak charge’ measurement holds up SM prediction

Various dark matter detectors around the world, massive particle accelerators and colliders, powerful telescopes on the ground and in space all have their distinct agendas but ultimately what unites them is humankind’s quest to understand what the hell this universe is on about. There are unanswered questions in every branch of scientific endeavour that will keep us busy for millennia to come.

Among them, physics seems to be sufferingly uniquely, as it stumbles even as we speak through a ‘nightmare scenario’: the most sensitive measurements we have made of the physical reality around us, at the largest and smallest scales, don’t agree with what physicists have been able to work out on paper. Something’s gotta give – but scientists don’t know where or how they will find their answers.

The Qweak experiment at the Jefferson Lab, Virginia, is one of scores of experiments around the world trying to find a way out of the nightmare scenario. And Qweak is doing that by studying how the rate at which electrons scatter off a proton is affected by the electrons’ polarisation (a.k.a. spin polarisation: whether the spin of each electron is “left” or “right”).

Unlike instruments like the Large Hadron Collider, which are very big, operate at much higher energies, are expensive and are used to look for new particles hiding in spacetime, Qweak and others like it make ultra-precise measurements of known values, in effect studying the effects of particles both known and unknown on natural phenomena.

And if these experiments are able to find that these values deviate at some level from that predicted by the theory, physicists will have the break they’re looking for. For example, if Qweak is the one to break new ground, then physicists will have reason to suspect that the two nuclear forces of nature, simply called strong and weak, hold some secrets.

However, Qweak’s latest – and possibly its last – results don’t break new ground. In fact, they assert that the current theory of particle physics is correct, the same theory that physicists are trying to break free of.

Most of us are familiar with protons and electrons: they’re subatomic particles, carry positive and negative charges resp., and are the stuff of one chapter of high-school physics. What students of science find out quite later is that electrons are fundamental particles – they’re not made up of smaller particles – but protons are not. Protons are made up of quarks and gluons.

Interactions between electrons and quarks/gluons is mediated by two fundamental forces: the electromagnetic and the weak nuclear. The electromagnetic force is much stronger than the aptly named weak nuclear force. On the other hand, it is agnostic to the electron’s polarisation while the weak nuclear force is sensitive to it. In fact, the weak nuclear force is known to respond differently to left- and right-handed particles.

When electrons are bombarded at protons, the electrons are scattered off. Scientists at measure how often this happens and at what angle, together with the electrons’ polarisation – and try to find correlations between the two sets of data.

An illustration showing the expected outcomes when left- and right-handed electrons, visualised as mirror-images of each other, scatter off of a proton. Credit: doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0096-0
An illustration showing the expected outcomes when left- and right-handed electrons, visualised as mirror-images of each other, scatter off of a proton. Credit: doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0096-0

At Qweak, the electrons were accelerated to 1.16 GeV and bombarded at a tank of liquid hydrogen. A detector positioned near the tank picked up on electrons scattered at angles between 5.8º and 11.6º. By finely tuning different aspects of this setup, the scientists were able to up the measurement precision to 10 parts per billion.

For example, they were able to achieve a detection rate of 7 billion per second, a target luminosity of 1.7 x 1039 cm-2 s-1 and provide a polarised beam of electrons at 180 µA – all considered high for an experiment of this kind.

The scientists were looking for patterns in the detector data that would tell them something about the proton’s weak charge: the strength with which it interacts with electrons via the weak nuclear force. (Its notation is Qweak, hence the experiment’s name.)

At Qweak, they’re doing this by studying how the electrons are scattered versus their polarisation. The Standard Model (SM) of particle physics, the theory that physicists work with to understand the behaviour of elementary particles, predicts that the number of left- and right-handed electrons scattered should differ by one for every 10 million interactions. If this number is found to be bigger or smaller than usual when measured in the wild, then the Standard Model will be in trouble – much to physicists’ delight.

SM’s corresponding value for the proton’s weak charge is 0.0708. At Qweak, the value was measured to be 0.0719 ± 0.0045, i.e. between 0.0674 and 0.0764, completely agreeing with the SM prediction. Something’s gotta give – but it’s not going to be the proton’s weak charge for now.

Paper: Precision measurement of the weak charge of the proton

Featured image credit: Pexels/Unsplash.