Monthly Recommendations (October 2021)

I have tried to stay away from COVID-19 on this blog. Most people are writing nearly constantly about it and I don’t have many original takes on this topic. But this month, I reverted back to a way-of-life that was typical for me before the pandemic began. I traveled to another city to meet relatives; I went on a vacation; I traveled to some places in the city that I am in; I went out to restaurants and dined-in. These experiences signal a return to normalcy which seemed unlikely in March 2020, 18 months ago. These experiences also shined light on a change within myself: I have gotten used to not being among strangers. Going back to a previous lifestyle, seeing and listening to strangers again has been an interesting return to normal. (I am glad that the “new normal” was transient.) So, this month’s theme is a receding pandemic. I look back at some of the articles which I read at various milestones during the pandemic, starting from the beginning of the pandemic in Japan last year, through the emergence of the vaccines, and right up to the most recent article about the long-term effects of this crisis.

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Climate Change Fever, Late 2021 Edition

If you haven’t caught the climate change fever yet, you almost certainly will catch it in the next few weeks. Even a cursory glance of the news will familiarize you with COP26. As the climate conference approaches, Western publications have gone all-in and bet that the conference will generate a large amount of news. They are right about this, the conference is definitely going to be a hotbed of some stunning news stories. Some countries might announce new targets, others might go back on their existing targets or not commit to anything new, etc. Every change in policy will be followed extremely closely and dissected and analyzed from every possible angle. Only one question will remain unanswered: What is the point of all this hoopla?

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America: An Unreliable Ally

The American political system is strange. It has three branches; the Executive, Congress and the Judiciary. Judges within the judiciary are appointed by the Executive with approval from Congress. The President is the highest official in the Executive branch and elected directly by the people. And all members of Congress are also directly elected. All the lawmaking power lies with Congress and it is generally very hard to repeal laws which have already been enacted. On the other hand, the Executive branch is a fickle-minded body where the current President’s whims and fancies are the primary deciding force. Treaties are signed by the Executive branch. And wars begin and end at the Executive branch’s will. This makes America an unreliable republic to have any kind of long-term agreement with.

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Monthly Recommendations (September 2021)

This month’s theme is the Chinese state. Lately, there has been a lot of news out of China. As Xi Jinping guides the China story towards the inevitable conclusion of overtaking the US economy in size, he has started announcing reforms that look unthinkable to many but deal with the key underlying issues in late-stage capitalism. Rising tuition fees and the unsustainable costs of tutoring are a key issue in India. Coaching classes that train students for the entrance exams of leading engineering and medical colleges cost about INR 50,000 per annum, which is a third of the annual per-capita income of India. China’s crackdown to make these coaching classes non-profits is the most refreshing reform that I have seen imposed on this industry in the past decade. Another industry that has been on the rise in India is online gaming and online gambling. The rise of this industry has made strange cases unusually frequent. (These cases remain the exception and not the norm.) China’s recent regulation on gaming time for minors is an ambitious step. I am not convinced about its utility; but I can see that drastic changes are required to curb Big Tech’s unfettered access to data collection and the Chinese state does not balk under pressure from Big Tech lobbyists. This alone is encouraging to me and I hope that it convinces democratic governments to try something in their own jurisdiction.

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Open Source Software Business Models

A few days ago, AWS released version 1 of OpenSearch, a fork of ElasticSearch. OpenSearch is open-source software licensed under the Apache License v2. ElasticSearch’s creator, a for-profit company called Elastic Co. has been involved in a dispute with AWS for months now. The dispute began when AWS packaged ElasticSearch and started offering a managed service on their cloud platform. There seems to have been no partnership between AWS and Elastic, and this lack of a partnership has irked Elastic no end. This raises a question that others have attempted to answer: What is the business model for free and open-source software? Who should fund its development? Who should benefit from the profits made using that software?

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Suggestions For Better Government Services

I have dealt with government services in multiple places now, and I believe that I have found the common pitfalls that service providers often fall into. This post is not a rant. There is already a lot of documented evidence of governments that were unable to deliver services well, frequently leading to consequences ranging from mild annoyances to tragic outcomes like death: Regional passport offices, post offices, nationalized banks like State Bank of India and Regional Transport Offices (RTOs) in India, Immigration centers in Japan, and healthcare.gov and DMV in the US. This post lists some of the simple enhancements that service providers can implement at low to medium costs to improve the consumer’s experience.

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Monthly Recommendations (August 2021)

This month’s theme is art and the artist. I chose this theme because events in my life have reminded me of the value of the abstract and incomprehensible. As places around the world open up under varying levels of restrictions, the contemporary locations and events were art is showcased, namely, cinemas, theaters, live concerts and art museums, are returning to their earlier glory and posing an interesting question to a subset of the population that has the luxury of deciding whether they want to attend: How much risk are you willing to take to see an artist perform live? This month’s list begins with an art critic who argues that our appreciation of art from the times when life expectancy was low is bound to increase, owing to our own deeper experience of mortality through pestilence. The list also includes articles about the perpetual search for the line between art and the artist and about the limits of on-screen fantasy and escape, when the spectator’s real life is in disarray.

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Power, Age and Maturity

At first glance, the minimum age requirements on various powerful positions seem unnecessary. Why should a meritorious individual be restricted from doing something that they would be good at simply because they are too young? Over the past few years and especially over the past few weeks, I have understood one of the reasons for these requirements: Power should be handed to people who have the philosophical backing to handle it; they should be grounded in the understanding of their role; they should not exploit the people who are newly under their power; they should know where the boundaries of their power are and where it is being used for exploitation. Age is a proxy for this maturity. Older people are assumed to have this maturity and younger people are assumed to be naive, immature and ignorant. This is never really true. Age is a bad proxy for maturity. It fails in both directions: Older people can be less mature (and younger people more mature) than their age would lead you to assume. Most of these failures are not consequential as the power that these old people hold in society is insignificant. But the power that they hold in your personal life can be considerable and this is what I will dig into in this post.

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Monthly Recommendations (July 2021)

This month’s theme is cities, islands and the places that we live in. Few events in my life have triggered as much introspection about the city that I live in and the places that I go to as the ongoing pandemic. Over the past year, people have left cities and retreated into the countryside, finding that their work remains unaffected even if they don’t go to offices and don’t meet their coworkers in real life. But how should we account for the damage to the city’s fabric because of these exits? Optimists continue to believe that things will go back to the way they were and that there will be no long-term impact due to this aberration that we are living through; I count myself in this group, foolhardy as it might be to expect a future identical to the past. Revolutionaries and activists see the leveling of lifestyles between geographies as a step towards equality, a spiritual return to the mixed socioeconomic class communities that were fixtures of towns and villages up to the late 19th century. In an effort to explore this ongoing change more fully, this month I recommend a photo essay that documents a nurse’s daily life, an article about the differing paths for social change depending on the average income of the district that you live in, and an essay about how the place that you grow up in is embedded within your personality.

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Let's Talk About Facebook

American President Joe Biden recently made a sensational comment insinuating that Facebook’s permissive stance towards vaccine misinformation was “killing people.” This sensational attempt to blame Facebook for his administration’s inability to hit vaccination campaign targets left a bad taste in my mouth. I could not quite understand how he could credibly blame a private company, while he himself sat at the helm of the Federal Government. It reminded me of an exchange from the TV show West Wing in which the president says, “School boards and local elections are where true governance takes place.” In the TV show, the president’s comment is used to show how unhinged and paranoid the President had become and how he had let personal enmity cloud his judgment. (His advisors point out to him later that he has bigger fish to fry and can’t get involved in these local elections or swing them using his pulpit.) In the real world, Biden has used this technique to create a scapegoat for his administration’s failings.

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