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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Monthly Recommendations (June 2021)

This month’s theme is disorder, dishonesty and dysfunction. In that spirit, this month’s list includes the story of a missionary dabbling in things that she should probably have stayed far away from, the profile of a Trump administration operative who was an exceptionally bad manager and irritated nearly everyone whom he worked with, a list of the winners of the recent absurdity in the US stock markets and how it has helped those who got in early reap huge benefits by selling what basically amounts to snake-oil, and, a contemporary historical study of how hot-button topics on the Internet have evolved over the past 2 decades.

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More Access Leads to Better Governance

Here’s the noble lie about democracy: The electorate holds the ruling party accountable for their actions during the next election. This is taught in classrooms and in political science courses; it is drilled into the minds of children who have the good fortune of growing up in a liberal democracy. The truth is revealed when they realize that the electorate is unwilling or unable to hold the ruling party accountable and that the ruling party is able to entice the electorate with populist schemes that are announced hours before campaigning begins1. There is a tedious and disheartening conversation about why no country has realized this ideal state of democracy in practice or been able to stay in that state for a long period of time; a conversation that would identify the media, political self-interest and capitalism as a few of the causes. This post does not engage in that conversation. Instead, I focus on a core component of this system which would hold the noble lie up: Access to public services such as education, healthcare, and a competent local government. I contend that widening access is the silver bullet which will allow countries to reach the ideal state of democracy and maintain that state in the long term.

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Notes and Review - Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)

Anna Karenina is a love story. Reading this book has shown me the source of several scenes from iconic romantic movies: Lovers meeting in a railway station, rejection at dinners, and heartbroken characters traveling abroad attempting to heal their soul. Tolstoy’s descriptions of people and their interactions with each other were more compelling to me than his descriptions of natural scenes. This preference is probably related to my (current) personal preference for stories which have interesting characters doing unpredictable things.

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