Information overload and an overly social web — the end of an experiment

That the internet is an integral part of our lives is no surprise: it is simply a step up from the type and ease of access of information that was affordable in the last century — such as bookstores and well-catalogued libraries. Why social media and networks have become an integral part of our lives, though, is a more pressing issue and a question most people are afraid to ask themselves.

A little over one year ago I asked myself this question and wanted to find out the answer. Nobody had one that was satisfying enough to me and — nearly fourteen months later, the answer I have is fair enough on a personal level but still hazy to some extent when generalised. What I found out along the way, and the potential long-term benefit it would have, was certainly worth the time I spent on it. I first wrote about this in August of 2015 (see Marginalia) asking myself — and everyone else by extension — how many social networks we are on and why. However, this was probably not a knee-jerk thought and could, on some subconscious level, have been prompted by the fact that, at the time, I was reading William Powers’s book, Hamlet’s Blackberry. Indeed my previous two quotations scribbled on Marginalia were from that book.

Note that, hereon, we use the terms “social networks”, “social web”, and “social media” interchangeably. They are all in reference to that part of the web which encourages you to create your profile, share personal and general information, your work or life or travel and so on, connect with known and unknown people and which enable you to stay connected all day long if you choose to. Continue reading

Why the AT&T–TimeWarner deal should be blocked

The recent news about AT&T planning to buy TimeWarner in an over–80 billion dollar deal should worry everyone even remotely concerned with net neutrality. Why more people are not talking about this is a mystery to me. There is no doubt that, at this point, anything I say regarding this is conjecture, but a careful study of the past debates on net neutrality and AT&T’s core interests leaves little to the imagination.

TimeWarner is a big company. They own HBO, part of Hulu, TNT, DC comics (and such characters as Batman), Cartoon Network, CNN and more. In other words, they own a lot of the content that people around the world consume heavily on a daily basis. Through them creators can talk to the public. And until now, AT&T, not unlike Deutsche Telekom or Vodafone or T-mobile or whatever else, was a carrier that delivered data across a network to users.

The net neutrality debate was partly about whether carriers could charge content creators a premium to deliver their content on priority — such as faster, in better quality etc. — and they rightly lost their cause because the public agreed that all creators should have an equal chance of reaching their audience and that nobody should be able to reach the crowd faster just because they had more money to throw around.

To content creators, this meant justice prevailed and the work done by an indie studio would reach an audience no differently from that done by a big studio such as Warner Brothers — which, by the way, is also owned by TimeWarner. Continue reading

The problem with films has nothing to do with realism

The annual Indian screenwriters’ conference was held last week in Mumbai. The fourth such gathering organised by the Film Writers’ Association based in the same city had, what I believe, was a flawed theme: do our stories reflect India’s reality? The keynote speaker was the journalist, Palagummi Sainath, whom Amartya Sen once called one of the “great experts on famine and hunger”, and who is somewhat conveniently placed to argue that Bollywood does not represent the real India.

My disagreement with this statement is twofold. Firstly, screenwriting is an art, and, like all art, its essence is openness in interpretation and it does not owe it to society to act as a mirror. Secondly, the crux of the conference, to be meaningful at all, should not have focused on whether stories in Bollywood reflect India’s reality, but rather whether they should reflect India’s reality at all.

The argument is somewhat like mirrors and windows: if people want a mirror, they should stop complaining about what they see when they look at a window. There are census bureaus, polling organisations, data collection and research centres, and, of course, National Geographic, to represent countries for what they are, to show people a non-fictional account of what India is and so on. Films, like stories of yore, have always been windows to let imagination escape, to heighten our senses, to present a larger-than-life portrayal that may or may not be grounded in reality. Ashok Vajpeyi spoke of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both stories rich in culture and moral but in all likelihood skewed when it comes to portraying reality — but then again, whose call is it to make? Continue reading

Additions to Chad Orzel’s article on physicists and philosophers

Chad Orzel wrote a column on his blog last week about James Blachowicz’s opinion piece in the New York Times titled “There is no scientific methods”. The Times article talks about how methods in science and those in, say, the humanities, are similar and then tries to make some point out of it regarding the validity of any thought.

Orzel uses an apt emoji (or is it kaomoji?) to describe the lack of a conclusion in Blachowicz’s article: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. This is particularly representative of a lot of research in the social sciences. There are two things Orzel’s article misses out on, in my opinion: firstly, it does not talk about the fact that such a practice of abrupt endings — that feel as if a closing inverted comma is missing — are a manifestation of a deeper problem in the humanities, and one that particularly disturbs physicists: vagueness. Somehow, most social scientists I have come across are perfectly satisfied with an answer that appears to point them in some meaningful direction, and they seem oblivious to the fact that the same argument is being understood by different people differently as a direct result of its being vague. The open-ended state of arguments (or the lack of a conclusion altogether) catalyses this.

Consider this sentence which Orzel also quotes, albeit for a different purpose: “If scientific method is only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry, how is it that the results of science are more reliable than what is provided by these other forms?” The argument begins by stating that the scientific method is only one form of inquiry. Continue reading

Newspaper neutrality

Are newspapers supposed to be neutral? Or better still, are they allowed to have a leaning? And if so, how exactly should we define a “leaning”? To expect anything run by humans to be absolutely unbiased would be naïve. Humans are biased to some extent, we have likes and dislikes, we have preferences, and we express it — subconsciously or otherwise — in everything we do, say, or write. And as long as humans run a newspaper, there will be some bias and some preference for one idea over another that creeps into the editing, and eventually establishes itself as the voice and political stance of that publication. This is true as much of television as it is of print media, and the question in the end of it all is not whether media are biased, but how consumers need to ensure they are not buying into a political stance blindly.

The Washington Post is a classic example of this: articles in the newspaper backed the remain campaign in Britain (although the paper did not do so openly or officially — their front page was uncannily neutral) and, the same day, right after the entire country voted to leave the European Union with disastrous consequences, the Post published an article titled, “The British are frantically Googling what the E.U. is, hours after voting to leave it”. First of all, no, it was most certainly not the case if you thought that headline meant most Brits did not know what they were voting for, but, at first glance, it certainly makes the most valid case yet for a second referendum by terming the past one effectively pointless — the people did not know what they were looking for, and given another chance they would vote to remain in the EU. Continue reading

What does it mean to be educated?

Around June this year, a couple of weeks before my 23rd birthday, I expect to be handed my master’s degree in physics. Besides extensive specialisation and research for a doctoral degree, this is the highest honour a person can obtain to signify his mastery in a particular field. In essence, there is no doubt that I, and the many others in my graduating class, would be looked at as “educated”. Things and behaviours will be expected of us now that a formal closure has been made to a two-decade-long journey of learning. But, two decades later, what does it all mean? As holders of such a degree, and, more broadly, as educated people, what should education really mean to us? I think there are a series of characteristics which describe what a truly educated mind is and it takes more than a simple list to understand these. Then again, perhaps it takes one educated mind to appreciate another, but I digress.

A look at the etymology of said academic degree takes us to Latin: the word “magister” meant a master, a scholar who was proficient enough in a field to teach at a university. There are, strictly speaking, only two master’s degrees in the world: Master of Arts (MA, or AM in some countries), and Master of Science (MS or SM in the US, MSc in the UK, India etc.). Everything else (MBA, MFA, MPhil etc.) are “tagged” degrees specific to various fields and any discussion beyond this quickly gets messy. Continue reading

Sports guidelines v religious beliefs

Religion, being a sensitive aspect of life, and more so personal, international sports bodies have a thin line of caution to watch between their guidelines and religious practices and personal beliefs of athletes. However, and most importantly, even before we start considering sports guidelines, we should first take a keen and meticulous interest on what unifies us. What creates unity and harmonious existence in society is of more importance than that which propagates separation. The big question is, what brings us together as one? Is it religion? Is it personal belief? Or is it sports? If any of the above is not applicable, it is not usable.

Without turning a blind eye on any matter affecting human personal belief — a balance and check mechanism should be employed to sustain a state of equilibrium between guidelines on clothing and equipment, and religious practices. I solemnly acquiesce that anyone representing their country in sports should not desert what he or she believes in and holds most dear: religion, customs and beliefs. In furtherance of this, athletes should clearly comprehend the guidelines on what is required of them to wear. If, by any means and chance, the clothing required, in one way or another, is against their religion and belief, they can voluntarily withdraw from the game. This is because international sports bodies state explicitly that no athlete shall be permitted to wear costumes that portray political, religious or racial factors of any community. This means it is upto the athlete’s discretion whether to join or withdraw from the game. Continue reading

Print books or eBooks? Both.

We are going through what will presently be seen as a rather unique transition in history, perhaps comparable to the transition from stagecoaches to cars in the 1880s. As eReaders take over the market, there has been talk about whether bookstores have been driven out of business (no) or at least whether they will be (probably: it is my opinion that drones making super-fast home deliveries are a bigger threat to bookstores, as to all physical stores alike).

But that is for the future to decide. At the moment, the question on hand is a little closer to home: do people prefer print books over eReaders? I cannot speak for everyone else, but for my own small part, I used to think eReaders were it, but I seem to have slowly begun to be drawn back to print.

The smell of paper

There are certain things electronic devices cannot achieve right now: smell is one of them. There has been some development in this area in the last couple of years, but conveying odours via gadgets in a safe (and not messy) fashion is yet to meet standards necessary for mainstream production. Paper books, on the other hand, come bundled with a nostalgic smell that we — especially us voracious readers — have drowned once too often in to be able to forget about or stop looking for so easily.

However there is a catch here: it is because we are the generation going through this transition, or, more specifically, it is because we are one of the last generations that grew up for a considerable number of years on paper books, that we have nostalgia at all. Continue reading

Apple v the FBI — Apple should stand up for encryption

Ever since Snowden’s leaking of NSA data raised public awareness about encryption and government breach of privacy, everyone has been scrambling to make their devices safe. Apple has been a leading voice in improving encryption and their own encryption is top notch.

At the outset, the entire Apple v the FBI case was bound to happen sooner or later, and I would be extremely mistaken if Tim Cook had not already prepared himself for this. But it is ultimately such hard, yet necessary decisions that have shaped Apple and made it an admirable company in more ways than one. And right now, Apple is risking quite a lot to stand up for privacy and encryption, and it is doing the right thing. Continue reading

The problem with The New York Times’ Asian pricing

Trying to sell a newspaper at the price of a moped is funny enough, until you realise that The New York Times is doing just that. Although their website quotes a price of INR 49 per week, the offer cutting nearly half the cover price is valid for only the first year. Yet, this discount is also high enough a price to fall flat in the market.

If The New York Times, or the International New York Times, wishes to make any mark at all, they will not only have to set up several more printing facilities across the globe, they will also have to make cleverer ties with existing local and/or national newspapers. Continue reading

Why I love footnotes

“When thumbing a book” says Hugh Harrington, in the Journal of the American revolution, “and contemplating a purchase, I thumb from the back.” He is looking for an index, preferably, and footnotes or endnotes, most definitely. In fact, he goes so far as to say he will replace the book on its shelf for the sole reason of there being no footnotes.1

Fiction or not, footnotes have a special place in literature — and a practical one too. But I happen to like them on the web for reasons of my own. Continue reading

Dear The Hindu, it’s the 21st century

It is a pity that the only newspaper I trust (and read) in India, The Hindu, is notoriously difficult to consume in any but the most ancient format. Being made available in digital media is not an empty trend and need not divert from good journalism. It also need not — and should not — be second to it. And as our style of news consumption evolves, it will (as sad as this truth may be) take more than good journalism to stay relavant.

In this age the news and the medium we consume it in go hand-in-hand, and this fine newspaper seems to be letting things slip. Take The New York Times for example, coming from another old news house — over a quarter of a century older than The Hindu — which has arguably the best digital presence today. And it’s journalistic standards have not dropped in making a move from broadsheet to phones, tablets and PCs. It is, after all, the 21st century, and The Hindu must buck up. Continue reading