Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Of Selective Mutism and Double Standards

Swami Gulagulaananda quoted Animal Farm:
"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others"

In the month of January, 2015, there was an attack on the offices of the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo in which 12 people died. This sparked an international outrage with people everywhere saying 'Je suis Charlie' (I am Charlie) to show solidarity with the families of the dead as well as the rattled survivors. The cowardly attack was executed by fanatics and is definitely condemnable and deplorable. People on Facebook protested by putting the French flag overlay on their profile pictures. I saw my Facebook feed filled with strong words against attacking freedom of expression, some sharing cartoons of how a pen is mightier and expressed outrage in the strongest of terms.

A couple of days ago, there was a deadly attack in Somalia in which 500 people died. There has been no outrage, nobody on Facebook putting up Somalian flag overlays and nobody saying "Je suis Somali"...

And this brings me to the central point of this post - Why the double standards?

People worldwide seem to have developed a way of looking at things - Perhaps consciously, perhaps subconsciously. It appears that some lives are more important than others. Some attacks are vehemently condemned while others are dismissed as routine.

People have made movie after movie about the Holocaust while we don't hear much about the the great Bengal famine that resulted in millions of deaths - As many, if not more deaths when compared with the Holocaust, though it happened at the same time. And what we see in the macrocosm, we also see at microcosmic levels of countries and states.

In India, for example, an attack on a man called Akhlaque for holding/consuming beef received wide coverage with people blaming the central government for emboldening attackers. Why? The victim was a Muslim man, while the ruling party is considered to be a Hindu right wing party. Has the Modi government done anything to appease the Hindus or create problems for non-Hindus? Not a thing. And yet, the government was widely criticised. Meanwhile, a techie and animal rights activist in Bangalore was attacked with bricks for requesting police assistance to close down an illegal slaughterhouse and save cows. Her vehicle was heavily damaged and she herself has sustained pretty major injuries.  This time, the victim was a Hindu and attackers were Muslims. There has not been much outrage.

This selective outrage and mutism is quite baffling to me. Why is it that some random journalist like Gauri Lankesh receives a funeral with full state honours while others like RSS workers who were lynched barely receive mentions in newspapers? Is it because one is a left leaning journalist while others are right leaning? Does ideology define the value of life?

And this argument is not restricted to attacks and killings. Every year, during Deepawali, we see some people crawl out of the woodwork talking about a pollution free Deepawali with slogans like "Say no to crackers" and "Our animals will get scared". These arguments would have been fine had they been consistent in their protests. Yes, pollution is a major problem and animals are perhaps affected by sudden loud noises. However, I don't find this concern for the environment in the rest of the year. People continue to purchase bigger cars that guzzle fuel, keep their air conditioner running all the time and drive individual vehicles rather than opt for public transport because they are inconvenient. How many of these people have opted for electric vehicles? There are quite a few in the market right now.



The Supreme Court overreached and went to the extent of banning the sale of firecrackers in Delhi. To quote a comedian on WION, "Banning crackers on Diwali to curb pollution is like fasting for one day to cure obesity".

The ban itself is ridiculously myopic. When the Yogi Adityanath government started closing illegal slaughterhouses (remember, they were illegal), a lot of people came out protesting the move saying that it had a communal tinge. The main argument was that the livelihood of these people was affected. However, isn't the livelihood of people who have stocked firecrackers to sell in Delhi getting affected? What about them? Why was this hastily implemented at the last minute? Why not regulate instead of outright banning? More importantly, why not an equal outrage?








Why is it that I don't see this animal lovers during Bakr'Id? Why are they animal lovers during Diwali? And why are some animals more equal than other animals?

Celebrities, especially, like to come out and show that they are hip. Shraddha Kapoor and Yuvraj Singh are fine examples of this hypocrisy by requesting for no pollution via crackers - and yet, they celebrated their movie release and wedding respectively with a fine display of crackers. And please don't go into matters of scale :)



And it's the same with all Hindu festivals in India - with some claiming that Dandiya should be banned for noise pollution and Holi is a waste of water. But I don't hear these people talking about mosques blaring prayers causing noise pollution. Anyone who spoke against these celebrities were labelled trolls by left leaning media outlets.

Another observation that I have made is with regard to the different approaches when it comes to handling Rohingyas, Kashmiri Pandits and Yazidis. All were driven out of their homes and thousands displaced. And yet, the media coverage on the Rohingyas has been extensive while we don't see similar support for the Kashmiri Pandits and the Yazidis.

It is important to note that the arguments posted here are not Hindu vs Non Hindu, but more against a lack of consistent approaches to the same problem. People who find fault with one don't seem to find fault with another doing the exact same thing, thus, double standards.

People who are serious about the environment will take clear, decisive actions to curb pollution, rather than resorting to mere tokenisms such as Earth Hour. These have to be sustained efforts by one and all. Let us work towards rain water harvesting and replenishing ground water.

The media clearly knows what sells and what doesn't. In India, an attack against a Muslim is guaranteed to generate TRPs while others don't matter as much.

We as individuals and as groups have to consciously think about every decision that we take, rather than following the hype. All lives matter - The death of 12 Charlie Hebdo journalists is not more important than the death of hundreds of Somalians. The killing of a left leaning journalist is not more important than the murder of an RSS worker.

If you wish to feel or display your outrage, do so equally... unless you truly believe that some animals are more equal than others


Saturday, 16 September 2017

Micro-loans for funding small enterprises

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"It is amazing that a tiny seed can grow into an enormous tree"

India lives in its villages - We have heard this many times. And while steps are being taken to 'Make in India', India is not considered to be a manufacturing hub yet - especially when compared to her giant neighbour, China.

Manufacturing is a challenge, and for that matter, entrepreneurship is a challenge. While there are many challenges in starting and building your own enterprise, from hiring and retaining good people, purchasing raw materials and paying for other overheads, the challenges generally have one common denominator - Money.

You need money to hire people, money to purchase raw materials, money to pay bills etc. And getting money is the biggest challenge. Once you have a certain amount of money, that money can be put in to generate more money through the business - use a bit of it for operations, a bit of it for purchasing more equipment or hiring more people that generates more revenue subsequently and so on (The usual CapEx and OpEx).

The main question, however, is - How do you get that initial seed money? This is especially a problem when you are not well connected. There are many people from villages and tier 3 cities who are interested in developing small scale industries. Villagers and uneducated people find it very hard to raise funds. They may have the entrepreneurial drive but without a certain amount of credit rating and connections, raising funds becomes impossible considering that they are also from poor backgrounds.

Another interesting aspect to notice is the amount of money that these people usually require. The amounts are generally under Rs 50,000 with many people needing around Rs 10,000. These amounts are not very high when you compare it with the salaries of IT Professionals in tier 1 cities, for instance. Single outings to an upscale restaurants cost about the same.

This is where crowd funding comes into picture. Lenders who have a certain amount of surplus money can pump it into this system. Entrepreneurs who are interested can sign up with this system. This money is not charity. The money from the lenders are given as loans to the entrepreneurs. This money is divided into a large number of small amounts and each chunk is given to an entrepreneur. The entrepreneur is able to raise the requisite amount of money and utilise it for their business. Every month, they repay a small amount of money to the crowd funding organisation.

The crowd funding organisation can then repay the money to the lender who can choose this chunk to further invest in another entrepreneur. Remember, this is a loan - and the lender is expected to get his principal amount back. Think of it as a 0% loan - So, the only charity that you are losing is the interest.

And since a very small chunk of your money is going to each entrepreneur, a default is going to impact you very little. All your eggs are not in the same basket.

This is where I would like to introduce Milaap - Milaap is an online crowd funding platform that bridges the gap between lenders and people who seek money for various causes; entrepreneurs, medical, education, etc.

About a year ago, I invested a very small amount of Rs 2500 into it since I was not very confident of the platform. I had lent the money to some small scale village entrepreneur. As time progressed, I started receiving notifications that my amount was repaid. I had signed up for 'Auto Lend', and this repaid money started getting circulated to other entrepreneurs. Though it was just Rs 2500, the total money that got lent after repayment became over Rs 8500 and more.

I have now pushed in some more money into the system; because some small pieces of statistics had a pretty nice impact on me. Their dashboard showed me that they had made 28 loans and impacted 432 lives. They have also provided information about all the people to whom the money was lent.

Of course, there is an amount of risk involved here. I am trusting Milaap and their associated organisations to ensure that my money is not swindled and lost. There is a certain amount of faith that you need to have, and a certain amount of risk that you have to be willing to assume. But if it works out - There is a huge satisfaction of having played a role, however minuscule, in improving small scale industries in India.

Remember, you can pull out your money at some point in the future and this is a loan. So, please take a moment out of your busy schedules and explore Milaap or any equivalent organisation. Or if you have more time, try to invest in some small scale industry.

After all, Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas should be applicable across the board. What is the point of growing alone - We should be taking everyone along and grow together...

Jai Hind!

External Links
Visit Milaap - https://milaap.org/

Click on this image to view a larger version


Monday, 14 August 2017

Ethical Machines

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
Teaching ethics to a human being is hard. I wonder if machines are easier"

There is an old psychology question that we used to ask as kids:
There is a railway track on which trains typically pass on, and another track on the side that is not supposed to be used. There is a sign that indicates walking on the main track is dangerous. Walking on the side track is not a problem because trains are not expected to pass on it. A group of ten young boys are playing on the main track while a lone boy is playing on the side track. You notice the train approaching rapidly and are standing beside a lever that can be used to control whether the train continues on the main track, or switch it to the alternate track. Assuming that the side track is not risky for the train and that you cannot shout to shoo the kids off the tracks because they are too far away from you or do anything else - and given only the two following choices, which would you go for?
- Let the train continue on the main track and allow the ten kids to die?
- Or send the train on the alternate track and let only one kid to die?

The reason this question is interesting is because it allows us to choose between saving many lives versus a single life, but at the same time between saving the lives of those who broke the rules versus the one who followed the rules. While you can save many lives, you are making the rule follower pay the penalty for following rules. Or let many people die… Which would you go for?



Now, imagine that a program had to answer this question. I remember seeing a similar question on Twitter long back, though I don’t remember the source - where self driving cars have a similar dilemma. Imagine a self driving car in which you are seated. It’s driving rather fast down an empty street when suddenly some boy comes running across the street. It’s too late to stop the car. The car can do one of three things:
- Continue going straight and run over the kid
- Swerve left into a group of five boys
- Swerve right into a pole that may kill you

What should the car do?

Whose life is more valuable? How do you measure the value of life? Are all lives equally valuable? What if it is between the lives of an old man versus that of a child? Can we say that the child should live since the old man has already lived most of his life? These are very hard problems to solve.

Person of Interest is a wonderful TV series, a fast paced action filled show that has machine learning at its core. At one point of time, the machine (the central computer that uses ML is called ‘The Machine’ in the show) decides that a key politician has to be eliminated for peace. This is when the creator of the machine ponders over this decision. Is a machine equipped to take decisions that humans find hard to take? If the death of a single person can bring peace, should that single person be killed? The answer may seem simple - Yes, kill Hitler, save thousands of Jews… But can a machine reach that level of human thinking? As the creator continues, “What if the machine indicates that a large number of people have to be killed in order to reduce world hunger?” Of course, if there are no people, then there cannot be hungry people - Simple logic for the machine.

The idea of teaching ethics to a machine seems to be very interesting to pursue. I wonder if this can be taught. Perhaps then, we may not have to worry about Skynet… #GoAsimov

Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Censorship Dilemma

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
(this quote has been censored)

A couple of days back, the chairman of Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), Pahlaj Nihalani, was sacked and replaced by another person. It seems that a section of Indian film industry and media celebrated this fact. It turns out that Nihalani was branded ‘Sanskaari’, an of late derogatory word, often used to represent a person with a 'regressive mindset'. The reason? The official reason for his sacking was that he was muzzling the creative and artistic freedoms of cinema. Basically, he denied U/A certifications to movies that had scenes and language that was deemed inappropriate.

The official reason mattered because the incumbent government formed by the BJP has been accused by leftist liberals and the so called intelligentia (I have lost respect for that word now because leftist liberals and intelligentia are associated together) of imposing Hindutva on ‘minorities’. While there is a lack of a shred of evidence of this, any indications in this direction will be pounced upon by this group. So, sanskaari Nihalani had to go from the official standpoint. He also claimed that an influential lobby was behind it.

Of course, the above paragraph seems to acquit Nihalani of all wrong doing. Is he truly a victim of circumstances? For some time, let’s forget if he actually watches movies before requesting for edits (he claimed he doesn’t). On Arnab Goswami’s Republic, there was an interview with Nihalani where Arnab said that we were going into a regressive world and bullied Nihalani to say the word ‘intercourse' on live TV. Nihalani was visibly embarrassed and refused. Arnab went on to say the word ‘intercourse' repeatedly and insisted that Nihalani say it, and if not, justify it - "Do you feel you will get polluted? Why wouldn’t you say it?"

And this brings me to the central question, a question that I have asked previously as well - Where do you draw the line? Today, not allowing kissing scenes on screen is considered regressive. "All the western movies allow it. Therefore we should also allow it because it is a global standard." First of all, who made the West, the paragon of freedom? Why can’t we think of things by ourselves? Why can’t we set standards? Second, TV shows like Game of Thrones, Rome, Spartacus etc. have a lot of nudity and simulated sex scenes. So, should we let that happen as well? If yes, then why not go to the full length and show ‘tasteful’ porn on TV as well? Or why tasteful? Why not brutal porn that depicts rape? This seems like a slippery slope. Where do you draw the line and on what basis do we conclude that something is allowable and something is not?

Interestingly, there is another TV show doing rounds on social media at the moment. Pehredar Piya Ki, is a series about a 10 year old boy who gets married to a 19 year old girl (woman?) Apparently, someone in the show tells the bride “I don’t know when he will be able to satisfy you” (nudge nudge wink wink, I hope you can wait...) Now, while child marriage is illegal, it still happens in some places and this is a story of one fella, a fella in love. However, there is a petition requesting a ban of this show on change.org. Should we allow this show to run or should we ban it? Funnily, there is another petition to not ban the show on change.org. Some people who are requesting the ban are calling the show regressive - So according to cinematic freedom, should we allow to run a regressive show or should we be regressive and censor it? Either way, someone is being regressive.

In yesterday’s news, I read about a girl who is a prostitute by choice. She chose to become a prostitute because she desired expensive things and her regular job couldn’t provide it. She claims to be a high class escort, someone who is well read and speaks fluent English. She was recently taken on an all expenses paid foreign trip by a client who introduced her as his girlfriend. “We live in an intolerant society where people are killed for food habits. That’s why I can’t tell others that I am a prostitute”, she said. “You sell your brains, we sell our bodies. There’s nothing wrong with that”, she added. Buddha, the enlightened one, asked us to curb our desires because ‘Desire is the root cause of all evil’. Then there is this enlightened prostitute who said - ‘Meh! Why curb desires when you can whore around and make more money’ After all, the ends justify the means, doesn’t it?

Recently, a Google engineer wrote an essay with his opinion on why there are more men than women in the tech industry. Now, factually, there are more men than women in the tech industry. This Google engineer got fired for his reasons - They said that his essay propagates gender stereotypes. Is this muzzling of free speech? If his reasons were not true, Google can prove it otherwise, with data. But rather than that, they fired him. Is this censorship?

In the end, it comes down to these questions - What is morality? Who decides what is moral and what’s not? Is morality an antiquated topic? What comes under morality? And what should we censor?

The Censorship Board’s job is to censor things that it doesn’t think is appropriate. If you oppose every decision that it takes, then do we even need a censorship body? If you think no, then read the paragraph about Pehredar Piya Ki where there is another set of people screaming for censorship.

My primary request to people is to drop using words like regressive, intolerant, etc. and to think of more constructive ways of solving issues. Rather than hollering from the rooftops, create campaigns and polls and show it with data. Opinion based problems are very hard to solve. One approach could be to use technology to block specific channels at specific times with control lying in the hands of adults of the house to prevent impressionable children from finding it. Of course, this means that the adult should be aware of what ‘objectionable’ shows play at what times. A simpler solution is to make it rule based so that objectionable shows get blocked by default unless allowed explicitly by the end user - Ah, but who tags shows as objectionable or otherwise? A central board like the censorship board? Let’s start all over again... :)

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Ultimate Tic Tac Toe

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"You can always make a mundane problem interesting by thinking about scaling it"

Tic Tac Toe used to be one of the standard games played by us in school along with Dots and Bingo. The problem with Tic Tac Toe is the frequent draws you end up with once you are familiar with the game. Eventually, it gets really boring and you stop playing the game.

One day, I stumbled upon a blog post at Math With Bad Drawings, called Ultimate Tic Tac Toe. The post discusses this problem of Tic Tac Toe and comes up with a very interesting approach. In this post, I have provided an implementation of their idea for you guys to play.

While you can read the entire content in that post, I will summarise it here.

Rules:
  • You are provided by a 3x3 board of Tic Tac Toe boards. That's 9 boards.
  • The first player can make his move in any square.
  • The next player has to make his move in the board depending on the square in which the previous player made his mark. For example, if the previous player chose the top left square in any board, the next player has to make his move in the board that is in the top left.
  • This constraint makes it pretty fun because you have to think of maximising your points while being careful about where you are driving your opponent
  • The goal is to win most number of boards. Whoever wins 5 boards wins