Drawing a Line between Progress and Sustainability

Earlier this week, I watched this TED talk by Hans Rosling. During this talk, Rosling asks three questions:
1) Has the number of deaths in the last century doubled, remained the same or been halved?
2) How many years in school has the average woman spent in school (given that men spend 8 years on an average)?
3) Has the number of people living in extreme poverty doubled, remained the same or been halved?

The answer ….

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Why I’m Terrified of 2016

New Years is a usually time for optimism. Heading into 2016 though, I’m far more wary than I usually am.

A Tale of Four Cities

I call four cities/regions of the world home. Here’s a look at what each one of them endured last year:

  1. Chennai: Hit by the worst floods seen in decades, the city came to a standstill for several days. Some of my nearest and dearest were in mortal danger, communication lines were cut off for days, homes became swimming pools, and my own family began rationing food and water since supply lines were cut off. 300+ people lost their lives and many more lost their life savings.
  2. San Francisco / California: Faced with prolonged drought, California is in a state of emergency. Regular wildfires, rising food prices (projected to rise 6% in 2016), popular foods under threat (almonds!), groundwater drilling frenzies, hundreds of millions of dollars of losses, and more. Farmers have been the most affected to date and it might not be long before urban dwellers are hit where it hurts.

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How We Say Thank You

Walking around San Francisco this afternoon, I was considerably overwhelmed by the contrast between rich and poor. Broke my heart to watch the crowd apathetically glide past the homeless, the deranged and the naked, some of whom were literally screaming out for help. The rumbling construction work, signs of growing wealth, only served to further highlight the inequality.

The piece below is my way of venting the deep despair and pessimism that I felt. I am neither Anarchist nor Luddite; this is just me setting aside frameworks and ideologies for a while and calling the chaos as I saw it.

How We Say Thank You

Our Mother, the Earth, cradled us into life,
nourishing us with her primordial soup,
nurturing us through our evolutionary genesis.
When we came of age, we offered our gratitude –
by stabbing our Mother with spades and drills,
repeatedly and methodically as a psychopath would,
and making merry with her shattered entrails.
Her black blood we siphoned; pumped from stab wounds,
channelled into our ravenous industrial arteries.
We fashioned cement buildings from her carcass,
and plunged them into holes where flesh once lay.
Our fetish unquenched, we unsutured her corpse,
shoved rods and wires into her open lacerations,
and poured hot black tar all over her green skin.
This was our way of saying: thank you Mother!

Our Friends, the animals, once frolicked with us,
side-by-side, taking turns on our green playground,
rolling the dice in our collective game of evolution.
When we won the game, we offered our gratitude –
by skinning some of our Friends and roasting the rest,
decimating their homes and destroying their families.
At times, we shot at them and watched them scamper,
(like molesters leering at their gagged victims),
snatching them from their mothers without remorse,
until, without trial, we summarily executed them.
Their bodies we dragged home; to grill over a fire,
or decapitate and embalm as spoils of our prowess.
Some whom we spared, we threw into steel cages,
for our children to point and laugh at on Sundays.
Yet others we forced to mate with their neighbors,
so we could package their children into containers,
to peel, open and devour in the comfort of our homes.
This was our way of saying: thank you Friends!

Our Relatives, fellow members of the human race,
peers in our conquests, plunders and progress,
compatriots in the relentless rise of mankind.
When it came time to share the abundance,
we offered our gratitude, and true to our nature –
decided that we wanted it all to ourselves.
We enslaved those who looked different from us,
and subjugated the gentler sex that blooded us.
At first, we openly bought and sold our Relatives,
and made them do our bidding; brought them to heel,
crushed their souls, became masters of their free-will.
When the thrill subsided, we took up a new challenge,
introduced political systems and economic constructs,
that would now crush our Relatives’ souls on our behalf,
preserve our spoils even whilst appeasing our conscience.
Safe in our cement boxes, devoid of responsibilities,
we could now humiliate our Relatives condemned to streets,
with that ultimate expression of dominance – pity.
This was our way of saying: thank you Relatives!

Our Children, future generations that succeed us,
helpless when they see first light of Mother’s bosom,
reliant on us for guidance and a free world to inherit.
When it came time to grant them this freedom,
we offered our gratitude and returned their faith –
by chaining them to the very systems that we’d built,
leaving them with little choice but follow in our trail.
Engineered crack babies, injected incessantly from birth,
so deeply hooked that stepping off the hamster wheel,
this man-made rat race to either exploit or be exploited,
will trigger, ironically, “unnatural” withdrawal symptoms.
Thus we deprived our Children of a lovable Grandmother,
handing them instead weapons to further deface her.
Thus we snatched from our Children their Friends,
replacing their harmless toys with butchers knives.
This was our way of saying: thank you Children!

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Musk-ian Callings

The following quote has always resonated with me:

Going from PayPal, I thought: ‘Well, what are some of the other problems that are likely to most affect the future of humanity?’ Not from the perspective, ‘What’s the best way to make money?’ – Elon Musk

How liberating and uplifting: dream as large as you can, unencumbered by your own limitations or financial gain, and then do what it takes to get there. This got me thinking – if Semantics3 is my PayPal, i.e., exciting business aimed at solving market needs, what would my SpaceX or Tesla, i.e., future projects aimed at shaping humanity, be? Two candidates that fit the bill:

Smart Garbage

Coffee cups, plastic bottles, food containers – you simply can’t live an urban life without generating a bag of trash each week. Americans discard 800kgs of trash per person each year. Most of this trash ends up in the ocean, in landfills or is incinerated. This isn’t sustainable existence. There is only so much land that we can fill and waters we can clog before we run out of space. We are still in the first century post industralization, which is why we haven’t yet been overwhelmed by the issue, but it is unlikely that we can maintain status quo in the long run without a major change.

How does one solve this problem? Recycling, levies on wastage, policing and appeals to benevolence can only take us so far. To succeed, habits have to be fundamentally altered; since societies are made up of largely economically rational actors, the answer lies in alternative products that can compete in the free market on cost and convenience. Think smart packaging and containers, which auto-clean themselves and compact at the press of a button, fostering reusability. And retail shops which pack your order on-demand, eliminating the need for packaging for each individual item in your basket.

Market-Driven Free Universal Education

Equality in education is an ideal we can aspire to now, more realistically than anytime else in human existence. High quality public education or subsidized private education are stabs at this, but even if achieved, they do seem to be artificially manufactured states, especially in a world that is largely driven by the free market. Seems like such equilibriums could collapse when economies tank or governments change. Moreover, policy-driven methods are unlikely to deliver free and equal education worldwide during my lifetime, and we simply can’t wait that long.

What if the cost of education dropped to $0? And if this free education were the best possible education available, could the strong link between economic background and career prospects be broken? Could this in turn transform us into a more perfect meritocratic society?

E-education efforts of today are certainly a step in this direction, but they are still used, and likely to be used in the near future, to supplement rather than supplant conventional options. As a result, even in cases when the poor have unfettered access to the internet, the rich still have access to better education.

Here’s one approach that I find appealing: currently, while in education mode (school & college), we are consumers and hence pay into the system, while in work mode (rest of our lives until retirement), we are contributors and hence extract remuneration from the system. What if these two phases were fluid, effectively achieving the goal of bringing the “cost of education” to zero? A rudimentary example of how this may happen – tests presented to children could be designed to have implicit problems which, when solved, could help corporations complete operations that would otherwise have been sourced to MechanicalTurk at higher costs. This could in turn help the students earn money and offset the cost of their education. Alternative business models can work wonders. Take Google search for instance – it is free, treats all users equally, and there isn’t a better version of the search engine available to the rich, because that’s simply not where the money lies!

In sum, this is the future of humanity I aspire to: a world in which human existence is sustainable, and all members of our species have equal opportunity to education and the fruits of our progress.

Visit to Pratham @ Chikkajala

Ever since I’ve read Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, I’ve been an admirer of Pratham, an NGO that works towards the provision of quality education to underprivileged children in India. The methods adopted by Pratham as described in the book seemed highly rational to me and I was inclined to learn more. Hence, when I visited Semantics3’s Bengaluru office this summer, I took the opportunity to have a look-see myself and signed up for a site visit via prathamusa.org.

On the 14th of July, a few of my colleagues and myself made the trip to Pratham’s offices in Chikkajala, a little town 45 minutes away from the heart of Bengaluru city. The trip lasted ~6 hours and although I had to take some time off from work, it was well worth the time investment. I left with several useful insights, five of which I would like to pick out in the rest of this article.

First, I noticed that nearly all the employees of Pratham whom I’d met took great pride in their work. The staff members were keen to share with me their teaching techniques and show me the unique teaching props that they had built; this made for a rather interesting conversation, even though I don’t speak Kannada, the local language. Turns out that Pratham, or this particular branch atleast, has a hiring process that optimizes for drive as much as ability. Having seen NGOs, and for-profits for that matter, where the drive of upper management and donors doesn’t always percolate to the entire organization, this was quite pleasant to witness.

Second, some of the challenges explained to me seemed simply mind-boggling. One of the schools had several students who were children of migrant workers who had recently moved to Karnataka for work from other Indian states. These students do not speak Kannada, and yet sit in a classroom where the mode of instruction is foreign to them. Teachers can’t be expected to know all of the 22 official languages in India, never mind the hundreds or so dialects, so these students inevitably fall behind and stay behind.

Third, some of my stereotypical images of public schools in India were shattered during this trip. There do exist public schools in India which, as far as infrastructure is concerned, can put middle-income private schools to shame. One such school that I visited had been funded by a nearby private school, the affluent stakeholders of which had made donations to assist their public school counterparts. Local communities can certainly play their part.

Public school 2b Public school 2a

Fourth, I really enjoyed the fact that quantification lies at the heart of Pratham’s work. When we made the trip to a nearby public school, I had a chance to glance at some of Pratham’s progress reports; the students of this school were being transparently evaluated on a near weekly basis to track progress using very intuitive metrics. For instance, students with weak math skills were bucketed based on whether they could recognize the numbers 0-9, 10-99 and finally, 100-999; this allowed the teacher to tailor tasks based on the capability of each student and lowered the risk of any single student falling behind.

Public school 1a Public school 1b

Fifth, I learned that the one-size-fits-all approach of traditional schooling is particularly detrimental in India, where the diversity of economic, social and linguistic backgrounds in each classroom inevitably results in some children being left behind. Teachers, well-intentioned or otherwise, are aware of this choice, but it seems as though they are neither incentivized nor have the resources to do anything about this. Amidst these unfortunate circumstances, it helps to have external organizations with the resources and personnel to tackle the problem from a different angle. This certainly doesn’t seem like a permanent solution, but I guess it’s a fool’s wish to desire an elegant formulaic solution to a problem as complex as education in India.

I quite enjoyed this trip. I am aware that, as with my internship at Hand-in-Hand, such indulgences satisfy my curiosity at the cost of drawing NGOs’ limited resources away from pressing work; the only way to justify the net ROI on social good is if this leads me, or those who accompanied me on the visit, to take lasting steps. For now, I’ve begun a monthly recurring donation to Pratham as part of my plan to give away a fixed percentage of my monthly income to organizations doing compelling work. Time will tell if this leads to something larger.

Missing Seatbelts in Uber Cars in India

Through my two month stay in Bangalore, I’ve been using Uber rather extensively. While there’re a boatload of reasons to love Uber, the lack of seatbelts in many cars (empirical estimate: 60% of my rides) is not one of them.

Before I flesh out my gripe though, I must say that Uber has made a world of difference in the quality of my stay here. There’s a lot to like about Bangalore, but the traffic and the roads are not one among them; thanks to Uber, my daily bouts of frustration commuting to work and back have been reduced and my productivity has gone up, ’cause I can now focus on work even during my ride.

Unfortunately, I am rather put off by the fact that many Uber cars in Bangalore do not have seatbelts in rear seats. Typically, I find both seatbelt and seatbelt latch completely missing. At one point, this trend was so prevalent that I wondered if certain models of Tata Indica, the most popular car model in the UberGo category, are simply sold without seat belts right from factory; I couldn’t find any evidence supporting this though. On the contrary, it looks like since 2002, all manufacturers have been legally required to equip their cars with rear seat belts.

Now, I know that those of you who reside in India are likely to dismiss this as a non-issue. There exists a collective apathy towards the need for seatbelts in the general population. Even in cars that are well equipped, when I reach out to buckle my seatbelt, I often catch family and friends shoot me a dismissive look or smirk at my NRI ways. When I present my case, one of the justifications provided is that average speeds on Indian roads are far lower than those observed in more developed countries, hence seatbelts are redundant in India. This line of reasoning is complete nonsense though. In absolute numbers, more people die on Indian roads than elsewhere and India accounts for nearly 10% of all global road fatalities. If you don’t buy the numbers, the next time you get into a car at night, or take a trip to Bangalore airport, take a look at the speedometer – seatbelts can be good company during 100kmph crashes.

Uber isn’t technically in the wrong here; rear seat belts are not legally necessary in India. What’s more, Uber seems to have little incentive to mandate that all of its cars carry seatbelts, since this would probably lead to many drivers dropping off the service – not ideal for growth plans on the supply side of business. That said, if ever there was an opportunity for a growing company to become a thought leader and bring about social change through corporate prescience, this might be it. The most admired companies in India are often those that deliver public good by staying a step ahead of antiquated public infrastructure, policies and incentives; if Uber is in it for the long run, this might be a great opportunity to spur change and build a positive public image.

If this isn’t enough incentive, here’s a thought – imagine the PR disaster that would erupt if an Uber ride in a car without rear seatbelts were to result in the fatality of a rider.

Having been in more accidents than I care for, I feel rather strongly about this issue. If you feel the same way, I urge you to do what you can to amplify these sentiments. Maybe email or tweet at Uber? We might just save a few lives in the process.

A Vestige of the Moon

A year to the day, your presence remains deeply felt;
there had been much to say, when you tiptoed and left.

Those foreign moments, in more ways than one,
still occupy my thoughts, and my emotions overcome.

Miles away I was, longing to tend your side,
but astute in loss, my anguish I did hide.

And then that timeless hour, when the world stood still,
weeping by the shower, my sobs pierced the night’s tranquil.

You’d think you’d know, how you would manage,
the impending blow, the arriving carnage …

But enough of the sobering end. The phoenix’s fire,
doesn’t portend, that which its presence did transpire.

Amidst the meaningless noise, amidst the incessant chatter,
his was the only voice, that didn’t seek to flatter.

Oft did his eyes speak, cutting through the mundanity,
in a tongue quaintly sweet, of tales, of dusk, of humanity.

They say that time, adds a coat of gloss,
makes mortals divine, by virtue of their loss.

But I write not of greatness. I extol not his ambition.
I write of prudent guidance. Of quiet compassion.

For this soft mannered man, we have deeply cared,
but now that he is gone, in his spirit let us bask, let us share.

5 years on. Sharing multiplies joy and divides grief. Thank you Amanu Thatha.

There and Back Again: My Trip to Alaska

As I fly out of Anchorage, Alaska, I look down at the snowy land with mixed emotions. Awe, happiness and fear, all bundled into one, consume me. In a space of just 10 days, this crazy land has considerably altered my notion of what it means to be a living, abled human.

Before we get too far ahead, a few notes about me. I am more likely to greet the phrase “life changing experience” with scepticism rather than careful consideration. With fair reason too, I suppose – I have travelled somewhat extensively and tried my hand at a handful of activities, but never have any of these experiences transcended sensory stimulation. Yet, I sit here in my chair trying to come to terms with all that I’ve gleaned in the days just gone by.

 

The human body is fragile.

Food, water, sleep and excretion – these are the four fundamental physiological needs that we consciously seek to fulfil. Everything else, including love, wealth, respect and intellectual stimulation lie at a higher level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Alaska in the winter is quite unsettling because it adds a fifth conscious physiological need – homeostasis. When the temperature is down to -40 degrees Celsius (which by the way, is also -40 degree Fahrenheit), you become very aware of the need to keep yourself warm just to get through the next few minutes pain free. During our treks through Denali National Park, if at any time we took off our gloves to draw on the dexterity of our fingers, we would be served with a chilling and numbing pain. Even a minute’s exposure would ensue in pain that would require more than 15 minutes of shelter to recede. Since we were, at times, two hours away from the closest shelter, I became very conscious of the inadequacy of the human body to sustain itself. This feeling of vulnerability was further strengthened when a friend of mine stepped in water and sprinted to safety to prevent the pain from consuming him. It was quite humbling to contemplate that at the heart of the walls of success, relationships, intellect and confidence that we build to make ourselves formidable lies such a perishable core.

 

Human endeavour is cumulative and inter-dependent. 

While on the one hand I was aware of my fragility, on the other, I developed an appreciation for the collective efforts of humanity that were helping keep me safe and alive. I was being kept warm by 21 pieces of clothing manufactured by 15 different companies, some possible due to the ingenuity of scientists, and some due to the hard work of farmers. The path between the trees that kept me oriented in this expansive wilderness was a result of careful planning by assiduous park rangers. The bridges that helped me trudge across thin ice without falling in had been well thought out and built to last by park keepers. The promise of a shelter just hours away with thorough heating and drinking water was the doing of ingenious engineers. The fact that I was even in this part of the world in the first place was a tribute to hundreds of daring explorers, many of who navigated these treacherous conditions without a map in hand. Each one of these contributions was critical for my comfort and survival, and yet no single contribution was more important than the rest. To me, this was a viewing glass into our roles in the grand scheme of humanity (I guess such insights are easier to crystallise while out in the silent wilderness). With endeavour and ingenuity, we can use our abilities to make incisive and critical contributions to the human race. However, nothing we do can hold any utility without the thousands of contributions that help the ecosystem come together. This realisation in turn made me reflect – if we truly understand this, how can we ever submit ourselves to arrogance or to a sense of superiority? How can we not permanently remain humble and in awe of the body of human achievement on which our own endeavours rest?

 

Any breath can be your last.

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose” – Steve Jobs.

I’ve heard Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement speech a dozen times, but never have those words hit home as hard as they did during this trip. Have you ever witnessed a serious car crash? Have you ever seen or been in a car that skid and disappeared off the highway? Let’s just say that on the icy roads between Denali and Fairbanks, I had a glimpse at how feather thin the gap between life and death is. I have seen people on their deathbeds before, I have had loved ones pass away and I have watched videos of fatal car crashes. Experiencing a serious car crash unfold in front of my own eyes took things to an altogether different plane though. There is something very unsettling about sitting through a sequence of events that can push life to give way to death. It makes you realise that not everyone has the chance to finish their stories, contemplate their ends and bid their goodbyes – in a flash of light, it could all be over. You may have planned out a long and eventful life, but you may not be given the chance to stay the course. A full stop can cut you off mid-sentence, no matter how young or promising your story.

Before I went to Alaska, the idea of death was, to me, a useful intellectual tool representing a finish line in the distance. In fact, I recall quipping when I turned 25 that I have 75 left to go. Following the trip, death seems like a very real physical phenomenon that could rear its head at any time. At first, I found this to be quite overwhelming. My goals in life are based on the premise that I will live for another 40 years at the very least. I have often thought through how I want to live life in my 30s, my 40s, my 50s and onwards, never once questioning the assumption that I would live that long. In light of this, it’s no surprise that this new found awareness of death made me very uneasy.

Now that I’ve had a little while to think things through though, I find that this unease has given way to a strange sense of calm. The little things don’t seem to bother me as much anymore. I also find myself smiling more often than usual. The best part is that I’m not even trying all that hard; yet, I’m doing a better job at staying sunny than when I was making a conscious attempt to be happy. I guess on a subconscious level, I’ve realised that I might as well enjoy every moment while I still have the chance. Since there isn’t much to lose in the larger scheme of things, why worry about the consequences of worldly affairs; why not just opt for peace of mind? My hope now is that this new found calm doesn’t fade away with time.

 

All in all, suffice to say that Alaska has left me with a range of thoughts and a mixture of emotions. As my plane disappears over the clouds, I am not sure when I will return, or for that matter, if I even wish to return. What I do know, though, is that the experiences and insights that this land has granted me will not leave me anytime soon.

Tinted Lenses

In a quest to remain open-minded, I’ve been making a conscious effort to run my thoughts through the filter – “would I think this way were I a different person, with a different set of experiences?” Far too many problems in this world are caused by people trying to assert their beliefs, without making room for alternative perspectives. The US and the USSR paralyzed the world over social and economic preferences. Parents and children fall out over disagreements on religion and culture. Everyone sticks to his or her ground exasperated, yet no one is better for it.

Keeping this filter on is challenging; I try to aid this process by periodically reminiscing moments that shook my beliefs and revealed flaws in my understanding. One such lucid moment was when I first understood special relativity and quantum theory. My Newtonian perception of the world had then been shattered to bits. Objects could be in two places at the same time! Time could slow down and speed up! These statements were true, and yet they were in direct conflict with observations that I thought to be self-evident. My views were verifiably fallible. Who knew?

I hope I always live up to this interpretation of “open-mindedness”, and not just some liberal version of it. I leave you with a few other statements that I once believed, but have since come to reconsider:

  1. Religion has no place in an evolved society.
  2. Representative democracy is the best system of government.
  3. Unadulterated capitalism is the best system of economy.
  4. Citizens are entitled to more rights than immigrants.
  5. There is unquestionable nobility in being a soldier.

E-commerce in the Year 2025: Drones, Oracles and Block-chains

E-commerce has come a long way in the last 10 years. Same day grocery delivery, catalogues spanning hundreds of millions of products, seamless payment gateways, ad retargeting, dynamic repricing and predictive analytics have changed the landscape considerably for both consumers and businesses. As average consumer spend increases and as businesses strive to keep pace with the innovations of the last decade, it helps to ask — how is e-commerce likely to change in the next 10 years?

In this two-part article series, I would like to give my take on how a few select components of e-commerce are likely to shape-up in the year 2025. In part 1, I will tackle this question from the consumer standpoint, focusing on evolution in delivery time and prices. In each case, I would like to consider two scenarios — expected, i.e., the minimum outcome that we should expect, and ambitious, i.e., the outcome were more ambitious possibilities to materialize.