Thursday, November 10, 2016

Facebook and Twitter and their role in democracy

Every new technology upends the social order in some way, big or small. Many centuries ago, when the printing press arrived, it probably raised the level of our collective knowledge and was also used to churn out propaganda. A couple of decades ago, when the internet was arriving as the new gateway to information, there was some skepticism, but mostly there was hope. Skeptics said that the internet would polarize us, that it would be a tool for propaganda and misinformation. While there was some evidence of this happening, it was easy to find counter examples. However, in today's social media driven world, I realize that the skeptics were right. Social media has poisoned our discourse. Social media is distinctly different from search in how it intermediates information. I'd like to explain how.

Let's say you have some time and want to read something.  You have limited time and can't go through everything. You pick up an information intermediary that gives you a shortlist of choices after sifting through and selecting what they think you would like to readYou may pick up a magazine, you may look for something on Google, or you could go to Facebook. 

The goal of an information intermediary is to give you a list of compelling choices by best predicting your choices based on following four parameters: topic, author, external validation and content:

Google Facebook
Is this topic of interest to you? (title/keywords/content) Is this a topic that is similar to things you have liked before?
Is the author an expert on the topic? Did one of your friends write it? (authorship)
Did one of your friends react to it? (shares/likes) Have other experts referred to it and written about it? (links, references)
Is the content linked to or by other pieces of authoritative content? Would you have the time and the attention span? (virality/short/crisp)

The first infers relevance from a network of content inspired by a system of references  and whereas the second infers relevance from a network of relationships and past impulsive behavior, i.e. system 1 decisions.  Search is inspired by how academic research is valued, Facebook by popularity contests in high school.

The world has become more polarized. People are easily incensed. Rational argumentation has all but disappeared. I feel that technology occupies centre-stage in this transformation. While the weblink structure use in search is open and can be studied independently, Facebook data and network of interactions is invisible and cannot really be studied.

Purists liberals pull no punches, spare no one, including their own selves

From what I've seen in India and in the US: Liberals are the best at messing with their own. Elizabeth Warren says in a widely circulated video that Hillary Rodham Clinton took money from credit card companies. This has been one of the most damaging attacks on Hillary Clinton.

So I went ahead and watched the video. In the first four minutes, Warren presents evidence for Hillary's initiative, commitment to women and children, and action. Hillary talked to Warren and understood the issues, and, as a consequence, the White House veto-ed a bill that was bad for women and children. Later, when a Republican President was in power, and Hillary was in the Senate, Hillary voted for the bill. Warren casually and destructively ascribes this reversal to corruption, actually taking money from those corporations.

Hillary explains this reversal as something she was asked to do as a price for including provisions in the bill to protect women and children, under a Republican President, who she knew wouldn't veto the bill if it passed.

I believe Hillary. I believe that any one who is actually involved in doing good is faced with difficult choices and has to sometimes deal take a call on what would be the most pragmatic thing to do. Let's not kid ourselves pragmatism is a reality of life. If Bernie Sanders was President, he would have needed to be pragmatic with a Republican house and senate, whether you like it or not.

Purists need to think about the narrative that they fed - that neither candidate was really good enough. Hillary was not just better than Trump. Hillary was a great candidate. Instead of attacking Hillary, Bernie's supporters should have focussed on down-ballot. But they didn't.

One of the videos on Facebook that has 11 million views is called "Hillary lying for 11 minutes straight". The only thing that the video shows is changes in Hillary's positions or her articulation of them.

Yes, people have personal and policy positions and you know what, those positions change. Let's take the example of "gay" marriage. I agree with Hillary's earlier position that I don't believe in gay "marriage", though civil unions make sense.

In fact, I don't even agree with "straight" marriage. Marriage has strong religious connotations everywhere in the world. On the contrary, my faith in the tyranny of religion is so strong, that I abhor calling my most significant adult relationship a "marriage". Yes, are there legal consequences of this relationship? Should sign a contract giving each other special rights over our lives, our property, our person? Yes.

Hillary was right on this. She said that marriage is a "sacred" vow between "a man and a woman". She is right. Anyone who says "marriage" does not involve "religion" is smoking something. She eventually accepted that gay people do value the word "marriage" and value their "faith". I eventually decided that I valued my partner enough that I would swallow the bitter pill and get married and live in the marriage in the "traditional way".

Let's say 15 years from today, my view is the popular view, I would like to see today's liberals scurrying to find cover. But that's not going to happen. Because, in case liberals didn't notice, most of the world has taken a sharp turn to the right. The way back will not be easy.

Being a woman is all about compromising find a way to navigate the world. Everyday. Working in development is also the same. You believe in yourself and trust that your intentions will guide your actions do good, and better, not worse.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

You know who becomes President

The pussy grabber who questioned Obama's citizenship but did not release his tax returns has won the election.

White men voted en-bloc. Women did not.

The message is clear. Glass ceilings will not be shattered. Few cracks may be permitted. But only if you toe the line. Maybe.

Oh! and let me not forget the emails. Great job on the emails everyone - Comey, Assange, Weiner.

Also, George Bush did not happen THAT long ago. I'm thinking of the WMDs that never existed, Don't you?

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Rodham or Clinton?

The US never fails to deliver a nail-biting finish. In 2008, I was supposedly "looking" for a job, but was hopelessly distracted by a landmark election that could expose the deep-seated bigotry of people in America.  In 2016,  I am "looking" for a job, but have been hopelessly distracted by the a landmark election that could expose their deep-seated misogyny. What? You say, what has misogyny got to do with it? From where I stand, the underlying sub-text of every conversation that has taken place and that has not taken place is gender.
Whether she was likable or not.
Whether she was authentic or not.
Whether she was truthful or not.
Whether she was too much of a feminist.
Or she was too little of a feminist.
Whether she was too independent not to have left her job when she became the first lady of Arkansas. Whether he lost the governorship because she called herself Rodham.
Whether she was too practical that she could pay the bills when Bill was no longer the governor.
Whether he could win if she got rid of her glasses and got a makeover.
Whether he could win if she became Mrs Bill Clinton.
Whether as first lady she had a right to be involved with policy.
Whether she was deceiving the world about her husband's excesses.
Whether she was to blame that he strayed.
Whether she was to blame that she stayed.
(Also, whether she was lesbian or not)
Whether she was so distastefully practical that she cared how she and Bill would pay for the lawsuits after they left the White House.
Whether she was too ambitious that she came into politics after Bill was done.
Whether she was too opportunistic to have become Mrs. Clinton in her quest for power.
Whether she was sincere in her so-called commitment to women and children.

The hypocrisy of people when faced with a female leader stand starkly exposed. Our inability to think outside our little boxes. Trapped within the limits of our own cognition, we flail about wildly, helplessly, failing to change as we drown. Or not.

Your move, US of A. Vote for Hillary Rodham.

Ps: Sam Bee put it so well.

Update: United we stand in our hatred of women.

Ruth Graham expresses the sad story of the women in "A lament for Hillary, the woman".

The double standards are so blatant.
It was not ok for her to give speeches to make money. He, on the other hand, could stiff vendors and withhold their due.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

AK 67

This is more than Obama for me. This is the story of a people of a city asserting their existence and their will.

I doubt that the BJP's core voter base has eroded. Jingo-istic Modi-fans and Kejriwal bashers are in particularly strong concentrations amongst my near and dear ones, amongst people I meet at classes, parties and family get-togethers, people I love and respect. I lost the energy to argue.

In my despair, I didn't notice the quietly hopeful ones. Those who believed in previous elections, that the Congress was the way to keep Modi out, those who bought the 'development agenda' and wondered where it had gone, and those who saw, first-hand, the change that honest government brings to their life. You have kept the flame alive.

I have learnt a lesson for life - don't sit out. Speak up. Participate.
No matter what or who holds you back.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Optimization is Fun, but ...

The first rule is to avoid premature optimization at all costs. I have literally been at companies that I've seen destroyed by premature optimizations. I can't name names, but just know that doing premature optimization can massively destroy your design and create such a complicated system that when you actually come to your performance and profiling phase, you don't know where to start. The most important thing is to build the right system. Don't take short cuts based on what you believe will affect its performance; build a system that is maintainable, that satisfies getting your functionality out the door, that satisfies getting your system built quickly, whatever your important things are, but don't do premature optimization.
Grabbed this from a coder's blog. A sentiment that I find echoed in so many places. I can think of many situations where people have indulged themselves in premature optimization. I'm using the word indulged because performance optimization is a very interesting intellectual activity and programmers typically love  to say that they're working on optimization. But I am very skeptical of all the imaginary use-cases and performance optimizations that people are forever carrying on before even implementing features and products.

This doesn't mean that we should purposely implement our applications in a shoddy way - we must follow best practices of whatever platform we are working in, we must create a design and architecture that makes sense - but what we shouldn't do is to bend over backwards to optimize something that barely even exists.

I want to round this off with an unrelated but nice quote about Test Driven Development that I found yesterday. It is from a book by Kent Beck; he says - Tests are a Programmer's Stone, transmuting fear into boredom. I hope I remember this the next time I am feeling bored writing tests.

Monday, July 4, 2011


it is easy to grab a hold of the pulse of the american media and really take your pick in which representation you are more comfortable with consuming every day and what level of balance you desire.

india is a (somewhat) different story. it is easy to pick up two very disparate sources of news (hindu vs indian express). but the spectrum of voices everywhere in between that leads to a better mix of left and right, happiness and sadness, fix-it and let-it-be, is not easy to find.

here is an evolving list of things i can read to widen my perspective. suggestions are very welcome.