So, WordPress.com has restored the family of premium plans that it had until April this year, and has done away with the controversial ‘Starter’ and ‘Pro’ plans. The announcement on the WordPress.com blog yesterday has already garnered a high 65 comments, even as the post itself was brief and didn’t contain indication that WordPress.com had screwed up with the new plans. Excerpt:
Our philosophy has always been one of experimenting, learning, and adjusting. As we began to roll out our new pricing plans a couple of months back, we took note of the feedback you shared. What we heard is that some of you missed the more granular flexibility of our previous plans. Additionally, the features you needed and pricing of the new plans didn’t always align for you. This led us to a decision that we believe is the right call.
You might recall that when the new plans were announced in April, my blog post reacting to them became a big deal on the Hacker News forum on that day, and (probably) first drew the attention of Automattic chief Matt Mullenweg and WordPress.com CEO Dave Martin. Since then, WordPress.com has been working to adapt the ‘Starter’ and ‘Pro’ plans for different markets as well as introduced à la carte upgrades to remove ads, add custom CSS and buy more storage space. However, the company continued to receive negative feedback on the changes from the previous plans.
One vein that I really resonated with was a rebuttal of WordPress.com’s claim that the older plans were messy whereas the newer ones are clearer. That’s absolutely not true. But on July 21, they seemed to have finally really listened and changed their minds for the better. (And even then, there are many expressions of confusion among the 65 comments.)
I also want to point out here that WordPress.com is being disingenuous when it claims its new plans were an “experiment”. That’s bullshit. No experiment rolls out to all users on production, is accompanied by formal announcements of change on the official blog and, in the face of criticism, forces the CEO to apologise for a hamfisted rollout process – all without mentioning the word ‘experiment’ even once. WordPress.com is saying now that its development has followed the path of “experimenting, learning, and adjusting” when all it did was force the change, inform users post facto, then solicited feedback on which it acted (before doing that in advance), and finally reverted to a previous state.
The national vice-president of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, Abhinav Prakash Singh, published an article on May 22 on the Gyanvapi mosque issue that is from start to finish an exercise in verbal sophistry. But while we have come to expect such nonsense from functionaries of the Bharatiya Janata Party, I was shocked to see this coming from Indian Express. (Some of my friends weren’t, so I am probably behind the curve here.)
Singh’s argument is not concerned with the historical facts of the case (many of which are gathered here) but with the people calling Gyanvapi a “controversy” hiding behind secularism, which according to him was developed to separate the state only from Abrahamic religions, and that the faux-controversy should nonetheless be allowed to blow through in favour of Hindus because the left is only resorting to “political rhetoric, academic obfuscation and chicanery”, and not because the right doesn’t seem concerned about the burden of proof. This is a defence of malice on the grounds of what it is not (not anti-national, not Islamic, not western, not leftist, not scholarly) over what it is (proofless, perfidious, communal). Oh, what it is also not is violent and riotous, which, in Singh’s telling, the protests against the farm laws and the CAA respectively were.
A news publication – more so a national newspaper – that openly believes it is okay to amplify lies cannot be on the side of democracy. Falsities and untruths are threats to democracy everywhere. But while India may be far from a perfect democracy at the moment, its institutions and civil society must still maintain their democratic tendencies, especially in the spirit defined by the constitution. This is more important than to be perfectly democratic at every moment, which is just not possible. Challenges will arise and there will be failures, and that is not an implicitly bad thing. When we tend to the best of our abilities, that is good enough. However, a democratic nation will lose that character if we stop tending, if we altogether stop aspiring in that direction and begin to admit exceptions to favour a political agenda and/or personal gain. It will also lose that character if we don’t employ common sense. This is where logic matters.
It will always be a virtue to be more informed (with reasonable exceptions), to keep learning and to value the methods by which we acquire knowledge and establish facts. One popular technique for this, standing on the deceptively simple foundation of logic, is called science – and in most democratic societies today, science and its exponents occupy a place of pride. However, the unbridled application of science to solving society’s problems is not a good thing. Such overreach, called scientism but also encompassing hard-line rationalism, attempts to use science to solve problems that its methods and principles were never designed to solve, and eventually produces outcomes that – again – subvert the proper functioning of a democracy in favour of a scientistic or falsely meritocratic agenda.
But this said, scientism is not the only level at which science can get in the way of a functional democracy, even though many seem to think that it does. The Bharatiya Janata Party comes first to mind, when its members claim that Ayurveda, yoga, the Vedas, the entangled Hindu state-culture-religion and whatever else anticipated and solved advanced problems that modern natural as well as social sciences still fumble with. Ancient India’s feats, in the party’s telling, are a demonstration of its immense prowess and to which we must thus bow your heads without question. But the evidence for these claims is always, without exception, in the realm of the unfalsifiable: that which can neither be proved nor, more importantly, disproved.
This may be a carefully designed strategy at work but that does not mean we are obliged to recognise it as one. To everyone who has been to high school and studied a little bit of logic and set theory, it is – to use the technical term – a blooper, and hopefully also a reminder that democracy can and is regularly undermined by our being okay with letting bloopers pass. For example, Abhinav Prakash Singh’s article is rife with pleas to let the Gyanvapi controversy swing in favour of the right-wing, each based on the premise that “what is not offensive is therefore good”. This, as you may know, is the fallacy of affirming the disjunct. It goes like this, for example:
To become an IAS officer, one must be smart or hard-working. Selvi, who is hard-working, became an IAS officer. Therefore, Selvi is not smart.
The left manufactured the Gyanvapi controversy because it has proof or it claims the supremacy of Islam. The left is anti-Hindu and pro-Islam. Therefore the left has no proof.
Does it make sense to you? It should not. It is just how empty of meaning and substance Singh’s article is. The affirmation of the disjunct might tempt you to ask yourself whether there is something he knows that you don’t. Don’t give in; instead, you should really ask whether there is anything rather than nothing at the heart of his argument. Most of all, do not let his claim pass unchecked. Do not read it and believe that Singh may have a point. He and his colleagues seldom do, and prefer instead the use of kettle logic, as demonstrated in the opening lines of a recent article by Apoorvanand: “Who could have thought that an argument for syncretism and the blurry nature of culture can be used to first enter the religious or sacred places of non-Hindu communities and then lay claim over them?” Most of all, read Singh’s article and conclude, not because I recommend it but because Singh himself forces us to, with the aid of 900 words donated by Indian Express, that his remarks are foolish. All he has are big words wrapped around a statement that many of us are taught when we are quite young cannot possibly make sense.
A lot of folks are saying they’re not going to leave Twitter, in the wake of Elon Musk’s acquisition of the social media platform, because Musk and its once and long-time CEO and cofounder Jack Dorsey aren’t very different: both are billionaires, tech-bros, libertarian and pro-cryptocurrencies. And they say that they did okay under Dorsey, so why wouldn’t we under Musk? I find this argument to only be partly acceptable. The other part is really two parts.
First, Twitter under Dorsey is significantly different because he cofounded the platform and nurtured through a few years of relative quiescence, followed by a middle period and finally to the decidedly popular platform that it is today. (I joined Twitter in the middle period, in 2008, when it was hard to say if the next person you were going meet in real-life was be on Twitter. Today the converse is true.)
Musk, however, is inheriting a more matured platform, and one whose potential he believes hasn’t been “fulfilled”. I’m not sure what that means, and the things Musk has said on Twitter itself haven’t inspired confidence. Both men may be evil billionaires but setting aside the sorts of things Dorsey supports for a moment, you’ve got to admit he doesn’t have nearly the persona, the reputation and the cult-following that Musk does. These differences distinguish these men in significant ways vis-à-vis a social media platform – a beast that’s nothing like EVs, spaceflight or renewables.
(In fact, if Musk were to adopt an engineer’s approach to ‘fixing’ whatever he believes he’s wrong with Twitter, there are many examples of the sort of problematic solutions that could emerge here.)
The second part of the “Musk and Dorsey are pretty much the same” misclaim is that a) Musk is taking the company private and b) Musk has called himself a “free-speech absolutist”. I’m not a free-speech absolutist, in fact most of the people who have championed free speech in my circles are not. Free-speech absolutism is the view that Twitter (in this context) should support everyone’s right to free speech without any limitations on what they’re allowed to say. To those like me who reject the left-right polarisation in society today in favour of the more accurate pro-anti democracy polarisation, Twitter adopting Musk’s stance as policy would effectively recast attempts to curtail abuse and harrassment directed at non-conservative voices as “silencing the right”, and potentially allow their acerbic drivel to spread unchecked on the platform.
Running Twitter famously affected Dorsey. Unless we can be sure that the platform and its users will have the same effect on Musk, and temper his characteristic mercuriality, Twitter will remain a place worth leaving.
Molly White has a difficult read, one that I’m forced to agree with in spite of my vehemently anti-cryptocurrency position. Three representative paragraphs from her post:
I … think that [cryptocurrency-based financial solutions] are enormously attractive to people who see them as a tangible option in a world where these problems are not being solved—where we are being failed by our political establishments in so, so many ways. I don’t think they are a feasible solution, and in fact I think they will worsen many of the problems they ostensibly aim to solve, but they are certainly being sold as the solution, and a solution that people desperately need.
And I really can’t fault someone for deciding to hitch their wagon to crypto and web3 because they are hopeful that those salesmen might be on to something. I can disagree with them, I can explain my point of view, I can think that their engagement is in some small way enabling something I fundamentally disagree with and believe to be harmful—but I can’t believe that buying some crypto, collecting an NFT, or joining a DAO automatically make someone a bad person.
If you feel the urge to “cyberbully” someone in crypto, direct it at the powerful players behind crypto projects that are actively taking advantage of the vulnerable. Or, just as reasonably, direct it at the powerful tech executives, venture capitalists, elected representatives, and lobbyists who have contributed to the untenable situation we find ourselves in. Or the policymakers and governmental agencies who have failed to uphold their duty in regulating crypto and enforcing existing regulation that would protect people from rampant fraud. But not the artist who hoped to earn a few bucks selling their digital art in what is otherwise an extremely difficult field, or the person who hoped that maybe a lucky crypto buy could help them dig out of crushing debt just a tiny bit faster.
This is a sensible position – and one that’s hard to remember in the heat of an argument when the other side defends a choice to invest in or deepen one’s position on cryptocurrencies. But to this picture of two sides I’d add two more (in fact, it may well be a continuous spectrum of positions):
Those who back cryptocurrencies knowing the harm it causes, to the environment as much as social justice, while also not exploring other financial options well enough.
Those who invest in cryptocurrencies in ignorance of its nature, technological sophistry and ontological vacuity, and later claim they “didn’t know” but also don’t/can’t exist because they have sunk costs.
These people are certainly less in the wrong than those who are outright evil – the people deserving of our vitriol, in White’s estimation. And even between these two ‘new’ groups, I think those who are lazy are wronger than those who are ignorant. I was prompted to think of these two gradations to White’s spectrum because they describe some of my friends. In fact, I think I have at least one friend belonging to each of the four groups before us:
“Those without another solution available to problem at hand”,
“Those who trip into it even though they’re educated well-enough to not”,
“Those reaching for cryptocurrencies without sufficiently exploring other options”, and
“Those aware of the bad outcomes but doing it anyway to become richer”.
I should of course clarify that these two additional groups exist principally because of privilege. That is, they become visible when you look at White’s first group through the prism of privileges that accrue to different social groups in India, particularly among the upper class, upper caste lot: they have, without exception, passively but automatically foregone ignorance or another similar excuse for their actions. And it’s because of their privileges, and not particularly because its wanton exercise has been directed at cryptocurrencies on this occasion, that they don’t deserve to be spared our scorn.
It’s sensible to read anything the World Bank puts down in words and feel like something’s amiss. I also recently read the following, on the Yale E360 blog (h/t @SanerDenizen):
… policymakers and funders still mostly prefer engineering solutions. [One study] found that less than 10 percent of funding for climate adaptation in the least-developed nations – which are usually the most vulnerable –went into projects that harnessed nature. The remaining 90 percent “poured concrete.” Overall, the UN Environment Programme and the Global Commission on Adaptation, an international body set up by the Dutch government, both estimate that about 1 percent of total climate finance has so far gone toward such nature-based adaptation projects.
Put these two together and then read this tweet:
… and you might start to wonder if renewable energy is the new oil – deemed to be necessary, even vital, in the nascent stages; lending itself to the persistence of extractive economies and resource colonialism; open to being prospected by engineers in various countries by potential and capacity; guaranteeing predictable outcomes (over the implicit variance of those of nature-based solutions) up to the medium term but leading to over-engineering in the longer; and finally leading the way to obsolescence, disorganisation and technical debt.
One of the more eye-opening discussions on Elon Musk’s attempt to take control of Twitter, and the Twitter board’s attempts to defend the company from the bid, have been playing out on Hacker News (here and, after Twitter’s response, here) – the popular discussion board for topics related to the tech industry. The first discussion has already racked up over 3,000 comments, considered high for topics on the platform – but most of them are emblematic of the difference between the industry’s cynical view of politics and that of those who have much more skin in the game, for whom it’s a problem of regulation, moral boundaries and, inevitably, the survival of democracies. (Here is one notable exception.)
For example, the majority of comments on the first discussion are concerned with profits, Twitter’s management, the stock market and laws pertaining to shareholding. The second one also begins with a comment along similar lines, repeating some points made in the ‘All In Podcast’, together with an additional comment about how “one AI engineer from Tesla could solve Twitter’s bot and spam problem”. The podcast is hosted by Chamath Palihapitiya, Jason Calacanis, David Sacks and David Friedberg, all investors and entrepreneurs of the Silicon Valley variety. A stream of comments rebuts this one, but in terms of it being an engineering problem instead of the kind of place Twitter might be if Musk takes ownership.
There have also been several comments either along the lines of or premised on the fact that “many people don’t use Twitter anyway, so Twitter’s board shouldn’t deprive its shareholders of the generous premium that Musk is offering”. Not many people use Twitter compared to Facebook – but the platform is in sufficient use in India and in other countries for its misuse to threaten journalists, activists and protestors, to undermine public dialogue on important government policies, and to spread propaganda and misinformation of great consequence. Such a mentality – to take the money and run, courtesy of a business mogul worth $260 billion – represents an onion of problems, layer over layer, but most of all that those running a company in one small part of one country can easily forget that social media platforms are sites of public dialogue, that enable new forms of free speech, in a different country.
If Twitter goes down, or goes to Musk, which is worse, those who are nervous enough will switch to Mastodon (I have been running a server for three years now), but if this is an acceptable outcome, platforms like Twitter can only encourage cynicism when they seek to cash in on their identities as supporters of free speech but then buckle with something Muskesque comes calling. Thus far, Twitter hasn’t buckled, which is heartening, but since it is a private company, perhaps it is just a matter of time.
Another point that grates at me is that there seems to be little to no acknowledgment in the Hacker News discussions that there are constitutional limits to free speech in all democracies. (Again, there are nearly 4,000 comments on both discussions combined, so I could have missed some.) As Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution reads:
(2) Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of 4[the sovereignty and integrity of India], the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.
Musk has said he wants to take over Twitter because, in a letter he wrote to the company, it “will neither thrive nor serve [its free speech] societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.” He also said separately that “having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilisation”. Yet his own conviction in the virtues of free-speech absolutism has blinded him from seeing he’s simply bullying Twitter into changing its agenda, or that he is bullying its hundreds of millions of users into accepting his.
He also seems unable to acknowledge that “maximally trusted and broadly inclusive” – by which I’m not-so-sure he means both the far-left and the far-right should be allowed to mouth off, without any curbs – points only to one type of social media platform: one that is owned, run and used by the people (Mastodon is one example). As another point from the ‘All In Podcast’ was quoted on the forum: “The elites have somehow inverted history so they now believe that it is not censorship that is the favored tool of fascists and authoritarians, even though every fascist and despot in history used censorship to maintain power, but instead believe free speech, free discourse, and free thought are the instruments of repression.” It’s hard to tell which ‘free speech’ they mean: the one in both the US and India, where it is limited in ways that are designed to protect the safety of the people and their rights, or the lopsided one in Musk’s mind that free speech must be guaranteed in the absolute.
I have no interest in listening to the podcast – but the latter is entirely plausible: while keeping the rest of us occupied with fact-checking The Party’s lies, lodging police complaints against its violent supporters and protecting the rights of the poor and the marginalised, the ministers can run the country in peace.
When the Hubble space telescope launched in April 1990, I was too young to understand what was going on – but not yesterday, when NASA launched its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Every once in a while, the Hubble telescope team releases an image of thousands of stars packed into one shot, the so-called “deep space” views. I don’t know if there is another way to react to them than with awe. But given the hype surrounding the JWST as well as its better technical specifications, its launch just seemed surreal – the threshold of a new era of astronomy photographs that everyone says will be better than what the Hubble has managed thus far, yet I can’t imagine how.
In 2015, I had written, after gazing for an hour at a Hubble image of the M5 cluster, that the telescope’s images are so flawless, so devoid of the aberration of its instruments, that it is easy to forget the telescope lies between our eyes and the subject of its image. This sensation was reminiscent of the opening of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980):
One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.” Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of solitude), I forgot about it. My interest in Photography took a more cultural turn. I decided I liked Photography in opposition to the Cinema, from which I nonetheless failed to separate it. This question grew insistent. I was overcome by an “ontological” desire: I wanted to learn at all costs what Photography was “in itself,” by what essential feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images. Such a desire really meant that beyond the evidence provided by technology and usage, and despite its tremendous contemporary expansion, I wasn’t sure that Photography existed, that it had a “genius” of its own.
The JWST is now expected to top this… this flawlessness, and I’m already excited for the possibilities – yet I’m also instinctively inclined to temper this excitement because of something else Barthes said in the same book: a warning about making the meaning of an image too “impressive”, too powerful as to render its aesthetic qualities more keenly than its political – or in this case technical – ones:
Yet the mask is the difficult region of Photography. Society, it seems, mistrusts pure meaning: it wants meaning, but at the same time it wants this meaning to be surrounded by a noise (as is said in cybernetics) which will make it less acute. Hence the photograph whose meaning (I am not saying its effect, but its meaning) is too impressive is quickly deflected; we consume it aesthetically, not politically. The Photograph of the Mask is in fact critical enough to disturb (in 1934, the Nazis censored Sander because his “faces of the period” did not correspond to the Nazi archetype of the race), but it is also too discrete (or too “distinguished”) to constitute an authentic and effective social critique, at least according to the exigencies of militantism: what committed science would acknowledge the interest of Physiognomy?
I don’t know if this argument applies here or, if it does, how exactly. I thought to recall it only because of the possibilities with which the JWST will soon confront us, their implications for astronomy as a whole, and how we might respond as a people and as a species to them. And of course as science communicators.
Featured image: An infrared image of the ‘Pillars of Creation’ in the Eagle Nebula, photographed by the Hubble space telescope in 2014. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/AURA.
I don’t understand his penchant for late-night announcements, much less one at 10 pm on Christmas night, but Prime Minister Narendra has just said the government will roll out vaccines for young adults aged 15-18 years from January 3, 2022 – around the same time I received a press release from Bharat Biotech saying the drug regulator had approved the company’s COVID-19 vaccine, Covaxin, for emergency-use among those aged 12-18 years.
I think there’s a lot we don’t know about Covaxin at this time – similar to (but hopefully not to the same extent as) when the regulator approved it for emergency-use among adults on January 3, 2021. But what grates at me more now is this: more than being any other vaccine to protect against COVID-19, Covaxin has been the Indian government’s pet project.
This favour has manifested in the form of numerous government officials supporting its use and advantages sans nearly sufficient supporting evidence, and in the form of help the vaccine hasn’t deserved at the time the government extended it – primarily the emergency-use approval for adults. Most of all, Covaxin has become a victim of India’s vaccine triumphalism.
And I’m wary that Prime Minister Modi’s 10 pm announcement is a sign that a similar sort of help is in the offing. Until recently, up to December 24 in fact, officials including Rajesh Bhushan, Vinod K. Paul and Balram Bhargava said the government is being guided by science on the need to vaccinate children. Yet Modi’s announcement coincides with the drug regulator’s approval for Covaxin’s emergency-use among children.
I admit this isn’t much to go on, but it isn’t an allegation either. It’s the following doubt: given the recent political history of Covaxin and its sorry relationship with the Indian government, will we stand to lose anything by ignoring the timing of the prime minister’s announcement? Put another way – and even if pulling at this thread turns out to be an abortive effort – did the government wait to change its policy on vaccinating those aged younger than 18 years until it could be sure Covaxin was in the running? (The drug regulator had approved another vaccine for children in August, Zydus Cadila’s ZyCoV-D – another train-wreck.)
Modi’s announcement also has him making a deceptively off-handed comment that today is Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s birth anniversary. Such an alignment of dates has never been a coincidence in Modi’s term as prime minister. Makes one wonder what else isn’t a coincidence…
I’m starting to think that in this day and age, you will but err when you pick individuals for traditionally ‘prestigious’ awards, prizes, recognitions, etc., probably because the sort of people who can stand out by themselves have to have had the sort of clout and power that typically comes not through personal achievement as much as systemic prejudice – or they need to have screwed up on a magnitude so large that the nature of their action must overlap significantly with a combination of centralised power and lack of accountability. And on the spectrum of possibilities between these two extremes lie The Week‘s and Time‘s persons of the year 2021.
The Week has picked – wait for it – Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) director-general Balram Bhargava for his leadership of India’s medical response to the country’s COVID-19 crises. I doubt I’d lose my journalistic equipoise if I said he deserved to be the “clown of the year” not just because Bhargava, and ICMR with him, has made many batty claims throughout the epidemic – principally in press conferences – but also because, to echo the recent words of Barton Gellman, he has pushed an independent medical research body outside the democratic system and into the prime minister’s office.
Yet The Week‘s article justifying its choice makes no mention of these transgressions and sticks only to Bhargava making life-impacting decisions at 3 am – like tens of thousands of healthcare workers around the country, who did that and kept their collective spine – and a can-do attitude in which The Week fails to see that “getting things done” to the appreciation of your colleagues also means that unless someone takes more initiative than they’re expected to, the organisation is systematically incapable of going “over and beyond”, so to speak. One way or another, it’s not hard to conclude that Bhargava will leave ICMR worse than it was when he joined.
Time‘s person of the year 2021 is Elon Musk. Its profile reads much less like the profilee is doing the profiler a favour, but it also fails to overcome the suspicion that it expects the sheer magnitude of Musk’s ambitions for the world to absolve him of his failures – failures that appear like minor glitches in a grand, technocratic future-vision to Silicon Valley and Wall Street honchos (and their mimics worldwide) but to anyone else suggest something worse but also familiar: a plutocracy in which each billionaire is only looking out for himself, or at best his company’s interests.
Time‘s profile is essentially a paean to the extent to which Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX companies have reinvigorated their respective industries (automotives and spaceflight) through innovations in manufacturing and industrial management, but it’s often presented in a context-limited, value-neutral fashion that prompts concerns that the magazine wouldn’t have had access to Musk if it didn’t promise to write nice things about him.
For example, Time writes that “Musk’s … announcement of a $100 million climate prize rankled some environmentalists because of its inclusion of proposals for direct-air carbon capture,” and that its sole criticism is that this tech doesn’t work. But the greater issue is that focusing on carbon capture and storage technologies is a technofix that allows Tesla and other vehicle-makers to evade responsibility to reduce the demand for carbon, and that Musk’s ‘challenge’ is really a bid through philanthrocapitlism to prolong ‘business as usual’ climate scenarios. For another related example, about Tesla’s success with electric vehicles, the profile says:
That has made Musk arguably the biggest private contributor to the fight against climate change. Had the 800,000 Teslas sold in the last year been gas-powered cars, they would have emitted more than 40 million metric tons of CO₂ over their lifetimes—equivalent to the annual emissions of Finland. But EVs may ultimately be less important to the climate fight than the central innovation that made them possible: batteries. Tesla has repurposed the lightweight, energy-dense cells that power its cars for huge grid-scale batteries that provide essential backup for renewables. Demand for Tesla’s smaller home-based Powerwall, which can store electricity from rooftop solar systems, has spiked as consumers look for alternatives to the grid, driven by everything from February’s Texas power shortage to the fire risk in California that has led to power shutoffs.
Yet the profile doesn’t mention that even when electrified, more and more people owning cars only exacerbates the underlying problem – the demand for electricity, from a climate mitigation standpoint, and urban traffic and congestion – and that we need cities to shift to more affordable, usable and efficient modes of public transport. (The profile also and obviously doesn’t include Musk’s comment in 2017 that he dislikes public transport because he grossly mistrusts other people.) And if Tesla’s technologies will ultimately benefit the US’s, and the world’s, public transport systems, it’s hard to imagine the extent to which they would’ve also undermined our fight for climate and social justice by then.
Instead, this is profiteering, plain and simple, and Time‘s failure to see it as such – throughout the profile, not just in this instance, it repeatedly tries to reflect the world’s aspirations in his own – seems to me to be a symptom of a desire to coexist with Musk more than anything else. Once in a while the profile has a few paragraphs of complaints against Musk and his businesses, only for them to be followed by an excuse for his behaviour or an indication that he was sanctioned appropriately for it, and never anything that goes far enough to contemplate what Musk’s politics might be. “Something about our upbringing makes us constantly want to be on the edge,” Elon’s brother Kimbal says – in the same paragraph that makes the profile’s sole meaningful allusion to the centrality of lucrative NASA contracts to SpaceX’s success. That, to me, said enough.
I wish both The Week and Time had picked persons of the year who make the world fairer and better in spite of the people they’ve actually picked – but at the same time must conclude that perhaps this is one more tradition whose time has ended.
Featured image credits: ICMR/Facebook and Steve Jurvetson/Flickr.
There’s a troubling pattern among some people who give food away to homeless people and beggars.
I have seen this happen first-hand with my folks, my extended family and their wider group of neighbours and acquaintances. All of them are Brahmins, so I don’t know if this is a Brahmin thing because they’re who my family hangs out with and/or lives around; because Brahmins make up the most part of India’s affluent lot that can afford to give away food on a regular basis, especially of the sort I’m about to describe; and/or because there’s an entrenched tradition of giving away in Hinduism that modern conservative Brahmins’ interpretation has twisted to include a not inconsiderable sense of pity, and the sense of superiority that comes with it. One way or another, it seems safe to assume that this is a Brahmin thing.
The troubling pattern is really a lack of common sense: these people give away food they’re not going to consume because eating it gave them indigestion or something like that, to other people who are typically already in very poor health, in the name of dharma. But this can’t be dharma: it is selfish and cruel. When our own better-fed, better-attended bodies can’t handle these foods, I don’t understand the Ariadne’s thread that leads to the conclusion that people who desperately want for food, or every next meal, will be okay with it – perhaps based simply on the assumption that food of any form or kind will do.
This morning I had a quarrel with my neighbours about giving away a bag of Kellogg’s Chocos to beggars near a temple they were going to visit; their defence was peppered with the word ‘paavam‘, Tamil for ‘pitiable’ (roughly). Chocos has maida and is loaded with sugar, and leads to constipation, at least without also consuming lots of water and fibrous foods. By giving ill-fed people Chocos, we burden them with the responsibility of finding these other foods as well, or living with the pain, discomfort and the prospect of falling very sick later.
I’m additionally concerned that:
As we valourise acts of ‘giving away’ as part of efforts to circularise our economies,
As the makers of junk foods push harder (p. 5) into developing countries,
As “food that is considered to be unhealthy from a biomedical perspective is often cheaper, more easily available and aggressively promoted by the processed-foods industry” (source), and
As inequities in the global food system keep the price of unhealthy foods lower than that of healthy foods,
… we – especially common-sense-challenged Brahmins – will give away more illness in the name of dharma. This isn’t really a novel concern either: I recently saw an ad in which wealthier people leave a bag of food – from one of those burger + fries + soda type fast-food chains – near unsuspecting homeless people, and when the people discover the bag, the food inside and then smile, the camera makes sure to get that up close. They’re smiling because it’s food and they’re hungry, but giving them food that has been widely documented as contributors to poor heart health and diabetes is to exploit their glee in order to feel better about yourself.
I also believe the same thing goes for many of the same people who live in gated apartment complexes or high-rise apartment buildings, and feed pigeons and (especially) free-ranging street dogs in the name of dharma, but are really fostering a nuisance – deadly in the case of dogs – and doing nothing to be part of the solution (buy what you need, dispose your organic trash properly, don’t feed dogs, help the city neuter/shelter/adopt them instead). As for people: please donate food, but do apply what you’ve learnt in school, what your doctors tell you, whatever your salary (or giving-ability more broadly) is and the general health condition of the person you’re donating to to determine the most nutritious kind of food you can give, and give that.
If you’ve determined that the answer is Chocos or cheeseburger + fries + Coca Cola, however, I hope you can see what that says about your intelligence, your assessment of your privileges and your attitude towards your wealth.