The Pandemic Paradox: How MORE Time Became LESS Time

When I made my New Year Resolutions for 2020, I obviously did not incorporate the impacts of the upcoming pandemic into them. My resolutions weren’t  even that fancy to begin with. It had all the usual suspects in them – eat healthy, work out more, write more, read more, travel more, etc. Those were all things I had attempted and succeeded (and failed) to various degrees on many many previous occasions.  But the fact is I was about 1-2 months into working towards my ‘resolutions’ – in a manner of speaking – by the time 2020 rolled around.  I was already quite set in my workout routines and was completing a book every 2-3 weeks. My diet was the easy part that didn’t even need a resolution as such. But I figured it was the beginning of a new year, and I decided to formalize these goals or processes into resolutions anyway. 

The first 2 months went great. I kept up with my workout routine, had lost more than 15 lbs, and had developed good strength in my muscles. I had completed 4-5 books and had even written reviews on them. My Reading List on GoodReads was growing and I was pretty confident of completing most of them that year. All in all, I was feeling great. 

Then the pandemic hit, Toronto went into its first lockdown, and both the wife and I began to work from home. The immediate consequence of this was that our new routine – one without the commute – gave us an additional 2-3 hours overall everyday for ourselves. I was obviously overjoyed when I considered what those 2 extra hours could do towards my goals each day. I presumed it would give me the flexibility to move around my activities and still have all the time available to do what I needed to. Plus, if I couldn’t do something on time, I always had some extra time available later in the day to squeeze it in. To make use of this time, I even purchased some home weight equipment as the gyms were all closed. All in all, I was excited about what this new lifestyle was able to offer to help me achieve my 2020 resolutions. 

But what actually happened was the complete opposite. My workout routine practically evaporated within a few weeks. I probably read a grand total of 1-2 new books for the rest of the year. And I think I maybe wrote about 4-6 posts in here at most. I was obviously very disappointed with what I initially perceived to be a lack of discipline on my part. To an extent, that initial perception was indeed correct. But over the past several months, I have also understood something about the nature of time, my own perception of it, and how this impacted how I make use of it.

The paradox at the heart of this was that I was making significantly more use of my time when I had LESSER time available as compared to what I did when I had MORE time available. If I had only 3 hours of time available for myself each day, I made a bigger effort to use that time than those days when I had, say, 5 or more hours free time available. It definitely appeared counter-intuitive. If I have more time, I SHOULD be able to accomplish MORE, not LESS. But there I was – having accomplished A LOT when I had far lesser time on my hands, as compared to achieving practically NOTHING when I actually had MORE time. 

I could attribute this to a combination of procrastination, lack of discipline, and absence of motivation arising out of staying home for extended periods of time. But that would not paint the complete picture. At a more fundamental level, I have realized that just being aware of the availability of more time can lead to a general attitude of “It’s OK. I have more time to complete these tasks or goals.” This ultimately leads to not doing anything in the present with the expectation that there is enough time to do it in the future. But when there is no extra time available, I do not have the ability or option of ‘doing it later’ – inevitably leading me to utilize the available time in a much better way. 

Perhaps it is like Supply-Demand-Price-Value. The lesser I have of anything, the more valuable it is – leading me to put in more effort to utilize it. If the same thing is available in excess, it is not that valuable and I am more prone to simply waste it. The extra time I got during the pandemic, in essence, made the time already available to me seem LESS valuable, leading me to waste ALL my available time – existing and new. So what in theory should have allowed me to achieve more of my goals was actually what made sure I did not achieve ANY of my goals. More available time does not mean an increased ability to do what you really want in life. On the contrary, it leads to the dilution of the value of the time you already had. This will then ultimately make you believe that it is OK to waste that previously available time AND the newly available time. 

And so going forward, the biggest lesson is that I have to be acutely aware of how much time I have available and my own perception of how valuable I consider it. 

And as far as setting any resolutions for 2021, I just made sure I didn’t jinx myself by making fun of others and their own resolutions – like I did in early 2020. 

Bemoaning the Leadership Void at Chelsea FC

Back when I first became a football fan – and subsequently a Chelsea supporter – in the early 2000’s, I was spoilt with the presence of all the massive personalities in the club who constantly showed immense leadership on the field – especially when Chelsea needed it most. These are players who would constantly motivate other fellow players, never stop trying till the final whistle, never accept defeat, never give up, and never let others around them give up. They were also players who would sometimes win games just by the fear their daunting personalities instilled in the opposition.

drogba-terry-lampard

To me personally, Didier Drogba was the man who embodied all the qualities I love in a footballer – the technical ability, athleticism, ability to shepherd his fellow players when the going gets tough, and the ability to intimidate and bully the opponent defense into complete submission. Just ask Arsene Wenger and he will personally attest to all of that. And then you had the likes of Essien and Ballack who were completely in their element tackling, shoving, and generally bullying the opponents – especially in the mid-field. Do you remember anyone ever picking a fight with Essien or Ballack AND WINNING it?!!? And then you had the calm presence of Lampard and Terry – two guys who formed the core of the team and whom you could almost always count on. And then you still had Ashley Cole and Ivanovic – two players who displayed their own sense of leadership to the team and the opponents.

Regardless of what each player’s qualities were, the team almost always played with a “Fuck you, we will find a way to win this game!” kind of attitude. That confidence may have bordered on arrogance at times. But for the fans, that gave a sense of belief in the team that no matter what the scoreline was, there was always hope and that it was never over till the final whistle. (Cue 2012 Champions League campaign).

And that is what I miss the most now – and have missed for a good few years. Ever since the departures of Terry, Lampard, Drogba and company, there has been a massive massive leadership void within Chelsea that has not come anywhere near to being filled. There has been almost nobody who has taken over the role of the team motivator. Cesar Azpilecueta has done an acceptable job as the Captain but has inevitably been far below the standards set by John Terry and Frank Lampard. The club has definitely had its share of stars – Hazard, Fabregas, Costa – but I don’t recollect anyone stepping up to shepherd the players when the scoreline is not in their favor. But the personalities I miss the most are those who took up the role of the team bully. Chelsea has sorely missed someone on the pitch who instilled a sense of fear and intimidation in the opponents just by their mere presence. Perhaps a case can be made for Diego “I go to battle” Costa for the role of the team bully – but that was just a temporary stint.

So as much as I am super excited to see this generation of super young Chelsea players grow and play together for the next several years, I still do not know who will grow up to become the next leaders of the team – someone who will yell at their own teammates to not give up, someone who will set the team’s standards by their own work, someone who instills a sense of belief in the teammates that it is not over till its over, and someone who will intimidate and bully the opponents into self doubt and submission. My money is on Andreas Christenssen, Christian Pulisic, Reece James, and – get this – Billy Gilmour. I don’t expect to see any significant transformation in any of them for at least 2-4 years, but I do have a sense that this young crop of Chelsea players will eventually grow on to take up the mantle vacated by the likes of Drogba, Terry, Lampard, Essien, Ballack and others.

As a side note, I do have to acknowledge this lack of ‘leaders’ being an issue with most of the other top clubs in England. Nobody has taken up the roles vacated by Giggs, Scholes, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic (Man Utd); or Kompany, Yaya Toure (Man City); Henry, Bergkamp, Viera, Pires (Arsenal); or Gerrard, Carragher (Liverpool). I wonder who the ones would be stepping up in those clubs.

Which COVID-19 Curve Should We Flatten – New Cases, Total Cases, or Active Cases?

The most common talking point on the Covid-19 pandemic has been the idea of ‘flattening the curve’. It generally refers to the idea of taking measures to reduce the number of cases in any given geographical area over time. The ultimate objective is to ‘spread’ the infections (pardon the pun) over a period of time while simultaneously reducing the number of people who are getting infected. This is expected to have the desired effect of lessening the burden on the healthcare systems and to also reduce the overall number of people who would get infected over the lifetime of the pandemic.

ftc
Flatten The Curve – But What is on the Y-Axis?

We have all seen the standard ‘Bell Curve’ as an illustration of this idea. A steeper and higher bell curve (albeit over a shorter duration) is what is to be avoided  as this would indicate a large fraction of the population getting infected over a short time. Instead, the objective is to achieve a flatter and lower bell curve that lasts longer as this would mean a lower fraction of the people infected, but over a longer time. The X-axis (horizontal) in these charts is obviously Time. But where the discrepancies and confusion sets in, is what exactly is plotted on the Y-axis. To be specific, is it ‘Daily New Cases’, ‘Total Cumulative Cases’ or ‘Active Cases’? Is there anything that is correct and incorrect, or is it just a matter of interpreting data differently?

To be clear, it is completely acceptable to simply plot any of the three data sets on the Y-axis and show the resulting chart as a general attempt to provide information. But when one uses the phrase ‘flatten the curve’, the question then is which one should be plotted on the Y-axis?

SKorea chart
Daily New Cases vs Total Cumulative Cases

My personal preference is to plot Daily New Cases to get a proper picture of the scenario. I also believe this is what the original ‘flatten the curve’ referred to. The information in this chart and its interpretation is pretty straightforward. Over time, the number of Daily New Cases goes up, maxes out, then slowly decreases until it reaches zero – at which point the virus is eradicated. At a given point in time, the chart shows where a country stands in this overall trajectory. If it is going up, we know the rate of infections is increasing, and vice versa. If you want the total number of cases at any point in time, all you have to do is add the Daily New Cases for each day till that point – or as the basic definition of an INTEGRAL goes, you simply calculate the area under the curve. So the use of the phrase ‘flatten the curve’ and all its implications (as outlined earlier in this post) perfectly correlate with the Daily New Cases on the Y-axis.

Now how about the Total Cumulative Cases?  By Total Cumulative Cases, I simply mean the total number of infections from the time the first case was reported. Very importantly, it DOES NOT take into account the number of recoveries or the number of deaths. So what this means is that the curve of the TOTAL Cumulative Cases, by definition, only increases till the time there are no new cases at all – at which point, it becomes a horizontal line with the final Y-axis value equal to the TOTAL number of people who were infected at one time or the other. (See above chart)

So is it correct to use the phrase ‘flatten the curve’ while referring to this chart? The short answer is NO, this is incorrect. Firstly, this curve will never ever go down. After an initial increase in steepness (slope increases), it will simply become lesser and lesser steep over time (slope decreases) until it becomes horizontal (slope of zero). But this will never ever go down (slope never becomes negative). So it is completely incorrect to use the phrase ‘flatten the curve’ while plotting the Total Cumulative Cases on the Y-axis. Yes you can still technically state that the curve as such is ‘flattening’ but that would only imply a reduction in the slope of the curve but with a lower bound of zero.

SKorea chart2

And finally, we come to Active cases. I have not actually come across any article which shows a chart with Active Cases plotted on the Y-axis to illustrate the phrase ‘flattening the curve’. But this is actually a legitimate chart that can illustrate the idea of flattening the curve in a different manner. By Active cases, I am counting the total number of people at any given point in time who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and WHO ARE STILL DEEMED TO CARRY THE VIRUS. So this is essentially the Total Cumulative Cases reduced by the number of people who have ‘recovered’ and number of people who have died. At any point, the number of Active Cases will always lie BETWEEN the Total Cumulative Cases and the Daily New Cases.

It will never reach as high as the Total Cumulative Cases and it will always stay above the Daily New Cases. It will reach its peak before the Total Cumulative Cases curve becomes horizontal, but definitely AFTER the peak of the Daily New Cases. (By the way, the peak here refers to the point the number of daily recoveries and deaths exceed the number of daily new cases). It will ultimately go to zero long after the Daily New Cases has gone to Zero. So in a way, this Active Cases curve also shows the same properties of the Daily New Cases curve. It can also track the rate at which patients are recovering and/or dying. As a result, all the implications and messaging from the usage of the phrase ‘flattening the curve’ correctly applies to the Active Cases curve as well.

To summarize, it is completely acceptable to use any of the three data sets to plot over time to provide general information. But the phrase ‘flatten the curve’ should only be used when plotting either Daily New Cases or Active Cases. It should NEVER EVER be used when showing a chart that plots Total Cumulative Cases over time. If you find anyone doing so, please feel free to point it out.

The Redundant Stages of Government Restrictions Before Complete Lock Down

Every country has imposed some or the other measures of restriction to contain the spread of COVID-19. Allow me to document these largely redundant stages of restrictions, that come before the inevitable lock down.

Stage 1: The ‘Recommendation and Advisory’ Stage

Here the Governments ‘generally suggest’ and ‘advise’ the population to avoid crowded areas and to stay at home as much as possible. Most travel is still taking place – both international and domestic and local public transport. Out in the city, it is generally business as usual except maybe lesser overall traffic and people. During this stage, the virus infects an additional few hundred or so.

Stage 2: The ‘Declaration of Emergency’ Stage

Here, the Governments declare emergencies! Woo-hoo! It may make headlines, but really this only means that the Govt gets some additional powers to do some procedural shit – like bypass bureaucracy, implement measures faster, etc. Keep in mind, it doesn’t necessarily mean new restrictions on people’s movements – though it could contain some more ‘suggestions’, etc. It just gives the impression that some people are doing some shit. (Reminds me of that line “Jesus is Coming…look Busy!”)

jesusiscomminglookbusy

Here, people still go to work everyday, a bunch of companies will ask their employees to work from home, traffic becomes lighter, maybe crowded areas get closed (think malls, movie theaters, concerts, etc.). But no real enforcement or clear direction on who should or should not be out. Schools may still be functioning (think UK). Some international travel is restricted, but domestically all is normal. Then the virus spreads even more – maybe a couple of thousand cases or so.

Stage 3: The ‘Non-Essential Restriction’ Stage

You know your country is in this stage if the word ‘non-essential’ is thrown around by your Government a lot. Usually it goes something like this: “…blah..blah…blah..blah…..non-essential…blah..blah is not allowed … blah … blah….” But then it is absolutely essential for a bunch of high school kids to go throw hoops in the park’s basketball court. And right next to them, of course you see a bunch of small kids (with their parents around) playing on the swing – because that is so god damn essential! Maybe there are few more restrictions on international travel. Maybe you will see a news story of, at most, ONE person getting fined or jailed because they are skipping quarantine, leading people to believe that their Govt must be ON IT like a pro! Then the virus spreads to greater than 10,000 people.

Stage 4: The “Shit Just Got Real” Stage

Complete lock down! Nobody allowed to go out for anything except emergencies. All travel – domestic, international, and local – is suspended. Widespread deployment of the police and military to enforce this lock down. This is the point the governments realized that ‘generally suggesting’, ‘declaring emergencies’, and ‘blah..blah…non-essential…blah blah’ won’t make people get off the streets. And usually by then, the virus has spread so much that they FINALLY realize that the shit just got real – and very likely out of control!

***************

In the next post, I will talk about what I call the “Proportional Restrictions Approach” and why it should be made illegal.

Five Lessons for the Modi Government from the Citizenship Amendment Act Protests

Note: Personally, I find great satisfaction from being able to legitimately criticize something that I otherwise generally support and agree with. It comes from the basic understanding that no one is obligated to support and agree with everything that anyone says or does. And so, this is me openly criticizing the Modi Government over the way the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was brought about (and NOT its contents).

I write this post with the obvious acknowledgment that the narrative on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is firmly set against it – both domestic and foreign. The media is critical of it, there are large scale protests spread across the country, misinformation and incorrect perceptions have taken the place of facts, and the Government has largely no control over any of it.

So instead of talking about the merits of the CAA, I will here talk about the lessons that the Modi Government can and should learn from this debacle (yes that is what it is). These lessons are applicable to any legislation and to any Government anywhere – past and future. And it is certainly relevant in the present case. So here goes a (clearly non-exhaustive) list of lessons that the Modi Government should learn from the CAA protests:

1. Acknowledge the radical nature of the legislation:

The Citizenship Amendment Bill set out to right a historic wrong going back all the way to the partition of India. Even though quite narrow in scope, the intent of the bill can easily be perceived to be quite radical. This is especially true when viewed through the prism of similar historical legislation and the absence of any kind of precedence to it. So yes, anytime there is a radical change proposed, there are always bound to be protests – regardless of its ultimate intent or effect. This acknowledgment is necessary to push the Government to take proactive steps to clarify and inform the public about the legislation. The other two radical changes brought about by this Government – Demonetization and rescinding of Article 370 – were understandably kept secret till their execution. But the protests following them should have been indicative of what to expect with the CAA.

2. Anticipate the reaction of radical elements in the country:

The acknowledgment of their presence is already there. But it should also include the anticipation of their reactions to the proposed radical changes. By radical elements, I am referring to those in the country (and abroad) whose objectives are to simply create chaos, promote divisions, propagate hate, incite and carry out violent acts, etc. These people do exist and include those in certain political parties, media houses, university student bodies, extremist groups, terrorist cells, etc. These people hold the power on various platforms and to various degrees to create legitimate unrest and violence across the country without having any of it attributed back to them. It is important to acknowledge their power and address it directly and in a proactive manner.

3. Media Outreach is Necessary:

This Government’s piss poor record of outreach to the media – domestic and foreign – is quite evident in the critical narratives propagated by every single media outlet not named Republic TV or Times Now. With no regular media briefing since its first day in office back in 2014 and practically no 1 v 1 interviews off the campaign trail, the various media houses have no incentive or desire to scale back on their pre-determined narratives critical of every single thing this Government does or stands for.

The fact that so much of the media fraternity all over the world is low level scum is irrelevant to the basic acknowledgment of the massive power they wield. It is therefore in the Government’s interest to keep these people in the loop and have an open and direct interaction with them on a regular basis. This Modi Government needs to look no further than its own backyard – the RSS – to understand how it has strikingly increased its outreach efforts to involve the entire world media. Simple fact is this: If you don’t set the narrative, they will.

4. The responsibility of explaining and justifying any legislation is on the Government, not its supporters:

Expecting support for a legislation as a matter of general principle just because it was in the party’s election manifesto is extremely idiotic and naive. It is the Govt’s responsibility to actively seek support for a legislation not just in the houses of the Parliament, but in the court of public opinion as well. This Government’s complete absence of efforts to educate the general public on the CAB through various platforms reeks of arrogance and a cocksure attitude probably stemming from the successful Article 370 rescission.

In its absence, its supporters pick up the Govt’s slack to educate the public. Nothing constructive ever comes out of leaving the public to educate the public on something the public can easily be divided over. The messaging is never uniform, bias creeps in, talking points are made up on the fly, sound bites and tweets go around as facts, subtlety gets lost in ‘panel discussions’, and the critics will ultimately have a field day ripping all of it apart. This will inevitably lead to misinformation, counter-narratives, and fear mongering.

5. Educate the public on all platforms:

Prior to the legislation being tabled, there should be a coordinated nationwide effort to explain, justify, and address concerns with the proposed legislation. Responding to concerns on the Lok Sabha/Rajya Sabha floor or explaining the bill in campaign rallies do not count for shit to the public. Having talking heads participate in the cacophony of the ‘Panel Discussion’ is useless at best, and counter-productive at worst.

Govt representatives (including the PM and HM) must give 1 v 1 interviews with ALL news channels and newspapers – including and especially those that are critical of them. Create fact sheets and FAQs, publicize them on all Social media platforms and WhatsApp. Actively seek and respond to questions and concerns and update the fact sheets accordingly. Have local MLAs and MPs give interviews to local TV channels and newspapers explaining what the bill does. Have open dialogues with representatives of those groups that perceive a danger from the bill. These are acts that minimize the scope for misinformation to spread and radical elements to cause chaos. These are also what builds consensus among the general public.

However, these are also things that will unfortunately never see the light of the day with an arrogant Government, or without the acknowledgment of the radical nature of the proposed change.

____________________________________________

When it comes to protests, the best way to address them is by their prevention. Once protests start, there is absolutely no control over how they can proceed and/or spread. And when they inevitably result in violence, the response from the state and police will ALWAYS be what is highlighted, emphasized, and criticized. All the acts of damage by the protesters will be completely irrelevant to the acts of police overreach that has historically been inevitable in a country like India – especially when containing a violent protest.

But to prevent the protests, it is the Government’s responsibility to acknowledge the nature of the proposed change, acknowledge what the radical elements in society can do, reach out to the media in good faith, actively explain the bill to the general public on all relevant platforms, and get their feedback.

Bringing about a change in a country as diverse as India does not begin and end with getting some 450 people to vote a certain way. It begins with the general public, goes through the 800+ people who vote in the Parliament, and then ends with the general public. It is time the Modi Government learn these lessons for its own sake, and if it seeks to fulfill many more of its promises from the manifesto without having to handle nation-wide protests.

In Memory of Blackie: The Creatively Named Black Color Dog

About a month ago, Blackie passed away at the age of 15 and a half years. Even though he was officially a ‘street’ dog, he was the closest I have had to what I can call my own pet. He was born in my home in February 2004 and was one of the two pups that survived in the first litter – the other one being Brownie (take a guess why he was named that way). Not sure whatever happened to Brownie – it just disappeared one day – but Blackie stayed put and lived its entire life in the annals of Shankarappa Layout in Rajarajeshwarinagar, Bangalore – with an occassional trip outside of those boundaries.

My parents and I fed Blackie, Brownie, and their mother Trixie almost every single night early on. Even after Trixie and Brownie disappeared, Blackie continued to eat at my place – except, of course, when the neighbors would give Blackie some meat dish! God knows how many hundreds of packs of Tiger Biscuit (among other things) we have fed Blackie over the years – right until its passing. In fact, we no longer called it Tiger biscuit – it just became Blackie Biscuit, and the box became Blackie Dabba (box).

bd
Blackie, in 2008

There was nothing remotely special about Blackie that you typically don’t find in other loyal street dogs. It had its boundaries, left its mark when and where necessary, had its skirmishes with the other dogs in the hood, knew everyone in the layout, ate what was given to it, followed all the neighborhood people wherever they went (within its boundaries of course), was mostly healthy and clean, got neutered by the municipality, and pretty much lived out its days without much to worry about. But, over time, I realized that Blackie taught me a lot about the world and the people in it.

If you think about it, the typical life expectancy of a dog is a very useful measure to gauge all the changes that take place in our lives. 15 years seems to be just the right amount of time to take stock of where I was when Blackie was born, and where I am now after it had passed. After Blackie was born, I got into Undergrad, graduated, worked for a bit in India, moved to the US, finished my Masters, started working, met my wife (the wife met Blackie), got married, and moved to Canada – meeting many many people along the way. And through all this time, Blackie had been a constant to see me go through all of that – all the highs and, especially, all the lows.

But it was not just what happened in my own life in these 15 years that deserves evaluation. You can even track all the changes society has gone through in the past 15 years and Blackie was still a constant through all of that – and blissfully oblivious to it all. Well, most of it. But there was one change that did affect Blackie and it is something that has made a very large impression in my own mind as well.

In its early years, one of the most endearing sights I remember was seeing Blackie play with all the neighborhood kids after they came back from school. The kids aged anywhere from 6-10 years old and they all got together every evening on the road to play whatever it was that kids played. And I remember Blackie would be hanging out with the kids. The affection was always reciprocal. All the kids would make Blackie part of their activity – simple things like ‘Who touches Blackie’s tail first?’, or trying to use Blackie as some kind of a prop in their games, or trying to make Blackie do something. Whatever it was, Blackie was just happy to be part of all the fun and excitement. There was an unmistakable tint of innocence to that sight, and I believe that is what makes it both endearing and enduring in my mind. But then, like everything else, it didn’t last forever. All the kids grew up and stopped playing outside. They all still petted Blackie when they saw it but that age of innocence had passed and the road would remain empty of that fun.  And now I wonder when exactly Blackie realized that there would be no more games where its tail would be a target or where he could serve as a prop to all the fun around him….

15 years is a long enough time to expect to see a lot of changes in our lives. It is also the general life expectancy of a dog. Blackie has seen me and others in the neighborhood grow older by 15 years and all the changes that come with it. It may have lived an extremely ordinary life, but it has given me some extra-ordinary memories and life lessons. So while it is now undoubtedly in dog heaven, I have to live with the fact that there will no longer be a friendly presence in front my home that would be happy just to see me; and that Blackie’s dabba will now forever remain empty.

Life Lessons from AFC Ajax: Living With Societal Expectations

Read Part 1 here.

The more I thought about how Ajax expressed themselves on the pitch without fear, the more I got drawn into society’s own predicament at large. We, as a society, have always lived at the bottom of the ocean of expectations. It is an ocean of our own making, and our objective in our lives are all about just finding ways to get that Oxygen from above the ocean – but without actually rising above the water. Many have indeed tried to rise above the water. Some of them were crushed by the force of the ocean, and some were simply dragged down by their fellow humans just because the bottom dwellers could not stand being confronted with the possibility of a life beyond their complacency.

Expectations are what we are born into, grow up being fed, learn to live with, and ensure to pass it along to the next generation. This is a cycle that is as old as civilization itself. It is true of almost every person I have ever met or known in my life, and it is certainly true of my own life. I am 33 years old and vaguely remember that time when I thought I could do whatever the fuck I wanted to do. That attitude did not stem from rebellion, but from a healthy ignorance of societal expectations. I lived without fear of what I would become in the future because one, I simply didn’t care; and two, I thought I could be anyone I wanted to be! But that was an extremely short lived time though. The burden of being a ‘smart student’ in my childhood was that I HAD TO top my class, score more than 90% every time, and avoid all other forms of activities in order to achieve those objectives.

Eventually, after many years, I came to realize that those were not in fact my own objectives, but societal expectations that had trickled down through society’s different layers and eventually appeared as parental and peer pressures. But like everyone else, I just went along with it and made those my own ‘goals’ and ‘ambitions’. Over time, those ‘goals’ and ‘ambitions’ may have taken on different forms, but still continued to be manifestations of societal expectations at large. And so, ultimately, I became one among those bottom dwellers living under the ocean of expectations set by a society we did not get to choose.

It may appear that these goals or objectives are our own and come of our own free will and volition. But mostly it is just a manifestation of what society has defined as the broad expectations from all of us – depending on where we are born into (think race, economic status, caste, skin color, gender, etc). Even if we somehow live with the complete ignorance that these all are our own goals and objectives, the problem is that we still live with the associated expectations. And because, fundamentally, they are not our own, we will always pursue these ‘goals’ while living with the fear of having something to lose if we don’t achieve them.

And there you have it: FEAR. It is at the back of our minds to varying degrees depending on our circumstances. We do not live in a society where we are told “Do what you want”. We are in a society where we are at best told “Do what you want as long as it is within the general framework of what the society expects from someone in your position”. At worst, it is “This is what you are expected to do and this is what you are supposed to dream of.” I am now seeing the next generation being beaten down to submission by the same societal expectations that got me more than a decade ago. I also see the even younger ones – the truly free spirited ones – who are on the cusp of getting sucked into the ocean. Somehow, in all this, I feel that the age of that healthy ignorance seems to be getting lower and lower with each passing generation.

I am reminded of ‘The Logical Song’ by Supertramp:

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily
Oh joyfully, playfully watching me
But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible
Logical, oh responsible, practical

And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable
Oh clinical, oh intellectual, cynical
…..
I said, watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical
Liberal, oh fanatical, criminal
Won’t you sign up your name, we’d like to feel you’re Acceptable
Respectable, oh presentable, a vegetable!

As the song says, I do believe that in the end, we become a vegetable. Maybe an acceptable, respectable and presentable vegetable – but a vegetable nonetheless. At the age of 33, I have been through enough institutions to have had my own interpretation of ‘freedom’ become narrower and narrower. So much so, that even if I were to simply decide that I would break free of these shackles and quit my job and do my own thing, I wouldn’t know what the fuck it is that I even WANT to do! Never mind the question of whether I have the resources or knowledge to accomplish it, I am unable to even figure out what it is that I truly want in the first place.

In fact why think that far ahead? Let us just look at this blog right here. What I write, how I write and when I write on this blog all inevitably are (at least in part) decided by what would be ‘acceptable’ or ‘popular’ by those who read it. Why don’t I just simply write whatever it is that I want to and not care about if it is ‘correct’, or who reads it or how people feel about it? Why am I currently thinking that people nowadays have the attention span of a goldfish, so this post would be read by more if it was split into two? Why do I even care about who reads my post? Why do I seek any form of validation at all?

The unfortunate answer to all these is that, like most others, I have been sufficiently institutionalized to seek society’s approval in whatever it is I do. And it is simply not easy to break away from that mindset. This is what living in fear of not meeting the expectations laid out by someone else can do to our lives.

I am reminded of a quote in a Daft Punk song “Giorgio by Moroder” where Giovanni Giorgio has this to say about making music:

Once you free your mind about the concept of harmony and of music being correct, you can do whatever you want. So nobody told me what to do, and there was no preconception of what to do.

Now imagine a world without societal expectations, where children are brought up to be what they want to be, where people truly pursue their passions, where people are not taught what to think, do or say, and where it doesn’t necessarily take the innocence of a 5 year old kid to come up with a question like “What Would Happen If There Were No Number 6?” (No seriously, why couldn’t I think of that question?). There would be no fear of not meeting expectations, no fear of missing out on something, and we could pursue our own goals just because we want to have fun.

Ajax may have knocked out my favorite team from the Champions League. But in doing so, it has also given me a life lesson on what it means to live without fear or expectations – societal or our own  – and what it means to pursue something just because we want to express ourselves and have fun.

Life Lessons from AFC Ajax: Playing Without Fear

I wrote this less than 2 hours after watching Juventus get eliminated by Ajax Amsterdam in the Quarter Finals of the UEFA Champions League. What I saw was not a narrative laden story of a comeback, or an underdog overcoming the odds, or a bunch of players showing ‘team spirit’, or a dazzling individual performance, or big money players vs inexperienced youth, or Johan Cryuff’s Total Football, and definitely nothing related to Cristiano Ronaldo’s broken streak of UCL Semi-Final appearances and/or trophies. (Make no mistake, you WILL read a lot of articles peddling those narratives in the coming days and weeks). No. What I saw transcended all that can be fit into a nice narrative. To me, what Ajax did and showed the world had almost nothing to do with football itself per se. Instead, what Ajax did to Real Madrid and Juventus came down to just one single idea:

A complete lack of fear.

I have been a loyal and dedicated Juventus fan for over 16 years now, sticking with the club through their current absolute dominance in Serie A and (especially) through their darkest time period during Calciopoli when they were forced to play in Serie B. I have been through enough heartbreaks rooting for this team in Europe in the last decade and a half. Losing 3 finals, getting eliminated in injury time in a knockout round, giving up big leads – I have been through them all. So when Ronaldo arrived in Turin this past summer, I was once again hopeful of finally seeing the Old Lady lift that one elusive trophy. So yes, it was extremely painful to see Juventus get knocked out in the Quarter Finals today by Ajax. But as much as that hurt, it also reminded me of why I began to support Juventus in the first place.

It was the 14th of May in 2003. A packed house at the now defunct Stadio Delle Alpi awaited the 2nd leg of the Juventus – Real Madrid Semi-final. Real Madrid led 2-1 coming into the 2nd leg thanks to their victory at the Bernabaeu. And then, this happened:

I vividly remember watching the game in my living room well past midnight. My parents were asleep upstairs and I tried my best to contain my enthusiasm by not yelling out loud during the match. At that time, I had just begun to watch football. I had no team to support and it appeared that the default team to root for among my friends circle was Manchester United. But they had just been dispatched in a rather humiliating fashion by the magnificence of THAT Ronaldo a couple of weeks prior. And I never bothered much about them anyway. But when I saw what Juventus did to Real Madrid that night, it made me fall in love with Juve for reasons I never really understood – untill I saw Ajax do the same to them 16 years after that night.

That night in Turin, Juventus played not just with a will and determination to WIN, but also with an attitude of complete fearlessness. I can still remember the excitement from that night every time Juventus got the ball. You just felt like SOMETHING would happen! The quick passing of the balls, Edgar Davids just refusing any Madrid player to pass through, Pavel Nedved pulling the strings and scoring the goal of the season, Del Piero and Trezeguet just making something happen out of nothing, Gigi Buffon reminding Luis Figo that he simply cannot score against him from a penalty kick – it was all there! That night Juventus played not just with an intent to win, but more so with an attitude of having absolutely nothing to lose. Real Madrid had absolutely no answer to Juventus running amok. Even THAT Ronaldo had nothing to offer. How do you play against a team that is just ‘going for it’ because they just don’t give a fuck otherwise? What strategy do you follow when you have the opposition coming at you just for fun and playing with a “Fuck you! I don’t care” attitude? That night, Juventus played for fun. That night, Juventus played like they had absolutely nothing to lose.

That night, Juventus played with absolutely no fear.

And I just fell in love with them then.

16 years since that night, today, Ajax reminded me of THAT Juventus and why I fell in love with them then. Like that night in Turin, Ajax today played like they had nothing to lose. They played for fun, and they played without fear. Even in the last ten minutes, when other teams would have fallen back to defend, Ajax just continued to express themselves the only way they knew – by playing without fear or having anything to lose. They eventually won the tie 3-2 (even though it could have EASILY been 6-2 or 8-2) and earned a deserved standing ovation from the Juventini in Turin. (Perhaps there were many more in that stadium who were also reminded of THAT Juve from all those years ago).

The lack of fear that Ajax played with stems from the attitude of playing like they have nothing to lose. That attitude in turn comes from a general to complete lack of preset expectations. Let us face it. Ajax absolutely did not have ‘Win the UEFA Champions League’ in their list of objectives at the start of their season. They probably still don’t. Which is why they are able to play with such a fearlessness and just have the opposition be completely clueless on how to address their approach. If they can iron out their decision making in front of goal, they can wipe out any team if they continue to play with this attitude. So I sincerely hope they continue to NOT have ‘Win UEFA Champions League’ as one of their objectives this season – until after they win it.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that due to the same lack of expectations, they will ultimately be compelled to sell their best players to clubs that do have those expectations and want to build the best team to fulfill them. That is also unfortunate in an ironic way because the very players who might potentially win the Champions League by playing without fear this year will end up in teams that DO play with the fear and expectations that they set themselves. But till that happens, let us all just appreciate and enjoy the phenomenal display of fearlessness shown by this young Ajax team.

Read the second part here. 

Dear Football Commentator: VAR is NOT the Controversy; YOU Are

Earlier this week, I watched the phenomenal Man City vs Tottenham 2nd leg at the Etihad. The tie ended 4-3 to City with Spurs moving to the Semis on away goals rule. Despite the remarkable scoreline, one of the most obvious things that will come to anyone’s recollection about the game will be the use of VAR to decide two instances of goals – with one being awarded (Llorente), and another not awarded due to an offside (Sterling). While the decisions were correct, the way the commentators portrayed VAR and its role in the process has been very annoying – in this match and others. By commentators, I am referring to anyone with any significant influence and position who puts out opinions/commentary/articles etc. So this includes live commentary personnel, football writers, twitter celebrities, fan blog writers, etc.

Situations like Sterling’s goal being negated for a missed offside decision are the exact kind of decisions that the VAR was brought in for. And they have been doing their job just fine in Serie A and other competitions – just like they have begun to do so in the Champions League. So the only objective way to react to situations like this is to acknowledge the role the VAR played in ensuring the correct decision was made during the match.

Instead, in a ridiculous turn of events, most football commentators have come to characterize ANY decision made by the VAR as ‘controversial’! This is even more true when it comes to the VAR overturning a decision made by the on field referee. Until recently, the same commentators had been calling for the introduction of VAR to rectify the incorrect decisions made in the field. But when it is finally in play and starts overturning those very same incorrect decisions, it is suddenly deemed to be ‘controversial’! Are you serious?

In addition to just terming any VAR intervention as ‘controversial’, there are a bunch of other phrases that these commentators have an affinity to use:

  • City were “robbed by VAR”
  • “VAR denies” City a goal
  • “VAR raises its head” once again in this tie
  • “VAR drama once again”

Ok first of all, nobody ever gets ‘robbed’ by the VAR. Getting ‘robbed’ assumes that you had actually scored a goal LEGITIMATELY to start with, and the VAR overturns it for no good reason. This has never happened in the short history of the VAR. Getting ‘robbed’ can only refer to incidents like Frank Lampard’s ghost goal in the 2006 World Cup which he did score legitimately, but was not awarded by the referee. Or it can also refer to Tom Henning Overbo’s refereeing that night in Stamford Bridge in 2009 (Oh Lord please give me the strength to let go of this!). So if a team scores a goal, and the VAR later catches a foul or offside in its build up, it is no longer a legitimate goal to start with! So no, VAR does not ‘rob’ anyone of anything.

And no. VAR does not ‘deny’ anyone of a goal either. It is fair to make statements like “Hugo Lloris denies City a chance to go ahead with a remarkable save”, or even “the striker was denied a goal by the woodwork”. But making a statement like “VAR denies City a goal” is akin to accusing it of ‘robbing’ (see above). The only way to use ‘deny’ and ‘VAR’ in the same sentence is something like this: “VAR correctly denies Manchester City of a goal for an offside that was not spotted in the field.”

And what does it even mean to say “VAR raises its head again”? I have heard this multiple times on TV. The phrase ‘raises its head’ is generally used to show something under a negative light – which is why you typically hear people say “….raises its ugly head again”. Nobody ever says “…raises its beautiful head again”. Just because an on-field decision is overturned by the VAR doesn’t make it something that needs to be shown in a negative light. VAR is a process that allows the referee to utilize additional time and information to make a correct decision – even if that means overturning what was previously awarded.

And let us all just agree that there is no ‘drama’ with VAR. The only ‘drama’ lies is in people’s reactions to potentially overturning an incorrect decision. So it is not the VAR that is ‘causing’ the drama. If anything, it is the VAR that is being used to ‘resolve’ or even ‘prevent’ the drama arising out of an incorrect decision on the field.

But why is all this important you may ask? After all, it is just a game and commentators are supposed to give words to what is happening or has happened in their own words.

OK first of all, no competitive sporting event is ever just a game. Don’t even dare say that to a sports fan – regardless of sport. Secondly, the primary requirement of any commentator’s job is to be unbiased and objective. Everything else follows that. A part of that requirement is to not create a narrative that simply doesn’t exist. And that is where I am unhappy.

The problem with generating a narrative that terms VAR as something ‘controversial’ is that it ultimately leads to football fans questioning the very integrity of the decision making process in the game. This is highly ironic as the VAR was brought in because the integrity of the decision making process was being questioned (due to a large number of high profile incorrect calls). Further, it can lead to a lot of resentment among the fans whose team were at the so called ‘receiving end’ of the VAR process. This resentment will typically not exist if the accepted narrative is that the VAR did what the on field referee should have initially done. But if the act of VAR overturning an on field call is termed ‘controversial’, this will always lead to resentment and a feeling of having been ‘robbed’ or ‘denied’ by some arcane process. And in the long run, that is unsustainable as a lot of people will eventually simply call for scrapping the VAR. And how unfortunate would that be!

That is not to say the VAR is perfect. I would love to see the referee make a live announcement to the entire stadium to explain the final decision after VAR review (NFL style). This can go a long way to let the fans all around the world know the thinking behind the decision. And that would also hopefully shut these commentators up as they can no longer simply speculate why the referee made that decision.

But till then, we have to acknowledge that the VAR is simply providing additional information and time to the on field referee to make the correct calls. Overturning an incorrect call does not make it controversial. In fact, the commentators who continue to call that process as controversial are the ones who are actually causing the controversy.

pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top

So here is my sincere request to all football commentators:

The VAR is a good thing that has happened to football and it is also long overdue. It does not become controversial just because it was used to overturn an on field decision, and it certainly does not rob anyone of anything. Your job is to stay objective and unbiased in how you report the football events, which means you need to understand and acknowledge what VAR is and what it is not. So, as the Wolf would say,

“Pretty please, with sugar on top, do your fucking jobs!”

On Hasan Minhaj’s Episode on Indian Elections: The ‘Slumdog Millionaire Effect’

When I first moved to the United States back in August 2009, I had to confront a surprising and rather unsettling situation. I found that many Americans and students from Europe were asking me eerily similar questions about where I was from. These were not questions about how I was coping in a new country, or how I was handling the culture shock. Instead these were questions along the lines of “Is it true that there are no toilets in India?”, or “Do you guys have banks in India?”, or “Is it very dangerous to live in a big city in India? How about the rural areas?”, or “Do you have cars and other technology over there?”.

When I was first asked these questions, I had no clue how to respond to them. I didn’t even have a clue as to WHY this person I had just met was asking such denigrating questions about my home country. But the truth was that none of these questions were ever asked in a condescending manner at all. On the contrary, the people asking me this always showed a genuine sense of curiosity. When I eventually found out the reason why so many Americans and Europeans were asking me these questions, I was flabbergasted. The reason why these questions came up was Danny Boyle’s 2008 movie Slumdog Millionaire.

In case you haven’t seen this movie, Slumdog Millionaire is about a kid from the Mumbai slums who grows up being the victim of almost every aspect of India’s dark underbelly. It documents what he went through and culminates with him winning a million dollars in a game show. It was marketed as a rags to riches story, but in reality that theme was just a vehicle to reinforce every single pre-existing stereotype the Western world has about the third world in general – and specifically India. Some of the things shown in the movie include child prostitution, forced begging, open toilets, religious riots, rape, blinding of children, call centers, etc.

slumdog-millionaire-kids

After the movie won the Best Movie at the Oscars, it predictably got a lot of additional publicity and a lot more people made the effort to watch it – especially in the western world. And so whenever I met an American or a European who had watched the movie, I was typically asked questions like the ones above. And it was not just me. Most of my fellow Indian friends have gone through this same experience.

Yes these are not appropriate or even the correct questions to ask someone. What I realized though, was that I was being asked these questions by Americans not out of condescension, but out of an actual lack of knowledge about India. Essentially, Slumdog Millionaire was the ONLY mainstream representation these people had about India. Predictably, those whose opinion about India was only based on this movie were the ones asking those questions – and they were doing so out of pure curiosity and fascination.

Needless to say, Slumdog Millionaire is not at all representative of India as a country. Make no mistake – all those things shown in the movie do exist and they do impact a lot of people. But by deliberately showing ONLY the dark underbelly of a country, there is a conscious building of a narrative – one which dictates that the dark underbelly IS the country. And THAT is not at all acceptable. Imagine if a movie is made about America focusing ONLY on the school shootings, opioid crisis, police brutality, crime in low income neighborhoods, racism in the deep south, widespread obesity, big corporations controlling the population and the elections, and an extremely divided country with one set of people hating the other. And if this movie is the ONLY mainstream representation of America in a foreign country, would Americans consider it fair? Probably not. Such a movie would again just take the dark underbelly of a country and portray it to be EVERYTHING there is to know about the country. And that is simply an incorrect portrayal.

texassharpshooter

And that right there is what I call the “Slumdog Millionaire Effect”. This is a classic manifestation of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. This is what happens when the spotlight is put on a select few aspects of a situation and the audience’s understanding of the entire situation is thus limited to just what is shown in the spotlight. It is a dangerous technique but one that is widely used in today’s society – especially in the media. 

Which brings me to Hasan Minhaj and his Patriot Act episode about the upcoming Indian Elections on Netflix. In a nutshell, Hasan Minhaj has used the same techniques that Danny Boyle used to portray India. But just labeling it as an example of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy would hide all the other (more important) deep seated issues that the episode is symptomatic of. And that will be the focus of the next post.