The dignity of human labor

My Twitter friend and compatriot @zeusisdead made a good, bristling case for why we shouldn’t celebrate India’s Mars Orbiter mission’s frugality. Here’s a telling excerpt from his piece as it appeared in Times of India:

ISRO [India’s space agency] did not get to Mars by using duct tape and M-seal to make the orbiter work. ISRO is not trying to repair cars by refashioning cycle chains. It takes several minutes for the ISRO command centre to beam a message to the orbiter and an equal length of time to hear back. The “thoda adjust kardenge” attitude of jugaad with people tinkering on the fly would have failed like a wet cracker here. ISRO built a top-class launch vehicle and payload, and we should not cheapen its success by harping on any number. India’s space programme is a testament to a culture of tackling hard challenges because they are hard, not because they are easy. Of doing the best, and not the cheapest. Jugaad in India was born as a necessity in impoverished conditions, and instead of elevating it to godhood we should be trying to escape a culture of jugaad as quickly as possible. ISRO is showing us the way.

For those who don’t know much Hindi, including me, “jugaad” means to hack something together in a very creative, sometimes cunning, sense.

Anyway, there is perhaps a simpler explanation for why the Mars Orbiter worked out so cheap (it does find mention in @zeusisdead’s piece). Having moved to the United States less than a month ago, I was expected to be alarmed by the cost of many products and amenities by my relatives already living in the country. They converted every dollar into rupees and were in a perpetual state of astonishment when it all worked out 60 times costlier. But then, they were careful to note the exceptions: medicines, books, public transport, shipping, and most of all tips. These things worked out way costlier than they ought to, they said.

I’m much more comfortable in the United States, and it’s not in spite of these “costlier” things, it’s because of them. In my opinion, they make it easier for me to acknowledge the dignity of human labor. It’s the cost of labor that escalates the cost of certain products and services. Medicines bought at the pharmacy or books downloaded from the web may be cheaper but they ought to be more expensive if you want to have them delivered home. Fuel is cheaper, too, if you can be honest about how much you’re filling up for and are able to do it yourself, but if the bunk has to manned, who pays those who man it? That’s the price we ought to pay to respect the dignity of human labor.

In the same way, as an organization operating out of India, ISRO has to spend much less than the developed world to consume manhours. And that the price of a manhour is low in India is not as a natural product of our socio-economic forces but as a result of deliberate subsidization whose costs we hide behind a veil of cheapness. It is in this sense that Modi’s call to ‘Make In India’ sounds ominous, too. Labor shouldn’t come cheap, but if it does, who’s paying for it? In the words of American economist Thorstein Veblen,

Labor wants pride and joy in doing good work, a sense of making something beautiful or useful – to be treated with dignity and respect, as brother and sister.

A "Dear ISRO" moment

I published a quick analysis in The Hindu, republished with permission from Scienceline, about the ISRO Mars Orbiter. Gist (excerpted):

Even if [ISRO] has launched a spacecraft to Mars, the payload limit and the lack of an inclusive scientific agenda still stand in the way of taking full advantage of scientific interest and infrastructure on the ground.

These are some of the replies I received on Twitter in response to the piece.

You probably didn’t read my piece, and you probably don’t know what “one-hit wonder” means either.

Who are “Thomeses”?

I don’t understand why you think I’ve not been courteous. My arguments weren’t barbaric. And I think it’d be wonderful if people considered constructive criticism the utmost courtesy. I know I do.

A friend of mine recently told me he couldn’t criticize my piece for me because he said that’s not what friends do. But that’s what I think friends do do because appreciation that is completely honest is something very hard to come by.

This is a common blight plaguing the perception of scientific research in India. It’s easy to just say “nanosatellites” and then think about it inside your head. However, what’re they for? Who comes up with such ideas? Who builds them? And at the end of the day where would ISRO go with it? Answer them reasonably and then I’ll concede nanosatellites make sense.

Another aspect of this comment is that you’re thinking in terms of gee-whiz stuff, you’re thinking of demonstrating more technology, but ISRO is too important to indulge in things like that over and over again. It’s a national space agency so let’s be respectful of that.

Someone’s made an allegation and you’re batting it away. Do you know something that nobody else does?



I also received the following comments on the same piece as published on Scienceline (you should check the site out, it’s my NYU program’s science portal and has some other amazing pieces as well).

Thanks you for writing such a wonderful article to put the facts straight.Hope we don’t get overconfident as we have put only small payload of 15 kg whereas others have put 64 kg of payload. Hope a new mission to use GSLV-D5 to put more payload gets approved quickly and gets successful.Anyway achieving success on first maiden flight is no small feat and kudos to Indian Space scientists!!! – Ravikanth V

I’m glad you understand my sentiment.

Mr.Vasudevan, I don’t think you are a father. Only if you have become a father you can appreciate the baby’s steps in the beginning and that which ends even as an Olympic champion. But one has to go thru what is called growth. Hope you understood what I meant. – Bindo

Yeah, I get you, but I don’t want ISRO – nor the nation – to think of its interplanetary exploration program as it would of a child.

Dear writer, You crave attention so bad that, on the day of a historical achievement, you have published such a negative aticle. Shame on you. Have you designed any electronics before? And do you know how challenging is it to achieve that with limited budget? Please do not write such articles for ISRO. People of India take pride in this organization. You should have waited for atleast a day. – Kc

Because all my opinions are suddenly okay after 24 hours? And I think it is my duty as someone who does take pride in ISRO that I feel such things need to be said before we ramp up our expectations to heights the agency may never even have plans for.

Now it’s time for us to show our gratitude to the nation. Indians who are draining their brain to foreign countries, come back to our country as soon as possible. Finish ur commitments soon, ur nation has just made a history and waiting for you. – Dilip

I resent that you’re implying that all those who left the country in search of greener fields are/were opportunists. I also resent that you think the proverbial system is working well enough to be able to reject the oodles of talent still present in the country.

Very well articulated article, thank you. The mission is symbolic and demonstrates our ISRO’s scientific capability. I’m hopeful our new govt. will only be supportive of country’s scientific community, encourage with all means available and pragmatic enough to have or build a plan so, in a decade least, we indeed achieve what we want to be – equally a ‘space superpower’. Albeit this is still a proud moment for we the people of India. Congratulations to the ISRO’s scientific community who made this possible. – Guru Dwarakanath

Again, I’m glad you understand what I’m trying to say.

Alibaba IPO – A vindication of China’s Internet?

This is a guest post contributed by Anuj Srivas, tech. journalist and blogger, until recently the author of Hypertext, The Hindu.

The differences between Jack Ma – the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba – and an average Silicon Valley CEO are numerous and far-reaching. Mr. Ma’s knowledge of mathematics, for instance, was once so poor that it almost prevented him from attending college. Contrast this to the technological genius of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak or the academic-based origins of Google’s search algorithm.

His background as an English teacher, who dabbled in a number of different sectors before being fascinated by the Internet industry, is more characteristic of the average American investor that was duped by the dot-com bubble than it is of a Bill Gates or a Mark Zuckerberg.

And yet, today, Alibaba stands shoulder-to-shoulder with much of Silicon Valley. Its recently launched initial public offering (IPO) raked in a little over $20 billion, turning it into the world’s biggest technology flotation.

Is this event an inflection point? To some, it may seem to be a natural course of affairs after Yahoo! threw Alibaba a lifeline back in 2005. But is there something else to take away from it other than the obvious comparisons with India’s fledgling Internet industry?

Foremost, it is enormously pleasing to see Jack Ma, like Lenovo’s YY, clearly avoid subscribing to the Silicon Valley ideology of ‘transparency through opacity’. The CEOs of Google, Yahoo!, Facebook and Microsoft paint a picture of openness, sharing, and transparency wherever they go. The world of the cloud seems to make life easier (“look, no wires!”) but in fact wraps its users in an opaque black box. We have no tools that allow us to track our information and data, let alone allow us to take charge.

Of course, Mr. Ma (who sticks to doling out life and management tips in his speeches) is clearly constrained by the circumstances that allowed Alibaba to become what it is today: namely, the way China views, approaches and governs its Internet. This brings us to one of the more interesting implications of Alibaba’s IPO.

For decades now, China has been the poster-boy for how the Internet would look if we stopped fighting for a transparent, open and censorship-free system. The Great Firewall of China has continued to stand, quite proudly, in the face of international criticism.

The country itself has managed to make more than one U.S technology company come around to its way of thinking. As US government official Tom Lantos commented after Yahoo actively helped China in its censorship efforts, “While technologically and financially you [Yahoo!] are giants, morally you are pygmies.”

What are we to take away from the fact that China is in the process of undergoing one of its harshest ever Internet censorship/crackdown periods since 2003 (when it started construction of its Firewall) while Alibaba may yet go down in history as the biggest technology IPO ever? China’s approach to the Internet is a deadly mixture of censorship, propaganda and protectionism. The victory of Alibaba at the New York Stock Exchange will prove to be fodder for three takeaways.

First, that China’s protectionism-censorship stance (there cannot be one without the other) works. Despite years of criticism and threatened sanctions, China currently houses three of the world’s ten most valuable technology companies. After Alibaba’s IPO, how can Beijing look at its Internet governance approach with anything but approval? This is a moment of triumph for the country’s Internet regulators.

Second, that investors do not, and will not ever, care about censorship.

Third: will other countries, already outraged by the NSA and the Snowden incident, be emboldened to take China-like steps when it comes to governing their local Internet industries? There is little doubt that most countries that need to be build their own digital infrastructure, but China and Russia have shown us that their version of digital sovereignty comes with a lack of privacy and the introduction of a censorship regime. Asian, African and Latin American countries will have to escape this trap; the success of Alibaba does not help this.

On the other hand, this will also prove to be the biggest challenge for China’s Internet. If the country wants its Internet firms to go international, it will find it tough to take refuge behind its current Internet governance policies. Companies like Huawei and ZTE, which are in the telecommunication business, have to constantly defend themselves every time they enter a new country. Alibaba, which of course will not be plagued with national security issues, will have to consciously and unconsciously defend the Chinese Internet wherever it goes.

It would be instructive to monitor Mr. Ma and whichever ideology he chooses to adopt and market in the near future. I have a feeling it will tell us quite a bit about the fate of China’s Internet.

More by Anuj Srivas:

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Slideshow: Mission Mars

The NASA MAVEN spacecraft entered orbit around Mars on Sunday September 21 evening (EST), less than a day ago. A little more than a day from now, on Tuesday September 23 evening (EST), the ISRO MOM spacecraft will attempt the same manoeuvre and lock itself in orbit around the red planet.

When ISRO launched the mission on November 5, 2013, the geopolitical implications of the launch itself were blatantly built up and strutted. This was indeed a technology demonstrator. However, in the 11 months since, the fact that here was a science-driven mission to Mars that had escaped public attention earlier began to sink in. With less than two days to go for orbit insertion, there is a noticeable palpitation among those who’ve been following its journey.

The Americans had the skycrane and their seven minutes of hell. This is India’s ultimate so-near-yet-so-far moment. I’m really hoping this works out.

Building up to this moment, ISRO had released a series of images in an effort to personalize the mission, to get people talking about what MOM would do once it got there, and all that had to be done to get there. Considering how reclusive it’s been in the past, these images (and status updates and tweets) showed the space agency at its most communicative. The images were released periodically, coinciding with each milestone that MOM breached in its 600+ million km journey.

I’ve compiled them into one slideshow below to make visualizing the short history of this mission feel more continuous and immediate instead of as updates we consumed over a year (and from two separate albums on Facebook). They all belong to ISRO; if you wish to reuse them for commercial purposes, please ask them first.

Back to work

When I decided to quit The Hindu and leave for grad studies at New York University, my parents, relatives, their friends, my father’s boss at work, his family and their friends all said that I’d made the right decision. “If you don’t finish your higher studies now, you won’t ever do it” was the refrain.

They were wrong. From what I’ve experienced this last three weeks, graduate studies requires commitment and good time-management, both of which I imagine can be mustered irrespective of age (no reductio ad absurdum, please). However, their if-not-now-then-when argument held in another sense.

Professional work as a journalist with a newspaper is different from studying journalism. Deadlines are more visceral when you’re working. Your colleagues don’t expect you to do your best, they expect you to do it right. Commitments are neither fixed nor finite because it all comes down to you. And you’re thinking “what next” all the time.

Once you’ve been like this for two years – and had a whale of a time doing it – being back in school can be jarring. For one, you notice that your attention span is nowhere near good enough. You’re used to keeping up with the news, and the news was never 6,000 words long nor anything short of crisp on any line.

For another, meetings that lasted three or six hours always involved arguments. When was the last time you sat and just listened to anyone for that long (without being high)?

When you worked from home, you knew you were being paid for it (however little). You didn’t work toward grades that involved months of work. You might’ve known you weren’t the best science journalist in the country but getting a small story good and right made you happy. It was your kingdom and you were king. The self-determinism was the perfect anesthetic to the cynicism you wallowed in.

But as a grad student, you lose all of that. You feel like you’re on a leash. I know I do. I won’t deny that there are good experiences to be had as a student, too (and in New York for added measure), and I’m trying to milk them for what they’re worth. Nevertheless, I don’t understand why some of my friends want to be students again.

I for one can’t wait to get back to work.

Science journalism as an institutional undertaking

“The paper has been through many financial crises and Science Times has not been affected.” These were the words of David Corcoran, Editor, NYT Science Times, who’d dropped by my NYU SHERP class today for a short presentation and some Q&A. David said that in response to the question “How easy or difficult is it to make money off the science section on and the newspaper?” that I’d asked him. His reply in full went like this:

Not something the Times has been worried out. Going back to 1978 [when Science Times was launched], the paper was facing a lot of pressure. The top management came up with publishing special sections every day and the hope was to attract more advertising. [Once the other days were decided,] There was a question about what to do about Tuesday. There was a lively debate between the news and business sides. The business side wanted fashion but the top news editors said that’s not The New York Times and they came up with the idea of a science section. They knew it wouldn’t be a big money maker – it never has been. We have a big ad on the last page today but that’s unusual.

The future of newspapers is very much in doubt and the reason is that the old business model which was selling those newspaper ads is rapidly going away. They’re still a significant source of revenue but much, much smaller than they were even 10 years ago, even five years ago. So the question is how we’re going to replace that source of revenue. The ads in videos don’t bring in nearly as much money, and I don’t know why. Science Times is very central to the identity of the newspaper, and it’s not going to go away. The paper has been through many financial crises and Science Times has not been affected.

In response to someone else’s question, he said: Wrapping your mind around a subject like stem cells is not what [editors of other desks] have a lot of time for, so we get to do our own thing most of the time.

Sounds like the science section of The New York Times in print (much like at The Hindu) exists in order to fulfill some kind of institutional ambition more than being a logical conclusion backed by the commensurate resources. If only to me, this sounds like a precarious position to be in for many reasons. Foremost, depending on ideological over business interests means the science section is susceptible to ideological over business forces. And ideological forces are often much less rational, unpredictable and, most importantly, accountable.

Could it be that science editors are reluctant to acknowledge that their department in a publication is situated in a bubble that protects them from financial pressures? There’s no doubt that The New York Times does some excellent science reporting and analysis, and wins many awards doing it, but there’s a part of me wondering how much – and in what ways – this would change if science editors were pulled up and asked to start showing profits from their work. It’d be a brutal thing to do, no doubt, asking such gentle creatures to figure out a business model that even political editors are confused about. But it would also level the playing field, give the science department some bargaining power, and let journalists explore if there’s any way to eliminate the subsidization of science news.

Cutting back: my classmates as such had a lot of questions for David Corcoran. I’d like to reproduce his answers to two that pertained to specific stories that appeared today (September 16).

How do you decide if it’s time to reintroduce an issue in the news, like with Karen Weintraub’s piece today [on stem cells research]?

It’s an important subject and it’s overdue for an update. There’d been a lot of hype but not been many major breakthroughs yet. We brainstormed with the writer and photo editor and art director and figured out the best way to show this. We went to researchers and got a striking picture. The picture inside would’ve given a false impression because not everybody comes from stem cells treatment and the next day, be break-dancing.

How did the Peter Higgs interview work out?

Dennis [Overbye] went to England and ended up having lunch with Peter Higgs. I let him write it, he was a little starstruck. And he turned it in without any fanfare, he just sent it to me. I did a wordcount, it was 1,600 words, 600 words more than [we could fit]. But then I read it and said, “Wow, that’s fabulous”. Dennis’s strongpoint is explaining these difficult ideas. So we held another piece and included Dennis’s piece in the cover. [When asked about the staid choice of picture] With that particular columnist, there’s an artist, and they like each other’s work, so we let them go with it.

Overall, David comes across as an unassuming, deliberative and very helpful person in his role as the editor of Science Times. I say helpful because, when asked how much time he spends mentoring freelancers, he said, “I spend quite a bit more time working with [promising freelancers] because there are lots of people like you who are just starting out and how are they going to start out if nobody takes them seriously? I would hope there are lots of other editors doing a similar thing.” Thanks very much for dropping by, David, and it’s good to know a newspaper as daunting as The New York Times has someone like you who makes people like me feel less intimidated.

The trouble 'measuring' geomagnetic events

A sunspot five times the width of Earth exploded earlier this week. On September 10, it released an X-1.6 class solar flare. A solar flare is a sudden burst of energy that releases much more light and other radiation in one second than it usually does. This one was also accompanied by a violent release of millions of tons of charged particles and strong magnetic fields called a coronal mass ejection (CME).

Their combined physical influence on Earth’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere is described by a number called the Kp index. It is determined using an array of instruments called magnetometers stationed around the world that measure how Earth’s magnetic field fluctuates over successive three-hour periods. Interestingly, there have been some questions about how the Kp index is defined and measured.

The impacts of solar flares, for example, are well-defined. Although they can get stronger through a continuous spectrum of energies, they’re classified into six groups to make understanding each energy range’s implications easier: A, B, C, M, X and Z. All ranges except X have nine sub-points (e.g. A-1, A-2, A-3, …, A-9), whereas X is known to be able to go up to X-28. Because its scale is logarithmic, an X-1.6 flare is 1.6 times as strong as an X-1 flare.

Each class corresponds to a range of energies in W/m sq. “of 100 to 800 picometre X-rays near Earth, as measured on the GOES spacecraft” (Wikipedia).

On the other hand, the Kp index is calculated indirectly. Each magnetometer around the world measures one of the two components of Earth’s magnetic field: the horizontal. When geomagnetic disruption occurs, the horizontal component fluctuates over certain regions. The fluctuations are picked up. Then, the Kp index is calculated for each magnetometer as the maximum fluctuation at that location compared to that on a normal day.

Finally, an algorithm calculates the average global Kp index according to Kp indices from all the magnetometers. This isn’t as easy as it sounds because each measurement station’s “normal” is different, leading to a constantly changing weighted average being necessary.

Depending on how and where the disruption occurs, alerts are sounded for possible damage to electrical and navigational systems and orbiting satellites – anywhere there is a concentration of electrical or electronic equipment used to provide critical services. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a table to describe the extent of damage.


The accompanying Kp numbers describe the extent of the ongoing geomagnetic disruption, with Kp > 5 referred to as a geomagnetic storm. This is what happened last night. The Storm Weather Prediction Center, affiliated with the NOAA, runs a neat live-update system (of the preliminary Kp index) that refreshes every five minutes. You can see where the Kp value peaks in two instances. Another such peaking is expected to happen on Saturday, September 13.


Now, here are the NOAA’s concerns about using a scale to describe geomagnetic disruptions, from a page on their site titled ‘New Scales Help Public, Technicians Understand Space Weather‘.

The simplicity and the usefulness of the scales for some purposes leads to some unavoidable tradeoffs. Using only one physical measure for each scale leads to a description of events less precise than some users might like. Duration and timing, for instance, are not considered in a scale’s assessment of an event; measures like integrated fluxes do not take into account the sometimes important aspects of spectral shape; and the cadence of the data or index may not be well-matched to the time-scale of the physical event, which complicates the climatology. (The average frequency was obtained from the National Geophysical Data Center’s solar-terrestrial database covering the last several solar cycles). As an example, Kp values are derived and reported every 3 hours, although a single geomagnetic storm may last a day or more.

Subsequently, it raises another important issue: about having a scale that goes from 0 to 9 but having few historical incidents of strength 5 or higher. For example, the Richter scale describes the strength of earthquakes, and enough quakes have occurred across the spectrum of strengths for it to be well calibrated.

On the Kp index scale, however, more occurrences of stronger and weaker events are necessary for us to really know where each one sits on the scale because what we know as a Kp 5 today could easily be a Kp 7 or a Kp 3 in the next decade. And as opposed to earthquakes, the potential global nature of geomagnetic disruptions adds to the confusion.

Beat-sculpting, money-making and science journalism

Money is not always just money but also economic relevance. Mr. Benjamin Franklin likely agrees.

Today, my class had two guests. Malcolm Ritter, whose Twitter profile reads “Associated Press science reporter”, is not just any science reporter. He’s been covering science for AP for over 30 years now. While Dan Fagin said Ritter’s journey through journalism might not be relevant to our class considering he made a name for himself before the new media wave swept through, Ritter’s answers to our questions revealed a skills set brilliantly honed by three decades of reporting.

Our second guest was Andrea Thompson, a senior science writer at Climate Central and an alumnus of the program she was now addressing, from 2005. Until recently, Andrea was with Live Science before switching to CC.

With Dan “compering”, my classmates and I had many questions for the duo. I had two the answers to which revealed some informative differences between newsrooms in India and the United States. Here they are.

You’re both beat journalists. Dan also mentioned something about science journalism having become very competitive recently. In this setting, how protective of your beats have you had to be [within the organization]?

This question may have mildly startled our guests, neither of whom had a specific answer in that they had nothing to say about my concern. Dan jumped in and clarified that when he said ‘competitive’ – whenever he said it – he didn’t mean journalists pushing their colleagues on the same beat out of their way. I said then that, though I wasn’t disputing him, I had worked for a couple years in India in an environment where people often competed to simply retain their beats, and that that’s what prompted my question.

I don’t have to stress on the point that having a beat all to yourself can be very comforting. Apart from working secure in the knowledge that only you produce the news on whatever your beat is, you also get to sculpt your employer-institution’s attitude toward happenings in that beat, which can be a powerful exercise, as well as your audience’s. But herein lies the rub.

Dan equated the presence of multiple journalists (from the same org.) working on common beats to the organization’s success – which is almost obviously true. If a newspaper puts multiple journalists on the same beat (which The Hindu did; not sure if it does anymore), then

  1. It must enjoy a large and loyal readership for whom so-so beat must be covered in great detail
  2. It must be able to afford putting two, three or four journalists on the same beat

Dan continued, “Here [in the United States], companies are short-staffed.” His choice of words implies that they’re more likely not doing well than that they intend to run a lean organization. By extension, the ‘rub’ is that your opportunity to be ‘beat-sculpting’ is more accessible if you’re writing for a smaller audience – which is kind of ironic. (Remember at this point that I’m writing based on just two experiences: talking to Dan and working with a newspaper publisher in India.)

How do journalists at publications like The New York Times and The Guardian organize their beats? This is what I’d like to know.

My second question:

How much influence does the business model of your employer wield over how you write?

Again, this was a question that didn’t bring forth eager answers. I was disappointed with myself for not being able to ask the “right” questions… but only briefly, recalling that I was among a bunch of people wanting to talk about science writing, not the business that surrounded it. I also think now that I should’ve worded my question differently, and perhaps asked it to someone else.

Earlier, in response to someone else, Malcolm Ritter had recounted that there were a lot of newspapers in the United States in the early 1990s that sported dedicated science pages (similar to what The New York Times and The Hindu continue to publish to this day), and that by the close of the decade, all those sections had either been truncated or assimilated into the rest of the paper. Dan and Malcolm agreed that this was because science news wasn’t bringing in the money.

Next, as the 2000s labored on, publishers began to realize that science writing could be cool as well as impactful when done right, and there were, and continue to be, a lot of people to do it right. At this point: I believe remaining unmindful of the exact reasons why science journalism saw a decline and then an improvement in prospects endangers our ability to keep science journalism always relevant. It seems social forces cannot be entrusted with this task because why else would dedicated science sections disappear and then start from scratch in building a case to reappear?

The economic forces hold the key.

In this context, science journalists shouldn’t be concerned only for the wellbeing of their beats or the people or the trees or whatever but also for the future of their unique profession. They should not be completely insulated from the business side of their work, and this goes far beyond simple populist ideals and toward engendering an entrepreneurial streak of thinking about new forms of publishing and channels of revenue, at least specific to as exacting an enterprise as science journalism.

This is what I expected our guests to talk about when I asked my question. But I think now that I got my audience wrong, not to mention my lousy wording.

What do you think?