Caste guilt

This is the age of the start-up, not megaliths. Remember T-Rex did not survive evolution. It is unlikely that religions organised like T-Rexes – most of the Abrahamic religions fit this description – will survive an era of fast change.

The T-Rex did evolve in the first place because the evolutionary pathway existed for it to, and what it didn’t survive wasn’t evolution but a meteorite strike. What is only true is that T-Rex-like creatures couldn’t re-emerge after the strike because the evolution of other creatures had moved on and because the world had changed.

The quote above is from a piece on the supposed guilt Hindus have because their spiritual ancestors were the progenitors of casteism in India, by R. Jagannathan in Swarajya. Excerpt:

Put simply, just as it is foolish to blame Africans for giving us AIDS, it is pointless blaming Hinduism for caste, even though this is where it may have originated. Where caste originated should not be a source of perpetual guilt for Hindus. It is now everybody’s problem, not Hinduism’s alone.

I’m not sure if Hindus are blamed because their forefathers did something or because Hindus continue to perpetuate their beliefs, disenfranchise the weaker sections of society and, increasingly today, subject them to majoritarian justice. If anything, I regret that my Hindu forefathers did what they did but I’m certainly neither ashamed nor guilty because of it.

Jagannathan also writes that, like the deras have done to Sikhism, Hinduism should loosen up and allow individual caste groups to function by themselves because this could only benefit the religion.

Hindus are comfortable with caste, and those who want to remain in it should be free to do so. It does not matter if castes become separate religions, retaining only a loose link with Hinduism; it does not matter if groups that are currently identified with Hinduism want to break away, and seek minority, non-Hindu status, as some groups within the Lingayats want to do. If the Ramakrishna Mission wants to be treated as a non-Hindu denomination, why not allow it to do so? It will not actually become less Hindu because of this nomenclature change. In fact, it could become more innovative and grow faster.

From what I’ve understood, one of the biggest ways in which casteism is evil is that it ‘locks in’ its adherents into certain social classes that individuals inherit from generation to generation, and can’t escape easily from. So the only Hindus who “want to remain” within the folds of casteism and who would “be free to do so” are the upper-caste Hindus. This is why the Dera Sacha Sauda flowered – because, to paraphrase Jagannathan, it offered a “casteless” form of Sikhism to Dalits, a ladder to use to climb through social and power structures, increasingly dominated by the upper-caste Jats and Khatris.

In all, the piece is very interesting because of its novel use of metaphors – borrowed from adaptive systems like evolution and capitalism and applied to regressive systems like caste – and because at its heart it seems okay with there being a caste system, just not in the form it’s prevalent at the moment. That’s just wishful thinking because, to those suppressed by their bond with the caste system, being able to live under a more liberal and progressive form of the practice (if such a thing is possible) would be nigh indistinguishable from being liberated altogether.

A flood as an opportunity

There’s a piece by Eric Holthaus, on Politico, that’s been doing the rounds on Twitter since yesterday. I’ll grant you it’s a powerful piece of writing, such as is necessary to cast Hurricane Harvey in what many would call the right light: as the face of climate change. One paragraph in particular I thought was particularly effective because it quickly but just as effectively explained how Harvey was a storm that’s been many years in the making, and how the intensity of rains it has brought to bear on Houston has been unusual even after accounting for the fact that the city has been battered by three once-in-500-years floods in the last few years.

Harvey is in a class by itself. By the time the storm leaves the region on Wednesday, an estimated 40 to 60 inches of rain will fall on parts of Houston. So much rain has fallen already that the National Weather Service had to add additional colors to its maps to account for the extreme totals. Harvey is infusing new meaning into meteorologists’ favorite superlatives: There are simply no words to describe what has happened in the past few days. In just the first three days since landfall, Harvey has already doubled Houston’s previous record for the wettest month in city history, set during the previous benchmark flood, Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001. For most of the Houston area, in a stable climate, a rainstorm like Harvey is not expected to happen more than once in a millennium.

In fact, Harvey is likely already the worst rainstorm in U.S. history. An initial analysis by John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist, compared Harvey’s rainfall intensity to the worst storms in the most downpour-prone region of the United States, the Gulf Coast. Harvey ranks at the top of the list, with a total rainwater output equivalent to 3.6 times the flow of the Mississippi River. (And this is likely an underestimate, because there’s still two days of rains left.) That much water – 20 trillion gallons over five days – is about one-sixth the volume of Lake Erie. According to a preliminary and informal estimate by disaster economist Kevin Simmons of Austin College, Harvey’s economic toll “will likely exceed Katrina”—the most expensive disaster in U.S. history. Harvey is now the benchmark disaster of record in the United States.

The pronounced “climate change is real” tone to the entire piece is clearly aimed at the Donald Trump government, which has always denied the ‘A’ of AGW and has pushed dangerous policies that many predict will eventually uninstall the US from the forefront of climate change negotiations as well as action. Holthaus’s piece, in this context, succeeds in painting a scary picture of the future by highlighting how much of an exception Harvey appears to be and why its occurrence isn’t one of chance.

Nonetheless, the piece did still make me wonder if the world paid as much attention to the 2015 Tamil Nadu floods as it is paying to Harvey. Sure, Holthaus is writing against the backdrop of an American president who recently said the world’s largest polluter would not abide by the terms of the Paris Agreement, and against the backdrop of a city receiving about 50 inches of rain in less than a week. In contrast, Narendra Modi has been generally accepting of the fact that climate change is real and will require drastic action (although that hasn’t stopped his government from continuing the UPA’s work to weaken institutional environmental protection safeguards or the NITI Aayog from drafting an energy policy that will ensure India remains dependent on fossil fuels until 2040).

Second: unlike Houston, the parts of Tamil Nadu that were wrecked in November-December 2015 were relatively underdeveloped areas rife with illegal constructions and pavements that effectively resulted in those areas being, to use Holthaus’s term, “flood factories”. Thus, 20 inches of rain is likelier to be deadlier in the cities of Tamil Nadu than in Houston.

But this doesn’t make it harder to distinguish between the effects of AGW-driven storms in, say, Chennai and the effects of poor urban infrastructure. Our preparedness for the effects of climate change is both mitigating global avg. surface temperature rise and better planning public spaces and improving the distribution/accessibility of resources. So if Chennai, or any other place, isn’t prepared to handle 20 inches/day of rain, it’s going to get doubly screwed in a world whose surface is (at least) 2º C hotter on average about eight decades from now.

Anyway, the north Indian mainstream media (more widely consumed by far) was mostly apathetic to the plight of Tamil Nadu’s residents during the 2015 floods – just the way the Western media at large has been relatively more apathetic towards Oriental tragedies. I think this resulted in a big opportunity missed by national-level newsrooms to cast the floods as the face of both urban and rural India’s experience with climate change, perhaps even as the face of climate change itself, and use that to underscore the state’s abject underpreparedness – for which successive state governments would have been to blame – and the Narendra Modi government’s two-faced relationship with the demands of climate change. (E.g. accepting them gleefully in some ways – e.g. by the MNRE – but blatantly ignoring them in others – e.g. by the MoEFCC – and which I’d argue is more insidious than claiming outright that climate change is codswallop.)

A measure of media trustworthiness

A publication online that makes its money by displaying ads can be profitable even by publishing a slew of bad or offensive articles. That will drive the traffic too; people will share its content even if it’s to complain about it. It will also be trustworthy in that people can always trust to publish a predictable kind of content.

But when the publication stops making its money through ads and pivots to a less quantitative, more qualitative channel of revenue, it can afford less to publish bad content and even lesser to make money off of it.

You can see how this is a stream: upstream is the publisher publishing the content, midway is the consumer reading and engaging with the content, and downstream is the publisher once again, cashing in on the user’s actions in some way.

Now, if the midway behaviour changes, will there be an upstream effect that is not mediated by the downstream response? I.e., if people stopped sharing bad content because they no longer want to give the article in question any play, will publishers stop putting out bad content irrespective of whether it affects their revenues?

If the answer to this question is yes, then I think that’s what would make (or keep) the publisher trustworthy in an economic environment where private corporations are simply buying publications out instead of fighting them.

Breaking the bargain

nasty review of P.V. Sindhu’s performance at the World Badminton Championships by Sandip Sarkar for the Hindustan Times:

In the last one year, Sindhu has played 17 matches that stretched to the third game. She won 10 and lost seven. Six of those seven losses have come against players who were unseeded or seeded below her. A top-5 player of the world certainly has to have a better record than that.

Take Spain’s Carolina Marin for example. Just two years older than Sindhu, Marin comes from a country with no recognisable heritage in badminton. But she won gold at the 2014 and 2015 World Championships, following it up with gold at Rio 2016.

Okuhara had come well-prepared for the final. By being drawn into long rallies, Sindhu lost the plot, drained her reserves of energy and finally went down on the big points. PV Sindhu is undoubtedly one of top sportspersons of our country but till she does a Marin or a Okuhara, she will not be pure gold standard.

… all as if to suggest Sindhu was taking the tournament easy and hadn’t done her homework. To be disappointed with a sportsperson’s performance is one thing but to complain that she didn’t do her best is quite another.

Sarkar has failed to keep up the other end of the bargain: if sportspersons are expected to treat journalists with dignity, then journalists must treat sportspersons like the professionals that they are instead of accusing them of wilfully underperforming. I also feel that Sarkar’s assessment is especially out of place because Sindhu won the silver at the championships, in the sort of tight game that could likely have spit out a different outcome if played a second time. So I wholeheartedly agree with Mahesh Bhupathi when he says…

The unclosed clause and other things about commas

The Baffler carried a fantastic critique of The New Yorker‘s use of commas by Kyle Paoletta on August 23. Excerpt:

The magazine’s paper subscription slips have long carried a tagline: “The best writing, anywhere.” It follows that the source of the best writing, anywhere, must also be the finest available authority on grammar, usage, and punctuation. But regular readers know that The New Yorker’s signature is not standard usage, but its opposite. Nowhere else will you find an accent aigu on “élite” or a diaeresis on “reëmerge.” And the commas—goodness, the commas! These peculiarities are as intrinsic to the magazine’s brand as the foppish Eustace Tilley, and, in the digital age, brand determines content. But the rise of the magazine’s copy desk has done more for The New Yorker than simply generate clicks. It has bolstered the reputation of the magazine as a peerless institution, a class above the Vanity Fairs and Economists of the world, even if the reporting and prose in those publications is on par with (if not often better than) what fills the pages of The New Yorker.

Paoletta’s piece was all the more enjoyable because it touched on all the little notes about commas that most people usually miss. In one example, he discusses the purpose of commas, split as they are between subordination and rhythm. The former is called so because it “subordinates” content to the grammatical superstructure applied to it. Case in point: a pair of commas is used to demarcate a dependent clause – whether or not it affects the rhythm of the sentence. On the other hand, the rhythmic purpose denotes the use of commas and periods for “varying amounts of breath”. Of course, Paoletta doesn’t take kindly to the subordination position.

Not only does this attitude treat the reader as somewhat dim, it allows the copy editor to establish a position of privilege over the writer. Later in the same excerpt, [Mary] Norris frets over whether or not some of James Salter’s signature descriptive formulations (a “stunning, wide smile,” a “thin, burgundy dress”) rely on misused commas. When she solicits an explanation, he answers, “I sometimes ignore the rules about commas… Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences.” Norris begrudgingly accepts this defense, but apparently only because a writer of no lesser stature than Salter is making it.

I’m firmly on the subordination side of things: more than indicating pause, commas are scaffolding for grammar, and thus essential to conveying various gradations of meaning. Using a comma to enforce a pause, or invoke an emphasis, is also meaningless because pauses must originate not out of the writer’s sense of anticipation and surprise but out of the clever arrangement of words and sentences, out of the use of commas to suppress some senses and enhance others. It is not the explicit purpose of written communication to also dictate how it should be performed.

Along the same vein, I’m aware that using the diaeresis in words like ‘reemerge’ is also a form of control expressed over the performance of language, and one capable of assuming political overtones in some contexts. For example, English is India’s official language, the one used for all official documentation and almost all purposes of identification. However, English is also the tongue of colonialists. As a result, its speakers in India are those who (a) have been able to afford education in a good school, (b) have enjoyed a social standing that, in the pre-Independence period, brought them favours from the British, (c) by virtue of pronouncing some words this way or that, have had access to British or American societies, or combinations of some or all of them. So beating upon the reader that this precisely is how a word ought to be pronounced could easily be The New Yorker using a colonial cudgel over the heads of “no speak English” ‘natives’.

That said, debating the purpose of commas from the PoV of The New Yorker is one thing. Holding the same debate from the PoV of most English-language newspapers and magazines in the Indian mainstream media is quite another. The comma, in this sphere, is given to establishing rhythm for an overwhelming majority of writers and copy-editors, even though what we’re taught in school is only the use of commas for – as Paoletta put it – subordination. A common mistake that arises out of this position is that, more often than you’d like, clauses are not closed. Here’s an example from The Wire:

Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, described by Hitler as the “perfect Nazi woman” was held in check by male colleagues when she proposed that female members be awarded similar titles to the males.

There ought to be a comma after woman” and before was but there isn’t. This comma would be the terminal counterpart to the one that flagged off the start of the dependent clause (described by Hitler as…). Without it, what we have are two dependent clauses demarcated by one comma and no independent clauses – which there ought to be considering we’re looking at what happens to be a full and complete sentence.

The second most common type of comma-related mistake goes something like the following sentence (picked up from the terms of service of Authory.com):

You are responsible for the content, that you make available via Authory.

What the fuck is that comma even doing there? Does the author really think we ought to pause between “content” and “that”? While Salter it would seem used the comma to construct a healthy sense of rhythm, Authory – and hundreds of writers around the world – mortgage punctuation to build the syntactic versions of dubstep. This issue also highlights the danger in letting commas denote rhythm alone: rhythm is subjective, and ordering the words in sentences using subjective rules cannot ever make for a consistent reading experience. On the other hand, using commas as a matter of an objective ruleset would help achieve what Paoletta writes is overarching purpose of style:

[Style], unlike usage, has no widely agreed upon correct answers. It is useful only insofar as it enforces consistency. Style makes unimportant decisions so that writers don’t have to—about whether to spell the element “sulfur” or “sulphur,” or if it’s best to italicize the names of films or put them in quotes. It is not meant to be noticed: it is meant to remove the possibility of an inconsistency distracting the reader from experiencing the text as the writer intends.


Here again, of course, I’m not about to let many Indian copy-editors and writers off the hook. Paoletta cites Norris’s defence of the following paragraph as an example of style enforcement gone overboard:

Strait prefers to give his audience as few distractions as possible: he likes to play on a stage in the center of the arena floor, with four microphones arranged like compass points; every two songs, he moves, counterclockwise, to the next microphone, so that people in each quadrant of the crowd can feel as if he were singing just to them.

Compare this aberration to nothing short of the outright misshapenness that was an oped penned by Gopalkrishna Gandhi for The Hindu in May 2014. Excerpt:

In invoking unity and stability, you have regularly turned to the name and stature of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The Sardar, as you would know, chaired the Constituent Assembly’s Committee on Minorities. If the Constitution of India gives crucial guarantees — educational, cultural and religious — to India’s minorities, Sardar Patel has to be thanked, as do other members of that committee, in particular Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the Christian daughter of Sikh Kapurthala. Adopt, in toto, Mr. Modi, not adapt or modify, dilute or tinker with, the vision of the Constitution on the minorities. You may like to read what the indomitable Sardar said in that committee. Why is there, in so many, so much fear, that they dare not voice their fears?

A criticism of the oped along these lines that appeared on the pages of this blog elicited a cocky, but well-meaning, repartee from Gandhi:

Absolutely delighted and want to tell him that I find his comment as refreshing as a shower in lavender for it cures me almost if not fully of my old old habit of taking myself too seriously and writing as if I am meant to change the world and also that I will be very watchful about not enforcing any pauses through commas and under no circumstances on pain of ostracism for that worst of all effects namely dramatic effect and will assiduously follow the near zero comma if not a zero comma rule and that I would greatly value a meet up and a chat discussing pernicious punctuation and other evils.

It is for very similar reasons that I can’t wait for my copy of Solar Bones to be delivered.

Featured image: An extratropical cyclone over the US midwest, shaped like a comma. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Talking scicomm at NCBS – II

I was invited to speak to the students of the annual science writing workshop conducted at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, for the second year (first year talk’s notes here).

Some interesting things we discussed:

1. Business of journalism: There were more questions from this year’s batch of aspiring science writers about the economics of online journalism, how news websites grow, how much writers can expect to get paid, etc. This is heartening: more journalists at all levels should be aware of, and if possible involved in, how their newsrooms make their money. Because if you retreat from this space, you cede space for a capitalist who doesn’t acknowledge the principles and purpose of journalism to take over. If money has to make its way into the hands of journalists – as it should, for all the work that they’re doing – only journalists can also ensure that it’s clean.

2. Conflicts of interest: The Wire has more to lose through conflicts of interests in a story simply because there are more people out there looking to bring it down. So the cost of slipping up is high. But let’s not disagree that being diligent on this front always makes for a better report.

3. Formulae: There is no formula for a good science story. A story itself is good when it is composed by good writing and when it is a good story in the same way we think of good stories in fiction. They need to entertain without betraying the spirit of their subject, and – unlike in fiction – they need to seek out the truth. That they also need to be in the public interest is something I’m not sure about, although only to the extent that it doesn’t compromise the rights of any other actor. This definition is indeed vague but only because the ‘public interest’ is a shape-shifting entity. For example, two scholars having an undignified fight over some issue in the public domain wouldn’t be in the public interest – and I would deem it unfit for publication for just that reason. At the same time, astronomers discovering a weird star billions of lightyears away may not be in the public interest either – but that wouldn’t be enough reason to disqualify the story. In fact, a deeper point: when the inculcation of scientific temper, adherence to the scientific method and financial support for the performance of science are all deemed to not be in the public interest, then covering these aspects of science by the same yardstick will only give rise to meaningless stories.

4. Representation of authority: If two scientists in the same institute are the only two people working on a new idea, and if one of them has published a paper, can you rely on the other’s opinions of it? I wouldn’t – they’re both paid by the same institution, and it is in both their interests to uphold the stature of the institution and all the work that it supports because, as a result, their individual statures are upheld. Thankfully, this situation hasn’t come to be – but something similar has. Most science journalists in the country frequently quote scientists from Bangalorean universities on topics like molecular biology and ecology because they’re the most talkative. However, the price they’re quietly paying for this is by establishing that the only scientists in the country worth talking about apropos these topics are based out of Bangalore. That is an injustice.

5. Content is still king: You can deck up a page with the best visuals, but if the content is crap, then nothing will save the package from flopping. You can also package great content in a lousy-looking page and it will still do well. This came up in the context of a discussion on emulating the likes of Nautilus and Quanta in India. The stories on their pages read so well because they are good stories, not because they’re accompanied by cool illustrations. This said, it’s also important to remember that illustrations cost quite a bit of money, so when the success of a package is mostly the in the hands of the content itself, paying attention to that alone during a cash-crunch may not be a bad idea.

False equivalency

Margaret Sullivan in the Washington Post on August 16:

Does finding these powerful ways to frame the [Charlottesville] situation amount to abandoning journalistic impartiality?

“The whole doctrine of objectivity in journalism has become part of the [media’s] problem,” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, said this week in a talk at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. He believes that journalists must state their biases up front and not pretend to be magically free of the beliefs or assumptions that everyone has.

If objectivity is a “view from nowhere,” it may be out of date. What’s never out of date, though, is clear truth-telling.

Journalists should indeed stand for some things. They should stand for factual reality. For insistence on what actually happened, not revisionism. For getting answers to questions that politicians don’t want to answer.

On point.

On the “view from nowhere”, a coinage of the philosopher Thomas Nagel, from Rosen’s blog:

In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view.

The traditional sides that reporters have been used to for many decades have, in these fractious times, been destabilised. One side – usually framed in the context of partisan politics – has been increasingly coming off as unhinged, almost depraved. In the US, this side is epitomised by its president, Donald Trump. In India, this side is that of the political right, the one occupied by the incumbent national government and in particular the politico-religious organisations backing it: the VHP, the RSS, etc.

Sullivan writes that Trump’s tacit support for the neo-Nazis and pro-Confederate forces at Charlottesville should put an end to false equivalency in journalism once and for all. She’s absolutely correct – just as we must put an end to ‘striving for objectivity’ within all of journalism itself. This said, one of her statements struck me as odd:

Journalists should indeed stand for some things. They should stand for factual reality. For insistence on what actually happened, not revisionism. For getting answers to questions that politicians don’t want to answer.

There are four sentences in this statement, and they progressively segue from being applicable to all of journalism to being applicable in a particular context, that of politics. And through this progression, I think some of the power of what she’s asking for, hoping for, is being lost. ‘Getting answers to questions politicians don’t want to answer’ is not so much a tenet of journalism (although arguably it is for adversarial journalism) as much as a narrative arc, and it doesn’t always conflict with equivalency, false or otherwise. Sullivan’s framing as a result seems to be a proxy for the belief that false equivalency is a problem only in national-level political coverage.

It is not.

At least not in the Indian context, where politics of one kind or other permeates our lives all the time. Even my writing on this blog is political in a sense because it is a display of social and economic privilege, no matter how subtle or unprovocative, and what advice I have to dispense out of this blog has to be – and will be – viewed through that lens. This is because there is more than just economic or even racial inequality in India: there are class- and caste-conflicts, linguistic chauvinism, a tacit north-south divide, and even an urban-rural split (typified by most mainstream media coverage).

A big problem in Indian journalism is the lack of representation of Dalits: there are no Dalits covering the news, at least not in any of the major media houses that publish content in English. Yet Dalits around the country are being mistreated by the government, the violence against them passively condoned. How this affects what we write might be apparent when covering politics or issues like agricultural distress and labour – but there is danger in assuming that it doesn’t affect how we cover science, for example (I’m a science writer).

Scientific facts could be ‘hard’ facts and writing/reporting about them is easier by a degree for this reason. When covering phenomenological developments – such as in physics and chemistry – you’re often either completely right or completely wrong. But the moment you step away from (at least classical) phenomena and turn your gaze onto human beings, you also give way for multiple truths to prevail, depending on the contexts in which you’re framing your narrative.

A popular example is in education. Well-staffed English-medium schools are less affordable than schools of other kinds in the country, and this creates a distortion in the demographic of scientists who eventually graduate from such a system. And if some of these scientists eventually argue against the quota system in Indian universities because it is limiting the number of ‘talented-enough’ students who graduate and work in their labs, they are both right and wrong – more likely neither and floating in the pea soup that is affirmative action.

Another example, and one of my pet peeves, is the representation of institutions in science journalism. When covering topics like stem-cell or molecular biology, political ecology, etc., many journalists quote scientists from one of three institutions (to establish authority in their stories): NCBS, IISc and ATREE. While researchers from these institutions might be doing good work and, more importantly, willing to speak to journalists, increasingly speaking only to them and playing up only their ideas may or may not create an imbalance of importance – but the journalist’s abdication of her responsibility to seek out scientists from other parts of the country definitely creates the impression that nobody else is doing good work in X area.

… and I could go on.

Circling back to Rosen’s and Sullivan’s comments: journalists should surely stand for factual reality. But it need not – and should not – be under the banner of objectivity. Similarly, the ‘view from nowhere’ does not exist because ‘nowhere’ does not exist. Where monopolar facts do prevail and feed into, say, sociological issues, their truth-value could remain at 1 but their relationship with social realities could simultaneously be in flux. In other words, right/wrong cannot be the sole axis on which journalists navigate reality; there is also the more-correct/less-correct axis (and possibly many others). And together, they can and do give rise to complex stories.

Recommended reading: To stop superstition, we need viable ethical perspectives, not more scienceThe Wire

Good service shouldn't necessitate support

There’s a difference between a service coming with excellent support and a service with excellent support that you rarely have to access. The latter would be any service where issues can be resolved by the user’s own agency when they do arise. The former would be any service that requires the user to rely on the agency of someone else while issues arise frequently. And no matter how excellent and prompt the support system itself is, a service that requires me to use it often might as well be lousy itself and not have any support.

This little rant comes on the back of my attempt to move a domain I own from WordPress.com to Hover. I jumped through all the hoops. The final step was to click ‘Accept transfer’ on the WP dashboard, and I did – only to get this message: “Oops! Something went wrong and your request could not be processed. Please try again or Contact Support if you continue to have trouble.”

This isn’t an isolated event. Ever since WordPress split its admin area into wp-admin and My Sites around 2014, the My Sites area has been maddening. For example, consider the premium service tiers offered in the My Sites area. Say I’m on the ‘Standard’ plan, purchased for $36/yr. It comes with a free custom domain, so I purchase example.com for $18. Next, I’d like to try the $99/yr ‘Premium’ plan, which also comes with a custom domain as well as from a 30-day money-back guarantee. So I pay $63 ($99 minus $36), play around with it for a bit, then decide to cancel the plan and get my money back – like I’m supposed to. But when I click ‘Cancel & refund’, I’m told I’ll receive $45 back and not $63 because oh-so-considerate WordPress would like to leave my domain in so access to my blog isn’t disrupted. However, I haven’t claimed the domain on the ‘Premium’ plan and my existing domain was claimed on the ‘Standard’ plan. What do I do?

If you’d like to cancel your subscription and domain and ask for a full refund, contact support.

Fuck you, WordPress.

A for-publishers stack and the symmetry of globalisation

Journalism as the fourth estate has been noticeably empowered in the Information Age, with technologies like the WWW, broadband connectivity and smartphones in (almost) everyone’s pockets. However, the opportunities to responsibly exercise the resulting power have been coming at a disproportionately greater cost: to be constantly fast, constantly smart and constantly vigilant. Put another way: in journalism until the early 1990s, there were the journalists and then there were the readers. Today, there are the journalists, there’s a tech stack and only then the readers. Many newsrooms often forget that this stack exists and often dictates what news is produced and how.

I received a very sudden reminder of this when I opened my browser a few minutes ago. If you use Pocket and have the Chrome extension installed, you’ll likely have seen three recommendations from the app every time you opened a new tab:

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 7.54.09 PM

The article in the middle – ‘The 7 Biggest Unanswered Questions in Physics’ – pertains to topics something I’ve repeatedly discussed in my stories, although I’ll concede they may have been more detailed than is desirable for an article like that to become a hit. However, the details/nuance/depth all notwithstanding, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article published by an Indian publication – or even non-American/British publication – among the Pocket recommendations. This of course is a direct reflection of where the app was made and people from which part of the world use it the most.

Where the app was made matters because nobody is going to build an app in location A and hope that it becomes popular in faraway location B. Pocket itself is San Franciscan and the bias shows: most recommendations I’ve received, or even the non-personalised trending topics I’ve spotted, are American. In fact, among all the tools I use and curation services I follow, I’ve come across only two exceptions: the heartwarming human-curated 3QuarksDaily and Quora. I’m not familiar with Quora’s story but I’m sure it’s interesting – about how a Q&A platform out of Mountain View came to be dominated by Indian users.

Circling back to the ‘7 Unanswered Questions’ article: Its creator is NBC News, a journalistic outlet, while its contents are being published via Google Chrome and Pocket – a.k.a. the stack. And the stack powerfully controls what I’m discovering, what thousands of people are discovering, and how easily they can save, consume and/or share it. Because Pocket and NBC – rather, app P and app Q – are both American products, there is an increased likelihood that P and Q will team up to promote content and distribute it worldwide; the likelihood is relative to that of an app and a publisher from two different regions teaming up, which is lower. This breaks the symmetry of globalisation.

Of course, the biggest exception to this would be an app that is truly global, like Facebook. Then again such exceptions are also harder to come by – nor do they always neutralise the advantage of having a cut-above-the-rest ecosystem of apps and app-makers that provide a continuous edge to homegrown publishers. Though don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a flavour of protectionism. I like many of Pocket’s recommendations and appreciate how the app has helped me discover a variety of publishers I’ve come to love.

Instead, it’s a quiet yearning (doped with some wishful thinking): Will my peers in India have been farther along in their careers had there been an equally influential Indian for-publishers stack?

Featured image credit: geralt/pixabay.

A blogging problem, contd.

Over the last three days, I’d been having a strange issue with WordPress. If you read a post I published yesterday that briefly discussed WordPress’s pros and cons, you might remember I mentioned that WordPress 4.x seems to be having an identity problem. WordPress’s back-end has been managed by what’s called the WP admin area. About two years ago, the company released a new interface for a section of that area, called ‘My Sites’. This split up was – is – quite confusing because there’s no theme or predictability in terms of which feature can be found in which part of the CMS.

The stark contrast in the UI/UX also indicates that WordPress doesn’t know what kind of a platform it wants to be: does it want to allow users to use ‘My Sites’ to build websites in a clean and admittedly intuitive environment or does it want them to get their hands (relatively) dirty in the WP admin area? If anything, this is a lack of vision. It’s dangerous.

The issue I’ve been having is this: since I launched Synecdoche a few days ago, I’d wanted to move the followers and subscribers on my previous WP blog, gaplogs.net, over. Gaplogs was on a WP account attached with Email A and Synecdoche, on an account with Email B. For this, I had to transfer ownership of Gaplogs to Email B. This step took me over two days for a frustrating reason. Earlier, I had a ‘Standard’ account, so for help with the process, I looked in WP’s documentation, which said: “Contact us and we’ll help you with the migration”. That ‘Contact us’ link turned out to be for the forums. See the loop?

So I dropped my question there, waited a day, and some other user came along and added the tag ‘modlook’. I had no idea that I was supposed to do this. Shortly after, a forum mod showed up and emailed me some guidelines.

Once I transferred ownership of Gaplogs to Email B, I didn’t want to wait around on WP’s forums again not knowing what to do. So I upgraded to the ‘Personal’ plan for $36 and avail chat support. It got weirder. Two people on chat couldn’t help me migrate subscribers/followers from one blog to the other. Between both of them, I’d spent over two hours sitting around, patiently answering their questions. I was eventually told that there was a bug and that they would stay in touch with me over email.

What does the split UI have to do with this? Quite a lot because it made moving Gaplogs from Email A to Email B hell. At one point, the support staff was confused about where to find/do what. I even found out there are two separate dashboards on which to manage your sites: one on the WP admin area (dashboard.wordpress.com) and one on the ‘My Sites’ area (wordpress.com/sites) – with different levels of control on each dashboard. And the almost-last-straw was when I finally received an email this morning saying,

In order to migrate followers/subscribers, you actually don’t need to transfer the source blog to the same account as the destination blog, as you were informed by my colleague through the chat you’d had a couple of hours before chatting with me. He probably misunderstood your request.

Thanks, dude.

I’m pretty sure my original problem was very simple to achieve, and I don’t understand what could go so wrong. I’ve been with WordPress.com for eight years – I’ve never had such terrible experience with support. I’m just glad I didn’t stick around with the forums option or who knows how long this would’ve taken. However, I did cancel my subscription to the ‘Personal’ plan, which took the custom domain upgrade with it.

Update: This morning, a WP Support member offered me a sweet discount on the ‘Personal’ plan should I choose to buy it again. So I went for it. Gah.

Featured image credit: Pexels/pixabay.