The Lock Down Log: A Glimpse of Keynes’ Future

Credits: John King (Lockdown Leisure Time)

People have taken up to new activities during the lock down. Some are baking breads and cooking sumptuous meals, some are creating art and some others are writing, a friend of mine has been taken up to playing the virtual Kalimba and another friend is catching up on TV shows with her mother, and some others are just spending meaningful time with their families.

Not that work or domestic chores have decreased during the lock down. But the zero commute time, having no where to go to and few things to do outside homes has expanded the leisure hours. People have discovered ways to occupy their new found leisure hours.

This reminded me of economist Keynes’ essay ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.’ Writing in 1930, he observed that the technological progress and mass production systems of the modern era has brought in multi-fold improvements in economic productivity and a general increase in standards of life (in the Western world), and it will only continue to improve in the coming years. In a hundred years or less, Keynes contemplated aloud, mankind would have solved the ‘economic problem.’ Economic pursuits would no longer be the central pillar of the common man’s life as economic abundance would have been assured by technology, mass production and compound interest.

With the advantage of hindsight, it’s easy to come up with a variety of reasons why “Keynes’ future” did not pan out. But that’s not the point I brought this up.

In the essay, Keynes writes that the age of abundance, when it comes, could only be enjoyed by “those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life…

Some of the people I talked about in the opening of this blog belong to that category which Keynes writes about.

I was first introduced to Keynes’ essay a few years ago by a Brain Pickings post Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren: A Hopeful Vision for Post-Occupy Humanity circa 1930. It’s a short piece that draws out the most illuminating parts of Keynes’ essay. Do give it a read.

Good night!

The Lock Down Log: Communication Lessons from Lincoln

This morning I was reading ‘Team of Rivals’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a winner of the Pulitzer. A particular section fascinated me for it exhibited the effective use of metaphor to break-down a complex issue.

Background

1860’s America. The major political issue of the era was the question of slavery. The great debate was whether slavery’s expansion be curtailed only to states where it currently existed or should it be allowed to expand unfettered to new territories (joining the union).

Lincoln’s Snake Metaphor

Lincoln, among the contenders for the Republican nomination for the Presidential election, maintained that slavery, as immoral as it was, may continue to exist in states where it was currently present while it must not be allowed to expand into newer territories. He struck a balance between two competing goals of sustaining the solidarity of the Union and keeping a check on the menace of slavery.

Abe had to communicate this position to the American public, that included a range of positions on the slavery question. To this purpose, in a speech to a overflowing City Hall at Hartford, Connecticut, Lincoln employed the metaphor of snakes:

If I saw a venomous snake crawling on the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them…

…But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide!…

…The new territories are the newly made bed to which our children are to go, and it lies with the nation to say whether they shall have snakes mixed up with them or not.

Lincoln’s Speech at City Hall, Hartford, Connecticut (March 5, 1860) – the version quoted above is excerpted from Team of Rivals

Was it Effective?

Lincoln enabled his audience to think through a constitutionally and a morally complex issue of the expansion of slavery in common words like venomous snakes (slavery), children (American people) and beds (territories). The analogy was simple and effective. Contrast this to how Henry Seward, Lincoln’s peer and a front runner for the Republican nomination, articulated the same stance. Seward warned that if slavery were allowed to expand into new territories like Kansas, his countrymen would have “introduced a Trojan horse” into the new territory.

Who do you thing was more persuasive? Lincoln or Seward?

Doris captures in a sentence what lacked in Seward’s approach, “While Seward’s classically trained fellow senators immediately grasped his intent, the Trojan horse image carried neither the instant accessibility of Lincoln’s snake-in-the-bed story nor its memorable originality.”

Lincoln regarded educating public opinion as the greatest challenge for a leader in democratic society. This stands true for micro democratic spaces like home and work.

Goodnight!

The Lock Down Log: What Dalgona Coffee Taught Me

Dalgona coffee - Wikipedia
The creamy coffee-sugar mixture that defines the Dalgona Coffee

I detest fads and short-lived trends. Many a time, I keep away from something only because the said thing is a fad, and not because of an informed choice taken after weighing the inherent merits or demerits. And so, I did not care about the Dalgona Coffee. That was until this morning, when I read about it on the New York Times (along with recipe and instructions) which characterized the Dalgona Coffee as a “pantry-friendly way to try something new when the days can seem all too repetitive.”

I gathered a bowl and a spoon. As instructed, I added two spoons of instant coffee, a similar amount of sugar, and two spoons of hot water. I used the spoon to whip. A couple of minutes into whipping, there was a dark chocolate colored thick liquid in my bowl. (Beginning stages of a project, there is abundant energy and optimism.)

Five minutes later, I still did not see any sign that more effort would result in the creamy light brown texture recipe. My bowl contained a dark chocolate colored thick liquid. My mind conjured up reasons for why its not turning out right – too much water maybe or probably not the right kind of coffee powder. (In the absence of evident progress, self-doubt crept in and my ‘self’ began to attribute reasons for the impending failure.)

My wrist began to ache. I had almost decided to settle for the thick dark brown liquid. (With waning energy levels, I looked forward to making peace with my existing reality.)

My mother, who had just walked into the kitchen, peered into my bowl and asked me to keep going for a few more minutes. She also suggested that I minimize the downward pressure into the bowl and focus more on the whipping action. This reduced the effort I was expending and enabled me to keep going without significant strain. (In the absence of conviction and faith in our goals, external agents can be a blessing who may bestow us with confidence to stay on our path, and also share a useful tip or two.)

Three minutes later, I saw the first strains of Dalgona – light brown creamy mixture. I was reinvigorated. My whips grew confident and stylish. (The visual evidence of success and the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel made me confident about achieving the goal.)

Two minutes later, I had attained the desired light brown creamy mixture. It was like a miracle. Only a few minutes ago, this outcome did not seem possible at all, there were no signs, and I was ready to give-up. And now, it was here.

Indeed a simple lesson, but one I forget too often.

So keep whipping. When in doubt, seek help. But keep faith and continue whipping!

Good night!

The Lock Down Log: Getting to know Joe

Obama After Dark: The Precious Hours Alone - The New York Times
Source: New York Times

I know few political leaders, but those whom I know of (through books or films) inspire and fascinate me like no other. People from other walks of life pale in comparison. Among these include Jawaharlal Nehru, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, John F Kennedy and a couple others. Also, Elizabeth McCord, if we include fictional characters.

I was reminded of this today, because if you’ve been following the US Primaries, you might know that Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic race for the President. While it was expected, given his recent losses in key States, it was heart-breaking nevertheless. And it was not the first time. Sanders was also one of those political figures who fascinated me.

I started following Bernie back in 2016 when he faced-off against Hillary Clinton. At 78 years, I’m awed by Bernie’s energy and commitment. He ran his campaign on a simple but a fundamental promise of free college education, affordable health care and fair minimum wages.

One of the serendipitous spin-off of following Bernie’s campaign was that I was introduced to one of my all time favorite Simon & Garfunkel’s America through a Bernie campaign video from 2016. It’s a beautiful video of hope.

Even as I wanted to write about Sanders, I realized that I knew very little about Joe Biden – other than that he was Vice President in the Obama administration and Obama once mentioned that Joe made him a better President. A google search, a couple of clicks, and a few minutes of engrossed reading later, I feel like I know Joe Biden really well.

Joe was first elected to the Senate from the state of Delaware in 1973 and he remained Senator for the next 36 years until 2009 when he resigned to become the Vice President (remember Frank Underwood in House of Cards?). In 1972, when he was 28, he lost his first wife and daughter to a car accident, just after being elected to the Senate. He threw his hat in the Presidential race in 1988 and again in 2008 before pulling out. In 2015, he lost his son Beau to brain cancer.

Biden and Obama did not always tick off as running mates or in the White House. They seem to come off as very different individuals. Yet they had a long successful stint together. Obama and other senior advisers in his administration have always emphasized on the value he adds to the administration. Obama paid a glowing tribute to Biden when he said, “The best thing about Joe is that when we get everybody together, he really forces people to think and defend their positions, to look at things from every angle, and that is very valuable for me.” Biden was an integral of part of Obama’s ‘team of rivals.’

There is a lot that we can potentially learn from political leaders. More on this on another post.

On other news, I completed my first little project on data science using Python. It was an analysis of a Netflix dataset. Well, I found out that Pakistan and India make longer movies than any other country in the world. Read more about it here: Data Science Learning Diary 1

Good night!

The Lock Down Log: Chef, Ratatouille, and the Critic

John Leguizamo, Sofía Vergara, Jon Favreau, and Emjay Anthony in Chef (2014)
A shot from Chef (2014); Source: IMDB

Last Saturday’s breezy summer afternoon set a perfect mood for a movie. I watched Chef (2014) – available on Prime (India). It was one of the few food centered movies that I hadn’t watched until then. I had watched Babette’s Feast (1987), Big Night (1996), Tampopo (1985), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Julie and Julia (2009), The Hundred Foot Journey (2014), Like Water for Chocolate (1992) and Ratatouille (2007).

While food is a big part of Chef, I’d never put it in the same space as Tampopo, Eat Drink Man Woman or Big Night, whose characterization of food and cooking is much deeper and nuanced. Chef is a perfectly enjoyable film with delectable cooking scenes, a road trip on a food truck, a loyal friendship, and great father-son scenes. Some of my most cherished moments in the film are the father son moments like when Percy, the son, helps Casper, the chef and the father in the film, set up a Twitter account and when Casper wants Percy to experience some of the best food he’s had – Andouille sausage, Beignets, and Cuban sandwiches.

But there is something else that Chef reminded me about. It the was its close similarities with Ratatouille and a discussion on the ‘role of a critic‘ on the Ratatouille episode of This Movie Changed Me podcast with New York Times’ chief film critic, A.O.Scott.

The critic plays an important part in Chef. In fact, what sets off the story in Chef is when the renowned food critic, Ramesy, in his review of his dinner at the restaurant Casper works in, characterizes Casper’s food as “insecure and unimaginative…a needy aunt that gives you $5 every time you see her in the hopes that you’ll like her.”

This makes Casper furious and he hits back at Ramesy. The artist questions the critic:

What do you do? You sit and you eat and you vomit those words back. To make people laugh. You know how hard I work for this shit? Do you know how hard my whole staff works? It fucking hurts when you write that shit!

A.O. Scott, a critic himself, provides an answer to the above in the podcast, as he talks about Anton Ego’s character in Ratatouille:

There’s often a feeling that what we do and what we’re trying to do is just not really — not only not appreciated, but also, just fundamentally not — people just don’t get it.

And I think that the movie ends up being an appreciation and a defense of what Ego does; what criticism is; why it’s important to the arts and to artists,

And then he elaborates on the role of the critic:

And the customers who keep going in and eating this lousy food are, in a way, seduced by this reputation and are missing what’s really going on and have maybe lost sight of the real possibilities of quality and innovation and creativity that still exists in cooking. And it’s (Anton) Ego’s job, it’s the critic’s job, to be the radar that detects those things. And I take that to mean anything that comes along that is exciting, challenging — that fulfills some of the possibilities of creativity; of human or, for that matter, of rodent creativity. The job of critics is to discover that and to be able to make a case for it, for the public.

The two films also have a similarity in the antagonists – Skinner, who runs Gusteau’s retaurant, in Ratatouile and Revis, owner of the restaurant where Casper worked, in Chef. Both characters compromise art and creativity in pursuit of commercial success. Revis forces Casper to serve the crowd pleasing favorites – Caviar Egg, scallop, french onion soup, chocolate lava cake (which eventually led to the scathing review by Ramsey). Skinner launches frozen food products like ‘Gusteau’s Microwave Burritos‘ and ‘Gusteau’s French Pizza‘ (admonished by Anton Ego) to capitalize on Gusteau’s reputation.

In fact, the similarities between the two films go further (spoiler alert). Both have a similar thread in their closing acts: the critic funds and partners the setting up of restaurants with the chefs (artists).

Well, the next time your friends comment on your snobbishness with respect to films or music, you know what to say.

Good night!

The Lock Down Log: Debugging Me and My Code

Being stressed out

Over the past week, locked down at home, I’ve gotten to observe myself. I noticed that I was always rushing through my work and never seemed to have enough time. I manage to complete my tasks but I was rushing through it. This pattern was true across – professional work, while learning Python, blogging, or even read the new. This pattern had two major effects – one, the quality of my work suffered, if I’d given myself more time to do my tasks I could’ve come with better analysis or improved my learning outcomes or deeper thoughts; two, the act of constantly rushing caused mental stress which led to a feeling of a burn out.

When I thought through this, I realized I was not giving enough time for my high priority tasks. Instead, I was expending valuable time on non value adding activities like frequently thumbing through social media, idling or feeling unmotivated or battling self-doubt. Here’s the remedy: In the coming week, I’m going to deliberately give myself more time for my priority tasks. I’m also going to ensure that I put in consistent focus throughout the allocated time.

I’m reminded of a gym analogy. The principles for work-out effectiveness seem to apply to mental tasks too. It was one of the work-out guide videos on YouTube. The trainer advised that for maximum work-out effectiveness, each ‘rep‘ be long and consistent rather than rushing through it. He also elaborated on the underlying logic. The effectiveness of a single ‘rep’ is a not only a function of ‘effort‘ but also of ‘time‘. When we rush through a rep, though the effort exerted at a single point in time is higher the time elapsed shortens, pulling down the effectiveness. I find this very similar to me rushing through mental tasks, the ensuing mental stress and the lesser work quality.

I’ve spent the major productive part my day punching, modifying, deleting and re-punching codes. I completed the first module on my Python course and I took up a tiny personal project to keep my interest going. What’s more interesting that movies! I found a reliable Netflix data set on Kaggle. Even for a simply analysis, I typed long-winded codes where I’m sure fewer lines could’ve sufficed. My code wouldn’t work as expected until debugged it ten times or more. On more than an occasion, I doubted if it was all really worth it – the basic analysis I was doing now could be done in an Excel, with much less effort. But I tried to reason. This was just the beginning. I was trying to build familiarity with a coding language, and as I improve my skills I’d be able to perform more complex tasks. In addition, the dopamine rush I experience every time I get a code to work makes it worthwhile.

I’ve noticed, in general, that often times my mind sets me up for failure. It works on a logic from an absurd premise. A point in case here is that I expected grand results from something I’ve been learning for only seven days. When I don’t see those results I get disheartened and give up on the project entirely. I have let this absurd thought process ruin more than a fair share of my projects. Well, not this time.

I’ve been working to the music of Ludovico Einaudi.

Good night!

The Lock Down Log: Lock Down Movie Recommendations

In the present times of anxiety and curtailed freedoms, films can be therapeutic. I’ve put down a little list of three films that are in a way connected to the lock down. They may lighten our spirit, offer us hope and even inspire some weekend cooking.

The Terminal (2004)

Tom Hanks in The Terminal (2004)
Victor making himself at home in the airport and learning English by comparing sentences from travel guides in two different languages

The film’s protagonist, Victor Navorski, can teach us a lot about living through a lock down. Victor, a middle-aged man travelling from a little eastern European country, lands in the US only to be “locked down” in the John. F. Kennedy International Airport by the airport authorities. Due to a quirk in the immigration system, Victor can neither enter New York nor take a flight back home, but is forced to spend the next few months staying at the airport. Victor doesn’t grudge his unfortunate position nor does he give up, he simply goes about his life at the airport and quite joyfully so!

If you’re from India, you could watch the film on Amazon Prime

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Tom Courtenay, Michiel Huisman, Penelope Wilton, Katherine Parkinson, Lily James, and Kit Connor in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)
The Society with their Potato Peel Pie

Of the films I’ve watched, this film encapsulates the mood of a lock down more than any other. Set during World War II, amidst the German occupation of Guernsey (an island located in the English Channel), a group of friends form a literary society that helps them survive through the military occupation. The occupation entailed restriction in movement, food rationing, meeting of no more than three people. And yet this little group of friends discover comfort in literature and companionship. The film might inspire you to start your own book club now, a virtual one may be. Watch the film to find out how they ended up with a strange name for their society!

If you’re from India, you could watch the film on Netflix

Little Forest: Summer/Autumn (2014)

Little Forest: Summer/Autumn (2014)
That’s Ichiko talking to her tomatoes

The lock down has enabled some of us to appreciate the importance of the simple and the little things in life. Little Forest is a soothing meditative film on the life of the young Ichiko in a small Japanese village. Ichiko lives a solitary life in tune with the seasons of nature – farming, cooking and eating, and meeting a friend or two in the village. The kitchen scenes occupy major screen time in the film and it invokes in us an appreciation of fresh ingredients and cooking in general.

There is also a Part II titled Little Forest: Winter/Spring (2015), which is a must watch if you liked the first one. Unfortunately, both the films are not available on Netflix or Prime. Also, make sure to look for the right version of the film. There was also a recent Korean version based with the same title and setting, which I have not watched yet.

Have a great weekend!

Good night!

The Lock Down Log: Productivity FOMO

It is appalling that despite having the whole day to myself (with low to moderate work commitments) I have done very little today. The morning began well, as I worked to the ambient sounds of the streets of Kamata (Tokyo), a library, and a cafe. However, as the day progressed, I became anxious, distracted and frustrated. Every ten minutes, I thumbed through Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Quite a few on the web concur that the one great thing about being locked down is that there is no more FOMO. It makes a lot of sense. But another kind of FOMO has developed – FOMO of making the most of the lock down days. The apparent source of my anxiety and frustration was that I wasn’t making the most of my lock down days – not just in terms of terms doing productive work but even catching up on films and books.

Well, it’s not just me. Taylor Lorenz, writing for the New York Times, assures me that the feeling is more widespread, “many people are feeling pressure to organize every room in their homesbecome expert home chefs (or bakers), write the next “King Lear” and get in shape.” She tells us this: Stop Trying to be Productive and rather be grateful and appreciate the simple pleasures of life.

Yet I’m torn between the striving for productivity and just being. May be a middle path would be more acceptable to me. Dividing the day into two: one for productivity and the other for simple pleasures and just being.

And just a few minutes back on a call with my friend whining about my dull unproductive day, she reminded me that we should be grateful that we have jobs that pay during the pandemic. That was indeed a soothing thought.

Good night!

PS: I’m self-aware that this blog is uninspiring and boring at present. But I’m going to keep doing this everyday in the hope that something worthwhile might come out of this eventually.

The Lock Down Log: Day 1 (Week 1)

Now is an interesting time to be alive, if one’s employment, financials and health are reasonably secure. I have been meaning to write ever since the 21 day lock down was implemented in India. Only I hadn’t. And then I read The Quarantine Diaries this morning: “As the coronavirus continues to spread and confine people largely to their homes, many are filling pages with their experiences of living through a pandemic. Their diaries are told in words and pictures: pantry inventories, window views, questions about the future, concerns about the present.” These are interesting times and I had to keep a write.

It’s been exactly a week since the lock down was implemented in India and this is what I’ve been up to in the past week:

I have been reading news, research and articles on COVID-19. Nothing too much but just enough to have an idea. I was pleasantly surprised that the models the researchers simulated and the news articles quoted were an application of what I had learnt in a systems thinking course back in b-school. A course I had thoroughly enjoyed. In The World After Corona Virus, Yuval Noah Harari hypothesizes on the new normal post the pandemic – particularly, normalization of state surveillance, social distancing etc. This led me to ponder on more scenarios – would the lock down finally bring in more equal division of labor at home, would WFH become more common, would some parents realize the boons of home-schooling and many more.

As much it is a time of distress and uncertainty, the pandemic and the subsequent lock down has brought forth a series of unintended consequences – bird songs, clean air, empty public spaces being reclaimed by animals, high levels of creativity, Houseparty, some have picked up skills in cooking and baking. I’ve learned to make ‘a nice cup of ginger chai’ – garnished with cardamom. 

With lots of time in hand and with few things to do or places to get to, some of us may indeed come out of this with a greater appreciation of the little things in life.

I had nascent plans for travel around May this year. Alas, we are quite literally reduced to travelling around our own rooms in the coming months. While there is definite philosophical wisdom in travelling around our rooms, we do have avenues to quench our thirst for travel during the pandemic. Reif Larson gives us a masterclass on How to See the World When You’re Stuck at Home. It’s Google Street View. Reif writes about his recent travel with his son “On my computer screen, we pretended to land at the Charleston airport. I provided the narration. We rented our car, which smelled like Twizzlers and a damp pack of cigarettes. On our way out of the airport, Max spotted this T.S.A. Agent dangerously reading and walking by the side of the road. (I like to think she was reading Albert Camus.)” I’ve done arm chair travel through books and films, but I’m yet to undertake a proper journey through Google Street View.

Some evenings are just too fine that we want to take a stroll. Only we can’t now. But I just discovered (courtesy: Reif) that there are walking vlogs on YouTube. It has proved therapeutic for me.  

I figured this was a good time to add to my professional skill set (null set at present). I started learning Python from Dataquest. I’m really glad I stumbled upon Dataquest. I was sold after reading their ‘how to learn‘ article. For someone with minimal background in programming, I’m quite satisfied with the progress I’ve made over the last few days. If you’ve been meaning to take-up Python, I’d strongly suggest Dataquest, their basic courses are free. You can buy me a desert after the lock down.

Of course I’ve been reading. Though much lesser than what I would’ve liked to. I’ve been reading ‘Team of Rivals’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin for over two months now, completed only a third of the 700 pages and we’re just getting to the part when Lincoln wins the Republican nomination for Presidential elections in 1860. I’ve also been reading John Green’s ‘Turtles All the Way Down.’ I’ve been watching House of Cards a little too much.

That brings an end to my first post during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was painfully long as I had to cover whole week. The future daily installments shall be shorter.

Good night!