Swiggy The Eco-Villain

I frequently use Swiggy – a food delivery app. My usage surged in the week after shifting to a new home as my kitchen was not quite ready for use. It just struck me that the amount of plastic cutlery in the house has shot up, on account of items received along with my Swiggy orders.

I just wondered – since these deliveries are coming to a home, why do they need to include the plastic cutlery? Even when I lived by myself, I had a reasonably well-appointed kitchen, and most people have at least a spoon and plate available. I’ve seen Swiggy deliveries to people in my office on occasion, and in most offices, metal cutlery and non-disposable plates are made available to all employees. So why does Swiggy need to unnecessarily deliver hundreds of kilos of plastic flatware?

Problems like this occur when businesses focus too much on a “model” and completely ignore important areas such as sustainability and social responsibility. This is quite surprising, as Swiggy’s founders are all graduates from top management or technical institutes. But well, the Indian educational system is not known for sullying students’ minds with matters as squalid as morals, values, or social responsibility.

There are three super-simple fixes.

Solution One

Add a “cutlery not required” checkbox to the order page. The restaurant gets an alert on this order, and they don’t include cutlery in the packaging. This is the simplest solution, but I think many users would just ignore it (getting it free, so might as well…). Perhaps a few people like me would use it, but I do think there are better solutions.

Solution Two

A negative incentive is certain to fare better than Solution 1. Have a “cutlery required” checkbox and charge people INR 25 per set. I think this is just like what supermarkets here do with their fake biodegradable bags, only it will be more effective, as people ordering on Swiggy from home are not subject to the same pressures as the person with eleven kilos of veggies waiting at a Spencers’ checkout.

Solution Three

A sugarcoated negative incentive. Swiggy should tie up with a provider of biodegradable flatware and plates. Order these in large quantities and have them branded. Distribute them to all their “restaurant partners” or maintain stocks with “delivery partners”. When the Customer punches “cutlery required”, this special flatware will be included in the order at an extra charge.

This approach, though requiring more effort and expense, does have the most positive outcome in my opinion.

First, it solves the issue of unwanted cutlery.

Second, any cutlery obtained through Swiggy will be sustainable/eco-friendly.

Third, it has Swiggy branding on it and will give Swiggy’s promoters bragging rights for being “environment conscious” when they approach investors for their next round of funding.

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The Vilification of Subjectivity

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A few days ago, I read about a stand-alone coffee shop run by a person with a passion for coffee. Instinctively, I looked this place up on a popular restaurant review website, and saw that people who had been critical of their experience at the establishment received a rude response from the proprietor who encouraged them to take their business elsewhere. He seemed genuinely offended that his “best” was “not good enough” for certain clients. While I understand though not condone such pettiness from a person who has devoted an unnatural amount of time to the “art” of grinding and boiling roasted seeds, “coffee snobs” abound. Just check Tinder, where self-confessed coffee snobs are the third-largest population – next only to sapiosexuals and Murakami fans.

Such arrogance is somewhat new among coffee lovers in this country, but has been quite prevalent among the self-proclaimed wine and whiskey/whisky aficionados I have encountered over the years. In fact, public humiliation by a “single malt connoisseur” was the reason I steered clear of single malts in my early 20s. Thankfully, about five years after this incident, a celebrity bartender sorted me out. As a professional, he explained that we’re wired differently for taste based on our genetics, body chemistry and food habits, and he thought that many of the “rules” around whiskey consumption are absurd. He added that nearly every whiskey connoisseur he had encountered in his 20-year career was “full of shit”. “Drink it the way you like it” he proclaimed, and treated me to a Manhattan made with a 30-something year old Single Malt. His view is not new by any means: the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 – better known as the Judgment of Paris – placed underdog Californian brands above popular European labels such as Mouton-Rothschild, Roulot, and Montrose in a blind test. This triggered an expansion in consumers’ taste for wines.

Since my encounter with the bartender, I have made it a point to understand where the “rules” and “traditions” related to products and experiences actually come from. Sadly, most of these are created as a marketing campaign to justify an overpriced and often unappealing product. Mass media and social media are used to make people think what they should feel about products and experiences, and many people toe the line to conform. Though individualism and personal identity have been key social phenomena since the mid-20th century, subjectivity of experiences is becoming increasingly vilified.

Today, there are templates for everything – the ultimate cup of coffee (even if made with rodent excreta), the perfect whiskey, the ideal romantic relationship, the perfect marriage, the ultimate vacation – you name it. Social media bombards us with selective portrayals of what these should be, and many people with good lives are pushed into a sense of inadequacy despite their satisfactory subjective experiences. There are those who insist that people with a strong sense of “self” are immune to these influences but this is not true. Decades of psychological and social research tell us that happiness is relative and it is likely that current levels of anxiety and unhappiness have atleast something to do with the vilification of subjectivity in favour of the Instagram ideal.

There are social consequences too. Religious beliefs, political views, and personal ethics are all the product of an individual’s subjective experience of life. Judging people along these lines often leads one to overlook the intrinsic good in them. With the world increasingly splitting into echo chambers, it would help to embrace the subjectivity of experience and by extension, the differences between us brought about by our individual experiences in life.

 The next time a wine connoisseur rattles off memorized tasting notes, roll your eyes and sigh contemptuously: Click here to know why.

 

The ‘Single Cause’ Trap

There has been yet another school shooting in the USA, and the usual rhetoric has kicked up again. The pro-gun and no-gun lobbies are amping up the noise on their agenda; the religious conservatives are bemoaning the loss of family values and ‘Christian’ morals in American youth; the techno-luddites have trained their guns on social media and the narcissism they believe it breeds; the Red Pill crowd talks about how spree violence is a consequence of the pressures of “being a man” in today’s world; there are also those who say something about “toxic masculinity”.

Taken in isolation, each and every one of these causes falls apart. Wealthy Switzerland, Middle-Income Philippines, and low-income Yemen are awash with guns, but nobody there is shooting up schools every three days. Much of Scandinavia, where gun ownership is high, has strayed from its Lutheran roots. You don’t hear of weekly shooting sprees in these countries. Oh, there was that one Nutty Norwegian, whose rampage skewed national averages, but taken objectively, it was just one incident. The current criticism of social media is nothing new. It’s the same chant that rang out against videogames, television, rock and roll, and even cinema. And as for those who blame the pressures of being a man or toxic masculinity – they would be foolish to not realise that gender and sexuality are now accepted to be spectra rather than absolutes, and social acceptance is widening beyond the classic stereotypes – there’s a space for everyone.

As an investigator and risk consultant, I see that clients often latch on to single factor in the mistaken belief that a unidimensional approach to an incident will help mitigate risk and that ultimately, finding a single point to focus all blame makes all the bad go away.

There NEVER is a single cause.

Whether a security, integrity, market, or societal calamity, there are contributing factors, accelerating factors, and a trigger. Looking at each event as a campfire – a contributing factor would be the stack of wood and the kindling, the accelerant would be the camp fuel, and the trigger would be the Zippo that sets the whole heap aflame. It’s easy to blame the Zippo as the cause of a fire, but the wood, the kindling, and the fuel played a significant if not essential role.

As an investigator, one of my favourite tools is the Ishikawa – or Fishbone Diagram. I’m going to attempt a crude Fishbone for this particular event. (NOTE – this is not a professional opinion or analysis of this incident, but just an example to illustrate the use of this tool)

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Managing risks requires the intellectual horsepower to separate events into causal buckets like this and tackle them individually. This of course, is the approach for someone who is sincere about tackling a problem. An analysis of these causal buckets will lead to an accurate analysis of where the blame lies. More importantly, this analysis will yield crucial feedback on what can be done to reduce the probability of a repeat occurrence.

Of course, such an analysis must be founded on a genuine desire to see that such tragedies do not reoccur. The current discourse is far from that. Each tragedy is being leveraged in a political blame game or to promote vested interests.

So when you’re a spectator to a media circus around a calamity – do not feel pressured to take sides with the blinkered mobs that think there is a one-step solution – they may each be partially right, but are usually completely wrong.

Chemical Lessons

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My body reminded me of something important today. Due to unusual circumstances I ended up drinking two cups of coffee (double stovetop Moka Pot and a large mug of French Press) this morning. Today is a busy day – I’m traveling on business, and will be in the air for much of the day. I was trying to get as much done between 0700 and 0900. Within 20 minutes of the second cup I was in a near panic – dealing with things that are routine for me in the course of my work. What the hell was going on?

Sitting at my (home) work desk, I tried my three minute mindfulness meditation. It did centre me mentally, but I could feel the panic in my limbs – a scary sense of detachment very similar to being severely drugged – when your body does not feel the way your mind expects it to. I managed to get out of the house and to my cab with that lingering sense of dread. I did more breath meditating in the taxi – then it struck me. Caffeine. The jumbo overdose of caffeine.

Sitting here in the boarding lounge, it all came together. I recalled a period of three months last year when I went off all stimulants. This had been an intensely painful time for me, as I was dealing with a devastating life event. Life at that time was just work, exercise, yoga, and meditation. No sugar, no alcohol, and no coffee. The daily meditation kept me centred and functional – important when a desperate sadness is hanging over your entire life like a dark cloud. The sugar free diet kept my energy levels constant throughout the day – nice when you’re living a high-stress consulting industry lifestyle. The yoga and exercise gave me killer fucking abs.

So now I think back – perhaps that is a good way to be. Minus the chemical stimulants, perhaps I’ll be more focused and thus able to vanquish the distractions that mock my plans to study and write. There is the social impact of not drinking alcohol and coffee – but as with that time, people get used to it rapidly.

Context, and the Perils of Bullet-Point Wisdom

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A few years ago, while studying Rabbinical commentary by a 20th century Hasidic rabbi, I came across a line that resonated with me quite deeply. It seemed to point me to direction, a sense of purpose, and a new perspective to human existence.  Ecstatic, I phoned a friend in Israel to tell him about my breakthrough. This friend, a US-born businessman, converted to Orthodox Judaism in his late 40s, after a secular Jewish upbringing stateside. He is an interesting mix of worldliness and pragmatic spirituality, despite the rigours of his Orthodox Jewish observances. For about a year, he had followed my studies – more out of amusement than the joy of seeing the Tribe increase. With patience born of experience, he listened through a forty minute soliloquy.

“Nate, if you change the context, they’re just hollow words.”

He went on to explain, that the concept in question was a key responsibility of orthodox Jews that included liturgical duties, matters of observance in terms of Jewish law, and crucially, the application of Orthodox Jewish morals in interacting with the world. While the words themselves would ring relevant to anyone who grappled with complex questions of existence and purpose, my interpretation was no longer faithfully conveying what the sage intended. My friend was right. Though I had read several hundred pages in the lead-up to the line, I had conveniently dropped the entire context at the aha moment. I knew what the Rabbi was advising; in fact, I was critical of most of his exhortations – which were delivered to Eastern European Jewry at a terrible time in their history. This realization was the beginning of the end of my interest in religious commentary. At that moment though, I had been a heartbeat away from proclaiming a profound insight to the world via Facebook.

In the years since, Bullet-Point Wisdom has exploded – catchy sayings flood Instagram, Facebook, and Whatsapp. Jalaluddin Mohammed “Rumi” is probably more read in 21st Century than ever before in history – his esoteric concepts of divinity flogged lifeless by nation-hopping trust fund brats and the miserably single. “Listicles” – articles in the form of a list – have emerged as a new class of content with titles such as “seven signs that you’re dating the right man”; “ten signs you’re in an abusive relationship”; or even “seven ways to lose weight now”. These articles offer bullet-point guidance on dealing with complex emotional, spiritual, and worldly crises. This form of content is outrageously popular. Each morning a bunch of usual suspects flood my Facebook and Instagram feeds with their fix of the day. I also receive links to such articles that senders perceive to be relevant to my personal circumstances.

While social media has just made such content ubiquitous, the bullet-point approach has been about for a while. Physicians I know have expressed their exasperation with patients who demand a line of treatment that they saw on WebMD or Wikipedia; fellow Krav Maga instructors complain about students who have been experimenting with fancy but ineffective techniques seen on youtube; qualified fitness trainers I know kvetch about the latest fads that’s affecting their clients’ progress.

Bullet Point Wisdom is dangerous. It almost always lacks context. More than ever, with increasing tools for communication, anybody with a keyboard can ask a question, and anyone similarly equipped can answer. Looking at sites like Quora, it is clear that many people dealing with challenges in areas such as workplace politics, relationships, money, and sexual identity are turning to the anonymity of the internet for answers. The answers, unfortunately, are largely from people out to prove that they are “holier than thou”, and holding the “seeker” in judgment. Also, people who lack the credentials to give qualified advice seek out patterns in their own past and apply the half-baked wisdom of hindsight to the other party’s predicament – this is unwise, ineffective, and in the worst cases, condescending. It can increase one’s emotional burden to be told that the solutions to their problems are simple, and that they just don’t “get it”. With issues like weight loss and health, this advice can be factually incorrect or even harmful. As a secondary consequence, bullet-point wisdom has killed our respect for specialists. Physicians, therapists, physical trainers, and other trained experts are flippantly dismissed in favour of the internet experts at Quora.

“Why are most people broke”? was a question asked on Quora a few days ago. The answers were from scores of holier-than-thou people who claimed to acquired and retained a fortune through astute investing and frugal living. Nearly every answer to the question was a clear or veiled boast of how someone had “made it”. No one even bothered to ask for more information about the question. Was the person posting in despair about the situation of his family or community? Was he desperately trying to find direction to improve his circumstances? Another question by someone who had fallen out of love with a partner had responses full of judgment and condemnation – nary the trace of an answer. This probably has as much to do with the questions asked as the irrelevance of those who answered, but I pity the person who would have to read through those answers – especially in the latter case.

Now, more than ever, this world needs expertise. Human existence is increasing in complexity each passing day. Doctors spend more time than ever studying. Even lawyers and engineers have to turn to super-specialization to thrive. Unfortunately, with easy access to superficial information on almost any subject, anyone can proclaim themselves an authority.

It’s unclear what the future of expertise will be. 50 years from now, will your doctor speak your symptoms into a smartphone app, that will draw up a prognosis and line of treatment? Will we receive legal advice from a text message bot?

Crucially, and this is scary – will we ever again have insightful, compassionate, and objective advice to life’s questions from people who understand the importance of context?

ICOs: Venture Capital for Mere Mortals

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An Initial Coin Offering (“ICO”) is a method by which entrepreneurs raise money via cryptocurrencies. In the typical ICO, a company floats a proprietary digital token on a network such as Ethereum and accepts Bitcoin, Ether, or another cryptocurrency in exchange. These new tokens represent either shareholding or participatory privileges in the fledgling business. Ethereum has been a game changer for such enterprises, having served as a platform for most issuances.

These ICOs represent the beginning of a fundamental shift in how high-technology businesses are funded. In the past four decades, angel investors and venture capitalists got behind great ideas and funded them. Private equity funds then took up the gauntlet in second stage funding and ran to the IPOs. By the time these companies listed on stock exchanges and shares made their way into the hands of individual investors, the venture capitalists and the private equity funds had locked in massive returns on capital. Few individual investors could hope to match the kind of profits that early investors generated. Well, one could certainly invest in a Private Equity fund, but in most regulatory jurisdictions, you would need about a million dollars to join.

The game is changing. Today, lay investors with a rudimentary understanding of how Cryptocurrencies work have the opportunity to make early-stage investments with as little as USD 100. The ICO revolution puts early-stage investing and its profit opportunities within the reach of ordinary investors. For instance USD 1,000 invested at Ethereum’s ICO in 2015 would today be worth USD 230,000!

There are risks though. Venture capitalists are high risk takers, and are comfortable with the possibility that their entire investment in a particular company may be lost. Even Private Equity funds, though somewhat more conservative, play similar odds. For an individual investor with a focus on capital preservation, this may be a poor thesis on which to build one’s retirement portfolio, but this does offer a credible and low-cost opportunity to add some high-reward risk to a conservative portfolio.

The fraud risks are immense. Information on internet directories suggests that the time of writing, there are over 100 companies at various stages of the ICO process. Naturally, performing adequate due diligence on these is a huge challenge. The only resources that investors have are the LinkedIn profiles of the principals of these companies and a webpage that contains information about the supposed product. As the frenzy kicks up, it is entirely possible that fraudsters conduct an ICO and divert the proceeds. The decentralized nature of Blockchain enterprises will make such fraud impossible to investigate or prosecute with the current state of Law, as investigative agencies lack jurisdiction across international borders.

Regulatory risks abound too. Though multiple governments are warming to cryptocurrencies, these are largely considered to be a fad among technology enthusiasts. As interfaces with the traditional financial systems increase and cryptocurrencies become more influential in moving markets, the possibility of stronger regulation increases, and “investments” in these tokens may be challenging to liquidate.

The biggest risk though, is that most Blockchain startups are based on arcane concepts that are beyond the understanding of the average person. While these systems and platforms represent engineering genius, as a utility, they are irrelevant to 90 per cent of the world’s population. Furthermore, many of these projects are conceptualized and executed by young and passionate entrepreneurs. While their technical skills and intentions are beyond doubt, it remains to be seen if their business skills are up to the mark in riding the wave of disruption that they are about to unleash. Browsing through these ICO Prospectuses (or white papers as they’re called), it’s obvious that most of them are aimed at solving fundamental problems related to service delivery, financial inclusion, and even healthcare – however, whether these platforms will actually make the change that they envision is up for debate.

Cryptocurrencies, as an asset class, have delivered outstanding returns in what seems to be blowing into a bubble. Thankfully, newer digital assets such as Ether, Gnosis and Aeternity tokens have a functional aspect that will add fundamental value to them as time passes. For instance, Bitcoin has notional value like paper money, and there is a possibility that the currency will collapse once mining it becomes unprofitable. Conversely, Ether is the sole mode of payment of transaction fees for a growing number of applications on Ethereum. As these apps increase in number and grow in user base, the fundamental value of Ether will increase.

In conclusion, if the idea of owning a piece of a high-potential technology business is appealing to you, looking up ICOs may be worth your time.

Start your Cryptocurrency journey by buying Bitcoin via Unocoin

Pakistan: Courting the Abyss

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A lot has been written on India-Pakistan relations in the past seventy years. It would be tempting to think that everything that needs to be said on this topic has already been said – but as Tilak Devasher illustrates in this book, like any other nation, Pakistan is a perpetual motion machine of political and economic forces that is alive and evolving even today. In his introduction, Tilak states that this book is neither a comparison between India and Pakistan nor is it about Indo-Pak relations. He does point out that given the State’s genesis, its story and identity is inextricable from that of India. His assertion that this book “is essentially about Pakistan” was the biggest reason that I decided to read it.

The first section of this book describes the Pakistan Movement and its impact on the sociopolitical environment of the newly-created state. The second section, aptly titled “the Building Blocks”, describes the ideological gymnastics of Pakistan’s founders that sowed the seed of what we see as Pakistan’s greatest problems today. These two sections, meticulously researched and heavily annotated, draw on personal papers, contemporary commentary, and the accounts of multiple credible sources to draw up a detailed narrative of the foundation of Pakistan. Tilak describes the feeble attempt by Pakistan’s founders to carve out a national identity by unifying diverse ethnicities under Islam. He suggests that this drumming up of fervor was a hypocritical manipulation of the populace by the landed Muslim elite, who would not have survived politically without support from the British. It appears that this short-sighted tactic is the root of what ails Pakistan today. Tilak traces the anti-Hindu fervor of the country’s early days as it hardened into the anti-India and anti-Hindu Nazariya-i-Pakistan – the Pakistani world-view. For a person looking for an informative source on the forces that led to the creation of Pakistan, these two sections deliver impeccably.

The third section of this book, The Framework, dwells on how the Pakistani Army developed its strong influence on public life, and how it runs a parallel administration and an influential power base despite the Civilians who occasionally play government. Interestingly, Tilak touches on the opportunities that the Civilian Governments could have exploited to wrest control from the military, but failed to do so.  This section also contains a detailed analysis of how the military treats militant groups as “strategic assets” and in the process has been riding a tiger that it cannot dismount. Continuing the narrative of the first two chapters, Tilak points out how the military’s raison d’etre is rooted in Pakistan’s hostility with India, and how it has institutionalized this hostility and made it a part of the nation’s identity.

The fourth section, extends the narrative of how the tactical Islamization that started with the Pakistan Movement has festered into the religious extremism that plagues today’s Pakistan. While Tilak uncovers the depth of Islamization through the network of Madrasas, he points out that a large number of extremist fighters have actually been produced by the Public School system. This frightening statistic is an indicator of how deep Islamization and its anti-India and anti-west currents are playing out in contemporary Pakistani society. This section is an implicit warning to Pakistan and its neighbours – that there exists a deep supply of potential extremists that are likely to explode past its borders given the appropriate trigger.

The fifth section of this book – the WEEP analysis touches on water, education, the economy, and population. One chapter dwells on the impending water crisis – something that most agrarian economies are facing in the 21st Century.  The chapter on education is an extension of the earlier analysis of Madrasas and the ineffectual public education system. Unfortunately, it appears that no emphatic efforts at reform are foreseen in this space. The chapter on Economy highlights the obvious deficiencies of any military-centric economy. The chapter on Population, pointing to a Demographic Time Bomb rounds of this section.

The sixth section touches briefly on Pakistan’s relations with the USA, China, India, and Afghanistan.

Personally, the seventh section – Looking Inwards was the most hard-hitting. Tilak introduces this section as “the Lament of Pakistanis whose writings reflect the pain and anguish at the state of affairs in Pakistan and the trajectory of its future”. This section comprises quotes of social, religious, and ethnic issues that plague Pakistan today.

Overall, this book is a highly informative and engrossing read. Tilak delivers on his promise of a Book About Pakistan. For anyone wishing to form an informed opinion on the beginnings of Pakistan, the first two sections are a strong enough reason to buy this book. For others, wishing to depart from the shallow picture of Pakistan as a political and military opponent, this book will help build an insightful and nuanced understanding of the complex and dangerous sociopolitical forces that are writhing within the country.

To the Thinking Indian, this book is also a warning. It illustrates a 70-year view of how the inflammation of communal passions contributed to a failed terrorist state. It points out how foreign powers exploit fledgling states for their own strategic goals and then abandon them to their own devices. With the current state of affairs in India, where religious identity is being tied strongly to national identity – we risk making the same mistakes that the architects of the Pakistan Movement made 100 years ago. In addition, India’s increasing scarcity of vital resources and a similar demographic buildup require reform and investment on a war footing to avoid the problems that Pakistan now faces.

Buy this book on Amazon