How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be – Katy Milkman

How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want  to Be by Katy Milkman

After wrestling unsuccessfully with innumerable resolutions – ranging from New Year pledges to audacious proclamations – to kick the habit of smoking, I finally decided to change tack. My father’s 80th birthday would be the defining “fresh start effect.” As an indelible gift that would both warm the cockles of his heart, and improve my health, I resolved to go cold turkey beginning that momentous occasion. At the time of this review, it has been a full three years since I last smoked a cigarette. Katy Milkman, the American economist who is the James G. Dinan Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, in her brilliant best seller, “How To Change”, sets out some compelling and thought provoking insights for ushering in lasting and positive change in our living. Replete with empirical research findings and corroborated outcomes, “How To Change” is an indispensable guide to anyone looking for that elusive change in her personal life or professional career.

Milkman sets the context for her book with a thrilling story revolving around legendary tennis player Andre Agassi and his revolutionary coach Brad Gilbert. Gilbert brought in an engineer’s approach to embellish the quality of Agassi’s play. “An engineer can’t design a successful structure without first carefully accounting for the forces of opposition (say, wind resistance or gravity). So engineers always attempt to solve problems by first identifying the obstacles to success.” Gilbert thus steered Agassi’s focus from trying to slam winners off every shot to maintaining a focus on his opponent’s shortcomings. This tweak resulted in an incredible transformation in the game of Agassi and led to his being acknowledged as one of the greatest of his generation.

Milkman, incidentally an engineer herself, employs the same philosophy to demonstrate how we all can make simple adjustments to our routines so as to get the best outcomes from our efforts. For example, Milkman’s research indicated that building “moments engine” – a concept that identifies when the company’s employees are likely to be open to change (say, after a promotion or a move to a new office), provides a much needed ‘nudge’ for instigating positive initiatives that would spur the employees into action, such as getting them to save more or receive their flu vaccines.

As exemplified in one of the greatest psychological experiment involving little kids and marshmallows, Austrian born American psychologist, Walter Mischel demonstrated that impulsivity or present bias – a tendency to favour immediate gratification over long term rewards can be detrimental to positive change. Milkman offers a novel and fun filled method to avoid falling into the trap of such instant temptation. Her solution – ‘temptation bundling’. One can allow oneself to indulge in one’s guilty pleasures, but only when one is pursuing a virtuous or valuable activity that one usually tends to procrastinate. For example, listening to your favourite audio book only while on the treadmill or binge watching Netflix only while doing the laundry. Temptation building can also be combined with “gamification” a tactic employed by companies in transforming something that is not a game feel more engaged and less repetitious by adding game like features, such as symbolic rewards. For example, a badge of ‘featured reviewer’ and ‘auto approved’ reviewer on the Net Galley website spurs readers to post more and more reviews thereby helping emerging authors as well.

One of my favourite chapters in the book is the one on procrastination. An inveterate procrastinator, I always put off till next week what can be done today. Milkman tackles this pernicious attribute of procrastination by offering a few practical and easily implementable tools. Inspired by the works of behavioural and other economists such as Robert Strotz, Thomas Schelling and Richard Thaler, Milkman urges us to “anticipate temptation and create constraints”. These constraints termed “commitment devices” break the cycle of procrastination. Creating a “locked” savings bank account (an account where no withdrawal is permissible until a certain level of savings is achieved) or putting money on the line that one is forced to forfeit after every infraction (for example, every cigarette smoked after taking a pledge to quit smoking will result in the depositing of a pre agreed sum of money towards a charity, preferably one which the voter does not subscribe to), will spur an individual towards tightening the strings in so far resolutions are concerned. Taking “soft pledges” also act as a psychological boost in Preventing procrastination as the one taking the pledge and making it public would not want to be seen as one who does not honour his own words.

Two of the most important revelations gleaned by me in a personal capacity after reading Milkman’s engrossing book, have been those relating to laziness and the power of advice. A very power example illustrates the potential for ‘harnessing’ our inherent default setting of laziness to foster positive outcomes. “During a routine system upgrade, an IT consultant working on the software that Penn Medicine physicians used to send prescriptions to pharmacies made a small change to the user interface: he added a new checkbox to the system. From then on, unless a physician checked that box, whatever drug they prescribed would be sent to the pharmacy as a generic. Since doctors, like the rest of us, tend to be a little lazy, they only rarely checked the box: just 2 percent of the time. As a result, Penn’s generic prescription rate shot up to 98 percent.” Penn Medicine which was once notorious for prescribing branded medicines 75 percent of the time thereby contributing to ballooning costs and insurer angst, with just a single tweak became the most avowed prescriber of generic medication.

Similarly, asking a person who is going through tough times to ‘render’ advice to another who might be going through a similar adverse phase improves decision making skills immensely. “This idea—that giving advice can be more important to your success than receiving it—was echoed by the legendary drummer Mike Mangini when he appeared on my podcast in 2019. He talked about how he developed the confidence he needed to rise to stardom. Now the lead drummer for world-famous heavy metal band Dream Theater, Mike took a path to the top that was anything but straight. He spent the 1980s as a software engineer, practicing incessantly on the drums at night and on the weekends, daydreaming of a big career in music with little hope of achieving his goal. Then something changed. When other drummers in a shared practice space unexpectedly began knocking on Mike’s door and asking him to give them lessons, their requests gave Mike a newfound confidence. If so many people thought he had a special talent, maybe he did. Mike quit his day job and devoted himself full time to drumming. Today, he’s one of the best-known drummers in the business. He attributes his success, in no small part, to being asked to give other people advice.”

“How To Change” is an extremely engrossing book that spurs its readers to action. What sets it apart from other books of its genre is the element of simplicity, practicality and most critically, implementable potentiality. I am sure innumerable lives would be transformed for the good, as a result of a serious reading of this book. “Change” is imminent!

Effortless: Make it Easier to do what matters most – Greg McKeown

Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most: McKeown, Greg:  9780593135648: Amazon.com: Books

Greg McKeown, the best-selling author of Essentialism, a refreshingly optimistic and encouraging book, has come up with his highly anticipated second work, Effortless. Even though lightning does not strike twice in this case (unfortunately so), there are some unmistakably essential and compelling takeaways that the reader is left with to reflect upon.

The book seems to have derived a major chunk of its inspiration from one of the most seminal psychological concepts, popularly termed as the “Flow’ state. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a Hungarian-American psychologist recognised and named the psychological concept of flow, a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity. In his own words, ““a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”. The core philosophy underlying Effortless also involves getting the reader into an effortless state wherein by exerting minimal and almost spontaneous efforts, maximum results are obtained.

The book is divided into three segments. The First Part deals with the notion of an ‘Effortless State’. In the words of McKeown himself, “The Effortless State is an experience many of us have had when we are physically rested, emotionally unburdened, and mentally energized. You are completely aware, alert, present, attentive, and focused on what’s important in this moment. You are able to focus on what matters most with ease.” An effortless state is attained when the performer of a task ventures into the radical from the unconventional. Instead of wondering “why is a task so difficult”, she just introspects on “how the task could be made simpler”. This inversion principle that uses an indirect approach allows for expediting seemingly hard tasks in a simple and expeditious manner. Coupled with the inversion principle are the facets of enjoyment, release, and rest. Combining tedious and passionate tasks would greatly assist. Slowing down the hectic and unrelenting pace at which one goes about one’s daily activities would also facilitate a swift transition to an effortless state. “Discover the art of doing nothing. Do not do more today than you can completely recover from by tomorrow.”

Part II of the book holds forth on “Effortless Action.” Effortless Action, according to McKeown, is “Effortless Action means accomplishing more by trying less. You stop procrastinating and take the first obvious step. You arrive at the point of completion without overthinking. You make progress by pacing yourself rather than powering through. You overachieve without overexerting.” In order to engage in effortless action, McKeown suggests the employ of the following tools:

  • Define: More of a visualization exercise, McKeown urges us to take sixty seconds to focus on the ultimate outcome. Clearly defining what needs to be done would smoothen the process of effortless action.
  • Progress: There is no point from shying away from a task. There needs to be made a beginning. “Adopt a “zero-draft” approach and just put some words, any words, on the page.”
  • Simplify: Similar to the principles espoused by the Copenhaver Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, Leidy Klotz, McKeown emphasizes on the concept of reduction. While striving to attain a state of effortless action, the trick is to simplify and subtract. Reduce the unnecessary steps from the task portfolio.
  • Pace: There is no point in “powering through” a task asserts McKeown. “Set an effortless pace: slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Reject the false economy of “powering through.”

The final part of the book, Part III, expounds on “Effortless Results.” The term “Effortless Results” is defined to mean, “You’ve continued to cultivate your Effortless State. You’ve started to take Effortless Action with clarity of objective, tiny, obvious first steps, and a consistent pace. You are achieving the results you want, more easily. But now you want those results to continue to flow to you, again and again, with as little additional effort as possible. You are ready to achieve Effortless Results.”

Effortless Results thus are results or outcomes that steadily, incrementally, and automatically keep flowing without there being a need for a tedious and cumbersome effort. The individual attains a level of expertise and traction which ensures that she need not put in unnecessary efforts to obtain the requisite results, every single time.

In order for effortless results to bear fruition the following attributes ought to be inculcated:

  • Learn: Instead of getting inundated with facts and getting bogged down by methods, it would be appropriate to assimilate principles. “Understand first principles deeply and then apply them again and again.”
  • Lift: Quite Archimedean in its notion, lift implies adopting the method of teaching as a lever for harnessing strengths.  This also results in creating a sustainable talent bank. “Live what you teach, and notice how much you learn. Tell stories that are easily understood and repeated.”
  • Automate: This simply means taking the high-tech path for the essential and the low-tech path for the nonessential. Do not try to automate what does not work and do not physically spend time working on stuff that you can easily automate.
  • Trust: “Follow the Three I’s Rule: hire people with integrity, intelligence, and initiative. Design high-trust agreements to clarify results, roles, rules, resources, and rewards.”
  • Prevent: “Don’t just manage the problem. Solve it before it happens. Seek simple actions today that can prevent complications tomorrow. Invest two minutes of effort once to end recurring frustrations. Catch mistakes before they happen; measure twice, so you only have to cut once.”

While Effortless is sans any semblance of doubt an invigorating, enthralling and absorbing book, it lacks the ingenuity and value addition that Essentialism embedded within its ambit. But as reiterated in the preceding paragraphs, Effortless sincerely attempts to bestow upon its readers the gift of sustained positive outcomes by providing various handy tools which through constant practice can effectively be transformed into a veritable habit. On this count, it makes for a very satisfying and contended read.

Breaking The Social Media Prism: How To Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing – Chris Bail

Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing:  Bail, Chris: 9780691203423: Amazon.com: Books

Shattering popular myths and in the process, uncovering some extraordinary revelations, Chris Bail’s enormously influential book, “Breaking The Social Media Prism” is a much needed antidote in, and, for bewildering times where fake news proliferates and political polarization runs amok on various social media platforms. People hurl abuse and vitriol in 280 characters at one another, and are even ready to severe painstakingly nurtured family ties just to keep alive the embers stoking their flaming ideologies. In fact, economists Keith Chen and Ryne Rohla after tracking the average length of time people spent at Thanksgiving dinner several weeks after the divisive 2016 presidential election found that Thanksgiving dinners were 30–50 minutes shorter if they were attended by a mix of people from Republican- and Democratic-leaning voting precincts. Bail is a professor of sociology and public policy at Duke University, and also the director of the Polarization Lab at Duke. Engaged in the study of ‘computational social science’, Bail and his team conduct studies on online political behavior. Some of the findings thrown up by their research is, putting it mildly, jaw dropping.

For example, the concept of ‘echo-chambers’ is most touted to be at the centre of all internet prejudices and biases that lead to online extremism. Hence the exhortations by social media experts for users to ‘step out of their echo-chambers.’ But what is it that exactly happens to/with a user when she does indeed step out of her echo-chamber? In a curious experiment, Bail and his team persuaded a randomly selected cohort of Republicans and Democrats to persistently listen to the views of their opponents. This was with an objective to ascertain changes in attitude towards opposing factions. The outcome of the experiment revealed an unfortunate trajectory. People who were even moderately conservative became staunchly conservative and mild libertarians became more entrenched in their dogmas.

As Bail elucidates, the phenomenon of ‘false polarization’ exacerbates existing fissures and frictions. The term itself can be defined to mean “the tendency for people to overestimate the amount of ideological difference between themselves and people from other political parties.” For example, a national survey by the Pew Research Center from 2018 found that 55 percent of Republicans thought of the Democratic Party as “extremely liberal” while a little over a third of Democrats described the GOP as “extremely conservative.” A close examination of the data revealed that people who relied on social media to keep abreast of current affairs were prone to substantially exaggerating the supposed ideological extremism of their opposition party members.

Further as Bail illustrates, this polarization also drags centrists further deep into hibernation mode. Alarmed and astonished by the extreme positions taken by extraordinarily aggressive people (Bail gives the example of an otherwise decent and impeccably well mannered man in real life who transforms into a filth spewing monster on social media. The man’s Twitter handle is replete with actual pictures of excrements, within each of which are placed studiously photoshopped images of prominent Democrats), these centrists shy away from expressing their valuable opinions and defer from contributing to all meaningful discourse. As Bail himself discloses, “70% of U.S. social media users never or rarely post or share about political, social issues according to this new report from Pew. A *STRONG MAJORITY* of Republicans with moderate views rarely or never post about politics.”

While Bail blames convoluted algorithms predominantly for creating a polarization effect, he argues that there is room for optimism. Bail and his team invited a random population to test out a new customized experimental social media platform called DiscussIt. The participants were informed that they would be chatting anonymously with someone else. What the participants were not informed was the fact that the invite code that given to them to access the platform paired them a member of a different political affiliation. The topics for discussion were also provided upfront such as immigration or gun control. Unlike the earlier failed experiment on echo chambers, people who used the anonymous chat app to talk about either gun control or immigration depolarized much more than people who didn’t. That effect was even stronger for Republicans.

Bail’s book is a treasure trove of details and information on seminal social science experiments. Some meriting especial mention include:

  • The discovery by sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton of the principle of homophily. The two professors—who had been studying how new media technologies were shaping political beliefs—observed that people tend to form social connections with those who are similar to themselves. “Birds of a feather flock together.”
  • German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, groundbreaking study on the role played by throbbing, teeming and vibrant salons in laying the groundwork for the systems of mass communication that emerged in the twentieth century;
  • American Sociologist Erving Goffman’s amazing discovery that we read our social environments through a combination of verbal and nonverbal cues, including facial expressions, other types of body language, and tones of voice.

Bail concludes his book by offering three practical and easily implementable “strategies” for breaking the prism of social media and its harmful refraction: “First, we can learn to see the prism and understand how it distorts our identities, as well as those of other people. Second, we can learn to see ourselves through the prism and monitor how our behavior gives the prism its power. Finally, we can learn how to break the prism by changing these behaviors and discovering how to engage in more productive conversations with the other side.”

The most refreshing aspect of Bail’s book is the opportunity that it affords the reader for engaging in introspection. Everyone who is not a Jaron Lanier, (popularly and universally acclaimed as the father of Virtual reality who is now a social media apostate and a recluse living under a rock) and hence who automatically happens to be a social media user can relate to the concepts and ideas articulated by Bail. I myself got name called in a very incendiary vein a few days ago just for posting a clarificatory remark on the page of an acquaintance. That remark was, by no stretch of imagination, either a rebuke or a reprimand. A mild riposte perhaps. Such an unexpected jibe induced a spontaneous resolve never to post on that acquaintance’s wall henceforth. But on hindsight, there might have been a better manner in which I could have conveyed my thought process, not in terms of sincerity, but in terms of subtlety at least. But in line with the hope exuded by Bail in his book, there will come another opportunity.

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe – Niall Ferguson

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe: Ferguson, Niall: 9780593297377:  Amazon.com: Books

“Doom” by Niall Ferguson is analogous to a hastily and haphazardly whipped up world encyclopedia. While the reader is treated to an extraordinary variety of incredible information, she is also plagued by data fatigue. This feature of death by data detracts, from the original essence of the book, which in itself is extremely engrossing and absorbing. Ferguson, a Scottish historian and the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, claims that most of the disasters that have rocked humanity is man-made. Even some of the greatest convulsions of nature such as tectonic earthquakes and roaring volcanic eruptions cause untold misery because of humanity settling and resettling on fault lines and in vulnerable cities. When Mount Vesuvius for example left Pompeii in smoldering ruins, in an apocalyptic explosion, it did not take time for the ruined city to be once again transformed into a teeming and bustling hotbed of trade. But in trying to arrive at this conclusion, Ferguson takes a path that is extraordinarily and excruciatingly circuitous. The exploits of Pliny the Elder in courageously venturing towards Pompeii to chronicle the devastation, before suffocating to death takes up quite a lot of pages and consequently the reader’s time.

 Ferguson’s novel reasoning is based, to a great extent, on the three concepts of “gray rhinos”; “black swans” and “dragon kings”. The term gray rhino as popularized by  American author, commentator, and policy analyst, Michele Wucker, refers to an event that is “dangerous, obvious, and highly probable”. Classic examples being Hurricane Katrina, and the Financial Recession of 2007. A black swan event, on the other hand, according to author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, refers to a situation that “seems to us, on the basis of our limited experience to be impossible.” The COVID-19 pandemic that is at the time of this writing wreaking havoc is a black swan event. Professor on the Chair of Entrepreneurial Risks at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Didier Sornette defines a dragon king as an event so extreme that it lies outside a power law distribution. According to Sornette, examples of dragon king events can be found in six domains: City sizes, acoustic emissions associated with material failure, velocity increments in hydrodynamic turbulence, financial drawdowns, energies of epileptic seizures in humans and animals, and possibly earthquakes. Dragon kings “are extreme events that are statistically and mechanistically different from the rest of their smaller siblings.”

Ferguson also writes that when it comes to any disaster, the scale of damage is dependent on the contagion. Social network structure plays out a vital role in this regard. Banking on the concept of weak ties as elucidated by Mark Granovetter, Ferguson identifies the importance of nodes and networks. For example, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is a direct factor of the basic rate if reproduction, which in turn is a direct outcome of adherence to or neglect of social distancing norms. Paraphrasing Emile Durkheim’s term for elucidating an element of disconnectedness associated with modernity, Ferguson writes that “an economy without crowds is not a ‘new normal’.

This notion of network effects, says Ferguson is also corroborated by the founder of the Ethernet, Robert Metcalfe. According to Metcalfe, greater the number of nodes in a network, the more valuable the network to the nodes collectively, and therefore to its owners. “The history of mankind’s changing susceptibility to infectious diseases tends to be written as a history of pathogens. But it might make as much sense to tell this history as the story of our evolving social networks.”

Ferguson also dwells on two types of errors that primarily trigger manmade disasters, namely, active, and latent errors. Initially proposed by psychologist James Reason, active errors represent errors that are perpetrated by people who are in direct contact with human system interface. Active errors can either be skill-based, rule-based, or knowledge-based. On the other hand, latent errors according to Reason, are the “delayed consequences of technical and organizational actions and decisions – such as reallocating resources, changing the scope of a position, or adjusting staffing.” Ferguson uses the examples of active and latent errors to describe the sinking of the Titanic and the Andrea Gail. Ferguson also claims that untrammeled advances in the field of transportation and conveyance in the form of steamships and rail networks spread disease across continents. The spread of from the Ganges to the rest of the world, for example.

In the final chapters, Ferguson dwells on a potential conflict between two behemoths, the United States and China, which has the potential of bringing untold harm to the world. He also mulls on the potential perils of artificial intelligence and genome mapping which may bring misery to mankind if fallen into wrong hands. A clustered regularly interspaced short palindrome repeats (CRISPR) technology facilitating gene editing is now so cheap that a genetic engineering home lab kit was available for just $1,845 in the year 2020. Ferguson ends his book with references to a whole horde of Dystopian works which presciently predicted novel and unique disasters. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep all make the cut.

“Doom” is an unrelenting compilation of events, situations, circumstances, and outcomes. It is also a confusing assemblage of qualitative and quantitative information that has the ability to send the reader into a dizzying journey. While the assertion that most, if not all, catastrophes that has plagued mankind thus far is attributable to manmade causes, is bold and ingenious, the back up arguments in favour of such a proposition are, unfortunately convoluted, contrived, and complex. On the whole, “Doom” represents fodder for thought and further evaluation. Currently we as humanity are going through some extraordinary times. Conflicting prerogatives such as vaccine diplomacy and vaccine nationalism are tugging and pushing at the invisible strings of emotion. As the word grapples with a calamity of unimagined proportions, how we tide though this crisis would not just represent a reflection of who we are as an interconnected global family but also how we are as evolved human beings of character.

“Doom” – just a beginning of possibilities, extensive.   

(Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson is published by Penguin Press and would be released on the 4th of May 2021)

Power To The Public: The Promise of Public Interest Technology – Tara Dawson McGuinness & Hana Schank

Power to the Public: The Promise of Public Interest Technology: McGuinness, Tara  Dawson, Schank, Hana, Slaughter, Anne-Marie, Walker, Darren: 9780691207759:  Amazon.com: Books

“Power To The Public” is a deeply thought provoking, delightfully implementable and definitely an indispensable read for every policy wonk and maven, keen on exploiting and harnessing the potential of Public Interest Technology (PIT for short). This is a field that has, putting it mildly, remained muted for far too long. As the authors illustrate with resounding clarity, adherence to the tenets and principles of PIT may well be the way forward in resolving some of the most seemingly intractable socio economic problems ailing the world at present. So what exactly is PIT? As Tara Dawson McGuinness and Hana Schank explain, PIT reduced to its simplest definition means, “the application of design, data, and delivery to advance the public interest and promote the public good in the digital age.” In an era where policies in general and Governmental policies in particular are characterised by a dichotomy where the policy maker is two steps (or more) removed from the end recipient of such a policy, PIT attempts to remove this dilemma by placing the user front and centre. This enables both the Government/public sector and the beneficiary to extract the most out of any benevolent scheme. Lubricating the wheels of PIT are three quintessential elements: “design informed by real human needs, the use of real-time data to guide problem solving, and a focus on delivery in order to continuously learn and improve.”

Even though concise in terms of number of pages, the book is replete with powerful illustrations demonstrating the power of PIT. Unlike the private sector where even a continuous churn of birth and death of corporations might lead to ‘repairable’ dislocations, Governments and the public sector cannot just afford to fail. Such a failure would lead to tumultuous consequences for thousands and millions of people who are dependent on the Government for their very sustenance. The authors illustrate this principle with a fascinating example. Form DHS-1171, in its original avatar represented the longest form for social assistance in the United States. DHS-1171 unfortunately, was also the primary stumbling block for almost two million people in Michigan seeking access to emergency assistance. “Anyone in Michigan in dire need of healthcare, food assistance, emergency cash, or childcare first needed to work their way through more than 1,200 questions.” Such an exasperating exercise could drive people to their wits end and many flummoxed applicants even gave up filling the form thereby sacrificing what otherwise would have constituted invaluable assistance. Michael Brennan the former CEO of the United Way of Southeastern Michigan decided to do something about the gargantuan form. With the assistance of Adam and Lana Selzer, the husband-wife duo, and founders of Civilla, a non-profit design studio dedicated to changing the way public-serving institutions function, Brennan put the principles of PIT to work. Securing an appointment with Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) director Nick Lyon; Tim Becker, chief deputy director of MDHHS; Terry Beurer, senior deputy director of the Economic Stability Administration; and Rich Baird, a top aide to Governor Rick Snyder, Brennan and his team made the administrators fill out the nightmarish form along with a whole horde of actual applicants struggling with their own forms. Amidst such a cacophonous setting, the administrators obtained a perfect flavour of the predicament which unwitting form fillers go through.

“Several of the officials had never seen the form up close. While that may be hard to imagine, this type of distance is commonplace across government. The farther up the hierarchy a person gets, the more distance they have from both the people they serve and the caseworkers who serve them.” Thus began the DHS-1171 form redesign project. With the actual people in need of benefits being placed front and centre, the form was repurposed with only the essential questions framed in collaboration with legislators. A team of legal and technology experts thus reduced the time taken for filling a most vital and crucial emergency assistance from almost a whole day to just under thirty minutes. “The focus on understanding both beneficiaries and frontline state workers grounded the team’s efforts. Hearing how the process wasn’t working for anyone helped make the case for change.”

Similarly, by placing the homeless people front and centre, Rockford was able to successfully obliterate the scourge of homelessness. In the year 2015 Rockford ended veterans’ homelessness. In 2017 they went one step further by putting an end to chronic homelessness, and are well on their way to totally ending homelessness. The Built to Zero team tasked with eliminating the blight of homelessness initiated what at that time seemed an ambitious endeavour by making a list of every single veteran in Rockford who was homeless, so they could understand the totality of Rockford’s homeless population and their needs. “But the list creation process also did something else. It changed the problem being solved from a series of disconnected inputs—number of beds filled, number of people fed, number of patients served—to a concrete and shared goal that centered on human lives. Ultimately, the list changed the focus from numbers of beds and meals and services to one single number: people who remain homeless.”

The book also discusses the perils of not understanding the basic wants of the needy and the unfortunate. When the Corona virus pandemic unleashed its fury on an unprepared United States, a commendably bipartisan promulgation resulted in a massive allocation of almost a trillion dollars in aid for the affected, under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, a massive, 880-page12 economic stimulus package. However a complete absence of a  grassroots level planning ensured that the benefits under CARES was to a great extent disproportionate to the needs of the targeted. Thus while behemoths such as Boeing and the Distilled Spirits Council got quite a fat stimulus package, “the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), a part of the bill aimed at helping small businesses, ran out of money twelve days after it launched, necessitating the creation of a second bill to help fill the meteor-sized holes in the first one. Numerous reports surfaced of businesses that couldn’t even remotely qualify as a small business receiving money through CARES, among them fast-food chain Shake Shack, high-end restaurant chain Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and even the Los Angeles Lakers, a $4.4 billion franchise. But for true small businesses, the help was very uneven. At the same time, many of the people suffering the most found the requirements in the bill meant that they didn’t qualify for help.”

All of these examples, argue McGuinness and Schank, are emblematic of four uncompromising essentials: First, government is an inevitable and uncompromising necessity to tide over the most crucial problems besetting the world today. Second, the stumbling block lies within the systems, incentives and structures encompassing the Government ecosystem and not the Government itself or its workers. Third, while technology definitely has an invaluable role to play in problem solving, it can never be a solution in itself. Algorithms can never displace empathy. can play a critical role, but it is never the solution alone. Fourth, the role of Government is to aid and assist without discrimination or bias. No segment of the population must be isolated or kept out from the parenthesis of prosperity and a basic acceptable quality of life.

At a time when the world is teetering helplessly while being ravaged by an insidious pandemic, the role of PIT in instituting indelible reforms cannot be stressed or emphasizes enough. Messrs. McGuinness and Schank bring their enviable experience in this domain to bear by paving the way.

“Power to the Public” – a defining read in desperate times.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for men – Caroline Criado Perez

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men: Criado Perez,  Caroline: 9781419729072: Amazon.com: Books

Starting off with what has to be some of the most memorable opening words in the history of contemporary literature, British journalist and author, Caroline Criado Perez proceeds to illustrate in an eviscerating fashion, the deprivation of the deserving rights of half the human population under the sun. “Invisible Women” is sans a semblance of any doubt, the most seminal book dealing with women’s rights and denial since Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex.’ The world seems to blissfully function under a preternatural dogma that has at its core a “male unless indicated otherwise” approach. This taken-for-granted male universality, Ms. Perez demonstrates, results in some serious and significant absence of sex-disaggregated data. “Men have confused their own point of view with the absolute truth. There are issues, be it the female body, women’s unpaid care burden or the male violence against women that have always warranted serious discussions but have often been overlooked and deemed unimportant”, writes Ms. Perez. The title of the book itself represents a master stroke. The book is titled ‘Invisible Women’ because women are just that: invisible. Thankless and tedious tasks such as childcare, elderly care and unpaid household work, are derisively and disturbingly assumed to be the sole prerogative of the feminine gender. This back breaking labour does not just go unrecognized, it also remains absolutely unnoticed, and thus, invisible.

As a fundamental example, across the globe women use public transport more than men. They engage in multiple transportation shifts. Dropping kids at school, commuting to work, accompanying the unwell at home to a hospital or dispensary, and finally rounding off a hectic schedule by completing grocery shopping while heading back home, women are the ones who are in need of a fully functioning, reliable, adequate, and sufficient transport infrastructure. However, as Ms. Perez informs her readers, rarely does a transportation policy take into consideration such a ubiquitous pattern adopted by a woman. A suffocatingly crowded peak transportation crowd, sparse availability of transport late in the evenings and the very design of vehicles all have an unmissable bias towards men. Cases abound of women being groped, sexually abused, and harassed during the course of their journey. A horrific case in point being the singularly ghastly Nirbhaya rape case in New Delhi.

To cite another unfortunate trend, consider the employ of safety mechanisms and equipment in automobiles such as airbags and headrests. All major automobile companies, prior to introducing every new vehicle model, test their safety and resilience by using ‘Crash test dummies.’ Very few people are aware that these Crash Test dummies are invariably designed around a 50th percentile male, about 1.77 meters tall and weighing 76 kilograms. There is a brazen neglect of the fact that women, are on average, shorter, and lighter, a critical and crucial fact which the test procedures conveniently overlook. Thus in any unfortunate car crash, an even more unfortunate women is 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured and 17 percent more likely to die! An elementary sex-disaggregated data will very easily ameliorate what in hindsight looks to be an absolutely intolerable practice.

Similarly while there are limits in many industries on the weights that can be lifted while at work (industries predominantly populated by men), there are no prescribed limits or regulations on a nurse or a woman healthcare worker who spends a predominant proportion of her time assisting and lifting patients far more heavier than her. Hence thr potential for women to be struck by hazardous muscular and bone tissue injuries are much higher than for men. Staying within the medical sphere, a revealing study unearthed the fact that a complex kind of pacemaker had, based on clinical trials, been calibrated for male hearts. When the female results were aggregated, the researchers were astonished to find that if the women’s use had been calibrated on women’s results, then there would likely have been a 76% reduction in heart failure for those women who didn’t qualify based on male results, but did qualify when women’s statistical outcomes had been considered.

One of the most highly hailed, subscribed to, and reveled about drug in the modern world of medicine, is Pfizer’s Viagra. A boon bestowing aphrodisiac for millions, Viagra was however an accidentally ‘repurposed’ wonder. An initial study of the drug conducted in the year 2013 revealed that Viagra was most effective in relieving dysmenorrhea – commonly known as ‘period pain.’ But an astounding refusal to fund the study for evaluating its efficacy further, meant that the trial petered out. Dr. Richard Legro, who lead the study bemoaned that the reviewers probably did not see dysmenorrhea as a priority public health issue.

A seemingly prosaic and plain activity such as snow cleaning suffers from an inherent and implicit male bias. This was hammered home in an enlightening fashion to a bunch of  councilors in Sweden. Public authorities in the town of Karlskoga were assessing their efficiency of their practices in embellishing gender equality.  This assessment disclosed that the council’s policy of clearing roads first favoured men, who used automobiles much more than women, the latter being more pedestrians than drivers. When the snow clearing policy was altered to first clear those paths taken by women who walked and used public transport, Karlskoga saved public money because of a material drop in the number of women admitted to hospital after falling on snowy surfaces.

The world of economics is not far behind either in encouraging and adding to the gender gap. The gospel of Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”) fails miserably in not taking within its hallowed ambit unpaid household and care work, the impact of taxes on women’s choice to join the labor force, and the disproportionate representation of women among the world’s poor. According to a report issued by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (“OECD”), not counting unpaid care work leads to misestimating households’ material well-being and societies’ wealth. If included, unpaid care work would constitute 40% of Swiss GDP (Schiess and SchönBühlmann, 2004) and would be equivalent to 63% of Indian GDP (Budlender, 2008).

“Most of recorded human history is one big data gap,” writes Perez at the very beginning of her wonderful book. “Starting with the theory of Man the Hunter, chroniclers of the past have left little space for women’s role in the evolution of humanity, whether cultural or biological. Instead, the lives of men have been taken to represent those of humans overall. When it comes to the lives of the other half if humanity, there is often nothing but silence.”

The time to remedy this deafening silence is now.  

Breaking Through: A Memoir – Isher Judge Ahluwalia

Amazon.com: BREAKING THROUGH: A Memoir eBook: Ahluwalia, Isher Judge:  Kindle Store

On the 26th of September 2020, Isher Judge Ahluwalia breathed her last. An effervescent and endearing personality in addition to being a brilliant economist who juxtaposed vision with common sense, the Padmabushan awardee was also the wife of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, former deputy chairman of the Indian Planning Commission. “Breaking Through” is Isher Ahluwalia’s autobiography penned in a disarmingly candid and refreshing manner. The inspiring story of a pickle manufacturer’s great grand-daughter who influenced the decisions of policy mavens and rubbed shoulders with some of the most prominent economists and powerful politicians globally, warms the very cockles of the heart.

When her memoir was completed, Ahluwalia had lost her reading and writing faculties. Her husband, however turned out to be an able ally and scribe. ‘As my health weakened, he would take dictation, type out the chapters, sit and read them out to me, write out my corrections in hand, and work them into the typed version. He is certainly the highest Qualified Research Assistant that I could hope for.”

However as the memoir reveals, before Isher Judge Ahluwalia succumbed to an insidious and rare form of brain tumour, Glioblastoma, she had laid claims to some Herculean achievements and stupendous accomplishments that marked her as an inspirational woman of substance. A role model worthy of emulation, Ahluwalia had through a combination of sheer determination and uncompromising passion shattered the glass ceiling of stereotypes to scale heady heights of success in both academia and professional career. The ninth daughter amongst 11 children (“a full cricket team of 11”), Ahluwalia was also expected to follow in the footsteps of her elder sisters. A few years of schooling followed by marriage children and a docile and uneventful existence as a dutiful housewife. However this rebellious girl bucked the trend of orthodoxy in thinking and made it to Presidency College in Kolkata (then Calcutta) first before finding herself in the hallowed portals of Delhi School of Economics.

Spurred on by an insatiable love for the subject and encouraged by a phalanx of benevolent professors, Ahluwalia obtained a scholarship and secured an admission into the Economics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was taken into the tutelage of future Noble Laureates such as Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow in addition to giants in the field such as Charles Kindleberger. A chance opportunity with the International Monetary Fund results in an introduction to Montek. This chance encounter progresses towards courtship before finally ending in marriage. As Ahluwalia illustrates, in a domain greatly dominated by men, Ahluwalia carved out a niche for herself in the area of policy research. A book highlighting the perils of the Indian economic orthodoxy, courtesy a morass of policy paralysis that was the prerogative of the Left, was published by the Oxford University Press. Ahluwalia also undertook lots of development work for the World Bank and was also involved with ICRIER in India in various capacities. Innovative thinking on Ahluwalia’s part resulted in the Borlaug Institute for South Asia being set up in India and an Infosys Chair for Agriculture being established at ICRIER.  

Throughout the book, Ahluwalia emphasizes an imperative to remain grounded and never to forget one’s roots. Whether it be elucidating on her value system, unflinching devotion to the Gurbani, and a need to accommodate Montek’s career progress whilst concentrating on her own professional career, she inadvertently reveals the importance and indispensability of an element of balance in her personal and professional life. A close friend of Dr. Manmohan Singh and his wife, Ahluwalia wistfully reminisces on the futility of the Former Prime Minister’s attempts to revitalize and rejuvenate the Indian economy during UPA II. Exasperated at every turn, Dr. Manmohan Singh was more a helpless nominee than a powerful leader of a nation. “I wondered why the Prime Minister didn’t just resign”, writes Ahluwalia.

The book is in fact a beautifully thought out paean to all those who were responsible for the uplift of the author. It is almost as though Ahluwalia is bidding a fond farewell to a phalanx of beneficiaries before bidding goodbye. Dr Udham Singh, Walter Robineck at IMF-Washington, LK Jha, IG Patel, are some of the names that are singled out for exceptional praise. However an economist who had a lasting influence on the author and her thinking was the late T N Srinivasan Sanjivi Guhan. India’s executive director-alternate at the World Bank, senior economist of the Brandt Commission, professorial fellow at the Madras Institute of Development Studies and a member of the governing board of Kalakshetra, Guhan brought a revolutionary perspective to economic analysis and political philosophy. Ahluwalia remembers with great precision a letter written by Guhan to her that blended metaphysics and spirituality to convey economic thought. “In Bhartakanda, everything is policy. From policy, policy arises and into policy it returns. Take away policy and policy remains”

The reader is hit like a thunderbolt when Isher Ahluwalia in a matter of fact manner elucidates a craniotomy procedure that reveals the presence of the fatal tumour in her brain. With an incredible sense of detachment and an incredulous vein of astounding practicality she confronts the situation head on and while acknowledging that she might not have much time on the planet, she also confesses as to how lucky and blessed she has been to have had such a full and fulfilling life. One cannot but pause to admire this phenomenal woman and wish that her tribe increases manifold.

Steering clear of political biases and controversies, Isher Judge Ahluwalia focuses on urgent and topical issues that requires bipartisan attention and ones that have far reaching ramifications in the future. Thus issues such as urban planning, Solid Waste Management, Water and Food Security that cause policy wonks to have sleepless nights are addressed in a beautifully lucid and practical manner.

Breezy, warm, witty, and wonderful, “Breaking Through” is not just a dexterously crafted memoir. It is a deliberately intended manifesto for every aspiring schoolgirl who aims to make it big in a world dominated by glass ceilings. For such an indelible manifesto we are all indebted to Isher Judge Ahluwalia. Her legacy and contribution are for the ages.

A Hope called Tanya Coleridge by George Michael

TaniaColeridge Instagram posts (photos and videos) - Picuki.com
(Image Credit: Picuki.com)

Tanya Coleridge sashaying down the ramp with an uninhibited confidence; Tanya Coleridge winking seductively; Tanya Coleridge crossing a turnstile and hiring a taxi. Tanya Coleridge….

George Michael with a grotesque piece of jewelry dangling from his ear and a cool pair of sunglasses covering his eyes, lent bohemia a bold and licentious meaning with his pop-gospel balladry when he introduced the world to “Father Figure.” A renegade, a rebellious gay and an eccentric when it came to purveying a particular brand of music, George Michael had a fantastic perpetrator in crime, in the form of the sensual Tanya Coleridge when he pushed this phenomenal and controversial song down the alley of his friends and foes alike. Commencing with a confession and having libelous undertones, “Father Figure” is almost akin to cocking a snook at received wisdom and conventional mores. You can feel George Michael showing his finger to the world while he croons to a lilting music that has an indelible haunt to it.

But the genius of George Michael required the daring of the beautiful Tanya Coleridge to convey his message of impetuosity and impunity. “For just one moment/To be bold and naked/At your side”, could not have been even a remote possibility without the bold and arresting Tanya Coleridge. Irresistibly carnal and inimitably metaphysical at the same time, “Father Figure” is a paean to purity and a homily to the peculiarity. It is celebrating the characteristics of fidelity, while also spurring on a venture into the realms of promiscuity. There is not even a blurring line between the pure and the derisive. Right and wrong coalesce into a confounding kaleidoscope of choice and action. Is “Father Figure” incestuous? In my personal opinion, it does not even come remotely close to being ascribed that damning label. Is it against conventional mores? Of course! When compared to some of the controversial melodies churned out by the likes of Prince, “Father Figure”, doesn’t even come close to ascending the rungs of the controversial ladder of provocation. At the same time it is not as docile as the Christmas melodies dished out by its own creator either. So what ground does this fabulous piece of music occupy and claim?

Absolutely nothing! “Father Figure” lays claims to neither oeuvre nor stereotype. It is just an unashamed homage to the fragilities and foibles of mankind. A tribute that is conveyed by a combination of cathartic vocal chords and a curvaceous figure. “Father Figure” asserts that it is perfectly acceptable to err on the side of audacity. Atonement is just a choice. The cross that hangs from George Michael’s ear is not a symbol of confession but a sign of incredulous defiance. As is every twist, turn and tantalizing wink of the marvelous Tanya Coleridge.

While George Michael may have given his adoring legion of fans a raft of mellifluous hits, nothing compares to the electric fervour and tension of “Father Figure.” George Michael’s own contradictions and dilemma in an age that was inclined to look at gay libertarianism more as a counterculture than an accepted way of life, finds full disclosure in “Father Figure.” In fact in an interview that Tanya Coleridge gave years after the video was made, she admitted that it was extremely difficult for George Michael to enact the intimate scenes in the song. The tug and push of his homosexuality was putting up a screen of defiance between the uber talented singer and the magnificent model. It is ample testimony to Tanya Coleridge’s brilliance and accommodation that allowed George Michael to complete the shooting.

In a follow up album ‘Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1’, George Michael pulled off a veritable coup by gathering a bevy of jaw dropping beauties, including Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Tatjana Patitz, and Christy Turlington. While each one of them acted as a consummate foil to the gay predilections of the immortal singer, none of them could even hold a candle to the exuberance, enthusiasm, and effervescence of Tanya Coleridge.

“Father Figure” was and continues to be a taboo and a Teutonic statement. A statement conjured by the dynamic duo of Tanya Coleridge and George Michael. A combination that stands for resistance, evokes resilience, and restores confidence in humanity.

Thank you, Tanya Coleridge!

Thank you, George Michael. Sleep Well Legend!