Premonition: A Pandemic Story – Michael Lewis

The Premonition: A Pandemic Story

Michael Lewis has this gifted and almost uncanny propensity to select seemingly complex and sacrilegious topics and present them for the consumption of his readers in a breezy and mind numbing manner that would put even the best fictional thriller to utter shame. His latest “Premonition” is no exception to this unique norm. The book details the valiant exploits of an iconoclastic band of medical experts who tried to goad a hapless and haphazard United States administration to take decisive and pre-emptive steps to combat the COVID-19 pandemic when it was still in its nascent phase. A former White House colleague in the George Bush administration even termed this intrepid band, the “Wolverines.” Michael Lewis calls them “a rogue group of patriots working behind the scenes to save the country.”

The genesis behind the evolution of the Wolverines was a seminal book on the 1918 influenza pandemic, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History” by John Barry. After reading the book, Bush realised that the United States was dearly lacking an effective plan for pandemic prevention. He tasked Rajeev Venkayya, a physician heading the Biodefense Directorate to come up with a ‘pandemic preparation plan.’ Venkayya assembled a band of unique and unconventional experts to aid him in this endeavour. He deliberately left the premier institution the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) from this exercise, having accurately assessed its probable intransigence. Driving the entire exercise was an odd couple pairing of Richard Hatchett and Carter Mecher. Richard Hatchett was a doctor with a penchant for poems that caught the eye of eminent poets such as Donald Davie and Mark Jarman. He also worked the emergency rooms Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, and also the pioneer who extrapolated the concept of “Social Distancing” as an effective strategy to combat communicable diseases. Carter Mecher on the other hand, was an incorrigible son of the soil. A genius in thinking out of the box, he was also a maverick when it came to offering ingenious solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Carter fixed many problems ailing the Veteran Administration and made it into a smoothly and reliably functional health unit.

Ken Staley, who worked in Venkayya’ s bioterrorism unit, called them, “the odd couple.” “Richard played chess and quoted Borges; Carter took apart pickup trucks and put them back together. Much of what Richard loved doing could be done in a white linen suit. Much of what Carter loved doing left his hands black. Richard liked to borrow a phrase, Carter a tool. Richard was top-down—he conversed easily with the fancy academics and important policy people, and they with him. Carter was bottom-up—there was no fact, and no person, trivial enough to evade his curiosity. Richard left every classroom he entered at or near the top; Carter often just left the classroom. Carter poked fun at the way Richard walked around saying important-sounding things, like “All models are wrong; some of them are useful,” but he felt the alchemy in their interactions.”

Another Wolverine or “Wolverette”, being the only woman in the team, Charity Dean was the  former deputy director of California’s Department of Public Health. A daredevil with an uncompromising degree of integrity, Charity Dean always found herself bucking the ‘establishment’ trend. From being forced to perform an autopsy herself with a pair of garden shears instead of a saw when the official coroner backed out of fear since the deceased was a patient suffering from a virulent strain of tuberculosis, to being shut out of meetings and calls by her obdurate boss for mentioning the word “pandemic”, Dean’s professional career proceeded from one wrangle to the next.

This motley crew taking invaluable cues from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, where Philadelphia, having instituted Non Pharmaceutical Intervention measures just a week prior to the peak level of transmission, suffered twice the number of fatalities that afflicted St. Louis, which managed to get social distancing measures in place far earlier in the game, devised certain key “social distancing” measures. For instance, Mecher showed how an early closure of schools could make all the difference in the event a pandemic struck the country in future. Children enjoyed a far greater proportion of intimate, unstructured, and spontaneous social encounters than adults, and those interactions were triggers and breeding grounds for outbreaks. 

The task force faced its first challenge not during the Bush tenure but during the Presidency of Barack Obama. The year 2009 witnessed an outbreak of swine flu. Due to their previous involvement in pandemic management, Mecher and Hatchett are brought back to the White House to offer their suggestions. However the duo’s proposal of a school shutdown is rejected by a preternaturally conventional and risk averse CDC. Obama ultimately consents to the CDC. Thankfully from a crisis perspective, the outbreak turns out to be much less volatile and severe, but from a future pandemic prevention perspective, sets a very negative and discouraging trend. In Dean’s words, “the CDC — they do mental masturbation and  talk in circles for an hour and reach no decision.”

The failings and foibles of a health care system teetering on the brink of inefficiency and incompetence is highlighted in eviscerating manner by Michael Lewis. Joe DeRisi an absolute genius when it came to decoding the genome sequencing of infectious disease and a recipient of the highly touted “MacAthur Grant”, bore the full condescension of the health care system. An integral part of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, DeRisi and his team at the nonprofit lab offered hospitals COVID-19 tests for free and in a rapid manner. The hospitals refused to avail of this offer by quoting the ludicrous reason of their incapability to code their systems for a $0 test! The people manning the nonprofit lab also ordered a shipment of nasal swabs from the Strategic National Stockpile only to find to their utter chagrin that the containers all contained Q-Tips! An altruistic venture capitalist was left carrying a con can when in offering hep he procured ‘nasal swabs’, which turned out to be eyelash brushes. “There was something deeply dysfunctional about how the government worked that I never fully grasped,” De Risi said later expressing his utter exasperation. “There’s no one driving the bus. God knows what the hell is wrong with them.”

“Premonition” is a compelling David v Goliath paradigm, that centres on the inadequacies and inchoateness of public health care institutions that keeps failing the citizens repeatedly and a band of indefatigable individuals who have made it their avowed objective to right a ship that is threatening to keel over. The essence of the books is captured by a marvelous letter penned by Bill Foege, the former Director of the CDC, and a legendary figure in humanity’s combat against infectious diseases. On the 23rd of September 2020, the eighty-four year old Foege addressed the current CDC Director Robert Redfield, “I start each day thinking about the terrible burden you bear. I don’t know what I would actually do, if in your position, but I do know what I wish I would do. The first thing would be to face the truth. You and I both know that: 1) Despite the White House spin attempts, this will go down as a colossal failure of the public health system of this country. The biggest challenge in a century and we let the country down. The public health texts of the future will use this as a lesson on how not to handle an infectious disease pandemic.”…. You could upfront, acknowledge the tragedy of responding poorly,” he wrote, “apologize for what has happened and your role in acquiescing, set a course for how CDC would now lead the country if there was no political interference, give them the ability to report such interference to a neutral ombudsman, and assure them that you will defend their attempts to save this country. Don’t shy away from the fact this has been an unacceptable toll on our country. It is a slaughter and not just a political dispute . . . The White House will, of course, respond with fury. But you will have right on your side. Like Martin Luther, you can say, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.’ ”Suffice it to say neither Redfield nor the Trump administration decided to behave with dignity for its accountability to the severely affected public.

“Premonition”: Not just a book for the dystopian times that humanity is going through, but a lesson for the ages.

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.

First Person Singular: Haruki Murakami

Review: 'First Person Singular,' By Haruki Murakami : NPR

Personally, I anticipate the release of every Haruki Murakami book, with a curiosity that is otherwise deserved for rare and unique occasions. The enthusiasm that gripped me prior to the release of “First Person Singular” was thus, no exception to the norm. Regrettably, the newest book by the much acclaimed Japanese writer, containing a collection of short stories narrated in the first person, has left me feeling more dejected than delighted. While “Men Without Women” meditated on the litany of woes plaguing men shorn of the company of women, “First Person Singular” ruminates on the qualitative and literal attributes of a woman’s beauty (or a lack of it to be precise), to a degree, that is condescendingly jarring.

Each story is narrated by a man whose interests range from jazz to baseball. These men also inform their readers about seemingly ‘ordinary’ women whom they have either dated, or met in the past. For example, in “Carnaval”, a man while introducing a woman with whom he was briefly associated in the past, comes up with a disquietingly uncharitable opening. “Of all the women, I’ve known until now, she was the ugliest.” Incidentally, and dispiritingly, he also prefers to address her merely as “F*”, while at the same time scornfully admitting that “her real name had nothing to so with either F or with *.” Immediately after this cringe worthy beginning, the protagonist feebly and almost facetiously attempts to ‘atone’ for this impunity by wading into an agonizing monologue touching upon paradoxical notion of ugliness and beauty in women.

The opening and closing stories of the book commence and conclude with a bang, with a lot of whimpering in between. “The Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” deals with an elderly monkey that has an extraordinary gift of talking in the human language. “Employed” in a run down boarding house, the monkey is also not averse to sampling Kirin beer and holding forth on the music of Anton Bruckner and Richard Strauss. This, however, is not the only story where the reader is driven to tedium with elaborate discussions on the technical nuances and intricacies embedded in music. “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova”, the late American Jazz saxophonist and composer, Charlie “Bird” Parker appears in the dream of the first person narrator and plays the ‘bossa nova’, a type of samba developed in the late 1950s and 1960s in Brazil. As a prelude to this scene, the central character, goes on and on about an imaginary roster of musicians jamming with Charlie Bird Parker in tandem. “Who would have ever imagined an unusual lineup like this – Charlie Parker and Antonio Carlos Jobim joining forces? Jimmy Raney on guitar, Jobim on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Roy Haynes on drums – a dream rhythm section so amazing that it makes your heart pound just hearing the names.”  Not that amazing when a poor reader does not possess a fuzzy rodent posterior’s clue on the pioneers and performers of the jazz world.

There are innumerable passages that suddenly segue into long and complicated treatises relating to music and sport. Robert Schumann, Mozart, Nat King Cole, and a plethora of similar musical luminaries waft in and out of stories with irritatingly regular frequencies.

A refreshing departure is “With The Beatles”. The narrator, upon visiting his girlfriend’s house, is invited in by her brother. Upon learning that the girl is not at home, the narrator attempts to leave only to be reigned in by the brother. The narrator is then made to read aloud the concluding portion of Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s dark and bleak story “Spinning Wheels”. Immediately after finishing this story, Akutagawa took his own life. “With The Beatles”, personally for me, is one shining light in an otherwise dull and flaccid book.

French writer and feminist, Simone de Beauvoir, at her searing best put gender inequality in its most appropriate context. “Humanity is male, and man defines woman not in herself, but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’ As a fan of the wonderfully gifted Haruki Murakami, I sincerely hope that he does not subscribe to the radically atrocious view about which de Beauvoir expressed her angst and chagrin.

“First Person Singular” – singularly dampening.

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters and How to Harness It – Ethan Kross

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It by Ethan  Kross

As human beings, we frequently have silent conversations with ourselves. Popularly referred to as “inner speech” this powerful medium of language governs not only our interactions with the environment surrounding us, but also shapes our unconscious relationships with ourselves. Writer and psychologist, Charles Fernyhough, provided a splendid and lasting perspective on this phenomenon in his book, The Voices Within. Now, American experimental psychologist, neuroscientist, and Professor of Psychology and Management at the University of Michigan, Ethan Kross, in a compelling book titled “Chatter”, writes about the perils and potential of the ‘inner monologue’ before setting out a slew of ‘tools’ to harness the power of such silent albeit eventful conversations.

Kross’ findings represent the outcome of a myriad number of empirical research conducted by neuroscientists and psychologists (including Kross’ own experiments at the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory, of which he is the Director, at Michigan University), about the human brain. Kross unearths a remarkable similarity between conversing with others and talking to ourselves. To back this argument, Kross refers his readers to the work of Belgian psychologist Bernard Rime. Rime discovered that in the same way in which our inner voice is triggered during moments of extreme stress, human beings also feel compelled to talk to one another when caught between a rock and a hard place.   

This inner voice can also be an absolute demon. Incessant and unwelcome chatter when it intrudes upon our day to day activities, may have threatening and unintended consequences. Kross articulates this aspect in agonizing detail, by explaining to his readers the mental block that put paid to the hopes of the much touted Major League Baseball pitcher, Rick Ankiel.

Kross writes about a study that found out that we talk to ourselves at a rate equivalent to spitting out 4,000 words per minute. In comparison, the American President’s State of the Union address, usually runs to about 6,000 words, and lasts more than an hour. Thus in one single day, we talk to ourselves using words that would constitute 320 State of the Union addresses. In order to distinguish constructive from the cacophony, Kross offers a “toolbox” that can be effectively employed to tone down chatter.

For example, Kross urges us to practice what he terms “distanced self-talk”. This represents having a conversation with ourselves as though we were a different persona altogether. This provides an invaluable “fly-on-the-wall” perspective using which we can impartially evaluate our actions, follies, and frailties. When LeBron James made what at that time was a very difficult move from Cleveland Cavaliers to Miami Heat, he reinforced his belief in various interviews by slipping into the second or third person narrative. “And then there was the American historian Henry Adams’s Pulitzer Prize–winning autobiography, published in 1918, which he narrated entirely in the third person. In keeping with this stylistic approach, he didn’t title the book My Education or something similar. He called it The Education of Henry Adams.”

Kross writes about the study conducted by psychologists Stephanie Carlson and Rachel White. This study led to the pioneering of a concept known as the “Batman Effect”. A group of children were encouraged to pretend they were a superhero as they were given an unappealing task designed to simulate the experience of having to complete a tedious homework assignment. “The kids were asked to assume the role of the character and then ask themselves how they were performing on the task using the character’s name. For example, a girl in the study who was pretending to be Dora the Explorer was instructed to ask herself, “Is Dora working hard?” during the study. Carlson and White found that the kids who did this persevered longer than children who reflected on their experience the normal way using “I.” (Kids in a third group who used their own names also outperformed the I-group.)”

A few other techniques from the Kross repertoire include:

Practicing “awe” inducing activities such as getting oneself immersed in a monumental work of art, or taking a leisurely walk in the mountains, or even watching a toddler take her first tiny, hesitant step;

Journaling. Writing a daily journal and also setting down on paper (don’t bother with the nitpicking over grammar) the most negative effects experienced by the writer during the course of that particular day;

Normalization. The realisation that you are not the only sufferer of adverse consequences in the world can help one overcome the effects of negative chatter in the head;

The power of touch. Just the innocuous gesture of putting a hand over someone’s shoulder can have the positive result of providing adequate strength and succour in dealing with negative chatter. However, as Kross warns, this technique can be resorted to only when such a touch is welcome.

Rituals. Getting into a habitual ritual may also be helpful even though there are people who take this technique to hitherto unimagined heights. The well known model Heidi Klum is supposed to carry her baby teeth in a tiny bag to overcome the fear of flying. During turbulence, she is known to clutch her bag tight. Stephanie Rice, the Australian Olympic swimmer swings her arms eight times, presses her goggles four times, and touches her cap four times before every race.

Placebos can also be a powerful medium to control and reign in negative chatter. Self-belief and conviction combine to induce commensurate physiological changes that result  in various positive outcomes. The placebo effect was demonstrated in somewhat unusual circumstances in the eighteenth century by Franz Anton Mesmer. A physician trained in Vienna, Mesmer laid claims to a path breaking development in the field of medicine. According to Mesmer, a whole horde of physical as well as emotional ailments could be reversed by an alteration of the flow of an imperceptible force that coursed through the universe using magnetic principles alone. Armed with a plethora of magnets, Mesmer repeatedly pulled rabbits out of multiple hats. He miraculously cured people’s conditions by channeling this invisible energy with magnets and his hands. He called this technique ‘animal magnetism.’ It would later be immortalized as “mesmerism.”

He even cured, albeit for a temporary period, the blindness of Maria Theresia von Paradis, an Austrian musician and composer who lost her sight at an early age, and for whom Mozart may have written his Piano Concerto No. 18. Benjamin Franklin, the great American inventor, and scientist who happened to be in the same location as Mesmer, was commissioned to investigate the veracity of the physician’s techniques. Franklin’s study concluded that the cures had nothing to do with mesmerism. The technique of animal magnetism invested in the patients a sense of conviction and positive affirmation which, in turn led to the curing of their ailments. What Mesmer did was just encourage a placebo effect.

At the end of the book, Kross informs his readers about a curricula which he, in tandem with his team, has devised on the cause and consequence of chatter that can be taught in schools. Kross is steadfast in his view that children should be imparted the science behind the inner conversations. Such lessons would greatly help them in self-regulation.

With an insidious pandemic wreaking global havoc, mental fragilities have exponentially increased leading to depression and mental fatigue. Kross’ timely work could not have been published at a more relevant and appropriate juncture. His work on channeling, harnessing, and dumbing down on our voices within is an indispensable salve to be applied liberally.