Blogging and the Spread of Truth in the Age of Platforms

A lot of people have proclaimed that blogging is dead, that it doesn’t generate any traffic, and that no one reads blogs anymore. Personally, I don’t know the last time I kept up with a blog on a regular basis like a few years ago. The problem is not the lack of people who share their ideas. Rather, as more people take to ‘social media’ and instant messaging, there remains very little incentive to write out a well thought-out post to be shared. This means that people now spend less time on long-form writing than they do on just sharing snippets.

Indeed, if you search for something of interest, you are more likely to find SEO-fied links on the first 2 result pages about products or advertising than any relevant read. As more and more advertising money flows into search advertising, there is an SEO economy being created where the only winners are websites with a huge advertising and/or SEO budget.

At the same time, a lot of platforms are being created to help people express themselves. Facebook being in the forefront, trailed by companies like Medium. There is no dearth of hosted blog providers who have adopted the Twitter approach of follows and likes to float more popular posts towards the top. A lot of companies boast of using ‘AI’ to figure out what content would prove to be sticker and hence generate more clicks for the authors.

People don’t even read newspapers anymore. On a recent Facebook exchange, I was reminded by a ‘mainstream media’ sceptic that newspapers, or dead-tree publications, as he likened them to, are not the only way to procure your dose of daily news. Indeed, what was once seen as blogging is now increasingly also the format used to report news. It’s the ease of sharing and embedding advertising that makes online blogging a wonderful substitute to subscribing to a printed/electronic newspaper.

So, why were blogs such a wonderful thing?

You could always count on a multitude of blogs positing different approaches to solving a particular problem or educating you about a topic from all perspectives. Stuck trying to figure out how your country’s foreign policy works? Just read up a few posts by passionate bloggers who breathe foreign policy and are eager to share their opinions and understanding.

Newspapers are feeling the heat, too. While a lot of them have established credible online and digital distribution systems, right down to monetization, they simply cannot compete with the phenomenon of click driven ‘fake news’. Whereas in the past people were careful to not treat a certain blogger or website as the face of truth, now that social media has made blogging a more mainstream way to distribute facts, now this area is getting murky. A lot of these websites are primarily content aggregators that they incredulously ingest from other similar websites or persons. What generates clicks are headlines. What’s the incentive to even hire and perform true journalism any more if truth is difficult to swallow and also does not sell well?

Using social media and these blogging platforms is much easier than ever because you don’t have to worry about the technical nitty-gritty like security and maintenance. At the same time, most of these platforms are free to publish on as they make money through advertising. Their currency is likes and followers. You, as an author, feel you’re getting enhanced reach.

Yesterday, I even watched live an incoming president of a developed country dismiss a credible and historic news channel as the purveyor of ‘fake news’.

There is a huge problem inherent with the ‘platformization’ of the web – censorship. While I have not had the pleasure of living in an authoritarian state, a lot of people have that misfortune. Platforms have to follow local laws, which change abruptly based on who is controlling the government. If they don’t follow these laws, they lose the market and hence the money. There are rumors that Facebook is working on a special censorship tool for the Chinese market that would allow them to enter it and hence make a ton of money from the world’s most populous market. Recently, they also started censoring posts and notes that were written unfavorably towards the government in The Philippines.

Apart from censorship, since you don’t control the platform and the laws change abruptly, you can never be sure that your news/content would outlive the platform or would not suddenly be deleted one day.

Solution – let’s get back to the basics. Have a friend set up your blog for you. Because if you control your platform you control your freedom of speech. If your hosting provider tries to censor you, there are others that would offer you refuge. The web was built to be run that way.

Here is something I shared on Facebook when the platform was accused of spreading fake news:

To say that the problem is just ‘fake news’ would be trivializing it. To say that the problem of ‘fake news’ could be solved technologically would be fooling everyone.

There are multiple issues – one of them being conflict of interest. Facebook makes money based on clicks. Fake and sensational information generates more clicks. Any technological solution would be at odds with the objective of maximizing clicks and visits.

AI is another example of Silicon Valley’s bubble. By nature, AI and henceFacebook‘s approach of creating algorithms, would always lag behind trends in society/pop culture. AI is a cute term for big data collection. This makes it implicit that any intelligence is created after the trends go mainstream. AI is the reason why everyone’s news feed is messed up and also why FB insists upon not showing posts chronologically. That impacts click-throughs. When FB talks about AI, translate it to – process of prioritizing paid posts and external links over user-generated content in a way that it’s less obvious and annoys you just a tad less than to the extent of making you quit. 

The best way to use FB is to use it like a repository or a blog. That way chronological order wouldn’t matter much. Stop using the feed. Organically search for posts and pictures. Facebook makes it near impossible, but switch your feed to show posts in their chronological order.

Most importantly, don’t make it the only place you seek out information. The web is huge.

If you have to share something, first consider the possibility of adding something more or even saying it in your own words. The less time and effort you put into what you share with friends and family, the easier it gets for any AI to win over humanity and to further the gap between the elites and the ‘losers’.

AI’s currency is your lack of time and effort. Make it clear that you’re the boss of your profile 

Now, more than ever, it is important to start reading credible news sources. If you can’t afford a newspaper subscription, find out the nearest library that has one. If you read something online, make sure you can verify its authenticity by checking other sources. If you’re still unsure, ask someone else.

When more people blog and share their ideas, rather than mere snippets or forwards, the whole country moves forward. Free exchange of ideas enables the society to move forward and to settle differences through intellectual exchange. More opinions enable better policies.

The least we can expect from a developed civilization is the facilitation of free and uncensored exchange of ideas.

How populism begins

With the current political turmoil in the UK, I have been trying to understand the concept of populism. While the definition of populism leads you to believe that it can’t really be a bad idea, it’s how it begins gaining roots is why it has become a bad thing in the modern world.

Separatist politics aside, consider this example – you rent an apartment in a building managed by a homeowners’ association.

First some ground facts. The building has an even distribution of residents that rent and those that own their apartments. The owners (and only the owners) meet fairly regularly to discuss the maintenance priorities and the current concerns of the residents. Every month, every resident contributes to the pot of money that is used by the association to provide maintenance and repairs to the building as well as things like the water heating systems.  This contribution generally passes on to the renters as well in the form of a higher rent.

(more…)

Why I support the Border Security Bill

Much has been said about the newly enacted Border Security Bill in the US (HR 6080 – PDF). At its core, the purpose of the bill (now law) is to provide monies for funding existing and upcoming objectives of the DHS (including USCIS), DOJ, and the Judicial system pertaining to the southwestern border of the United States.

It sounds really simple in intention, except that it really isn’t. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Charles Schumer (Democrat NY) states that it is beneficial to the country because it ‘Would Hike Fees On Personnel Companies That Exploit U.S. Visa Laws’. Wait, what?

Before I state my reasons for supporting this bill, I would like the discuss the exploitation Schumer talks about. The H1-B/L1 visa categories are particularly controversial, in part because they are both what are known as ‘dual intent’ visas. This means that any H1-B/L1 visa holder is allowed under US immigration law to seek a path towards permanent residency in the country. Why this complicates the entire debate – they are both mandated to ‘temporarily employ foreign workers’ in specialty occupations. According to Schumer, ‘It will also avoid adding to the deficit by raising fees on a handful of foreign corporations that abuse U.S. visa programs to import workers from India.’ So, it is clear – the bill’s primary target is Indian IT companies, namely Infosys, Wipro, TCS, and Mahindra Satyam. All these companies are also responsible for the majority of American offshored work as well. So, where is the exploitation? It is clear that the companies bring foreign workers to the US temporarily for a specific work project and for a specific client. Of course, owing to the aforementioned dual intent provision, these temporary workers are free to obtain permanent residency in the US, too, but few do. I bet this mostly due to the contractual nature of such an engagement.

The exploitation Schumer refers to could be the fact that these Indian companies are what are called ‘H1-B dependent’ companies. Simply stated, these are companies with 15% or more employees on an H1-B. These companies pay extra for this ‘privilege’ come time to apply for an H1-B. They also have to provide an attestation that they made ‘good faith’ efforts to hire Americans and that no American jobs would be lost as a result. But wait, there’s a rider. If the company hires workers with a master’s degree or pays them above a threshold salary, they aren’t required to attest anything, not that it’s genuinely easy to find qualified software engineers in the US.

So, please don’t give these companies a bad name. They are not exploiting any visa laws. At best, they are exploiting America’s global push for open markets at open labor rates.

Now, onto why I support this controversial bill, irrespective of the absurdity surrounding penalizing legal immigrants to keep illegal immigration in check. These are my points:

1. This is a good reminder that there are great opportunities elsewhere. USA is the world’s biggest importer, but there are tremendous opportunities in other parts of the world. Infosys, please start bidding on Indian projects as well.

2. This bill is no doubt the harbinger of a greater push towards immigration reform during this presidential term. Schumer has long been a proponent of meaningful immigration leading to a speedy path towards permanent residency. This bill lays the groundwork for such reform. It’s time to tell the world that America would rather import talent permanently than send it back.

3. This is the biggest reason – the bill inherently kills the ‘desi consultant’ business inside the US. These are the real culprits. Basically, these are small time body shops that work at the third or even fourth tier of the consulting business, are almost always owned by first generation Indian permanent residents with another primary source of income, have no business plan, are really H1-B dependent, and have no code of ethics. There are various reasons why someone would join such a company. For most, it’s the easiest path to getting an H1-B (and subsequently legal residence) after completing education in the US. With this new law, such companies would have to shell out extra for every new H1-B petition. This eats into the already meager margins at which these shady companies do business. But, the topic of small consulting companies deserves another blog post of its own.

4. Speaking as someone who earned two graduate degrees from a top American university, I wholeheartedly support any measure that provides confidence to American students that engineering degrees are good and that there is going to a be a job available for them when they graduate. This leads to the much greater issue in my opinion, that of regulating US Inc. such that while global talent and liberal immigration is welcome, steps ought to be taken to ensure a level playing field for people born in the country. It’s not their fault that everything is cheaper abroad. Almost every developed country has such protective measures in place. America should, too. Too bad it would need political might to rein in capitalism.

America is lucky to have a very active immigration debate in this day and age when every other country is on its toes to recruit talent globally. People want to move to America for a better life, better future, and for freedom to take risks that they couldn’t back home. I can only hope that something good comes out of bills like HR 6080. In the interim, I am confident that these steps would lay a strong groundwork towards making comprehensive immigration reform a more welcome agenda in the minds of Americans and would-be immigrants alike.

Cheers!

Why the Founders Visa could suck

If you have been following blogs of people associated with the technology and entrepreneurship industry (yes, entrepreneurship is also an industry) with any level of intent, you MUST have heard of the Founders Visa movement. Predictably, the ‘grassroots’ effort has been gaining a lot of momentum thanks to Twitter.

The premise is that if you’re a budding entrepreneur with viable investment money on hand, you should be able to freely come to the US as a nonimmigrant to start your business. Hitherto, the only ways to come to the US without having been born here have been through a buffet of non-immigrant visas or being able to secure work in the country. The latter has always been classified as a dual-intent visa that allows you to also apply for permanent residency through employment based green cards. Notice the importance of intent. If you’re a student and you give the guy at the consulate the impression that you’re going to find a job after graduating, there are grounds to reject your non-immigrant visa.

This becomes an important issue to consider when you realize that MOST of the successful companies in the US were started by people who first came to the US on these student or other non-immigrant visas. Statistically, most successful startups are also conceptualized and governed by people in their late 20s or early 30s. Also, quite a few, if not all, entrepreneurs work for a while IN THE USA before they think, ‘Hmmm, I should start a business doing this’.

MISTAKE 1: Emphasis on intent

Now, once you’re in the USA, you complete your education from one of the top schools in the world. Even though you hardly have any American students in your Algorithms class, you are optimistic, and you get that degree. But wait, you get one more just because you love being in school. And here you are, one of the brightest people around, have a potential career, have a strong head on your shoulders, are optimistic, etc. What next? You apply for a job! Yey, right? No. Because…you’re now a potential immigrant, are suddenly a bad guy because you’re trying to reduce wages, and worst of all, you aren’t American. You are in line for a work permit.

MISTAKE 2: Treating international graduates like first time immigrants

But, before you get a work permit, you have to be worthy enough for a company to spend more than $3k on lawyer and application fees for you. On top of that, thanks to the xenophobia and immigration backlash, they have to contend with the fact that the other employees might link your getting hired to their kin losing jobs. I know it’s ass backwards, but bear with me. In the quest to get a work permit, who wins? Half of that $3k figure is actually lawyer costs. In a country where the insurance company makes more than the doctor this doesn’t surprise me one bit. Compare this to Canada, where just like healthcare, you don’t need a middleman to file your paperwork.

MISTAKE 3: Making it hard to actually get a visa

Now you have a visa, a job, and are making some money. You’re being a good non-citizen – paying more taxes than citizens (you can never avail a lot of benefits reserved for citizens), contributing to the society, making kind donations for the needy, obeying the civic laws, etc. Then, you realize that you’re actually good at what you do, and there’s a lot of sense in starting a business. Well, welcome to America! You can start a business but you cannot work for it! We like passive investment, but you cannot do anything more than putting in money. Which means, you’d have to have a full time job, worry about keeping it, all the while as you struggle to start your company and make it profitable. You have a choice – move to Canada or Chile while you’re still young or live the American H1B dream.

MISTAKE 4: Wanting the best but doing nothing to keep them here

So you eschew the idea of starting a new enterprise until you are a legal permanent residence and don’t have to worry about being employed all the time. Well, there’s an app…err I mean paperwork for that. And, if you are a citizen of China or India, you are looking at almost 6-7 years of patiently waiting before getting anything back out of that paperwork and large amounts of attorney fees. Depending on when you file for your permanent residency, you could all but forget about marrying that girl you knew back home, because she could marry you but not come back with you. Splendid.

MISTAKE 5: Making timely legal immigration some sort of a pipe dream

Once you get that ever so elusive green card, you’re fed up, tired, old, and the torture you faced has made you an immigrant hater yourself. Then, there’s the added pressure of hearing about all those successful peers that went home when there was time and made big bucks. So, what do you do with that green card? Well, you use it to help your retired parents spend the rest of their life with you here in America where you nearly got everything you wanted when you wanted.

There was a time when people actually went through all this effort, because frankly, there was no better place to work than in America. Things have changed A LOT since then. There’s a mass exodus of young non-immigrants from the US to other countries. These people came here, got educated, loved working hard, met great people, but they don’t want to toil away for a piece of paper that still wouldn’t release them from the xenophobia that they so wanted to overcome.

So, where does the Founders Visa fit in? Some say it should be an entirely new visa that looks at you as a capable entrepreneur, gives you a few years to prove it, and requires some amount of backing by established investors. If you fail, you leave the country.

Are you fricking serious? I am sure that’s so enticing.

Some argue that it should be an extension of the EB5 permanent residency category. The category that lets you come to the US, no holds barred, for a mere amount of $1,000,000 ($500,000 through a rural investment). That’s really it. Invest that amount of money and you’re guaranteed a happy retirement in the United States of America! All it takes is 2 months of paperwork and lawyer fees. Splendid again.

You know why the Founders Visa proposal sucks?

IT IS STILL A VISA AT THE END OF THE DAY

You are not inviting any talented people to the country by making such an entry conditional on their being successful. Are you serious? Do you ever go out during the day? Do you have a social life? How do you explain the pressure on these entrepreneurs who have to compete with undocumented immigrants (who, by the way have it way way easier)?

How many entrepreneurs would come to the US just to take a risk when Canada would simply look at their education and give them a permanent resident status? Do you think they would leave their families behind?

More importantly – How do you define success?

The Founders Visa suffers from all the mistakes mentioned above. Congratulations, you didn’t provide any solution.

IT IS STILL A VISA

Addendum: I realized later that my post might come across as starting off with the mistakes in the new proposal. That is not true. The main reason I list the problems with the current policies is that I believe they should be addressed before we start baking a second layer of our cake. Also, I believe that if the intent of the visa is to attract people who have never been to the US before, the facts that it is still a temporary permit and that it banks heavily on the beneficiary being successful are also the flaws of the proposal.

If the intent is to keep the bright people from leaving, then the mistakes listed need to be addressed. There’s just too much hard work involved in being successful, and the headache of worrying about a stable US presence just makes the proposal not worth it.

How much is your time worth?

Just heard on the news about a free gas card promotion that was sponsored by Verizon Yellow Pages at 25 locations in the US. The first 200 cars to line up at each of these locations received a free $40 gas card today.

People started lining up at around 10 PM last night to be able to receive the free gas money. In an age where people camp out for hours to get hold of a gaming console, why I am not surprised?

नमस्ते !

अभी अभी पता चला कि OSX में हिन्दी में लिखना कितना अासान है। यह पूरी एन्ट्री मेरे साधारण कीबोर्ड के द्वारा लिखी गयी है।

इतना अासान होगा कभी सोचा न था!

– सौरभ

2008 is here

The year 2008 is here, finally. Even though a lot of significant things happened in 2007, here’s how I would remember it:

1. India got her first female President.
2. Television got some really great new shows.
3. The US still tried to force-feed its way of life and governance to countries worldwide, only at the cost of national pride, credibility, and the economy.
4. Lots of school shootings, including one in India.
5. The resurgence of Apple Inc. as a dominant force in the computing industry.
6. The year of the iPhone. (This needed special mention)
7. India got some leeway from the insurgency efforts of neighboring Pakistan, who was busy trying to clean its own mess.
8. The job market actually improved a lot.
9. USCIS messed up and people got their GCs in record time for a month.
10. The year it started being really cool to be an Indian.

And then:

1. The year I changed my attitude towards people and ideas.
2. The year I realized I could do anything I wanted.
3. The year that actually made me a whole lot wiser.
4. The year I got rid of the mildew on my friends list.
5. The year I added a tame 19,000 miles to my car’s odometer.

I am sure there’s more I could think of, but this is all my sleep-deprived-shindig-stricken mind could come up with this early Tuesday morning.

Have a Wonderful New Year ’08 !

The joys of living in a democracy

Yesterday was election day in the US, something that happens every 2 years. The responsibility of electing representatives to the 435 House seats as well as 33 out of 100 Senate seats was given to the public today. As I sit here watching the Democratic party take control of the House for the first time in around 14 years, I find the election coverage very familiar.

There’s the usual reporting of live precincts, live interviews, the usual anxiety, and the usual rejoicing by the winners. I am a big fan of the statistics and graphical analysis, and it seems that not much is different in the way newscasters and reporters function in India and the US.

Now, if only I could vote in this country…