No, climate change will not cause more boys to be born. It’s probably the opposite.

I don’t understand why mainstream media gets things so wrong.

A few weeks ago I heard something from a friend – climate change will mean more boys will be born. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought because we were having a conversation and I didn’t have any facts one way or the other.

Revisiting the idea, I realized that I’ve recently read a conflicting notion. I read a comic book by Aminder Dhaliwal called Woman World that talks about a world where men have disappeared and women have to form society again. It’s a Utopia –

No, I’m not claiming that a comic book is scientifically accurate, but it does seem to be telling more truth than Fox News. I searched for the idea online and tried to find its source. Here’s what a search for it looks like –

You’ll notice that most articles don’t give you a clear answer to the question and want you to read the article to come to a conclusion. Some of them, like IFLScience clearly state that a higher proportion of girls will be born due to Climate Change.

But then there’s Fox8.com – “Warmer temperatures bring sons”

Total lie. Well, not really. But mostly a lie, because the people living in Cleveland, which is where Fox8 belongs, do NOT live in preindustrial Finland.

There’s a research paper out of Japan, linked here, which all of these articles quote. If you open the link and read no more than the “Conclusion” line, it’ll be quite clear to you that the evidence says that less boys will be born over time because the male fetus is more susceptible to external factors. (I’ll come back to external factors)

Since this narrative doesn’t suit Fox 8 Cleveland they warped the headline to what they want to state. The article includes research by one Samuli Helle, from the University of Finland, that states that in the case of the Sami people of Finland, warmer temperatures will mean more male children for that community.

The way it’s worded in the article, it says –

Clearly, the person writing the article or their editor decided that single line should be the headline. I wanted to call out said person who wrote the Fox News article, but if you look for the author, it’s attributed to CNNWire.

What?

I opened a few more of the articles on the search page and they all attribute ‘CNN’ as the author of the article.

I searched for the keywords and CNN and found out that one Susan Scutti, who writes on medical topics for CNN, wrote the article here, and it was syndicated to all these other outlets, including Fox. Fox8, however, had the bad sense to change the headline to what suits them, because in this age of information overload, their readers will only read the headline and move on, sadly misinformed on the topic. From what I understand about wires, news organizations receiving the wire can’t change the text significantly, but can change the headline to suit their needs.

But, that doesn’t let CNN off the hook either. I don’t know what the interaction between Susan Scutti and Samuli Helle was (the article mentions emails), but the article words it to say that warmer temperatures will bring more male children everywhere.

The truth couldn’t be farther from that statement. The Japanese research, and Helle’s own research seems to state that in colder regions like Finland, warming up will bring more male children, but in the majority of the world, where ‘external factors’ such as forest fires, floods, and droughts are going to be the norm, more girls will be born. Helle even admits in the article itself that the effects of climate change on reproduction will not be uniform worldwide. Yet that’s exactly how the article seems to portray it.

I reached out to Susan Scutti and Samuli Helle a few days ago to get clarification on the topic. While I didn’t hear back from Scutti, Helle responded back. I’m going to put his response in full below, instead of the hit job that Susan has done on Helle’s work and responses.

Yes that study considered only Sami people who lived some two hundred years ago in northern Finland. We aimed not to generalize that result to other populations, at least not to modern humans. I am not quite sure how strong is the evidence for such an association in modern or western populations, since haven’t been following that literature too closely for years now. We did however publish another article in 2009 showing that in whole Finland during 1865-2003, high temperature was associated with proportionally more male births. Please see:

https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2656.2009.01598.x

Samuli Helle via email

So, there’s research that during a large period of time, higher male births did happen in Finland during ‘warm years’. However, by the author’s own admission, this does not apply to other modern or western populations. Further, even if you accept the results of the 2009 paper, do the same apply to the US, where the weather profile varies wildly from Finland? I don’t think so.

Media outlets can often be seen doing one of two things – terrible oversimplification, and muddying the waters. Clearly, Fox oversimplified the results explained in the article, all while others who syndicated the article left it untouched for the nuance the headline provides. On the other hand, it seems that CNN found this piece of evidence from the Japanese study and decided that they can’t write a one-sided article, so they went out and found conflicting information, however misguided, and published it alongside.

Had Susan Scutti referenced the 2009 paper, it still would have made some sense, as the results actually do seem to be in favor of the argument. However, referencing the Sami people study clearly shows a misguided attempt at ‘balancing’ the reporting.

I don’t know whether it was the author of the article, or her editor, who decided that the reporting needed to have two sides, but this sort of silly mistake is what erodes trust in the fourth estate. Anyone skimming these articles will be swayed to think one way or another, but anyone who takes a breath and reads the content will see the aimless wandering that media outlets call the news nowadays. This is how cynics are created.

In the end, take the whole thing with a grain of salt – in some countries, more boys will be born, while in most, it seems, more girls will be born. Wait for the research to talk about your country, your demographic, and your time. Everything else is noise.

Book review: Hadron #1 Dark Matter – 2/5 stars

I started reading Stephen Arseneault’s Hadron series #1, a book named “Dark Matter”. I got as a free eBook on Amazon and it’s been clogging up space in my Kindle library. So I decided to give it a try. At the time of writing, I had read a little over half of this book and there’s only one way I can describe it – frustrating.

There are a lot of reviews of this book out there that criticize it for being a ‘prepper’ book, glorifying doomsday preppers and pure redneck Americanism. But I’m OK with that. I’ve never read a novel about preppers and so this idea of a band of people surviving some sort of total system breakdown through the blatant use of guns is fresh to me. That’s one reason I started reading this book – the author makes no qualms about it in the beginning – this is not a book in and of itself. This is a prelude to all the sci-fi stuff that happens in the rest of the books. Read this book only to get context of what will happen next. Perhaps some of the same characters survive and go on to become central characters in the rest of the books?

If you think about it, any other combination of characters than the ones displayed in the book might not survive the events that happen. If they have guns but no one with a military background, or they have all that but no mechanical engineer with an agriculture degree who also brews alcohol, or have everything but no chopper flying father-son duo. Any of those missing characters and the story could turn out different. I found that to be a compelling idea. This is a somewhat Tolstoyan in vision – how can I explain what happens next, without explaining what happened before?

But that’s where I’ll end the comparisons with Tolstoy. The writing, the editing, the mollycoddling of the reader, are all a little too much on the nose. For each of those reasons, I’d like to take off one star out of the rating. Allow me to explain.

  1. The writing – There’s one rule, one simple rule of long form fiction writing. You must never break this one rule, no matter how innovative you’re trying to be, or how different you think your English to be from the English spoken around the world (i.e, even if you describe your language to be “American”, you still follow this rule) – always write in Active voice. I can’t say it more calmly. For years, I’ve written things, copy pasted them into hemingwayapp.com and had to rewrite the entire thing because I wrote it in passive voice. Now, when I paste things in, I get the gold standard of good writing – zero sentences in passive voice.
    • For a long time, I didn’t understand why this was such a problem. “Passive voice is so easy!” I would say to myself, grumbling. But now that I’ve read this book, I take it all back. Hemingwayapp is right. Passive voice is the worst thing you can inflict on your readers. Even spelling mistakes don’t hurt as much as passive voice. Most of the time, I can’t tell who in the story is performing a particular action or speaking a sentence.
    • Sentences like, “Tres was signaled” or “The neat stack of boxes was carried to the back of the trailer. ” are so frustrating and jarring that they completely throw the reader’s flow off. Till this point in my review, the only two uses of passive voice are the sentences above. It’s so stupid that the author decided to write the entire book in passive voice and that his editor let it slip, and the advanced readers let it slip, and the reviewers giving glowing reviews let it slip.
    • The author often forgets that in a conversation of a few people, a simple ‘she said’ would explain so much to the reader. This means that most of the dialogs are spoken by ghosts and the reader is left grappling for context. Sometimes, it’s obvious who said what, but compounded with the grammatical mistakes, this tends to get confusing and irritating fast!
    • At one point, I started questioning my own sanity. Had I received a bad copy of the eBook? Is this an ARC that slipped into production? Is there an update in Amazon that I can download to get an active voice, free-from-errors version? Nope. This book is in passive voice and that is torture. Why am I sitting through it? The idea is slightly novel to me and I’ve already spent my time on half the book, I aim to breeze through the rest.
  2. The editing – Was there an editor to the book? I went back and checked and couldn’t find any. I wrote an email to the author, being as polite as I could to ask if there was an editor, but ended up not sending it, because it sounded insensitive and attacking. But it’s clear that no one looked over the author’s shoulder while he hit publish. There are missing opening quotes throughout the book, so you’re never sure if it’s a dialog or narration. There are instances where the author mixes up ‘to’ and ‘too’ and forgets ‘of’ from phrases like “couple of homebodies”. There are many scenarios where actions are mixed up, so it’s unclear which character did what first.
    • These are all things that a good editor could find. Heck, even a mediocre editor could spot them and nag the author to eventually fix them. I noticed that the book is available in paper through an independent on-demand publisher on Amazon. Perhaps they could have done something to help the author out of this mess? The worst thing is that the book came out in 2015 and the author has had enough time to revise it a hundred times on Kindle, but has chosen not to.
  3. Lastly, I want to look at how author presents the book. This being the first book in the series, and perhaps the worst written one, the author has placed it on a perennial full discount. You can download it for free from Amazon and read it. That’s how I got into it. At the beginning of the book, the author explains that though it is the first book in a scifi series, it’s not a scifi story in itself, but a survival one. That’s all fine, but then the author goes into a long, two page explanation of what will happen in the book and what one should expect from it. Why? What is the point of the book if the author is going to give me the tl;dr version right at the beginning. This is not news or a buzzfeed article. I want to read the story, so why are you irritating me with an explanation of the story right before the story?
Stephen Arseneault, the author was thinking exactly this when he wrote the introduction to the novel, at the beginning of the first chapter!

All in all, it’s an irritating and frustrating book to read. I’ll still finish it though. Why? Just for the credit (on Goodreads). I’ve spent a good amount of time on the book and I’m not going away without some of the promised ending. In case I find the ending to be exciting and the cliffhanger to be intriguing, will I pick up the next book, or any other books written by Arseneault?

Not in a million years.

Squarespace is the best and the worst at RSS

Within the last 12 hours, I’ve come across two websites hosted on Squarespace that portray how one mustn’t do RSS. Sadly, at some level, it’s not necessary that the owners of these websites even know what I’m talking about.

I’d like to name these sites –

Soup

and

StephenMarche

These are nice sites – well designed, purposeful, vibrant. But their content is so pitifully inaccessible through RSS. Here’s why –

With Soup, I really wanted to get RSS access to all of the topics they cover. These are Culture, Food, Interviews, Features, to name a few. Usually, when I’m on a site that has RSS feeds, the SubToMe extension tells me how to get to it. In the case of Soup, it failed. The content is visible on the homepage, but the RSS feed that it picked up was blank –

http://thesoup.website/index-rally?format=RSS

‘rally’ is what piqued my interest. What is this CMS?

WhatCMS says that it’s Squarespace.

Well, what do Squarespace’s docs say about RSS feeds? Do they even support them?

As it turns out, they do, and quite well! (or so say their docs)

So I opened each of the ‘topics’ I wanted to subscribe to on Soup’s site and found their RSS feeds using SubToMe. One example –

http://thesoup.website/culturesoup/ -> http://thesoup.website/culturesoup?format=RSS

I immediately noticed that the content is there in it’s entirety! That’s amazing. It almost never happens on commercial sites that the RSS feed carries the entire content.

Good – RSS feeds contain entire content

Bad – I had to subscribe to eight different feeds. There’s no parent or ‘all’ feed

 

Later, I came across Stephen Marche’s writing in NYT and that led me to his site. Again, beautiful site, really modern, really functional and pleasing. I jumped to the Essays -> Recent Work section but alas, SubToMe didn’t find any RSS feed!

By now, I’d wizened up. I know that on most pages, just adding ‘?format=rss’ at the end will get me the RSS feed. So I did that. Nothing. Why is that? Perhaps because the recent work page isn’t really a traditional list of items that Squarespace converts into RSS. It’s a static page which the Admin just adds URLs to the top of. But how would I know the difference? There’s no way. So as of right now, I’m subscribed to Soup’s RSS but not to Stephen Marche’s. I followed him on Medium, but ugh.

Pro – ???

Con – Maybe the admin turned off RSS on purpose? Maybe the page I’m looking at cannot support RSS?

Now, I can reach out to the owners of these sites to figure things out. Maybe I’ll end up educating them on the importance of RSS and maybe I’ll learn something new about Squarespace (do they even support an ‘all’ RSS feed? I don’t know, I’ve never used the platform). Maybe all they need is a slight push in the right direction, or maybe it’s a long project that’ll require a reworking of their workflow (which, tbh, why would they do that for me?)

But I don’t want to do any of this. RSS is the perfect stalker medium on the Internet. Facebook and WhatsApp show you read notifications. On twitter and Instagram you’d end up hitting ‘like’ by mistake. But RSS is one-way (depending on which RSS reader you use) and so it’s perfect for people like me who just want to cultivate their little corner of the Internet.

There’s a post out today by Brent Simmons talking about an article that’s talking about the demise of RSS. Brent points out that RSS doesn’t need to be the ‘default’ for everyone and RSS readers don’t need to be installed on every device on Earth for this to be a successful technology. It already is.

This is most visible with beautiful walled gardens such as Squarespace. Most people who host with Squarespace do it because it’s commercial and aligns with their interests. The primary method of communication for consumers is the newsletter. There are options for eCommerce shops, podcasting, and email campaigns. Much off this could happen without RSS. But Squarespace took the basic RSS technology and chose to use it as the back-end for most of these things. Podcasting is basically an RSS feed with audio attached, so there really was no choice but to use this open standard. Wherever RSS feeds are available, they’re full length and rather useful. So could RSS have a place on the Internet? It already does.

Prophesizing about it

I’m currently reading a book called Great French Short Stories. It is a collection of famous short stories by famous French authors. The first story is “The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaler” by Gustave Flaubert and I read it a few days ago. The story is interesting, if predictable. The main play of the story is between three competing prophesies, which all seem to come true, but as always, one is truer than the others. Now, prophesies are sometimes a very easy tool for authors to use. They’re a sort of Deus Ex Machina, making it easy to come to a foregone conclusion without much explanation. Of course, how much the author leans on the prophecy to cop out of writing the story is important, and Flaubert doesn’t lean too much. The story grows, largely ignoring the prophecies and silently fulfilling them, till the last and most important one.

This is where I feel there’s a flaw. Not in the story per se. The story is quite nice, but in… something.

See, I’ve mainly seen prophecies in science fiction and fantasy stories. In science fiction, prophecies are like ‘fixed points in time and space’, as Doctor Who calls them. They’re independent of external factors, least of all ‘God’. In fantasies, prophecies come from darker sources and often are convoluted. A prophecy may not get fulfilled in the exact way as it is said and the author often takes a roundabout way of explaining how the prophecy was indeed fulfilled. Anyone who’s read Harry Potter or watched Alt+Shift+X explanations of Game of Thrones knows this.

But Flaubert has written what to me seems to be religious fiction. In this, all prophecy and all of the story line flows ‘from God’ and thus, while the conclusion is inevitable (the title of the story is a strong hint for the ending), there is, for the longest time, the illusion of free will and coincidence in the story, thus leading to some chaos and some probabilistic chance that the prophecies might not get fulfilled. Flaubert shows off these vagaries beautifully, all the way up until a fatal line towards the end of the second part of the story. The line is –

Since there were no animals, he would willingly massacre humans.

Here’s my problem with this line –

  1. Flaubert has knowingly or unknowingly given away the climax. We all know what it’s coming to, thanks to the prophecy, but how and when would it happen is supposed to be a mystery all the way up till it happens. So why introduce this idea that since this did not happen, therefore, the prophecy will be fulfilled. We don’t need that!
  2. This line itself seems to show that there is no choice here. Yes, this moment is leading to the fulfillment of a prophecy, but till now, the protagonist fulfilled other prophecies unknowingly and as a side-effect of their actions. Why then, must this one prophecy need to be ‘set up’ and executed in this uncontrollable manner? Perhaps what Flaubert is showing is that this prophecy is controlled and executed by God and so there is no scope for variance. That it will happen just so, in hindsight. This line is why I want to put this story not in science fiction or fantasy or any of the other myriad forms of stories, but in religious fiction. The acts that follow are almost involuntary and directly cause the fulfillment of the prophecy, instead of indirectly, and after this, the only recourse available to the protagonist is repentance and turning towards God. It were much more natural if the entire story were unchanged and this one line removed, because in my eyes, this story tells us that God has directed this evil of “massacring humans” in order to then redeem the protagonist. Why must the rest of the story be by chance and natural while this part is supernaturally controlled?

People who have read this story, what are your thoughts on this?

 

Side note – Once every year or so, I remember that a long time ago, I purchased a device called the “Chromebook Mario” from someone on eBay when I was living in Boulder. He did not seem to have any use for it and wanted to part with it simply because one of the keys was broken and that somehow made the device ‘less pristine’. I got it for cheap. I remember that I still have it, so I find it, charge it, fire it up and play around with it. I do a lot of things in the browser, but not everything, so it can never be my primary device. It’s just an interesting thing to play with. What surprises me is that every time I fire it up, it has updates for me and yet, every time, the speed and performance I get from ChromeOS seems to not have changed. My logins change and need syncing, my extensions change and need setting up, and then I reboot the device to update the software.

But it comes back quickly and works like a charm! Kudos to Google for making this excellent device and supporting it for so long (I currently own a Mac on which Chrome specifically warns me that the browser version I’m running is no longer supported and I need to update the OS and then Chrome to get the latest security features). I wrote this post on the Mario and can perhaps use it as a writing-only device, if only it didn’t also have all the trappings I’ve come to associate with the Internet (the first tab I always open in a browser is my RSS reader).

And, The Price is Wrong!!!

What was it that the erstwhile Hutch (now Vodafone) did as it’s first move into the Indian Mobile service provider scene? They gave us 1000 free SMSs at an obnoxiusly low price of Rupees 6/- a joke so laughable that we used to message just to get our mobile batteries low, a feat now affordable to people with BSNL Student SIM Cards… And all this was to ensure that the market share was OWNed by Hutch within a few months, riding on the Youth’s need for a cheap communication medium which was hip and happening too…

Now, after the dreaded change called Vodafone, the prices of an SMS have shot up from less than a Paisa to 10 paise per SMS and yet Vodafone leads with the share, partly because people would rather stick to the number they’ve been using for quite some time.

But this post is not about Vodafone, it’s about market share and pricing of goods.

Today, roaming around in the market in the evening, my curiousity led me to a general store to ask the price of the new energy drink named Cloud 9 (or 9 Cloud, whatever it is…) which is being pegged as India’s First Natural Energy Drink which is produced locally. The branding, shape and graphics of the can and the contents point out to only one thing- They’re trying to compete with Red Bull.

Here’s where the brand is going to fail-

a) The price of the drink is put at Rupees 75/- Ring any bells? The Price of a Red Bull, which is imported from outside is also set at Rupees 75/- So if I’m going to pay the same price, why not buy the branded goods which have worldwide acceptance and have proven market value? (I’ve had Red Bull, it’s good, Full Stop)

b) The Ad agency hired by the company for Cloud 9 made it good to rope in players of the Chennai Super Kings, most noticably Mahender Singh Dhoni and also, Shilpa Shetty for the launch and RP Singh as the Brand Ambassador, and then wasting away these big faces in a string of downright Stupid Advertisements that in no way make the Indian Consumer want to go out and buy the drink.

c) The drink is being pegged as India’s First Natural Energy drink. As though the average consumer cares. Haven’t we been having Coke and Pepsi and Vodafone long enough NOT to care if the brand is Indian or Global?? Haven’t we become used to all sorts of Unnatural foods and drinks to not care if the drink is Natural at all? What’s so natural about Coca Cola by the way??

Small Note to Cloud 9: Don’t even think that a person who’s just come from the gym will go buy your drink for 75 rupees, they’ll buy milk. And even if they do spend money on an energy drink, it’ll be Red Bull. Here’s Why-

What’s Cloud 9 offering that’s different from Red Bull?

ans) Nothing, the price is the same. I have no reason to buy a brand that’s just entered the market instead of a worldwide accepted brand.

Why can Cloud 9 never beat Red Bull in marketing?

ans) Cloud 9 has the worst possible marketing agency, useless. Red Bull has been making innovative ads since they were born. And they have a lot of money which they can squander on popular actors and cricketers.

Now, What’s the solution? Here’s what Cloud 9 must do in order to beat Red Bull for the market share…

a) We all know the drink doesn’t cost more than 25 rupees. Bring down the price to something near that.

b) Fire your marketing agency. No, am not telling you to throw him off the job, drink a case of Cloud 9, load up your gun and fire AT them. They’re useless and they’re wasting your money. Get someone else to make your ads and make sure that they are very very cool.

c) On the Cloud 9 website there’s a video in which the Director of Cloud 9, Priyesh Ganatra accepts very un-suavely that they copied the USPs of all major energy drinks from all over the world in order to create their own. That video is very very UNCOOL. Remove it. Also remove every trace of CORPORATE nonsense from that webiste. Reason- If I visit the website of a Youth Oriented product, I want to see downloads, product Videos and features like games and more sales pitch, not your God Damn Company’s Address. You want a Hint? Go to the Fuel Deo website here.

In the end I just want to say that Indian Brands have yet to realise the importance of market share and how to capture it.

p.s. To my readers- I have cc’ed this post to the Cloud( manufacturers. Lets see if they have the brains to read it and change a LOT about their brand.