Thinking about Q.

ancient roman forum in jordan

Back when I was in college for my Bachelors, my parents gave me a post-paid mobile phone that had unlimited Internet access, but very limited SMS per month. This was a common theme for Indian telecoms back then – prepaid connections had thousands of free SMS messages, while post-paid had unlimited in-network talktime, and in my case, unlimited Internet access. The latter was a rarity and I really appreciated it. However, all my friends were on pre-paid connections and were diving into the free SMS world like crazy. I felt left out. So, one day I went out and bought myself a second phone (one of those epic indestructible Nokia 1100 phones), got a prepaid SIM and dived into the world of free SMS. For that first month, I got a package that let me send 9000 texts.

I was in heaven! I was chatting with all my friends, but also sending them all kinds of useless forwards. I would painstakingly send each message to my 60 classmates and ten or so hostel mates, twenty SMS recipients at a time (the technical limit for a group message in that phone). I reached a point where I started to annoy a few of them 😀

Pretty soon though, the supply dried up. There are only so many forwards a person received in a day at that time. That’s when my post-paid connection paid off. I would find interesting messages online, type them out on that rapid-fire T9 keyboard and save as draft, before going through the message forwarding rigmarole.

After some time, I went on a holiday. When I came back, my pre-paid pack had expired so I went to renew it. I learnt that while I was vacationing, my telecom was hard at work. They believed they had captured enough of the market and were ready to pull the benefits. The free SMS packs had reduced from 9000 texts to 900, and a few days later, to 600. This was barely enough to keep my interest and I moved on from this world. But it taught me a valuable lesson – anyone could setup shop as a message forwarder given the inclination and resources.

Years later, when WhatsApp forwards started flooding inboxes, I was over the trend even before it started. But I watched it with great interest. After all, what’s better than free messages? For anyone holding a smartphone, it was SMS-but-better-and-free. For a network engineer, it was nothing more than a few packets. It could have been a forwarded email or gchat message, but it was a WhatsApp message instead. Nothing to see here.

The likeness to SMS is what catapulted WhatsApp to the level where it is today. I don’t know about you, but MMS were never a thing in India. They were expensive and needed tech most people didn’t have. Hence when we think of WhatsApp forwards, we don’t think of MMS, just SMS, even though most forwards nowadays are a mix of well-crafted emoji-laden texts, and colorful images wishing you good morning and ten other things.


I’ve been reading a HuffPost article about QAnon, and its effects not on the cult’s followers, but on their families. It is both heart-rending, and deeply intriguing to see the parents of out generation fall for such traps. For the longest time, I assumed that the movement only existed online. Then, when it spilled blood, I assumed it was only a conservative thing. But reading the article, and reading about erstwhile Obama voters, and believers in alternative medicine and essential oils falling for the gargantuan myth of Q, I realized that it goes beyond just one side. It’s more a myth built to cater to anyone and everyone. Depending on whether you believe in aliens, are libertarian, or are just wary of oft-caught lying Mainstream Media, there’s some hook somewhere to get you in. After all, what’s better than one lie? A hundred lies, all built to cater someone or the other. If you believe in one layer of QAnon and not the next, all you need to say about the rest is that those others are nutjobs, but your beliefs are solid. Then, there’s no way to extricate you from the mess, because everyone else is objectively wrong, aren’t they?

I found some interesting things in the article – one of the people talked about chatting with their parents over discord. I had no idea the elder generation even knew about discord. But I believe the reason these specific ones know about it is because of discord’s private servers, which allow admins free reign over the content that gets disseminated to users. Also, the use of discord shows that the people controlling the movement are of a younger skew – those used to meme-making, shitposting, and gaslighting people for fun. If the people running the show were the same age as the people falling for the spin, they would be interacting wholly on other mediums – email, chat, twitter (perhaps), or something that I’m not into because I’m not in that generation. If this were happening in India (as some things are), it would be wholly on WhatsApp.

Another interesting thing is this quote –

And because QAnon adherents are conditioned to interpret opposition as validation, trying to debunk their falsehoods often only pushes them deeper into the movement.

This here is a masterstroke. Not only are you believing in the message, you’re also falling for the idea that anyone actively opposing you is either an agent of the “enemy” or is so misguided that they need help themselves! This, combined with the general distrust between the generations has led to a situation where children and parents are fighting for their definitions of the “truth”. The fact that QAnon has brought people to this place shows the true power of suggestion.

The thing that I asked myself when reading this article was – why? Why are people believing this nonsense? We’ve been reading about fake news, about MSM being a terrible source of information, about the slow and steady degradation of public discourse. But none of this should mean that our parents should fall down this trap of fake news. Why are they falling for it? Why is it so difficult for them to look at a news item with a critical eye before forwarding it or accepting it as the absolute truth? I thought about it a lot, till yesterday, when my wife shed some light on it.


Story time –

  1. When COVID-19 started, we were inundated by fake news. WhatsApp forwards played a very big role in the first few weeks/months in creating an environment of fear and distrust among people. But along with the external noise, we also had friends and family forwarding every piece of information from all quarters, without verification. I’m not saying disinformation about COVID has stopped, but when there are no sources of information, it’s particularly vicious to forward fantasy as fact. Early on, a friend posted a “news item” on a group stating that the Pope has COVID. I looked at it and immediately guffawed. People will believe anything. My wife commented that it’s really sad this happened, as it shows no one is safe. That spurred me into action. I looked at the URL. The “news” website was not one of the many reputable (or even disreputable ones) I know of. First red flag. Then, I googled the news item. No one else was carrying it, and neither google nor Apple News told me the same. In fact, both were pointing to the same link I had as the source of truth. Second red flag. Then, I went to the site’s homepage and looked at other news article. Lo and behold, every single news item was “someone rich or famous got COVID”. Big red flag! Lastly, since I know the tools for it, I did a whois on the domain. It showed that the website had been registered just three days ago. Yet it had hundreds of articles about everyone from the Pope to your favorite childhood teacher getting COVID. That was the last flag that I needed. For the first time in forever, I replied to a forward, listing out the reasons why it’s fake. Of course, the response from the other end was “I just forwarded it”.
  2. Yesterday, my wife told me that her Mom is considering the efficacy and safety of the vaccine. She received some signals that the vaccine may not be as aboveboard as we all thought it would be. This caused my wife a lot of anger and surprise. Why was her Mom listening to this noise? Of course the vaccine is safe. Of course she should get it! The funny thing is that my mother-in-law is receiving both signals – there are people getting it without a second thought and absolutely recommending it, and there are people who are steadfast against it, without any reason. What’s funny is that my wife gave me a very straightforward explanation for this – our parents are from a generation where the information coming at them has always been vetted, checked thrice, and editorialized. There’s little to no chance of an earth shattering lie. Conversely, we’ve grown up with the Internet, where every behemoth falls and sells our data and passwords to the most vile operators, and we’ve learnt through an infinity of forwards that everything coming at you should be taken with a grain of salt. Does this make us cynics? Sure. It’s worth being cynical when CNN tells us unequivocally that Iraq has WMDs and Facebook tells us that it doesn’t sell our data. That juxtaposition has led to where we are – teaching our parents right from wrong, just as Zoomers have taught us how to use snapchat and tiktok. (Seriously, how do you interact with an app that doesn’t have a visible interface????)

So that’s it – our parents, and everyone who has fallen into the QAnon hole, has fallen because they are a people who do not understand that everything from the Internet is not the truth. That they need to detach the message from the sender and take it first with a grain of salt and if it passes a cursory check, maybe accept it as fact. That we really, really, really need to stop forwarding Good Morning messages, as they’re killing the world.


But is that it? Is that the explanation? Maybe not. My favorite philosophy podcast – Philosophize This! – ran a very timely podcast in February on the book “Escape from Freedom” by Erich Fromm. Fromm talks about two kinds of freedoms – negative and positive freedom. Negative freedom is freedom from outside influences such as tyranny or oppression. Positive freedom is the freedom to do what you want, such as the pursuit of happiness. At first, people develop a freedom from others – from nature and the elements, from tyrannical governments, from social stigma. Then people start to explore the freedom to do what they want to do with their lives, to keep their identity intact, yet be a part of the world and be productive and happy in it.

However, while some people choose to embrace this freedom and grow with it, others want to escape this freedom. Why? Because with freedom comes responsibility, and some people don’t want that on their heads. This seems so natural – while some people see an empty canvas as full of possibilities, some will see it with dread. It doesn’t even have to be our entire freedom. We regularly outsource specific responsibilities to others – the work of filing taxes, of selecting which countries to invade, of picking the next video to watch, of thinking about God to believe in.

The podcast goes on to talk about another of Fromm’s concepts – one used to explain why some people supported Hitler’s rise to power. He talks about people who, in that era, wanted to escape the freedom they had by supporting authoritarianism. Such people are practicing a form of sadomasochism. Sadism, because they want to control others, and Masochism, because they want to submit to a higher power, and divest themselves of the responsibility of thinking further about the political path of their country. Fromm talks about how in the same person, both psychological traits exist simultaneously. The same person who despises a caste/creed/religion/sex, and wants to suppress them, also believes in the supremacy of someone else, or themselves, or an ideal, and submits to that willingly.

The other way that such people escaped freedom was “automaton conformity” – by becoming a cog in a machine. Once more, the end result is that they are part of a larger picture. But the way they do it is by simply conforming to a set of beliefs being presented to them, without question. Such people are looking simply to divest the task of thinking for themselves, because it’s either too taxing or too painful or too mortifying to face the reality of their existence – that their freedom and the freedoms of others can coexist and help everyone grow together.

There is a third way for some to escape from freedom is to be destructive. Whether it’s by destroying what they can’t control, or by people around them, they want to create an identity for themselves that goes opposite to freedom, life, and creation. They want to be known for their culpability in destroying someone else’s freedoms.


Fromm’s thoughts teach us a lot about how to think about QAnon followers. Some of them are truly hateful of the powerlessness of their leaders and the victory of one party over the other. They want to escape the reality of living in a world they do not recognize, because it isn’t the utopia they were promised. Thus, they fall into sadomasochism, giving power to some in order to take power and freedom from others.

Others see the rising tide of disinformation and the blinding lights of social media and rather than figure out the means to clarify the truth, they simply believe any incoming information and become packet pushers, sending out as many forwards as they receive without stopping to question the information within them. These people would be described well as banal, but they do not believe it. They want to know so badly that their version of the truth is the absolute truth that they start to believe it is, regardless of proof either ways, and without searching for it.

Last are the people who attacked the Capitol building on January 6th 2021, or those who planned the attack on the Michigan’s Governor. These people feel they have the right to destroy others’ freedoms in order to assert their own, or are willing to sacrifice their freedom in order to stop someone else from living out their own.

To think that each of these people are the same would be wrong. But they are a part of a larger whole, a whole that has been duped into believing the abject lies of a few mysterious individuals who stand to gain somehow in all this – whether monetarily, politically, or just for the lulz.

Is it as simple as this? No, but it’s a starting point.

How to make GIFs of sites using WayBackMachine

So… I like following fivethirtyeight’s interesting 2016 Election Prediction page. It shows the ups and downs and the general mood of the election. I’ve been staring at it for so long that I wanted to collect the daily changes and make a nice GIF. I know the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine collects archives of popular websites, so I went there and found that the Election Prediction page is on there too.

So, I started looking for ways to make a GIF from the WayBack machine. There were some node and ruby scripts and applications which didn’t really work. But then I landed on waybacklapse. Its developer – Kyle Purdon – works for bitly and has built two versions of waybacklapse. The older one is python, node, imagemagick and then some. The newer one is python3 and docker. Eww. I followed the steps of the tutorial for the older version, with a few notable exceptions –

  1. The tutorial is for OS X and is a little dated. What I have on hand is an Ubuntu 15.04 VM, so I went ahead and used apt-get install instead of brew
  2. The tut tells you to use the command “git checkout -t v1.1.0”, but it should be “git checkout -b v1.1.0”. Technically v1.1.0 is a tag, not a branch, but I didn’t know that and just used -b, which worked, so why mess with a good thing, amiright?
  3. You need to have node installed, but not the new node. Install old node with “apt-get install nodejs-legacy” and use the command “nodejs app.js” when you’re running screenshot-as-a-service
  4. The tut doesn’t mention that you need to actually *run* screenshot-as-a-service. I went to the github page for the service and found out that I need to run the above “nodejs app.js” command in order to run a server on the localhost. Technically, waybacklapse has code in it to warn you that the server isn’t running. But that didn’t work so well for me.
  5. The user prompts for waybacklapse only allow for monthly or yearly snapshots. But fivethirtyeight has only been running the site for about 3 months, with daily updates, so those didn’t make sense to me. I wanted to get all the changes. So, after installing waybacklapse with pip, I went ahead and modified the code inside /usr/local/lib/python2.7/dist-packages/waybacklapse/waybacklapse.py with one small change to get all the screenshots instead of just monthly or yearly ones –
    1. In the create_payload function, I commented out the collapse variable as follows –

def create_payload(url, start_year, stop_year, timelapse_level):
collapse_options = {'yearly': 'timestamp:4', 'monthly': 'timestamp:6'}
collapse = collapse_options[timelapse_level]
payload = {
'url': url,
'output': 'json',
'fl': 'timestamp,original',
'from': start_year,
'to': stop_year
# 'to': stop_year,
# 'collapse': collapse
}
return payload
view raw gistfile1.txt hosted with ❤ by GitHub

All was well and good, but not really. Turns out, screenshot-as-a-service pulls a screenshot of the entire page, not just above the fold. Which is great, and not so much. I was looking at a GIF that was way too long to be palatable. So, I needed a way to extracts parts of the screenshots so I could make a nice, clean and small-ish GIF. Luckily, waybacklapse made me install imagemagick. So I looked around and made the following script.

#!/bin/bash
for f in *.png
do
echo "Processing $f file"
convert $f -crop 1024x77+0+0 +repage first.png
convert $f -crop 1024x50+0+440 +repage second.png
convert $f -crop 1024x902+0+788 +repage third.png
montage first.png second.png third.png -tile x3 -geometry +0+0 final-$f
done
# http://www.cyberciti.biz/faq/bash-loop-over-file/
# http://www.imagemagick.org/discourse-server/viewtopic.php?t=21597
# http://www.imagemagick.org/Usage/montage/
# http://www.imagemagick.org/Usage/crop/
# http://kylepurdon.com/blog/waybacklapse-a-python-wayback-machine-time-lapse-creator.html
view raw script.sh hosted with ❤ by GitHub

It must sit inside the screenshot folder. It parses through the screenshots and converts them into smaller versions of themselves. Finally, I found the command inside waybacklapse which creates the GIF. I modified it a bit and used it to recreate the GIF.

convert -delay 30 /root/fivethirtyeight/2016081011081470853418/final-*.png /root/fivethirtyeight/2016081011081470853418/timelapse/2016electionforecastss.gif

Now, I could go about changing waybacklapse and submitting the code to the author, but he’s moved on to docker and in-house solutions for the dependencies, so I doubt it’ll be a benefit to anyone. Instead, I’ll just leave these notes here so I can reference them in the future. If they helped you, shout out in the comments section. Oh, and I’ll leave you with the GIF I made. –

FiveThirtyEight's Election Forecast in a GIF

Tech Bloggers should sell their articles

tl;dr – Tech bloggers should sell articles to News companies, much like Reuters and AP have done in the past.

GigaOm Pro is an interesting service. While most of the tech blogging industry is ad-supported, it has a subscription based model. It’s not unheard of, but surprises me that it works. I don’t have any numbers, but the fact that the industry pays good money to read and listen to GigaOm Pro analysts seems to point to a healthy business model. Why does GigaOm Pro work? Because it is attached to a name, that of Om Malik. That name carries weight in tech reporting circles. People care about what he has to say.

Why is this relevant? Because good writing is always rewarded. Newspapers around the world have always depended on wire services like Reuters, AP and BBC, to name a few, to fill their columns and inform their readers of news from around the globe. This makes sense for two reasons – it is cost-effective and companies such as Reuters and AP can be trusted to do the right reporting in a timely and impartial manner. I have seen news reports being replicated in different newspapers without any change simply because the headline was followed by a reporter’s name and a small (Reuters) mention.

Today, the Internet, in its goal to be an open sharing platform, has skewed this reporting standard. Companies such as ABC News and NYT often quote a blog post or a tweet and wrap their own story or analysis around that. This works so long as the original writer isn’t a paid professional writer, like when I write on this blog. But when the quoted links are tech blogs and independent writers who lose out on page views; and thus ad revenue, this becomes a lousy proposition for the bloggers.

I believe that tech blogs should become similar to Reuters and AP in their reporting. Traditional news companies cannot afford to send reporters to every tech event, nor are they invited to do so. Tech blogs have reached the level where if you’re not writing well or covering the latest topics, you’ll get laughed off the Internet quicker than it takes to set up a Tumblr blog. So, instead of keeping in-house writers, news outlets can take articles from tech blogs for a fixed price, along with deeper analyses and more contextual content. They could do this without compromising the quality of the writing. Not every tech blogger would qualify for a payout, but those who have proven their worth will be able to earn more than just page views on such a program.

Why would this work for news companies? Right now it’s a free-for-all. They can quote anyone, attach a link and bet that no average reader will click on it, all for free. The benefit of paying up? Syndication. Right now, tech news trickles down from everyone who was on the scene and this means that everything links back to the tech blogs. By offering to pay for their writing, media companies will be able to get their hands on exclusive content without having to link to any blogs and without having to worry about legal issues related to trackbacks.

The negatives for tech bloggers are not negligible. The first is that many companies will require bloggers to officially become journalists to protect them in case of First Amendment issues. This will require that the following question be addressed – is a blog post talking about a recent event a news report or an opinion? I myself believe that it is an opinion, since the writer does not necessarily have the required training to be impartial to the subject. This debate has often played out against bloggers. The other issue is that upon paying money, the company will require the blogger to not publish the article on their own blog, as this would duplicate the syndicated article. This hits the blogger exactly where it hurts. Tech bloggers write on their own platform for the single purpose of gaining popularity; which can then be converted into money using the traditional means of sponsored posts or advertisements. The work around would be for tech bloggers to either accept less money in exchange for permission to post the article on their blog after a fixed period of time or write a short article on their own blog while syndicating a longer, much more detailed version for the news media. The final problem is that this move would take us away from the open nature of the Internet where RSS feeds and pingbacks allow a level of sharing that doesn’t exist on any other media platform. I do not know how negatively this will affect the Internet, but it would not be a small change.

In conclusion, I believe that tech bloggers should strike deals with traditional news media to provide them with syndicated news feeds. This can mean that tech bloggers do not need to depend solely on advertisements on their own platform to earn a living. This will benefit news media outlets because they will get accurate, real-time news and analysis from people who are in the field and understand the context very well. There are still a lot of issues that need to be resolved before such a step can be taken, but the idea is worth looking into.

Interesting sub note – The Wikipedia page for Syndication lists print syndication as “where individual newspapers or magazines license news articles, columns, or comic strips” but web syndication as “where web feeds make a portion of a web site available to other sites or individual subscribers”. In web syndication, there is no mention of licensing, money or purchase of rights. This is what Riptide has concluded to be the problem with news reporting on the web.

Editor: Anna Tarkov [ADN|Twitter]
Note: I’d love to thank Anna for her help in editing this article. She provided me with invaluable help in getting the message across and pointing out some of my idiosyncrasies. Anna is a journalist from the Chicago area and she’s steeped in the digital life. She runs a personal blog here.

Save yourself from the Ephemeral

As users of the Internet, we change a lot. We move email IDs, we jump from one social networking fad to another, we change bookmarking and read-it-later sites and even crash, delete or just forget blogs that we write on.

Most of the stuff I’ve done in the past 10 years or so on the Internet has been pretty personal. Emails, Orkut or Facebook where privacy settings allowed me to block external users or bookmarking sites that were private by default. But recently, most of my contribution to the Internet has been public – twitter and App.net, my blogs and even my bookmarking has been public. So is true for most of us out there. With the shift in social networks’ view of what data should be totally private, there’s a lot of data that’s in the public domain. This also means that there’s equally that much data that can be lost or can stagnate when an eventuality occurs – a web service shuts down because of acquisition or drying up of funds, your blog crashes and you have to start from scratch, you leave a social network and even though you download all your data and invite all your connections to the new one, some don’t join or you can’t upload any of that data anywhere else (how many social networks out there are interchangeable? None.) or maybe you just stop using a site or service and that data just sits there, alone and forgotten (just ask my bookmarks on del.icio.us). Continue reading

The Three Blind Men

Recently, I was in a shopping mall heading towards McDonald’s for a dinner. As I walked past a showroom, I noticed an odd occurrence. Three Men, holding each other by the arms were walking in a straight line. One look and I had dismissed this sight. But then I paused and looked at them again. Here were the three blind men, white sticks in hand, goggles covering their eyes at 9 in the night, walking steadily in the middle of the mall.

I went over to them and inquired as to where they were headed. They said they wanted to go to the loo and the lead amongst them confirmed from me that it was in  the direction ahead. I corrected him by saying in a matter of fact way that he would have to turn to the right after walking down a bit further. He thanked me and started heading out in the initial direction. Instantly, it occurred to me that in the most insensitive way, I had told them the directions but not the distances. I latched on to the first one and took them to the corner where they had to turn right and pointed them on to start walking in the said direction. Again, they thanked me and started off.  Satisfied that I had done a good job, I walked off but stopped before having gone more than a few steps. I cussed at myself for being that stupid and ran back to them in order to guide them further to the exact door. When I reached, they were fumbling around a fire escape, looking for the correct door. Many onlookers were passing by them, surprised to see them try to find their way in the maze of objects and paths we “sighted” people take for granted. Before I could reach though, another fellow had arrived and helped them get to the restroom. I realized as I looked from a distance that it was the lead who alone had to go to the loo but the other two had no option than to follow him. They stopped at the door and waited for him to return.

As I walked off, a thought came to my mind. As the world around us progresses and technology allows us to become greater than ourselves, the society we live in does not change, the plight of the people does not change and the conditions which affect us do not change. We may be running after cures for cancer and aging but the blind man still cannot see and the deaf can still not hear. There is technology to enable them in doing these too, but that technology is not available to the present at a price which does not hit the pride of the man bearing the cost. Those blind men were not in rags but seemed suitably dressed. A poor blind man would have been stopped at the doors of the mall and forced to look for a loo elsewhere but the guard let them in and guided their path too, in his own insensitive way. That goes to say that the latest gadgets which help the blind(no euphemisms here, say it as it is) are within their reach but not there yet.

As a tech enthusiast and a software programmer, I can say that anything is possible in the world of technology. As a hardware designer and a practical man, I can say that we are not looking at the right ventures. I can blame many for not following up on this, from Steve Jobs to the Indian Government, but till some brilliant yet cheap technology comes into the possession of these disabled people, let’s make sure that the three blind men you see on the road next time reach home safely. Let us make sure that the stark contrast between consumerism of the most blatant kind and the simple reality that life has not yet changed despite Science’s greatest contributions be diminished by Humanism, for that too is as simple as extending your hand and guiding the path of those who cannot see.