Curious Bends – Hudhud, fewer cyclone deaths, population control and more

Curious Bends is a weekly newsletter science, tech. and data news from around South Asia. Akshat Rathi and I curate it. It costs nothing to sign up. If you’d like a sample, check out the one below.

India went from 15,000 cyclone deaths in 1999 to just 38 last year

“The difference in the number of fatalities between Cyclone Phailin and the Uttarakhand cloudburst is instructive here. Both storms happened last year, yet Uttarakhand left more than 5,700 dead and millions affected. Although Phailin would also affect millions, its casualty count was kept to double digits. A big part of this was simply that there was no advance warning about the Uttarakhand cloudburst, while the Met department and local authorities had been tracking Phailin for weeks.” (4 min read, scroll.in)

How supercyclone Hudhud got its name

“For years cyclones that originated in the north Indian ocean were anonymous affairs. One of the reasons, according to Dr M Mahapatra, who heads India’s cyclone warning centre, was that in an “ethnically diverse region we needed to be very careful and neutral in picking up the names so that it did not hurt the sentiments of people”. But finally in 2004 the countries clubbed together and agreed on their favourite names.” (3 min read, bbc.co.uk)

Central government officials’ attendance record is now public. Thanks to Ram Sewak Sharma.

“The website is a near-complete digital dashboard of employee attendance—it logs the entry and exit time, among other things. The entire system is searchable, down to the names of individual central government employees, and all the data is available for download. And with that single step—making the entire platform publicly accessible—the government has introduced a level of accountability and transparency that India’s sprawling bureaucracy is unaccustomed to.” (5 min read, qz.com)

Indian women pay the price for population control

“23-year-old Pushpa, narrates a similar tale of pain. The nurse at a public health facility inserted her with an IUD after she delivered her first child. Her consent was not sought. The procedure was done after getting the consent form signed by her husband, a daily wage labourer who had studied up to Class V. He wasn’t explained what an IUD is and what the form was for.” (13 min read, tehelka.com)

After 67 years of independence, India gets a mental healthy policy

“Dr Harsh Vardhan pointed out that earlier laws governing the mentally ill, the Indian Lunatic Asylum Act, 1858, and Indian Lunacy Act, 1912, ignored the human rights aspect and were concerned only with custodial issues. After Independence it took 31 years for India to attempt the first enactment, which resulted another nine years later in the Mental Health Act, 1987. But due to many defects in this Act, it never came into force in any of the states and union territories.” (3 min read, pub.nic.in)

Chart of the week

“The survey of 44 countries, a quarter of them in Asia, shows that economic optimism has followed economic growth: eastward. The continent with the highest proportion of respondents believing their children will be better-off than they are is Asia, with 58%.” (2 min read, economist.com)

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de Tocqueville & the news

That the switch from newspapers to digital handheld devices – for the purpose of sourcing all my news – is limited only by my comfort-level with technology is telling of some shortcoming of the print industry.

The changing journalistic scene is a reflection of the way people engage publicly and of how public discourse has changed. Quoting Tocqueville,

A newspaper is an adviser that does not require to be sought.

Believe me, I still do seek out the newspaper to be certain on some matters, but I am also a dying breed. News has changed from page-long pieces to 140-character tweets, but the information we are getting has tripled. As Neil Postman argued in 1990,

Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that, for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.

There is too much to read and to process. Today, people are quite likely to be discussing news over coffee, especially in light of the fact that almost all information tends to be “newsified”.

Tocqueville says in the same piece,

The power of the newspaper press must therefore increase as the social conditions of men become more equal.

My questions are, thus, two-fold. Do we live in a society that is increasingly unequal? Or have we transformed to become so individualistic that a common voice can no longer exist?

Alexis de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville addresses the newspaper, and the responsibilities of the Press by extension, in terms of their capacity to unite. In the same chapter, he also draws upon democracy’s tendency to leave individuals “very insignificant and lost amid the crowd”, the the responsibility to homogenize which lies with the newspaper.

While these notions may have coincided in Tocqueville’s times, the landscape of governance has changed vastly. For one, Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s, at a time when democracy itself was as new as the emerging print industry, when its spread and depth were both limited.

For another, for me to able to infer that the power of the newspaper is waning, I am also inferring that the newspaper must exist only on paper, that news cannot be delivered in other forms, and that all peoples must unite themselves under the light of one beacon, not any other. Are we right in thinking this?

So, while the newspaper – as an entity comprising words in ink and ink on paper – may be on the decline economically, the responsibilities of the paper are now in different hands. As for Tocqueville’s cautioning against the individualists, much is to be said.

In the execution of goals democratically, Tocqueville’s faith in which mires his thoughts, there will be opportunities to “wrong the people” by desiring an action that feels right personally. In other words, the French philosopher has not considered the evils of populism in vouching for the newspaper.

Today, however, technology enables so much that things work the other way round. Instead of firing up common beacons, discrete ones, classifiable in terms of social status, culture, financial needs, and personal desires, are lit, and people flock to them.

I concede, there is a barrage of news, but there is also democracy in news! I can finally get what I know I will use the most. Is that wrong? In fact, does it even suggest a conflict in any sense?

I must also concede that Tocqueville was right in championing the cause and function of democratic rule, but that it mandates representation above all else is something not to be forgotten.

In the ongoing version of the discourse between public policy and responsible journalism, individuals have the responsibility to cure more evils than they cause, individuals must hone their own moral framework, and individuals are tasked with interpreting democracy in a way that perpetuates its essence. Is this so bad?

Even if the newspaper has left us, the notion of news hasn’t, not in this “post-reporter era”.

de Tocqueville & the news

That the switch from newspapers to digital handheld devices – for the purpose of sourcing all my news – is limited only by my comfort-level with technology is telling of some shortcoming of the print industry.

The changing journalistic scene is a reflection of the way people engage publicly and of how public discourse has changed. Quoting Tocqueville,

A newspaper is an adviser that does not require to be sought.

Believe me, I still do seek out the newspaper to be certain on some matters, but I am also a dying breed. News has changed from page-long pieces to 140-character tweets, but the information we are getting has tripled. As Neil Postman argued in 1990,

Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that, for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.

There is too much to read and to process. Today, people are quite likely to be discussing news over coffee, especially in light of the fact that almost all information tends to be “newsified”.

Tocqueville says in the same piece,

The power of the newspaper press must therefore increase as the social conditions of men become more equal.

My questions are, thus, two-fold. Do we live in a society that is increasingly unequal? Or have we transformed to become so individualistic that a common voice can no longer exist?

Alexis de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville addresses the newspaper, and the responsibilities of the Press by extension, in terms of their capacity to unite. In the same chapter, he also draws upon democracy’s tendency to leave individuals “very insignificant and lost amid the crowd”, the the responsibility to homogenize which lies with the newspaper.

While these notions may have coincided in Tocqueville’s times, the landscape of governance has changed vastly. For one, Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s, at a time when democracy itself was as new as the emerging print industry, when its spread and depth were both limited.

For another, for me to able to infer that the power of the newspaper is waning, I am also inferring that the newspaper must exist only on paper, that news cannot be delivered in other forms, and that all peoples must unite themselves under the light of one beacon, not any other. Are we right in thinking this?

So, while the newspaper – as an entity comprising words in ink and ink on paper – may be on the decline economically, the responsibilities of the paper are now in different hands. As for Tocqueville’s cautioning against the individualists, much is to be said.

In the execution of goals democratically, Tocqueville’s faith in which mires his thoughts, there will be opportunities to “wrong the people” by desiring an action that feels right personally. In other words, the French philosopher has not considered the evils of populism in vouching for the newspaper.

Today, however, technology enables so much that things work the other way round. Instead of firing up common beacons, discrete ones, classifiable in terms of social status, culture, financial needs, and personal desires, are lit, and people flock to them.

I concede, there is a barrage of news, but there is also democracy in news! I can finally get what I know I will use the most. Is that wrong? In fact, does it even suggest a conflict in any sense?

I must also concede that Tocqueville was right in championing the cause and function of democratic rule, but that it mandates representation above all else is something not to be forgotten.

In the ongoing version of the discourse between public policy and responsible journalism, individuals have the responsibility to cure more evils than they cause, individuals must hone their own moral framework, and individuals are tasked with interpreting democracy in a way that perpetuates its essence. Is this so bad?

Even if the newspaper has left us, the notion of news hasn’t, not in this “post-reporter era”.

A note on the Nobel Peace Prize, 2012

Across six decades, the European Union has stressed repeatedly on the importance of democracy and human rights. In the process, it set up a system that offered great humanitarian, and therefore popular, benefits to nations willing to join it. In return, it asked for the nations to stop warring, start talking, and get voting.

Today, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2012 for its continent-wide efforts.

At the end of the Second World War, Europe’s largest economies emerged greatly diminished. The divides between the ruling and the ruled, between the rich and the poor, and between the war-monger and the negotiator were at their most gaping. Germany and France were the most wounded.

Today, conflict between Germany and France is unthinkable. They reside at the heart of the European Union, in mind and in body, and are largely responsible for maintaining order in the region. Their commitment to the cause of peace is vital to Europe’s commitment to the cause of peace. And because they have held on for so long, the smaller Central European nations and the Balkan states are now eyeing prosperity.

The Nobel Peace Prize, at the same time, comes at a crucial juncture. A grave economic crisis is prevalent across the region. Social inequality, as a result, is on the rise. Austerity measures are the order of the day, and industrial slowdown the mantra on the lips of many – both the employed and the jobless, in fact.

The Prize reaffirms the Union’s decision to abide by peace and unity, by its decision to pursue a common justice for all violators, by its assumption of democracy as the best mode of governance. However, this is also a time that has questioned the validity of a unified government that has to work with significantly different rates of growth and policy-perspectives from region to region.

These are not decisions that are influenced by any prize.

Essentially, the Nobel Prize does not address the seeming invalidity of the Union based on social issues and economic equality, but awards it only in recognition of historical work, work that was humanitarian in a bold break from tradition. What the Prize should have done is specified the Union’s particular roles instead of seemingly reaffirming the Union’s decision to stay united and rule united today.

Thus, only time will tell. Until then, one of the most significant developments of the 21st century will have been the bringing of peace to Europe. For this, the European Union deserves all consideration and congratulations.