Too cheap to cancel

One of the great philosophical battles of our times is the “cancel culture“. This culture dictates that if you have ever done something reprehensible in the past (I’m sure in my case you can find lots of incriminating blogposts and tweets), then you deserve to be “cancelled”.

This is how it works, according to Vox:

A celebrity or other public figure does or says something offensive. A public backlash, often fueled by politically progressive social media, ensues. Then come the calls to cancel the person — that is, to effectively end their career or revoke their cultural cachet, whether through boycotts of their work or disciplinary action from an employer.

In 2019 alone, the list of people who’ve faced being canceled included alleged sexual predators like R. Kelly; entertainers like Kanye West, Scarlett Johansson, and Gina Rodriguez, who all had offensive foot-in-mouth moments; and comedians like Kevin Hartand Shane Gillis, who each faced public backlash after social media users unearthed homophobic and racist jokes they’d made in the past.

In any case, recently the New York Post found that some ancestors of their great city rivals New York Times were slaveholders and supported the confederacy.

While it is pretty certain that any white American who had an ancestor who lived in the US in the early 1800s is likely to be the descendent of slaveholders, maybe this is good reason enough to “cancel the New York Times”?

Anyway the point of this post can be seen in the replies to the tweet, and you can think of the sole purpose of this post being to save that idea for posterity.

Essentially, New York Times is a subscription-based newspaper, and a more conventional meaning of “cancel” applies to it – you can simply cancel your subscription. I’m a subscriber, having taken advantage of a ?25 per week offer they ran a few months back (this is less than half of what I pay for a print edition of the Times of India; that is how zero marginal cost products work).

Now, through my twitter timeline I’ve been seeing several people make a case that the NYT is not what it used to be, and that it is a partisan rag now, and that it is not worth subscribing to, and hence deserves to be (in the conventional sense) cancelled.

Every time I come across such an argument I briefly consider cancelling my NYT subscription and then I think “what the hell, it’s just ?25 per week. The option value of a few good articles here and there is worth more than that”, and I move on.

I have mentally set myself to cancel my subscription in March next year, when my cheap offer ends, but until then, as far as I’m concerned the “NYT is too cheap to be cancelled”.

So that led to this thought – you can only be cancelled if you are not “cheap”. As long as you are cheap enough, people will see no benefit in cancelling you.

Now I’m reminded of the time when at the New Year’s Eve celebrations, I got the “cheap guy of the year” award for 2004 at IIM Bangalore. I suppose that’s insurance enough against getting cancelled?

Mata Amrita Goes To New York Times

Remember that I had written recently that the pandemic is likely to change the practice of hugging, and the Mata Amrita Index? Now the New York Times has also covered it (possibly paywalled). It includes helpful graphics on “how to hug and how not to hug”.

It is an interesting article, quoting an expert on aerosols about what is the best way to hug. From what I gather, the key is to keep your faces turned away from each other. As long as you maintain this, hugging should still be fine.

[…] the safest thing is to avoid hugs. But if you need a hug, take precautions. Wear a mask. Hug outdoors. Try to avoid touching the other person’s body or clothes with your face and your mask. Don’t hug someone who is coughing or has other symptoms.

And remember that some hugs are riskier than others. Point your faces in opposite directions — the position of your face matters most. Don’t talk or cough while you’re hugging. And do it quickly. Approach each other and briefly embrace. When you are done, don’t linger. Back away quickly so you don’t breathe into each other’s faces. Wash your hands afterward.

Most of this seems fine. Only the last bit seems a bit difficult to implement – how do you wash your hands soon after hugging someone without offending them? I mean – I face this problem already. There are many people I come across whose hands I shake (this is all pre-pandemic) which leave me queasy and at unease until I have washed my hands. The challenge in this situation is how to efficiently wash your hands without making it explicit that the handshake wasn’t a pleasant one.

My favourite bit in the article, however, is the last one. It pertains to the “quality of hugs” that I’ve been talking about for a while now, and also happens to bring in Marie Kondo into the picture.

Dr. Marr noted that because the risk of a quick hug with precautions is very low but not zero, people should choose their hugs wisely.

“I would hug close friends, but I would skip more casual hugs,” Dr. Marr said. “I would take the Marie Kondo approach — the hug has to spark joy.”

How to avoid Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia

I’ve written about Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia here a couple of times. The first time was when I discovered it in The Economist. Another time was when I likened it to the Vodnoy Paradox, where people recommend deregulation in all sectors except their own.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia for a while now because I recently bought a (cheap – ?25 a week) subscription to the New York times). And they take the level of Sominism in their India coverage (no surprise since Somini Sengupta used to be their correspondent) another launch.

In fact, when I was mulling buying a subscription, I was explicitly warned about their India coverage.

And as I’ve read them for the last month and a half, this remains true. Their coverage of India is really shitty. It’s no different for many other global “liberal” newspapers such as the Guardian, or the Washington Post, or the Atlantic. The most baffling thing is that all these worthies is that they frequently employ writers of fiction as their vehicles of choice to interpret India for their readers (recently even the FT fell for this, asking the excellent-writer-but-insanely-political Arundhati Roy to write for them about India).

In any case, I’ve been wondering why this is the case. Why is it that these newspapers do such a shoddy job of covering India (or possibly any other emerging market) (I’m not saying they do a great job of covering their home markets either, since these newspapers have all become rather political, but at least there is some good coverage)?

My hypothesis about this is that they do a shitty job of covering India because they don’t care about the Indian reader, who contributes a microscopic minority of their revenues. That they can offer their zero-marginal-cost product for half of what Indian newspapers charge Indians for print subscriptions suggests that Indian readers don’t contribute significantly to their revenues.

Instead, what they have is large numbers of paying subscribers in their home markets who are (rightly) their primary audience. And because the people who are paying them and the people they are writing about are disjoint, there is no need to be authentic in their coverage. They can simply offer their readership the sort of slant and opinions they want without ever being held accountable.

It is similar in the case of Murray Gell-Mann. The science reporting can afford to be bad because scientists who really care about the research form only a tiny part of the subscriber base of the newspaper, and they possibly couldn’t care about holding the papers to account.

Now you can argue that each and every person is a “minority of one”, and so newspaper coverage ought to be uniformly shitty about all subjects. Except that some groups of readers are more similar to each other than they are to others, and such groups are likely to be “better taken care of” by the newspapers than all the other readership.

I don’t really know how this can be solved. For each newspaper, there will always be groups of core readership who might hold them to account, but there will be nobody holding them to account on vast sections of their coverage.

The only thing I can think of is the Times of India model – apart from being mass-market advertising funded, they have the habit of “putting ordinary people in the newspaper” through their tabloid supplements such as Bangalore Times (this was stated to me by someone who used  to work with the group). When you put ordinary people in the paper, these ordinary people will be more invested, and you better not write shit about them.

News, Subscription, Advertising, and Bias

Dibyendu Mishra and Joyojeet Pal of the University of Michigan have some very interesting research out on the political bias of Indian news publications. Rather than do complicated gymnastics such as NLP, they’ve simply looked at the share of articles from each news publication that is retweeted by BJP and non-BJP publications, to draw out a measure of their bias (see link above for methodology).

They have made a nice scatter plot (the other axis is how “popular” these news outlets are in terms of the number of articles retweeted), and looking left to right, you can see the understood (by politicians) bias of various Indian news publications. As Helmet pointed out on Twitter, the most “centrist” news outlets seem to be the Times of India and the Economic Times, both from the Bennett, Coleman and Company group, who people crib about for “being too commercial” and “having too many advertisements”.

This reminds me of another piece of analysis that was in the news a few months ago, about how subscription-driven online news has led to news outlets being politically polarising. For example, Zach Goldberg did some analysis of frequency of words/phrases in the New York Times that are associated with the extreme left.

Note the inflexion point sometime in 2012 or so, around the same time when the NY Times put up its paywall.

David Rozado has a more comprehensive picture (check out his nifty tool here).

The idea is this – when newspapers depended on advertising for most of their funding, they needed to be centrist. Taking political sides meant that large mass-market advertisers wouldn’t want to advertise in this newspaper, and the paper would thus lose revenues. Hence, for the longest time, whatever the quality of the reporting and writing was, news outlets strove to be reasonably politically unbiased – taking sides would mean a loss of money.

Once digital took off, and it became clear that digital advertising wouldn’t really sustain the papers, they started putting their content behind paywalls. And subscription revenues meant two things – news outlets weren’t as beholden to advertisers as they used to be, and it was easier to get paying subscribers if you had a strong ideology. Moreover, online you can provide targeted advertising (rather than mass-market), so you can get away with being biased. And so with the coming of paywalls, newspapers started becoming far more political as the New York Times graph above indicates.

In India, there haven’t been too many publications behind paywalls, but media is evidently getting more and more polarised over time. Papers and channels are branding themselves (implicitly) as being pro or against a particular political party, and that is driving their viewership.

While these media outlets are good for fanbois (and fangirls) of particular ideologies, the ideological bent has meant that it has become harder to get objective news.

And that’s where money, and advertising, comes in.

The positioning of ToI and ET in the middle of the Indian media ideological graph is interesting because they belong to a group that is brazen about commercialisation and revenues (from advertising). And in terms of news objectivity, that’s a good thing. Since ToI and ET are highly money minded, they want to get as much advertising as possible, and in order to attract mass marketers, they need to not be biased.

Taking a political stand means pissing off people belonging to the opposite political persuasion, and that means less readership, which means less advertising revenues. And so if you read the editorials of these newspapers (I read ET everyday), you see that they maintain a careful balance of not appearing too biased in favour or against any party. And you see them raking in the advertisers while more biased (and “ideological”) competitors are forced to request for donations, or put up paywalls restricting their readership.

Putting it another way, there is no surprise that ToI and ET are not biased in their news, and are retweeted by politicians of all persuasions. It is the classic money-driven media model, and that is the one that is capable of providing the most objective news.

The problem with private provisioning of public goods

… is that private players who are providing those goods have an incentive in blocking attempts by the public sector to provide those goods. For the purpose of analysis, let us take the example of Gurgaon, both because I’m reasonably familiar with it and because it has been in the news in the international media thanks to a recent profile of the city by the New York Times.

Now, Gurgaon has a major problem with power supply. It is said that (I don’t have first hand info for reasons you’ll soon understand) the “city” faces about four to six hours of regular power cuts every day. I don’t know the exact reasons for it (surprisingly, Haryana sells power to other states so it appears there is no power deficit per se in the state), but it could be a pricing issue, with free power for farmers and all that. Anyway, the reason for the power cuts doesn’t matter so much.

In reaction to this, apartment societies have taken it upon themselves to provide “power backup” to the residents (for a fee of course). Even in that, there are three grades. I used to live in a DLF complex that had “one hundred per cent power backup”, which meant that I was assured of 24/7 power supply. Every time there was a power cut, the generators would start in a matter of a few seconds, and with “one hundred percent backup”, I could run just about any device on the “backup” power supply. In return, I would pay the apartment association six rupees per unit (as opposed to 3 rupees I pay here for sarkari power in Bangalore).

Then, there as “eighty percent backup”, in which you could use the generator-power supply to run all appliances except air-conditioners and geysers (both extremely important in Gurgaon given the weather). Then, there was another level with fifty percent backup, though I didn’t particularly understand it. The individual houses in the city, though, had no backup, and people living there had to make do with inverters.

Now, suppose that magically Haryana were to become a power surplus state, would the state government be able to provide uninterrupted three phase power supply to Gurgaon? I would think not, for there are several “private players” in that city whose source of profits and wealth is derived from the fact that they provide backup power supply. Think of all those people who invested in DLF flats because they had “one hundred percent power backup”. Now, with power backup not being a distinguishing factor, these flats will lose in value since they cannot command the same kind of premium as they used to (rather, the supply of “apartments with assured power supply” goes up, thus reducing demand for the only ones that offered this luxury earlier). Then, there are scores of generator and inverter dealers in Gurgaon, who again depend on the power shortage for their livelihood. And so forth.

It doesn’t appear as if Haryana has power shortage any more (recently, Karnataka bought power from that state to tide over its power crisis). However, there are enough powerful lobbies in Gurgaon who depend on power cuts (!! ) for their income and wealth, and it appears they have managed to lobby the government there (officially or unofficially) to block the provision of assured power supply. The moral of this story is that once “public goods” start being provided by private players, it is hard to displace them, and this results in a lifetime of inefficiency.