Climatic Indifference

If doctors were to treat patients like we treat global warming, the demand for ventilators would sky rocket.

It is one of the most uncoolest of topics to discuss and even write upon. If you search for the words Global Warming one of the first result is Global Warming Essay hinting that this very relevant topic now shares classroom space with terms like Brain Drain and What would I do if I was a millionaire. It is impossible to be unaware of climatic change, the last decade has seen weather events unlike any other.While these may not be assumed to be directly influenced by the melting polar caps, the polar vortex and multiple hurricanes hint at a changing landscape.

      It is not very difficult to see why anyone would deny climatic change and especially those in power. The majority of governments in the world today are elected. Their tenures limited and determined roughly by their ability to deliver progress to their citizens. A climatic conscience thus is the last thing a nation hungering for development wants on its already full platter of problems. If one is to look at any of the recent climate control international treaties and policies none mention a definite reduction in emissions. Trade offs, letting lower emitting countries taking the burden of more industrial nations and deferring responsibility is the tune to which each nation is dancing. Whether or not the impact of human activity on this Earth is as pronounced as claimed by scientists, the direction this planet’s surface is taking is easy to agree upon. There are ice sheets loosing as much as 27 feet a year, their areas are the size of large cities. A look at any image from such melting glacial regions reveals not a white reflecting surface but one covered with soot making the ice more receptive to heat absorption.

Why are we not bothered about this? Why is this not part of the ceaseless discourse that the television and media inflict us with? For developing countries like ours it would take a gigantic amount of energy investment to meet basic infrastructural needs, our unrestricted population growth has insured that. In India nearly half of the population has no or extremely inadequate access to electricity. Any form of progress shall demand the correction of this and that must obviously have a carbon cost associated with it which perhaps the World can’t afford. Europe, parts of Asia and the America’s having had their industrial revolutions and carbon binges still continue to fill the atmosphere with the by products of their prosperity. So to nations like ours the need to pollute is seen as the right to develop. India has one of the largest coal reserves and the second largest population, the math is obvious. The world may need to come together sooner or later to address the ballooning problem, shall then we come to a per-capita solution? Shall it take into account the improvement of the life of the impoverished or focus on the sustenance of the life style of the rich? Equality is after all as much a myth as climate change is a reality. This government of ours must address these concerns even if they are not voiced by the electorate. But a yagna is more likely than actionable plans for saving the Earth.

Reimagining India: Reimagining

India happens to be a rich country inhabited by very poor people
– Manmohan Singh

Seldom does a book merit an article, let alone the promise of a series. But certain topics when are said to be addressed by men and women who command immense respect, their addresal too must be assessed. India to Indians is not an enigma, not an inexplicable oriental carnival of chaos. But those who seek its portrayal in literature often find little else. So when a multinational company taps the brains of many Indian as well as foreign persons for the reinterpretation of the world’s 7th largest nation, the results demand reading.

Indiabook_hero7Reimagining India is a collection of essays by people of economic, political and social prominence, on the nation and the change it is or should be heading for (published in 2012). Compiled and edited by McKinsey and Co. this promises to “Unlock the potential of Asia’s next super power”. Unlike tedious reports and recommendations one may come to expect of the company that published it, this book caters to a wider audience. The business school aspirant, entrant or passout shall find this the perfect travel companion. Its ability to bestow upon the bearer an aura of presumed intelligence with a blend of fleeting patriotism is another plus. I stay away from such books but I am glad I didn’t with this.

The entire book is divided into 6 chapters with a dozen or so essays in each. The first, reimagining tries to build the landscape into which the reader is to be later led. When you pick this book up you assume that even though the opinions it offers may not the most informed ones, they shall be influential. In all the articles the following are painfully, obviously common:

  • Reverence to the Freedom struggle and the nation’s founders
  • Pre 1991 economic woes of the license permission raj.
  • The opening up of the economy
  • Direct competition with China
  • India’s diversity

All the authors mostly seem to base their contributions around these central themes. However given the natural diversity of human thought there are differences, some rather pleasant ones. The first articles underlines the importance of India’s middle class and how the shaping of this nation shall be by the people and not a leader. Its a pleasant revisiting of Indian policy making and history by Fareed Zakaria. The second piece is by an interesting author Ruchir Sharma whose book Breakout Nations is another one for the MBA, economics or polity students must read to appear informed, list. He cuts down the optimist to size arguing that India’s growth has been not remarkable when compared to other nations adjusting for scale and population. He outlines the idea that basic sustenance provision is no longer a ballot winner in India. His notion of state level development to build the nation is echoed in the article by the chairman of the Mahindra group. Anand Mahindra‘s vision for India’s growth is a model of competition among states for investment. To any mind used to capitalism this seems like the perfect cure for the lethargy of state governments and the center’s indifference to them. He also speaks of learning from China’s urbanization mistakes and being prepared with smaller economic urban areas to take the financial load off our current handful metro cities. Gurcharan Das the author of India grows at Night echoes perhaps the laments of every Indian businessman even today. Growth despite policies and not because of them seems to be the mantra to begin with. He speaks for a strong state which can lead to the dissolution of crony capitalism and becoming pro-business. Here one comes across the ease to invest in India and the numbers are shaming yet not wholly surprising.

Ease of Investment Index as computed by the World Bank.
Ease of Investment Index as computed by the World Bank.

Anand Girdharadas goes in the search of the Indian dream in his article. The idea that our collective dream is a million acts of private daring, is gripping as well as relatable. The concept of the shackles of societal thinking and a resignation to fate which is often applied to nations in the orient is now put into the Indian context. While to the unthinking patriot the word sanskar might offer some if shallow defense, the rising healthy wave of individualism is encouraged in this work. Mukesh Ambani‘s piece is to be acknowledged for the what the author represents rather than the content presented. There is little said that is new but perhaps the once richest man in the world and the CEO of a huge company isn’t the right choice to contribute an article out of an already full life? Or perhaps he is, as Bill Gates proves in the last article of the chapter. The man whose genius runs the systems on which most of the other authors wrote their works offers a unique insight into India’s fight with polio. He proposes that Indians and the world don’t recognize the resolve and the strength of the large economically depressed fraction of the nation’s population. He sees hope in the promise of enterprise where even Indian’s refuse to see it.

As is to be expected from any collection of non fiction articles the overall experience shall be a mixed bag. Some of these works might be partially or full ghost written or heavily edited. Perhaps many were included for the name of the author and not the content. They might not even make any impact on the way the world perceives this nation of ours. But to the thinking mind there is a plethora of ideas and explanations along with further sources of reading that this book offers. The first chapter was educational and thought invoking, what more can one ask for?

A panel discussion with a few contributors to the book.

The Expectation of Reason

The above image reads common sense, that is common sense. Or is it?

To do the rational thing always seems a very beneficial course to take. To be sensible is often rewarding in the long run and thus so strongly advocated.  Still, there seems to be so much irrationality and more importantly lack of sensibility around. I am not referring to the classical debate between spontaneity and calculated thought; I am more interested in the deviation from common sense. Common sense and rationality are two different concepts; while the former has the smell of averages about it the latter seems more absolute.

The sense that is common, the current understanding of an acceptable societal average of rationality: that to me is common sense. So prior to the Renaissance in the dark ages, it was probably common sense to assume that defecating in public wasn’t a problem and the Sun went around the Earth.  While an information deficit may have precipitated that particular sense, the point about the relativity of common sense is apparent. What we end up needing in most cases is absolute rationality. Take your pick from any scenario of extreme prejudice, display of self destructive behavior or extreme narrow mindedness. What might have appeared as lack of common sense, when defined as I just did may be more visible as a deficiency of general rationality.

Common sense is a function of one’s idea of society. As there is no well defined parameter of sensibility, the perception of what shall pass off as reasonable among one’s peers is often what is chosen.  There is no need for one to comply with the idea of this common reasonableness and therein lies the choice of general rationality. While there is the chance of a person discovering what is absolutely the rational thing to do irrespective of what those who surround him or her think, compliance too becomes a rational act due to the resulting external harmony.

If you try to list the determinants of the definition of what is common sense you might find yourself facing the following:
Age, Gender, Geography, Culture, Upbringing, Experience, Education, Peers, Mental Capacity and Circumstance.

While these factors may influence one’s interpretation of what is reasonable there is no absolute one to one mapping of the degree of reasonability to them. If you were to consider a multi-dimensional coordinate system where each of the above mentioned attributes are represented as a dimension then a point on this system would represent a person. A person who could be distinctly identifiable across human history at a given point in time. The basic idea that no two humans are alike would be validated along with the idea that the same human holds different views and states in a single lifetime. Given this uniqueness, if you look at the proximity of different people (points) to any given point, across many planes you would find his or her peers. These would then define the sample space against which common sense shall be defined.

To exemplify the possible difference between what is perceived as rational; consider two different generations, yours and that of your parents. There is going to be the obvious difference between the values of the parameters: age, experience, upbringing, mental capacity, peers and circumstance. Other parameters may differ too, but these can be taken for granted. If the common sensibility of your parents and their peers was plotted (if that were possible) you’d get an average value different from your own. In fact to put it more obviously, what seems rational and obvious to that group has a low probability of being so with you unless your peers are these too. When your parents look at defining common sense, their points of peer reference shall be people who they know personally or see represented as normal across various media. The more realistic parents would try to adjust this set to allow for the inclusion of the people who are more likely to be your peers. There is the obvious risk of a selection bias in terms of aspiration versus reality. In either case there is no denying the difference in sensibilities.  This is because, common sense from your parents point of view becomes:

image002

From your point of view the equation changes to

image004

It is thus not difficult to see how the change in any of the mentioned factors shall influence the idea of common sense. ‘n’ is the size of perceived influencers, the variation in thus is determinant to the degree of influence an opposing party’s way of thinking has on the current’s idea of common sense. We can further the equations mentioned to incorporate weights, making the influence dependent on time of exposure and personal influence of the peer too. But it is clear that the more people you consider, the larger the risk of the dilution of the parent’s contribution to the child’s common sense. But the inclusion of a large population may also lead to the variation of thought and thus a chance of people like minded as the other party.

Why is such a realization important? Whenever you are in a situation where the pigheadedness of the individual in front of you is on the verge of sparking homicidal tendencies, perhaps it would be easier to appreciate the differences in your life experiences. While the urge to be amazed by the apparent stupidity of someone might not go away, the relativity of rationality may explain its cause.

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The Preoccupation with Hong Kong

The best history is one which unfolds in front of you.

The last 5 years have been filled with incidents of civil unrest, mass protests and the use of means of discontent expression which have not been so actively used perhaps since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Never before in the last 20-25 years people come together to clean up their respective countries and governments whether it be in Tunisia, Yemen,Egypt, Ukraine or now Hong Kong. The internationalization of domestic troubles by the foot soldiers of  democracy, the common people on social media, that is what some believe to be the drivers of this. While others propose that Social Media is agog with these civil and not so civil disruptions because of a tendency of such content to be viral rather than the medium it self being a channel for spreading the discontent. That is to say there is little influence but great homophilly in the #OccupyCentral.

Whether or not that is true, Hong Kong joined the ranks of democracy seekers this monsoon. China’s window into capitalism, Hong Kong has always been a weird animal, torn between two ideologies. The inhabitants are more modern (arguably) and thus by any philosopher’s definition, ripe for choosing their own direction than agreeing to be compliant. When the re election of the area’s Chief Executive came into spotlight, the people led by a few academics demanded the candidates from which they were to choose be selected not by China but by the people. To any dweller in a democracy, the demand seems rational enough. If any elections are meant to be truly representative, the candidates can’t be pre-selected. The displeasure of the mainland being apparent at this the professors took to the streets. Joining them were the slightly more radical Hong Kong Federation of Students & Scholarism. Waves of discontent worldwide in recent times have been led by students and youngsters possibly because of their refusal to accept a system which hasn’t worked for their parents, increased awareness of world politics or a natural immunization to indoctrination via what is inevitably a western influenced education.

An anti-protester (L) shouts at pro-democracy demonstrators in an occupied area of Hong Kong on October 3, 2014. Source : Time.
An anti-protester (L) shouts at pro-democracy demonstrators in an occupied area of Hong Kong. Source : TIme

While we in our democracies were embroiled in the tough task of career selection at the age of 17-18, here the boys and girls have gone a step further into future determination of their nation. The courage is undeniable but everything else is under a shadow. If there be a purely representative head of  governance, how effectively would he be allowed to govern? Given the expressed discontent of commerce groups at the people’s attempt to peacefully determine their future, how likely is Hong Kong to succeed commercially given a shift in political systems? While a complete disassociation from China seems out of the question, the presence of these two such opposing schools of thought in one nation, is it even possible? These questions don’t seem to be raised often enough. With the passing of October, the leading lights of the protest movement have returned to their teaching roles. While the expression of communal discontent generated a lot of media vibe, never has a mass protest been so riddled with camera flashes, what did it achieve? The organized referendums to gauge public sentiment were definitely eye opening as to the people’s efficiency in organizing themselves and mining public opinion.

To someone who has lived life long in a democratic government there is little possibility of not having a skewed view of the situation. After all our elected representatives have failed us more often than not. While on the other hand there is freedom of expression. If you randomly select 4 people from a crowd they are equally likely to be as good or bad at governance as those which were to be elected by that crowd. This is probably not true for small homogeneous numbers. But it seems more plausible for large masses with varied cultural, financial and educational backgrounds. In democracies, the leaders are not the brightest, not the strongest and not the best for the job but their popularity eclipses their shortcomings, making their failures the fault of their electors as much as their own.

So perhaps what the people of Hong Kong and of other government disillusioned parts of the world want is a chance to make their own mistakes.

Read More

BBC : Why is Hong Kong protesting?

Wikipedia : Occupy Central with Love and Peace

Twitter : #OccupyCentral

Wikipedia : The Umbrella Movement

People are Fundamentally…. ?

The word decent completes the above statement generally. Whatever religious, social, financial or political school of thought you may subscribe to, the inherent goodness of people is often stated and expressed faith in. One can immediately see the advantages of the verbal reaffirmation in this belief by multitudes, it sets the general expectation of society for doing good. The mere presence of rules, laws and regulatory bodies suggests a lack of confidence in the average human’s morality. Or these bodies aim to make the repercussions of seemingly immoral deeds so severe that being good becomes a survival instinct thus making our initial statement come true. Whether or not people are naturally moral is perhaps a different debate, what I seek is another answer to a question which sets the basis of the statement. Can people by themselves, tell the difference between good and bad for them to be able to decide what to do? People may or may not be fundamentally decent, but how do they know what decency is?

The question above as you can make out is concerned with what is morality? The answer although provided by constitutions, legal texts and religious doctrines is always a function of the person answering it. There is no absolute right or wrong but a general societal definition of the extremes of good and bad. What is perhaps more important is the legal definition of good and bad which is one which can be executed in response to your actions. While deviation from the theist code of conduct might at most result in your being ostracized, or the threat of eternal damnation, breaking the law due to a difference between your personal sense and the legal difference of, morality can lead to more serious and immediate consequences. Now although these bodies define the broad sense of good and bad and in a democracy reflect with a latency period, the general moral zeitgeist, there are questions which are not even touched by this system. Look at any of the differentiation policies we humans adopt, regionalism, communal-ism, caste-ism, racism, gender and orientation biases. Some of these have been legislated against but there are subtle things against which you can’t prosecute. Especially in a country like mine(India) there is rampant stirring up of trouble in the name of religion and region of origin. While hate speech may be prosecuted against, the number of cases that make it through are relatively few. So it comes to the individual morality of citizens as to how they face these daily questions of what is good and what is not?

Calvin and Hobbes

If you see a person of Arabic origin at an airport being unduly harassed by airport authorities, do you express disapproval, nod in approval or show indifference. A simple enough situation where your actions might have no bearing or impact on the circumstance of the individual. Yet the mere way you think of the situation defines your morality. By acceptable norms today the good thing would be to express disapproval and let the authorities know of your opinion. Here there might be a conflict of reason as your own involvement might cause further complications, you also run the risk of actually encountering a potential terror scenario. The morally indecent thing to do would be to encourage the officers and belittle a presumed innocent passenger by implying a link to a terror group. While the former might be in defiance of conventional morality it might be in keeping with that of your friends and family. Does that make it right? If everyone in the airport security queue approves of the actions of the security officers, does your silence or approval gain validation? These questions may lead you to choosing between two types of morality : one that is time independent, circumstance neutral and absolute. The other that is a function of the times and situations in which we live. The second approach of course sounds more natural and acceptable due to its apparent ambiguity. We might not know what is right or wrong but we do know that the distinction must be ill defined and not discrete. First lets look at the absolute morality. The basic flaw in this is of course that there is no era in which anyone can be considered completely moral; for with new ages come new technologies, cultures and societies which present their own problems. These situations and junctures at which one faces these odd choices are unique and thus the nature of the choice you make unclassified. For example, the Romans indulged in gratuitous sex in the forms of the famed orgies, while later generations would judge them for these actions, the lack of sexual inhibition of these and of the Ancient Greeks was possibly seen as a sign of maturity where bodily lust was a well recognized need. One which you did not have to be ashamed of. So from the point of view of an ancient the life of a married philanderer who kept not only exotic girls but young male proteges, his satiating a natural appetite and its public recognition would have had nothing wrong associated with it. But perhaps from the point of view of a church goer at the height of the Holy Roman empire this Paganism would be a deed equally lacking in morality as murder or incest.

The UA Rating Orgy from Asterix in Switzerland. It takes a few years to get the true purpose of the whip and the girls with Green faces.
The AU Rating Orgy from Asterix in Switzerland. It takes a few years to get the true purpose of the whip and the girls with Green faces.

As society and the life that surrounds us is perhaps the only true barometer of right and wrong. What lengths can you go to without disturbing the apple cart, the way of life? That extent on both ends of the spectrum defines the range of moral behavior. Thus what is moral today may not be so tomorrow. So when you say that people are morally decent what we mean is that as per the current definition these people stay away from the extremes. What that means is that you could for any given time, draw a normally distributed bell curve with the majority of the population remaining in the center and the extremes being held by certain select individuals. The range of decency could be defined as a period around the central line with a time variable standard deviation. An optimist might argue that there are more people extremely morally abhorent than those who are extremely moral. This would leave the negative side more elevated than the positive and the distribution no longer being uniform. The origin of this curve would plot the mean morality of a population. ( This may lead you to believe that there is an absolution in play but by mean I mean that the positive and negative become relative to this point).

A standard depiction of the Normal Distribution. Here we see the
A standard depiction of the Normal Distribution. Here we see the bell splaying out when the standard deviation is greater. This makes sense as the highest moral peak shall not be very far from the rest of the population. Also the varying values of the mean suggest the shifting of the curve from the origin. So, if the Y axis is Fraction of the Population and the X, relative Morality then a shifted graph might indicate the Morality graph for another time/place. While there might not be extreme definable moral absolutes one could at least agree to such curves being exponential if not entirely normal.

Consider the mean moralities as O1, O2, O3….On for the last ‘n’ years. While these may not have direct numerical representations one could argue that they are comparable. As we aren’t talking about numbers but the fractions of population you could ideally plot all the moralities across ages on a single graph like the one above. The offset from the Y axis is the only thing that would vary. While we say things like “Earlier, teenagers had more respect for their elders, they were more moral, they had better values” is society truly in a moral decline? Today there is a clearer understanding of wrong and right than ever before. If you think only scientifically, there is more sample data by the virtue of more time having been spent to get to now than 100 years back. So there has been the recording of more circumstances, more scenarios and more ethical quandaries. More time having been spent in the evaluation of the results of actions taken in moments of conscience driven decisiveness, we should now know what is closer to the right thing. Its the kind of evolutionary self corrective morality perpetuated by the understanding that evolution shall correct behaviors in deviation of natural law. So what survives ultimately is natural and thus has to be moral. Whether it be cannibalism, murder, adultery or even petty theft, these disturb the balance of society and thus reducing the chances of life propagation. Thus social evolution shall identify these as evils and try to reduce their occurrence.

By http://www.moralityindex.com/ : This is funny if somewhat thought out Ten Commandments based way of Morality computation of the American Populous. The basis is dubious but the intent understandable.
By http://www.moralityindex.com/ : This is funny if somewhat thought out Ten Commandments based way of Morality computation of the American Populous. The basis is dubious but the intent understandable.

So how do we compare these generational moralities? Do we have quantifiable means? Perhaps in the number of incarcerations/capita, crimes reported/capita, charitable donations/capita or wars fought? Each of these and many more suffer from the problem of multiple influencers. Crime might be reported less if the society was more tolerant, the justice system was weak or there weren’t enough people to do the policing. Either of this might not have anything to do with the moral zeitgeist. Can knowledge and the general banishment of ignorance imply an increase in moral values? Surely slavery was abandoned not because those who enslaved began loosing control and the threat of potential violence and impending social as well as financial meltdown became real. It must have been due to good citizens and multitudes of them recognizing that the ways of the past were wrong and that human morality had to rise beyond the very animal one of survival of the millitarily and fiscally fittest? In fact there is no such surety in these statements. Whether it be Civil Rights or any other such cause where what was considered normal became in a span of less than a few decades, appalling and repugnant, the shift took place with the understanding that not doing so would lead to a non progressive existence. I find it not difficult to conclude thus that the moral state of a society unlike what Noah and his ark full of creatures would have you believe, has been in a steady state of increase. As the recognition of previously acceptable norms as unacceptable today, is considered, Oi <= Oi+1 . The slope of this non decreasing function(against time) may have a few kinks in it but must be relatively positive. While wars, rebellions and religious events may introduce sharp changes in moral grounds these are themselves culminations of an ever increasing morality. Since we are looking at average morality and not what is perceived as moral in a day and age ( which is undoubtedly ever increasing) we can expect a few slumps too. This is because under trying times there can be the abandonment of senses by men and indulging in uncharacteristic acts.( eg. the Holocaust)

log(x+1) vs x^-2 which would not be a good choice the slope is sharper.
log(x+1) vs x^0.5 which would not be a good choice the slope is sharper.

From what I state in the previous paragraph the possible plot of mean relative morality vs time could be drawn as the function log(x+1){The +1 is to make it pass the origin}. The plot will thus initiate from 0 going to an age of moral maturity. The sudden rise from zero upwards is not strange as initial humans or our predecessors were primal, emotions would have developed with social living and experiencing, pain, life, death and other things. What is strange is the expectation that morality shall saturate at a certain age and go no further. The question of treatment of robots might present itself a few hundred years down the life. What if we do find Aliens a thousand years from now? Will our attitude towards them not determine how good or bad we are? What about circumstances which we are not yet capable of thinking. Dimensions which are not yet explored so ethics of today can’t be applied to them? Well the good thing is that the log graph is ever increasing, the rate of increase reduces drastically with the increase in x, in this case time. Yes technology will expand and we will learn new things but are the basics of human existence going to change so much that there will be spikes in moral value? So the Oi could be taken as a log(Ti+1). What is Oi but the mean on the Normal Distribution Graph? So on a single Graph you could potentially plot all the distributions of Ethical Behavior with varying SDs and Means which are Functions of their time away from now(the current moment).

So that was my rant about Morality and how it so difficult to identify, define and yet easy to judge. Knowing the right thing to do has always been important, why no body knows, most probably for survival if not post survival reasons. A Neuroscience study of the moral questions we face might throw new light on this discussion but one thing remains a constant to me :

You can’t consider yourself moral unless you know what being good is and even then your morality is a function of your environment.

References

While I reached the conclusion of Normal Distribution by myself, surprisingly I find it validated by :

The Palgrave Handbook of Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity: Formulating a Field of Study

Psychology of Applied Sustainability: Exploring the Limits of Human Adaptive Capacity

Policy Diffusion Dynamics in America

The Plague in Madagascar

The Black Death, probably one of the most well known catastrophes, human civilization has suffered is not as much a thing of the past as one would imagine. Those gory medieval paintings and tapestries which portrayed the era of “Bring out your Dead”, show a disease which is still not entirely done with humanity. December last year saw a bout of fresh cases of the buobonic plague in the island nation of Madagascar. With a count of 60 cases in the last year one might think that the problem is in no way comparable in scale and proportion to what it was centuries ago. But the problem in Madagascar till now has been concentrated in remote isolated areas. What would happen in a crowded, over populated unsanitary city is anyone’s nightmare.

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The Storytelling of Science

More than 60-70 % of the people I know on this planet(I know people only on this planet) and who know me by name or face, are men and women of science. They are so by their chosen professions and their much applauded and recognized education. I myself am an engineer, a member of that exalted body of the worshipers of reason and technology which celebrated only recently its annual day of social recognition. A day when all of us stamped with the initials B.E or B.Tech proclaim their pride in being something which we spend rest of the year mocking or cursing.

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