On Butterflies And Binge Watching

Sometimes I just don’t know what to write about. At those times I try to find just a little bit of humour in even the most shittiest of situations, just to find some semblance of sanity in my life. Sometimes, I try to think of all the people I might have killed without my knowledge, simply because of my action or inaction, one event leading to other, forming a chain, and affecting a person thousands of miles away, maybe a couple of years later. The reach of the Butterfly effect is too vast to even try to comprehend, at least when you’re not high.

Would the world have been the same if I hadn’t done that thing I did last week? Would the Universe even exist today if I had completed my assignment on time yesterday instead of sitting on my lazy ass all day long? Who knows? Thing is, the only constant that would be capable of escaping the long slimy hands of the Butterfly effect would be time. Time would go on regardless of whether the Universe still exists or gets destroyed in a freak chain reaction initiated by my assignment.

But is that really true? Would time really be free from the effects of a Universe-shattering butterfly effect chain of events? What if time itself is destroyed by the events? In that case, there truly is nothing that is constant in the face of the ever-changing status quo created by even the most minor decisions or actions taken by each and every being or object or atom in the Universe. That’s when I zone out and quit seeing things for what they are. Things could have been, things might have been, things wouldn’t have been; it all depends on one small thing and that’s all it takes for the butterfly effect to be initiated.

So why this rant about the butterfly effect? A couple of days ago, I noticed first hand the impact of the butterfly effect: how one friend’s decision to dine at KFC led to another friend going broke two days later. I should probably add that Friend 2 was in no way involved in- or even aware of- the whole KFC Dining Grand Plan. The plot could have been thickened a bit if he was involved, but we’ll just let it go for now.

Being that March is usually a busy month for most of us, and unusually for me, here’s what I’ve been upto recently. Aside from the tons of workload and assignments I’ve been flooded with at college, I’ve been binge-watching Grace Helbig’s videos. Like, a lot. On repeat sometimes. Also, I’m back into the podcasting bandwagon; the listening part, that is. RadioPublic is a great Android app I’ve found that helps me subscribe, manage and find new podcasts. So yeah, 99% Invisible, Reply All, RadioLab are all back in my life now, along with a couple of new entries. You might say all this is in preparation for the release of S-Town, a new podcast from This American Life and Serial, which drops on March 28!

Accurate depiction of me binge watching Grace Helbig’s channel.

So will I be listening to S-Town on March 28? You bet I will! Unless my decision to have lunch at Restaurant A instead of B leads to a complicated chain of events that causes the world to implode on March 27th,that is.


If you liked reading this, please consider liking my Facebook page to get updates on new posts and occasional jokes that aren’t that funny.

A new year and a new semester has started, so I wanted to just post a couple of updates before I get lost in the sea of work.

A recent trip to Kodaikanal, a hill resort in the southern state of Tamil Nadu with friends was a refreshing change to the routine existence I have managed to carve out. The various spots we visited, the hundreds (possibly thousands) of pictures we took, and most of all, the experiences I had were definitely the highlights of the trip.

Remember Prompt Replies? My little experiment in fiction in which I used daily prompts from The Daily Post to craft a connected story. I figured that instead of spamming this blog with chapters of the story, I could move it to a blog of its own. Not only would it keep this blog clean, but it’d also provide a nice home for the story. That’s why, Prompt Replies has moved to a new home.

These are the small updates I have for you now. More fleshed out, longer posts are arriving soon and as always, thanks for reading.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Teaser Is Out

The first teaser trailer for Rogue One dropped yesterday. The first standalone movie in the Star Wars saga, Rogue One tells the story of how the Death Star’s plans got into the hands of the rebellion. The story is set between the events of Episode III and IV, closer to IV though.

Rogue One is the first of more standalone movies that Disney intends to churn out, as Star Wars fans become thirstier than ever before for new content. Personally, I like the direction Disney has taken with regards to the whole Star Wars universe, with the similarities to the Original trilogy, the design and sets and practical effects in Episode VII.

So even if you aren’t a big Star Wars fan (Come on, who isn’t?), this teaser is worth checking out. Me though, I’ve been yelling “Shut up and take my money” since yesterday. Rogue One hits theatres on December 16th this year.

Podcasts I’m Listening To In 2016

Before I begin, let me be honest with you. This draft has been sitting idle since January, longing for my attention, but it’s just now that I actually got around to editing and posting it. I’ve been interested in the world of podcasting since late 2014, when Serial blew up and became the poster child of podcasting. I remember downloading single episodes of Hello Internet and RadioLab and liking them, but not enough to actually revisit them.

In late 2015, however, I got hooked onto listening to podcasts. I would download episodes as soon as they were published, slowly growing my library of audio files with intense reporting and light humor in them. Sure enough, it became an obsession of sorts, waiting for new episodes to be posted, pondering over the discussions in the podcast itself. So 4 months into 2016, here are the podcasts I’m listening to, in 2016.

Serial: Serial is an investigative podcast, with host Sarah Koenig, that involves a true story and discusses every side of it, week after week.  Think of it as True Detective for your ears. For instance, Season 1 looks into the homicide of a high school student Hae Min Lee, in 1999. Her ex-boyfriend was convicted of the murder, but there’s just a whole lot of evidence missing in the case. Over 12 episodes, Serial lays out the whole story, the inconsistencies, the doubts and the people who were involved in this incident. Sure enough, if you go online, you might find a lot of people complaining about Season 2. Compared to Season 1, Season 2 just isn’t there yet, but it might, in the coming episodes. Season 2 is still airing, and it deals with Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban in 2009 and rescued in 2014. Now, I won’t spoil everything for you, but do check it out. [UPDATE: Season 2 of Serial is over. You can still download the episodes from their website.]

Welcome To Night Vale:This just might be my favorite podcast soon enough. Welcome To Night Vale is a podcast that’s presented as twice-monthly updates from the sleepy fictitious desert town of Night Vale, somewhere in the USA. It reports on the strange, strange, strange, events taking place in the town, which are sometimes recurring and mostly humorous. Nevertheless, listening to WTNV will definitely have you up at night, creating new conspiracy theories and what not. This podcast debuted in 2012 and new episodes come out every 15 days. I discovered this podcast just this year, so there’s a lot of binge-listening going on right now, to catch up with the latest episodes. Check out WTNV to know more about the dark hooded figures, the lights in the sky and the dog park where dogs aren’t allowed.

TED Radio Hour: A great podcast by NPR that clubs together TED talks on related topics and brings the knowledge straight to you. Add in Guy Raz’s smooth voice that slowly cajoles you to sleep, without boring you, and it’s a great show to listen to, night or day. You have shows dealing with half a dozen talks about open source, creativity, our digital lives and more, keeping you entertained for nearly an hour, filled to the brim with knowledge, wisdom and the occasional TED-talk humor, adapted for audio.

RadioLab: RadioLab is not just science radio at its best, it’s also radio at its best, mostly. Episode topics vary wildly and are mostly about science and topics in philosophy, like morality. It’s just a pleasure to have all that knowledge come in, irrespective of what it’s about. RadioLab has been awarded several times for its audio production style and also the content. If you want new information to just flow into your brain, like when you’re binge-watching Vsauce, choose RadioLab.

Reply All: Reply All is a podcast about the Internet by soon-to-be podcasting unicorn Gimlet Media. It’s a podcast about how we, the people who use the Internet, shape its very existence. Reply All takes the stories and Web culture that most of us are familiar with, and presents the stories of the people behind them.

And now, just for laughs, I’ve included Star Wars Minute, a podcast that discusses each minute of the Star Wars movies in each episode. Starting with Ep IV in the original trilogy, the podcast is now onto minute 90 of Ep I in the prequel trilogy. Whew, that’s quite a lot to catch up! Each episode is about 10 minutes or so long, because let’s be honest, how much can you discuss just one minute of a film?

And well, that’s my list of podcasts that I’ve been listening to. What are your favorite podcasts? Know of any awesome podcasts that I’m not listening to? Let me know in the comments below!

Pulling Your Data From Pocket: The Command Line Style

In 2013, I received an email from Pocket. Apparently, I was one of the Top 5% of Pocket users that year, having read close to 750,000 words within Pocket that year. In 2014, I made it into the Top 5% again, with 1.5 million words read in Pocket. That got me interested. I wanted to quantify what I was reading within Pocket. With that mission in mind, I set up an IFTTT recipe that added what I’d archived after reading in Pocket to a Google spreadsheet. After a year of checking and adding, the spreadsheet was finally filled with the results on one year of reading. You can check out the spreadsheet here.

Everything was good, but there was just a small problem. I couldn’t get the number of words in each article. IFTTT, though it uses the Pocket API, doesn’t provide users with the word count of an article. And to manually enter the number of words in 800+ articles in a spreadsheet would be a crazy thing to do. Indeed, I tried copy-pasting the article text into an online word-counter tool, and gave up after about 9 items.

So, after being one of the Top 1% of Pocket users in 2015, </humblebrag>, I thought of using Pocket’s API to accomplish what I wanted: word counts for the items I’d saved. This little pet project soon morphed into a sort of subset-archive of my data on Pocket. The recommended way to get around to doing this is to develop your own application, but I used cURL on Linux, with the standard bash terminal, to make requests and pull the data off Pocket. If you have experience developing your own programs, you can do this pretty easily, but I’m just a noobie programmer, so using cURL to make the necessary POST requests was the way to go for me. This little tutorial will help you pull your account data from Pocket through the recommended API requests, in a clean way. Before you begin, please copy the code provided throughout this post and save them as .sh files. This will make it easier to execute them later on.

You’ll need to save the commands provided here in a text file as a .sh shell file. Then you’ll need to chmod +x the file, to make it executable. For instance, let’s say you’ve saved this .sh file to your Desktop, as PocketRequest.sh. You’ll need to type

chmod +x ~/Desktop/PocketRequest.sh

to make the file executable. Once you’ve done that, simply type in the location of the file in the Terminal to run it.

~/Desktop/PocketRequest.sh

The first thing to do is to get your Consumer Key from Pocket. This is fairly simple. Just visit the Pocket Developer Console and register a new application. Fill in the details and you’ll be provided with your Consumer Key, like in the screenshot below.

Pocket_Consumer_Key
The Consumer Key is a secret token that shouldn’t be shared with anyone else.

Open up a text editor and type in the following lines of code. You’ll need to enter your own Consumer Key where it says your_consumer_key_here.

curl \
--header "Content-type: application/json" \
--request POST \
--data '{"consumer_key": "your_consumer_key_here",
"redirect_uri": "https://google.co.in"}' \
https://getpocket.com/v3/oauth/request

Assuming you’ve already saved this code to a shell file, you can execute it in the Terminal, as

~/location/file.sh

. This will get you a Request Token. Note that I’ve provided the URL to Google as the Redirect URI. This is because I don’t really have an application that the user can return back to. It’s just a hackey fix.

Once you’ve made the request, you get a response from the Pocket server, straight in your Terminal. It will look something like this:

code=dcba4321-dcba-4321-dcba-4321dc

Note this Request Token down somewhere, because this is what you will be using to authorize this ‘app‘ with your account. Next up, open your browser and go to

https://getpocket.com/auth/authorize?request_token=YOUR_REQUEST_TOKEN&redirect_uri=https%3A%2F%2Fgoogle%2Ecom

Remember to substitute YOUR_REQUEST_TOKEN with the code you received in the previous step. Again, we are using Google as the Redirect URI. This means that, after you allow/disallow the application you created to access your Pocket account, it will take you to the Google homepage. If we had an actual app working here, the Redirect URI would be a way to get back to the app/website we have.

On visiting this URL, you’ll be presented with the Pocket authorization page. Here you can allow your app to access your account. Click on Allow and then return to the Terminal. You’ll need to execute the second file now. The commands are as follows, which you can save to a .sh file for easier execution.

curl \
--header "Content-type: application/json" \
--request POST \
--data '{"consumer_key": "your_consumer_key_here",
"code": "request_token_you_received"}' \
https://getpocket.com/v3/oauth/authorize

This will give you a response like so

access_token=5678defg-5678-defg-5678-defg56&username=your_pocket_account_username

For all future requests, you will use this Access Token and your Consumer Key that you received in the first step.

Now that we’ve finished authenticating your application with your account, we can get to the actual process of getting your data. In case you want to download all of your items from Pocket, with their URL and word counts, save the following code in a .sh file.

curl \
--header "Content-type: application/json" \
--request POST \
--data '{"state": "all",
"consumer_key": "your_consumer_key_here",
"access_token": "your_access_token_here"}' \
https://getpocket.com/v3/get

A problem you might face when executing this command is that the response is dumped straight into the Terminal. This means that if you have lots of items in your Pocket list and archive, your Terminal screen will be filled with tons of gibberish data. To prevent that, when executing this file, we pipe the output into a temporary JSON file, like so.

~/location/file.sh > Temp.json

If you check your Home directory after executing this file, you’ll notice a new file named, obviously, Temp.json. Depending on the number of items you have in your Pocket, the file might be large and be filled with loads of relevant data, like the URL of the article or video, its word count, title, website it’s from, time it was added and so on. For now, we only need the title of the article, its URL and the word count.

You will need to install a tiny utility called jq for our next step. To install jq, type in

sudo apt-get install jq

in your Terminal. Once it’s downloaded and installed, type the following code in a text editor and save it as a .sh

 cat Temp.json | jq '.list | .[] | .resolved_title, .resolved_url, .word_count' 

Again, executing the code snippet above, will just flood your Terminal window with the output, so we’ll pipe the output to a final document file. The following is how you execute this last shell file.

~/location/file.sh > Pocket_Data.doc

This will create a .doc file with your whole Pocket library and the word counts of all items inside it. There you go, you’ve successfully authorized and downloaded your Pocket Data. There are several other combinations of parameters that you can use to download your data, which you can read about at the Pocket API Documentation pages.

If you have any suggestions to improve this hackey solution, please do let me know. Also, I’m not an expert on the Linux command line or about APIs in general. I created this whole solution with a little bit of Google-fu and lurking over at Stack Overflow. Nevertheless, I’d be happy to know how this little experiment worked out for you. Let’s discuss in the comments!

Your Best Work Will Often Be Invisible

We live in an age where almost anyone can be an online celebrity overnight, where any quote or photo or person can achieve meme status in the blink of an eye. We have YouTubers raking in millions of dollars every year, simply by playing games, which all seems a little counter-intuitive compared to the real world.

This is the great equalizing power of the Web: it makes it possible for anyone to reach millions of eyes and influence them. The Web is a level playing ground, where no one has any undue advantage, where everyone can be heard and seen. It’s like the biggest meetup in the history of mankind.

And yet, that very thing is what often drives a lot of people. Be it bloggers, vloggers, budding musicians and artists or even just entrepreneurs, everyone wants to be famous like the incumbent celebrities of the Web; the stars of Instagram and Twitter, the ephemeral kings of Snapchat, the thought-leaders of the blogging world. We try to mimic their meteoric rise, we set their metrics as our goals: likes, retweets, traffic hits.

But the truth is, it’s incredibly disorienting.

The things we love doing are those that we do without any pressure or incentives. Think about something that you do alone. Like maybe cooking a simple comfort food. Or writing little haikus or poems. You don’t do that for Internet fame and money, you do that for yourselves, and it feels great doing it.

I believe it’s the same for blogging. I’ve been blogging since 2010, on a variety of different blogs that didn’t last too long. I used to love it, even though I wasn’t really consistent and the writing wasn’t that good. Every little thing I used to write about resonated with me on a special level, be it reviews of cool new services I’d found online (RIP StrawberryJ.am) or startups in beta. It was a great way for me to share my thoughts (and the occasional beta invites) with the world.

That was until I became a stat-whore. I became so enamored with my traffic stats that I lost track of the why of blogging. I was attached to the number of visits and views, the number of shares, the geographical distribution of visitors and all that. I wanted thousands of hits on my blog every week, and I wanted it now! I started hating the very concept of blogging, simply because it didn’t show any results. I kept writing, trying out every trick there is to attract readers, but none of that reflected in my stats page. In trying to emulate the success of other bloggers, I had devoted myself completely to my stats and away from the reason I loved blogging.

Over time though, this infatuation with stats and fame and pingbacks just wears off. I’ve come to realize that we don’t all have to be blogging legends or millionaire YouTube celebrities. We don’t all have to jump over to Medium, just because it’s the new hot blogging platform and it’s got great network effects.

The best work we produce will often be invisible. It will not get as much attention as we hoped it would. And that’s okay, because what we think of as our best work isn’t our best work. We often produce our best work when we have no pressure on us, no worries about the hits or likes or retweets it might get. Our best work comes out when we are the only ones who can enjoy it. It’s like a small secret of ours, not shared with anyone else. And that’s what gives us the most joy, no matter how stupid the writing might be.

One blog is enough, and the low number of hits I get now, is enough. Frankly, I don’t even have any expenses on blogging that I need to recoup. I have a lot of thoughts everyday, and I find some of them worth sharing, out into the void, if not with other people. That’s why I blog. Online fame and money, if any, is a secondary reward for just showing up and blogging.

In A Web With No Ads, Who Wins?

It’s 2016 and in between the constant debates around encryption and the future of the open Web, we’re also discussing the future of online ads. Publishers have been putting up ads and users have been blocking them ever since we realized the Web was a fantastic place.

More recently though, the debate has been sparked by Apple adding in content blockers in iOS 9. Not only did it rejuvenate the oft-forgotten debate about invasive Internet ads, but it directly pointed out just how important ads were for the Internet giants. There is speculation Apple added in these ad blocking features to beat Google, which derives about 90% of its revenues from serving ads.

The ad-networks most websites and publishers use present a while different set of problems. Last week, an ad-network that spread ransomware through its ads affected mainstream websites like The New York Times, BBC, MSN and others operated by AOL. With ad-networks failing to test the ads they display and publishers testing every avenue available to break even, the online ad-industry seems to be in a pretty situation now. There are advocates on both sides of this debate.

Those in favor of ad-blocking preach about faster load times and reduced intrusion to their browsing history and their privacy. And this is true. Most web services, and ad-networks try to gather up as much information as they can about their users, in order to serve them ads they’d be interested in. This is a great system, if the implementation was perfect. If an ad showed showed me a product I am interested in, or even better, something I was planning to buy, then it’s great for me and the website/app that served the ad. It’s a win-win situation. But as I said, it depends on the implementation being perfect. And it never is. Most apps track everything they can: location, device state, texts sent and received, the list of apps a user has installed, sometimes, even their browsing history. The ads they serve, after gobbling up all this data is still piss-poor and uninteresting. Ads are great. If they show relevant information without making me feel like I’ve sold my soul to them.

Those in the advertising and marketing industry point out that with more users blocking ads, media companies and publishers have no reliable source of revenue. And this is true. We live in an age when most publishers are going bankrupt with declining print sales and a dearth of money to be made online. The Internet’s great power to bestow equality to every voice works against publishers, since everyone is a news source online. There is a huge amount of competition, where everyone has to fight with the same news, for the same set of eyeballs. Add to that, services like Twitter and Instagram switching to a Facebook-style algorithmic feed, and publishers have to work even harder to have their content seen.

So in such a situation, how can publishers make money without having to resort to ads. The first method that might come into most people’s minds is paywalls. A subscription model where readers pay a recurring fee to get access to some parts of the website, or even the whole website. It sounds like a great plan, in theory. After all, we pay for magazine and newspaper subscriptions in real life, right?

But the ugly truth is, paywalls don’t work unless you’re a really big publisher with lots of users and your readership is comprised of people who are actually willing to pay for your content. The content that a publisher wants readers to pay for is almost the same as content they can find on other websites.
Sure enough, there are a few websites that can be considered successful in their paywall endeavours, like The New York Times and The Information. But for small and medium publishers, the question that remains is, how do you get readers to pay for content that they can get elsewhere albeit with a few ads thrown in?

This is a puzzle that is still unsolved and I bet someone with a great solution could make it big in the near future. A slightly hacky solution that some websites have adopted is Patreon, where patrons pledge a small amount of money monthly, to support the creators of content, be it long form articles, like in the case of Wait But Why, or videos, like Kurzgesagt.

For now, Patreon helps support the creators of great content, so they don’t have to resort to having nasty ads on their websites and videos. But in the future, we might see a fully complete system that just might make ads obsolete.