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Social Media: The Most Dangerous Echo Chamber


social media

With every passing day of my settling down in India, I am finding how the change in India and USA has been parallel. In USA I have seen the two political parties getting increasingly polarized and it has been the same in India. People have extremely strong opinions about things, even simple things, ridiculous and irrelevant things. And the level of passion and heat in an argument quickly reaches stratosphere. Use of inflammatory words is very common. Conspiracy theories are abound. The words “Fascist”, “Nazi”, “Traitor”, “Treason” are being thrown around like candy.

I was wondering what happened. And then it dawned to me.

Social media. Bang.

There are multiple major problems with this social media influenced thinking.

  • Polarization and rigidity of opinions – People are used to post things, about their political and religious beliefs and inclinations on social media and get comments from their friends and family, an audience who is very much similar to them. The opinions they hear are mostly like theirs, as if they are hearing their own echo, hence echo chamber. Hearing the same opinions again and again, just like a magnet exposed to same type of magnetic field repeatedly, their own mind gets completely polarized.
  • Selective empathy – People who have brain washed themselves for long time suffer from selective empathy. They show empathy to one side and completely lack any empathy to other. Granted we are not Mother Theresa or Dalai Lama to feel love for everyone. We have preferences. But at least there should not be dehumanization. The people we don’t like get dehumanized and refused the right to basic human emotions and human reactions.
  • Confirmation bias– People seek out only the information that already confirms what they know, or they think. They avoid the information or publications that might prove them wrong. If the argument is irrefutable, they will cast the doubt on intentions of the writer. There is no tolerance for opposing viewpoint. The quality of objective thinking is severely eroded because of confirmation bias.
  • Emotional reasoning– When you say something and someone agrees with you, it gives you validation, a sense of being right, being appreciated, being valuable. It helps bonding and brotherhood and can generate good feelings and emotions. Since these are desirable emotions, our reasoning often gets clouded. We think, perhaps subconsciously, that whatever makes us feel good must be right. We enjoy agreeing with friends more than we enjoy being truthful, and the cycle of agreeing goes on. After a while, people get into discussion just to agree and to make it a bonding exercise. Truth does not matter.

Over the time, same thing get repeated again and again and again. In our mind, a thought or conjecture is promoted to a hypothesis or a theory. A hypothesis or a theory is promoted to the truth. And eventually the truth becomes an assumption or  forgone conclusion. Original thought, which was probably a guess at best, which has undergoes no scrutiny, is now used as a reference to prove or disprove other similar thoughts. This results in circular reasoning. Since A is true, B must be true. Since we now conclude B is true, A must be true.

And almost all people I have known to be in this trap claim to be fair, to be centered in their preferences. They are completely in denial of the trap.

One strong sign, a red flag that you are biased. If you cannot find anything good in the other side, if you cannot find any common ground with the people with whom you disagree, you are in this trap.

What about Hitler? you might say. Do you find common ground with Hitler too?

And their lies the problem. Hitler was bad, but there aren’t that many Hitlers in the world. If you are seeing Hitler everywhere, there is something wrong with you.

How to get yourself out of these mental traps?

  • First, open and accept that you, and everyone is vulnerable to these traps. The best way to equip yourself against these is knowledge. Google the terms “cognitive bias”, “confirmation bias”, “emotional reasoning”, “echo chamber”, “groupthink”. And read information. These are well known cognitive traps and a psychologists have done a lot of research on them.
  • Second, to check the confirmation bias, actively seek out information that is contradictory to your viewpoint. It can cause short term distress when you are forcing your mind to adjust with a complicated perspective, but eventually it will broaden your understanding and point you to the truth which will result in much less distress.
  • Third, practice all encompassing empathy. Showing empathy to someone does not mean you are agreeing with them or you will surrender your position or you will cease to fight. It just means that you give them right of human emotions such as fear, greed, and do not directly link their choices to being sociopath or evil.  It means that you accept that they are fallible human beings just like you and in different time and circumstances, they could be you or you could be them. May be it’s not hate, may be it’s fear? May be it’s not arrogance, may be it’s insecurity? Give your adversary benefit of doubt at least once or twice.
  • Fourth, when you get a message that gives you some information that just seems too good to be true, seems to prove you are right beyond doubt, put a hat of skeptic and cross check. Find references from reputed sources. Use your common sense. Put yourself in that situation and ask yourself if you would do that?
  • Fifth, and most important, get the hell out and interact with real people and put yourself back into reality. Shake hands, smile, chat, walk in their shoes. Get to know them. Don’t just form your opinions about them based on what you are reading , form it based on personal experience.
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How to be Mindful?


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I have asked this question to others and others have asked it to me. Along this journey, I have some answers.

Mindfulness traditional definition is non judgmental present moment awareness. We understand the meaning of the words on some level. But you understand it whole lot differently when you experience it once.

Do you exercise? If yes, how many of you exercise with a set goal in mind? To lose weight? To gain muscles? To look a certain way, or not to look a certain way? To regain health? To reduce blood pressure or diabetes? Whatever.

For me it was allure of a certain self image. I loved the idea of me looking very buff and muscular. I had that self image of how I was supposed to look. I found a sense of self worth, a sense of emotional security in that self image. I strived towards it without questioning the validity of that self image.

As long as I was working for that self image, I was enjoying exercise in an indirect way. The exercise itself was painful, because I was pushing myself, lifting more weights and running more miles. But I liked the thought that I am making progress towards the revered self image.

Then one day I was mindful of this whole game. I decided to let go of the self image. I had to face the insecurity that came with the thought that “I will not look that way”. But it was far easier to deal with this insecurity than I thought.

I started focusing on immediate reality and my sensations. I started lifting weights just enough that made me feel food. Made my muscles feel stretched and exercised. I ran just fast enough for me to enjoy running. I felt the runner’s high. The flood of good feeling endorphins running through my body. And I loved exercise in that very present moment. There was no goal except to enjoy the very moment.

As I practiced it, I settled into much lighter but enjoyable exercise routine. I started to look forward to going to the gym. My ‘calories burned’ went down, but my attendance to the gym got far more regular. I am nowhere closer to my buff and muscular image. But I am healthy and happy.

We all have this images of happy and secure life. They include a certain type of job, relationship, social status, appearance, possessions. What if we let these images go? And focus on being in this very moment?

Well, “what is a man without ambition?”, you might say.  Would human beings have reached the moon if they did not have ambitions and goals and strived towards it?

The real important question is not whether humans would have reached moon. The real important question is are you at peace right now?

If you are not, and are striving for being happy in a certain point of time in future, there is a good chance that even if you were to reach your goal, you will not be mentally present to enjoy that achievement. You will be working harder to achieve some next future goal. Because you are cultivating a habit of working towards future happiness than finding present happiness.

So you get the picture.

Anyway, here is what you can do to being mindfulness in your life.

  1. Meditate – Cliche. But important. Can’t find time for meditation? That challange will only last for six months. First six months you make time for meditation. For rest of the life, meditation will make time for you. With the increased focus, clarity, you will drop the counterproductive pursuits, unimportant crusades and will find yourself more lighter and free. Download “insight meditation” app on your phone. That will help you get in routine.
  2. Listen – There are plenty of good talks on mindfulness. Search Youtube and podcasts by Joseph Goldstein, John Kabat Zinn. Listen to them while walking ,traveling, relaxing. Read books if you are more into reading. There are plenty of blogs.
  3. Plan for mindful moments – May be set a reminder or two on your phone every day? All you do in that moment come back to your immediate sensations. How does it feel? Is it cold? Hot? Fan or A/c blowing? Are there any sensations of sights, sounds? physical sensations? Try not to judge. Just let them be there.

Why Bad Things Happen to Good People?


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Ah, just some random musing today.

The title question has always puzzled me and I am sure to thousands or millions of people before me. Why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. If good and ethical behavior is no insurance against misfortune and pain, then what point is it?

Religions explain this unexplained balance is by introducing the concept of afterlife and almighty.

We cannot explain what we see,  so we conclude there must be something we can explain but cannot see, with the assumption that balance must be preserved. If we cannot explain things in terms of actions of humans and animals around us, then there must be something or someone beyond seen life i.e. God. If we cannot explain the contents of life of humans and animals, then there must be life beyond death, i.e. afterlife.

A while back I posted the Story of Tao. About how your perception is a “catch-up” between your expectations and state of the world. And your expectations can change and the same state of the world is interpreted totally differently by you.

On one of my walks, I stumbled upon an hypothesis. Ethical behavior is not so much about avoiding bad experiences and pain. They simply cannot be avoided. Good and bad is part of life. It will always be there.

But with ethical behavior you will find yourself in cognitive resonance with the universe. You will gain insights and wisdom. That will eventually lead to enlightenment.

If you were to keep an account of material gains, it will be pretty much the same for ethical and unethical behavior in the long run.

If you are unethical, you will find yourself in a state of “cognitive dissonance” with the universe. This will lead to ignorance, clouded vision, muddied intellect and loss of freedom.

Some days back, I had read an article about management styles. How the symptoms of bad management when managers are trying to control too much are ironically same as symptoms of too little control. This is a situation where cognitive dissonance can happen. It’s a level of wisdom that can lead you to discern the right thing from symptoms.

What use is this wisdom if we cannot avoid pain? Tremendous. Answers Buddha. This is where the gem of Mahayana philosophy comes in. There is a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Pain is a sensation, an experience, an activity of nature. Suffering is an activity of mind. For an enlightened mind which is perfectly at peace, there is no suffering in the gravest pain.

For good and bad people pain remains the same. But for good people, suffering goes on diminishing.

Why We Fail To Understand Each Other?


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On two corners of this world, I am watching two divides. India Pakistan divide in Southeast Asia and another Democrat Republican divide in USA. Of course the first divide has lot more sinister dimension of possibility of nuclear war. And that has historical context too. But more on that in next post.

The Democrat Republican divide is interesting because it’s happening even when there is no reason for this divide to be that strong. After all, both parties support capitalism, human rights and more or less agree on constitution.

What makes the public opinion about each other diverge? Why people completely fail to understand each other’s viewpoints.

And then one of my walks, I made a discovery. I am sure people have made this discovery before. But here it is in my words.

When thinking about someone else, people expect them to behave in a rational and ethical way. But when thinking about themselves, people make decisions based on emotions.

It reminds me of an psychological experiment described to me by a friend of mine. Forgive me for not providing a link, but it was just part of a conversation.

People were divided into two groups and asked to make a choice.

A. Select an airplane ticket at certain price for flying on the route where bad weather and heavy turbulence was expected.

B. Or select a ticket on the route for double the price where good weather was expected.

Everything else was supposed to be same about planes. There was no known technical difficulties and both airplanes were statistically supposed to have the same probability of safe journey.

One group had to pick this ticket for an unknown person. They mostly picked the cheap but turbulent route, because that was rational choice, scary but still statistically safe and cheap. The other group had to pick for their own, they mostly picked the calm route with double the price.

After this, both groups were shown a movie narrating horrible turbulence experience. Then they were asked to make a choice again.

Again if they had to pick the ticket for other person, they picked the scary but cheap route with almost the same probability.

But here is the real kick. When they had to pick for themselves, they picked the safe but costly route even in significantly higher numbers. That means they were more inclined to avoid the fearful experience for themselves after watching the movie. But still they thought it’s OK for the other person to face the fear, as long as it was in their rational interest.

It’s not that people hated the unknown passenger. They  underestimated the importance of emotions to the other person.

When thinking about others, people underestimate the erosion to the quality of life by negative emotions like fear  and enhancement to the quality of life by positive emotions like self esteem boost.

But when it comes to them, they overestimate those exact things things. They want to avoid negative emotions and go for positive emotions, even if it means making a choice that seems not rational.

Two primal emotions  – desire to increase self esteem and desire to reduce fear play a huge role. If you leave room for these two emotions, you would understand the response much better.

Take an example. Think of a recent incident when white cop shot black person.

When white person is thinking about the incident of black person being shot by white cop, their first thought is whether the black person followed cop’s instructions? If yes and still shooting happened, then white people are willing to investigate further. If not, then the case closed. The black person should have followed the instructions.

When black  person thinks about the same incident, their first thought is whether the police followed the procedure. No matter the victim followed the instructions or not, the black person would conclude that if the victim did not pose danger to the officer, the shooting was not justified. The situation when cop arrests you is stressful to both ends and may be the victim was too stressed or confused ?

The white people are more likely to identify with police and allow them some emotional slack, like fear and anxiety. The black person is more likely to identify with the victim and allow them emotional slack, like fear and anxiety.

Who is right? I am afraid both are.

(I am generalizing too much. I know. There are plenty of white people that see black angle and vice versa.)

Next time if you don’t understand the choice made by other person, think of two things. Self esteem and fear. Or rather Self-Love and Fear. If the person has to not only make a rational choice, but also make sure it helps them to do self-love and reduce fear, what choice would they make? And you will surely have a lightbulb moment.

 

 

 

What Makes Something ‘A Medicine’?


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I have been planing to write this post for a long time.

I belong to several Whatsapp groups of friends and families. Many messages get forwarded on Whatsapp. There is a specific type of messages that get a lot of momentum. Messages that claim something is a herbal, Ayurvedic medicine.

So far I have received messages claiming medicinal properties in several fruits, vegetables, herbs, tree leaves, roots, barks, seeds, some common, some exotic. I have been told that anything from lemon to clove oil can cure cancer.

But I can tell you that when my father had cancer, nothing helped him other than established medicine. We tried many things, we really did. And some things did more harm than good. But the only thing that made any difference was Chemotherapy.

And that’s what prompted me to write this article.

There is a widely accepted theory that there is a big giant cartel of Pharma companies and doctors that is out to rip patients. And there may be some truth in that, but on a large scale, there are more good people than bad. There are plenty of companies and scientists working hard to find medicines for diseases. There is a very structured drug development process.

Before I begin to tell you the process let me tell you one thing. Have you heard of a sentence “You can fool others but you cannot fool yourself?” That’s a lie. You can fool yourself. People do that all the time. Your mind can play tricks on you. Psychologists have done plenty of research on that. These tricks are called cognitive biases. Here are a couple important ones.

Confirmation bias – where people like to look for information that proves what they already believe and ignore the information that disproves their belief. This is why Republicans read only news supporting Republican views and so do Democrats. Or to put in Indian context, BJP supporters read only news that makes BJP look good and Congress supporters do the same for Congress. This can lead them away from a balanced view. Sometimes there is a necessary correction that happens when you read other person’s viewpoint, but when you read biased news, that correction does not happen.

Availability bias – people tend to overestimate the probability of events that have recently occurred. This is why a large number of people buy earthquake insurance just after earthquake. Ironically a second major earthquake is much less likely after one has already happened, but people believe it is more likely because they have just experienced it.

If you want to read about cognitive biases, which I recommend you should do because it is fascinating, the Wikipedia article is here. It will make you aware of your own biases and will improve your decision making ability.

Coming back to the medicine world. There are some mental traps that are super common to the medicine development.

One very common mental trap observed in the field of medicine is placebo effect. People just feel better with the thought that they have taken medicine. Often times the relief in symptoms such as headache, nausea, dizziness is very significant and pronounced. This effect can even be seen when false medicine given to the person. Because what is helping them is the thought, not the medicine.

Second mental trap is confounders. E.g. one time doctors observed that a group of people drinking a particular type of wine were living longer. But upon more analysis they found that it was just a costly wine and those who could afford it were rich and could afford better healthcare. So it was not the wine that was helping health, but it was the money, which happened to be the reason why people could afford that wine.

Over the years scientists have developed a very mature and thorough process of deciding whether something is medicine that has checks and guards for most of the mental traps, or cognitive biases.

In the first stage of medicine development, mostly a mechanism is identified. How a particular drug has some effect on particular molecules. If an experiment can be repeated, an hypothesis is built.

In second stage, trials are done in petri dish. Or on animals. If satisfactory results are obtained, then human trials are planned.

In third stage, a small dose escalation trial is conducted. Few people take the medicine and the dose is taken up to see how much dose can be tolerated. If people tolerate the dose well, then the next step.

In fourth step, a larger group of people is selected. IT is made sure that the selection is as diverse as possible for gender, race, age, etc. Typically the experiments at this and next stages are “double blind placebo controlled randomized “. Placebo controlled means a some people get something that looks like medicine, but is really a harmless substance. Some people get the real medicine. If the number of people showing benefit from placebo group is almost same as number of people from medicine group, then you know it’s not the medicine effect but placebo effect at play. Also neither the people themselves, nor the scientists observing the people know who is getting what. This is to avoid their own mental bias. Because if they know who is getting medicine, they might suffer from confirmation bias. I.e. they will tend to focus more on improvements in people who took medicine and report that more prominently. The word randomized means it is decided randomly who gets medicine and who gets placebo. Otherwise if only men get medicine and women get placebo, and men were to respond to medicine better, that would give us a skewed result of how effective the medicine really is.

In fifth step, even a large group, perhaps hundreds or sometimes thousands is selected and same, double blind placebo controlled randomized study is performed. Details records are kept. Approvals are filed.

If everything looks good, at this stage the drug becomes a medicine. But it does not end here. The doctors keep a keen eye on patients taking new drugs and report their findings. That includes side effects, improvements, everything. Sometimes if there are too many serious side effects, drugs are recalled and banned.

At each and every step, the reports of experiments are published in leading scientific journals and other scientists rip it apart to find faults in the theory, the experiment method etc. If the faults are serious, they are improved and experiments are repeated.

After such a long and arduous journey, something becomes a drug.

And when a drug goes through such a long process, we can trust it. That’s why Aspirin or Paracetamol works like clockwork for us. That’s why we know whether a drug is good for babies, or for pregnant women, or for old people. We know what are the most common side effects. We know what is the right dosage.

Now compare this to whatsapp message you received. Do you really think it has gone that much scrutiny? Just because it’s part of our folklore and tradition, should we let it escape all this scrutiny?

Believe me, I am not against herbal medicines. I personally have experience of one medicine that helps me when I have cough – Harad, or (Terminalia Chebula). However I think we should study them scientifically. I am not arguing against the type of medicine. I am arguing against the process by which we declare something a medicine. We have to perfect the process and rely on it. Not rely on personal opinions. Because? Persons have cognitive biases.

We should not just accept them because it’s mentioned in our old books. If it’s the truth, it will stand the scrutiny. If it’s not, we accept someone made a mistake in writing those books.

Often times I think people have cultural lines drawn in their mind. They think accepting superiority of Western medicine is accepting superiority of Western culture. Our culture has been wronged by Western culture, by colonialism specifically. And I get that. But nothing wrong or shameful in taking what’s right in the culture we have problems with. After all, we speak their language and wear their style of clothes.

Actually this type of rigorous examining, critical thinking was far too common in ancient India. They have entire field devoted to that called “Nyayashastra”.  It’s we who departed from our rich tradition of critical thought process  and logic.  We have given way to emotional reasoning. If it makes us feel bad, then it must be wrong. And this habit of reasoning is hurting us more than healing.

These messages and medicinal tips are always shared with good intentions. “May be it will help someone” is what we think. But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Too many disasters caused in this world by good intentions that lack wisdom. Having too many medicinal suggestions but not knowing which one to put your confidence in, not knowing which one you can trust when your health is in delicate state, is not really helpful.

What’s most important is the truth. It’s the truth we need to make higher priority.And if we are not sure what is truth, then we must hold our good intentions in check till we find out what is the truth.

Next time if someone forward you a bunch of message describing something has medicinal properties, please forward them this article. Let’s educate ourselves and spread the truth.

I Have A Dream


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Just a spiritual dream inspired by MLK

I have a dream.

I have a dream that some day the content of my character will have compassion for all sentient beings. The voices of judgement will cease and that my mind will be able to what the Zen calls “thundering acceptance” with a golden mantra, “it is what it is”.

I have a dream that I will embrace this life with open arms for all it has to offer, good and bad and everything in between. The struggles will cease and peace  will prevail. I will realize that undesirable experiences are just part of this life and have as much to offer as pleasant ones when it comes to enriching this life. I will remember what Joseph Campbell says “We all are here not to be happy, but to feel alive.”

I have a dream that I will be able to forgive myself and others with ease, for we are all just humans. There will be compassion for me as well as for others. There will be no guilt, no shame, because guilt and shame do not work. There will be no using self abuse as mechanism for self improvement. Willingness to inflict self abuse is the first thing that must be improved.

I have a dream that I will face the truth every waking moment. Because every moment we don’t face the truth, leads us to a wrong worldview. Every error in our worldview eventually leads to a conflict and confusion. Every conflict and confusion leads to a battle within ourselves. A battle within ourselves is a battle we always lose.

My dream is to have a fluid, all encompassing awareness of this world that is free of conflicts, ignorance and full of compassion and wisdom.

I have a dream that I will need very little from the world outside because I will have a rich inner world. My relationship with this world will be that of interdependence and harmony and not of consumerism and greed.

I have a dream that I may conquer fear of death, because as a soul, there is no such thing as birth or death for us, only transitions we remember and transitions we don’t.

I have a dream that my mornings be filled with gratitude , my afternoons with acts of compassion, my evenings with reflection and my nights with silence.

I have a dream that a large number of people on this earth share this dream and we all help each other to realize it.

 

Of Tesla and Tax Breaks!!


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Came across a WSJ article by Holman Jenkins who is not happy that Tesla customers are getting tax rebates. We see articles like this pop up every now and then. I am not an expert, but can’t help thinking “Seriously?”

I don’t know if this is deliberate ignorance or lack of knowledge. The truth is the whole oil supply chain is extremely costly and extremely delicate affair. American taxpayers pay through their nose to keep this supply chain intact and running. It’ just we have never seen a world where oil is not necessary and we are desensitized to all the costs we are paying.

To put it in numbers. The Model S has federal tax rebate of 7500 $ which expires when 200,000 Teslas are sold. After that the rebate goes down to half of that for a few months and then 25% of that and then vanishes entirely in one year.

7500 x 200,000 = 1.5 Billion USD tax break value till phase out begins. Say Tesla sold a hell lot more vehicles during the phase out period and was able to get another 1.5Billion USD incentives to its customers. So that’s total 3 Billion USD for a company in its lifetime.

3 Billion USD. Certainly a good chunk of money. But that’s it. The loan that was given to Tesla was paid back with interest, years ahead of schedule, with prepayment penalty.

And remember, this money does not go to Tesla. It’s just what taxpayers keep.

To put it in perspective, consider the cost of  G W Bush Tax breaks. ‘1.4 Trillion (with a T) reduction in revenue’ is the most conservative estimates. Higher side estimates go as high as 3.3 Trillion dollars.

That sounds too much guesswork and maths? Need some concrete numbers? How about the bailouts? The the first installment to just one company AIG received was 164 billion USD under multi trillion dollar TARP program.

Coming back to industry specific “favors” by the government. Here are the three favors given by taxpayers solely to the oil and gas industry.

  1. Seen that deserted gas station around the corner? Such deserted gas stations are scattered all around the towns and cities in USA? Those gas stations are deserted because the underground tanks developed leaks and contaminated the areas around. If someone were to buy it and make it operational, they need to spend money cleaning the underground first. No businessman wants to take that risk because that cleaning could explode in millions of dollars. What happens to such gas stations in long run? Eventually they get cleaned with taxpayer’s money. Every year USA taxpayers incur hundreds of millions of dollars in clean up such gas stations. Here is an article that states the costs to just one state, New York state run into approximately 200 million USD per year.
  2. Remember the Strategic Petroleum Reserves? These are petroleum stockpiles permanently maintained perpetually as a safety measure against any major oil supply disruption? The amount of oil at the moment in SPR is close to 700 mil barrels. At present value of approx 50 USD per barrel, that’s 35 billion USD perpetually stuck underground. If we had electric cars, we could free some or all of that money for better use.
  3. Have you heard about the USA Military base in Tanzania? No? It’s because there isn’t one. But there is one in Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Tanzania does not have oil. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have. There is a huge cost of operations of these bases, whose sole purpose is to keep oil flowing smoothly. It’s hard to get a good idea of those expenses because everything is secret. But the figure is definitely going to be in Billions of USD.

And we have not talked about cleanup costs of oil spills, or healthcare costs due to pollution, or human costs of wars launched for oils.

I am a taxpayer and I would much rather have my money diverted to a company that might bring a positive disruption than anything else.