Hola Amigos! Tres Bien Nachos

This article appeared in The Hindu’s Open Page Section dated 15th October 2017

“Hi Amma. Konichiwa!”, said the little fellow as he pranced home from school.

Konichiwa?”

“It means Hola! Hello in Japanese.” said the fellow beaming.

“Oh that’s nice. Konichiwa. It sounds like a tinkling windchime. Koni-chiwa. “

Ni Hao is Hello in Chinese.” said the Hello expert.

“How did you know these things? Did they teach you in school?” I asked.

He pulled out a beautiful children’s book called ‘Say Hello’ by Rachel Isadora, and said he picked that from the library that day. That night we snuggled into bed with the Say Hello book. I must say that it is a most beautiful inclusive book and includes illustrations as a little girl walks through town saying Hello to the various people she meets.

The Shalom Aleikkum, Ni Hao and Konichiwa-s roll out with ease, before she finally finds her Abuela and says ‘Hola!’

The daughter sometimes joins us for story-time, and this time the two minute read turned into a twelve minute reminiscence into what is lovingly known as the Hola Snafu At Cancun.

The fellow at the gates to the resort in Cancun was looking morose, and wondering whether there was any purpose in going on sitting at the resort gates like this. There were folks inside going about their duties sipping a whisk of margarita as they were preparing some for the guests at the bar inside, while he had an iced water bottle that had long since melted the ice and left a puddle around it. Our van pulled up after a day’s trip to Chichen-Itza, and I poked my head out.

Hola! Uno nuevo nuevo deux.” I said and smiled. I gave him the room number allocated to us at the resort, so he could let us pass. It had been a long day with dinosaurs, asteroids, nuclear warfare by aliens from another galaxy, hobnobbing with the spirits of those who built the pyramids centuries ago.

The fellow chuckled to himself and looked uplifted in spirits. Just for this performance of Spanish, it was well worth giving up the spot to work at the bartenders backyard. He waved us in cheerfully, and I said in perfect Spanish. “Thank you Amigos. Have a tres bien day!

I turned around to see the daughter who incidentally learns Spanish up at the school rolling in the aisles and laughing with her little brother. “Did you just think you spoke Spanish?” she gurgled when I asked her what the matter was.

Our van was trundling in toward the resort, so I must have said all the right things, I said Oui with confidence.

“Have a tres bien day! Tres Bien is French Amma, not Spanish!”

It sure was. I had not considered the possibility that French and Spanish occupied the same area in the old brain. Amazing what all happens inside the walnut isn’t it?

“Well Spain is near France, so I am sure they will understand. “, I said miffed that my marvelous attempt at Spanish was being given the rip down by the children.

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“Yes! But Mexico isn’t near France. If I were him I would have asked for the room number again, and keep you there till you got it right.”

I was on solid ground there. Our room number was 1-9-9-2. Uno Nuevo Nuevo Deux.

Nuevo means ‘New’ ; Nueve means 9”, said the Stickler for Spanish Perfection.

“Why didn’t you say anything then, eh? Hola?”

I hola-ed and tres bien-ed and buenos nachos and muchos gracias-ed my way through the Mexican resort much to the delight of the staff there. Some of them taught me that Buenos Nachos means ‘Good Nachos’, not Good Night but smiled along indulging me in my Spanish dreams of fluency.

We all laughed, but the husband said that the important thing is that I made the effort to communicate with them all, and they understood that. Even when I said Muchos Nachos Tres Bien, and Google translator had no clue what that meant, the server who had laid out dinner for us with amazing vegetarian fare knew I meant well, and bestowed an avuncular smile on me.

The recent mass shooting at Las Vegas has horrified America yet again, and the press has said the latest terrorist attack was because the terrorist was a lone wolf. (Yes, when an act is calculated and carried out to spread terror, it is a terrorist attack, ask any fellow who works up these places that curates dictionaries and so on. The press seems to have this curious idea that the word can only be applied to certain sub sects of people, though the feeling of terror is universal.)

Anyway, as I was saying the Lone Wolf – I read a book by Daniel Byman a professor on Middle Eastern studies who tried to see the correlation between how terrorist organizations recruit and train towards extremism and any other factor (economic, academic, geographic), but came up with no correlation whatsoever. It was baffling. There was only one unifying factor among each of the recruits: They were all Lone Wolves. 

That got me thinking that every time we spot someone feeling lonely in our community, why not send a Hello or Hola or an Konichiwa or Ni Hao or Namaste or Salaam Alaikkum their way? We never know when a simple smile and word can change the course of one’s day. A smile is as universal as loneliness after all.

 

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Freedom Is Sweet

Driving through lush green hills, past wide rivers and huge boulders, the route was marvelous. We had been a-visiting India for a short trip. The roads were smooth, and the rain clouds brought on a blast of monsoon rains. The little car burst forth joyfully on the empty roads swerving like a little child to splash puddles along the way.

The driver may be a grown man who sports whiskers on his face, but the heart the body houses is a child’s when it rains.
“You know? Two years ago, I took this road and it was agonizing to drive. The road was full of potholes, and our backs were sore for days.” he said smiling before splashing a big puddle again. The brother was driving and we were on the way to the city where my parents lived.
“What changed then?” I asked puzzled, for the gray ribbon in front of us was smooth and clean.
“Politics happened. The interim chief minister’s constituency is somewhere on this road, so we got our lovely scenic route done up – no charge.”

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We reached home and affectionate greetings exchanged between parents, grandparents and children alike. A little while later, I was sprawled on the couch listening to the pater rile himself up with the news. Blithering-idiots-the-lot-of-them-are, seemed to about the gist of it, and I watched him amused.

The next day was Indian Independence Day, and the politicians were scrambling to see whose speeches would get maximum coverage on television, while ensuring that important topics of daily living were tabled for later. One incensed statement from the host of the News network forced the father to mute the television, and launch into a full scale explanation of politics that is best explained with a bedtime story. If you would snuggle in and close your eyes. Good then..:

There was a diamond ring, and everyone wanted it. But one strong, majestic troll had it, and did not let anybody else touch it. One day, the troll died, and all the remaining trolls fought each other for the ring. The troll children were hungry and thirsty, but that bothered no one. They are still fighting for the ring.

The End.

I know what you are thinking. As far as bedtime stories go, that was pretty rotten! I agree, but the state in which the parents live had recently lost their chief minister, and the squabble around the position was enough to make reality show hosts blanch. The populace has learned to look at the ensuing drama as such, and take a philosophical view of enjoying the good roads while they lasted.

We chewed the fat about the latest situ. in the United States, and how divisive strains were making themselves heard, and how we must do all we can to fight it.

Like Mark Twain said, The truth is stranger than fiction, but that is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities whereas the Truth isn’t.

The next day was August 15th – Indian Independence Day, and we chirped with the birds, looked smart and went down for the flag hoisting in the community. I had with me my son and nephew – both five year olds who were eager for any activity involving the outdoors. As they stepped out, the boys were warned that they were not to take more than 1 sweet when offered the plate after the flag hoisting. If they were pups, I could have seen their ears drooping, but they bore the blow stoically enough and charged downstairs.

I stood there marveling at the fact that a month earlier we had celebrated Independence Day in the US. I looked around at the knot of people with whom I was celebrating Indian Independence Day. The stupendous privilege of celebrating Independence Day in the world’s largest democracies was not lost on me. To every one of us who looked at the flower petals fluttering down from the flag, freedom meant a different thing. To some of us, it meant living peaceful lives, to some, it meant having the right to dream, to some others, the ability to dissent. But we all agreed that it deserves celebration.

independence_day

Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book about the oppressive regime in Iran, was still in my mind, and as I was in the habit of reading particularly affecting passages to those near me ( a malady I inherited from the pater), I was doubly grateful to Democracy in spite of all its pitfalls. Fighting for diamond rings or no, taking a stand against divisive policies or not, we have something worth fighting for.

Afterward, we walked towards a small store. The path was an exciting one – past barking dogs, and motorcycles weaving their way through the streets. I smiled and asked for some chocolates for the lads. Their faces lit up with joy: Freedom is sweet.

 

Do Not Hate In The Plural

I was reading a short story by P.G.Wodehouse on the train. These are the times when I most mistaken for a lunatic. My seat shudders with unconcealed mirth. I giggle, laugh and sometimes wipe away tears of laughter, while the world is going about the stern business of earning a living. He is one of my favorite authors, and after every few books that makes me mope around the world pondering on the wretchedness and seriousness of life, I turn to a P.G.W book to remind myself that tomfoolery is a virtue to be exalted and celebrated. His turn of phrase, his romping joy, is enough to set me straight.

When I read his autobiography ‘Over Seventy’ a few years ago, I could see that the septuagenarian viewed his own life pretty much the same way he came across in his writing: Sunny and delightful. In his own words, he simply lacked the life required for a gripping autobiography because one needs some level of suffering to bung into the thing. “My father was plain as rice pudding and everyone in school understood me perfectly.” he wrote.

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So, it must have been particularly jarring to the man when he was treated as a pariah in his own country.

P.G.Wodehouse had his head in books and led a sheltered life. Whether it was Blandings Castle, or Jeeves rescuing his young master, his thoughts were almost always occupied with love and the stirrings of the idiotic. P.G.Wodehouse, known as ‘Plum’ to his friends, had a villa in Le Touquet, France where he and his wife Ethel often stayed. Plum and his wife were unfortunately there, when German troops stormed France, and he was taken prisoner at the beginning of the Second World War.

The Germans released him after 42 weeks, when he was nearing 60 as they seldom kept foreign internees beyond the age of 60. Through an old Hollywood friend of his, they sought to use him to make humorous broadcasts about his internment, and he naively did so. His was a trusting nature completely devoid of malice of any kind, and incapable of seeing political propaganda. Though he suffered immensely during his internment – he lost around 60 pounds, and ‘looked like something the carrion crow had brought in’, he did not quite realize the extent of evil and genocide that was happening inside War-time Germany. He simply intended to let his readers know that he was alive and well.

That back-fired, however, and the author went from beloved to pariah in his native United Kingdom. People were looking for a scape-goat and he fitted the bill perfectly. He sadly became his own Bertie Wooster with no Jeeves to help.

Sometime after the Second World War ended, P.G.W was goaded by a journalist asking him whether he hated the Germans for what they put him through. To which the author supposedly replied, elegantly smoking his pipe, ‘I do not hate in the plural’.

A truly astounding statement. It was this statement of ‘not hating in the plural‘ that I sought out to find when I read the books below, but I could find no reference to the actual statement.

 

What I found instead was a man who was not only the world’s funniest author, but also the most hard-working, shy, kind and gentle person, who so magnanimously shared the gift of his sunny mind with the world.

I read all five of his broadcasts in entirety and to my equally naive mind, there is nothing in there that can be seen as treason. It shows how war, and malice can take any inane thing and wring it out of shape and proportion. What is real and what is fake when power is involved?

The piece written by George Orwell defending P.G.W’s innocence is well worth reading:
Quote :
The article and the broadcasts dealt mainly with Wodehouse’s experiences in internment, but they did include a very few comments on the war. The following are fair samples:
“I never was interested in politics. I’m quite unable to work up any kind of belligerent feeling. Just as I’m about to feel belligerent about some country I meet a decent sort of chap. We go out together and lose any fighting thoughts or feelings.”

P.G.Wodehouse was finally knighted by the British Government in January 1975. He died the following month on 14th February 1975, aged 93.

I am immensely grateful to the dear author, even if that means the Prims & Propers of the world lift their eyebrows and look away uncomfortably when I laugh. I cannot say it better than Stephen Fry does on the personal influence of P.G.Wodehouse:
He taught me something about good nature. It is enough to be benign, to be gentle, to be funny, to be kind.

 

The Mountain of Greed

Hiking through the rolling hills one day, I noticed one hill that had the touch of our greed all over it. It was probably a quarry. Set against a state park, this stark mountain made me wince. It was visible from many points in the park, and I moved my eyes away from it as though it was a raw, open, visceral wound. I noticed later in the dozens of pictures I had taken that day, I had deliberately cut this mountain out from my lens. Like my cutting out a mountain from the frame will remove it from my conscience. But it didn’t. I can still see its jagged unnatural edges in my mind’s eye – edges that have been scraped by metal against rock abruptly, not shaped by wind and water over time.

A sight like that got me started on the book called Biomimicry by Janine Benyus, for we have devised a way of life that is not sustainable.

 

 

Our corporations, keen on profitability, raced each other to figure out the best ways in which to make us consume more and more. But we have taken the race too far. It is time we stepped away from the treadmill.

As I gurgled on in this vein, I could not help noticing that there was a spring gurgling nearby. I stopped chattering like a monkey and quietened down, and as I did so, I felt a queer feeling seep into me and fill my being. Could it be happiness or gratitude? Whatever it was, I liked it. When birds, butterflies, rabbits, pinecones, free flowing water, trees and mountains jostle in friendly ambience in the early morning sunshine the way that Gaia intended it to be, it is refreshing.

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Please read this marvelous article on The Sound of Silence – Brain Pickings

I looked at the vegetation around me, and I found I did not quite know the type of trees or the plants around me. Gone were the days when I could tell you which berries were good, which ones made you itchy, and which flowers you could sip to get a wisp of nectar. How do animals know instinctively what works and what doesn’t, while we do not? I thought of the chimps in Gombe Stream National Park, the most studied species in the planet thanks to Jane Goodall’s work.

Quote From Biomimicry by Janine Benyus: Observing a chimp in Gombe Stream National Park, anthropologist Richard Wrangham, says: A chimp I was observing had woken up sick and instead of rolling over for more sleep, she got up and made a beeline. Twenty minutes later she stopped at an Aspilia plant [a cousin of the sunflower that grows as high as 6 feet] She suckered up her face and swallowed a dozen leaves before she moved back to her troop. It was obvious from her grimace that this was not a taste treat. Though chemical analysis of the ingested leaves showed no conclusive proof of medicine, he saw that a spike in leaf swallowing behavior coincided with the months of host tapeworm infection.

We too had this kind of instinctive knowledge with us, and instead of adding to its repertoire, we have accidentally followed another path.

Most frightening of all reports is that one in four wild species(including all taxonomic categories) will be facing extinction by the year 2025.

All this huffing up hills takes a toll on amateur knoll-climbers, and on the pretext of admiring a giant pine cone, I stopped to regain my breath. The pine cone was beautiful: It’s tough exterior, perfect symmetry and overall shape made me look at it and wonder why we cannot build jam jars like that pine cone.

It is hardly the first nor the last time I will come across a Mountain of Greed. We have made extraordinary progress in areas pertaining to the skies, the seas, connectivity etc, but seem to grapple with the simple fact that we have one finite resource on which to live. There are no garages to be built for Earth. No extra closets. This is it.

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I sound extraordinarily sententious in this post, so maybe what we need is a reward system for eco-sustenance, so each of us can tap into the Naturalist nestled in us.

To see a world in a grain of sand
To see a heaven in a wild flower
– William Blake

 

Frog & Toad’s Wisdom

Dinner was done, the kitchen was clean enough, and the children were smelling delightful after a hot bath (They looked and smelled like mops after playing all evening just an hour ago). The kindergartner and I had read a children’s book. After a few minutes, I thought I heard the rhythmic breathing that meant he fell asleep and, I started fiddling about with the phone. I had started with the intention of checking my email, and had gone all over the place, finally grazing my Facebook feed.

Every now and then, an article pops up in my feed exhorting me to rise to greater heights and tell me in 10 easy ways how to become a Better Person. Over the past decade, the nature of these articles has changed. At first, it said great things like Manage Priorities in your list and how best to Stick to Plan and all that.

Now, things have been taken down a couple of notches. We will get you effective to the point of Making Lists. Then, you are on your own. Go back to your phone if you like. If you want to stick to the lists, you must already be efficient enough, the articles say and throw up their hands.

This one told me how to Be Productive in the age of notifications.

‘It has been a long time since we read Frog & Toad’, said a sleepy child’s voice by my side. I looked up and the pair of us started laughing.
‘You didn’t sleep yet!’
‘No!’ he chuckled.
I gladly set aside my phone – pesky little thing telling me how to be Effective and Efficient. Like I wanted that. Pssk Tssk and Zsssk.

’Let’s read it then!’, I said. ‘Yeah!’, he said, and we settled down together. I love those books. I am drawn to the simple problems, the bonds of friendship that endures between them and the humor in them.

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Frog & Toad Eat Cookies

Frog & Toad sat at the tables eating cookies out of a jar. Frog had made the cookies and the friends could not stop eating them.

Hmmm….the brain said, and I glanced at the phone buzzing and blinking with a notification.

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Frog and Toad ate many cookies, one after another. “You know, Toad,” said Frog, with his mouth full, “I think we should stop eating. We will soon be sick.”

The friends try closing the jar each time after taking a cookie.
But they find they can open the jar every time.

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They then try closing the jar, and putting it on a high shelf where you have to mount a ladder.
They find that they can climb a ladder, open the jar, and eat the cookies.

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My mind could not help drawing parallels to the article I had just been reading. The article told me that the way to stop the habit of grazing your favorite apps was to move the oft-used icons to a different, hard to find area in the phone. I had done that, but found myself, swiping a few screens, opening a folder with the apps, and going after them anyway.

I was Frog getting on a ladder and opening the jar of cookies.

Frog & Toad now figure they are going to get a stomach ache soon, and are desperate to stop eating the cookies. So, they decide that as long as they know the cookies are there, they cannot stop. The best path forward would be to share the cookies with the birds and the cookies are done, they agree, and take the cookie tin out into the Spring evening to share with the birds.

Like the wise friends above, it might be a better thing to do, to just ‘share the cookies with the birds’ and be done with it. I pushed the phone away from me resolutely, and we took to discussing cookies. ‘Yummy- I love cookies. Let’s bake them one day.’, said the little fellow. I agreed, and content with that promise, he settled down and fell asleep almost instantaneously.

I lay musing. It is a good reminder for us to read how our brains respond to the demands of technology (we know the effects of Dopamine, we know how companies gain by making us spend more time, but yet…)

Tristan Harris is a Design Ethicist who has taken it upon himself to make us aware of the challenges we face:

Quote from article

“Never before in history have a handful of technology designers working at three tech companies … influenced how a billion people spend their attention.”

https://ww2.kqed.org/futureofyou/2017/05/25/tristan-harris-brain-hacking/

Well….

Not all wisdom is new, nor is all folly out of date. – Bertrand Russell

 

From Dostoevsky to Dr Seuss

uOne evening, I arrived a tad grumpier than I’d like on a spring evening. That day on the train, there was some commotion ahead of me, and I heard a person rudely shout and say, ‘What are you all doing here? Go back.’ His pugnacious intent scared people. He stared at me and shouted. I was unnerved, Then he looked at another one and shouted at her too. In the peak hour rush, he lay there sprawled across two seats and shouted down at everybody. Another one of those people who was spewing hatred post-election. It was a sad sight, and my senses were more alert than usual.

Hate is a virulent organism that thrives on people’s inclination to adopt it. In fact, if you do not put up an active resistance towards it, it will consume you.

A few weeks ago I read, Dr Seuss and Mr Geisel, the biography of the beloved author, Theodore Seuss Geisel or more famously Dr Seuss.

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In the early chapters, one realizes how bigotry and hatred are vicious poisons that can affect people more deeply than we realize. Ted was a school going child in Springtown, Massachusetts, when the first world war started. The Geisel’s were first generation German Americans and though they were citizens at the time of war, it turns out the world around them did not treat them kindly. It is disheartening to read that young Ted Geisel was persecuted for his lineage. He never really got over the nickname he was given as a child, The Hun.

Outings grew rare as Germany became the common enemy and nativist prejudices arose; German Americans sought whatever anonymity they could. Ted and his sister, Marnie, grew even closer, sharing advice on how to cope with taunts on playgrounds and sidewalks.

This boy went on to write books that are loved and adored by children of all races, religions, nationalities and backgrounds. His books only asked for an open mind whether it was imagining an elephant gingerly climbing up a tree to hatch an egg, or a rajah taking a walk down Mulberry Street.

To think that a century later, we are still labeling entire swaths of humanity with these broad labels is deeply concerning. To parrot a divisive slogan is easy, but true growth comes when we question what is being parroted to us.

Our narratives matter, for they become history, and history then forms the basis of our myths. In this beautiful essay by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Dostoyevsky on Good Fellows – Brain Pickings), he says :
It is our responsibility as human beings, to peer past the surface insecurities that drive people to lash out and look for the deeper longings, holding up a mirror to one another’s highest ideals rather than pointing the self-righteous finger at each other’s lowest faults.

Why was that poor man shouting at people on the train? And how can we resist succumbing to this fate?

Dostoevsky:

Judge [the people] not by those villainies which they frequently perpetrate, but by those great and holy things for which they long amidst the very villainy.

Coming up next: We cannot and must not hate in the plural. A lesson taught by one of my favorite authors, P.G.Wodehouse.

P.S: Also listen to this commentary on German-Americans on the centenary of American entering the First World War: http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=523044253

Drones on Kaapi Conspiracy?

The news, is and has been somewhat of a Debbie-Downer and I have kept clear of it. We have instead been listening to heartening material such as Horton Hatches The Egg. This morning, I switched to NPR, and as usual, the news was ready with a bucket of cold water to pour on my head.

The correspondent droned on about how companies in the USA are rethinking employees’ travel plans given that people are made to give up their phones, laptops and even social media usernames and passwords. This was an idea that was floating around in late January:

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/white-house-foreign-visitors-social-media-accounts-article-1.2958851

This idea of asking for social media profiles is abhorrent to me, given that we are further enabling algorithms to slice and dice the populace based on one’s likes and dislikes. But I burst out laughing while listening to it, and probably had folks wonder why.

Lexicon: Maama: Uncle; Maami: Aunty; Kaapi: Coffee

Let us assume Kittu Maama is planning to visit his daughter in the Golden Land of the USA to celebrate his 70th birthday with his grandchildren. Kittu Maama has been flagged as having strong opinions on Sasikala, Filter Coffee pronounced Kaapi and Dasavatharam (still baffled whether his views are on the movie or mythology).

In any case, they being the Esteemed and Respected Parents of Silicon Valley Engineers of Indian origin, the administration rubs their hands in glee to data science the heck out of this one.

That’s when the Mannar & Mannar Coffee Conspiracy comes to light.

Kittu Maama and Maami’s social media posts are intriguing.

Day 1: Shared: Good morning – filter coffee is good.

Day 2: Shared: Good morning – filter coffee is the best.

Day 3: Shared: Good morning – filter coffee.

Day 4: Shared: Good morning – filter coffee is very good.

Filter_coffee_South_Indian_style

Riveting as these posts were, investigators are unable to fathom the train of thought here.

(a) The posts are being shared from someone’s feed, and this person does not seem to rank high on Kittu Maama’s or his wife’s list of adored folks. Baffling. Why would they go and share it everyday?

(b) The original photograph on closer examination (after using sufficient zooming techniques), had inscriptions on the coffee cup that translated to, ‘This cup was stolen from Muruga Vilas.

Could Kittu Maama be tipping off gangs on stolen silverware?

A few days later, Kittu Maama’s daughter calls from the USA, and asks how they are doing. “What is with your coffee posts everyday?, “ she asks.

The investigators on the nose of this Mannar & Mannar Coffee conspiracy case pick up the dials on the board: Phone calls being made and substance being discussed. Tap and apply algorithm. Quick.

“You only said that we should share if we like something? I don’t know why he puts coffee out everyday, I know Ambujam Maami does not make filter kaapi like that.”, said Mrs Kittu Maama alias Kittu Maami.

To which Kittu Maama chimed in, “Yes, in fact when I go there, I hastily say no to coffee. I stop at Saravana Bhavan on the way back and have good filter coffee there before heading back. “

The FBI is stumped. There must be something here. Could there really be no conspiracy here? Just daughter-discussing-ditchwater-kaapi? But everyday on Facebook, and on International Phone Calls?

A dial spins in the other room. WhatsApp shared: Helpfully labelled ‘Coffee joke’

Is it worth putting a drone on them?

Not just yet.

Note: While the scenario above was light-hearted and frivolous, it is useful for us to know exactly how our social media profiles have been used, and can be used in the future.

Excerpt from Nextdraft (http://nextdraft.com/archives/n20161123/turkey-shoot/)

Cambridge Analytica worked on the Trump campaign. They also worked for those in favor or Brexit. Now they’re in talks to score a couple new big contracts.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambridge_Analytica