Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Octopus and the bicycle

In the "Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy", there is a spaceship known as the "Heart of Gold", which is run by a hypothetical physical law known as the "infinite improbability drive". It keeps appearing randomly at the most improbable place in the universe, to pick up some negative entropy in order to drive through the vast reaches of space. This spaceship is probably the best analogy for describing the early days of the internet. It has been just a few years ago, but many people have forgotten the exhilarating thrill of those early days.  Within a few keystrokes and mouse-clicks, you could go to strange places into the far reaches of the human imagination, meet with strangers and learn dramatically new things. Most websites in those days had awful designs, but there was a human being behind each one of them, putting personal time and effort into presenting new and original ideas to the world.

In the years that followed, the internet has increasingly become alienated from this human experience. In the beginning, people used many alternative protocols to navigate the internet. But very quickly, the internet has reduced to mean only one thing - the "HTTP" protocol used to navigate the world wide web (WWW). Within a few years, this reduced even further to just a handful of websites - Google, Facebook, Twitter etc.,  that most people spend their online time on. Each person lives now in a manicured data bubble that is managed by large companies and governments. This shrinking of the scope of what the internet means has happened simultaneously with the increasing realization of the loss of privacy and human agency in using the internet. Instead of enabling us to meet new people and ideas, the internet has become a prison where we can only hope to meet computer programs that either want to sell things to us or to spy on us.  The human has been banished from the internet, and wherever present, he is reduced to a byte-sized computerized doppelgänger of himself. Human communication degenerated into trivial status updates and tweets, as the audience for a long and deep conversation has disappeared on the internet.

I belong to the last generation of people who experienced computers before they experienced the internet. In this sense, I belong to a minority of people who have a living memory from before the technology was locked in. Just like human beings, large computer systems also have a childhood. Preserving those early memories of childhood is essential to remind ourselves of the dreams and alternate possibilities that existed. Much too often as we age, we get stuck in a rigid habit and lose track of our deeper desires. Douglas Adams, the writer who dreamed of the spaceship with infinite improbability drive, also made a documentary called "Hyperland" about the upcoming future of the internet. When seen today, this documentary shows some fascinating glimpses into those lost possibilities.

We lack the right metaphors and symbols to express what we have lost over these years. I would like to present two metaphors in this blog - the octopus and the bicycle, that express two sides of any large computer system, including the internet. I hope these metaphors will give a deeper and more personal understanding, such that we may build a better future for the internet.

The legend of the bicycle

"What a computer is to me, it is the most remarkable tool we have come up with. It is the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds." - Steve Jobs

It may seem shocking to us now, but computers were never supposed to be personal tools of human beings. Ever since their very conception by Alan Turing (even earlier by Charles Babbage), they were supposed to be centralized systems to organize mathematical thought. Nobody understood why you needed to have a "personal computer", as opposed to simply sharing computational resources for whatever you needed to do. In fact, this is exactly what our society is evolving into now, through the paradigm of cloud computing. When we trust large organizations and their computers to take care of our personal information and needs, whether they be Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook or Google, we are acquiescing to the paradigm that we humans do not need personal computers. This was exactly what the pioneers of computer science believed. So what happened in the 1970s and 80s requires some explanation. This personal computing revolution, as visible to the public through Apple and Microsoft computers and software, was a strange anomaly that needs to be explained. This is where we need the metaphor of the bicycle.

In the Swiss town of Basel in April 19, 1943, a chemist named Albert Hoffman had experimented on himself with a small dose of a synthesized chemical that had profound effects on his mental state. He experienced intense hallucinations and requested to be escorted back home. Since there were no motor vehicles available, he rode his own bicycle, taking a trip that was simultaneously physical and metaphysical. That chemical was LSD. In the later years, it profoundly impacted research into psychology, apart from influencing pop culture at large. Hoffman's bicycle trip is commemorated to this day as "bicycle day" by psychedelic enthusiasts.

But before LSD was discovered by the counter-culture, it was being used in scientific laboratory experiments on volunteers. One of the first set of experiments were done in the San Francisco bay area, on a set of physicists and computer engineers. The altered mental states offered by psychedelics were considered an indication of the vast potential for the augmentation of mind, as being investigated by computer engineers. This specific mind augmentation project was the brain child of Doug Engelbart at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), who had a singular vision of humans working in tandem with computers.  His contemporaries were thinking of computers merely as tools for automating the thinking process, thereby solving mathematical problems in symbolic logic. The common metaphor used was the mechanical clock. But Engelbart had a different vision, he saw the computer as a vehicle that could be used to transport the human mind and to connect with other humans. His vision was so extraordinary that he had a tough time explaining this to his peers and very few people got it. The psychedelic experience had been crucial for many of those people to grasp this vision. The intense personal nature of this experience also proved that any computer-based augmentation needed to be also personal. One of the engineers who grasped this first was Alan Kay. He used the metaphor of the bicycle to refer to a personal computer,  a personal vehicle for the augmentation of mind.

By the early 1970s, an environmental movement has also germinated in the bay area. An influential event was the publication of the Whole Earth Catalog, showing the picture of the earth as taken from space. Riding a bicycle was also a matter of showing environmental commitment. Alan Kay never drove a car and became part of this bicycling community in Palo Alto. He persisted in his vision that computers need to be direct personal extensions of human intellect, as easy to learn as it is for a kid to ride a bicycle, thereby becoming a new medium of expression as Marshall McLuhan formulated. It was extremely hard to communicate this vision in an era of massive mainframe computers. What both Engelbart and Kay had on their side was a remarkable revolution of miniaturization of electronic integrated circuits, known as Moore's Law. Gordon Moore of Intel popularized the notion that electronic chips were shrinking rapidly and at an exponential rate, meaning that computation would be far cheaper in the future. Engelbart realized this trend far earlier and shaped his entire research agenda keeping faith in this future. The quintessential turning point came when he presented the technologies being developed by himself and colleagues in December 9, 1968. Recognized later as the "mother  of all demos", this presentation showed all the main applications of personal computers and the internet - text editing, video conference, graphical user interfaces, windows etc. But this system also had a lot more possibilities which were later lost in the future due to technology lock-in. Alan Kay was in the audience during this demo and this profoundly impacted him.

Kay later left Stanford to found the Xerox Parc research center, where he hired some of the best engineers from Engelbart's team. He had a unique vision in personalized computing through a very high level language, resembling human communication of ideas. He wanted this programming to be so simple that little kids can do this without much training. This vision gave birth to object oriented programming and personalized windows on a computer screen. Due to strict business practices and lack of imagination, Xerox had been unable to profit from this work.

However, the cascade of social revolutions in 1970s that were unleashed by psychedelic drugs, anti-war movement and environmental concern (all merging into the hippy youth movement) has also produced a popular computing enthusiast movement. This was centralized around the Homebrew Computer Club, which explicitly distanced itself from large power structures like universities and big companies. This club was founded by an idealist named Fred Moore, who wanted a people's computer that could be used by individuals to organize themselves and to plan against powerful adversaries. Many hobbyists have learnt their basic tricks from this club and they all wanted to build personal computers, that they personally and exclusively controlled. Many companies have sprung from this vortex of popular enthusiasm, but the most successful of them was Apple. Ultimately, Apple would grow up to be the heir of the innovations from Xerox Parc and SRI, hiring most of those engineers, including Kay. This was where Steve Jobs got his bicycle metaphor from. This story of the high dreams from the 1960s and 70s, that so influenced our society later, is brilliantly recounted in John Markoff's book "What the dormouse said".

In retrospect, a bicycle is a very unusual analogy for a computer. Unlike cars and trains, it is used mostly by one person exclusively. It is also friendly to the environment, leaving no toxic residues. It is a tool that encourages social mobility. Historically, many men and women gained social and financial independence in the early 1900s, when bicycles were introduced. Many people, especially women, had to fight and overcome social barriers for using bicycles. By using bicycle as a metaphor, a computer was symbolizing all these positives as a human tool for individual empowerment. This vision was a gift from the social and political consciousness of the 1960s and 70s.  But this was a very unusual perspective of looking at computers. It would not be valid for very long, especially after the rise of the internet.

The legend of the octopus

“The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money” - Matt Taibbi 

An octopus is probably the closest thing to an alien being that a human can imagine. Many seafaring cultures have imagined a giant squid or octopus as a vicious monster lurking beneath the seas and attacking sailors. In Norse legend, Kraken is a gigantic sea monster that overturns ships. The French science fiction pioneer Jules Verne used an army of giant squids as a plot device in his novel "Twenty thousand leagues under the sea". where they attack the submarine of Nemo.  H. G. Wells imagined an invasion of earth by octopus-like Martian beings.  This subsequently inspired the popular arcade game "Space Invaders". In an episode of the cartoon "Futurama", a giant space squid called Yivo docks it horny tentacles onto every inhabitant on earth, in a thinly veiled criticism of organized religion. Perhaps most memorably, H.P. Lovecraft referred to an octopus-faced alien monster in his story "Call of the Cthulhu". This giant monster lies dreaming underneath the ocean, reaching into the subconscious of the humans who fall prey to its evil thoughts in the dark recesses of their minds. While waiting for the return of Cthulhu, these humans do its bidding by spreading a cult-like religion with murderous practices. 

What is it that gives us major creeps about the octopus ? Is it its suction cups and sensory organs all over its  body ? Is it its  uncanny craggy camouflage ? Is it its slimy soft body that wiggles through nooks and crannies ? Or is it its tentacles ? I think it is the tentacles. 

Political cartoons have long used the octopus and its tentacles to refer to a huge organization with unwieldy power on many areas - railroad companies, oil corporations, British empire, Soviet Union, and more recently, the secret service and financial conglomerates like the Goldman Sachs. The NSA has preemptively cast itself as an octopus wrapping its tentacles over the globe, in a promotional logo for a spy satellite. This is  a classic tactic for preventing an opponent from shaming oneself, by declaring the shameful act as downright obvious and natural. This is a tactic for desensitizing our vocabulary, but can it unsettle a visceral metaphor rooted deep in our fears ? May be not. The giant octopus and its tentacles will remain a symbol for power that greedily wishes to penetrate every activity, that threatens  the very earth and all humanity.  The story of today is that large computer systems are resurrecting this octopus of our fears. I think the analogy with the cult of the Cthulhu is not too far off. 

In earlier days, the computation required to resurrect this octopus was performed on accounting notebooks and ledgers. Vast monopolies like railroads or empires were built on the basis of precisely modeling the needs of a society and staving off all competition to cater to these needs. One of the earliest examples of using electronic computers to do the same business is Walmart, which successfully outcompeted all retailers out of the US consumer market by precisely modeling the needs of the consumers. But the person to completely realize the power of algorithms in modeling and thus commanding the market is a Hungarian programmer known as Thomas Peterffy.  He founded the field of algorithmic trading on the New York stock market. When it was once temporarily outlawed for computers to bid on the stock market, he created a robotic contraption of a mechanical hand that looked at numbers on the display screen and punched in the right keystrokes to make the bids. He is now a multi-billionaire. 

The vast majority of economic transactions today are conducted through such  algorithmic trading. Behind the interface of economic transactions, there are vast models of computation that predict how people are making economic decisions.  If we consider the computational models to be a giant octopus, its tentacles are probing into every single human being. Just as in a living octopus, these tentacles are hungry for sensory input, spreading their suction cups on every sphere of economic activity. Spying organizations like the NSA similarly nurture another and even larger computational octopus, building a global infrastructure to feed its hunger for data. In the civilian sphere, computer companies like Google and Facebook create their own computational octopuses, which dock their trillion hungry tentacles on every human being and suck up every bit of data that floats by in their vicinity.  The rules of the game for economic success of software companies have changed dramatically. The bigger the computational octopus, the greater the economic reward. It has become immaterial and irrelevant to care for the human experience and added value brought in by software, beyond merely using these as baits to hook up human users to the tentacles.  

The futurist and writer Jaron Lanier calls these computers as "Siren Servers", which he warns will destroy, over the course of time, the very market they model to the minutest detail. Lanier doesn't believe that this will be in the interest of the Siren Servers or the organizations they serve. I think he is wrong in making this conclusion. His error is that he believes that there can be multiple Siren Servers, each modeling activity in its own domain. But I believe there is only one single octopus -  one single Cthulhu that whispers into the greedy subconscious of multiple organizations. In the end, they all want to resurrect this octopus and usher its rule on the planet. Each one of them believes that they are the sole master of this octopus, but they are utterly and hopelessly wrong. 

Lanier acknowledges that there is a race between the octopuses (my term, he calls them Siren Servers) to out-meta each other. Each of these octopuses wants to have the most over-reaching definition of action on this planet and suck up as much data as possible to model everything. Essentially, the octopus that can subsume a smaller octopus will eat it and confiscate its tentacles. This is literally how mergers between software companies happen nowadays. The entire software architecture is discarded and the list of users is confiscated. In other words, the tentacles are immortal and they keep coalescing together. The cult of Cthulhu is now the predominant religion in Silicon valley, where venture capitalists incite young entrepreneurs to hoard users and hook them up with tentacles, with no end game in sight except to sell all this data and users to a gogoolpus like Google or Facebook. 

Can you out-compute the octopus ? 

If we had a time-machine and went back to the Silicon valley of the 1970s, engulfed in all the political tumult and socio-environmental consciousness, it would indeed look like a very strange place. The computer engineers of that day would be outraged to learn where we have ended up. Instead of computers helping individual users to outwit the larger power structures, they have unleashed a consummate spying nightmare. Most of those engineers had participated in the Vietnam war protests, and they would have been shocked to learn that our society has accepted this state of affairs as normal, with almost zero political activism. But after the initial shock of anger and despair, they would also realize how hopeless our situation today is as compared to them. 

In our day, it is futile to even hope to out-compute the octopus. In every quantifiable aspect, the octopus will win. The question for an idealistic start up today would be "What can you do that Google cannot do more efficiently ?". The answer is nothing, or close to nothing. Resistance is futile, join the Borg. 

But there is a catch. The octopus needs to have access to data. If you are able to withhold this data and run the computation yourself, your bicycle will outrun the octopus. It is very tempting to believe that you can build an octopus and ride it yourself. But most certainly, it will be the octopus that rides you and not the other way round. This brings us to a catch. Is there any way to slay the octopus at all, if we cannot grow a powerful adversary to counter it ? 

Ride your bicycle to meet your friends

The greatest gift of human life is the ability to make friendships. It is essential that we do not lose this human essence as we migrate to the cyberspace. It is inevitable that more and more of our daily lives will be conducted online. More sensors will be capturing data about ourselves, from our own homes and within our own bodies, often without our knowledge. It is tempting to believe that this sensory data captured from us is the sum-total of our human existence. It is even more tempting to believe that this is the sum-total of other people. But this is wrong. 

It is an illusion to believe we shall have a complete model of our personalities. Acknowledging this honestly will naturally cultivate humility in us. That is the first step towards meeting other human beings on their own terms, and thus building true friendships. 

We should not force people to do this offline. It had been true in the past that we could log off  from the internet and meet friends in the physical world. But this will be increasingly difficult to do in the future. Most people are unaware that they are perpetually logged onto their social networks, personal messengers and email clients. Thus, it is essential that we develop a culture where we meet people in the cyberspace and cultivate deep friendships in this process. 

How do we do this ? I think we should go back to the dreams of the pioneers and bring back the metaphor of the bicycle. We should be unafraid of riding our rickety bicycles into the cyberspace and meeting friends. We meet other people on their own terms and on their own bicycles. We need to build a culture of sharing bicycles and helping each other with them, without imposing a common design and a common aggregation of data. Otherwise, the bicycle will be just a tentacle of the Octopus. It is possible  that large software companies like Google, Facebook, Apple or Microsoft will also realize this before it is too late.  At their very core, the engineers who work for these large corporations are also human beings, and they cannot deny their fundamental humanity. Most of these engineers, knowingly or otherwise, are inspired by the metaphor of the bicycle, to build a better human experience for everyone. If we build a culture of individual expression of human experience, where the software serves as an individualized tool, we may defeat the octopus using an army of bicycles. 

PS: This post is dedicated to the memory of Doug Engelbart. The image is an art work of Alan Maia. You can buy a T-shirt of this art here

Friday, July 17, 2015

What is DMT doing in our brains ? It may be helping us keep time.

DMT stands for N,N-Dimethyltryptamine. As far as organic chemicals go,  it is a fairly simple compound. It can be synthesized very easily and indeed is produced within many plants and animals. It is also a highly potent psychedelic.

It is one of the key ingredients in the hallucinogenic brews of South America e.g, Ayahuasca of Brazil. We have limited scientific evidence of its effects on the human brain. All this research has been banned because politicians got terribly scared of psychadelic drugs. Thank you, Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, you have succeeded in making politicians shit in their pants. There's no world peace anywhere around the corner, thank you very much. "Turn on, Tune in, Drop out". Crap. Due to the heroic efforts of hippies and their political antagonists, we have banned relatively harmless drugs like LSD and DMT, while allowing dangerously psychoactive and addictive drugs like alcohol. Funny times this.

If you want to read some entertaining popular accounts of what happens when DMT is ingested, go to this article on the Vice Magazine. Generally, people report seeing little men or elves, or self-bouncing basketballs.

Anyway, thankfully some research has picked up now on the effect of psychadelic drugs on the brain. It seems that LSD has therapeutic effects in getting people rid of their drug addictions or alcohol abuse. Here is a popular science article by the Scientific American explaining this. It is ridiculous that by banning LSD, we  have arrested the development of a potential cure and condemned decades of men and women to drug addictions.

LSD got into our public consciousness earlier, but it is a rather unusual compound. But, DMT is a far simpler compound and omnipresent in many biological organisms. It is internally synthesized within our own brains. What is a highly potent psychadelic drug doing in our own brains, during day-to-day activities ?

At present, we have nothing but wild theories. Isn't it a shame?  One of the recent scientific experiments on the effects of DMT is done by one Rick Strassman, who investigated its relation to "near-death experiments". The narratives of people who went through near death experiments are similar to people who took DMT. Ergo,  DMT proves that post-death conscious experience exists, says Rick Strassman. He opines that DMT prepares our brain to bridge from conscious experience in this life to a post-death conscious experience. This is one such new age claptrap that is eagerly picked up by the bead-spinning, organic food buying populace.

I came across an interesting interview on Little Atoms from the British scientist David Luke. He gives a brief overview of DMT and scientific studies related to it. DMT is found in rather large quantities in our cerebral spinal fluid. It is thought to be produced in the lungs, in the eyes, or in the pineal glands. Nobody knows where !?  It is pretty silly that we are still speculating about such issues in our age of fMRI machines.

I think that the psychadelic experiences of DMT are quite entertaining, but they are very much a distraction. There has to be a mundane simple reason why DMT is used in the brain. What is it ?

My bet is that DMT is connected to the internal brain processes for keeping time. There are several internal biological clocks in our body that keep different types of circadian rhythms. Keeping time is essential to doing anything in this world, because we need to estimate velocity of objects as they move. Whether we try to bite into our food or try to escape predators, it is crucial that we keep time accurately and monitor the speed in which things are moving. The interesting thing is that we have not one clock, but multiple clocks that are related to the temporal resolution of events. Some of these clocks are accessible to conscious processes, whereas some are subconscious.

It is known that brain has at least two biological clocks. There is a scientific american article that explains this. One is in the Striatum and the other is in the hippocampus. The former keeps track of short durations of time, whereas the latter is responsible for longer durations. Hippocampus is also fundamental to the formation of long-term memory in the brain, as well as to our spatial orientation. It is known that as we animals evolved, we have expanded on our spatial memory capabilities to store more abstract concepts. As humans, we have highly evolved cognitive processes. Our cortical regions help us to prepare and monitor complex plans of how to do things and achieve goals in the world. In order to the execution of any of these plans, keeping time accurately is essential. The brain does this by monitoring internal physiological processes, like heart beating, blood running into the valves, respiration in the lungs etc. By keeping count of these processes and cross-checking between them, the brain knows how much time has passed.

My hypothesis is that DMT is a neurotransmitter that helps in effective monitoring of these physiological processes. These internal processes can be made into more complex models, for example, as programs running within the brain. These processes can keep track of small sensory-motor loops such as walking, talking etc. It is possible that DMT enables better signaling between these processes and thus helps bring out a global estimate of time in the brain.

Now what happens if a normal person is injected with a high dose of DMT ? This will doubtless cause a  heightened awareness of these internal processes. To the conscious brain, this might be manifested as little men, elves, or (not so surprisingly) as self-bouncing basket balls.

To prove or disprove this hypothesis is a fascinating scientific experiment. I hope these questions will be resolved soon as they will help us better understand neurodegenerative diseases and help improve human cognitive abilities. I hope politicians will not destroy this research this time !

PS: By the way, while we are on the new age circuit,  we may talk about the variety of associations for the pineal gland in Hindu mythography. It is associated with the Ajna chakra in Yoga. It is also associated with Shiva, who is responsible for keeping time in the universe. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Growing old in the age of machine learning

One of these two people will never get old 

"I customarily killed old women. I used to kill my aunts [classificatory aunts] when they were still moving [alive]. ... I would step on them, then they all died, there by the big river. ... I didn't use to wait until they were completely dead to bury them. When they were still moving, I would break them [their backs or necks]. .. I wouldn't care for old women; all by myself, I would stick them [with his bow]"

I found this chilling testimony in the book "The World until Yesterday" by Jared Diamond, in the chapter "The treatment of old people: cherish, abandon or kill ?".This a testimony from an Aché Indian man, given to anthropologists Kim Hill and A. Magdalena Hurtado.

The Aché are a nomadic people subsisting on wild forest resources. Amongst several such nomadic tribes, encouraged suicide or even ritualized murder of old people has been noted by anthropologists. This might horrify us.  But as I was reading this book, I was left wondering if our modern society is any better. This is because specific cultural traits that characterize nomadic societies are increasingly getting common in our current modern society and these changes are being amplified by technology. These include unsteady systems of production, seasonal downturns from economic surplus to starvation, fierce competition for territory, and limited use of experience that comes with old age.  The underlying catch-phrase to denote these changes is "technological disruption". But its practical effect is that our economies are resembling more those of nomadic societies than those of steady systems of production, such as based on agriculture.  So with increased automation and robotization of society, will we humans be trampled as useless old people by robots ? Or will it be some fellow humans, equipped with new technologies, that trample on the rest of humans as futile competition ?

There is currently a scare in popular media about artificial intelligence (AI) and how that threatens our future as humans. I will present more discussion on this below. These scare stories about AI are nothing new and enter our popular culture in periodic waves. However, this time, there is something quite dramatic happening in many applied areas of information sciences as computing power and storage capacities of machines have crossed a threshold. As a computer scientist, I enjoy the success of this research and have the palpable sense of big changes coming. But as a regular person on the street, I believe this important discussion is distorted into extreme caricatures.

Philosophers and pundits see intelligent machines as something akin to God, with immense power to do good or bad. A more sensible view would be to consider them as artificial life forms, subject to Darwinian laws of natural selection and adaptation. Whether we can share a common environment of  successful coexistence with these intelligent machines is a question that is best answered by experts in ecological biology, not philosophy. Just as there are many kinds of living organisms, there are many kinds of intelligent machines. Some are designed explicitly to alleviate the physical and mental handicaps of people. For example, new sensors and camera systems are being developed that can help the blind and partially sighted people to perceive the world. New bionic devices can help the physically handicapped people to move autonomously.  But other  intelligent machines and software systems (connected to the "cloud" data servers on the internet) have different objectives, not necessarily aligned to human betterment. Their intelligence is also very context-specific, suited to various ecological niches in our market economy. In light of all these aspects, we need to adopt a biological / ecological mindset when thinking about machine intelligence.

More specifically, experts in human anthropology have studied a wide range of human societies on how they cope with respect to different environmental conditions and competition. I find it unfortunate that we don't tap into their expertise to the problem of how human societies will adapt to increased automation. It is obvious that this process affects different people in different ways. It can be argued that old people will be affected in a very different manner to young people. In this aspect, it is interesting to observe how the treatment of old people varies across different societies.

In one extreme, we have nomadic tribal societies like the Aché. Other examples of nomadic tribes murdering old people include the Kaulong people of New Britain, the Chukchi people of Arctic Russia,  and the inhabitants of the Banks Islands in the South Pacific. In many other nomadic tribes, old people are abandoned when the tribe shifts camp. These examples include the Lapps of northern Scandinavia, the San of the Kalahari desert, the Omaha and Kutenai Indians of North America, as well as the Aché Indians mentioned earlier. A more benign way of killing old people, practiced by far more human societies, is ignoring them i.e, letting them to starve, to wander off or to die under neglect. This is reported among the Inuit of the Arctic, the Hopi of the North American deserts, the Witoto of tropical South America, and the Aboriginal Australians.

Indeed, old people are of little value in nomadic tribes subsisting on seasonal produce. These societies also have little resources to spare to take care of them.  The situation only changes when the tribes become sedentary, produce agricultural surplus, and have place for new occupations where the old people become an asset with their long life experiences, instead of being a liability due to their reduced mobility and foraging skills.

In well-established societies where the old people's lives are no longer at risk, an opposite tendency evolves, where property rights become concentrated in old people. For example, in the Confucian Chinese, southern Italians, and Mexican households, all the economic authority is vested in the "patriarch", who is the family's oldest living male. In ancient Greece, old people were effective rulers of the society in a gerontocracy. Not only the choicest land property, but also the fertile young women become the property of these old men. As women become mortgaged into relationships with men of much older age, they no longer have the opportunities to develop their intellectual faculties and engage as equals in a society. Instead, they get shunted into a purdah and become mere objects of family honor. Young men and boys become the junior partners in a relationship with older men, which often also turns into sexual subjugation. These social phenomena have been observed in a multitude of societies - Greece in the classical period, the middle east in the middle ages etc.

Thus, we see that there are two extremes with respect to how old people are treated by human societies. This is still a crude one-dimensional approximation. Importantly, the treatment of old men and old women differ in considerable ways.  But it is still illuminating to pose the question as to which direction our modern society is evolving.

When we think of old age, we typically think of physical deterioration - the wrinkles on the face, the weakening muscles, or the graying hair. But more than this, we share a deeper dread about old age,  that we will become irrelevant to the society.  It is this feeling of isolation that makes old age unbearable and kills people. Susan Pinker, in her book "Village effect", studied village societies in Sardinia where old men and women have long and fulfilling lives with complete social engagement in their neighborhoods.  She argues that this social engagement is missing in North American societies, as people have become more mobile and do not have friends and family in the same city they live in.  I think the social malaise is deeper, as our modern societies are increasingly resembling nomadic societies, instead of settled village societies.  It is in this sense that we need to approach how automation affects the process of us humans growing old: Will it accelerate us towards it or will it completely liberate us from it and achieve immortality ?

At the outset, the second premise may sound even nonsensical to a novice reader. But there is a belief amongst technological optimists - Ray Kurzweil being the most famous exponent, about the singularity, which is a point in the near future when machines become more intelligent than humans. Singularity optimists believe that humans will merge with machines - nanobots cleansing our bodily organs, brains wired up to the internet, cell and gene rejuvenation by software updates etc. They hope that this will translate into vastly improved health and opportunities, a hope expressed most vividly by Peter Diamandis in his book "Abundance". This hope of technological hybridization extends even to immortality as the architecture of the brain is uploaded to the cloud.

I look at this tribe of technological optimists as the followers of any other religion, framing their beliefs as a matter of faith. In reality, there is not much evidence to show for a technological rapture moment. But the elite of the software industry take this seriously.  Google is closely involved with the Singularity university of Kurzweil.  Just as there are singularity optimists, there are singularity pessimists. Bill Joy, co-creator of  the Java programming language, wrote an influential essay in 2000 titled "Why the future doesn't need us?".  Philosophers such as Nick Bostrom worry about "existential risk", where super-human intelligence might annihilate 100% of humanity. This is taken seriously by the likes of Elon Musk.  Nick Bostrom gives an analogy about chimpanzees, who are genetically very close to humans, but who depend completely on the grace of humans for their survival. So he argues, the survival of us humans will be at the grace of super-human machines. However, in order to do great harm, machines need not be "intelligent",  "conscious", or even "malevolent".  A rogue AI with all the intelligence of a flu virus can do great harm. This may cause collapse of economies or even the death of vast numbers of humans. But this does not qualify as "existential risk", as at least a small percentage of humans and human institutions will still be alive and  functional. To compare, even climate change, one of the most severe threats facing us humans, is also not an existential risk.  In contrast, a super-human AI is considered capable of destroying 100% of humanity.  A comparable risk is an asteroid impact that destroys our inhabitable earth. Why are the elite of the software industry, like Elon Musk, fixated on such existential risks ?

If I want to be uncharitable, I can say that it is because it is a risk that concerns them personally. Even if 99% of the humanity gets destroyed, the elite of the industry will most likely survive. But existential risks like a hypothetical super-human AI are a different story. But I don't think it is a conscious bias. It may simply be due to the lack of a compelling alternative narrative on the risks of machine intelligence.

In fact, even short term trends about automation in the current age don't look distinctly beneficial to humans. One of the most vocal authors on the debilitating effects of automation on our economies is Martin Ford, whose new book "The rise of the robots" argues how intelligent machines may be shrinking our economies and raising unemployment to obscene levels.

While discussing about optimists such as Kurzweil and Diamandis, Martin Ford says,

 "In general, technology optimists tend to underestimate the impact inequality. They don't think enough about what this means for 90% of the people. Of course, these are extra-ordinary people. Ray Kurzweil probably does not hang out with average typical people. He is living in an elitist tower."

Ford argues for a guaranteed minimum income for all humans.  This may be an improvement, but a minimal income may not necessarily mean an opportunity to rise up.  A cautionary tale is what befell aboriginal peoples when they were put into reservations by colonialist powers. With their traditional ways of life destroyed and without any hope for future, most of these aboriginal people succumbed to alcoholism and other addictions. It is quite possible that such a predicament may befall a vast majority of the human race.  Here is another testimony from Jared Diamond himself, from his earlier book "Guns, Germs and Steel"

"As a teenager, I spent the summer of 1956 in Montana, working for an elderly farmer named Fred Hirschy. Born in Switzerland, Fred had come to southwestern Montana as a teenager in the 1890s and proceeded to develop one of the first farms in the area. At the time of his arrival, much of the original Native American population of hunter-gatherers was still living there. Among the farmhands, there was a member of the Blackfoot Indian tribe named Levi, who behaved very differently from the coarse miners - being polite, gentle, responsible, sober, and well-spoken. He was the first Indian with whom I spent much time, and I came to admire him. It was a shocking disappointment to me when, one Sunday morning, Levi too staggered in drunk and cursing after a Saturday-night binge. Among his curses, one stood out in my memory.  

-"Damn you, Fred Hirschy, and damn the ship that bought you from Switzerland!"      
It poignantly brought home to me the Indians' perspective on what I, like other white schoolchildren, had been taught to view as the heroic conquest of the American west. Fred Hirschy's family was proud of him, as a pioneer farmer who had succeeded under difficult conditions. But Levi's tribe of hunters and famous warriors had been robbed of its lands by the immigrant white farmers." 

When people living in traditional societies make contact with modernity and avail themselves of modern appliances, healthcare and state-supported institutions, their material well-being undoubtedly gets better. However, this improved material well-being does not always translate into more fulfilling lives, greater social engagement, and most importantly, into greater hope and opportunities. As the modern society races past like a super-fast train, traditional people often feel left behind. They don't find the necessary means or skills to contribute to a changing society. Consequently, a lot of them suffer from addiction (this is also an under-current in the above passage by Diamond). Drugs and alcohol take a huge toll on these unfortunate people.

With the increasing success of machine learning algorithms, the whole of humanity is under a similarly grave threat of becoming obsolete and losing hope for a meaningful engagement in society. The scale of this threat is inconceivable for even highly intelligent and educated people. So we argue about what kind of education we can give for young graduates in the universities to "compete against" the machines. The short and simple answer is none. Nada. Zilch. There is nothing that a machine cannot do when  trained on sufficient amount of data. The first jobs to get automated will be those where data is readily available or those where the salaries are at a premium: "expert systems" were first developed in the 1980s for automating medical guidance. Essentially, old people (experts with experience, but unable to learn new skills) will be automated first. Highly skilled engineers in many developed countries are already facing severe risks of losing their jobs as the pace of technological change is getting faster than the speed at which they can learn new skills. Thus, the allegory of the Aché Indian man murdering his aunts, related in the beginning, is applicable figuratively, though thankfully not literally, to the current situation in technological employment. It has to be noted that to be replaced by a machine, the task does not need to be completely automated, but only partially automated and thus shipped off to a human with far fewer skills, and thus willing to work for much cheaper.  An analogous situation has developed in the creative sectors, where the vast majority of artists, journalists and musicians are being pushed out of professional employment and surviving on the margins of the organized economy. Intermittent work opportunities force the majority to adopt a "technomadic" lifestyle with few or zero social benefits. This is particularly true of work in the visual effects (VFX) industry.

Thus, it is the "cool jobs" that are being lost first to automation by software. There is not as much financial incentive to automate "crappy jobs". It is said that robots will automate jobs with the 3 D's - Dirty, Dangerous or Drudging (Repetitive). This is no longer the priority for technology on the market. The software guru and investor Marc Andreessen famously said "Software is eating the world". A more accurate saying would be "Software is eating old people" (By that, I mean people with skills and experience acquired over a lifetime, and with limited budget of time and resources to change). But as the cost of machine learning gets lower and lower, and data is collected from every single human individual (sometimes surreptitiously by spying), even simpler tasks will get automated.  In effect, every human being will have a virtual copy of himself on the cloud, eager to perform all the tasks he is capable of, but better and vastly cheaper.  As machine learning continues to get cheaper and better, the effective age of replacement by a machine will sink lower, ultimately replacing even young people. How do we create hope for humanity in such a society ?  I think this is a more urgent question than worrying about the risks of a super-human AI.

Another interesting author to consider is Jaron Lanier, who specifically analyzes creative industries and the devastating effect that the internet had on musicians, artists etc. He argues for intellectual property protection and micro-payments built into the very structure of content consumption on the internet, as first devised by hypertext pioneer Ted Nelson. Property rights are an important means of protecting the interests of old people, and they arose first in agricultural societies. The desire for stronger property rights, especially on intellectual property, is greater in older economies and in countries with greater numbers of old people. But taken to the extreme, property rights stifle innovation and make the young subservient to the old.  An even greater risk is that property rights don't necessarily encourage production, but merely function as a rent of passage through constrained distribution channels. This will stifle the economy. We need to create a hopeful society for both young and old humans, but with a clear understanding that nobody can ever be younger than a machine.

I don't have a solution myself. I don't know if any of those proposed solutions will work, but I agree with Ford and Lanier that we do have a grave problem ahead of us, as the age of machines need not necessarily be a good age for us humans. I am not talking about a future mythological moment where machines overtake human intelligence. I am talking about our regular computers, information processing on the internet, and machine learning applications already possible today. As a computer scientist, I believe this is an existential question that we need to face, especially those of us working in data science and machine learning applications. A gifted engineer known as Thomas Midgley had once single-handedly managed to almost destroy earth's ecosystem, by creating and spreading CFCs that ate the Ozone layer. I fear that we machine learning researchers can be unwitting successors to Midgley, if we don't pay attention.


BBC Interview of Jared Diamond at the Royal Institution (go to 22:40 for comments on treatment of elderly people)

TED talk by Peter Diamandis, about his optimistic vision for the future:

Introduction to "The World until yesterday" by VSauce, which also talks about Thomas Midgley:

Nick Bostrom talking about existential risk. Please note how the interests of future humans (progeny of the 1% of human survivors) are compared against those of the majority who perish. Existential risk for humanity is a serious issue, but thinking about this has to be tempered with a notion of democracy:

Susan Pinker on her book "The village effect", explaining how engagement in the society is essential for old people to have long fulfilling lives: 

Martin ford on his books "Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future" and  "The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future"

Jaron Lanier on his book "Who owns the future ?".

Dedication: This post is dedicated to the memory of John and Alicia Nash, who died recently in a tragic accident. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Tweedle-dee Tweedle-daa Life goes on..

These days in France, freedom of speech is on the menu. It is the sizzling entrée of discussion amongst friends and coworkers in offices. It is the plat principal of public TV debates, between  distinguished people dressed in suits and spectacles. It is the dessert to mull over during family reunions. It is the cognac to wind it all down, in the comment sections of newspapers and in social media.

Every Frenchman worth his salt, and his roquefort cheese, is swearing on the Marianne herself (the grim-looking arbiter of the values of the French republic) that he will have nothing less than la liberté d'expression absolue. The French are generally an emotional race and when they feel very strongly about something, even a good thing, they end up doing something chop chop chop in the public square. But what exactly is getting the snip of the blade now ?

Any snaffling voices questioning the premises of this debate are getting muffled and snuffled. It is considered better to do so than ruffle any unnecessary scuffles.  After the vicious attack in Paris, it became more important to show a sense of unity and stand together. Here lies the paradox. Does the liberty of expression have any relevance if there is nothing to express and nothing to squabble about ?

So what is with this liberty of expression ?

Every sod, prick and granny has an opinion. And they have an opinion about expressing opinions. The problem is that they all do so very differently. A professional sod thinks he is serially shortchanged in his life and likes to whinge about it. A professional prick thinks it is his sacred duty to annoy the hell out of other people.  A professional granny wants everybody to just shut up and be quiet about it. So how do we prevent professional pricks from picking on prickly sods ? And how do we convince grannies that we don't muck about in our speaking business and be civilized about things ? This is a question that is as old as democracy, that is to say, at least two thousand years old. So inevitably, I have to talk about monkeys, gossiping, the mafia, the unconscious brain, self-censorship,  and finally about Socrates (the bastard who started it all). I don't have time for all that today.

But I will relate a simple scenario that easily opens up to common sense. Imagine a regular fellow who is going about his business. Let us call him Mr. Tweedledum.  As he is trodding on his daily do, roughing up his ploughs,  putting two and two together about his business, imagine a large bunch of people go up to him and chant.

"..Tum tum tum tum tum, Mr. Tweedledum 
Careful with your bum, Mr. Tweedledum.."

"..I am not your chum, Mr. Tweedledum
And careful with y'r bum, Mr. Tweedledum.."

If this racket goes on for long enough, it would be natural for Mr. Tweedledum to wonder if something is wrong with his bum. He may reasonably think that his bum is in some grave danger, and that somebody is out to get it.In his inner consciousness, he would see his bum getting bigger and bigger, to the point of eclipsing every other element of his body.  Ultimately, he would get twitchy at the very mention of his bum. But the mental gravity over this problem has already turned so acute that there is no going back. The non-mention of the bum would be felt as severely as the mention of it.

We humans have a peculiar kind of consciousness. If we keep paying attention to a topic for long enough, it will expand in our mind and colonize all our brain cells. Movie directors know this very well and use these tricks to drive their narratives of the plot. In a grander and wickeder scale, news media drives the narrative of our social debate using similar devices.

Let's come back to Mr. Tweedledum. He has twee diddly eyes.  But he still got his bum. He has a sprigly jiggly step. But he still got his bum. He has a sparkly crackly voice. You see where it is going.

You see, speech is a complicated business. And freedom is even more complicated. It is a bloody complicated world out there.  We cannot just snip away all the rough edges, fold it down to an equation that explains everything, put it in an envelope, seal it, and proclaim the situation is under control. It is not.

We need to keep dribbling the trifles. Keep fiddling the befuddling stuff. Keep budging the curmudgeons. We need to keep poking at apocopia.

I just invented a word.

Apocopia (n): The tendency to chop the last letters of a word, or the last say in a debate, especially if the concept in question is infinite in length or even much longer.

I really didn't invent the word out of nothing.  I don't have any copyright on this. Please refer to the list of apocopations in the English language: words which are chopped up by people who think they are cool.  I don't have any problem with cool people, or with chopping up words, but we should do this in moderation and remember that there is a bigger story behind.

Just like myopia, somebody suffering from apocopia will not be able to see properly. A subway sandwich and a submarine will both be "sub" for him.  But only one of them is good for lunch.

I hope we remember Mr. Tweedledum for his sprigly jiggly step. Or for his twee diddly eyes. In fact, however much we may pretend otherwise, we are all Tweedledums, who keep twiddling about the riddles in this life.  We keep bumbling up the big jumble of this world. We cannot know every nook in the whole gobbledygook. We are just works in progress.   The situation is far from satisfactory and definitely not under our control. The best we can hope for is a good sense of humor.

Tweedle-dee Tweedle-daa.. Life goes on.

(With apologies to the Beetles, Lewis Carrol  and the million other references in my not-at-all-original opinion)

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Dilemmas of an environmentalist vegetarian

"Why did you become a vegetarian ?"

This is a question I dread replying to, but I get asked every other time. There are two reasons I don't like this question - firstly, I don't like lecturing people on my personal habits, and  secondly, I don't completely know the answer myself.

I hardly ate any meat for the first 16 years of my life as I  grew up in a culturally vegetarian family in South India, though our family was not religious at all. Then  I went to the university, realized I didn't have any objections to eating meat, and decided to give it a try. In the beginning, it was awfully hard; a regular meat eater cannot imagine the horror of a first timer tugging into flesh. But I slowly got used to it and rejoiced in the expansion of the menu when I ate outside.

In India, there is a long history of vegetarianism and it is quite easy to find vegetarian food wherever you go. There is indeed a prejudice against meat eaters,  various communities getting placed in the caste hierarchy according to the supposed purity of their vegetarian habits. Growing up in a liberal and atheistic household, I definitely hated the squeamish habits of vegetarians and their supposed smugness and superiority. It is only as I grew older, and specifically after I came abroad, that I found other reasons to be vegetarian.

Simply put, the world eats far too much meat these days. It is not possible to sustain these habits of a highly concentrated and urbanized population, without wrecking havoc on the environment and treating animals with monstrous cruelty. That is exactly what industrial meat production does, and people buying meat on supermarket shelves are oblivious to it. For the most part of human history, people living in agricultural settlements didn't eat more than one portion of meat per week.

Eating meat has the most severe impact on the environment : both on carbon footprint and on the often-overlooked water footprint. Producing 1 kg of beef requires 15400 liters of fresh water, in terms of animal feed production etc. When meat  is produced on industrial scales to cater to the daily hunger of consumers, this impact percolates globally onto the most sensitive ecosystems of the planet. Rainforest gets chopped up for animal rearing, and for soy-farming to produce animal feed. I find this unconscionable as a human being, as species-extinction rates rocket up and ecological niches shrink alarmingly small for even the surviving animal species. I know my personal eating habits can hardly change the course of human and planetary history, but I decided to be a vegetarian as a way to remind myself (daily) of this problem, as I forego meat on my dinner plate. For this same reason, I have been eating less and less meat for the last 2 years, but three months ago, I decided to call it quits and call myself an environmentalist vegetarian.

But I don't want to pontificate, or proselytize, or piss off anyone.

Everybody needs to live their lives according to their own dreams and desires. But I think it is not wrong to ask anyone to be more conscious of themselves, and of their choices, and of their impact on others. Being conscious at an intellectual level is the unique gift of human existence. To quote my favorite vegetarian - Albert Einstein "..A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving..." I think it is not just men, but we should be equally thankful towards the various animals and plants that share this planet with us, and on whom we depend for our everyday lives. I do think meat tastes delicious. If and when I eat meat, I would at least like to relish that moment, to honor the animal that I am eating. I welcome everyone to think this way, to not eat meat as a machine but as a human, and most importantly, to not waste the meat on their plates. I don't think one needs to be a complete vegetarian to share my sentiments.

Being a vegetarian is then simply a symbolic gesture for me - an aid to remind myself of the alarming state of our environment. In this situation, being a vegetarian is not as straightforward as it is for people who are in it for other reasons - ethics, religion, animal rights etc.. I will share with you some of my dilemmas, please comment to share your thoughts on them.

Dilemma #1 :  What to do when meat is placed accidentally on my plate ?

A couple of months ago, I was in Cannes (France) for a small holiday. It is very hard to find vegetarian fare in France, but I found a place recommended on TripAdvisor - Cocoon restaurant. My dilemma stems from my experience there. I asked the lady who was the patron of the restaurant if one could find vegetarian dishes. Indeed, she said, and listed a few from the menu. There was also an item "vegetarian lasagne" that was not on the menu, but was the speciality of the day. This was fresh for me to see, who was used to hearing the only vegetarian item on a restaurant's menu being a salad or a goat-cheese. I decided to go with the "vegetarian" lasagne, but it turned out to contain some chicken.  The lady apologized profusely - this was not a regular item on the menu, and she didn't know that it contained chicken that day - and offered to serve me a completely new dish. I said okay, but after a few minutes, realized that probably the plate served to me would be thrown away. I hurried to the lady and asked that I would rather eat that plate, and would not like to see the food wasted. But she convinced me that the food would not be wasted and somebody would eat it, and served me the other dish.

But this incident gave me my first dilemma with my vegetarianism, and obviously, I don't know for sure to this day if the first plate was simply dumped into a bin.

Dilemma #2: Can I eat meat while flying a plane ?

Taking a long distance flight is probably the easiest means within the reach of a normal individual to wreck the maximum havoc onto the environment in the course of a day. On that day, one would be partially culpable of not only the fuel consumption on the flight, but also of the associated bells and whistles of keeping the airline industry up and running. If, like me, one was flying to the USA on United Airlines in economy class, one would also be up against low quality food and entertainment on the flight. The vegetarian option on the menu that day was "pasta in tomato sauce", which was the same on my return flight. I wasn't sure if I really had to eat it, or just eat the grilled chicken which was the other item on the menu, and which definitely looked a bit more appetizing. I bit my lips and swallowed the pasta. But I am not sure if it was really required when I was generally having a field day against the environment - guzzling lots of gas and swooshing up the skies.

Dilemma #3: Should I eat Bratkartoffeln

Bratkartoffeln are yummy potato fries served in a German Biergarten. I love them totally. They come in two varieties : simple potatoes, or potatoes with little bits of speck (bacon) in them - which are obviously tastier. What if the place only had the second variety ? Often, as I pondered on this dilemma, I decided to go with eating the bratkartoffeln with speck. This dish contains such a small amount of meat that it hardly has any environmental impact, but also I guess the amount of hassle needed for a small restaurant or biergarten to maintain two versions of bratkartoffeln for its consumers  - more dishes, oil, cleaning liquid - would have more environmental impact.

Dilemma #4: What if I am invited by someone and there are only meat-based dishes to eat ?

This dilemma is pretty similar to the previous one. I decided that in such a situation, I would just eat the meat, to not only reduce the hassle, but also to not unnecessarily hurt anyone who would be sad that I am not partaking their food.

Dilemma #5: Should I speak or should I shut up ? 

This is probably the biggest dilemma. What to do if somebody questions me on my vegetarianism ? I do think it will be nice if more people share my beliefs and eat less meat, may be even become vegetarians themselves. It is even necessary for our environment, and for all the animal and plant species whose survival is in  precarious conditions, that such a mind shift occurs in the global human population. But at the same time, I definitely not like to see myself as "purer" or "better" than others, just because of my eating habits.  I am a radical liberal, and I believe passionately that we need to accept people for what they are - irrespective of their personal beliefs and lifestyle choices. Food is one of the most personal elements of  anybody's lifestyle, and I don't want to lecture anyone about it. Certainly, I don't want to go ballistic a la PETA. I would like to be seen as a quiet and nice guy who keeps to himself. So what should I do ?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Dystopian Nostalgia : A review of "Between the Assassinations" by Aravind Adiga

I have recently begun reading the novel "Between the assassinations" by Aravind Adiga. I am now more than half-way through the novel. Reading this book has been an interesting experience for me - simultaneously producing a mellow longing for the India of my childhood years and a deeply unpleasant feeling about the troubles that benighted that era. In the book, Adiga creates a portrait during the 1980s of a middle-sized town along the southern coastal belt of India. He locates his imaginary town "Kittur" along the south-western Tulu coast near Mangalore. Even though I grew up on the other horizontal end of India, in the Godavari delta on the south-eastern coast, many of Adiga's narrative portraits apply equally well to this region.

The assassinations in the book's title refer to those of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. I was less than ten years old during the timeline of this book, so I had a very vivid but childlike perspective on the happenings around me. When I grew older, I immediately left home for my education. I spent the past half of my life either living abroad or focussed on engineering and technologies; thus I hardly had any eye over the lives of real people in India. India today is quite different from the stories that Adiga narrates, but many of the portraits that he draws of people and places still remain. Furthermore, my own experiences of India remain etched in that distant memory. So reading this book has been like reliving my childhood years through an adult's eye. As one can imagine, this is hardly pleasant.

Adiga reminds me of another Indian writer in English who built a distinctive portrait of south Indian life during the early 1900s - the inimitable R.K.Narayan. Narayan, of course, has imagined the charming town of Malgudi and the fascinating inner lives of its denizens. I do think Adiga's Kittur falls quite short of the narrative gifts of the earlier master, but he shows quite a promise.

So what is unpleasant about Adiga's stories ? As a child, I hardly had the time to ponder about the personal lives of many of the people I encountered daily : the Hamali who carried two large back-breaking sacks of rice husk from the rice-flake factory (on the grounds of which we played cricket) to a distant brick kiln, the Brahmin widow who spent all her time chanting the lord's names, the pot-bellied teacher in the school who despised his pupils but at the same time tried to coax the best out of some of them, the begging children of the agricultural laborers who arrived on each harvesting season to work on the paddy fields, the little kid who cleared the tables in the breakfast hotel as hungry customers demanded their daily Dosas, the grocery stall owner who sold his wares in rapid-fire manner to his customers standing in long queues.. These are people who existed for me only in the fleeting moments that I passed them by. Their personal lives had no import nor relevance to my world. The characters of Adiga mirror many of these same people, and this forced me to examine their personal lives in gritty detail, as each one of them carried through a daily struggle to survive and to secure their own place in the society. As an adult, I can now see these battles for survival and the insecurities that come with them, with more sympathetic eyes and with clearer parallels to my own life.

Any writer of substance should have a keen eye for smells, as it is these smells that add colours and depth to an otherwise distant portait. Adiga is definitely a master in capturing those smells - pleasant, pungent, piquant and putrid, all of them. I am not a happier man for reading his stories, but definitely a wiser man. And may be, that's how I should judge him as a writer and this is why I am recommending him to my friends, especially to those who are living abroad and forgot a part of themselves in an India of the past.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Sunday diary : Getting out of facebook

I did it. I took the plunge. I bit the bullet. I belled the cat.

I deleted my facebook account.

The reasons for doing so are numerous. But at the bottom of them all is the desire to take control of my own life. Now I have fewer worries about distractions to my concentration. Fewer worries about editing privacy settings to anything I post or have posted in the past. Fewer demands to take good-looking photographs at every place I go to. Fewer worries that I would miss commenting on sharp status updates of my friends. Fewer misgivings if enough people would "like" the thing I share on my wall. Fewer demands to post "happy birthday, have fun" messages; or if I miss doing that, to post "belated birthday wishes" messages.

In retrospect, I am not missing much out of my facebook account. I don't miss the annoying ticker on the top-right corner, that updates the digital life of my friends in real time. I don't miss their digital gossip on awkward photographs. I don't miss keeping up to the trend on funny videos over the web. I do miss certain events like friends' birthdays, weddings or graduation ceremonies. But seriously, I doubt if I would compensate for my physical absence by a mere textual presence on their facebook walls.

Life goes on. It is surprising how much the stylesheets of facebook have carved my subconscious. Every time I open my browser window, my fingers involuntarily type 'fa..". Every time I get annoyed by somebody on the streets, my mind automatically keeps framing a pithy status update that summarizes the situation. Every time I read an interesting bit of news, I suffer the urge of sharing it on facebook, made all the more easy by the ubiquitous "share" and "like" buttons. But these withdrawal symptoms will subside at some point, and new forms of digital addiction will take over my life.

I still kept my google+ account. This is not because I trust Google any more than Facebook on my privacy. But this is simply because of how little keeps happening on google+.

The few people I follow hardly update their streams (excellent job folks) and it feels so snug and comfy realizing that there is nothing more you need to do to acknowledge the digital happenings of the day. Also for all its faults, google+ (and Picasa) has an excellent interface for sharing photographs. So I will keep using google+ until I find time to install my own web-server, probably powering it through Diaspora* or similar open-source software.

What else in life ? I have a greater desire to know people beyond all the appearances they put up in day-to-day lives. Can digital technology make it easier for us in finding deeper connections with one another ? I will try to explore this angle. One idea I have is to take portraits of people whenever I visit a new city. I will request them that I would take their portraits for my personal travelogue (I carry a pretty neat digital camera), and may be pepper them with a few questions that come to my mind.

"What is your favorite place in this city ?"

"What is your dream destination ? "

"From which countries do your best friends come from ?"

I can record their responses on my smartphone. I will send their portrait photographs later on email. The problem is this requires a lot more guts to do than just silently ogling at the passers by. So I have not yet managed to do this. But at some point, I will try to make this a habit.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday diary

Today I decided to open a new section in my blog called the Sunday diary, where I would just ramble on about simple nondescript things in my life. I hope this will give an inkling about my existence to my friends and pals, even though I don't think I will manage to write a blog every Sunday.

So what's happening in my life ?

Yesterday, I had the sudden urge to eat something really crunchy and fatty, so I made a "gratin aux endives". Endives are a type of salad that are quite bitter in taste. They come from the Chicory plant whose roots are blended with coffee to give its crunch taste. But tasting the leaves, you would never get this idea. I got used to the taste of endives when I was in France, but never cooked them before. But I reverse-engineered the dish, quite successfully I must say. A gratin is any dish with a lot of cream and cheese and baked in the oven. In Grenoble, the local dish was Gratin Dauphinois which was made with potatoes. Now I replaced the potatoes with endives. Since I didn't have cream, I cooked the endives with milk, putting a liberal chunk of butter inside. Once the leaves were tender, I dropped them into a casserole with some slabs of Gouda and Comte cheese, and sprinkled some garlic on the top. As this dish was getting baked, I decided to make some potato fries to give it company. In the end, I had a heavy meal of butter and cheese, and washed it down with some red wine. I was feeling quite guilty at the end of this experience, and thought I would go running the morning.

Hah, stupid me. Sunday had other plans in store for me. Running or going to the gym were of course not included in these plans.

I woke up quite late today, and after showering, was feeling so lazy I couldn't even cook food. Instead, I decided to go to the Nauwieser Viertel fest and catch some grub there. A viertel in German literally means a quarter, and the Nauwieser Viertel is this area in Saarbrücken that is generally popular with punks, new-age kids, retired hippies and other alternative crowd. I really wanted to live there, but could only find a house in its periphery. Well anyways, the Nauwieser quarter is celebrating its annual summer festival over this weekend. I went there Friday evening and met with Katrin and later with some other friends. By 8 'o clock in the evening, the place was swarming with people. A rough mixture of cologne, marijuana, sweat, fried oil, beer, tobacco and various feminine perfumes was hanging in the air. People had to go underneath each other's shoulders or thighs to get from point A to point B. It was funny to see the youngsters - the guys with preened facial hair and smelling of hair gel, the girls dripping in makeup and sizzling in their clothes - all sandwiched to each other into a viscous human jelly. It reminded me of the suburban trains in Mumbai during rush hour, where Newtonian mechanics gets suspended and Brownian motion takes over. The laws of physics give way to the laws of chemistry, and Boyle's law linking pressure and temperature of a closed system suddenly makes sense in one's head. I couldn't take this  for long and promptly escaped from the fest. But today afternoon, I ventured to go there again, confident that the dispirited youngsters have not yet woken up from their hangovers.

I was not wrong. The whole place was locked in a charmed suspension. The noon was just breaking in, and the shop-keepers were gently rolling their shutters out. I walked along like a king, slowly drinking in the sights : the trinkets on sale, the faint smell of barbecue and grilled meat, the various fastfood outlets selling food from Thailand, India, Hungary, Spain, Italy etc. I settled down to eat the langos, that were recommended to me by Katrin. These are a type of dough patties from Hungary that are deep-fried in oil, a bit similarly to the Indian puris, and served with garlic cheese. I hungrily munched them on, and added on to the guilt accumulated from yesterday.

But the guilt was definitely relegated to the background, as I thoroughly enjoyed the taste and also the atmosphere. I was listening to music at a very low volume on my iPod - dreampop, david bowie, the blow monkeys, heaven 17 etc.; and it felt amazing catching all the notes and rhythm in the very same zone where agitated youngsters were jostling for space yesterday. Hah, bliss.

I took several photographs and then ventured into "Café et al." - another place recommended to me by Katrin. It is a small café selling fair-trade goods, special chocolate and spices, and generally oozing with awesomeness. I went in for some coffee, and asked if they also had some cake to go with it. The owner said yes, they had a home-made cake. I dug in; it was a sort like the French millefeuille, with several layers of fried dough sandwiched with cream. The cream had a faint taste of black pepper- reminding me of the "junnu" cheesecake that my mom made at home. The effect was fantastic, and I was pretty sure this stroke of genius came from somewhere else. So I asked the owner where he came from, and he said Iran. Oh Iran, bless you. I don't know how many times I admired the culinary mastery from that place : a lot of that trickled down into Hyderabad through loads of Iranian immigrants escaping the revolution and settling down to set up restaurants. These restaurants have basically defined the taste of the Hyderabadi biryani (which I woefully miss so much). Later on in my life, I sampled Iranian cuisine several times, and I never regretted one single moment. The man warmed up when I told him I am from India. He enquired what I am doing abouts, and when I told him I have been working here since about 5 months, he said he was greatly surprised by my German skills. This was a bit cheating on my part because my German vocabulary is quite limited and doesn't exceed into anything beyond the introductory parlance. Anyways, the guy told me he makes Iranian food occasionally for customers and that I should sample it sometime. I told him, of course, I will visit the shop again. I left with a box of peppercorns coated in chocolate.

Next to "café et al." is a whiskey shop called "Whiskey Fee". All these shops are open today, quite unusual for Sunday, because of the viertel fest. I walked in and asked the lady that I wanted to buy a single malt. She insisted that I taste a few before making my decision (thank you very much, but I am slightly drunk at the moment in the middle of the noon). I ended up with a highland malt called "Wemyss malts" - it has a slightly sharp taste and aroma. Not the taste I usually go for, but I like it nonetheless.

And then I walked back home, ruminating on Northern European summers. The skies are overcast, and have been overcast from as long as my memory goes. The spring opened up cheerfully to a bright sun, but the mood of the heavens has quickly turned to melancholy as the summer progressed. The place feels like an inverted pint of Guinness, the mushy air hangs below from the clouds and refuses to go anywhere. As I inhaled that mushy air and looked around to see how small this place is, I had this moment where it all felt so cozy. Ah, bliss.

Little girls selling toys at the viertel fest.

The girls are so adorable I decided to take them another picture.

These little guys are selling ties, but they didn't convince me to buy one :) yet.

The "brunch box im viertel" is another nice shop in this area that makes good breakfasts & brunches. They specialize in takeaways, but I prefer to eat inside as their glass windows soak in a lot of sunlight. A good place to wake up on a Monday, drink some orange juice and then go to work.

Shops selling some trinkets. The outlet on the right is called "Govinda's Vegi" and sells samosas and mango lassi. But as far I saw, there were no Indians working there.

This is the fastfood place selling the Hungarian Langos. Yummy stuff.

These guys are selling some cakes. Katrin and I sampled some chocolate cake here on Friday, not bad but not especially good either. They set up shop next to a second hand record store. I swear I am going to buy some records in that place. Just to make a point about how much I like second hand record stores.

The shop on the right is the Whiskey Fee. But I took this photo for the picture on the left graffiti'd on to the wall. That wall belongs to the "café et al" by the way.

Interesting stuff from "café et al.".

This is where you eat breakfast at "Café et al." I am rather pleased with the auto HDR photos that I took with my iPhone.