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.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Rimpo and the Sparrow

The mind is a labyrinth of mirrors. For Rimpo, this labyrinth is long and narrow - a straight line of a path that betrays no twists. On this path he marches everyday, towards the same point of no becoming. Measured thus against eternity, Rimpo became small and shrunk by the side of everyday objects. The axe he uses to cut wood became larger and heavier. The piece of land he tills became wider. The roof of his hut stood higher and the screeches of the birds above became more distant. And the mighty Himalayas next to his farm, he dares not even raise his eye to.

Rimpo has been living alone ever since his mother died. He has always been considered a dullard in the village, and possessing no great property, he has never received attention from any of the girls. He had his heart broken a few times in his boyhood and then he learnt how to not make similar mistakes in judgement. Life is a slow process of learning how to avoid the traps and the temptations. Along the journey, Rimpo grew hard in his eye and sure in his step. Now that his dear parents are dead, he hardly meets the villagers. They consider his farm at the end of the village as a vestigial organ, a reminder of a time where it was a part of the social life but which has far outlived its usefulness. From beside the farm stretches the thick Himalayan jungle and down below roars the torrent from the mountains. Rimpo and his farm are transparent to the villagers, they belong neither to the village nor to the jungle.

Rimpo knows every sound and color that invade the privacy of his mind. He knows their rhythm just as well as he knows the rhythm of his heart. The roar of the torrent below has a rhythm. The screeches of the birds above have a rhythm. The morning light that shines into his hut has a rhythm, and so does the breeze that comes by nightfall. Into this rhythm, he constructed his life; and into this, he weighs in his every step.

Years passed by without counting, and Rimpo shrank smaller and smaller. Days became seasons and minutes became days. Like an ant that lived for an eternity, Rimpo achieved a patient and non-judgemental gaze over the world, over himself, and over the insignificance of one towards the other. In the labyrinth of his mind, the color of the seasons blended harmoniously into a gray monotone - where yesterday meets tomorrow and where sound meets silence.

One day, this harmony is disturbed by a sparrow. Rimpo watched as it barged in indignantly through the window and started pecking on the pile of paddy grains that lay on the floor. Those pile of grains are his labor over the whole year, as he tilled his harsh land by the stony look of the Himalayas. He needs every grain in that pile for himself, to bear the winters to come. Rimpo knows the rhythm by which he shoos the bird away : how his hand raises up and swats the floor below, how his lips open and a sharp hiss of air whistles through his tongue. But now, he just waits and watches the sparrow. It pecks at the rice, grain by grain, as few as are needed to sate its tiny hunger. It then flaps its wings and flies away.

The sparrow comes again the next day, at the very same time. Rimpo watches it peck the grains and then fly away. He now knows the rhythm, how and when this would happen again. But he cannot let this happen. So when the sparrow comes, Rimpo stands there waiting and addresses it thus.

"Dear friend, I am honored by your visit to my humble abode. But I am afraid I cannot offer you enough space and succor for another day. I cannot shield you from the infinity of the world. I am a shrinking man, and soon I will be smaller than yourself. The span of your wings shall soon be greater than the stretch of my arms. Go find a bigger man for your friend, and a warmer hut to bide your winters in."

Then the sparrow replies, "Rimpo, Though you have not seen me much before, know that I am your friend. I am fickle as a sparrow and I do not step into the same door twice. Many people have found me walk in but never paid me attention. But I am as much their friend as I am yours. I hop from garden to garden, from hut to hut and over streams and meadows. I stay not in the same place for long, as I love this whole infinite world. My world is not to be feared. But you do not live in the same world as mine."

"What do you mean ?"

"Often man hears nothing but echoes of his own voice from the past, reverberating from the walls of his memories. Man sees nothing but the reflections of his own character, breaking from the prism of his mind. And man feels nothing but the cold of his loneliness, in the vastness of existence. Every thought that he weaves is a thread to cover himself from this cold. These threads knit together into a shroud that envelopes one's mind. Through this shroud, man cannot see the world for what it is. He cannot hear the world for what it is. And he cannot smell. When was the last time you smelt something, Rimpo ?"

Rimpo tries to protest. He definitely can smell, but does he care for smells ? When was the last time he cared for smells ? He answers, " I do not want to know."

"Smell is the basest and the most wicked of the senses. It is how nature tells man that he is her subject, that he cannot break free from her. Would you like to see the world of smells ?"

Rimpo puts on his shoes and trails the sparrow. As he comes out, he sees that spring is the season and that the Himalayan forest is full of its smells. A million shades of green lay basking in the rays of gold. Through these colors, Rimpo detects a smell that unearths a long forgotten memory from his childhood. Thread by thread, his thoughts get unravelled by the smells, exposing the core of his being to the mercy of nature. The sparrow flies above and guides him through trails that he has never taken in his life.

Rimpo asks, "How big is the world that a man can experience in a moment ? "

"Each man knows for himself. For the most part, a man has but four or five thoughts. They shape his goals and they mould his actions. The long threads of memories that a man weaves laboriously over his life are only felt for their weight, but never experienced in totality. But even this entire weight of memories is mocked for its finiteness by the infinity that is offered by the very moment of now. The mind is a labyrinth of mirrors, and rarely ever does one get to peer outside."

For the first time in his long journey of life, Rimpo sees himself in this labyrinth. And he sees it to be not straight, but spiraling into a thousand loops.

The sparrow continues, "Man becomes a slave for his own habit. Each loop creates an illusion of eternity, masking the finiteness of experience. True freedom is indeed freedom from one's own thoughts and habits. "

Rimpo finds himself now in a forest of Rhododendrons. The trees are in full bloom with colors of rose, white and red. The air is also lighter, the sparrow has led him up a mountain trail into a meadow. Rimpo asks, "Why do you bother yourself with me sparrow ? What makes you love me ?"

"Love is but a realization that each moment in a finite existence has a window towards infinity. When I realize thus, I cannot but feel love for everything in the world. But I should leave you here, my friend. I am but a sparrow and I cannot fly any higher. Beyond this meadow, you need no friend. I bring you here so that you can see what I cannot."

Thus saying, the sparrow flies back into the valley below. In that moment of clarity, Rimpo sees neither the sparrow nor the tortuous path that they have climbed together. Instead he sees a different person that has pored out of his own self - a person bigger than the mountains, and for whose step nothing is large. The labyrinth of his mind is dissolved. He sees nothing but the sun that is shining through his eyes. No mountain blocks his path nor his view. In that tiny window of time where he is truly himself, he sees that he is immortal.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Catching the bubbles of happiness

Happiness is a substance that has some strange chemical properties. For one, it is an extremely short lived substance and disintegrates quickly into the surrounding atmosphere. It cannot be stored in a sealed container either, as it decomposes spontaneously in the absence of light. It has neither a distinctive odour nor a distinctive color. Due to its whimsical and short-lived nature, many physicists have long doubted its existence. A fringe few do so even today.

But owing to its indirect effects on other substances in controlled lab experiments, which are carefully studied, and to its numerous sightings in the wild, the existence of happiness is now established beyond doubt. What still remain controversial, however, are procedures to synthesize happiness and its effects on human beings.

Despite numerous failures in synthesizing it in a lab setting, it appears that happiness forms quite readily in nature and seems drawn towards life forms in general, and human beings in particular. The age of a person seems to be a critical factor in attracting happiness, with young children being particularly susceptible towards catching large doses of happiness when they are outdoors.

The most common form of happiness is that of tiny bubbles that drift in the air. These bubbles are transparent, but they sometimes shimmer brightly in the sunlight due to certain optical properties. The human eye seems to be partially capable of detecting these shimmers, with young children reporting that they see such bubbles drifting and dancing wildly at the corners of their eyes. One is supposed to see these bubbles sideways, as a direct gaze would rend them transparent. A more successful method for catching happiness is by listening.

Since the bubbles of happiness form and dissolve spontaneously, they make a curious crackling sound as they pop. A carefully trained ear can latch on to these popping sounds, and thus lead a person to the source of a large concentration of happiness. People have thus been led to happiness in very unsuspecting and nondescript places - such as the top of a crossroads, or next to a puddle in a stream. Sometimes happiness hangs in a thick cloud around a man carrying a big luggage and sweating profusely. Sometimes it trails the scent of a woman walking tip-toe on a quiet street. Sometimes it lurks behind a group of quarreling kids. And sometimes it flutters around two lovers who are lost in each other. These are by no means an exhaustive list of places where one might bump into happiness, indeed such a list would be impossible to make. With every passing day as the sun lights up the world, huge clouds of happiness condense in the atmosphere and drift around the place. Whether they do so with a pattern or just aimlessly is still open to debate.

When one comes within hearing distance of happiness, a curious manoeuvre can be followed to make the happiness descend directly onto oneself. The efficacy of this manoeuvre has been known in the popular culture, but the scientific reasons behind it are still under study. One is supposed to smile widely and look sideways towards the source of happiness. A simple lip-smile will not do - it should be accompanied by an eye-smile where the eyes glint in the shimmer of the bubbles. And lo, the cloud of happiness swooshes down to one's face and runs up one's nose. The after-effects are reported as widely varied, ranging from a sudden swing in one's step to one sobbing silently. The only common effect seems to be that of a general exhilaration.

It is also hypothesized that happiness is a fundamental ingredient of life, as essential as Oxygen. But the whimsical nature of its interaction with life-forms prompts many scientists to question such a strong hypothesis. If all life-forms need happiness to survive, how would they find their daily dose of happiness ?

We cannot say anything about this yet. But it is generally accepted that happiness is very good for the health of human beings. So we conclude this article by giving some tips for the interested reader on how to spot happiness.

  • Memory seems to be bad for happiness. Most people have bad memories that inhibit them from perceiving the fullness of the world around. This prevents them from spotting happiness even when it is lurking quite nearby.
  • Happiness appears to be contagious. The more the people one infects with happiness, the likelier that one gets a new dose when all of one's bubbles of happiness pop out.
  • As a converse, selfishness is quite bad for happiness. One's happiness won't last for long when one is alone.
  • This can be extended to also one's thoughts and actions. The more isolated one becomes, and the more sure in this isolation one becomes, the lesser the happiness that comes one's way.
  • Smiles seem to be particularly good at attracting happiness, even when it is several kilometers away.
  • Early morning by the sunrise and the early evening by the sunset are the best times to catch happiness.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Reducing Facebook : Increasing Attention

After a long pondering over the problem, I decided today to reduce my time on Facebook - to a visit per every 3 days. Facebook now commands a lion's share of my time spent on the internet. This is natural since I, like any other person, value updates from my friends a lot more than other events. However, unlike a physical visit to my friends that always makes me feel better, a visit to Facebook often ends up making me feel worse and confused. Part of this is due to the inadequacy of virtual communication. But I believe part of this is also due to how stupidly Facebook is structured; and how that constrains meaningful engagement. In the rest of this blog, the reader can substitute Facebook for any social networking website; the problem is similar.

To understand this, we first have to go to the earlier times of the web when Yahoo was the dominant search engine. In those days, the home page of the search was cluttered with thousands of news snippets and gadgets. This distraction of attention was clearly annoying when the user had a definite purpose - to search for something. Then Google came along and introduced the clean search page that has become the standard for all search engines today. With Facebook, we face a similar problem today, but which is deeper and more menacing. The culprit is the destruction of one's attention.

I have blogged earlier about how the very nature of the internet (the hyperlink) shatters one's attention. This problem is manifest at a higher order on Facebook, which requires the user to post status updates in 420 characters or less. "What's on your mind ?" Facebook asks. Either you have something interesting on your mind which is often impossible to convey within the character limit, or you say something uninteresting and reaffirm to yourself that your life is boring. The end result is frustration. The replies from your friends, and your replies in return are necessarily shallow, owing to the character limit. But even if it is scarce, you do enjoy the positive feedback when it comes. Mostly, this comes from your friends clicking the Like button on your status updates or on photos. This marks the high point of your Facebook experience, and you get addicted to it like one gets addicted to coffee. The day is not long when neuroscientists shove people into an fMRI machine with an iPad in their hands, and measure their neurotransmitter levels when their friends click the Like button, and thus proving the obvious and getting their paper accepted in Science. But I digress.

The reason for the seemingly inane 420 character limit is simple : the guys at have no better ideas on how to pull updates from your various friends into a single webpage. So they push all and sundry in uniformly sized packets, and clutter them onto your face, knowing well that you will be watching that page several times a day. Thereby, you surrender your most valuable resource - your attention, to Facebook which destroys it completely.

Here, I should write something about attention, a topic few people are aware of. Often, people who talk about it are cognitive psychologists or new-age meditation practitioners. Both the groups outdo each other in scaring an unwitting reader to his wit's end. I will try to introduce the problem in a more straightforward way : imagine that you are shaving to a mirror. If your mind gets distracted for a second, you might end up with a cut on your lip. Luckily it doesn't happen often, since the impulses in your muscles get accustomed to these lapses of attention, but sometimes they cannot cope and you end up with a bloodied lip. As a second example, think of yourself baking something in the oven and taking the dish out. If your mind is distracted, you may end up with a burn on your fingers as you absentmindedly touch the hot grill. Or think of the scenario where you are leaving for work in the morning and keep your keys somewhere - so that you can grab your coat, bag or something else. It can happen that you forget where you left your keys, and spend several minutes frantically searching for them. The problem in all these examples is that you are not fully attentive in your present moment of experience.

These lapses of attention can cause more serious trouble. When you are working, you might miss hearing something very pertinent to the discussion. If you are a researcher like me, you might miss a crucial point in a paper that you are reading. If you are a computer programmer, you might miss a bug in the program. People who are normally competent can underperform because they are not "fully" present.

In eastern religions, especially Buddhism, being present in the "now" is considered a highly virtuous thing. People spend several years trying to improve their standing here, through practicing rigorous meditation. It is said that one whose attention is perfect feels a supreme happiness. I don't know about that, but I think being attentive to your own mind is quite similar to being attentive to the surroundings. A man wearied by fatigue or illness may not appreciate a magnificent natural scenery when it passes before his eyes. Similarly, a man whose palette is ruined by unwise food choices may not later appreciate the sublime taste of a wine. Starting with a clean slate is important for perceiving the fullness of an experience. This is also true for perceiving one's own mind - and for experiencing one's natural creativity. A man with low attention will not be creative and will succumb to the habit of yesterday. At a practical level, this will reflect in him being boring and not funny. At a deeper level, this causes an existential crisis and panic.

I think it is ineffective to speak of attention in the absolute - either there or not. It is better to speak of attention as a finite resource that can be measured. Then it becomes money. It can be invested and greater rewards be earned. Or it can be squandered and the person becomes poorer than before. There is an old saying, "time is money". But I think it is missing the point. One can have plenty of time, but still make nothing out of it. What I think was meant there was that "attention is money". When one is more attent, one saves time; and with the saved time, focuses attention on something more important. Just like with money, one can be rich in attention by cultivating good habits and by investing wisely.

Of all the five senses, hearing is the best friend when it comes to attention. This is because one's mind is completely focused on the incoming sound signal, and steps together along with time. This automatically reinforces the attention of the listener, and the attention-money thus earned can be spent on other things. These days, I listen to radio podcasts when I commute to work. They always make me feel better. When it comes to the sense of vision, distraction is easier. But this becomes a friend when it is coupled with the more stabilizing sense of hearing. So the second tip I have for you is to see things that you hear (either externally or internally in your own mind) for stretches of long periods of time. It does good to follow this in other senses as well : hearing, touching, seeing, tasting and smelling (each reinforced by the earlier one in the order). This rules out flipping channels on TV, browsing without a goal on the internet, or coming back to the topic of the blog - spending time on Facebook.

Facebook is essentially the opposite of meditation. Metaphorically, one is giving all the attention that one earned during the day (and in one's sleep at night) in a bowl to Mark Zuckerberg, who then spills it all over. One's mind is very similar to one's house : it periodically needs cleaning and keeping things in order. It needs open windows so that sunlight and air can pass through. But this shouldn't mean the trash from the entire city should be poured in. So I decided to let this happen just once every 3 days. This is a hard decision for me to take, as I am a single person in a foreign country and do not have many other respites for filling this vacuum. I do crave for the "like"s from my friends, and I am quite worried how long I will stick to this policy of limiting Facebook. But give it a try, I do nonetheless. Here is me hoping for an increased attention. :)

Saturday, February 05, 2011

An atheist guy goes to Malta

If you haven't yet seen this video on youtube, please see it. It is one of the funniest jokes I have seen. I see the narrative in this video as a metaphor to how conflicts happen between human beings - often due to misunderstanding.

Human languages are one of the most wonderful things in the universe. The expressive power in them is hardly matched by anything else. However, they still help us only in a limited way to communicate our deepest sensations and emotions. The language that runs in my head is hardly the same as that which runs in yours. To make things worse, these languages evolve rapidly over time. Is it possible to peek into the soul of a 12th century man, and experience the world as he experienced it ? I doubt if it is possible.

Languages have several layers to construct meaning - at the very outset is the vocabulary that maps sounds (words) to activities and ideas. Then there is the layer of syntax that encodes the relationship between these words. Then exists the layer of semantics that gives a specific meaning (amongst many) for a sentence from the words and the relationships between them. Beyond them, lies the layer of pragmatics which understands a given sentence in its broader context, how it is uttered etc. There exists possibilities for confusion in all these layers. And all these layers put together may still not express the very emotions a person felt before speaking.

Let me illustrate this. Imagine that I see colors very differently from how you see them. For example, every time you see "blue" I see "red", and vice-versa. Both of us would agree on how we give labels to these colors, i.e, we call the same set of objects as red. But in whichever language we might use, we will never be able to communicate the discrepancy that exists in our world-views. I first thought about this problem in school, when I heard about color-blindedness. A color-blinded person will see red and green objects similarly, and will get to know about his problem only when somebody else tells him about it. However, if I am suffering from the "color-swap" problem I mentioned above, I will never figure out that there is anything wrong with me. Being a kid that I was, this thought gave me a very cold chill in my spine. Much later in my life, I discovered that this issue is well-studied in philosophy and is called the problem of "qualia". Philosophers discuss (or dismiss) them in a very detached and nonchalant way that I find bemusing.

Considering these many layers in a human language and the endless possibilities in which we can confuse each other up, it is may be no surprise that we humans fight angrily at every other thing. What prodded me to write this post today however, is the growing debate about atheism in our society. Often this debate degenerates into funny conflicts, of the sort where the Italian guy goes to Malta.

Atheist guy : Sir, I think it is a bad thing to f*ck on the table.
Theist guy : But I really want a fork on the table, Sir.

Neither of the parties would agree on what words like consciousness, free-will, freedom or God means. And neither of them would know what they meant thousands of years ago when these words have first entered into our lexicon. I would consider this debate as just nonsensical fun, but for the presence of real evil idiots in our amidst.

Evil Idiot Theist guy : But my religious book has ordered me to indeed f*ck on the table, Sir.

I think as long as there are these evil idiot theists amongst us, I think atheism is the way to go !

** For the nerds amongst you, the color-swap (qualia) problem is actually a problem with a rotation in the color space. This rotation ambiguity (in the perception of H,S or V channels) cannot be recovered by communicating in human languages alone.