15 yearsFri, 21st Jun '19, 12:10 am::
Exactly fifteen years ago, to the day, I started working at a small cosmetics manufacturing company here in Florida. I am so glad that I did. Not a day has gone by since when I haven't learned something new. Having expanded into pharmaceutical manufacturing, the company has grown substantially and so have my responsibilities. I have made many life-long wonderful friends here and learned to become a mature, dependable person.
There is no way I could have predicted in early 2000s that this is where my path would take me but looking back at everything I've experienced, I have no regrets. Best thing I ever did for my career was make an awkward phone call in 2004 right in the middle of RutgersFest to my website client, asking if he maybe, sort of, just in case needed a full-time programmer. I'm glad he did.
Days are long but the years are shortThu, 7th Feb '19, 5:20 am::
Naveen turns four today! We're going to his school to celebrate his birthday with all of his friends. One of the requests from his teachers is that we share one anecdote per year of his life. Here's what we're going to share:
Birth: Naveen came three weeks early. We had some indications that he was going to be early so we did our best to prepare. We had the car seats ready, the crib was setup, and all the baby clothes and toys were organized. We brought him home and realized something we missed - there was no place for us to put him down except for his crib. We hadn't assembled any of the baby rockers or jumpers! So the first hour that Naveen came home, mom held him in her arms while dad built a rocker for him.
Year 1: As per Indian tradition, Naveen got a full head-shave when he turned one. He did not like it! He went to school all sad the next day and all of his friends noticed he was completely bald. So they kept trying to pet his smooth head and all the attention suddenly perked him up. He came home smiling.
Year 2 (option A): When Naveen was two, we noticed some of his small toys kept disappearing from his play area but then mysteriously appeared at the dining table. To figure out what was happening, instead of leaving him with one or two small toys, we left a large pack of tiny plastic toys in his play area. After about ten minutes, I peeked into the play area and all of the new toys were gone! Naveen was waddling around slowly and kept saying "Pants! Snakes in the pants!" He had stuffed all of the toys inside his pants so he could play with them at the dinner table but this time it was far too many toys for comfort.
Year 2 (option B): For Halloween, Juliet showed Naveen a ton of costumes idea online. She asked him which one he wanted and he pointed to the filter for the costume color: red. She clicked on it and the website showed all the red costumes. He still pointed to the little box for the red color filter and kept saying "Red box. I want to be the red box!" So naturally, instead of buying one of the numerous red-colored costumes, Juliet and Naveen spent an entire evening making him a "red box" costume. As we went trick-or-treating door to door, people kept guessing what he was dressed up as. Naveen proudly said "I am a red box!" to anyone who couldn't guess.
Year 3: Last year we went to Weeki Wachee to see the mermaid show. On the drive home, out of nowhere Naveen announced, "When I grow up, I'm going to marry a mermaid!" Juliet was thrilled at the prospect and said "Tell us everything!" So Naveen described how he was going to feed his mermaid wife fish, hold her hand all day, and teach her about the solar system. When I asked how he was going to breathe underwater, he said "No Daddy, I don't want to marry an underwater mermaid. I want to marry an above-ground one." Frankly, he put more thought into his future life at 3 than I had at 23.
The Internet and Us - Part 4: Defensive ConsumptionSun, 20th Jan '19, 12:05 am::
The 24-hour news cycle could have unleashed an era of meticulous, nuance-driven news coverage but it gave us an echo chamber of soundbites. Imagine tuning in at 8am for public policy news, 12pm for local project updates, 4pm for geopolitical briefing, 8pm for fiscal analysis, and midnight-to-morning for a summary of global news in the past 24 hours. But instead we ended up with each hour starting with 6min of breaking news, then 12min of expression of shock, followed by 6min of reading of tweets and playback of soundbites, capped with 18min of yelling by disparate panelists. Throw in 18mins of ads and we got an hour of news. Repeat this 18 times a day with a different set of shouting faces and replay 6 of those hours between midnight and 6am and we have the global 24-hour news media format.
No matter the country, language, or channel, the format is essentially the same. You can't fault any specific entity for this because this is the natural order of any attention-seeking broadcast platform. Gravity makes all rocks fall down. 24-hour news cycle makes everyone repeat things 24 times a day. If they deviate from the norm, they lose viewers and shut down, reinforcing the format in the remaining networks.
Social media could have made all of TV news inconsequential. There is no specific air-time and the web doesn't end at 59 minutes. But it didn't fix any of TV's problems, but rather exacerbated them. Whereas TV started with experienced journalists repeating pre-approved talking points, social media gave a loudspeaker to anyone without any barriers. So whereas conflicts of interests sort-of mattered in the TV-era, nobody knows on the internet what biases someone has or which masters they serve. If it is in their interest to create outrage, they will create outrage. And boy have they championed the sport of creating outrage.
How we ended up here is relatively straight-forward. In a winner-take-all voting system, it is guaranteed that voters will end up aligning with one of two major parties. It doesn't matter how educated, rational, or compassionate the people are, if every voter can only select one person on a ballot, and whoever gets the most votes wins, it is absolutely certain that you will end up with two, diametrically opposed parties. And furthermore, over time the parties will continue to get further and further apart. If instead the voters could choose more than one candidate, preferably by ranking their choices in order of preference, then more than two parties can gain support and candidates who unite the people will win, instead of the most polarizing ones.
The same happens on the Internet when image macros, tweets, and 30-second muted video clips reduce the depth of an issue and leave you with only one of two choices - like/retweet/share or ignore. Remember ignoring is treated as dislike by social media algorithms so even if you think you are not making your opinion known, you are. When every bit of content online is judged on how much attention it receives, then only the most attention-grabbing content gets to the top. And there is nothing that gets more attention than something that causes us to fume in outrage and disbelief. How can X happen? I can't believe X said Y! Does nobody care about Z anymore?!
Our natural reaction to all of this is to exclaim that media is biased! Just like everyone has an accent but do not think they have an accent, all news is biased except the news you agree with. But biased isn't bad. Bias is natural. Our biases show where we come from, what values we espouse, what causes we are willing to stand up for. I am extremely biased in favor of legal immigration, interracial marriages, and having pets. Doesn't matter if it is suddenly proven that cats are destroying humanity or computer programmers from India will cause global meltdown in 2038. I'm not giving up my cats and I'm not voluntarily renouncing my US citizenship. I am biased and I stand by it. Biases aren't really a problem. The problem is our inability to recognize the bias in ourselves when we come across rage-inducing headlines and instantly give in to the rage.
I've been online for two decades now and not ONCE have I benefited from being instantly infuriated by something I read online. Not once has my life been better because of a visceral gut-reaction to an image stamped with some words by an anonymous troll. But I can't even count the number of times it has spoiled my mood, which most likely ruined a meal or a day trip. It doesn't matter if I was reading something true or false, important or trivial. All that mattered is that it instantly caused me to change how I felt, regardless of how my life was going normally. I could be having the best day with my family and friends and suddenly breaking news ruins the moment. Two days later it comes out that the original news while true is toothless because of some nuanced stipulation, and all of my rage subsides. The overly simplified news fed my pre-existing biases and caused me monetizable outrage. People made money from me being angry and frankly, I don't want to be a part of it.
So how do I de-bias the news I am consuming? One of the favorite things I learned in a Computer Science class years ago was how to use an unfair coin to simulate a fair coin toss. An unfair coin is any coin where the odds of landing on heads or tails is not exactly 50%, say if the coin is smoothed out on one side, causing it to be lighter and landing slightly more often. Flip a fair coin a trillion times and you would expect close to 500 billion heads and 500 billion tails. But flip an unfair coin i.e. a biased coin a trillion times, and you could get 430 billion heads and 570 billion tails. So how can you use an unfair coin in a fair way?
Just flip twice instead of once. If you get heads followed by tails, that's heads. If you get tails followed by heads, that's tails. If you get two heads or two tails, ignore the results and flip twice again. That's it. This method is proven to give you a fair, unbiased coin toss. Yes, you might have to flip the coin a lot of times in case you keep getting doubles initially - HH, TT, HH, TT, TT. But the first time you get either a HT or TH, you have a fair outcome.
Another trick I learned long ago that involved deciding the fair outcomes between two parties was about splitting a piece of cake into two. While both sides will fight to get the larger piece of the cake, there is a simple way to make it fair - flip a coin to let one party cut the cake into two and the other party gets to take either of the cut pieces. If the cutter tries to cheat and makes one slice much larger than the other, the picker can take the larger piece, leaving little for the cheating cutter. So it is in the best interest of the person cutting the piece of cake to make it as fair as possible.
To save me from outrage, I combine these two methods. First, regardless of how insane a news article seems, I wait 48 hours to decide. In two cycles of 24-hour news, the opposition will either properly refute or the original party will provide additional proof. I am willing to give the benefit of doubt to any side but I am not willing to give in to financially-motivated entities that profit from me to be offended. If something doesn't enrage me two days after I heard about it, then it wasn't worth being enraged two minutes after. Next, I mentally swap all proper-nouns in negative articles to people I like. If the article no longer antagonizes me with the names swapped, then I have proof of my hidden bias and no longer care about the original article.
This is not the proper strategy for journalists or media personalities with influence. They need to do what they believe is right. This strategy is like defensive driving for the Internet. I am not trying to solve the problem with the Internet. I just don't want it to corrupt my mind. Some motorists describe defensive driving as "driving as if everyone else on the road was drunk." I web-surf like everyone else is trying to indoctrinate me into their angry little cult. So far so good.
The Internet and Us - Part 3: A Joke OnlineTue, 18th Dec '18, 12:30 am::
It started off as an elaborate April Fools' joke in March of 2019. I wanted to prank my friend so I wrote a simple script that used Google's new Duplex AI digital agent to call him at odd hours. The AI voice was "human" enough to fool almost anyone, interjecting pauses with "umm" and "aha", repeating the same thing using different words. Gone were the days of Prof. Hawking's monotone voice. My friend was now being nagged by a believable set of voices who were trying to book a scuba lesson in his non-existent swimming pool, buy his not-for-sale hair, and apply to his world-famous clown college! My script emailed me every hilarious interaction he had to put up with but by the sixth one, he started asking the bots if I was paying them to call him. On April 1st, I called him up and asked him to review some code I was having trouble with and waited until it dawned on him. I heard a series of loud cuss words followed by uproarious laughter.
"You know I totally believed it was real people," he said. "I mean the accents could use some improvement but I honestly believed someone was posting my number on Craigslist or something. I had no idea these were computer voices!"
Over the next few months, I got busy with life and forgot about the script until one evening I had to call my cable company. They had unexpectedly raised my monthly rate without increasing the Internet speed and I figured it was time they heard my true feelings. But I was on hold for so long, I realized that it wasn't worth my time or sanity. "Only a robot could hold patiently for 30 minutes and not get enraged at the poor customer service rep for an unexpected charge," I thought. Maybe it was frustration, maybe it was the prospect of another funny story, but I spent the night rewriting my April Fools' script to bargain with the cable company. The logs showed that it took about 3 tries before an agent at my cable company said "I totally understand you frustration. How about I revert back to your old price but you keep the new speed?" My pre-programmed script sighed "Ok, that will work I guess." I didn't want it to sound too happy lest they might think I was trying to pull a fast one over them.
I shared the story of lowering my cable bill with friends and family and they all wanted to try it out. I just needed them to send me their cable company name and account number. I already knew most of their home addresses. It took a few days but eventually I had a very detailed, realistic script written that could handle most of the top 10 cable companies and it could even change the tone when talking to supervisor. I analyzed the logs and the script worked right off the bat in 60% of the cases and took at most 3 attempts to get 95% success. I eventually created a simple online form for friends of friends to enter their cable company name and account number so I didn't have to manually type things out.
I woke up next morning with a $540 PayPal balance. Positive balance! Someone popular had mentioned my site on their podcast. By evening, it was $1400 and PayPal shut down my account thinking it was scam. Took all next day to get it unlocked. After a few days, I started getting calls from people saying Company X had started training their employees to ignore my script. So I spent a few hours increasing its vocabulary and fed it a few books on negotiation and customer service. That worked. First month sales were $24,000 and expenses were barely $500!
The next few months leading into January 2020 are a haze. I was receiving feedback and requests from people around the world at an overwhelming rate. I expanded the basic cable-company caller system to handle health insurance claims, Craigslist inquiries, and even added a business-ready module that could reschedule Outlook and Gmail appointments. But the one that went viral was the car purchase negotiator. You simply enter the car make/model and your zip code and my AI bots would look online and call up every dealership in a 100-mile radius. Then it would negotiate the best price, essentially making each dealer bid against the others in near real-time. Once the script reached optimal pricing, you would get an email summary and then could call the dealership to finalize the purchase. Only cost you $25 or if you joined the monthly Gold plan or higher, it was free.
Growth was good and rapid. Soon I had a team of talented coders, a horde of eager investors, and a following of lazy slackers who never wanted to make a phone call again. But replacing phone calls wasn't the end-of-line for us. We had stopped using Google's Duplex once Mozilla released their open-source AI agent framework Firefish, which could do a lot more than talk. It could intelligently fill out forms. So we added a premium "No Snails" service. All of your boring postal mail comes to us and we handle it. Late fees on car rental? We negotiate it down to near $0. Bill for a "free" service that keeps auto-charging you? We cancel it for you! $49/mo is not a lot to live a hassle-free life. The only mail in your mailbox is birthday cards and wedding invites. No more scary IRS bills. Our Platinum plan members got their tax issues resolved automatically.
Maybe it was the public's lack of technical understanding or their faith in our brand, but people stopped thinking of us as an algorithm company. As far as they were concerned we had a call-center full of 100,000 people fighting on their behalf. It was barely 10,000 cloud servers! By the time we needed a million servers, we had acquired ten million paying customers. We were still private, IPOs having lost their charm by the market failures in late 2020s. We wanted to do something special for our ten millionth customer and the folks in travel department came up with an ingenious solution - World Citizen plan.
We already had Full-Life management plans where we took care of almost every issue you could have from picking health insurance to finding the right job. But no matter what we did, everything was location dependent. Even if our system could help a Canadian citizen find a job in US and automatically handle the filling, mailing, and replying to all of the paperwork needed to get passport and work-visa, the person still had to go for an in-person interview for security reasons. What if we could negotiate some sort of deal between both US and Canada where citizens of either countries could bypass the interview as long as they met certain criteria? Well, since most of the politicians in both countries were already Full-Life management customers, it didn't take long for us to convince them to support our World Citizen plan. After all, we already knew our customers in more depth than any interview or background check could reveal.
As far as I was concerned, I had no interest in selling anyone's data or getting hacked. Sure we experienced the odd instance of run-of-the-mill corporate espionage but securing our systems remained our top internal goal. This helped sell the World Citizen plan to more than the North American politicians. Soon Europe, Africa, and India joined in. Beauty of the World Citizen plan was that since we managed the application and approval process on both side of member countries, our customer's didn't even have to proactively apply for a visa. Instead our travel department would suggest places for them to visit as soon as they became eligible for a visa.
It took a few years but we finally worked out the kinks in the visa-free travel process. Terrorism had always been the primary threat to visa-free travel and we found a unique solution, that our customers surprisingly didn't hate - bank with us. Once a customer moves 100% of their banking, investment, and credit accounts to our system, we could easily detect and prevent illicit activities. We weren't as interested in preventing crime as in having non-criminal customers. Shady financial stuff got you banned from our service permanently. And if you wanted to appeal, you would have to fill out the forms manually and make the calls personally. There was little incentive for criminals to join our service.
For the next decade or so, we continued to acquire more customers and around the time the ten billionth baby was born, we added our third billionth customer. Of these three billion paying customers, 400 million were on the World Citizens plan. We were essentially the fifth largest nation in the world albeit without sovereign borders, currency, or elected officials. We did have a flag though and although it wasn't planted on any planet or moon, it was quite popular among new customers.
Things seemed to be going well for us and our customers well into the mid-2040s but then things took a turn for the worse quite quickly. Our non-customers revolted globally and continued to do so with an unyielding frenzy. We all understood why but we didn't know what we could do that didn't further spread violence. They either made too little to afford our service or had history (criminal or objectionable as per our internal standards) that prevented them from signing up for even the Bronze plans. These folks rarely got approved for visas now that most of the UN countries had signed up to the World Citizens registry. They had a hard time beating our AI at finding decent jobs, dates, or even restaurant reservations. Our AI lawyers beat their AI-aided human lawyers in 90% of the cases and our banking system was better insured than most countries' reserve banks. In nutshell, if you were our customer, you did not have to worry about bureaucracy. Sure it cost you a bit more to get your kid enrolled in a prestigious school but you can be sure that once you set a $3500/mo budget, our system found the most optimal school that fit your budget, education goals, and even your morning commute. The school didn't have to update their enrollment process or website. Our system did everything like you as a human would have via phone, snail mail, and web, just at a thousandth of the cost and with nary a care.
As proud as we were of everything we did for our 3/10th of the human population, it wasn't great to be part of the other 7/10th. So after a few tumultuous years, on Jan 1st 2050, we made the entry-level plan free for everyone without a bad history. Bam! Five billion new users in a day! The rest were mostly kids under 13 or ineligible to sign up.
Looking back at my life, I am proud to say that I helped improve the world in my own unique way. No, I didn't cure cancer and didn't eradicate world hunger. I barely donated to charity beyond what my Full-Life Tax AI suggested. But I'd like to think that I made the world a better place because I got rid of stress and misery on a global scale. We are all but human. I never expected us flawed humans to always do the right thing and I could never convince politicians to fix the laws or update their convoluted processes. All I could do was write a few automated scripts to make living less bothersome. Who knew it could end up touching so many lives! And to think it all started as a joke online.
The Internet and Us - Part 2: UnthinkMon, 12th Nov '18, 12:55 am::
In Part 1, I argued that we humans as a collective are not ready for the exponential growth in technology and the resulting connectedness it has brought us. I ended it by saying that here in Part 2 I will write more about "The Internet" part and how we got to where we are today. It is easy to see where we are today in terms of technology and the social aspects so I will be succinct in my thoughts on both. What I'm more interested in though is the unseen, unpredictable effects of being part of a connected world and will wildly extemporize about things I have not heard being discussed elsewhere online.
- It tells the story of the development of the Internet from the 1950s to the present and examines how the balance of power has shifted between the individual and the state in the areas of censorship, copyright infringement, intellectual freedom, and terrorism and warfare... how the Internet has revolutionized political campaigns... cloud computing, user-driven content, and the new global commons...
The only thing I can add to this is my personal opinion that from a technological standpoint, steady and significant progress is being made all over the world to make the Internet better. Every programmer or engineer has their own theory of what's wrong with how we code, communicate, or cooperate vs. how we should. However, since development is an iterative and generally additive process, i.e. we usually build new tools instead of completely throwing away old tools, if you do not buy into the latest fad, you can continue to use your 42-year-old battle-tested environment.
When I first started writing this series, I kept thinking about the effect that the Internet has had on all of us socially. From keeping in touch with family and friends to finding someone to marry, the Internet has drastically changed how we live. I was hoping to write a lot more on this but realized that it is unnecessary. If you're reading this, you know exactly the effect the Internet has had on us. You've heard about the thousand ways it is effecting our social interactions, sleeping-habits, family relations etc. But if you haven't, here are a few million academic papers on it. So let's move on to the fun thoughts that keep me up at night.
Fun thoughts like — what really is a thought? It can be an idea that can change our world. Or a concern that erodes our resolve. Or the noise in our brain that we filter out to achieve inner-peace. A thought is a force. It is the impetus for us to do something, anything — routine or extraordinary, good or evil, trivial or significant. We think about a lot of things, all of us. We even think about how we think. Thoughts shape our opinions, which form our beliefs, which fortify our ideologies, which direct our actions. In the long run, a thought has might.
But is the thought original or a replica? Why does it matter? It matters because the Internet has now become a decades-long experiment in planetary thought-replication. Our thoughts, which used to be our creations and possessions, are now being influenced and hijacked by others. Don't believe me? Ask yourself when was the last time you had an original thought. I don't mean things like "I should buy shampoo" or "I think it's going to rain tonight." I also don't mean novel inventions, new sandwich recipes, or odd-ball ideas like taping bread to cats. I mean simple, original thoughts, with little influence from anyone else.
Here's an example: "There are too many superhero movies." Maybe you had this thought after watching Justice League in 2017. Or after the second Spiderman reboot in 2012, or the third Superman movie in 1983. It is entirely possible for you to have had this thought without talking to anyone else and without reading a single film review. Even if you had this thought all on your own, you were most certainly not the only one thinking this. Original thought isn't the same as being the first person to have the thought. Original just means nobody told you how you should form your opinion.
Who cares if you had this thought originally? Because if you had it, then that means the conditions were ripe for others to have it too. A hundred others. A million others. That would give someone 17 billion reasons to prevent you from ever having that thought. Before the Internet, it took some serious amount of work to shape thoughts on a global scale. Today all you need is a photo with a phrase. So now if you think "I can't wait until the next superhero movie", is it an original thought?
Let me be clear, I am not against Internet's ability to influence thoughts and opinions. Without it we wouldn't have support for countless humanitarian causes, donations to an array of foundations and charities, and patronage of thousands of self-motivated creators. The Internet is awesome. But it has altered our thought process.
Ok, so the Internet influences us to buy things. Just like TV, radio, and newspapers have done for over a century. At least we can block online ads. What's the big deal? The big deal isn't about marketing or influence. The big deal is that now we have been trained to not form opinions without consulting the web first. On the surface, that's great. Everyone should form opinions after researching something in depth, not before. But this has had the side-effect of also training us to form opinions immediately after seeing anything online.
Before the Internet, we formed opinions based on our life experiences, years of knowledge, and gut feelings. That's how humanity evolved over a million years. We learned not to eat certain berries, drink standing water, or kill our own tribe members. We learned to form instincts and trust them because we knew what happens if we didn't. But now we instantly Google when a famous person says something to find out why they said it and whether we should support their stance or not. That means, although we didn't have an opinion of them ten minutes ago, we used the Internet to influence our thoughts to form an instantaneous opinion. Again, so what? Well, next time you come across a 15-second video or a 140-character sentence that sort of relates to this topic, your beliefs will strengthen instantly. You didn't ask your parent's neighbor's cousin to share that video with you, but now that they did, it reinforces some of your past instantly-formed beliefs, either in agreement or disagreement with the content being shared. Remember, these are not opinions and beliefs that you have formed after years of study and personal experience. These are prefabricated thoughts that were replicated from the mind of a single individual who shared content with someone else who shared content with someone else and so on until the idea got lodged in your mind.
For instance, you were not intentionally thinking about real-estate market in China but now that I told you that 70% of all new houses in China are bought as investment properties by people who already own a house, you are going to connect this dot to Vancouver's complicated relationship with Chinese money. Next time you cross a street and see a young, Asian male in an expensive car, you might end up thinking about his parents expatriating funds out of China, regardless of the actual truth. But thanks to me, you now have a crappy stereotype embedded in your head. What happens when the next person who fits this stereotype applies for a job under you? Or wants your vote? Or your help after an accident? Too bad, you will immediately have flashbacks of the terrible stereotype I infected you with.
Your only option is to fight it. Not fight the stereotype. That's just forming a contrarian opinion. You have to fight the innate human urge to think your thoughts through to a satisfying conclusion. You need to unnaturally force yourself not to form an opinion just because you read something online.
I know it's taken me a thousand more words than necessary to arrive at the lesson here but it's worth thinking about. And that lesson is to not think. I don't mean ignoring everything online as if it's all fake or shutting yourself off completely. I mean allowing yourself to learn new things but not forming an opinion on them.
Well that sounds completely impossible! How can you read about government corruption or medical fraud but not form an opinion on it? I don't know. If I did, I'd write a book about it. But I do know that we are letting everything we read or see online, influence us completely without questioning the medium or the messenger. And the more we do, the more we are cocksure that we are in fact the select few who are well-read, well-informed, and consistently rational.
The Internet and Us - Part 1: UsTue, 30th Oct '18, 3:45 pm::
This will be a series of long blog entries because it is my attempt to put into words an idea that has been percolating in my head for more than a few years now. Ever since I figured out what newspapers were as a kid, I have attempted to soak up every bit of information I come across, in an attempt to build my grand unified theory of the human experience. Two decades ago I logged on to high-speed Internet for the first time, a whopping 64Kb/s fast track to the information superhighway, and got hooked. The Internet is amazing. But let's back up.
It took humanity one million years to learn how to control fire. It took another hundred thousand years for us to talk right. Then ten thousand years to grow food. Followed by a thousand years to figure out machines. Only took a hundred years to master human flight. Now we are ten years into the great experiment of connecting all of humanity via social networks. And we're barely a year into every tech company walking into our homes. My hypothesis is that we humans as a collective are not ready for this. As individuals we can fly space ships and prove conjectures but as a group, we are no more capable of accepting society-wide changes than our fire-phobic ancestors would have been a million years ago.
What led me to finally write my disjointed thoughts on this topic was a remark by Dr. Milewski in his first lecture on Category Theory. He posits that humans only know how to (1) break down complex problems into simpler problems and (2) solve simple problems. Every bridge every built, every CPU ever designed, every heart ever surgically replaced relied on our ability to break down complex problems into simpler problems and then solve these simple problems. But this is not the only possible way to solve problems. Some alien civilization could solve simple problems as a byproduct of solving multiple complex problems. They could solve complex problems directly without breaking them down into simpler problems. Or they could combine a bunch of simple and complex problems and have one large complex solution to them. But Dr. Milewski argues that we humans only know how to solve simple problems. You don't have to take this as gospel or even agree with it but this is the spark that got my brain-fire burning.
I've been programming professionally for well over two decades now. No matter how complicated the problem, coders like (and better than) me all over the world break it down into the smallest parts possible and then attack each unit independently. How do you get a computer to recognize your face? First level — break it down to image acquisition, image processing, and image recognition. Second level — break down each of these into sub-problems e.g. image recognition into detection, classification, and identification. Third level — image detection can be further divided into features like edge detection, corner detection, Hough transforms etc. Fourth level — edge detection can use first-order approaches like Canny and Sobel or second-order like differential or phase congruency. No matter what field of study we pick, from art and sociology to political science and medicine, beyond third or fourth level, things sound like gobbledygook to anyone outside of the field.
But Chirag, you say, the examples you gave just made things more complex at each level, not simpler! Alas, that's the problem with how our language evolved. The simpler terms are often assigned to the most complex things. Face detection is not simpler than phase congruency. Art is not simpler than avant-garde geometric abstraction. The more general a topic is, the more complex it is, because it is composed of a thousand nested sub-topics, like a tapestry made of textile, made of multi-colored threads, woven warp and weft with picks and piles. But unlike a beautiful piece of tapestry, which we can step back ten feet and marvel at in awe, there's no way for our brains to see the big picture of billions of cellphones feeding our deepest thoughts and emotions.
As a species, we have become quite adept at solving problems. Early on we realized that we had a problem with passing knowledge from one person to next. So we made up numbers and words. Then we realized we had a problem with passing knowledge from one generation to next. So we made up lore and epics, passed down orally. Then we realized we needed something permanent, so we started writing on stones, scribes, and parchment. A few thousand years of that and we realized that a room full of manuscripts isn't enough to pass down the ever increasing volume of information humanity was generating so we came up with fields of study, education system, libraries, and professional teachers. Your college may have just built a new student activity center with virtual reality games but at its core, education today is not much different from Taxila or Plato's Academy.
So great, we figured out a solid way to education the masses. What's the problem with that? There isn't. The way we break down the universe of knowledge into fields, and sub-fields, with different degrees each taking years, broken up into gradually advancing courses is fantastic! This is how we managed to cure diseases, build dams, and send rockets into space. Good job, humanity! The problem is that this only equips us to deal with the problems we had ten thousand years ago - health, economics, and politics. Any new problem we come across, we try to shoehorn it into one of our existing models of study. Sure, we come up with new fields like operations research and management science as we broaden our knowledge-base but all of these rely on the same education system we built thousands of years ago.
Again, what's the problem with that? The problem is that we are now left to solve collective problems using tools meant for individuals. The foundation of our economic, political, and health-care systems is that each individual human is independent in their decision-making and will make the rational choice for themselves. Money is a tool meant for individuals. Voting is a tool meant for individuals. Proper diet and exercise is a tool meant for individuals. It's not my business if you go broke shorting stocks, vote for a guy who wears a boot as a hat, or eat cheesecake for breakfast, you are a free human with the liberty to do as you damn well please. Better yet, we even have laws that protect me if your actions or in-actions have a negative side-effect on me. We have built our society to incentivize human independence in every imaginable way and speaking as an independent human, that's a beautiful thing.
But speaking as someone who has read the news at least once in the last few years, we have some issues. We have some major, unsolvable issues. I don't mean the staples of hunger, poverty, and war. We are actually tackling these at an unprecedented rate. And we're using the tools of individuals (education, money, technology, voting) to chip away at these problems. Go humans! I mean major issues that we barely recognize, let alone know how to solve. Take for instance tourism, or rather over-tourism. Policymakers around the world are trying to curb the ill-effects of over-tourism by restricting length of stays, limiting the number of people admitted to pristine sites, raising taxes, and creating new regulations to best manage the local tourism industry. At a glance, this doesn't seem any different than lawmakers trying to stop any other unwanted human activity like drugs, smoking, or loitering. Lawmakers gonna law-make! But let's flip things around and look at the demand for tourism instead.
Why are so many people going to Easter Island all of a sudden? It is certainly not the steady increase in world population. Analysts at Skift, a travel website, say it's because of bucket lists and perfect Instagram snaps. When Bucket List, the 2007 film starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman first came out, nobody could have predicted that it would lead to over-tourism in the Easter Islands. Sure, things like this have happened in the past for hundreds of years e.g. Dutch Tulip mania, but this is different. It's different because of the scale and the speed. Every well-off person on Instagram from India to West Indies wants to take that perfect shot under the big Jesus statue in Rio or push up against the Leaning Tower of Pisa. A hundred years ago, relatively few people knew about these places. Now they are must-see globe-trotter destinations, shared and retweeted a million times daily.
What's the big deal, you ask. Policies will be made, locals will adjust, and a sustainable level of tourism will be achieved over time. That's how our civilized world works and it's been doing so for a few thousand years. My problem isn't with the specific act of tourism. Tourism is great. More people should travel the world etc. etc. My problem is that a small photo with a caption can change our mind. My problem is that anyone can make that photo. My problem is that the photo can spread through a vast majority of humanity in mere moments. More people have seen Psy's Gangnam Style video in a few years than the entire population of Earth in 1950!
We have built our entire society on individualism. We now have methods to influence an ever-increasing number of individuals on a global scale. We can change a hundred million minds with a single photo in an instant! And we are all addicted to this steady stream of novelty that we call the Internet. We're on it. Our parents are on it. Our kids are on a slightly different flavor of it because what we use isn't exactly cool. But we're all consuming wholesome memes, outrage-fueled news, corporate astroturfing, rage-inducing CCTV footage, political propaganda, and outright nonsense all day. And most of the time, we have no idea who came up with it and why.
Our brains are addicted to new and we will accept anything that's new. Refresh, close, re-open, refresh. Sort-by-latest. Top-in-last-hour. Show me most viewed. I want to feel the pulse of the world. I want to be connected to my community, my town, my state, my country, my world. It's 2018 and I must form an opinion on every breaking news story. So let me drink from the fire-hose already!
This is the Internet now. The Internet and us. All of us. Yes, even you who deleted your Facebook or don't post on Twitter. You are with us now. Just because you get your fix from a different source doesn't mean you are not one of us. This is us.
In Part 2, I hope to write more about "The Internet" part and how we got here.
OptimismSat, 29th Sep '18, 12:30 am::
Having had a pretty crappy year, I noticed an unexpected change in my personality. I have become more optimistic about everything. Initially I thought it was merely a side-effect of some strong medications but time has proven it otherwise. It took some months to narrow down but I finally realized the cause of my optimism is willful observation. I read this quote by Mr. Rogers years ago but didn't absorb the meaning until recently:
- “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world.” — Mister Rogers
When things are going wrong, it is trivial to list everything that's going wrong. It takes effort to notice what's not going wrong and even more effort to identify what new things are going right. When more things are going wrong than right, it is painful to seek just the right but I've learned that it is the most reliable way to fill up a glass-half-empty mind with a dollop of hopes, dreams, and optimism.
The universe doesn't revolve around me and doesn't care if I'm happy or sad. But my family and friends do. And I am a better husband, father, son, and friend when I am cautiously optimistic instead of morose. I've never been doom-and-gloom pessimistic but I have been cynical every now and then. And I can say with 100% confidence that cautious optimism beats indifferent cynicism every day.
-1 HouseThu, 6th Sep '18, 8:00 am::
I wrote about the cancellation on the sale of my old house last month and just one day later, got an unexpected cash offer for the full price. The buyer was willing to complete the purchase in two weeks, didn't want me to make any amends on the house (as-is sale), and was willing to perform home inspection right away. This one seemed too good to be true and so while I accepted the offer, I didn't tell anyone about it. No point in disappointing more people.
Well, disappointment no more. The house sale was completed successfully yesterday and now I am no longer a landlord! It felt great checking this long-standing item off my Chaos List.
Chaos ListTue, 21st Aug '18, 12:30 am::
One late night a few years ago, overcome with stress and anxiety from all facets of life, I decided to blog about everything that was bothering me, hoping for some sort of catharsis. But a funny thing happened when I wrote them all out, even before I posted anything online. I felt better. Just writing down a list of things that were causing chaos in my life made me feel better. So instead of posting it for the world to see, I just copied them to my todos under the heading: Chaos List.
The Chaos List isn't a list of chores I hate doing or bills I'd rather not pay. It is for the big problems in life, things that utterly bring me down, sometimes literally like the neurosurgery I needed on my C6-7 discs. I can control a lot of things in my life, from work schedule to eating healthy. But for the things I cannot control, there's the Chaos List.
I recently added "C5-6 discs" to the list because my neurosurgeon said it looks like I will need another surgery, right above the previous one. My pain level was down to 1/10 by mid-July but it is back to 6/10 now. I'm getting headaches, neck pain, and back pain because even though my doctor wanted to operate on both my C5-6 and C6-7 in March, the insurance company would not cover the cost of C5-6, only C6-7. So now I have to go under the knife again, the doctor has to re-operate on a recovering patient, and the insurance company has to pay 100% of the cost instead of just 15% additional. If this isn't chaos beyond my control, I don't know what is.
Another item on the list is "Old house sale." Today the buyer for my old house canceled the sale after being under contract for 90 days! The sale was supposed to complete tomorrow but the buyer got fired from his job on Friday. And since the lender denied the loan due to buyer's unemployment, I don't even get to keep the escrow. Now we start the whole process again and the earliest we can find a buyer and complete the sale is October or most likely November. This means 3-4 months of mortgage, electricity, water, and lawn mowing bills for an empty house. Argh!
There are a few more items on the list, most of them too personal and honestly too boring to share. Nobody cares about these issues other than me or my family but they definitely ruin my mood every time I let my mind wander. So I put them on the Chaos List. If it is on the list, I do not allow myself to think about it. No point in wallowing in self-pity over things already on the list. That's why they are on the list. I have already admitted that they are self-pity worthy! I don't need to keep wasting my time thinking about them.
Of course I cannot always consciously stop my anxious mind from running wild. So when I am absolutely past my ability to function or think straight due to the stress of everything, I stare at this list. Not just one item in the list but the whole list, because it is never a single issue that weighs me down, but the burden of the entire pile! And so I stare at this list.
I think of all the qualities that define me, that constitute my personality, my being. Nothing on this list has anything to do with my true nature. I am who I am, good and bad. But I am definitely not an unsold house. I am not a denied insurance claim. I am not a rejected application. Things that happen to me are not things that are me.
I don't stare at the list hoping all of these will be fixed or go away. They may not. They might get worse. The list could double in size overnight. But I will still be me. Even when I change, from experience, wisdom, or life just knocking me around, I am still never going to be a list of out-of-control events and situations. I am always going to be a real person, experiencing life, sometimes in control, sometimes out of.
Earlier today after I signed the cancellation agreement, I felt a cloud of uneasiness slowly coming over me. So I did what I've been doing for the past few years and stared at my Chaos List. It takes a bit of effort to detach myself from the events in my own life but it helps me focus on what matters without losing myself.
Tomorrow is our tenth wedding anniversary. We officially got married on 23rd but we celebrate our Yellowstone Wedding on 27th each year because that's when we shared our vows and had a little ceremony in front of Undine Falls. My parents celebrate June 2nd because that's when we had our traditional Indian wedding.
Re-reading my vows to Juliet after ten years, I don't think I would change anything. I don't think I would change anything about our life together over the past decade. There is a lot, lot more I want to write but right now I have to get ready for a long weekend full of fun family activities. Couldn't be more excited!