The Internet and Us - Part 2Mon, 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.
In Part 3, I will write about the complex, hitherto unsolvable problems we face as a species.
The Internet and Us - Part 1Tue, 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!
I used to take a lot of pride in my work when I was younger. I prided myself on producing the best quality work I could and rarely gave in to laziness or cut-corners at the expense of quality. I was unabashedly proud of it. Unfortunately for a long time, I equated pride in my work with pride in the product of my work.
When you take pride in your work, you do your best. When you take pride in the product of your work, you reject all criticism. Constructive criticism is how you improve and rejecting that means stagnation. It took some time for me to learn this but once I did, I noticed how little pride in anything mattered.
Now I rarely care about anything I've made, written, or designed. I don't care if it is endearing or embarrassing. I care that I did it, for the reasons I did it, and with the effort that I did it with. But I don't care that *I* did it. This mindset has led to continuous improvement in everything I do. So criticize away. If I have the time and resources, I will incorporate your suggestions with an open mind.
True storyMon, 14th May '18, 10:40 pm::
This happened earlier today with Naveen when I was trying to convince him to take a nap.
Me: Napping is great. Bears love napping so much, they go into hibernation and sleep through all of winter.
Naveen: But I want to be a frog, not a bear.
Me: Being a bear is great! If you were a bear, you would be big and tall. You could eat honey and berries all day. And you could even eat salmon fresh from the river.
Naveen: What's salmon?
Me: It's a type of fish.
Naveen: Mommy eats fish... (15 seconds of contemplation later). Is mommy a bear?
Opting for a surgeryWed, 4th Apr '18, 11:30 pm::
I've been recovering from my ACDF surgery gradually and feeling better by the week. I am glad I went under the knife even though I was quite apprehensive initially. What helped me come to terms with my decision was a conversation with a neurosurgeon who told me the three reasons people usually opt for surgeries:
1) Get the surgery if you are in severe pain or extremely debilitated and cannot tolerate the physical trauma.
2) Get the surgery if you cannot afford to miss your home/work/academic obligations.
3) Get the surgery if your quality-of-life has deteriorated to the point where you can't imagine living like this forever.
In my case, honestly all the three reasons applied. It hasn't even been three weeks since the operations and reason #2 is already resolved for me. I am still in a lot of pain and cannot be physically active like I was prior to January but that is just a matter of time. Hopefully in a few months, I will be back to normal as if nothing happened, well, except having a few pieces of metal embedded in my neck.
My surgery went well and I am resting in the hospital right now. Hopefully I will be discharged later today. I am experiencing some pain but my left hand already feels amazingly better!