Tech Things I was wrong aboutSun, 29th Nov '20, 11:25 pm::

For centuries, people have made predictions on what the world will be like decades and centuries into the future. I am a lot more interested in 5-10 year predictions than 20-50-100 year ones because the former are more actionable. Like many others, I could easily see that streaming services were going to take over the world and that nearly everyone was going to have a smart phone. Nothing worth bragging about as it was pretty obvious since 2005 unless something went terribly wrong.

What fascinates me are the things that I was wrong about 5-10 years ago, not because I lost money or respect over it (trust me, I care for neither of those) but because it means I was imagining a different world than the one we live in now. It means that today when I see 5-10 years into the future, I could be similarly wrong and it is best that I take some time to look back and alter my underlying assumptions that turned out to be wrong.

1. Bandwidth: I grew up with 28kbps and 56kbps dial-up connection and personally experienced the jumps to DSL, then cable modem, and right into the 2G, 3G, 4G/LTE speeds. And now I manage fiber and cloud networks at 5-10gbps daily. So you would think that someone in my place would be optimistic about there always being enough bandwidth in the future. But turns out I am not. At each of these stages, I could not foresee things getting any faster and instead spent my time optimizing and building for the current speed. While this sounds like a bad thing, it actually works in my favor in day-to-day work situations because it makes me build things that work fast now, not after everyone upgrades to 5G. However, if I was more "futuristic" in my thinking, I would build things for the future. So when 7G comes, my bandwidth-hog 3D video-streaming game-simulation app will be just what people try out first.

2. Video Streaming: Tagging along with my bandwidth shortsightedness, has been my ever pessimistic view on how much video streaming will really be possible. I always thought Netflix wouldn't be able to support streaming a hundred million streams simultaneously so they will come up with alternatives like P2P streaming, DVR-style recording/downloading, custom devices with terabytes of storage etc. But instead they did something that just blew my mind because of how plainly logical it was - they worked with major ISPs and put Netflix servers right on the ISPs internal network and wrote code that cached the most commonly viewed streams. This means that when I click 'Play' on my TV to watch a popular Netflix show, the file is coming to me straight from my ISP's building in my city a few miles away, not across the Internet from New York or California.

3. Compression: I was wrong about how limited the video quality would be too, as I watch nearly everything in 1080p and some 4K today. Compression has continued to blow my mind at how great things look and how small lossy video/audio files are. Sure, nothing beats 70mm film in theory but I can barely see any blurriness or distortion when watching a YouTube video on my phone. Even now I scoff at 8K videos, who needs that! But based on how wrong I have been in the past, within a few years I will surely be annoyed when the 8K stream I'm watching on my virtual glasses hiccups a bit. All of this is made possible due to the insane level of compression thanks to literal geniuses in math, signal processing, and computer science.

4. Battery vs. Phone Weight: I have absolutely been wrong about this and I still don't know why the world doesn't see it my way. My phone is thin and light enough. Even when it's brand new, the battery barely lasts 8 hours. Just make the damn phone thicker and give me a 3-7 day battery! Stop making the screen bigger. But turns out I was wrong. People want thin, light phones that they have to charge 3x a day. Literally every person I know connects their phone to charge the moment they sit down for an hour. I'm not saying I thought batteries would be better by now. I thought people would realize that long battery life was worth the excess weight. But turns out I'm wrong.

5. A.I.: I'm still every pessimistic about strong or general AI i.e. computers with human-level intelligence or beyond (super AI). I don't think that's happening any time soon. I was also always optimistic about weak or narrow AI that has a very specific task like image recognition or text to speech. What I could never imagine was that throwing a data-center's worth of computing resources into a narrow AI can actually make it perform close to a general AI for most purposes. In simpler words, while we don't have a magical smart AI genie, we have really good software that can translate between languages, and if we make that software learn the entirety of everything ever posted on the Internet, the resulting AI will not only be great at translating between languages but it will also be capable of translating between languages it has never seen before. It will also be capable of writing new text in any language, like news reports, based on a few key inputs. This isn't necessary strong AI but for all intents and purposes, it is good enough. If you've read a stock market summary of the day in the last 5 years, it's AI.

6. Bluetooth: I was more optimistic on this than reality turned out to be. I thought we would have better alternatives to crappy Bluetooth by now. Turns out we don't. I don't even want to get into why because it is just 500 pages of depressing.

7. Social Media: I easily saw where Twitter and Facebook were going to end up and the reality is not too far off from my expectations. I am not surprised with walled gardens and information bubbles etc. That was only natural. What I am surprised about is how easily you can still live without them. I don't use LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok or any number of cool social media apps. I still read and infrequently post on reddit and watch some of my favorite science/tech channels on YouTube regularly. However, I've easily gone weeks without so much as looking at reddit and I signed up to watch my YouTube creators on Nebula for $5/mo. Literally nothing in my life is going to change if any or all of these social media sites went away instantly today. I might have some more time to kill and maybe will read more. I am utterly shocked that something hasn't compelled me to start using them like kids school programs or neighborhood or medical community chat. As relieved as I am to say all this today, I am also still pretty pessimistic for the future. I'm fairly certain there will be a time when I absolutely will have to sign up for some social media site just to go about my life. Note that I don't hate them or anything. I just don't have the time or energy to maintain an online presence beyond this blog.

8. Remote Desktops: I was more optimistic on this too than what really transpired. I thought by now, we would all have an individual "computer" in the cloud that we'd pay $5-10/mo for and it would have all of our files and software that we could access from any computer, phone, TV etc. I thought may be a small token or app on our phone would make any computer/monitor into a full-blown desktop with all of our data. Technically this is absolutely possible today and it was possible 10-15 years ago too. I just thought it would be common. So if a friend came over, they would just connect to their remote desktop on our living room TV and show vacation photos. Instead, people text each other entire movies (hello #1-3 above) or "cast" their phone to a Android/iOS device connected to the TV. The latter technically mirrors my original vision but the phone is the source of the data, not a gateway to the cloud server, so it's not the same. I think if you are in the Apple ecosystem, there are some signs of going this way with AppleTV playing your iCloud photos/videos, sharing your purchased apps/games with family members etc. However, it's all connecting to computers that Apple controls and manages, not you.

9. Self-driving automobiles: I still can't believe we have these and that they work in most environmental conditions. I also can't believe that they are not already the standard in every new car. I thought it would take forever to have cars that drive on their own. Or rather, the whole world would need to install magnets or sensors underneath every road and highway so trucks and cars would detect them and stay in the proper lane. Instead Narrow A.I. (#5 above) got so good at image recognition and depth perception that it can drive cars and identify road markers in real-time. Totally blows my mind. I also thought that the moment one car company came out with self-driving cars, it would be just a few years before every new car would self-drive because that's the best way to ensure safety and remain competitive. But instead every company is selling a few self-driving features like lane-keep and adaptive cruise control in their higher-end models while completely skipping on these for their economy class. I get why they do this because of costs but I thought consumer demand would necessitate these safety features. Nope, I'm wrong for now.

10. Video Conferencing: COVID-19 did more for video conferencing in 2 months than tech advocates did in 20 years. There is literally no way I could have predicted every person with a laptop or phone totally being ok with multi-hour Zoom sessions. Sure, there is still a lot of room for improvement but my 5 year old spends 4 hours each weekday on MS Teams video conferencing with his classmates and teacher in virtual school. That is amazing!

I'm sure I have many other current assumptions about the future that will be proven wrong eventually but for now I am just happy that many of my pessimistic predictions turned out wrong. I am glad Netflix can do 4K on a thin, light cellphone that can also educate my kid during a pandemic. I think I'm going to spend some time on what I believe the upcoming 5-10 years in technology will be like and maybe come up with ideas on how I can create tools for that future instead of just making things for immediate use today.

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Risk ToleranceThu, 26th Nov '20, 4:45 am::

Many of my friends are aghast at the absolute lack of precautions millions of people are taking with respect to Coronavirus. At the same time, I know many people who are going about their lives with or without masks convinced that the pandemic fears are overblown. It is hard for people to reconcile with the actions of their polar opposites because everyone is judging everyone else based on their personal level of risk tolerance.

People who have health issues cannot comprehend how others can be so callous about hanging out in large groups. People in good health, especially those under 35-40, do not feel the need to put their life on hold for another 6-9 months, when they don't have much to lose if they get infected. If you think wearing mask is a binary choice - either you wear it properly or you don't, then it is impossible to tolerate people who do the opposite from you.

However, if you rate your adherence to wearing mask on a scale of 1 to 10, then you might find you are at a 7, not 10. Which means you are close to a 5 mask wearer than a 10. Add 1 point for each criteria below to see how strictly you stick to wearing masks properly. The list gets harder to adhere to with each criteria (think earthquake Richter scale):

Chirag's Mask Adherence Checklist:

  1. I wear a mask whenever I leave my house
  2. I make sure my mask is tightly sealed around my face, over my nose/mouth, and does not fog my glasses
  3. I will not eat inside a restaurant
  4. I will not enter a business if more than 5 people are in a 10'x10' area
  5. I do not order drive-thru fast-food or eat outdoors at a restuarant
  6. I wear a mask even if I am alone in my office or anyone comes to my house
  7. I use masks with filters and change them as per guidelines
  8. I sanitize my hands after adjusting or touching my mask every single time
  9. I don't use cloth masks, only professional ones like N95
  10. I double-mask using two different types of material (N95 + surgical, or surgical + cloth with filter)

The problem with wearing masks is that nobody is going to be 100% on each of these conditions at all times. If you absolutely do 100% of the above at all times, congrats on winning 2020. But I'm going to be honest here. I rate about 4-6 on this, depending on how my day is going. I could try to do more but realistically I just can't. Things are hard enough as it is. Juliet's probably 9-10 on this, Naveen 2-3, Leela 0. So we have four people in our house with four different mask adherence scores. And this is just mask, let alone all other things like washing hands, not touching your face, maintaining social distancing etc.

This year has been tough. We're all trying to do our best as per our personal level of risk tolerance and abilities. I am closer to Naveen's level of adherence of most days than Juliet's. Does that mean I don't care about my wife's health? Absolutely not. It simply means I am different from her and as long as I do the top 4-5 things on this list, my risk is greatly reduced. Juliet cannot afford to get infected so she does nearly all of this. I can absolutely understand why some of my friends who are a 6 on this scale get frustrated at people who are a 3. But by the same token, Juliet at 9 should go ballistic on me at 5 but in truth, the risks are not proportional to the effort necessary.

Wearing a mask properly whenever you are in public is good enough for most people. Double-masking N95 + surgical is probably only 1-5% better than wearing a properly fitted cloth mask with filter. But it is a lot more work to wear two masks. So sticking to the top few items is usually good enough. The real problem here is that everyone who is a 0 (i.e. completely avoids wearing a mask) thinks anyone who wears a mask is expected to do all of the 10 requirements. And most people who wear a mask think anyone a point or two below them is a total 0. People who are 0 could be more easily persuaded to get to 2 if they weren't expected to get to even 3. Similarly people who are at 6 could temporarily relax to 4-5 as needed, without seriously increasing their risk, e.g. going to see a doctor or dentist. Too many people are avoiding routine healthcare this year but in many cases that is much riskier, especially if they have issues like high sugar, high blood pressure etc.

There's not much I can say to the people who think they are 10 and everyone else is 0 or vice-versa. There is already a ton of political chicanery on this topic and emotions are running hot. However, I can say to the people between 1-9 that you are not as perfect or imperfect as you might assume and neither are people who are different from you. We all have a different set of life factors affecting our personal level of risk tolerance. If you're worried about getting the disease, raise your level temporarily and see if you can adjust. If you're having a complete breakdown due to isolation, temporarily lower your level a bit and see if it that improves how you feel. There is no "correct" level of adherence except what you decide for yourself.

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Leela's First Birthday Party on ZoomTue, 10th Nov '20, 12:30 am::

Leela turned one this Sunday and to celebrate, we invited all of our friends and family to a virtual party on Zoom. We would have loved to throw a party in-person but since Juliet is immunocompromised, we cannot risk her getting infected with Coronavirus. On the flip side, many more people from across the country and world were able to join.

Juliet and I had been planning the party for many months now and it took a surprising amount of work to prepare everything. We knew we didn't want to have just a standard 'everyone fawn over our baby while yelling across each other' event so we spent a lot of time coming up with fun ideas to engage the guests. We came up with the following itinerary for a packed one-hour session:

  1. Intro slideshow with two dozen latest photos of Leela with/without us, on loop while everyone slowly joined.
  2. Quick welcome by me with technical suggestions like please mute when not talking and turn phone to wide-screen.
  3. Pre-recorded Official Party Welcome by a special guest: NOT Tom Cruise.
  4. Leela's first year of adventures slideshow of about 50 pics/collages with both Juliet and I sharing a line or two about each slide.
  5. Leela's Playroom: A Scavenger/Treasure Hunt game for all guests with hints provided by special guests in the form of nursery rhymes. I managed to get personalized videos wishing Happy Birthday to Leela from Lisa Loeb, LeVar Burton, Gilbert Gottfried, Carole Baskin, and Danny Trejo! And to keep things cute, I had Naveen sing Old MacDonald Had a Farm.
  6. Slideshow of 12 Months of Leela in pretty costumes
  7. Pre-recorded Happy Birthday song with karaoke-style subtitles sung by Lisa Loeb and Gilbert Gottfried.
  8. Finale: Cake Smash by Leela.

Since I was going to handle the slides and videos, I asked my friend Arthur to manage the guests and host the technical aspect of the party. He admitted people into the waiting room, muted guests after they were done speaking, pinned my stream when I was presenting, kept the score for the game, and recorded the whole session so we can remember it forever! This was no small task and so a big thank you to Art!

Juliet's cousin Alex stayed with us for 3 weeks last month and came back again for Leela's birthday. Without her helping around the house, I would not have time to do any photo or video editing, nor would Juliet have been able to put up the wonderful decorations as pictured below. So thank you Alex!

I used OBS Studio to present the stream and that included playing videos, flipping through images, showing our webcam feed live, overlaid with various transparent images like the frames below. The images look pixelated because they are screenshots of the live session, not photos.

Overall, even though this was just an hour-long online party, it was honestly no less exhausting and exhilarating than any of our other parties like Naveen's birthdays or Juliet's Baby Shower. While this had a unique set of challenges, fortunately for us, there were no technical issues. Best of all, both Leela and Naveen loved it!

Happy Birthday to Leela, my lovely little baby girl :)

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