Perhaps it is my own curious set of individual anxieties fueled by a deep personal aversion to share and socialize (I have nothing interesting to tell you and it is highly likely that you have nothing interesting to tell me) but it has been clear to me for several years now that modern technology, especially that driven by personal data, is deeply antagonistic to a well functioning society of human beings. Companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and many others in their wake are creating a society which is highly partisan and hyper-reactive on one side and losing control of its destiny in a very real way on the other. It is time that society as a whole decides to impose severe costs on these tech companies for the ruin that these companies are affecting on the social fabric. These severe costs could be in the form of steep taxes which lead to a massive redistribution of the wealth that these companies have amassed at the cost of our privacy and agency or they could be in the form of breaking up these companies. The argument that this would severely undermine the innovativeness of these companies should actually be the goal. Society must realize that the innovations which these companies represent is not worth having and it would be in the long term benefit of humanity if these and similar companies were far less powerful than they are now. The jaundiced eye with which we look at Wall Street must now be turned to Silicon Valley if we, as a society, are to survive this century.
I remember watching a Feynman interview once where he talks about a conversation he had with an artist friend of his on the topic of the beauty of a flower. His friend says to Feynman that he finds the deconstructive tendencies of science as taking away from the beauty of the world as it is comprehended in the human mind, that the relentless insistence on truth and reductivism inherent in the scientific pursuit interferes with our ability to sense and appreciate the beauty which is expressed in the undivided whole of say a flower. Feynman's answer is exactly what you would expect - that he does not agree with the statement and that to him his scientific understanding only adds to the beauty of the flower by being aware of the complexity that nature has managed to endow that flower with and by appreciating the pleasing harmony with which all that chaos and complexity is resolved. Feynman could, in other words, not only appreciate the tender and graceful symbol that a rose is in a boutonnière but also be charmed by the scientific processes behind the visual bouquet. I remember being swayed by Feynman's argument then but have had quite a reversal in my thought processes since. On a philosophic level, I have come to think that a relentless pursuit of high minded concepts like rationality, logic, and scientific skepticism should be left to people like Feynman who have the mental and occupational luxuries to afford them. For common people in the day to day trenches of life, it is far more important to have faith, to believe in what may only be fairy tales and in overarching, even mystical, explanations of life and the world. Rationality, for most people, is disorienting and reductive and (from my own perspective) why bother with such a life when life is meaningless anyway? The counter argument is that there is inherent pleasure to be had in comprehending complexity, truth, and logic and, therefore, it is worth it. However, it is not worth it for those who, let's say, do not have the cultivated mental capacities of somebody like Feynman required for such a comprehension to be made possible. For them, which is most people, there is very little upside.
While driving south on Lakeshore drive a few nights ago, I noticed a full moon over the lake. It had illuminated a group of clouds in the Western night sky and its white iridescence lay quietly on the surface of the placid lake in a long, slender column. The scene transported me to a time in my life about 25-30 years ago. A brick and concrete house in a small town in north India recently delivered from the scorching heat of the day as it slipped motionlessly into the balmy night. Some cots on the roof and the chattering voices of my relatives dropping off one by one as they slept. A vibrant night sky above, quiet, mysterious, and infinite. It appeared both unfathomable and curiously familiar to me. There was the same face on the moon that I had seen countless other times. The constellations were the same as they had always appeared to me. I wondered how far the twinkling objects might have been and sometimes I even shone a flashlight at them hoping for the streak of light, clearly visible in the night sky, to reach them. In hindsight it was a ridiculous thing to do but that is precisely the point. The memory of sleeping below the stars and the moon, enraptured by the majesty of it all, sits viscerally in my imagination precisely because the mysterious nature of it spoke to something fundamentally human within me - the need to wonder which is ultimately hinged on not knowing everything. I have come to learn that moon is a hard rocky place and the stars are huge burning masses of hydrogen and that the light I had shone in the small hours of those nights had absolutely no chance in hell of reaching anywhere. I'd forget all this if I could.
Posted by Ankit On December 9th, 2017
The game of chess took a rather depressing turn in 1997 when IBM's deep thought beat Garry Kasparov in a man vs. machine sort of duel. The match was depressing not because a machine had beaten the greatest chess mind, possibly in history, thereby overtaking humans in what was always considered a very human endeavor. It was depressing because the way deep thought operated versus how humans play the game. Deep thought was the first successful brute force chess engine and its only tactic included doing a comprehensive search of future moves and choosing the best move amongst them. In this it was further abetted by the sum total of human knowledge in the form of opening theory developed over many centuries, coupled with a human sort of understanding of the value of the various pieces. It was a purely algorithmic answer to the human way of playing chess. A robotic approach versus a more creative, joyful, and intuitive approach which humans take. That was 1997. In the last 20 years, chess engines have massively improved and they can now easily calculate hundreds of millions of future moves. They have not been defeated by any human since 2005, as far as I know. The advent of the chess engines, however, has lead to an absolute deadening of the spirit of the game as the grandmasters try to imitate the robotic way that the engines use to play their games. So what was so beautiful and creative in such early geniuses as Tal, Morphy, Capablanca, and Fischer, has degenerated into the the grueling and grinding styles of the modern grandmasters. Their games are efficient and brutal and lack all elements of joy and beauty. They are like the chess engines themselves.
Well, we have a new kid on the block and this new kid might very well take chess back to its early roots. Google's Deepmind created a deep learning chess engine called Alphazero and only gave it the rules of the game of chess. Alphazero then played the game against itself for four straight hours with absolutely no input from any human. No opening theory and no hardcoding of piece values. No history of chess games played. At the end of the four hours, Alphazero played 100 games against Stockfish, the strongest chess engine available (playing against humans would be a waste of time and a foregone conclusion.) It did not lose a single game and won 28 out of 100. That's an astonishing feat for any entity, especially one that has basically learned to play chess all by itself in just four hours! There are no words to describe my amazement. What I do know is that this is a historic moment in the game of chess and compared to this the 1997 victory looks like a parlor trick. It's a historic moment not only because Alphazero so convincingly beat the greatest chess entity on the planet but also in the manner of its victory. I don't think I could ever have imagined associating adjectives like sublime, beautiful, imaginative and creative to a product of an algorithm but some of the games that I have seen can only be described as such. Alphazero plays like no other chess engine and it plays like no other current human grandmaster either. It seems to have the kind of strategic understanding of the chess board which was always considered possible only within the human consciousness. Only difference is that its strategic understanding seems deeper than any other human in history and it allows it produce moves of such surprise and delicacy with effects so long lasting and devastating that the games feel like a product of a superior and alien intelligence. In a small way Alphazero feels like a strange throwback to the swashbuckling chess masters of the past such as Morphy and Tal. At the very least, Alphazero and its successors will rewrite much of chess theory. They may even take humans back to a past style of play which was more joyful. They also may very well spell an end for competitive chess. After all, why would anybody want to watch a form of chess which is inferior to what Alphazero can play in every single way?
Posted by Ankit On October 27th, 2017
I remember that it was the year 2006 when I started religiously reading the tech blog Engadget. That soon led me to follow Wired and subsequently The Verge which was started by some writers who originally used to contribute to Engadget. Since that time I have found myself reading Wired and The Verge consistently and Engadget, Ars Technica, and Anand Tech to a smaller extent. 10 years very much feels like a century when I think of the growth of tech. It was a much more innocent time in 2006 when it was easy to get excited about the new gadgets which used to be featured on the pages of Wired and Engadget almost every day. Those gadgets were not yet tainted by the smell of human chaos and economic destruction which has engulfed society on the heels and fringes of the technological revolution. 10 years ago, technology had not yet sidled on to the the dark side, as Farhad Manjoo has also noted in his recent articles on the NYT.
I think that it was around 2011 when I started to become aware of the drawbacks of modern technology in a holistic sense. People from a previous generation, which I certainly am, always are apt to find shortcomings and flip sides in the technology of the day. But these flip sides generally always come with certain unquestionable benefits. When I say holistic, however, I mean that I no longer see much benefit to the technology of the present at all. There are drawbacks, disadvantages, and only its vile effects everywhere I see. Gadgets which used to be fresh, exciting, even optimistic in 2006 have become repetitive. But more than becoming repetitive, they have become a cynical vehicle for the naked and insatiable consumerism of the world, a trait which is always on display on tech sites like Verge. No smartphone is ever good enough and everybody is always waiting for the next set of improvements. Endless discussions on specs such as RAM, processor, and camera sound more like a fetish than an interest - the collective obsessions of an ill race of people who have lost all sense of proportion. These are the same people who have given up more and more of their autonomy and agency to the mysterious machinations of their gadgets and the invisible hands of the algorithms which reside in the cloud. Social networks, which were once a hopeful medium in which such movements as the Arab spring could germinate, have now become massive silos in which human beings can be efficiently isolated, contained, and their thoughts neatly managed towards the gain of nefarious elements. And what is it that people have really gained in this bargain? Constant streams of nonsense, trivial entertainment, and nonstop but ever diminishing jolts of dopamine as their little egos are stoked by nonentities in their "friend circle". Meanwhile technology has moved in to take more and more jobs around the world, leading to widespread discontent and poverty. The political upheavals that America and Europe are undergoing currently are a direct result of the march of technology which has essentially resulted in massive concentrations of wealth in the hands of a very few at the cost of the livelihoods of very very many.
There is literally no consequential benefit I see anymore in modern technology. All I see as its effect is an inevitable downhill slide for humanity with only more discontent, more violence, more upheaval, and more dehumanization in the future.
Posted by Ankit On October 20th, 2017
Perhaps there is a way to use social media judiciously as I know of a person or two who still appear reasonably well balanced despite using it. However, I am convinced that beyond those very very few exceptions, it is a poisoned chalice for everybody else. On social media almost everyone is a dumbass, pathetic little specimens jealously holding on to their two cent beliefs, pointlessly and endlessly railing against others behaving just as idiotically as themselves, eagerly lapping up tiny morsels of approval and acknowledgement from people who barely matter and working themselves to death in the process, constantly striving to join some group or the other so as to relegate the responsibility of thinking to somebody else in the ether. It's truly a gathering of clowns, a nasty and dehumanizing place to be and anybody with an ounce of intelligence should boot while some of their neurons are still functioning. There was a time when I was on Facebook but the sheer stream of nonsense which is the Facebook feed was overwhelming for me. I started blocking those people who I thought had gone off the rails, at least in their online lives, and pretty soon I discovered that my feed had stopped changing. It turned out that the only people whom I had not blocked were those who would never, or almost never, post anything. This was an obvious signal: what makes up a vast majority of social media was simply insufferable to me. I deleted that account and have never regretted having left that intellectual morass, that rotting necrosis of humanity. Having taken a leave from it all, I'd generally not be bothered by those billions who are still on social media if it were not for the fact that the fruits of their undead, unthinking, online existences are now bleeding into the real world. You see these real world effects in the rise of such obvious charlatans geniuses as Trump but also in the general ghettoization of civil discourse. The dumbass cheerleaders on the right lap up every conspiracy theory that is served to them on sites like Brietbart and talk radio and the idiotic members of #resistance, in response, have bought into their very own fairy tales and delusions. Coming together they have created a reality at once fractured between two parallel universes and slowly infusing into a giant pile refuse. Users of social media are transforming reality into their own image. Idiotic, uninformed, gullible, ugly, nail-screeching on a blackboard level cringe-worthy.
To be able to look back at one's own life and thoughts and to be able to process the journey which has taken one to the present are cornerstones to a well examined life. The alternative is to always live in the present which, they tell, is a great virtue. They are idiots, however. I have maintained this blog for more than 10 years now and even though I had never meant it to be so, this digital repository of my thoughts and personality has become, in some sense, more valuable than any other material possession of mine. To me it shows a fundamentally inconsistent series of thought processes. In moments of particular generosity I am tempted to view these inconsistencies as incontrovertible proofs of constant learning and improvement. At other more sober times I see them for what they really are. Mere wanderings on a meandering path which is headed towards no particular goal, no great distillation of knowledge, no ethereal summation or condensation. Still, to even realize this in oneself, some personality traits must be present and I can safely think of those traits as being desirable and as uncontested improvements. To realize and admit to one's own follies and limitations is definitely a desirable strength. And while some may achieve this through humility, I don't think it is the facilitating actor in my case. Even my best friends (and especially them) would probably not associate humility with me. The primary factor which is at work in me is an amalgamation of freewheeling cynicism, contempt, and pessimism which makes it easy for me to strip off the many layers of delusion which we, as human beings, often put on our human affairs. There's also apathy and a tendency to find amusement in what I consider the essentially futile and meaningless business of life. I see people who have choices in life and who consistently choose foolishly and it fills me not with sympathy for them but with amusement. As Carlin once said, when you are born you are given a ticket to the freak-show... (and if you are born in America you have the front row seats.) The least one could do is to try to find some enjoyment out of the show.
I am, in other words, not a hopeless romantic, at least not any more and not at most of the times. If I look back at some of the earliest posts on this blog and also some of my early email correspondences I can clearly see that these traits have developed and intensified over time. And that there were some people who were present at the right moments to guide me (unwittingly so) in what I consider is ultimately the right direction. As much as I like and respect people like David Foster Wallace, David Brooks, and Bill Watterson, I do maintain that one cannot develop a healthy respect for the innocent, non-cynical, and loving aspects of life without simultaneously harboring and understanding cynicism and contempt first. In the absence of the latter qualities one is doomed to be a romantic. And the only purpose of romantics in the real world is to serve as examples for how not to live one's life. They may serve as central characters in great melodramas and they form great canvasses for stories of stupendous emotional depth. However, as much as I like these stories I'd never want to be those central characters. There was a fellow Indian graduate student from IIT Madras whom I met very early after coming to UCSD and whose influence I now see clearly in my eventual turn of personality. His own personality was cynical, caustic, terse, and incredibly knowledgeable. He was, as I am now, a huge fan of Russian literature from the 19th century and there is something about Russian literature from that era which strips away the bullshit from human affairs. His early friendship, I now think, is what prevented me from sliding into the great idiotic abyss of optimism and hope.
I have now been in academia, in one form or another, for the last 12 years and while there is hopefully a long way to go and much to learn, there are also some interesting observations to make as I look back at all these years. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent some time in academia when I note that most of the research that I come across is incremental and a large fraction of it is what I'd call mediocre (which includes a similar fraction of my own work as well I concede.) I suppose there is space for this mediocrity in the current climate. Perhaps it is the climate (the administrative demands, the funding landscape, the short-sightedness) which breeds this incrementality but the effect is my sitting in many a talks wondering why anybody bothered to do the research and why anybody bothered to fund it.
I also note a surprisingly large contingent of professors who are not really interested in research but only in securing as much funding as possible and having as large a research group as possible. Large amounts of research funding and large research groups are unmistakable markers of success in academia nowadays which, to my sensibilities, is a shameful perversion of the original ideals of scientific inquiry. Moreover, I cannot yet comprehend how one can lose that attraction that one must surely have felt towards research when one was a graduate student at some point. How can bright, talented, excited, and sharp young graduate students turn into middling managers of the scientific enterprise in such vast numbers? Of course, I know the answers to all these rhetorical questions. I have seen it happen all too often in other areas as well. Reality sets in at some point. People forget what is truly important and they confuse the conventional markers of success for happiness.
Maybe I am still too green in this business to lose the idealistic view that I have for what a worthy scientific career should look like. Maybe it is the deep seated contempt which seethes within me, directed liberally at the wisdom of others and especially of authority ,which preserves, to some extent, my idealism from the headwinds of reality. Perhaps it would wither away someday but at least it hasn't yet.
...these persons know firsthand that there is more than one kind of so-called 'depression.' One kind is low grade and sometimes gets called anhedonia or simple melancholy. It's a simple torpor in which one loses the ability to feel pleasure or attachment to things formerly important... The anhedonic can still speak about happiness and meaning et. al., but she has become incapable of feeling anything in them, of understanding anything about them, of hoping anything about them, or of believing them to exist as anything more than concepts. Everything becomes an outline of the thing. Objects become schemata. The world becomes a map of the world...
It's of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial USA treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It's maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz,which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it's the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip - and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so called peer-pressure. It's more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we've hit this age, we will not give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The US arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it's stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naivete. Sentiment equals naivete on this continent... Hal, who is empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool.
-from Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
The last four months have been deeply interesting, politically speaking. The last year, which featured the great Brexit drama on the other side of the pond, along with the coming years which will feature, among many unforeseeable issues I am sure, the French elections and further fissures in the EU resulting from the banking crises in Italy and Germany and the relentless unemployment in the southern European countries, may very well turn out to be the defining moments of the World in this century. One might look at the current political climate and shake their heads in bewilderment, but the general outline of how the events have unfolded appear, at least to me, more or less logical and capable of being explained. I think there are two main lines of thoughts with which to wrap one's head around these.
The first is economic and the main culprit here is technology. It is no secret that there is a deep economic aspect to the rise of nationalistic sentiments in the US and Europe. The manufacturing jobs have been decimated in these places, a phenomenon which has been accompanied by the hollowing out of entire towns, cities, cultural institutions, and ways of life. I refuse to take seriously the argument that the reason is the outsourcing of jobs to places like China. The argument, if true at all, only serves to delay what is truly inevitable. And the inevitability is the replacement of all or most of human labor by technology and automation. This is the reason why Trump will not be able to bring back a majority of the jobs which have been lost and this is the reason that contemporary economic nationalism is fundamentally misguided if it believes that the world can return to some sunny day in the past when there were good paying jobs galore which provided a sure shot way into a decent middle class life. The future is most certainly one of decreasing human jobs. It will also be one of increasing inequality unless something is done about it. That literally nothing has been done about this eventuality is a major reason why we have the current political climate. It is time to ditch the idiot who continues to insist that there is something inherently worthy about hard-work and that one's right to live comfortably should be linked to it. It is time to take concepts like Universal Basic Income seriously.
The second is religious and the culprit is atheism. Even though I am an atheist, I see very little of value in it. In fact, it is my opinion, that the rise of logic and rationality has had an overall deleterious effect on humans. It has destroyed religious institutions and with them it has destroyed the grounding that people could find in the past in the absence of material success and well being. It has created, in Nietzsche's words, the last man, completely defined by market forces. Nietzsche thought that the life of such a man would be akin to death itself. He did not envision what might follow. What has followed is a sense of abundant and wide-spread cultural irony and mockery, a sense that literally nothing is sacred and that nothing is inherently of much value. In the sustained absence of material success and in the most important broken promise of capitalism, a deep cultural desperation has set in and no religious institution is now strong enough to serve as an anchor.
In the economic and religious roots of current social crises, Marx and Nietzsche again loom large in this new century.
There is no doubt in my mind that the people and friends that I met while I was a student at UCSD were, as a group, the most interesting and most formative influence on my personality. My childhood and early youth exist in my mind only in half spoken broken sentences and in heavily patched over tapestries. What should have been the long, dark, and firm shadow of their grip on the succeeding decades of my life is, in reality, stunted, hesitant, and meek. My time in SD, on the other hand, stands as the singular and powerful influencer which is due, in no small part, to the singular characters whom I had the fortune (or misfortune) of befriending there.
There's, for instance, Babaji. The one who was perpetually short on decent clothes and decent hair but who made up for these shortfalls by being supremely passionate about all things outdoors and incredibly sharp, quick witted, and street smart. Stephen Fry once said that a Hungarian is the only man who can follow you in a revolving door and come out first. Over the years I have come to think that this is also the perfect description of Babaji and I am sure that other friends of mine who had the pleasure of interacting with him would agree. To think that this crafty and artful creature began his stint at UCSD with a monumental blunder of the habiliment variety, one which literally relieved him of all his clothes except the ones on his back, reveals to me a truth that I could not otherwise have discerned - that there are creatures smarter and more shrewd than Babaji out there. As humbling and disturbing as that realization is, this incident is more important and significant to me because it is precisely archetypical of Babaji as a unique person. I have known people who had their house burgled and I have known people who had their pockets picked. I have known people in various states of misfortune but I know of nobody else but Babaji who had all their clothes (and nothing else mind you) stolen. That incident became the singular framework for my understanding of him, periodically emphasized, no doubt, by my regularly finding him pottering about in his backyard in his signature red polo T-shirt and black shorts (which, I have always maintained, could have been longer than they actually were).
My friendship with Babaji ran deep and had many facets. Some philosophical, some culinary, but most important of them all was our mutual obsession with the 2-wheeled mode of transportation. I had two successive motorcycles (a yellow Kawasaki Ninja 250 and a blue Yamaha YZF600R) in San Diego and, to my knowledge, I was the first Indian grad student at UCSD during my time to eschew cars in favor of motorcycles - a genius decision in hindsight. Babaji soon followed suit and bought a yellow Suzuki GS500 and thus began a half a decade worth of motorcycling adventures in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Baja California. Almost all of our motorcycling trips ended with either mine or his, but more often his, motorcycle breaking down and they invariably involved the deus-ex-machina intervention of our resident guardian angel, Khatri bhai. But For all the breakdowns in all the random places (Barstow, Mojave desert, Catavina), the memories that I associate with those trips are simply sublime. These include riding non-stop and relentlessly at the redline on those unending Death Valley roads which seemed to continue on to infinity and fall over, vanish beyond the horizon. They include riding at the limit on the fast and sweeping mountain curves in Show Low Arizona. They also include spending the night on the streets of Ensenada as Babaji and I tried to withdraw some money, any money, from the ATMs in order to pay the guy who had hauled his entire family and Babaji's motorcycle on the back of his pick-up truck through 250 miles of Mexican back-country. They include, as well, the harrowing experience of me hauling Babaji on the back of my bike on the heavily trafficked I-15 and in the intense winds of southern Californian mountains. As I was trying to make sure not to veer into the 18-wheelers zooming past, Babaji, I understand, was soaking in the sublime beauty of the endless windmills fields. In that moment when I was doing the hard work he was, as he has often been, supremely serene and happy.