Category Archive: Uncategorized

Remembering Stephen Dedalus

As the world buckles under the strain of Covid, it seems to me that the dead have become a mere statistic at this point, with every new one sucked by the Covid counting machinery. Another life extinguishes somewhere and the counter goes up infinitesimally. It's insulting to a human life, to be so reduced and diminished. There are a few lines in Joyce's Ulysses where Stephen is remembering her dead mother:

Where now?

Her secrets: old feather fans, tasselled dancecards, powdered with musk, a gaud of amber beads in her locked drawer. A birdcage hung in the sunny window of her house when she was a girl. She heard old Royce sing in the pantomime of Turko the terrible and laughed with others when he sang:

I am the boy
That can enjoy

Phantasmal mirth, folded away: muskperfumed.

And no more turn aside and brood

Upon love's bitter mystery, For Fergus rules the brazen cars.

The last line is not in the book at this precise place. It was left unsaid by Stephen and I have added it here. I think it's appropriate. The less said after Joyce the better. All I want to add is that what Stephen so poetically remembers in these few lines is emphatically that her dead mother was not a statistic. She was a girl with a birdcage in the Sun. What was lost was an entire person with an entire life full of hopes, disappointments, and material possessions - a fate which awaits us all, it must also be remembered.

The nameless hero in Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground claims that 'the whole human enterprise seems indeed to consist in man's proving to himself every moment that he is a man and not a sprig.' He is railing against the grand endeavor of progressivism and science to, in some sense, enumerate the human existence, to atomize it to its constituent parts, and understand it thus. To isolate the causes of all human impulses and identify them in nature or in nurture, to the extent so as to render useless such ideas as personal responsibility and free will. He is railing against the modern conceit that human beings can be 'improved' using the tools of science, that their defects can be ironed out in the future as science lets us probe the human condition deeper. I share his pessimism in the success of this project and I also share his disdain at even the existence of such a project. Science, to me, is just a pastime like any other. Art, sports, food, travel, religion, movies, whatever. Anything to keep one's mind occupied and prevent him from a life of relentless despair. There is no special nobility in science and it is not proceeding towards any special understanding of life which helps to improve the human condition. To the extent that science and rationality have succeeded, they have only succeeded in making the human condition worse. What human beings may have gained in material benefits due to science and technology, they certainly have lost in spirituality, society, and camaraderie. The gift of modernity to humanity is isolation, depression, loneliness, and a general loss of of a sense of autonomy. But wait, science can solve these maladies as well. It can give you a pill for your depression. It can invent bullshit like social media and help one pretend that he is not imperiously lonely, that he has a thousand friends who care. Does he even have 2? Does that thought set up a deep sense of dread and insecurity in you? Well, that's the gift of science and technology right there. And it's downhill from here for those who believe in the power of modernity, science, and technology to improve our lives.

The Absurd

I have a vague recollection of how it all started, the most important transformation in my life. The most important transformation that there is in anybody's life. In my early years in the US, I came across a book titled Mind is a Myth by an Indian philosopher U G Krishnamurty. I am sure that he would have scoffed at being called a philosopher with all the contempt that one reserves for someone who does not know what they are talking about. Nevertheless, I saw him as a philosopher and his book (which he may not even have written himself) did fatal damage to my my world view which was, at that time, still deeply rooted in the Hindu religion. As the first order of business, it utterly shattered my belief in a God but perhaps I should not put too much of a blame at UG's feet since I was perhaps primed for that transformation anyway. UG would not care in any case. The destruction of my religious worldview was, however, only half the story. Perhaps the more pernicious effect of that book was the relentlessness with which it attacked the possibility of any alternative system which might give hope and meaning to a human life in the absence of religious grounding. UG himself seemed perfectly at ease and he seemed not to care about the philosophical violence with which his words were replete. He seemed not to care about the struggles of others and to me it was deeply seductive for some reason. Perhaps it was his brutal honesty which was so refreshing. He wasn't trying to sell anything and it seemed as if he did not want anything from the world, not even its admiration.

It has been a little more than 10 years since those fateful days sitting in cafe Roma in UCSD reading UG. I have a lot more gray hair now and perhaps a little more wisdom. What began as a revolt against religion in my young heart has stabilized and mellowed into a gentle respect for it. And also a certain kind of envy directed at those who find it so easy to believe. What has not changed is that irrelegious transformation which was set in motion by that book and I think that transformation will be a permanent pillar of my life. It does set up the problem of absurdity though - the problem of finding meaning in a meaningless and arbitrary universe. A realization of absurdity not in the abstract but as a constant and weighty presence all around, engulfing in its cold embrace all life and all of life's pursuits. After all, what's a life, a generation, an age, even a thousand years in the face of silent eternity? What's the value of hopes, ambitions, and achievements of one individual in an unending and unsympathetic universe?

Although I have very much enjoyed being a professor over the last several years, I have also realized with a certain sadness some effects that these years have had over specific faculties of my mind. Perhaps these effects are due to the highly technical nature of the job which often tends to dominate other parts of the brain; perhaps it is simply a manifestation of the process of growing older. I am, of course, thinking about the ability to look at one's life from a very broad perspective, one within which its beginnings and ends are sharpy punctuated like two bookends and the importance of its aims and goals and pleasures and purposes are accordingly cut to size when it is placed in the greater scheme of things. I am distinctly aware that half a decade ago, I had internalized this point of view to a greater degree than I do now. The result of this attitude then was to engender in me an amalgamation of detachment from and curiosity about the world around me. I could at once be fascinated by the stories of mundane lives (since no life is really mundane) and unburdened by what happened to them. This attitude extended to the world in large and allowed me to be detached from any noble causes and any great communal goals. In a few words, I simply did not care. But I did not did not care in the same sense in which a selfish person does not care. I did not care because the idea that it is all meaningless in the end was always front and center in my consciousness. The world was ridiculous and pointless and that people did not seem to realize this was endlessly fascinating to me.

I think reading literature of a certain kind had something to do with the development of this attitude. A steady diet of stories from those nineteenth century Russians is guaranteed to instill in the mind of an impressionable young man the seeds of a hard-edged realism. The mellifluous meanderings of Proust and Flaubert are sure to inspire an enchantment with the mundane, with the grand stage of life itself upon which the pathetic and inconsequential drama of individual lives are played with an endearing self-importance and a charming delusion. I had a chance to relive it all recently when I read Madame Bovary again. When I first read the book, Emma to me was so much more than the main character of an exceedingly well written story. She was a lens with which to see and understand the world. She, with some moderation, was a metaphor for the average joe you could sympathize with. A person living a truncated and unfulfilled life, eternally caught in the currents of destiny which are too strong for him to affect and too inscrutable for him to comprehend. Every move that he makes to counter his predicament only serves to lodge him deeper into the morass, thus setting up a delicious example of the human condition if one were to be a little heartless in one's descriptions. There are other characters in the book which are less useful in this sense than Emma. Homais is eventually irritating because he ends up succeeding. What must surely be an inner life in Homais which is monstrously ravaged by insecurity and conflict is too little comfort for me as a reader and as an observer. Charles, Emma's husband, is a useless idiot (as opposed to a useful idiot). He does not have the intelligence or curiosity to understand that he is doomed and, consequently, does not have the sensitivity to make something beautiful out of his predicament. Even in his eventual grief he is entirely unoriginal, copying directly from that great master (mistress?) of cosmic tragedy -- his deceased wife Emma.

This was a bit of a digression but it goes on to show what good literature can do to the brain. Such delicious morsels of thoughts, such interesting perspectives do not emerge in vacuum but are easily germinated in the fertile grounds of a master storyteller's words.

For regular readers of this blog (both of them) it should come as no surprise that I am no fan of modern technology. Over the last ten years, my opinion concerning such aspects of daily life (for many people) as the smartphone, social networks, and increasing algorithmic intervention has morphed from an initial enthusiasm and utter fascination, transitioning through a stage of increasing skepticism as to their merits, and finally now resting on a solid crystallization marked by utter hostility. Even before the idea was cool - which makes me a hipster of sorts - I had deleted my Facebook account and had never bothered to deal with the various other ephemera of the online social existence which seems to now have such a vice grip on the social glottis. It is absolutely clear to me that the technological revolution which has taken root since the middle of the first decade of this millennium has, on balance, been utterly poisonous to both society and to the humanity of individuals. On a social level it has caused massive mayhem in both the western and the eastern worlds by accentuating the worst tendencies of a human being. His propensity to believe in bullshit when it is soothing to him, his pathetic inclination to root for his tribe no matter how ridiculous it may be, and his infinite capacity to rain wrath on the members of tribes he does not agree with. On a human level, the effects of technology have also been disastrous as they have reduced what should have been reasonably functioning human beings to slavish automatons continuously glued to their screens, always plugged in to the world of infinite facts but little understanding. I think that it is a legitimate question to ask that the person you see walking on the sidewalk, his eyes on his smartphone as he absentmindedly maneuvers the perils of city traffic, or the one you see sitting at a restaurant table lost in the virtual world as her real life friends sit by doing the same, is actually human. Or is he/she a member of some new species of sub-humans which has risen out of this technological revolution? A queer specimen who on the face of it seems to have lost the ability of self-reflection and who seems to engage with human emotions purely in cliches. He/she probably can still feel pain but having lost the ability to think about it in a coherent manner responds to it in highly templated ways. In the absence of self-reflection (and how could they self-reflect as self-reflection takes time and an openness to boredom) it appears that life to them must be a bit like how it is to lower creatures. A set of essentially unconnected stimuli the canned responses to which are readily accessible in the interwebs. The entire structure of the web then is the opium which drugs these individuals into a kind of stupor which characterizes the unthinking, unexamined lives of lesser animals than humans.

Do I feel superior in this situation? Do I feel that I took the right steps at the right time and that it has worked well for me? You bet I do.

Schubert Trio op. 100

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.

Alphazero vs Stockfish

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?

Tech in 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.