Word of the Day: sabre-rattling

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Sabre-rattling, according to Wiktionary, is from the early 20th century when a military officer would threaten to draw his sabre as part of an argument. But the metaphorical meaning is an overt show of military strength to prove a point or to imply a threat. It was recently used by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, to accuse Russia of unwarranted “sabre rattling” when Russia declared that it would be adding forty Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to its nuclear arsenal this year. That, of course, in response to increased US activity in NATO allied eastern European countries, which of course, Putin sees as a threat.

“This nuclear sabre-rattling of Russia is unjustified. This is something we are addressing, and it’s also one of the reasons we are now increasing the readiness and preparedness of our forces,” Stoltenberg said.


What’s interesting about this whole debacle is that despite sanctions, despite constant pressure from the world, Russia is just marching forward without any regard for International rights. Putin’s plans, whatever they may be, have not been shaken by any level of threats from the US or any other country and it seems they’ll keep escalating till either the world watches as Russia assimilates eastern Europe back into its territories or someone lights a match and the whole barn goes up in flames.

But, till that happens, we can sit on the sidelines and watch as Russia continues to be defiant, Europe continues to be eloquent (who else uses sabre-rattling in speech any more?) and the US continues to be equally dull –

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern over Putin‘s missile announcement and said no one wanted to see backsliding “to a kind of a Cold War status.”


Of course, this word is interesting to me not just because of its infrequent use but also its origins. There was a time when military officers used to carry sabres or other types of swords and the threat of a drawing of weapons used to be a very real one. This is one of those iconic things that make future generations scratch their heads, much like why the phone icon is this weird looking receiver thingy and why when we end a call, we say “hang up”.

While the nuclear threat (and the territorial threat) from Russia is very real, we must remember that there are countries that have been dealing with Russia’s ‘sabre-rattling’ since decades, if not centuries. So, if and when the threat becomes real, there’ll be a little less sabre-rattling and a lot more sabre-drawing to deal with it.

P.S. Some of you might think, “aha! That’s not a single word, so how can it be word of the day?” Well, to you I have only two words to say – compound words.

The Secret History of Blah

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Let us begin.

The world is full of interesting things. Wonderful creations that change your lives, make it easier to reach for the stars or talk to your loved ones. There are countless people toiling away in garages, labs, offices, and corners of public spaces, working on their masterpiece. They will soon release their creation into the world and you will wonder, “how was that even made? What was the process of the creation of this marvelous thing?”

In comes a journalist. She’s got a wonderful tool called ‘access’. She brings knowledge and seeks enlightenment. She interviews the maker about their invention. She then goes on to write a glowing article about the wonderful and surprising process that needed to take place in order for this amazing thing to exist. Then, she goes on to hit publish. But there’s one step left – the title. She carefully chooses an interesting title and sends it off to the editor. The editor publishes. The reader reads. But in between, a magical, almost mystical process happens –


The title of the article changes from meaningful to crappy. The description changes from something interesting to “You’ll never believe…”. Oh, silly goose. But I will believe.

One such linkbait is the “Secret History” title. I hate those. They’re so ugly and uninformative. It’s really not proper for journalists and editors to use it. Yet, they do.

The secret history of women‘s football

The Secret History Of Seal Team 6

The secret history of 19th century cyclists

The Secret History of Ultimate Marvel, the Experiment That Changed Superheroes Forever

The Secret History of Wonderland

Heirloom tomatoes’ bizarre evolution: The secret history of the tastiest summer treat


Seriously, what’s wrong with these people?

There’s even books out now –

The Secret History of the World

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from How Dogs Learn


Someone needs to tell them to quit while they’re ahead. I wonder who that someone will be? Hmmmm. Maybe it has to be me. OK, let’s take care of this once and for all.

Say hello to the @SecretHistoryOf twitter account. Every once in a while, when an article that misuses this stupid linkbait-y title will come out, we will shame them. Go then, follow the account, join in the fun.

Let us begin.

Just another iOS bug

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Be on iOS 8.3, Be friends with someone who’s shared their location with you through iMessages, Open iMessages, Click on Details, Click on the Map, Lock the screen.

Unlock, Messages has crashed.

iOS 8.3 did nothing for me. Nothing. It was the the most worthless upgrade I’ve done in iOS.

A note about rain

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I was not able to sleep properly a few weeks ago. It was weird. I felt sleepy, but my normal routine of keeping my eyes closed and clearing my head of all thoughts didn’t help. I began to feel restless. So I looked towards other means that could calm me and lull me into a deep peaceful sleep. The pitter-patter of raindrops is a soothing sound that always helps me. I tend to associate rain with the idea of a sleepy summer afternoon, where I tend to drowse off regardless of what I’m doing.

I turned to my phone and looked up the rain sounds apps. I have 3 such apps installed on my phone right now. My favorites – Thunderspace and rainymood are not on my phone right now. Instead of downloading them and wasting precious sleeping time, I decided to give the other ones a go. The latest one, “Raining – relax yourself“, has a few presets – Summer rain, Dripping rain, Forest rain and Rain on window. I like the sound of rain on a window but it’s not exactly my favorite. I tried all the presets but didn’t like any of them. Remind me to delete that and make some room for Thunderspace.

The next one, called Ambience, allows you to pick and choose multiple sounds to play. I could select the volume of four sounds – rain, fire, thunder and waves. I set rain to about forty percent and thunder to about sixty percent. No good. The rain sound is pretty dull, almost a forest rain. That’s boring! The app has other sounds that are available through an in-app purchase. Sounds such as coffee shop, birds, crickets etc. I don’t care for insect sounds and if I really want coffee shop sounds, I’ll just download the coffitivity app. I was no longer sure if I would get any good sleep for the night.

Finally, I tried the oldest rain sounds app I have on my phone right now. I’d tried it long ago and was unsure of it. It’s called Rain Sounds HQ, and because of that imaginative name, I really expected the developers to know what they’re doing. I fired up the first preset – Cologne Thunderstorm. Instantly, I was at ease! I love a good thunderstorm. Although the preset was exactly what I needed, I tried the other presets too – Oregon Coastal Rainforest, Rain in Washington Forest, Small River in Scotland etc. None of them matched the power of the Cologne Thunderstorm. They’re all soft sounds and lack a punch. So I switched back to Cologne Thunderstorm and turned to my side, grabbed a pillow and dozed off. The sound was not distractingly loud, but soft enough to calm my senses into a lull.

I expect rain to make its presence felt. I believe rain should have character. It needs to be strong, loud enough to grab attention and weighty enough to soak you in minutes. A windy thunderstorm without rain is irritating. However a soft, dull rain that slowly seeps into everything is way more annoying. In this regard, the rain that I’ve experienced in Seattle is rather bland. It’s soft and quiet. It has never been accompanied by thunder. It’s boring! Reminds me of the time I spent in Shillong. The light drizzles in Shillong are constant and soundless, and present for a major part of the day.

The size of the drops also matters a lot in my book. When it rains, the drops should make a splash and actually make a sound when they hit the ground beneath your feet. If the raindrops just land softly on the ground, I can’t call it good rain. Seattle and Shillong have tiny rain drops and the drops just gently come to rest on the surface. The drops also stick to the windows without a sound and that’s just faux rain to me. Rain should have strength and a life-affirming sound associated to it. Unfortunately, the rain I’ve seen of late doesn’t.

The reason I like Thunderspace so much is because it is a complete package. It controls the flash on your phone and can connect to a Belkin WeMo switch further connected to table fans to give you a more complete feeling of rain, thunder and windy weather. I suppose it should be used mostly by people to whom rain is a therapy. I enjoy the rich sound of rain that they’ve captured, with vigorous thunder and light wind to accompany it.

My other favourite, rainymood would be well-known to people who enjoy listening to rain. It’s a beautiful rain sound, with the site depicting just a plain window covered with rain drops, creating the illusion of sitting at your window, listening to the rain and thunder as they dance across the sky and the drops gently pattering on the glass nearby. I noticed today that they’ve added a new feature where you can watch YouTube videos along with the rain sounds. That’s pretty amazing! However, rainymood does have a different tone than other apps. While others seem to have a sort of optimism in the rain; a sort of crescendo if you will (especially, Thunderspace); rainymood is quite the opposite. It has a melancholy sound. I can’t explain why, but when I’m in one of my sadder moods, my browser automatically directs itself to rainymood and simply reinforces the sadness. Fortunately, it wasn’t the one I was listening to that night.

I slept well thanks to Rain Sounds and had a rather interesting dream. Perhaps I’ll write about that next, probably while listening to Coffitivity.

Author’s note – This article was edited by my long-time good friend Anurag Saxena. Apart from being a really good writer and software engineer, Anurag is also an Ingress aficionado. He blogs about his experiences in that world here.

PostScript – I have a beautiful memory of my entire family sitting in our car on the hillsides of Ooty, with rain pattering on the windows while we’re inside, enjoying home-cooked food passed out by my Mom. Enjoying the delicious taste and aroma of that food, with the wonderful sights and sounds of Ooty rain is one of the most wonderful remembrances I have of my childhood. Ah, those were the days!

Update – In a conversation with an Uber driver recently, I heard an interesting story. He was talking about a month-long trip he made to Malaysia and one of the things that surprised him there was the rain. Every day at 12:45 pm, he would see clouds rolling in, dark and full of potency. This would start the communal event of shops being shuttered and people rushing to their homes and latching everything down. Then at precisely 1:30 pm, the rain would start. It would be strong and harsh, with huge drops that could hurt a person. Of course, being from Seattle, any monsoon rain would seem harsh to the fellow. Within a forty-five minute period, the rain would stop, as if the water tanks above their heads had flushed out everything they had and it was clearly time to dissipate. He then described how the Sun would hop out almost instantly and when he ventured out next, he realized that the ground was extremely dry, as if the rain had not even touched the surface! The Earth was so parched that even the grass could not retain the water, everything would seep in. In fact, he tried to walk on the grass barefoot after one such rain and all he felt was dry leaves pricking his soles. It was a wonderful conversation about rain in Malaysia.

Mobile Internet, learn this from your predecessors

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tl;dr – mobile web should show ads between text, not as weird popups.

The Internet has superseded the rest of the mediums – newspapers, magazines, books in most ways. But there’s one thing that all of those older technologies did better than the Internet – show ads. The ads in a newspaper are perfectly placed, extremely clear in their presentation and positioning and incredibly non-invasive. Of course, it’s an apples to oranges comparison ever since the advent of video ads and GIF eyeball grabbers on the Internet.

And to an extent, desktop Internet has done well in terms of their placement of ads, but the absolute loser in that respect is the mobile Internet. So much so that this is the best description of the mobile web experience –

What the mobile web needs to learn from all it’s predecessors (and even desktop Internet) is that the right way to show ads is still to use the white space. Don’t bog us down with crappy popups that are difficult to close and app offers we don’t care about. We care about the content. Give it to us. 

In between the blocks of text, throw in any kind of ads, GIFs, crappy video and app offers that you want. But the first and foremost thing we expect to see on our mobile phones is the content. Do not hide that from us. If you do (and you do), we’ll remember never to visit your site again (and we do).

कुक्कुराणां वनं

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Every once in a while, we ask ourselves, “Why the heck did I ever waste my time on that?” Two of the prime candidates for that question for our generation are Calculus and Sanskrit. Two years of Calculus and two years of Sanskrit seem to be too much of a waste to me.

Now, the first, even I understand. I know no one who uses Calculus. I’ve not used it once since I got out of Engineering and even in there, most of the work purported to be done by hand was deftly dealt with by my calculator. But the latter, well, is more of a mystery. There’s a peep every now and then about Sanskrit. It’s in the news either because the German government is doing too much for it or because the Indian government is doing too little. Either because someone discovers some long-lost formula in those dusty tomes that seems to prove that all math and science in the world was first developed by Bharat or because somewhere or another, I find reference of oddities and extremities that I didn’t know about our motherland (I enjoy wikisurfing far too much).

Regardless, one always asks that aforementioned question, often suffixing it with a near-truth statement – “it’s not like we’re going to use it anywhere.” I say near-truth, because as it happens, a colleague came up to me the other day, and asked a rather curious thing. Paraphrasing his words, he started off something like this –

“So, my friend in Germany has recently bought a large piece of forest land, several hectares, in fact, because she wanted a place for her dogs to play. She wants to name it ‘Dogs’ Forest’, but in Sanskrit. Can you help me with that?”

I look at him, stumped. My mind is racing towards my first thought about his query and soon, it comes to my lips –

“So, your friend has bought forest land?”
“Lots of it?”
“For her… dogs to play in?”
“Yes,” he chuckles. “She’s rather rich.”

At this point I’m thinking, “damn, rich people are weird! But in that case, she must have a bunch of translators sitting in some German University already working on this problem. Why the heck am I being pulled into this?” But I say the more polite thing, “sure, I’ll help you. What exactly does she want to name it?”

“Dogs’ Forest.”

Now, those who know me well will probably know what I’m thinking. I’m thinking something along the lines of, “what the heck are the hindi words for ‘dog’ and ‘forest’?”

But here’s the catch. I’m fairly certain that even if the words do somehow come to me, I’ll have absolutely no idea how to string them together, since grammar is something I’m so bad at, that I never even bothered to learn English grammar properly, let alone Hindi or Sanskrit grammar. But, being the feisty Indians that we are, I take up the problem from the top.

“Ok, let’s take the problem from the top. First of all, let’s find a Sanskrit dictionary.”

As I start typing ‘Sanskrit dictionary’ into the search bar, my colleague politely informs me that he’s been trying to make head or tail of the foremost Sanskrit dictionary online since an hour or so and hasn’t made much progress. That is a nice way of saying, “I didn’t get it. Neither will you.”

“No worries, we can figure this out!” I blab, as I type the word ‘dog’ into spokensanskrit.de, expecting the website to deliver words straight out of the rig veda into my lap. But, my hopes are dashed when the results come back with a measly ‘कुक्कुर’ and a dozen other results that I’m fairly certain have nothing to do with dogs. I look at the page blankly, reminiscing that the Sanskrit word for dog is ‘कुक्कुर’, as opposed to the Hindi word for it, ‘कुत्ता’. Clearly, I have nowhere to go from here.

Just then, my other colleague walks past and his rich history of being an Indian flashes in front of my eyes. I stop him with nothing short of a ‘hurrah!’ and explain the circumstances to him. He’s confused about the situation, but rather clear about the translation. Taking to a nearby whiteboard, he quickly jots down the familiar table that I had lost to the ravages of not-caring-so-much-about-Sanskrit. It goes something like –

रामः रामौ रामाः
रामं रामौ रामान्

Within a minute, he furnishes prior knowledge of the word ‘कुक्कुर’ and the word ‘वनं’ (Oh, that’s what a forest is called in Sanskrit! Dang!) and attaching them together, gives the result as –

कुक्कुरस्य: वनं
kukkurasya vanam

He passes off the translation to our curious colleague (the one with the seriously rich friend) and we all call it a day on that subject.

Except, maybe not. Something doesn’t sit right for me. I need to do this translation myself. I sleep on it and the next day, I look online for that table, which my Sanskrit teacher had tried so hard to burn into my brain (“रामः रामौ रामाः, it went, didn’t it?”)

Luckily, there’s a WordPress blog called sanskritinstitute.wordpress.com, which has not only the table, but also explanations for what those words actually mean. It explains that the possessive words are

“रामस्य रामयोः रामाणां”

This is the sixth line in the table. There is no power on this blue marble that we call Earth which could have made me remember all the way down to the sixth line of this table. Not then, not now.

But here’s the kicker, Ramasya means “Ram’s”. But, as my friends-with-rich-woman colleague explained, she doesn’t want to name it “Dog’s Forest”, but “Dogs’ Forest”.

Aha! You silly apostrophe, you! For those of you who didn’t study English as steadfastly as I did, when you’re talking about something belonging to a single entity, you say Dog’s, but when it’s owned by multiple entities, you use the plural of the entity and throw in the apostrophe at the end, so, Dogs’.

Funny thing, English. But Sanskrit is rather clear. There’s no way someone can mistake Ramasya for Ramanam. No one can claim that someone else told them that this forest belongs to multiple dogs and he didn’t understand.

So, I pull out a pen and some paper and write it out boldly,

कुक्कुराणां वनं
kukkuranam vanam

I rush to my colleague and explain to him why our well-versed-in-Hindi colleague might have been wrong and how the actual translation comes out to the above. We have a hearty laugh about it all and he regales me with tales of how Chess Masters study Sanskrit so they can read Vedic Strategy and understand how to win at Chess and I tell him how ancient sutras have the oldest recorded version of the Pythagorean Theorem long before Pythagoras breathed first. We talk some more and I joke that as kids, we Indians often ask ourselves, “what was the point of rote-learning all this Sanskrit when we’re not even going to use it anywhere?” Well, now I have an answer, that “fifteen years from now, someone in America will ask you to translate some innocuous phrase from English to Sanskrit. That’s when you’ll use that learning.”

Before I walk away, I remind him to tell his friend the phrase, as I’m sure she’d appreciate giving her dogs’ forest an accurate name.

The thing is, I’m not sure I’ve done the translation right. Have I?

“Which way to Svoboda?”

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I was reading a BBC news report of how, recently, pro-Russian sites are popping up in the Czech web sphere, which could allude to some serious USSR-style propaganda. The article referenced the 1968 Prague Spring, which was when the then Czechoslovakia government tried to establish reforms which would lead to freedoms to the press and private sector, the division of Czechoslovakia into Czech Republic and Slovakia and a general upliftment of the people who were suffering cruelly under the rule of the Soviet Bloc. Needless to say, Soviet Russia didn’t take kindly to this and, along with their friends of the Warsaw Pact (Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and East Germany) attacked Czechoslovakia to take back control.

Of course, they won. Even with the way things were under the USSR, they had tanks, weaponry and manpower and Czechoslovakia had, well, a leader who told his people not to resist. But resist they did. Without the necessary means to win the war, they resisted in the only other noble way – confound the heck out of the enemy. In the most peaceful way, road and street signs across the country were painted over or removed so as to completely confuse the incoming force.

The result was hilarious. Supposedly, one could see troops stopped in rural areas trying to study maps and making sense of how every village they’d visited was called either Dubček or Svoboda (which means freedom). Road signs were painted over, except those that led to Moscow. The result of that was that an invading force from Poland spent a day roaming around before being routed out of the country, empty-handed.

Now, these reports come from Wikipedia and further from two separate sources, but I’d say you should take them with a grain of salt regarding their veracity. However, the point to understand is that in those days, it was possible to confound an incoming force by the sheer ingenuity of changing your road signs and hiding all the maps. Of course, today’s military will simply whip out their iPhones and tell you where to invade next. But this episode lends importance to the idea that with the accumulation of power so dependent on finding your enemy, it is important to also control the means of finding the enemy in the first place. This is obviously the reason why countries like Russia, China and India as well as the EU are working to create their own version of the GPS system (which, mind you, is owned by the US Government).

Clearly, in tomorrow’s war, one of the first efforts will be to either block the enemy’s signals, thereby preventing them from finding our accurate locations. The other, more radical one, would be to try to shoot down their navigation satellites, a scenario that has given birth to more science fiction movies than we care to admit.

But, going back to that wondrous time when people still had to use maps and ask for directions from locals, I must say that it is remarkable that someone thought of the simple idea that perhaps one way of stalling the enemy is to paint over the signs which will tell them how to get to the capital. That’s your trivia for the day.

Balloons, or how tech companies need to stop and take stock

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Balloons is, concurrently, a ‘fine WordPress theme’ and a ‘whimsical’ one. It is also a theme that caught my attention when I was browsing for WordPress themes recently. Let me be clear – I was not browsing for themes for my own site. I was browsing for themes for our nikhco.in domain, which looks to be in need of a refresh.

But Balloons caught my eye. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe it was the large number of balloons that are front and center at the head of the theme. Maybe it was the oddly small typography, which could look great if it were a few font sizes bigger. But as soon as I saw it, it caught my attention. I started thinking about how I would modify it to suit my needs and change some things I’d definitely get irritated at. I hate when theme authors fixate on certain social network links but not others or add an unneeded sidebar to the theme. But then, I stopped and took a step back.

This planning and plotting I was up to, was it needed? Was it a useful change to my site? Was this theme better than my current theme? I have put many hours into editing my current theme, “Independent Publisher“, to make it look the way I wanted it to look. So should I be putting those same hours again, so soon, into a completely new theme with completely new issues I’d have to fix? I like the challenge, but is the effort valuable? Have I received negative feedback on my theme? Has someone told me that it’s not good the way it looks or maybe it fundamentally conflicts with the content? I write on a variety of subjects – code, fiction, politics, observations about the world, and movie reviews, among others. So it’s been hard to find a theme that fits all that content. Thus, over the years, I’ve experimented with many themes, many plugins and formats to elicit some kind of a reaction from my otherwise passive readership.

I was talking to my brother recently and we were talking about how LinkedIn has the habit of trying new things with their site. I understand the impulse. It’s all about constantly evolving. You have a product, you want to make it better. There’s also the business case for it. For startups and fledgling companies alike, there’s a market to capture and industries to disrupt. Thus, the need for experimentation drives them to keep trying to do new things. If a company working on a professional social network can also act as a Rolodex and be the go-to resource for industry news, that’s better for their business.

But my brother’s point was valid too – you’ve got a product. You’ve released it to the general public. You’re working on minor improvements all the time. Let. it. sit.

There’s oftentimes no need to add that new feature to your current site. If you want to experiment, make a separate platform or a new app to try things. Put it under your label, call it “LinkedIn Connect” or “Facebook Paper”. But don’t try to shove new ideas down the throats of your current users. Let them get used to the current system. Let them complain and argue the merits and demerits of it. Let them give you real feedback and then act on it. At the end of the cycle, if the new idea is that popular, roll it into your current system. Integrate your changes. But don’t start out with the assumption that people will be OK with a constantly changing platform. Most of the time, there’s no need for that.

We talked about all the other companies out there too, including giants such as Google, Cisco and HP. Those who sit on their laurels get surprised by a leaner, smarter company coming along to steal their market share. But those who continually reinvent just to keep the rust off, lose their focus and their customers. If you’ve got a radical improvement to your product, go for it. But make sure you’ve got a second set of eyes telling you that the new is actually better than the old, not just newer than the old.

So, as I looked at Balloons, I silently sighed. There was no need for it. No one is telling me that my tech posts look bad in the new theme. My most popular post ever “Installing Fever on AppFog” still gets visited a few times a week even though it’s years old now. People still read through it on a theme that’s better suited to fiction than tech tutorials and no one seems to mind. Older posts about code are still visited and no one cares if the font is larger than needed.

I bookmarked the theme and closed the tab. One day perhaps, I’ll dust it off and show it to someone and ask if it would make for a better theme for my blog. Until then, my site looks good and I’ve decided what to do with it – Let. It. Sit.

Authors Note – I wrote and edited this post on Hemingwayapp. It’s an amazing editor. It points out sentences that are hard to read, phrases that can be simpler, and the use of adverbs and passive voice. It helped me get rid of all the instances of passive voice in this text. The makers, the Long brothers, have come up with a new Beta version that you should check out. The New Yorker has taken notice of the app too, among other news media. You can read about their coverage here. This article got a grade of 6 on the app, which is not at all bad!


A lecture

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Good morning Young Adults,

Welcome to the third lecture on “History of Writing”. I’d like to point out, as mandatory by law, that this history, as with all other histories taught in your school, is disputed in a federal court and may be deemed incorrect at a later date, at which point the syllabus will change. Until then, we are teaching the less popular version of the topic, as dictated by our school’s charter.

Now, to begin the lesson, let’s do a quick recap of what we have learnt in the last two lectures. We began with the idea that writing things down would make them available to more people and preserve knowledge across time. This part, as we discussed, is not disputed.

Then, we saw a presentation on the idea of a universal language. We understood that even though individuality is considered important, the world had settled into the idea that English would be the universal language towards the end of the twenty-first century. We understand that this is disputed by scholars of the day who believe that English was not actually universally accepted but quite simply the de facto language because of the cultural and economic might of a few countries, which, since they no longer exist, can neither prove nor disprove this specific argument in any comprehensive manner.

Today, let’s talk about the Book. Now, please understand that I’m not talking about a specific book, but the Book in general. Since most of you do not know what that is, let me pull up the Wikipedia entry for it.

“A book is a set of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of ink, paper, parchment, or other materials, usually fastened together to hinge at one side. A single sheet within a book is called a leaf, and each side of a leaf is called a page.”

Now, who can tell me what they understood from this? Yes, Tomlin, what’s your take on this definition?

Tomlin – I think it’s some kind of a primitive information repository, but I’m not sure how something like that would work.

Very good Tomlin! Yes, books were information repositories that were organized as chapters. Sometimes, there was so much information that it had to be put into a series of books! Yes, Supriya, you have a question?

Supriya – Yes Ma’am, I want to ask how can they put information on something so flat?

A wonderful question Supriya! People nowadays don’t understand how knowledge can be put on something as basic as paper. Let’s do an exercise. If you remember, I showed you all a piece of paper when we went to the museum last month. You’ll recall that there was text on that paper, real words. There was also an image on it.

I want you all to consider information as we know it today and try to think about how that information would be represented on paper during that period of time.

Let’s begin with a simple example. We all know that the best way to capture someone’s speech is to make a 3D replica of it. How do you think humans in the twentieth century captured speech? Yes, Supriya?

Supriya – I have read that they used to takes things called notes, on paper. They would quickly write what people were saying and then save it someplace safe to recall later.

Very good Supriya! But since you’re familiar with the concepts, I don’t think you should be answering any more questions on the topic. No need to frown, you know it’s the best way to involve everybody.

Next question. In our 3D replicas, we often include, in heavy detail, how people emote their speech. We have records of inflection, pronunciation, emotion, body and eye language and many times, environment. How do you think early man did it? Let’s take it to someone other than the front row. Yes, Mary, what’s your take on this?

Mary – Well, they’d have to somehow copy the 3D model and keep changing the emotion.

Close, but not quite. You see, in written language, there is a process to capture emotion. Words expressing emotions such as anger, relief, hatred, and peacefulness were used to write about emotions. Similarly, surroundings were described in great detail. This is one of the reasons why books were actually so big in size. They had to capture a lot more information in order to properly capture the essence of the scene being described.

Let’s change gears and imagine how they would have described something non-human, like a stone or a DNA sequence. Nowadays, if you want to see a stone, the replicator just builds one for you. If you want to study a DNA sequence, you can ask the replicator to create a model for you and you can play with it live, to create your own DNA sequence. How do you think mankind stored that kind of information? Let’s hear from, you, Ching? Ching, I don’t care if you don’t have an answer, I want you to try.

Ching – I dunno. Maybe they tore off some pages and kept a stone there?

No need to laugh class. Ching is not wrong. No one is. But the human race quickly realized that ideas such as putting a piece of stone in books could only work as a novelty and were not practical. Instead, they used to draw elaborate pictures of the item. Sometimes, they’d describe the color, feel and effect of the object in question in great detail and sometimes, they’d just include a picture of the thing and move on. Yes, Maya, do you have a question?

Maya – But Ma’am, how can they draw a rock on a paper and how can they play with a DNA structure on paper? You told us that paper is non-interactive, unlike our 3D models.

You see, Maya, there is an entire art dedicated to drawing 3D shapes on a 2D plane. It may seem ridiculous to you, but some of their greatest achievements were based on that. From the early prototypes of fuel propelled vehicles, which they called ‘space craft’, to large representations of landscapes, everything 3D was represented in 2D using various techniques such as using darker colors for depth perception and light source inference, using layers of color to give the sense of three-dimensional space, using specific colors to represent specific things, such as red for anger, blue for sadness and green for happiness and prosperity. Now, you may all laugh, but this is how it all worked.

Who here remembers that museum exhibit called a painting? It was some lady sitting in an elaborate costume, with a slight smile. Good to see all these hands up! Now, we may not know why she was painted. Was she some politicians wife, or was she the artist’s representation of an angel, but we can study the painting, only half of which remains now, and see that the smile is actually affected by the way it has been painted. We can also see that the background has been shown to be smaller from her own size, so as to represent that it is far from her. These ideas may seem primitive to us all, but these were the best means they had to represent such notions.

Who here has been to MOMA? You realize why the Museum of Modern Art had to be made on half the side of the moon, right? They needed room to let artists display their work. The famous “Events Of Futures Past” by Giraldo Ganeshan is a theater of five thousand replicas of humans at war with five thousand Centauri. Now, we know that we’re at peace with the civilizations of other star systems, but Ganeshan’s representation is an idea, that something like this could happen. Of course, to accurately represent the scene, Ganeshan had to take up half of MOMA’s space in order to present the installation. You can walk through the model and watch as each warrior attacks one from the other side in a battle that would not even be technologically feasible anymore – we no longer have weapons that we can hold in our hands.

Imagine if, instead of taking all that space, Ganeshan would just have written a book, with detailed descriptions of the battle. It would have taken considerably less space. It would have meant that humans would have to use a very infrequently used faculty now, namely, imagination, but it would have done the job.

Now, getting back to the topic at hand. Maya, how do you think people who drew the DNA structure on paper interacted with it?

Maya – With their imagination, I guess.


Maya – But how? It’s so hard to imagine this stuff! And reading is so difficult! Why not just call a 3D model of it and let the comp process it for you?

You must realize that there was very little that comps could do back then. In fact, there was a time when comps didn’t even exist! Nowadays, all you have to do to start studying is to press a button on the memlets around your necks. But back then, knowledge was slowly being transformed from paper to comps and comps didn’t have the capabilities needed for this kind of work. In fact, for a long time, people depended on screens to display information to them!

Puline – What? So you’re saying that they moved from 2D paper to 2D screens? Lame!

Decorum Puline. But you’re right. Our ancestors weren’t the brightest bunch. It didn’t occur to them that the upgrade from paper would be something that takes them into a third dimension. Instead, they chose to make it the same 2D structure, but put it on comps and then on what they called the Internet, which is, in a way, the great-great-great grandfather of the psynet.

That brings me to the last question. How do you think peeps took books from one place to another? How about we get an answer out of Anhel. We’ve barely heard a sound out of you today.

Anhel – yeah, I’m a little distracted today.

Is there something you’d like to share with us today?

Anhel – No, no. Anyways, what was the question?

How do you think peeps carried books around?

Anhel – I don’t know. Did they put them on some sort of fuel powered hovers like we use at home?

Haha! No. I like your imagination, but the thing is, hovers came into existence only about five hundred years ago. What they did was that they had things called bags. If you ever observe the food delivery at home, you’ll notice that individual types of foods are packaged in custom-built air silos. Early mankind, however, had to create containers out of paper or cloth or something that they called ‘plastic’ and use those to store and transport goods, including books. Imagine you all, coming to school, with bags hanging over your shoulders, with books inside them!

Well, that’s all for today’s lecture. Have fun at home and don’t forget next week’s timings because they’re a little different. Good day!

Author’s Note – I’d like to thank my friends Ronnie and Rahul for editing this post. They both provided invaluable editorial feedback and are really cool people. I’d recommend you follow them on twitter, because, apparently, that’s a thing to do.

Solving the ten thousand year problem

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While writing a short story today, I started thinking about an issue that I discovered last year. The story is set in the far future, where the dissemination of knowledge has changed so vastly that the idea of a printed page is absurd. I’ll be publishing it in the coming hours. But, as I was writing it, I started thinking about how much our culture and language will change in the next ten thousand or so years, let alone over the next hundred thousand years. That reminded me of an interesting thing I read last year – “Ten Thousand Years”.

Out in the New Mexico desert, stands a government building with a single task – to permanently store nuclear waste from the US’ various nuclear power plants, for at least the next ten thousand years. The date is so chosen because supposedly, thinking beyond that time frame is too mind-boggling to consider. It has nothing to do with Jeff Bezos’ Long Now Foundation, which is building a ten thousand year clock, thought it might as well, because both ideas are equally interesting and convoluted.

Now, one of the issues that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico is facing is that of language. Since the last ten thousand years, so much has changed in humanity, that the idea that the same language, the same symbols, and the same myths that protect us today will remain even then, is a non-sequitur. English is constantly fighting to be the language of choice while Spanish, French and Chinese are growing their user base. Symbols such as the skull-and-bones are adapted, first by real-life pirates and then by digital pirates to change their meaning completely, transforming something that indicates danger to something indicating excitement and even fun. Even myths change and long-loved black cats are suddenly considered evil and the number 13 bounces around as something lucky, then not.

Thus, assuming that a sign board at the gates of the WIPP, written in English and a battery of other languages, along with ten different types of warning symbols, should be enough to deter people from entering the premises, is foolish. This is one of the smaller issues that the WIPP is facing.

So what’s the solution? While I was pondering on the course of the story, I realized that the answer would have to be a mixture of ingenuity and technology. This is how I believe the problem can be solved –

We need to build a system that’s not just fault-tolerant and self-healing, but also intelligent enough to learn about it’s surroundings. While it may seem enough to place a settlement of scientists nearby who would constantly watch over the plant, recruit future employees and ensure the safety of the rest of the land, humans have a distinct habit of dying, moving away, letting emotions come in the way of logic and duty, and overall being bad protectors of the environment. So, the solution would be to build a system that can be initially supported by humans but must eventually stand on it’s own feet. This Gatekeeper would not just prevent people from walking into the compound, but also learn new languages, understand symbols and changing economics and governmental systems and ensure that no one disturbs the deathly sanctity of the place it protects. It would be able to access the Internet and learn of new technologies to replace it’s old ones. It would learn languages and add them to it’s database, essentially creating a bookmark of human history as it goes about it’s business of preventing nuclear waste from getting out of this burial place. This would have to be a highly fault tolerant system, able to quickly analyse any potential issue such as maintenance, earthquakes, failing parts and changing technologies in order to ensure its continued service. I think only if we are able to build such a powerful system can we promise ourselves that such a dangerous material can be protected over the next ten thousand years.

Or, we could just drop it into a volcano and hope that thing eats it all up.