Thoughts on Proficiency

When I was about thirteen, we had, as part of our English curriculum at school, a class on writing telegrams. The idea was to teach us how to write in concise form, with as much legibility as possible.

At that time, I was already somewhat good at the English language and started off the lesson with some gusto. The first task was to write a telegram about a house on sale. (Why? I dunno.)

The ask was to describe the house, throw in a price, and get away with the least number of words as possible.

Most of my colleagues wrote the following phrase –

Three bedroom one bath STOP

Where as I, thinking I’m smarter than the rest, wrote –

Three bedroom bath STOP

Now, in my mind, this was perfectly acceptable, but my teacher was quick to point out that there is a lack of clarity as to whether my house has three bedrooms each with a bath attached, or in fact, three weird rooms with a bathroom built into them. It was embarrassing in the moment, but a great lesson for me.

There’s a famous quote, which since I’ve forgotten, I’ll paraphrase here. It goes something like, “if you want to change something, you have to master its basics first.”

The gist of it remains with me to this day. When, nowadays, I see people using English in every shape and form, bending it to their will, I notice this trend more and more – people who are proficient at the language are able to bend it better, so that they do something innovative and fresh, yet are easily able to get their point across. On the other hand, people who are yet learning the nuances of the language are also using all kinds of shortcuts and short forms because of the restrictions put on us by messaging systems and twitter. But these latter people are often not able to get their message across clearly.

This is not to fault people for whom English is a second language. I recently saw a meme that said that if you see someone speaking broken English, have more respect for them, because it means they know some other language as their first language. Chances are, you who are judging them will not have the exposure and mental agility of knowing a second or third language.

Regardless, when people stick to the basics, they are able to make leaps and bounds of progress to build upon. This is true for pretty much every system/language/process in the world.

Have you ever come across a badly written passage by a neural network and it’s very easy to tell that it’s computer generated? What made you realize it’s not written by a person? There would be some basic level language mistakes made by the software which you’d pick up immediately. This gives people working on NLP a clear direction – make your algorithm better at the basics of the language, and teach it fifth standard level coursework instead of Shakespeare.

Recently, I was writing some code in JS. Whenever I’m writing quick getaway code, I opt for a simple for loop. But this one time, something irked me. Writing the same code over and over again is good muscle memory, and it frees up mental space to think about ways to improve one’s process (cue hat tip to Atomic Habits by James Clear, which I heard recently as an audiobook during a road trip). I started looking at map, which is a function I’ve gazed at before, but never bothered with. As it turns out, map fit perfectly in my code, as I wanted to apply the same function on every item in the array. So I replaced the for loop with map, and from then on, I’ve started looking at other things, like filter, to further remove the for loop from my code.

I’ve probably written hundreds of for loops over the years, across many languages and projects I’ve worked on. But it took that umpteenth for loop in JavaScript to get me to a point where I was comfortable with replacing it with something better. If I was a Software Engineer by education, I might have known about, and used map and filter all these years.

But since I came to programming as a tool, I first went through years of the basics, repeating them, partly in a fog of ignorance, till I was aware of my own abilities, and hankering to change things for the better.

There’s a flip side to this – I hate reading documentation. I rather jump into learning by doing. This is not just true for programming. I hate looking into English grammar. I can never tell you about what is a pronoun, what’s a participle, or what is the correct spelling of a complex word. But that doesn’t stop me from using English in my own writing, thinking, and blogging.

When I talk about focusing on the basics, I’m not talking about the grammar and structure of whatever it is you’re learning. I’m talking about the every day basics of doing. Focus on those, and once you’ve mastered those, you’ll be able to soar.

Instagram is not Facebook, and yet…

Instagram is not Facebook. It’s not a network of friends. The accounts you follow on there are a personal choice instead of a network effect of friends and acquaintances you meet in the real world (there are those too, but are they the majority?). Yet Instagram pushes the same crap as Facebook – “follow this account because someone you follow does”.

Why? Don’t the Product Managers understand the fundamentals of social networks? Or are they just hell bent on destroying value?

Companies, when they perform an acquisition, usually focus on recouping the cost of the acquisition. Or they want to build value by merging the brands.

Clearly, Facebook doesn’t care about the money. It’s pocket change for them. They are immune in terms of money. They aren’t immune in terms of user growth.

The only thing they care about is destroying competition. What’s sad is that they don’t realize that Instagram and WhatsApp are not rivals any more. They’re property. It’s always good to invest in and improve property.

This would be like Facebook purposely degrading their Android apps just to drive people insane and see what happens.

Oh, wait…

On the power of writing

I’ve been reading Susan Sontag’s Notes on “Camp” these past few weeks. I’ve really enjoyed slowly working my way through it, and taking down notes and interesting quotes from it. These are safely tucked away for now, but there was something interesting that happened, which I’d like to note –

Sontag starts off with –

Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. […]

A sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about

Susan Sontag, Notes on “Camp”

When I started reading this essay, I had little idea of what Camp is. Since then, I’ve visited New York, been to the Met, and seen all the things that inspired these thoughts, and things around them.

But to me, writing is the greatest tool humans have ever conceived, and the mark of a great writer is that by the time they’re done telling you about their ideas, you believe them and adopt them.

This is my last note on the essay, made today –

I love this idea. So much has been written about our human history, but the color gets lost almost instantly. The sensibility which informs the era being written about is the most difficult thing to capture, and thus the most valuable thing.

Nitin Khanna

As soon as I wrote it down, I realized that I was echoing an idea I had read three weeks ago from these very pages. That I have wholly adopted the idea Sontag presented, and that it is a part of my thinking is a testament to how powerful a tool writing is.

Sourcing information

We all do most of our browsing on our phones. When we come across something we don’t know about, we google it to find out more. More often than not, the link that gives us the most information is either Wikipedia or a news site.

If it’s current affairs, it’s a news site. If it’s general information, Wikipedia. Then why do we still google the thing? Why waste time on the middleman? Is it force of habit? Is it because we believe that google will give us the most comprehensive information and links? Is it just laziness?

Perhaps it’s all of the above. Google is our one stop shop for all information. Whether we’re looking to buy something, looking for a website which we don’t often go to, looking for some news, or solving some mystery on the web, google will give you the knowledge you’re looking for. That’s a great product, regardless of any other implications on privacy, advertising, politics etc.

So why should we opt to change this excellent workflow? (Need information, ask google, get information)

Because it’s worth it to go to the source.

  • Google often scrapes data from Wikipedia, but most of the time, it’s incomplete. It’ll be the first line or paragraph in a topic that’s complex and needs some more study to understand. Or, google will tell you a part of the information, expecting you to select a link to learn more from. So why not go to the source directly?
  • When the topic is a current affair, Google will show you links that it judges to be of your interest, or of value to them (advertising, collaborations with sites like twitter which will be surfaced above others). Instead, if you go to a solution such as Apple News (or Google News perhaps) and search for the topic you’re looking for, you’ll see a more balanced perspective because all Apple News is doing is collecting links from various news sources and presenting those to you. Notice that I didn’t say you should go to a particular news site for this, because if you want real news, you’d better be looking at more than one source.

Now, how do we make this easier? How do we give up our google habit and go to the source? On mobile, the simplest way to do this is to move your apps around. On my phone, the Wikipedia app sits on the main home screen and the Apple News app sits inside a folder on the dock (most of the time, I end up searching for the news app on spotlight search, but I’m trying to get rid that habit too).

This is not ideal. In an ideal world, I would not have to go to each app individually to search for the topic at hand. I would be able to select a word or phrase and use the share sheet in iOS to jump to Wikipedia or Apple News, neither of which seem to support this simple functionality.

But those are the technical details, which may change at any time. What matters is where we source our information from and why. I recommend that you start cutting out the middleman and go directly to the sources, sites, and services that you trust, because those are the same ones your middleman trusts too. As for the why, well, start doing this and you’ll see a change in how you receive information and perceive the news. Search is good, but search algorithms may very well not be.

Reverse Instant Gratification

More than a month ago, I subscribed my wife to some print magazines. We’ve never had those lying around at our home here (newspapers and magazines were common in India) and I just thought it might be a good addition to her media diet. Ever since, every few days, she asks me what the status of the magazines is. The problem is that print magazines have ridiculous starting dates for new subscriptions. The promised first set is not going to arrive till the end of April. This is just weird. I did some digging and found out that print magazines run on a thin budget for subscriptions and so the process to add someone to the list and publish specifically for them is a long-drawn out process. Or it’s just a scam so they can get you into the next year’s subscription for an exorbitant price. Whatever.

But a week ago, one of the magazines showed up. It was a special edition which was already in print. That was nice of them, I thought. Perhaps it was an additional copy and they decided to send it to people who’d recently signed up. It being a nice surprise, Jahanvi settled in to read it one evening. Within forty-five minutes, she was done. Most of the magazine was ads and the rest was fluff. Didn’t take her long to parse through.

The same evening, we were watching one of her favorite TV shows. It comes on Hulu and trickles down one episode at a time, on weeks they deign us viewers important enough to shower their little trinkets on us. After the episode finished and the end-advert rolled, what was left was a bad taste in the mouth, a hankering for more. In the world of Netflix, Plex Media Server, and Amazon Prime Video, we’re stuck with Hulu and real-time TV. Pathetic.

That’s when we started discussing this topic – reverse instant gratification. In an age of instant gratification, when we give our time and attention to something that doesn’t reciprocate in the same way, that thing is getting the gratification that we ought to be deriving from it. When the magazine came, it was read instantly and we have to now wait patiently for the next. When the episode aired, we devoured it, and were left smacking our lips at the aftertaste of that carefully crafted forty-one minute drama. We gave to those things, the Reverse Instant Gratification that we feel we deserve from them. The system is RIGged! 🙂

Such is the state of affairs. We, the consumers, the binge watchers, the devourers of CDNs, are sometimes left hat in hand, begging for morsels of things running too live for our taste. It’s unfair! It’s unjust! It’s a mockery of everything Netflix holds dear! Just putting that out there.

Marriage

I woke up sweating three days ago. I had been having a very intense morning dream, in which I was constantly repeating to myself the following words – “I’m getting married.”

“I’m getting married!”

“I’m getting married!!”

“I’m getting married!!”

The idea had slowly percolated through my conscious to my subconscious and finally reached my dream state. I am now fully, mind, body, and soul, aware that I am getting married to Jahanvi, the love of my life.

I’ve tried to write this post about twelve times now. I’ve written something funny, sarcastic, philosophical, and even a treatise on bachelorhood as a gateway to marriage. But every time I wrote, I felt as if something or the other was missing. Deleted, revised, edited, no draft seemed to come close to the idea and tradition that is marriage. 

But when I woke up three days ago, I knew I had the instruction that I needed to begin. The final key to the puzzle, though, came a little later. When panditji sat me down yesterday with relatives, old and new, he explained what was happening here. As the mantra washed over me, the real import of this ceremony came to mind. The idea that this is a prayer, which talks about our lifetimes, which begs the blessings of everyone who surrounds us, and which includes the creation of bonds which we forge with our own hearts and minds, spoke to me of the strength of this undertaking. 

Up until it was only about the preparation of the marriage, or when I was with relatives who joked about life before and after marriage, and the effect of marriage on people, I felt closer to my community and to the power that those family ties hold. But as the venue and the occasion changed, I felt the power of the ties that I, with every offering, was creating myself. 

Marriage means in terms of the coming together of two people, two families, and two communities. But what it means to the people at the center of it is the coming together of two souls. That bond, which creates something glorious together, is what I’m feeling since the ceremonies started and which I’ll keep feeling for the rest of my life, because while I’ve seen Jahanvi as my beloved till now, I have now seen her as my self. 

Chivalry isn’t dead yet.

It was raining in Seattle yesterday. Not the usual Seattle rain – dreary, tired and barely wetting. This was real rain caused by a storm that is passing through the state. The rain was loud, wet and forceful. I went to Safeway last night after work, hoping to get some groceries and head home to play Fallout 4. I imagined it would be like any other time that I’ve done groceries and walked home – I buy the food, pack it in bags, haul everything in my hands and take a nice, thirty minute hike.

I was wrong. I saw the rain before I got out of the store. I was aware of it. What I was not aware of was that paper gets wet in rain. Seattle implemented paper bags for groceries a long time ago. So no grocery store inside the city is allowed to bag your groceries in plastic. Instead, they bag them in thick paper bags, which seem almost indestructible. That is, until paper meets water.

I should have remembered this. It’s a basic fact. But I didn’t think much of it and started walking. I was smart enough to separate the food into three bags, to reduce the weight and possibility of tearing. I told myself that if the weight turned out to be too much or if one of the bags tore, I could always get a cab home. I was also smart enough to hold the bags in one hand while I cowered under my umbrella for the duration of the walk. I was not smart enough to realize that doing so meant that the paper was now getting wet. I had gone a full block before my fingers strained. So I stopped, changed hands and moved on. Another block later, the fingers of my other hand strained under the weight. I eyed a nice, open garage nearby and moved into the dry shelter. It was well-lit and cool. That helped soothe my senses. I also placed the bags on the dry floor, hoping that my fingers would recover quickly. After a minute or two, I decided to head back out and so I picked everything up and got ready to move. I walked two steps out of the garage and the middle bag gave way. The straps had come off. I labored to bring the bags and myself back to the safety and dryness of the garage. Once there, I assessed the damage. The rain had temporarily subsided and I could easily pick up the bags in my arms and walk the rest of the way. But then I decided that this was enough.

I fired up the Uber app and found my location. When I hit the ‘call an Uber’ button, the service reminded me that the fare was two point four times the usual rate, due to high demand in the area. I opened the Lyft app and it said the hike was one point five times. I was about to hit the request button when I noticed that the app said “one point five times over the usual amount”. In other words, more expensive than the Uber rate. I went back to Uber and guiltily hit accept. At least they have more drivers. To add salt to my wounds, the Uber app asked me to explicitly enter the numbers two and four into the app to make sure that I understand the higher cost. I entered them and asked for a ride. One quickly found me and was not too far either. I tracked as the car slowly found its way to me. Just as the car reached the road I was on, I got a call from the driver, a lady, asking me where I was standing. I directed her to me and told her to stop as I brought my baggage with me. She waited as I rushed in the now-light rain towards the car, with the three bags held precariously between my hands. I pried the door open with my fingers and tried to shove everything, and myself inside. In the process, the second bag gave way. and the contents spilled on the road. I apologized to her profusely, first for my tardiness and then for making her car wet with the bags. She asked me to make sure I was safely seated and when I was, she moved the car onwards. She asked me to confirm my name and destination, as is customary for all drivers of such services.

Almost immediately, I started apologizing, half to myself, for the foolish decisions I took today. She heard me out and asked me not to admonish myself, because it would be of no gain. I didn’t relent, as I wanted to pacify my own hurt ego and I said as much to her. She simply stated that mistakes happen by everyone and the important thing is that I found a solution to my problem and acted on it. Since the solution was working in my favor, I didn’t need to apologize for anything. After a few minutes of driving, she found an empty spot on the side of the road and got out. I watched as she went to the back of the car and take out a sturdy grocery bag. She came back to her seat and handed it to me. She switched on the lights inside the car and, shifting into gear, told me to tell her when I was done moving the now discrete contents into the bag, Sir.

That’s when I registered the accent – it was British with a hint of something else. I busied myself with the goods while I listened carefully, trying to ascertain her origins. She told me that while the ride was a short one, she still wanted me to listen to good music of my choice. She offered a selection – jazz, classical, country, folk and a few others I didn’t bother listening to. I asked her to put anything she liked. She said that my interests were more important here and so her choice did not matter. I asked for classical. She countered, asking if I wanted New York metropolitan symphony or the New York opera. I asked for symphony and she got on with setting the channel. She set the volume to a medium high, so that it engulfed the car, and asked me if I wanted it lower. Over the course of the car ride, I asked her to lower it to a conversational level.

I then asked me where she was from. She answered, Jamaica. “Oh,” thought I, quizzing myself about the history of Jamaica and how long did the British rule there, since they most certainly did. I could not come up with an answer, so I moved on to other questions. I asked her if she was polite by nature or was it something she saw as a professional courtesy. She said she didn’t quite understand the question. She’d been extremely polite and respectful throughout the ride, something I don’t often see in Uber drivers. Of course, I don’t get talked back at in any such ride, but the level of respect and regard she displayed is not something I see every day either. I certainly don’t get called Sir in my taxi. I explained this to her, in not so many words and she simply responded that she treats others with the same respect that she expects them to treat her with. What a delightful answer!

Finally, we reached my building’s doors. She parked and told me that she’s waiting right there for me to come back and return her bag to her. As a social contract, I left my backpack there and told her I’d be back to pick it up. I rushed back home, in the process of which, my third and final bag also gave way and so I shifted everything into her bag before I got home. I unlocked, dumped everything on the table and rushed back. Mind you, I didn’t know if she was still charging me for the ride and the expense was two point four times, so it was prudent that I rush back. I got there, knocked on her window and returned her bag to her, folded neatly to consume the least space. I thanked her for her excellent service, Madam, which brought a smile to her face and I took out my backpack from the back. In doing so, I started cleaning out the bits of my paper bags and the water drops I had left in the back seat. She told me that she’d do it, but seeing the best in people often brings out the best in you, and I told her that since I’d made the mess, I was the one who had to clean it.

I thanked her once again and walked back to my building. The interaction was a short, but fruitful one. She came and rescued me at the moment when I needed it, though for a price. She displayed kindness and respect where none was needed or deserved. A lesser person might have scowled or laughed in my face. She displayed a deep-seated professionalism which was more nature than habit. You know what? Chivalry isn’t dead yet. It has just moved on to better people.

Photo by irinaraquel

Oh, how the rich have fallen.

I was recently walking through the Space Needle area in the evening. It was raining and it was dark, so there was barely anyone on the streets. I walked by the Collections Cafe, which sits in the shadow of the landmark. It was closed for business, but a section inside the cafe was lit up. As I walked, I peeked into the glass structure to see the source of the light and I saw a rather interesting scene.

 

The cafe was closed to the general public, but it seemed like a small private party was being held inside. A few guests, about fourteen or so, were sitting around a long table, dressed in their finest dresses and suits. All of them were old, white and invariably rich, as I could observe from their tailored coats and glittering jewelry. There were two waiters, a man and a woman, dressed in all black, at either end of the table, hurriedly rushing to serve wine to everyone at the table. I could see food laid out along the walls and on the table. It seemed like a feast, not enough to feed an army, but just enough to satisfy the patrons’ appetites. There was a head butler, dressed in an elegant coattails, which splendidly showcased his ample stomach, supposedly a sign of a man who knows his fine foods, standing at the center of the table, bobbing like a penguin and facing the guests and the glass wall beyond which I stood. I watched for a fleeting moment as he regaled the patrons with a funny anecdote, waving his hands with flourishes as though to explain that the event he was describing was actually fun. The people at the table laughed at the appropriate time when his tale came to an end, a hearty laugh, which made me think that the narrative might actually be humorous. He laughed along with them, having succeeded in his duty of entertaining the guests, while his assistants took care of the minor details. I‘m sure that for the guests, the food was only secondary to the privilege of being there.

 

Oh, how the rich have fallen.

 

I’m struggling through Tolstoy’s War and Peace right now and since I’ve just started, Tolstoy has been entertaining me with tales of how the elite of Moscow and St. Petersburg have wonderful parties and dinners, with scores of guests and hundreds of waitstaff, butlers, bellmen, maids and chauffeurs at their service. Even at the simplest of dinners, where the people at the table are no more than an old Prince, his daughter, son and his wife and an in-residence architect, there are footmen behind each guest, moving chairs and serving wine and clearing dishes and bringing the next course. There are chefs and butlers and a head butler to lead them, there are maids bringing the food out and serfs simply waiting about for instructions. The story is from another age, when there was plenty of labor, and power rested not in CEOs but in Princes and Dukes and Counts and Barons and allegiance was sworn for life. Those days, the common folk lived poorly and even the moderately rich had luxuries beyond imagination. It was a life of comfort for those who were the haves, and a life of hardship for those who were the have-nots.

 

That is not the case any more. Whether it is because of a loss of cheap labor or that the kind of power that the rich command has moved from political to just financial, or whether it is because serfdom has been abolished and one must pay for services rendered, which, as it turns out, is an expensive proposition once one begins to calculate it, the result is the same – the rich do not enjoy the same luxuries and prestige as they once did. That fleeting glimpse of that dinner scene told me as much.

 

The tables have not turned yet. But are slowly arcing. The high and mighty even have to move their own chairs today! Oh, how the rich have fallen!

 

Photo by rutlo

Of a Higher Life.

Sometimes it feels as if we are each destined for greatness. But life, relationships and circumstance forces us to settle into mediocrity. There is no greater tragedy than the human soul. It suffers because it cannot soar. It slices itself into pieces for the sake of others’ happiness. It suppresses its laborious spirit to do menial work which doesn’t change the world or carry one’s name into the future.

What will the future remember us as? Just another set of numbers? Ten million lived in that city. Seven billion were alive in 2015. Two million used Facebook every day of 2017. Six hundred worked in that company on that date. What is the point of living like a number? Where is the infinity which is we promised ourselves when we came to this life? Even the daughter of a refugee dreams of a life in which more than a few dozen know her name. Why, then, do those of us who have it in our hands to let go of this world, which will breed nothing other than more of us, always choose to let this pitiful existence bleed us dry? Why do we settle for the nothingness that defines the majority of us? Why is each one of us not a gem? Is the human race nothing but a few geniuses dispersed amidst the 99.7% who are nothing more than monkeys with keyboards?

We are never solving cancer with our day-to-day work. Nor are we exploring the farthest reaches of human knowledge with every step. Much like clerks copying notes for more important personnel, a majority of us in the workforce are simply providing services for the benefit of others. Our personal motto is nonexistent and the companies we work for are nothing more than money-making machines. Why? Why is there just one champion of the human spirit in each generation? Why is everything you do every day not the stuff of legends? We live in the most prosperous of times. Yet our acts are nothing but selfish attempts at elongating our present instead of forcing the future to remember our existence.

We’ve seen that cities come and go, empires rise and fall, humanity picks up the pieces and moves on. Can you truthfully say that if today is doomsday, those who pick up the pieces will pick up your name as one of those who changed humanity? Will they teach your life to their children as a lesson in the eternity of the human spirit?

In other words, as of today, are you a part of the infinity or the infinitesimal?

Let’s talk about Tor

Teleread recently covered how the New Hampshire Public Library turned its Tor Relay back on, despite warnings from local law enforcement that although the router itself isn’t illegal, it will likely be used for illegal purposes. The article points out that Tor is an important service because, keeping aside the negatives that come from total anonymity, it provides political dissidents a way to bypass censorship. This is important for the growth of democracy in all countries around the world.

There is, of course, the other side – that Tor is used by a wide variety of undesirables who use it for nefarious purposes using the blanket cover of anonymity as a defense against possible government intervention. In that sense, Tor is kind of like torrents. You can download every open-source Linux distro ever created using torrents, but most people are probably just downloading pirated content off it. Continue reading