spirituality


Xmas is around the corner and end of a long year which I am not sad to get rid of. We were wandering around a Xmas shop this weekend, lot of pretty ornaments to hang on the trees, greens, red and gold. There was a kid running around the boxes of ornaments, calling out to his mother every other second, squealing with delight of discovering so many things, a bundle of energy. I watched him trot around, he had some difficulty in walking, which he was oblivious of.  I had read somewhere that sometime seeing beauty brings you certain tinge of sadness too and it is due to the fact that you realize at the back of your mind that it is not permanent, not everlasting. I was thinking that this kid will grow up one day, the unbounded happiness will get mixed with expectations, pride, competition, jealousy, desire and all the other maladies which eats up the adult world. I distinctly remember the time when I thought none of those matters, all that the adults were talking about are exaggerations, and ours is the last generation which will do away with petty things like caste and corruption etc because we were incorruptible, pure at heart, incapable of harming anyone. It took a long time to grow up.

All these musings were following my latest obsession – J D Salinger and his short stories. I read that he stopped publishing for 30-40 years after getting attracted to Vedanta. It was probably act of renunciation. That he followed Gospel of Ramakrishna and practiced it. It seems he has left Vedantic clues in his last of the stories. And that maybe he didn’t stop writing, just stopped publishing and there would be some new publications coming up, including his notes on Vedanta. I am truly fascinated and puzzled by people getting bowled over completely by belief or faith.

I had a friend in college, someone I met on the first day probably, spent all of the four years with. Brilliant guy, but uninterested in marks and people worrying about exams, scoffed about people trying still to get to IIT, satisfied with life and silent and observing in a corner. But he is the kind of guy who experimented with everything, someone who would pick me up from home on Saturday morning to go to a bar, who asked me to try a piece of chicken because he couldn’t put up with the idea that I could go through life without tasting meat, saying it is not different from cauliflower  – I did taste the chicken and true to his word he never asked again. He is someone I trusted to ride with him even when he is drunk (youth, right?). One time I remarked to another friend that his younger brother is so handsome unlike him, while I was getting behind the bike, he told me that I shouldn’t have said that and it must have hurt this friend – like a vintage photo, I remember the time and the place when he said that and I see the picture of us from that moment burnt into memory. Final year, I flunked the CTS interview and two of my constant companions including him got into it. He quit CTS within an year to get his MS. I got married and one time we visited him in his college in Syracuse. He had become deeply religious and was living with a missionary, in a seminary. He was lost to me. He was aloof and didn’t even call when he was visiting with a congregation near where I lived. He came back to TVM after his MS and started teaching, rather than going after lucrative jobs and settle down in US. Couple of years back, I went to his college for recruitment, primarily to meet him – he told me not to fail his students. After the interviews, when I told him I did reject one of them, he asked me the name and the details of why I thought so. Then told me that times are not the same as when we were studying, there is more drugs in colleges and it is easy for them to go astray.

One more friend from the college turned religious, shaved his head, took up saffron and joined ISCON. On my count, 3 out of 90 from my college batch now. What made them to take the leap towards religion and spirituality? Do they see something that majority of us don’t? I sometimes wonder if it is a mental condition itself – since one other of these friends with whom I playfully took up an argument about faith, tried to prove why I was wrong vehemently and kept trying since then for years to make me see the light. I saw a picture of Ambanis in front of Guruvayoor temple today, directly in front of sreekovil, without having to stand in queue for hours and getting pushed within seconds to keep moving  – these are not like that. They don’t want anything from God, not to protect their wealth, not to ask for favors. They are content in their faith, there is some calmness and peace that has descended on them. Is that what God wants – to create all the material things for the purpose of testing, all of the imperfections to try and overcome. Like what Chekhov wrote, we are emotional beings and we suffer and rejoice and feel – why would we reject all that and become a stoic? Why should that be the only path to reach God? Why did He put us on earth, if the purpose was to find him by renouncing all the earthly things, in this life itself?

Anyway, I decided to read Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (PDF, 4MB). If I work through all 1100 pages of it, it will be the first time of its kind. I couldn’t suffer through the likes of OSHO, who takes up prime positions in all book festivals in TVM – I thought those are preachy about some secrets for pages upon pages without saying what the secret is. Now I want to see what drove JD Salinger over the edge..

Bananafish and For Esme – Salinger stories


Came across short stories of J D Salinger. Read two stories so far – "For Esme – with Love and Squalor" and "A perfect day for Bananafish". It is part of Nine Stories, so few more of this kept for the weekend, like saving few more servings of a delicious food for later.

These stories had such a strange concoction that I ended up searching for the meaning of it. Why did Seymour Glass shoot himself, what finally prompted him? Why did Sergeant X feel sleepy finally after reading Esme’s letter? Turns out these stories have so much of symbolisms that each are like a crossword puzzle. Distaste towards materialism, failure to communicate, loss of innocence, loneliness – a whole lot of it is said in so few words, each sentence open for interpretation, containing back stories on motivations, philosophies and intentions.

Now that makes the readers think to find out why he said something in that particular manner and different people are reading different meanings to it. Found a very good analysis of Bananafish and a good article about For Esme, but there is so much so that some people have even done research thesis on the language, signs, symbols in these short stories. Finding clues from the sentences beyond the direct meaning is making this way more interesting..
I had read Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey years back, now after this, re-reading them might be a good idea to see how much of the puzzle I can piece together.


Chekhov


I had stayed away from short stories – I felt those don’t treat the people, their lives in enough detail to paint the picture in mind and the endings are also inconclusive. But then read Alice Munro’s stories a few months back which changed the perspective. Recently bookmarked this page to read a short story a day. Came across Anton Chekhov’s story, The Huntsman. Russian authors are more familiar to us Keralites probably due to the communist link, we have a Russsian cultural center in Trivandrum and public library has Malayalam translations of scores of Russian books. I had read quite a few during school and since then. But I never came across Chekhov, maybe since he wrote stories and plays. His ability to paint a portrait of people and their worlds in few sentences is like some charcoal artists making a picture with few quick strokes. People in his stories don’t seem to be perfect, good and bad mixed in them, vain and profound alternatively.  Even though it has been more than 100 years since these stories are written, it doesn’t seem old – it is interesting that while the world has changed unrecognizably in various ways, technological progress, human understanding of the universe, quantum physics and marching towards artificial intelligence, we still are nowhere near understanding ourselves.
Few good quotes. This one from the story, Ward No. 6, a debate on whether being happy is purely internal (a stoic) –
"I only know that God has created me of warm blood and nerves, yes, indeed! If organic tissue is capable of life it must react to every stimulus. And I do! To pain I respond with tears and outcries, to baseness with indignation, to filth with loathing. To my mind, that is just what is called life. The lower the organism, the less sensitive it is, and the more feebly it reacts to stimulus; and the higher it is, the more responsively and vigorously it reacts to reality. How is it you don’t know that? A doctor, and not know such trifles! To despise suffering, to be always contented, and to be surprised at nothing, one must reach this condition" — and Ivan Dmitritch pointed to the peasant who was a mass of fat — "or to harden oneself by suffering to such a point that one loses all sensibility to it — that is, in other words, to cease to live. You must excuse me, I am not a sage or a philosopher," Ivan Dmitritch continued with irritation, "and I don’t understand anything about it. I am not capable of reasoning."
 This from the story, Gustav. Being too honest, saying truth to the faces in every instance and keeping the eyes always open – it is a hard life.
"Yes, I always tell people the truth to their faces. I am not afraid of anyone or anything. There is a vast difference between me and all of you in that respect. You are in darkness, you are blind, crushed; you see nothing and what you do see you don’t understand. . . . You are told the wind breaks loose from its chain, that you are beasts, Petchenyegs, and you believe it; they punch you in the neck, you kiss their hands; some animal in a sable-lined coat robs you and then tips you fifteen kopecks and you: ‘Let me kiss your hand, sir.’ You are pariahs, pitiful people. . . . I am a different sort. My eyes are open, I see it all as clearly as a hawk or an eagle when it floats over the earth, and I understand it all. I am a living protest. I see irresponsible tyranny — I protest. I see cant and hypocrisy — I protest. I see swine triumphant — I protest. And I cannot be suppressed, no Spanish Inquisition can make me hold my tongue. No. . . . Cut out my tongue and I would protest in dumb show; shut me up in a cellar — I will shout from it to be heard half a mile away, or I will starve myself to death that they may have another weight on their black consciences. Kill me and I will haunt them with my ghost. All my acquaintances say to me: ‘You are a most insufferable person, Pavel Ivanitch.’ I am proud of such a reputation. I have served three years in the far East, and I shall be remembered there for a hundred years: I had rows with everyone. My friends write to me from Russia, ‘Don’t come back,’ but here I am going back to spite them . . . yes. . . . That is life as I understand it. That is what one can call life."

writing and reading


(1)
My writing education – http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/my-writing-education-a-timeline?src=longreads.  An inspiring article – on role models, good teachers, goodness in people, hope and persistence. Coming across a role model like this, who is infallible, a perfect human being – that is so rare.
Last week I happened to connect briefly with a blogger whom I was reading for more than 10 years – I was introduced to many interesting books based on his recommendations. One of which is still a hard nut to crack for me (A Thousand Plateaus – Deleuze and Guattari), but it is one of his lifetime favorites. For me it is like drinking green tea for the first time. So I asked him how he came to like it – he said parts of that book hit him like a train. I was fascinated by that – to be moved that much by a book. When I read some parts of this article, it reminded me of that phrase.
What we’re doing in writing is not all that different from what we’ve been doing all our lives, i.e., using our personalities as a way of coping with life. Writing is about charm, about finding and accessing and honing ones’ particular charms.
 Literature is a form of fondness-for-life. It is love for life taking verbal form.
 A story’s positive virtues are not different from the positive virtues of its writer. A story should be honest, direct, loving, restrained. It can, by being worked and reworked, come to have more power than its length should allow. A story can be a compressed bundle of energy, and, in fact, the more it is thoughtfully compressed, the more power it will have.
 Knowing him has helped us grow into better versions of ourselves: more dignified, less selfish. This, of course, is what a ‘role model’ is: someone who, by gracefully embodying positive virtues, causes you to aspire to them yourself.
(2)
I came across the above through http://longreads.com/. When the reading has reduced to sound bites in social media or short articles in newspapers which offer quick dump, long form articles exploring a subject or profile of a person is refreshing. Longreads features most read long form articles around the web every week and many times I come across some gems from there. Another of similar one is #7 Deadly Reads – Sitdown Sunday http://www.thejournal.ie/7-deadly-reads/news/. New Yorker, The Atlantic, Rolling Stones, NYT etc end up being the most featured. The Hindu in India does long form, but many of them are so scholarly that it is hard to digest. Not sure if there are any other good ones in India.

disappointed

One of those days where disappointment hits hard
When the clock that usually runs frantically, slows down
Disappointed with futility of lot of endeavors
How we convince ourselves that we are being useful
How we convince others that what we are doing is important
How we are all able to do more, but don’t  
 
Disappointed in leaders who promise hope and bright future
Talk a big game, higher purpose, incomprehensible philosophies
Because that is what they were supposed to do
To move people, bring about change
 
Disappointed to give in naively, believe in new fads
Disappointed in mediocrity, mine and others around
In doing something only until the tension builds
In doing something, only to honor the duty than because I believe
Disappointed in the charades, even when everyone knows
And plays along with it, not being able to change a thing
 
None of this is important, in larger scheme of things
Petty worries, irrelevant expectations, blown up only in mind
Knowing all that, disappointed in not being able to suppress
Knowing life is all these moments, good follows bad, wait out the bad
Though some say all this was part of the learning
Wouldn’t change a thing if we do all of this again
Isn’t regret a valid emotion too?
 
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Can’t write poems and couldn’t read it also, but one of the things I haven’t given up yet. Trying to read these days – subscribed to a poem a day. But this one just came out this way, on the way back from office, putting it out in its just born form. This is more like how we write powerpoint, nothing in full sentences. A slow day. But right before I reached home, RJs in FM was playing a game, asking people to repeat a dialog from a classic movie, on how to make chicken curry. Even though I don’t know about that being a vegetarian (even though I don’t look like one), it kind of reaffirmed why we mallus are always making fun. Of everything, of our politicians, religion and ourselves. Then they were talking about why Kasaragod mallus love more honestly, how Kannur mallus love so truly (irony since they are the most violent when it comes to politics, but maybe because they love so fiercely) compared to us in Trivandrum, who keep people at an arm’s length. All this within a small sliver of land, in a corner of India – happily living away, being all important – brought a smile finally..

life under yellow haze


Looking outside my window, I can see the tall building of Tata Steel. It is on the other side of a 4 line elevated highway, lined with footpath which looks pretty nice with some mosaic pattern. The stretch looks like a Hollywood set with fa├žade buildings, looks unpopulated.
But this is not what I saw for an hour drive through Kolkata. It is my first time here, was curious about Culcutta that I read about so much. Land of Tagore, Satyajit Ray, communism and literate intelligent people. But the drive through the city seemed to me like a horror show, like those Halloween rides in theme parks where you are taken inside through tunnels and suddenly zombie dummies jerk on to your path.
Coming out of the airport, I took the pre-paid taxi – not the AC or private ones, but the one controlled by City Police. Yellow taxies here are all old ambassadors, axi drivers in tatters. For few minutes after coming out of the airport, I was trying to connect to a conference call – it kept saying all lines are busy, it anyway never got free even after 10 tries, so I left it. City is derelict, decadent, decrepit, decaying, dilapidated – this is the city where all of those words will fit perfectly. Buildings wouldn’t have seen paint in ages and I think everyone decided that something that is broken is better left that way. Just like we as irresponsible bachelors used to live – assuming some mess made is better left untouched, as if it will go away on its own, ignoring it or assuming it is not there and carefully sidestepping it every time. Even the trees by the side of the road are dead, with no one bothering to cut it down. There are rotting buses, trucks and cars by the side of the road, the kind which is seen near traffic police stations in Kerala. Just like those abandoned towns shown in zombie movies. It was 10:30 pm, but I saw old ladies sitting with a few fruits in their baskets under street lamps. People were lying in charpais, there are charpais in wide junctions. I haven’t seen so many people living in streets in any of our cities so far, there were makeshift awnings put up, with full lives lived in the open. So many people sitting calmly in the side of the road, autorickshaws with 4 people in the driver seat, bikes carrying three people, cycle rickshaws, taxis coming head on, scream at each other and passing – tableaus passing by which should have been from an old Hindi movie. In between I thought whether the driver is abducting me and this is not the right way. 
In between I thought I saw someone washing something in water in the gutter, but then I thought I must have imagined. It had rained before, so water was pouring into the gutter from inner alley ways. In one junction, when the taxi stopped at light, I saw a family – a man was drying himself after a bath, a women with wet hair after a fresh bath, they were bathing from the milky white water that was rushing through into the gutter. A kid is washing the few vessels and a sieve. I had to
voluntarily grunt to keep control, to suppress the shame and pain. Everything is in a yellow haze of 40 watt bulbs – people in sleeveless banians, laboring
inside shops which must be 100 years old, still looking exactly same way, decaying and everyone putting up with the corpse. This is how far the one of the most intelligent people of this country has come to?
It is not like I am from an affluent state, feigning shock seeing poverty in Kolkata, as some foreigners are expected to. I am from Kerala, twin brother of West Bengal – along with Tripura, states where communism is deep rooted, where being veg includes fish and football crazy people. When I started, my friends were saying, for Bengalis the onsite is now Kerala, so when I reach there they might welcome me as we welcome foreign tourists in Kerala. It is just the same in some respects – one of the biggest sources of revenue for Kerala is remittance from expatriates, we work hard but mostly outside the country. Now in turn most of the construction work and other manual labor in Kerala is done by Bengalis and Biharis.
In some of the western countries, being communist is as much a bad thing as being a Nazi. But not for us – we still eulogize strong communists who fought for the working masses, who are idealists and humanists. As someone said, if you are not a communist when you are young, there is something wrong with you and if you are a communist when you are old enough, then also something is wrong with you. Present age communists in Kerala are nowhere near the legends and it is worse in West Bengal. But is this what a long communist rule could do to a state? Like how Cuba looks in pictures. Or is it due to something else – a city being this way
for centuries, not able to change, don’t have means to change, wed to the prison built by them, adjusting to the Stockholm Syndrome. There would have been 100
pictures of Deedi throughout the way – every bus stand, every junction has her photo. There she is speechifying to her people, there she is in a muslim headscarf praying in Ramadan greeting. Does she not see how the people who idolize her as Deedi lives? Amma may give idli and TV and whatnot, but she seems to be delivering.
When do we grow out of the Ammas, Deedis, Mulayams, Lalus and Babas? Why don’t we get better leaders? Or maybe they are not the problem in the first place. I know the obvious answer is that all of us are lazy, interested in arm chair activism or opinionating just like I did now. May be this is how it will always be, we are great at “adjusting”..

drive


After a long time, went for a long road trip – drove from TVM to Bangalore and back. We started through the back roads from TVM until we hit NH7, skipped NH47. Got lost a bit in between, ended up in few roads with grand canyons in them, but in between it was through real god’s own country and rural Tamilnadu.

There is a very real life, away from the glamour and glitter of the city, if you travel atleast 5 kilometers inwards from any main road. Like in the Pixar movie Cars, where they complain that the new highway that bypassed the small town took away the local business, but also robbed the travelers of magnificent countryside.




NH7 was beautiful too, very deserted. While reaching Bangalore, it said 1500 or so more kilometers to Varanasi. One day, in a distant future….


While returning took NH47 from NH7, but bypassing Nagercoil was also an experience. The kind of green hues by the side of that road might be hard to get even in “super vivid” mode of the camera.

morning walk




I read a quote some time back that you should go for a walk especially if you are not feeling like it. It would put you in a better mood after that. That is true.

Very less crowd today. Usual gang that plays football is there – they are dedicated. Occasional photographers here and there. Kids come here with their telephoto lens and various outfits – I guess cover photos in Facebook must be craze these days, or are they shooting for marriage profile photos or personal profiles – in any case, I see some of those every day. No one walking backwards, no Yogis (it was late for that), no couples who look for a quiet place to sit and no dancers practicing in gazebo today. The snake that crossed my path two days and the raccoon who watched me intently until I passed – they have good cover these days with heavy underbush after the rains.


This is second day of Monsoon. Sky is neat blue though. 


Heavy summer rains have brought on the greens early this time. Everything is washed clean and new sprouts everywhere.


After a round trip through the trail, I come to this steps. First time run up two steps at a time, next walk each heavy step and last drag myself up somehow to the top. 

Machine Learning + Artificial Intelligence = Machine Intelligence


I was reading up on what is happening in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning and listened to a few lectures/interviews. It looks like next few years will see a significant advance in these fields and it could bring disruption to lot of industries.
Here is a pop science / layman version of what I understood.
TL;DR version:-
  • Research in something called Deep Learning has reached the tipping point where it is industrial strength in performance and it could be used for real world applications.
  • 3 things that are pushing it – cheap parallel computing (GPUs), big data (collected through search, images, posts etc), better algorithms (deep learning)
  • Focus in not on the kind of AI seen in the likes of Terminator and by all accounts we are too far from it. While robotics is progressing, that is also not where AI is getting applied (to set our mental image right). But it is on developing intelligent machines doing specific functions (speech recognition, natural language processing, image recognition etc).
  • In past 3-4 years, AI has started moving from academia into big corporates. Leading researchers and professors from top universities are moving into companies like Google, Facebook. There is an AI arms race going on between Google, Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, Baidu, Amazon. It is about who will create the killer app using AI/ML first.
  • What is really happening is not purely AI or ML – someone coined the term AI + ML = MI (Machine Intelligence). Making machines intelligent enough to do specific functions better, at scale not possible by humans.
  • X.AI – Next round of innovation could be to take anything (X) and add AI to it to make it better – like medical image processing, fraud detection, recommendation systems.
  • Last year, some of the very intelligent people like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates made statements that AI could be an existential threat and it is not far off. Do they know something that the generic public don’t?

Longer version:-
AI coming out hibernation
AI was sputtering along since 1960s, like the analyst asked. Creating logical models, reverse engineering the brain or basing AI research on neuroscience was not making significant progress and with not much commercial use, funding also was a problem. These periods of lull in AI research where it went to hibernate is referred to as “AI winters”. But few researchers like Geoffrey Hinton in University of Montreal, Yoshua Bengio of University of Toronto, Yann LeCun of NYU were still continuing their struggle. Yann LeCun created a cheque reading system while he was with Bell Labs and AT&T.
Eventually they created something called Deep Learning – it is layers of neural network which starts off with basic input (like images, text – at pixels and letters), understands features, classifies and comes up with an output. Something called backpropagation can compare the output and any errors can be fed back through the neural net to adjust the weights to improve the accuracy. Once they feed in millions of data to train the neural network, system learns to do this automatically. There is supervised learning where a training data set and valid outputs are used at first. Unsupervised learning is where data without labels can also be classified, features generated by the machine and learn by itself. LeCun describes this process as a black box with 500 million knobs – you show it a picture of a car and at the end of it, it says it is a truck – you turn some of the knobs, correcting the parameters and weights and it learns that this is a car. Repeat this few million times to let the system learn.
Another significant event that helped this along seems to be the brainwave to use Graphic Process Units (GPUs) that were specifically developed for rendering high resolution graphics for video games getting adopted for AI. GPUs can do complex computations using multi dimensional vectors faster and it is optimized for throughput, not latency like the CPUs. Multiple GPUs that can be process such huge tasks of crunching millions of data in a parallel processing environment is giving huge performance boost – it seems turning Deep Learning experiments that used to take weeks down to days or hours.
Google came out with a result where the unsupervised system learned from millions of Youtube videos and learned to recognize image of a cat on its own. Or another where the system learned to play games on its own and beat human performance.
By now it is ready for showtime and likes of Google/Facebook stand to gain from advances in voice, image, text processing. Advantage of Google and Facebook is huge amount of real data that they get from searches, content and social connections. As per Peter Norvig, modern AI is about “data, data, data,” and Google has more data than anyone else. That and unlimited processing power makes it ideal environment for research. All leading AI researchers are in these companies now – Hinton in Google, LeCun in Facebook. Andrew Ng of Stanford and Google joined Baidu Research. Peter Norvig who wrote AI textbook is in Google, same as Ray Kurzweil who is a leading AI figure who says we will have human level AI in next 15 years.
We have started using some versions of it though. Google Now in my android phone read my email the other day and gave a reminder about a movie based on the ticket receipt I had in my email. When I was in Bangalore, it gave a reminder at 4 pm that it was time for me to start to airport for a 7:30 flight (I had the tickets in my email) – considering the traffic. Facebook is showing me another person in my flat as friend recommendation – it might have been based on my location. Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, IBM’s Watson are others. It seems Watson is offered as a service for medical diagnosis and research. Skype announced real time translation service recently. Baidu seems to be going one step further about multi lingual translation.
Microsoft is a surprise leader too. Azure ML seems to have big plans – of eventually even giving Deep Learning as a service with fully trained neural nets for image, text and voice. Amazon announced Machine Learning service as well. Big advantage they have is cloud environments that can be provisioned for on demand analysis. That is perfect combination – processing power and algorithms as a service.
Applicability of such MI super specialty could be in things like fraud detection, demand forecasting, ad targeting, recommendation, spam filtering, healthcare. Personalized medicine, genome sequencing, driverless cars – those are what is coming.
AI scare and criticism
Last year Stephen Hawking said that "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Once humans develop artificial intelligence it will take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate". Incidentally he was using improved version of his speech software while talking to BBC, which kind of guesses the words he would use next, learning from his past talks. Another was Elon Musk, of Tesla Motors and SpaceX (potential real life Iron Man) who said “With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon”. He called it "our greatest existential threat". Irony again is, he was an investor in Deep Mind, an AI company that Google acquired for 400 million.
Ray Kurzweil believes computers will reach Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) by 2029 and that by 2045, we’ll have not only Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI), but a full-blown new world—a time he calls the singularity. And last year a computer AI claims to have passed 65 year old Turing Test (experiment based on Alan Turing’s “Can Machines Think?”) for the first time..  
But those including LeCun believes we are far off – he said it is like driving in a highway under heavy fog and we don’t know when we will hit the next major brick wall which the research cannot surmount for another long period of time. An article in New Yorker says we haven’t reached far enough with the research – “Hinton has built a better ladder; but a better ladder doesn’t necessarily get you to the moon.” Or this quote captures the state better – “The current "AI scare" going on feels a bit like kids playing with Legos and worrying about accidentally creating a nuclear bomb.”
There are more critics of this probabilistic, brute force, data driven approach to AI. Douglas Hofstadter who is author of “Godel, Escher and Bach” said “I don’t want to be involved in passing off some fancy program’s behavior for intelligence when I know that it has nothing to do with intelligence.” As per Noam Chomsky, “field’s heavy use of statistical techniques to pick regularities in masses of data is unlikely to yield the explanatory insight that science ought to offer. the "new AI" — focused on using statistical learning techniques to better mine and predict data — is unlikely to yield general principles about the nature of intelligent beings or about cognition.”
AI scare is also related to loss of jobs. But job loss is connected to various other things, not just AI/ML. Industrial robotics is making significant progress. Read somewhere that “Oxford University researchers have estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated within the next two decades.” China is aggressively moving towards it – manufacturing, assembly line jobs getting automated. Repetitive jobs getting automated will anyway affect every industry, by AI or not. Drones is other – this week there was news about a patent filing by Amazon on drones tracking customer location for accurate delivery. These could be further enhanced and accelerated by use of data and AI/ML.
Summary – AI as extra IQ
A good summary is this quote from a Wired article “The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World” – http://www.wired.com/2014/10/future-of-artificial-intelligence/
“A picture of our AI future is coming into view, and it is not the HAL 9000—a discrete machine animated by a charismatic (yet potentially homicidal) humanlike consciousness—or a Singularitan rapture of superintelligence. The AI on the horizon looks more like Amazon Web Services—cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything, and almost invisible except when it blinks off. This common utility will serve you as much IQ as you want but no more than you need. Like all utilities, AI will be supremely boring, even as it transforms the Internet, the global economy, and civilization. It will enliven inert objects, much as electricity did more than a century ago. Everything that we formerly electrified we will now cognitize. This new utilitarian AI will also augment us individually as people (deepening our memory, speeding our recognition) and collectively as a species. There is almost nothing we can think of that cannot be made new, different, or interesting by infusing it with some extra IQ. In fact, the business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast:Take X and add AI. This is a big deal, and now it’s here.”
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Good reads:-

radiolab


I had been listening to radiolab (http://www.radiolab.org/series/podcasts/), a science podcast for more than 7 years, on and off. It is a show hosted not by scientists, but an odd combination of one guy interested in sound and music and a science correspondent – both radio hosts. They explain the subjects through a series of stories, choreographed using sounds. Subjects as varied as dreams, games, birds, ants, colors, gut bacteria, parallel universes, deception, neurological disorders, psychology, chimpanzees, bees, mosquitos, love, cosmology, translation, loops, memory – all handled in a delightful blend of stories, sound and music. Even if the subject seems as drab as sewage handling in New York City would be an interesting story in their hands. The youthful curiosity of Jad and playful good nature of Robert makes them such perfect hosts.

Listen to a couple of the shows till the end (I would recommend to start with any of these - Colors, Lost & Found, Space, Bliss, Emergence, The Good Show, Words, This is your brain on love, Stochasticity) – you might not regret and could get hooked to something interesting.

I used to listen mostly during commute, I had 1 hr commute on an average for last so many years – iPod, phone or CDs loaded with Radiolab shows. One thing recently I was thinking about was that I associate memories of bits and pieces of their shows with the place where I heard the show, place I was passing through when I heard that. A hook for the memory to be pegged was tied to the place, the moment in which I heard it. That was very interesting..

Like I heard a story which talked about the fact that you could tell that which numbers are forged, like in balance sheets etc – if more numbers start in 8s,9s, it could be suspect. It is called Benford’s law. I heard this show, Numbers, while I was driving through Route 202 in Pennsylvania, which was under construction for a long time when I was there.  

Or this about memory in an amnesia patient being pure since it was untouched and unmodified. That if you go on a vacation which was not so great, your memory of it could get modified to it was not so bad after some time. It was in a show about Memory and Forgetting. I was passing in front of a juvenile correctional home, in front of which sometimes kids would be playing basketball, a guard would stop the cars when they need to cross the road, next to a national park’s near abandoned block of woods.

Or one about us able to make antidotes or medicines for our own illnesses – placebo effect in which a sugary non medicine given by someone wearing a lab coat would cure an ailment if we believe what we are taking is actual medicine. It was in a show about Placebo Effect – chemical consequences of belief and imagination. When I heard this, I was passing through a road which had a stone bridge above, road narrows while entering this underpass and there is a traffic signal right after I pass through it.

Or one about the theory about a piece of rock, hurtling towards earth, that obliterated dinosaurs, with impact like so many nuclear bombs exploding – the day the dinosaurs died. They were talking about a dinosaur going about his day as usual and the impact, what happens afterwards, with such sound effects – I was in my rare morning walks in Kanakakkunnu Palace grounds, those winding paths in four layers. I remember there used to be a guy those days in AAP cap in a group of retirees who walk as a noisy, opinionated group – he wore that only for a few months.  

Another about lucid dreaming, someone dreaming about a robber coming in to attack, a recurring haunting dream which doesn’t get solved and eventually training himself to solve it. I was waiting for someone to come to clean the outgrowth of weeds and bush around the house after a long period of rain.

I was driving to office and entering the usual place where the traffic comes to standstill every day at that time of the day when I heard about someone unraveling during a period of sudden explosion of creativity, drawing obsessively, repeatedly until succumbing to a brain disease – it seems just before Frontotemporal dementia hits, language starts to become impaired and visual cortex becomes overactive due to freed up circuits.

I was in a plane when I heard this about Rabies – how it was a monstrous disease with 100% fatality and how a doctor raced against time to save someone.

I was passing through one of the quick shortcuts that bypasses just one signal when I heard about the voices that were recorded and sent out to space in Voyager expedition – about Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan, their love story, she recounting it in her back yard – the explorer is still going and going to the edge of the galaxy it seems.

Remembered all this while stocking up on latest episodes after a long break.


I have similar memories about Neil de Grasse Tyson talking about how we are speck on a speck on a speck on a speck, Oliver Sacks’s face blindness, him curing people in coma for years, fireflies glowing in synchronous manner, grand war waged by Argentine Ants, why self-deception is the reason why we don’t get into depression etc etc. Hung up on pegs like hanging up laundry, drive through various roads, waiting in car service stations, airports - Thank you Radiolab for making all those times interesting! 

Siddhartha - Herman Hesse


I was curious about this book since this was supposed to be a favorite of Vishal Sikka, he quoted from this couple of times before. It was an interesting read – but cannot say I understood much. It is a problem with such writing which borders on spiritual/philosophy – it is so vague that sometime I think whether the author is springing a trick to see how many people recognize that this is all made up. But then they may know something which cannot be put into words or as the book says wisdom that could not be taught.

Premise was interesting – a man called Siddhartha goes through a similar journey of discovery as the Gautama Buddha, in the same timeframe as Buddha. That premise allows to present an alternate version of the journey and a different perspective. It reminds of “Man’s search for meaning” by Viktor Frankl, though drastically different circumstances.
 
Few quotes I had noted down. Author talks about “Childlike person” to refer to us mere mortals. Siddhartha goes through a tryst with worldly life and comes out of it -
I had to spend many years losing my spirit, to unlearn thinking again, to forget oneness of things. Isn't it just as if I had turned slowly and on a long detour from a man into a child, from a thinker into a childlike person? And yet, this path has been very good, and yet, the bird in my chest has not died. But what a path this has been! I had to pass through so much stupidity, through so much vice, through so many error, through so much disgust and disappointment and woe, just to become a child again and to be able to start over again. But it was right, so my heart says "Yes" to it, my eyes smile to it. I've had to experience despair, I've had to sink down to the most foolish one of all thoughts, to the thought of suicide, in order to be able to experience divine grace, to hear Om again, to be able to sleep properly and awake properly again.
 
He becomes apprentice of a ferry boatman at one point and learns to listen. Good one about really, truly listening – suspending judgment..
He was taught by the river. Continuously, learned from it. Most of all, he learned from it to listen, to pay close attention with a quiet heart, with a waiting, opened soul, without passion, without a wish, without judgment, without an opinion.
 
He loses himself over his love for his son and goes through another “childlike person” episode..
"You cannot love", she had said to him, and he had agreed with her and had compared himself with a star, while comparing the childlike people with falling leaves, and nevertheless he had also sensed an accusation in that line. Indeed, he had never been able to lose or devote himself completely to another person, to forget himself, to commit foolish acts for the love of another person, never had he been able to do this, and this was, as it had seemed to him at that time, the great distinction which set him apart from the childlike people. But now, since his son was here, now he, Siddhartha, had also become completely a childlike person, suffering for the sake of another person, loving another person, lost to a love, having become a fool on account of love. Now he too felt, so late, for once in his life, this strongest and strangest of all passions, suffered from it, suffered miserably, and was nevertheless in bliss, was nevertheless renewed in one respect, enriched by one thing.
He did sense very well that this love, this blind love for his son, was a passion, something very human, that it was Sansara, a murky source, dark waters. Nevertheless, he felt at the same time, it was not worthless, it was necessary, came from the essence of his own being. This pleasure also had to be atoned for, this pain also had to be endured, and these foolish acts also had to be committed.
 
Eventually realizing the concept of “oneness” – one of those vague ones which cannot be taught..
Everything together, all voices, all goals, all yearning, all suffering, all pleasure, all that was good and evil, all of this together was the world. All of it together was the flow events, was the music of life. In this hour, Siddhartha stopped fighting his fate, stopped suffering. On his face flourished the cheerfulness of a knowledge, which is no longer opposed by any will, which knows perfection, which is in agreement with the flow of events, with the current of life, full of sympathy for the pain of others, full of sympathy for the pleasure of others, devoted to the flow, belonging to the oneness.
 
About knowledge, wisdom, variations of truth and futility of words and meanings..
Knowledge can be conveyed, but not wisdom. It can be found, it can be lived, it is possible to be carried by it, miracles can be performed with it, but it cannot be expressed in words and taught. This was what I, even as a young man, sometimes suspected, what has driven me away from the teachers.
 
The opposite of every truth is just as true! It is like this: any truth can only be expressed and put into words when it is one-sided. Everything is one-sided which can be thought with thoughts and said with words, it is all one-sided, all just one half, all lacks completeness, roundness, oneness. When the exalted Gotama spoke in his teachings of the world, he had to divide it into Sansara and Nirvana, into deception and truth, into suffering and salvation. It cannot be done differently, there is no other way for him who wants to teach. But the world itself, what exists around us and inside of us, is never one-sided. A person or an act is never entirely holy or entirely sinful. It does really seem like this, because we are subject to deception, as if time was something real. Time is not real, Govinda, I have experienced this often and often again. And if time is not real, then the gap which seems to be between the world and the eternity, between suffering and blissfulness, between evil and good, is also a deception.
 
Let me speak no more of this. The words are not good for the secret meaning, everything always becomes a bit different, as soon as it is put into words, gets distorted a bit, a bit silly - yes, and this is also very good, and I like it a lot, I also very much agree with this, that what is one man's treasure and wisdom always sounds like foolishness to another person.

books to read



Read a short story by Alice Munro – “Night” (http://granta.com/night/). Chanced upon it from a tweet from someone. Name was somehow familiar, searched and found that she was the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 2013. Read few more of her stories from the New Yorker. I have a mental block when it comes to reading short stories – somehow I don’t like that it finishes too quickly and sometimes abruptly, not fully satisfying. These were good though. It kind of reminded me of why we read fiction – it gives comfort in knowing that there are other people who think similar thoughts, there are lives even in far off places and quite different circumstances, but quite human, like kindred spirits. That is one thing which is closed and sacred – other people’s thoughts. Apart from writers who risk baring it on paper for all the world to see, we have no way of knowing whether we are the only weird ones out there or the rest of world is also quite similar.

I was in the process of adding couple of her books to the reading list. Thought I will share the entire reading list itself - compiled over the years based on recommendations seen here and there. Pace of reading is slower than the rate of addition to this list.

We were in Phoenixville, a small town, for more than 5 years. It had a beautiful library – you could borrow upto 100 books, videos, magazines and audio CDs at a time (not that anybody might want to do that much). It had a tie up with libraries in 5 other counties and an online portal from where books could be searched across all the linked libraries and reserve – even if it is not in the local library, they would get it from any of the linked ones. There was hardly any book that I couldn’t find there. All this was for free – it was running on public and government funding. How I wish we had such ones here.

Categorizations have got mixed up over time, didn’t clean up much. Some day we may have a service which could take in everything we have read so far and everything we want to read and recommend the perfect books to read next in our interest areas. www.goodreads.com and Amazon recommendations are ok, but not satisfactory yet. For now if there are recommendations based on this, please leave a comment.

Business
1.       “The Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy” Miyamoto Musashi.
2.       48 Laws of Power
3.       "33 Strategies of War" by Robert Greene
4.       5 dysfunctions of a team, lean startup, Kanban blue book
5.       Anything You Want - Derek Sivers
6.       Design Is a Job - Mike Monteiro
7.       Rework - - Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson
8.       Hackers, the heroes of the computer revolution – Steven Levy
9.       The Inmates Are Running the Asylum - Alan Cooper
10.    Don’t make me think - Steve Klug

Creativity, Brain, Cognition, Neuroscience
11.    Beautiful Evidence - Edward Tufte
12.    Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas - Seymour A. Papert
13.    A Technique for Producing Ideas – James Webb Young
14.    The Paradox of Choice - Barry Schwartz
15.    Mindset: The New Psychology of Success - Carol Dweck
16.    Flow - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
17.    Douglas Coupland, "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture"
18.    Emergence - Steven Johnson
19.    Everything Is Obvious - Duncan J. Watts
20.    Notes on the Synthesis of Form - Christopher Alexander
21.    Impro - Keith Johnstone
22.    The Psychopathology of Everyday Life - Freud
23.    The Ego and the Id - Freud
24.    Give and Take - Adam Grant
25.    Laws of Simplicity - John Maeda
26.    Set Phasers on Stun - Steven Casey
27.    I am feeling lucky - douglas edwards
28.    Ideas and Opinions – Einstein
29.    Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking - Daniel C Dennett
30.    Lean startup - Eric Ries
31.    Leonard Mlodinov - The Drunkard's Walk
32.    Management Myth - Matthew Stewart
33.    Microserfs by douglas coupland
34.    The Black Swan; and Fooled by Randomness - Nassim Taleb
35.    On Intelligence - Jeff Hawkins
36.    Pattern Language - Christopher Alexander 
37.    Picture This - Molly Bang
38.    Quiet  - Susan Cain
39.    Rolf Dobelli - The Art of Thinking Clearly
40.    Signal and noise - nate silver
41.    Steven Pinker - How the Mind Works
42.    The Art of Meditation - Mathieu Ricard
43.    The Better Angels of Our Nature - Steven Pinker
44.    The New Master Key System by Ruth Miller and Charles F Hannel
45.    The Motivation Hacker by Nick Winter
46.    The Power of Habit - Charles Duhigg
47.    The wealth of nations adam smith
48.    Think like a programmer - V. Anton Spraul
49.    Godel, Escher and Back - Douglas Hofstadter
50.    Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn - Richard Hamming

Writing
51.    "On writing well" by William Zinsser
52.    Bird by Bird - Anne Lamot
53.    Writing that works - Roman-Raphaelson

Politics
54.    Jared Diamond - Guns, Germs and Steel
55.    Jared Diamond - The World Until Yesterday
56.    India grows at night - Gurcharan Das

Philosophy
57.    A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
58.    Biology of Belief
59.    I Am A Strange Loop - Douglas Hofstadter

Personal Finance
60.    The Intelligent Investor - Benjamin Graham
61.    From the rat race to financial freedom - manoj arora
62.    Michael Covel's book - "Trend Following"

Fiction
63.    Alice Munro - Dance of the happy shades, Lives of Girls and Women, Who do you think you are?
64.    The fault in our stars - John Green
65.    Eat Pray Love - Elizabeth Gilbert
66.    Rabindrantah Tagore’s Gora;
67.    Charles Dickens “David Copperfield;
68.    Thornton Wilder’s Bridge Of San Luis Rey;
69.    Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace
70.    Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto Thor
71.    Hyderdahl’s “Kon Tiki.”
72.    A tale of two cities - Charles Dickens
73.    Hunger Games
74.    All the King’s Men - Robert Penn Warren and Noel Polk
75.    Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness - Susannah Cahalan
76.    Dorris Lessing – The grass is singing, The golden notebook, Under my skin, Waiting in the shade
77.    Great Indian Novel – Shashi Tharoor
78.    Neal Stephenson - Anathem.
79.    Neal Stephenson - Snow Crash
80.    Patrick O'Brian - sea faring novels
81.    Franny and Zooey - JD Salinger

Auto biographies, General
82.    My Life and Hard Times – James Thurber
83.    Long way down  -  Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman
84.    Tap dancing to work - warren buffet

Software
85.    Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs - Abelson and Sussman
86.    Dyjkstra - Discipline of programming
87.    Knuth - Art of Programming vol 1-4
88.    How to lie with statistics
89.    Programming pearls - John Bentley

Sci-Fi
90.    Italo Calvino - Cosmicomics

91.    Ursula Le Guin

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