Of Books, friends, and Algorithms

Artificial Intelligence based “recommendation systems” are becoming ubiquitous. For every book you buy or browse on Amazon, for every book you rate in Goodreads, there is “you may also like” list made for you. And to be fair, it works. You find books there that you would like, based upon what else you have liked, and what people who’ve liked the same things as you have also liked. Artificial intelligence algorithms are already good, and getting better at this.

But when I go back to the books, anda to the authors that went on to become most cherished experiences of my life, very few have come from the algorithms, many have come from friends. Most from just two or three friends. And it’s not like these people were my close friends before — it was like in the process of this read recommendations, and discussions around those books, the friendships cemented. With those friends at least, the foundations of friendships were built on the books.

The reason why I wanted to clarify that part is important (at least in my mind) — it wasn’t like they knew me deeply to be able to know what I will enjoy. Hell, my teen/post-teen phase was dominated by Ayn Rand’s writings; and knowing that me would hardly have helped anyone to recommend to me some of the more literary authors that I ended up absolutely wowed by later on.

The thing about AI algorithms is that they are not required to take a leap of faith on your behalf. Your friends, on the other hand, have to. The act of recommending someone a book/movie/music even food is a leap of faith. Every recommendation carries with it its own risks — one of a potential disappointment (that’s personal to the one recommending), other of being judged by the one you’re recommending something to. Even if these risks are not overt, they are part and the parcel of the act. AI algorithm doesn’t feel the first, and the only way it has to deal with the second is as a data point to further learning. Unlike friends.

However, it’s that unique challenge that friendship throws at you make you take that leap of faith. And it’s through that leap of faith does one really beat the urge to do safe recommendations, like an AI algorithm would.

For me, it’s those friends who took that leap of faith that have influenced my reading most, widening my horizons, challenging my ideas of what I ought — or ought not — to like. It’s through these friends that I’ve been introduced to authors like Hermann Hesse, Umberto Eco, Amitav Ghosh, Marquez, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Koestler, Orhan Pamuk, Milan Kundera, Terry Pratchett, Geoff Dyer, Zadie Smith, Stephen Fry, Kamila Shamsie, Mikhail Bulgakov, Murakami, Borges …

And it’s those friends who keep pushing the boundaries of my reading. Like this one that was recently lent to me by one of those friends – a book that started this rumination:

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I’m only a few pages into it, but I know I am going to come back to it again and again. And there was no way I’d have picked this up, if not for the friend who practically put it in my hands. And it’s the faith I have in his ability to point me to new lands that I’d relish, that made me drop everything else I was reading and pick it up. Only friendships can do that. In the AI dominated world of the future, I still think, if humans still have something worthwhile left to do, this act of faith will be one. Thank you all my friends who have contributed to my growth as a reader. I owe it to you to pay it forward. If, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this, you know I’m talking about you.

On Love and Hate

Love and hate are not the opposites of each other. They are really two different planes. Love needs energy. It cannot sustain by itself. It’s like the slow-burning fire that needs wood to be replenished.

Hate feeds on itself. And it feeds, it grows. A perpetual machine, if there was one. It doesn’t need energy. It generates its own energy.

Love is discerning. So it cannot encompass faceless, nameless, multitudes. Love requires connections – one on one. It doesn’t operate in groups.

Hate is opportunistic. The more the merrier. It loves the multitudes. It is flexible. It can jump from one to the other, from one to many, from many to one.

Loving is like gardening. It requires constant attention. Even when it looks like everything is fine. Or when it looks like there is no hope. One does one’s best and trusts it all works out.

Hate begets hate. You could ignore it, and like a weed, it still grows. A little bit of attention, and like a wildfire, it can consume the entire wood.

The opposite of love is not hope. It’s indifference. Ignoring the very existence of the other.

The opposite of hate is not love. It’s acceptance. Of the being of the other.

Love and hate are two different planes.

Narcissus 2.0

Mirrors everywhere
in every direction,
every dimension
curved, warped, broken,
fluid, distorted —
distorting …

You look
at your myriad reflections
trying to stitch together
the real you

What if,
Narcissus had fallen in love
with himself
that wasn’t really him?

What if it wasn’t love
but the idea of being in love
with oneself —
one’s recreated self,
stitched back
from a thousand reflections:
each distorted
in its own way?

The inner you
that we all are
so obsessed with —
it feeds on these reflections
it sees itself through those eyes,
those distortions
and contradictions

Like a huge jigsaw puzzle
with pieces that don’t quite fit,
with overlaps that don’t quite match;
but we still force fit,
because we are eager to see
the whole picture
in its illusory unity

the id
the self
the ego
the aham —
a quilt of reflections
from mirrors we have chosen —
for they tell us
a nice story

We’re Narcissus
who kept on checking
reflections in a pond after pond
till he found one
that made him look
ravishingly good,
and blamed it on Nemesis.

A Good Man

Last month we accompanied our son to Chiang Mai, Thailand, for the finals of World Robotic Olympiad. The event was at the International Convention Center — an impressive venue, with a picturesque backdrop of mountains, with excellent facilities to host an event like that. Since we were mostly at the venue, all three days of the competition, on the last day, we decided to step out, as the teams were busy with their trial runs before the actual runs started. It was Sunday, and there was a flea market very closeby that we had spotted from the bus on the way. We headed there and were quickly disappointed, as it didn’t have anything we would have liked to carry back home. As we were heading back, we saw a small convenience/grocery store. We wanted to buy some Thai rice and so we stepped in. It was like a family run store. The proprietor (we assumed) was an elderly man.

As we were done with our very limited shopping expedition (this wasn’t Walmart, after all, just a small local grocery store, in a primary non-residential, remote, part of the city), we approached the payment counter. The glass countertop had a bunch of international notes displayed like souvenirs. As we paid with local currency, our guy asked us where we were from.

“India”, we said.

“Ah!” exclaimed he. “I have these currency notes for many countries, but not for India. Are you carrying any Indian currency?”

We were. I pulled a ten rupee note and handed it over to him. He checked it out.

“Gandhi”, he said, looking at the note.

“Yes! You have heard of him!”, exclaimed my wife.

“Yes”, he nodded.

We smiled.

“Have you heard of Modi”, she asked.

“Yes”

Then looking at the note again he said, “A good man!”

“Yes he was”, we nodded.

“How much do I pay for this?”, he asked.

We brushed off that idea, of course. “It’s a gift from us”

“I’ll display it”, he said, happily.

“Can we take a photo”, I asked.

“Yes yes”, he said, getting ready for one.

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A good man, I recalled again, earlier this week, as the controversy over a statue in Ghana hit the news. The small man on the note. The small man who runs that convenience store, with a happy, eager smile. A good man. That’s how one would like to be remembered, no?

 

Schrodinger’s Cat Has Only One Life

The thing about writing, specifically (at least for me) writing fiction, is that there is this moment when the story (doesn’t matter how long or short) is ready — you’ve penned the last full stop, or question mark, or exclamation mark, or pressed the save icon, or the keyboard shortcut, whatever. That moment, when the story is between you and the world, when it is a Schrodinger’s story so to say — neither dead nor alive, when you don’t know if you would kill it then and there, or expose it to the world, and you with it. It’s in that moment that as a writer (and I am using the word in its most liberal sense) you’re the happiest person. Or should I just speak for myself, not make gross generalizations based on a strong personal experience.

Okay then, that’s what I will do. That moment, when I know that a story is ready — not necessarily for the world, not necessarily safe from my own doubts (is any story ever?), not necessarily worth the (proverbial) paper it might be printed on, not necessarily good/decent; in other words: not necessarily something anyone else should/would care about — is the moment I’m at the happiest. It’s a moment that makes writing worth all its troubles: all the doubts that keep eating at your sanity, all the misery of being stuck in a place where all the roads seem to lead back into it, all the anger at terrible stuff that seems to be getting written and published, all the anger at oneself for not being able to write anything that convinces the inner critic, all the cluelessness, all the anxiety (would I ever write anything better than that piece I wrote when I was young, which, btw, now I believe was shit) , all the helplessness, despondency.

It’s a fleeting moment though. For the demons that you had just managed to stuff into a cupboard for a very brief respite, come running out. The cat is out of the bag. There is no turning back now. One has to confront it. So what if the world doesn’t know of its existence, you do. You are Schrodinger. You fu**ing created the cat. You ought to now open the box, and deal with the reality that was in there, unaware of you.

Not all cats have nine lives. Surely, not Schrodinger’s — for one would say with a very high probability that it is alive, and be right 8 out of 9 times. Sometimes, it is alive, and Schrodinger is so confused, that he buries it. Sometimes, Schrodinger carries it around as if it were alive, and gets ridiculed. Sometimes, he just keeps staring at it, not knowing what to do with it, and it keeps staring back at him, with a deadpan gaze that is neither apologetic of its existence, nor pleading for its life. It’s as if, the gaze is coming from within. In that moment, Schrodinger is the cat.

 

The remains of the words, not to be

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words never written
words that will never be written.
words, lost to time
to serendipity
to their time that never was
to opportunities wasted,
to procrastination
to neglect
to priorities misplaced
to unreliable memories …
words that were never meant to be
the scattered remains of the words,
that could have been.

Bourdain: Man Unknown

People die all the time. Celebrities too. And when we hear that we tweet a RIP. A quick Facebook post, maybe. We change the DPs, maybe. But, we move on. The world doesn’t stop for anyone. Still, some deaths, more than others, makes us want to ask of ourselves the questions of legacy: our own legacy.

Anthony Bourdain, Chef turned Travel/Food writer and TV host, a firey opinionated free-spirit, who afforded many of us a vicarious trip into many corners of the world, died today. By all accounts, death by suicide. A man I knew only from his biographical books, opinion pieces, and TV shows. And yet a man who seemed like a spirit friend. And I know I’m not alone who’s lost a part.

A part unkown.

A free spirit finally tamed by the inner demons.

I rarely cry for celebrities. But as I read the outpouring of love and despair on social media over this man whose life was unlike possibly anyone’s who’s mourning him right now, it’s hard to see clearly the letters that I’m typing. It’s hard to keep the strands together in my head, and to put them into words.

My love affair with his words started with his book “A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal”. It was love at first sight. Bourdain’s capacity to present slices of different cultures got me hooked. This was before I knew anything about him. Even that he had written the best selling Kitchen Confidential. Or nothing about his TV shows. I was fascinated. I had to read Kitchen Confidential, which charmed me too. And onto other books, and finally his Parts Unknown show with CNN. I do not watch too much TV. In that, I do not watch much of travel/food shows, and the likes. But Bourdain had me at the first look, and I kept vicariously traveling with him, to different parts. From Scotland to Marseille to Hanoi to Greek islands, to Beijing and Moscow, and so on. What set him apart from many other hosts was how he got people really talking, and the unusual cast of visitors on his shows, his empathetic listening, and not to forget his absolute reverence to local food traditions. Food for him was a communion of sorts, one would be forgiven to believe — a communion in spirit for a hardened atheist.

There are tons of memorable moments in Parts Unknown. Two come to my mind.

One, from what seems like a completely different era, when Obama, then still the president, made an appearance on the show, filmed in Hanoi, Vietnam, in a non-descript restaurant, learning from each other (Obama learning the noodle slurp, Bourdain the ketchup law for kids growing up). It was such a surreal exchange, and yet so natural.

The other was the Rome episode where both my wife and I sensed an undeniable chemistry between Bourdain and Asia Argento (we didn’t know they were dating, or who she was). I googled after the episode, and learned they were indeed dating.

This still from the show probably speaks a lot more than we’ll ever know. Filmed at Palazzo dei Congressi, he and Asia Argento discuss the facist past of the country, and an optimism about human beings. There is a poignancy to it that will always haunt me now.

ANTHONY BOURDAIN: PARTS UNKNOWN

Talking to a friend on Twitter, these lines tumbled out of me:

Some people, although you don’t know them, seem like they were a you in another possible world. You’re of course wrong. But grief doesn’t work with that knowledge.

Anthony Bourdain was really a total stranger, but his death doesn’t feel like that. I will miss him. I so wish his fight with his inner demons were better known to people around him, and they could have helped him in it. The fight that he lost today, never to fight another fight — someone who wasn’t afraid of taking on fights (as he very recently did for Asia). I just hope there are more worlds after, because, if anyone should be visiting them, it’s his restless soul.

The Asymmetry of Values

Prisoner’s Dilemma is a very useful tool in the arsenal of game theorists, precisely because it is so simple to formulate and so generic to apply in modeling diverse social “problems” or interactions. The dilemma should really be no dilemma if we were all honest players (in the game theory sense of the world). Simply put, it’s a non-zero sum game where blind co-operating choices are optimal for both parties. Two “prisoners” charged with the same crime are taken into two rooms and given a choice to confess. The “payouts” are such that if both refuse to confess, they get a minimal punishment based on whatever evidence that is already there. If one confesses while the other stays silent, he is let off while the other gets a maximum punishment. If both confess, both get a medium punishment.

In terms of total punishment (to either player), both confessing is the worst case, while both staying silent (thus covertly “co-operating”) is the best case. But humans are a funny lot. And if one cannot trust the other, staying silent is the suicidal strategy, as you’re not really trying to minimize the total punishment, but rather just minimize your own possible punishment (which also should be minimum for co-operating players, but trust is not a coin that is high in circulation). The dilemma (or rather the paradox) here is that logically the two should co-operate to minimize the punishment but they both know that their worst case is if they co-operate but the other rats them out. And hence, the same logical course may make them “both” rat-out the other, and end up with a very sub-optimal payoff.  In the parlance of the game theory, the player either “co-operates” (with the other player, not the authorities) or “defects” (rats out the other player).

The more interesting version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is an “iterated” Prisoner’s Dilemma where the same game is played a number1  of times between the two players where although they cannot communicate with each other for the decision, they can use the knowledge of previous decision history (for both). It gets interesting because now you actually can either build (mutual) trust or make the other player pay for their defection, by defecting yourself, and indeed use the knowledge of all previous games to know/guess the other’s strategy, and try to exploit it.

One would think that in such an iterative version of the game, the best strategy might be some fancy algorithm that takes into account tons of things. In competitions where programs played against each other, the boringly obvious winner2 is the one using tit-for-tat strategy (co-operate first, but retaliate if other player defects). Just rat-out someone who ratted out last time, and co-operate if they co-operated the last time. In terms of minimizing average punishment (or maximizing the payoff), this simple one game memory strategy works surprisingly3 well: as good as any, and certainly better than any naively good-natured ones (so-called “generous” strategies), or the obviously sociopathic ones.

***

To be fair, I wasn’t planning to write about the Prisoner’s Dilemma. It is very well documented and discussed (including in the context of genetics by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene). What I wanted to write about was the expectation of symmetry that we, or many (if not most) of us seem to, almost instinctively, carry in our minds with respect to our relationships. And this seemed like a very good way to impress upon the apparent soundness of such an expectation. The symmetry seems to be (from experimental data, even if not formally) essential to an elegant solution — even if  a delayed symmetry — especially when the game (and again I use the word in the game theory sense, not to divorce it from serious interactions, rather the opposite) is not a zero-sum game (where one only wins by beating the other). Even if not “essential”, it definitely seems “sufficient”, because it takes care of exploitative counter-plays by simply replaying it.

But, and there is always a but, when you have a blind strategy that’s not benign/naive, although it protects from the worst case individually, symmetry basically degenerates into endless retribution. Tit-for-tat, also known as eye-for-an-eye has its limitations: as Gandhi rightly put it — it makes the world go blind. Think about it: a symmetric strategy to blind hate is blind hate. And that is where you have a measured asymmetry as a group strategy (or rather: ethos) to have some sort of stability in the system to protect against such run-away destruction of all value.

***

There is, of course, a more intimate version of many of these games being played in close relationships — friendships, romantic relationships, close family/blood relationships, work relationships, and so on. I wouldn’t venture to model any of those, but I think with all the above, one can intuitively see mappings onto prisoner’s dilemma. What’s clear is that any long-term relationship is a non-zero-sum game. It better be. And it’s an iterative game, not an “all the stakes in one go” game. And assuming that you want to keep on playing the game (a dimension missing in the previous discussions), which assumes you’ve found the “right” opponent (aka partner) to play it with, symmetry might be a sub-optimal strategy. Yes, it can cut the losses (or may have more equal distribution of losses), but one really has a shot at co-operating for maximum profits. And dogmatic (or calculated) dove4 strategies as Dawkins call them (co-operate more than defect) may well be optimal (or you should really be quitting the game).

All along, this is what I wanted to write about, I guess. That “asymmetry” that I’ve already discussed in past (internet protocols are asymmetric — liberal in accepting data, but conservative while sending it — and I’ve used a now archaic RFC in the context of relationships before, without really bringing in any game theory). I have believed, and continue to believe it, that it’s this very conscious “asymmetry” that is necessary for stable relationships, as it is for a stable society. But what about the defectors?

***

In the context of relationships, I’d broadly categorize the defectors into two types: conscious ones and unconscious ones. If you’re in a relationship (romantic or otherwise) with a conscious defector, you should really consider if playing the game is worth it. Because what conscious defectors do is reduce a non-zero-sum game into a zero-sum game — especially if the other keeps on co-operating. The “symmetric” strategy is obviously one way to stop being the loser in the zero-sum game. But that is just a value-destroying option. Tit-for-tat with a conscious defector is just turning into a conscious defector. Destroying what’s of value to you consciously is a toxic strategy for your long-term well being. So, if you ask me, the choice is very simple here, or as they say, black and white.

The most interesting “grey” area remains the unconscious defectors. Especially in romantic/spousal relationships, which involve choice as opposed to “blood ties”. Most long-term relationships are based on mutual trust, tolerance, sensitivity, and many such bedrocks. But much of this is rarely symmetric. Everyone has different natural levels of trust, sensitivity, tolerance, etc. Yes, they do evolve over time, but in the steady state, there are these levels that come into play subconsciously. What’s more, something like sensitivity is rarely symmetric in the first place, in an individual. Someone who is highly sensitive to criticism doesn’t necessarily refrain from criticising others. One who doesn’t like to be shouted at doesn’t necessarily control their vocal chords when they’re the aggrieved party.

Auden, in his infinite wisdom, had said: “If equal affection cannot be, Let the more loving one be me”. Extending that same asymmetry, then, if you’ve found someone who you believe is for the keeps, shouldn’t you aspire to be the more tolerant, more trusting, more sensitive (extrinsically), more understanding, or the more ‘noble’ for the lack of better word?  But what does one do when that person is an unconscious defector? The more understanding one will have to forgive a lot more. The more tolerant one will stoically ignore offenses while paying for her lesser offenses. And so on.

Is virtue its own reward? Or is it its own punishment? Is it just a matter of threshholds? Is a dogmatic asymmetric strategy a healthy one for the virtuous co-operator, against a good-natured unconscious defector? Is the price of virtue really the price of playing the game, even when the game is rigged the moment you walk into it with dogmatic co-operative strategy? The dilemma will live on.


  1. The number of iterations is unknown to players – because if they are known, it ends up folding into the standard prisoner’s dilemma (provable by induction).
  2. Ref: https://www.forbes.com/sites/rogerkay/2011/12/19/generous-tit-for-tat-a-winning-strategy/#3492bb1e66eb (While this is true in spirit, there is a cheeky meta-strategy where sacrifice to “your own kind” strategy seems to win when the spirit of the rules is ignored: https://www.wired.com/2004/10/new-tack-wins-prisoners-dilemma/. Then again, in the real world there is no “spirit of the game”)
  3. I say surprisingly, but it’s not really surprising if you consider that many simple strategies do work wonderfully well in practice — (like the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth).
  4. Dawkins in his book “Selfish Gene” discusses “Evolutionary Stable Strategies” and the literature on this has a primary dove vs hawk (peaceful/non-retaliatory vs aggressive/retaliatory) classification. Dove strategies survive only with doves, but even a minority of hawks will overtake the population.

The Unfinished Life

There are unbought items in your cart,
reminds the app,
ever so helpful,
deals about to expire
last days, hours, minutes,
extended just for you
day after day,
carts need to be checked out
“buy later”s need to be bought
now, because tomorrow,
who knows,
the prices will change
you will be no more
they will be no more
your money, your will,
all that needs to be
exercised, today

There are unread books on my bookshelves,
there are unsolved mysteries in my head,
there are unfinished plans in my mind,
bookmarks are overflowing
twenty three different services
music, movies, documentaries,
recipes waiting to be made,
blog posts in various states of being drafted
book and story ideas, half-baked
skills waiting to be learned
places waiting to be visited

This myth,
that there is ever a clean slate,
an ordered departure
all things taken care of
projects wrapped up
ideas taken to logical conclusions
todo lists finished
bucket lists scratched out,
this myth,
of a perfect order,
has become an industry
do it now
eat it once in your life
experience it before you die
go there before you’re too old to …

the unbought items should pale,
in comparison,
to the unlived life
but we only get reminders
for that which can be sold

The Promise of the Rains

Smells are messengers. They travel with the winds, and hence they can bring the news from distances. In the era of computerized models predicting the weather, promises of the rains are now delegated to the machines. But the machines and the predictive models cannot talk to our senses directly. They cannot register a promise of rains, just its probability. It’s, then, left to the scents and the winds to keep on performing their long-standing thankless duty of being the promise bearers.

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Not all promises are kept. Not all probabilities are respected. And yet, a missed prediction doesn’t seem as personal a betrayal, as a broken promise of rains. One is left nursing the dry wounds, with a fading backdrop of petrichor carried over from lands, not far away. Maybe we believe in the promises delivered directly to our senses than those delivered to our conscious cognition. Deep down, we’re still creatures of the earth, trusting her smell more than any words and statistics.

#Pune #AprilShowers #Weather #Nature