Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Low Effort Stances are Difficult to Fake

On his excellent blog ribbonfarm, Venkatesh Rao observes that if you argue with stupid, you always lose. Stupid has nothing to lose. They have to reputation to uphold, no beliefs to cherish. Moreover, stupidity is a low effort stance. Because of this reason, it is hard to fake. Faking, by definition, takes some effort. This effort will always show through. Low effort stances are defined the low effort. Stupid is not putting any effort into its argument. If it is, it's not stupid.

High effort stances such as intelligence or sophistication can be faked if you can make the effort put into the fakery indistinguishable from the effort needed to acquire the real skill.

The other common low effort stance is innocence. It is much harder to fake innocence than being innocent. This is why when one wants plausible deniability, the best course of action is to not know the secret at all. It is said that good lies lack detail. If you put in too much detail, you get caught as lying. Writing naturalistic dialog is much harder than writing memorable ones for the same reason.

Fighting stupid with smart will fail. But fighting stupid with stupid will also fail because it will come out as fake. The only winning strategy is to walk out on the game.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Bang Baaja Baaraat

I stumbled upon Bang Baaja Baaraat while randomly browsing through YouTube. At first I thought it might be something produced by TVF because it is so similar in style to what they are doing. Sumeet Vyas, who is a TVF regular is also involved. But a little digging around shows that there is a bigger game afoot. This YouTube-only show is produced by something called Y-Films which seems to be an undertaking of the Yash Raj banner. So big bucks are involved and it shows in the production values. The style might be homey and indie like TVF but the spirit definitely is not.

To be honest I'm a little disappointed that the big banners are co-opting the independent television that's happening on YouTube. But it had to happen eventually and it's probably for the better because at the end of the day, this TV is way better than anything that appears on actual TV channels. Yet, one longs for the good old days of amateurs shooting thing in their living rooms with camcorders.

Thematically, Bang Baaja Baaraat tells the same story that the recent neo-Urban cinema has been telling for the last few years. It's the story of the Kanpur boy Pawan who has made it big in Mumbai as a gourmet chef and Shahana the rich upper class girl. They meet on a Tinder date, fall in love and decide to get married. This is where the clash of cultures begins. Pawan's lower middle-class family from Kanpur can't quite adjust to the big city ways of bachelorette parties, divorces and mothers having boyfriends. However, like all Bollywood movies, after the initial strife, the show ends on a happy note.

But the central conflict is not really resolved. There is an implicit bias in the story towards the more liberal big city ways. When Pawan's mother wants to conduct her wedding rituals, this is depicted as something gauche and funny. Even the members of her own family, Pawan and his sister, are exasperated by their mother's insistence on observing these traditions. Yes, it is somewhat unreasonable for the mother to expect to find an actual well in a posh Mumbai neighborhood. But it is not entirely unreasonable for her to want to enact the rituals that mean so much to her. Rituals that have deep archetypal meanings. In this case, the ritual is about the mother-in-law coming to terms with this new presence in her son's life. This is something that happens in all marriages, traditional or modern. Hindu marriages have incorporates rituals dealing with such issues for centuries. And yet, somehow the show (and it's audience by proxy) seem all to eager to discard this tradition.

On the other hand, the bachelorette party, which happens simultaneously on screen, offers a stark juxtaposition. The show is completely unapologetic about this night of revelry. It is completely unaware of the fact that bachelor or bachelorette parties are in themselves rituals, as meaningful or meaningless as any other. Why is this ritual 'better' than traditional Hindu ones?

The grooms parents are actively involved in the rituals for their son's weddings. The bride's parents on the other hand are alone and gloomy, mulling the mistakes they made in their lives. To the extent that weddings are social functions, it seems crass to ignore parents on the eve of your wedding.

Repeatedly, it is Pawan who makes allowances for the modern ways of Shahana's family. Shahana herself makes no such allowances.

It has to be noted that this isn't about women's rights. Pawan's mother make no demands for her bahu to stay at home and make rotis or dress a certain way or anything else. She is uncomfortable, yes, but not imposing. Yet, the implicit assumption is that tradition is always oppressive and modernity always liberating.

And I suppose that would be okay if this was just a fight of tradition vs modernity. It is, at it's core, a clash of classes. Shahana is rich. Pawan is not. Yes, he makes a ton of money now but he isn't one of them. He is a Kanpur ka launda. It is this clash of classes that makes the show particularly distasteful.

Stories like this provide catharsis to people like Pawan who have left behind their small town, middle class upbringings. By constantly depicting urban, upper class, bit city lifestyle as positive, the show provides a justification for the lives it's audience is now living. It makes them feel better. It let's them make fun of their old lives and assuage some of the guilt that comes from leaving the community. But, ultimately, despite making that claim in the last reel, it fails to provide any real coming to terms with this narrative tension of modern India.

Bang Baaja Baaraat can be seen on YouTube here.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Jessica Jones Season 1

I wanted to like Jessica Jones - I really did - and sure, there were some aspects of the show that I did like but in the end it just did not have enough going on for it to be my new favorite show.

I think it might have been a good show, even and awesome show if it stood on it's own two feet. However, it is part of the Marvel canon and that baggage brings it down a little. The show is gritty with plenty of noir thrown in for good measure. But that's the problem. You see, our favorite summer blockbuster franchise - of which Jessica Jones is a part - just isn't that way. Iron Man or Captain America are through and through comic book movies. They have plenty of banter and big explosions but no gore or trying to grapple with ethical issues.

Jessica Jones is trying to be a serious show about trauma and PTSD and even rape. But the repeated invocation of the 'heroes', of the 'incident' in New York kind of bring it down a notch. And that isn't the only problem with the show. It's also highly derivative. The treatment of supernatural powers was very reminiscent or 'Heroes'. There are powers but there are no capes or aliens or magical technology. Noir itself is something that DC does better than Marvel.

I wish they had been a little more light-hearted about this show. Toned down the grim-dark aesthetic a little bit. Or toned up a supernatural. It's not a bad show and I will be binging Season 2, whenever that comes out.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Digitization vs Softwarization

Based on late evening conversations with Aneesh Dubey.


When enterprises talk about taking advantage of software, they often mean digitization and not softwarization.

Digitization is making the existing process digital. One gets some of the benefit of software - speed and agility but the underlying process is still the same.

Softwarization is coming up with an entirely new process enabled by software.

It is useful to look at a business process as an operating system. The capital resources are the substrate over which this BusinessOS runs. Both employees and customers are the users.

Digitization in this case is merely getting a faster processor.

Softwarization is getting a completely new algorithmic core.

Things that remain computationally complex with mere digitization become tractable and scalable with softwarization.

Google Maps and Amazon don't just digitize traditional businesses (map making and retail respectively). They softwarize it. It is not possible to do Google Maps or Amazon with pen and paper, even at a slower speed. It is possible to do corporate payroll with pen and paper at a slower pace.

Even when a corporation or a department therein is failing, it doesn't consider software as an exit strategy. They try to scale down the existing process with layoffs and cost cuts.

The industrial ethos, peaking with the Toyota way was 'Process over People'. The Silicon Valley hacker ethos is 'People over Process'. This is privileging skill over volume. Leveraging softwarization iteratively results in exponentially increasing surplus refinement which gives volume often for free. This is why Facebook has more revenue per employee than most businesses.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Temples of the Modern World

India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru called dams the 'temples of modern India'. India had just gained independence from the British and the government was heavily focused on building infrastructure for this young country. But Nehru's statement was more of a hope and a vision than a statement of fact because dams (or anything else) never really became the temples of modern India. (Temples remain the temples of modern India.)

Modern USA, on the other hands has many such temples dedicated to the gods of science and technology. Last weekend, I visited Chicago with family. Traveling the US with my mother is a unique experience because I get to see this country with truly foreign eyes. As my mother marveled at the unthinkably tall skyscrapers of the city, I mused at how religious the entire experience of visiting a tourist city is, even for Americans.

Consider the similarities. Temples are often imposing structures, build to intimidate the visitor. People flock to temples in hordes, often traveling long distances and spending a significant amount of time and resources to visit them. They later revel in the memories of the visit and urge others to visit. Temples are created to evoke a sense of awe in the devout. But most importantly, temples are places that help you make sense of the world outside.

This is exactly what Chicago's - or any other big American city's, for that matter - tourist industry is set up to do. As tourists shuffles from on attraction to another, they are bombarded with imagery and statistics intended to evoke a sense of awe - look at how tall this building is, how incredible the forces that are holding it up against gravity! Look at all these marvels of science and technology, see these many wonders that the natural world has to offer! In the end, they come away better equipped to make sense of this world fueled with science and technology.

Sarah Perry in her excellent essay over at Ribbonfarm talks about two distinct kind of American tourist attractions - Theme Parks and Amusement Parks. Spaces such as Chicago downtown look like Theme Parks in many respects. However, as Perry points out, Theme Parks make no claims of authenticity. However, Chicago downtown does. Temples are theme parks that claim to be authentic, real explanations of what is out there.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Gall's Law

Venkatesh Rao thinks that Gall's Law is much too optimistic
A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system. 
Gall’s Law is in fact much too optimistic. It is not just non-working complex systems designed from scratch that cannot be patched up. Even naturally evolved complex systems that used to work, but have now stopped working, generally cannot be patched into working order again.
I agree. This is why reforming old, sluggish organizations is a fool's errand. It is much more beneficial to fork existing organizations and take them into completely new directions or rewrite from scratch. 

Exit, Voice and Loyalty

In any social group, members have two strategies to show dissent - Exit and Voice. They can either voice their dissent and hope for change, or they can give up and exit to a more favorable group. However, Loyalty might prevent people from showing dissent in either one of these ways. Loyal members neither voice dissent (or don't voice it strongly enough) nor leave.

But social logic is usually associative logic. Loyalty usually gets defined as not showing dissent. Anyone who exits or voices dissent is branded disloyal. Instead of Loyalty being present as an a priory notion, the idea of loyalty (or patriotism or being a team-player) is created and nurtured  to curb dissent.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Windows 10 Start Menu Review

This review was written for Windows 10 Home Insider Preview Build 10162.

With Windows 10, Microsoft has reintroduced the start menu to its flagship operating system. This is a welcome change and I'm excited to get rid of the terrible Windows 8 start screen.

The Start Menu now looks like the Windows 7 and the Windows 8 Start Menus had a baby.

The Windows 10 Start Menu

One the left hand side, we have the familiar frequently used apps from Windows 7. But on the right hand side we have the Windows 8 style app launchers with live tiles. This marriage is somewhat useful. It was hand to be able to press the Windows key and be able to see the weather. But, I suspect, some people might continue to be confused by this setup. How exactly does one distinguish the Windows Universal apps from the traditional desktop apps?

The Start Menu has transparency, just like the rest of the Taskbar theme. There is a blur effect added to the background which improves readability. It can be resized both vertically and horizontally. Horizontal resizing happens in steps, which creates better harmony with the Windows Universal apps launchers.

The new Start Menu can be resized both horizontally and vertically.

Like Windows 7, some of the frequently used items have menus. In Windows 7 these would show the frequently used file or subcategories for that app or shortcut. In Windows 10, these show the jumplists for the corresponding apps. I actually like this change for the visual consistency that it brings. Jumplists can be configured by the app itself and should be canon.

Child menus for items in Start Menu show the jump list for that item.

The Taskbar jump lists are the same as Start Menu jump lists.

The right click menus have also been expanded. App items now show an 'uninstall' action.

Right click menus in Start have been expanded to include additional options such as 'Uninstall'.
The right click menu on the Start button itself is vastly expanded, giving access to several settings items and shortcuts to Task Manager, Search and Run among others.

Right click on the Start button is also vastly expanded.

One of the most important tasks of the Start Menu in Windows 7 was search. Search in Windows 7 was not bad but it was somewhat lacking. Often, it would not be able to find files on my desktop unless I typed in the exact file name. On other desktop and mobile operating systems, the game has been upped significantly by the likes of Siri, Google Now and Spotlight on OSX. 

Microsofts answer to this is Cortana. Cortana has been neatly integrated into the Start Menu. The search box has been made more prominent by moving it from Start to the Taskbar itself. However, it can still be activated by tapping the Windows key and typing, just like Windows 7. Triggering search hides the Start Menu and presents the dedicated Cortana UI. 

Search, along with Cortana gets its own dedicated UI.

Cortana is probably a topic of a separate review. Here I will just look at the desktop search features.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that search can now has has various built in utilities such as calculator, unit conversion, time and weather. This is no doubt powered by the Cortana engine.

Unit conversion in search.

Search time around the world.

Look at weather.

Make calculations.
Search overall feels terrific. It lists both files on your desktop and searches within apps. (For example, any available apps within the Windows Store.) Web searches are also integrated and links open in your browser. Search is fast and responsive. Of course, as with all tools of this nature there are privacy concerns. There doesn't seem to be a good way to turn online search off. However, you can manage and delete the data Cortana collects about you in your Microsoft account.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

It is funny that I read Robinson's Red Mars almost back to back with Andy Weir's The Martian. Red Mars is pretty much the antithesis of The Martian. One is a tale of survival. The other is the tale of settling down, making a home. One is about a single person overcoming overwhelming odds. The other, about a hundred trying to overcome their own limitations. One is about the individual, the other about society.

It is this last aspect of Red Mars that most attracted me. The novel starts off this the idea that if Mars was to be colonized, we'd have to send a sizable population to setup an outpost. And almost immediately, this population would form a society with it's own internal social structures and politics. The first half of the novel spectacularly develops this idea. Robinson's command of character is flawless. We hear the story from the point of several members of the 'first hundred' - a group of highly talented and able people sent on a colonizing mission to Mars. We learn about the different agendas and priorities these characters have about Mars and by proxy what humanity feels about their own planet Earth.

You can escape earth, but how can you escape humanity? This seems to be central dramatic tension of Red Mars. Human frailty travels with us wherever we go. The hunger for power, jealousy and fanaticism travel with us. How will humanity deal with it's own fallibility?

Robinson doesn't have any optimistic answer to this depressing question. The only answer is - humanity manages to function and even achieve something despite these limitations. Perhaps that is real hope.

The second half of the novel veers off from these, more philosophical, musings. It focuses instead on some Orson Scott Card like near-future socio-political speculation. Robinson predicts Transnational corporations which he seems to think is what multinational companies would develop into. There is north vs south politicking going on back on earth over oil and resources in Antarctica. India and Pakistan are going to nuclear war against each other.

Frankly, this part of the novel is not only hard to buy but also seems a little dated given the novel was published over 20 years ago. World geopolitics has changed in drastic and rather unpredictable ways since then.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis for Programming Languages

An interesting article but flawed, IMHO.

The central thesis seems to be that programming languages shape the programming culture. But even going by the examples cited in the article, the author gets the causation all wrong.

Both Facebook and Twitter changed languages when they grew too big and their needs and possibly the corporate culture changed. Culture change caused a shift in languages not the other way around.

I also find it interesting that tactics that work well in the early stages of a startup (Move Fast and Break Things) do not work well as the company matures. So much for people wanting behemoths such as Microsoft or Google to move faster and be more innovative. Not going to happen. And if it does happen, it would make this companies implode overnight.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! by Dibakar Banerjee

It is hard to live up to nostalgia. Byomkesh Bakshi is nostalgia distilled and concentrated by time. The story is immensely popular among native Bengali speakers. But even in the Hindi belt he has been immortalized in the Rajat Kapoor led Doordarshan series of the 90s. Thus, the expectations the 2015 adaptation by Dibakar Banerjee faced were of Himalayan proportions.

How do you live up to nostalgia? By not catering to it at all. Right from the opening sequence, the movie upends all expectations. Sushant Singh Rajput looks nothing like Rajat Kapoor. Kapoor's Byomkesh was poised, mature and in command. Rajput's is young, excitable and bumbling. But that's that point.

The film narrates the journey of a young Byomkesh who is bored with his life to the point of playing carrom with himself. There's a fledgling love interest which isn't really panning out. Perhaps all this has to do with his terrible social graces. In this state of utter loser-dom, he is approached by Ajit Bandopadhyay (who will later grow to be the Watson to his Holmes) to solve the case of the disappearance of his father.

Byomkesh embarks upon the investigation with gusto. He is driven in part by the prospect of getting handsomely paid - enough to marry the love interest that's soon going to get married to a (presumably rich) doctor. But mostly he's driven by his own obsession. Byomkesh cannot resist a good mystery.

And eventually his becomes his foil. Without giving too much up, the audience discovers that Byomkesh is ultimately being used by men much more powerful and cunning than he is. The plot spans multiple themes - drug trade, femme fatales, politics, WWII and freedom fighters. Byomkesh finds himself in deeper and deeper holes but manages to save the world in the end (of course!).

And over the period of the movie, he grows. I really liked the development of the chemistry between Byomkesh and Ajit. Byomkesh' growth as a detective and a person is also well done. One shortcoming of the movie was that there were too many peripheral characters which get introduced but aren't put to much use later on. The film could also have used tighter editing.

The soundtrack, besides being absolutely delightful, is also one of the way audience expectations are completely turned on their heads. Gone are the surreal tones of the 90s TV show. We are hit hard with a blood pumping heavy metal score recorded with independent artists and giving a much needed voice to the upcoming Bengali rock scene.

The visuals are impeccable. Every frame a painting indeed. The atmosphere is immersive - transporting the audience to 1940s Calcutta like no film has ever done. This alone is the biggest strength of the movie. The sound editing is impressive. Despite sitting in an American suburban movie theater, I couldn't help but feel like I was back in India at moments.

The dialog, though, was weak at times. I don't know why but I had the feeling that at least some of it was written first in English and then translated to Hindi without much thought. However, the script was very solid. Usually I often have trouble following detective fiction plot but that wasn't an issue here. And the final threat that Byomkesh had to face felt really big and credible. The backdrop of WWII was a clever ploy that lend sufficient gravity to the dangers our protagonists had to face.

People are going to get very upset with me for saying this but I think Dibakar Banerjee has managed to do with Byomkesh Bakshy what Guy Ritchie failed to do with his 2009 Sherlock adaptation.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov

I have always been a big Asimov fan. I've read almost all of his work. (He has been extremely prolific so it's hard to be sure.) Or at least all of his science fiction work. Recently I decided to revisit some of the old classics.

Pebble in the Sky was a big disappointment. The writing is clunky and full of old writing styles that make it hard to read. The casual sexism bothered me. I thought it wouldn't bother me because I know that it was written at a time when such sexism was acceptable. But it does bother me a lot. There is one single female character in the entire book and she has no agency at all. In fact, she actually asks the man she's interested in to 'put his arms around her' to protect her in case of trouble. The man is question is constantly talking about bashing someone's teeth in if they threaten to disrespect her in any way.

The book is also a stark reminder of how much our world has changed because of the internet. People in this novel still carry paper money around even thought it's 50,000 years into the future. Books have to be read on book projectors. Of course, Asimov couldn't have predicted the internet in the 50s. Still, it makes the books strange to read. Which makes me wonder if most science fiction would age this badly.

Monday, February 02, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

Andy Weir's The Martian must be the most exciting book I've read recently. It delivers the kind of edge-of-your-seats action that can only be expected from the latest summer blockbuster. Indeed, the film is being hastily adapted into just that - a big budget Hollywood spectacle starring Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, directed by veteran Ridley Scott.

I really, really hope Ridley Scott doesn't mess this one up, like he did with his recently movies. I'm so in love with the novel that I would never be able to forgive him. Although, ostensibly, all that the main protagonist, Mark Watney, is doing is fixing one thing after another in a desperate attempt at survival. There isn't one single page of The Martian that's boring or superfluous.

The Martian reads more like a film script or screenplay than a novel. But that is not a bad thing. The format is perfect for the story that it is trying to tell. The words are visually evocative, bringing the alien world of Mars alive in the viewers mind. The humor is sharp and riotous which provides welcome relief from the grim-dark reality of the survival tale.

There has been some criticism of how cheerful Watney remains through his year and a half long ordeal on Mars. But I totally bought it. For one, he's an astronaut. They are selected specifically for the hardiness of their characters and the exuberance of their spirits. Second, it is human nature to not give up if there is even a small credible change of survival. People don't just up and die, even in the most dire of circumstances.

But more than a tale of survival, the novel is an ode to the scientific method. There is hardly any technobabble in this story. Most of the technology depicted already exists or can be easily conceived to exist in a couple of decades. And against the backdrop of this almost realistic technology, the author weaves a story out of one science experiment after another. Using high school chemistry to make water from rocket fuel. Using high school botany to start a jury-rigged potato farm on the Martian soil. Crisis after crisis is solved with aplomb using simple math and common sense. As an engineer, it is hard to not break into a cheer every time Watney averts yet another near-death scenario by remembering the basic laws of physics.

Of course, this is exactly what the folks back on Earth are doing as they voyeuristically watch Watney using imagery from satellites orbiting Mars. As the story progresses, millions of dollars are spent to rescue the stranded astronaut and great sacrifices are made by everyone involved. And even though the author doesn't ask it, the uncomfortable question inevitably arises in the readers mind. Is it worth spending all this money on saving this single starving astronaut  when millions are starving right here on earth? Weir briefly comments towards the climax of the story that yes, it is worth it because being human means never leaving a crew member behind. There is some truth to it but I'm afraid it's not the whole truth.

All in all, The Martian is a must read for any aficionado of the recent rise of hard SF stories. If you loved Gravity and Europa Report last year, you're going to adore The Martian.