Sunday, August 18

If a tree falls in the forest, Part Three

My favorite uncle is named Anjan Koka. He was born in India as part of a generation that came of age in the 1960's and wanted to emigrate to the West in order to have a better life. After getting married he stowed his wife safely at his parents house in Vijawada and flew to London. During the first few years he stayed at a YMCA which was run by a retired British officer, who had spent his service tenure in India, and had come to love Indian culture. When this officer returned to London he took over management of the YMCA and it became known as a friendly place for young Indian bachelors to live while they acclimated to the unfamiliar London culture.

A few years later Anjan left the YMCA, started his dental practice, rented a flat, and brought his wife to live with him. His business prospered and soon they rented a house, before eventually buying their own in Romford, one of London's commuter suburbs on the train line. He eventually bought a building to house his practice, and saw patients on the first floor while renting out the upstairs flat. Anjan's wife was named Suseela and she is my pedamma, my mother's older sister. Suseela bore three children. The two eldest were daughters and the youngest was a son.

My family lived in Chicago, but throughout the 70's we would visit London in odd numbered years and spend a few months living with the Kokas. I liked visiting the house in Romford because it was so big, and with three children there was a lot of activity in their daily routine. At breakfast, we ate our soft-boiled eggs from egg cups, a novelty I had never seen before, but even more amazing was the way that milk was delivered in glass bottles to their doorstep each morning, and bread was bought in whole loaves and sliced to our preference, by my pedamma, at the breakfast table. During the daytime we played and watched TV. England had 3 TV stations, like we did in the US, but they were all named BBC, which was confusing. At night, we slept under electric blankets, and had to remember to climb the stairs thirty minutes before bedtime to turn them on, otherwise it was no fun at all slipping into a frigidly cold English bed!

Every morning, I admired the way that Anjan, who was my pedananna, sat in his chair at the breakfast table. He read the paper, while dominating the conversation and making jokes. He was relaxed, like the way men sit in the barber shop chairs, knowing that for twenty minutes they have shed all responsibilities and will be absolutely catered to, as if by a servant. During this time my pedamma would bring his breakfast, just the way he liked, and he would instruct her about the business he wanted her to do that day. We telugu speakers have a word for uncle, also, and so Anjan was my pedananna. Pedananna had a full head of glossy black hair, that was soft to the touch, but he also had a few gray hairs and I used to sit beside him and pluck them out while he ate breakfast. I had to be very careful to separate the lone gray hair from the others before pulling.

There is a story that pedananna likes to repeat to me, each time I see him. One night I had gone to bed, but I came down an hour later crying. "What's the matter?" asked my pedanana. "I've wet my bed," I replied, crying the whole time. He always laughed at this story. I think for him it is a very significant moment of parenting. He wasn't angry, and he didn't scold me. He invited me to laugh with him at the moment, and the strange situations that life presents to us, situations that happen for no particular reason, and can go in a good or bad direction by chance.

The Koka children all grew up, and pursued medical or dental degrees, and got married in the 80's. Like their parents, they also chose to emigrate to the West, to the United States. Parvathi and Radha, my elder cousins, or akkas, settled in San Diego, where they worked for different clinics, and they each had three children, and created homes that were full of life and an organized routine. When their parents retired, they convinced them to settle in San Diego.

Since I lived fairly close, in Seattle, I visited my pedananna and pedamma every year, staying in one of their guest rooms. At first, pedananna presided over his daughter's families, and was quite liberal in offering advice and criticism to the way they managed their lives. In his own home, he also had a routine that involved breakfast, and gardening, investing in stocks online, and taking part in family dinners. As always, pedamma did the household work, cooking all the meals, and cleaning.

There were difficulties, perhaps the same difficulties that all retired couples face, when they no longer have to work, and no longer have to raise children. Eventually, an equilibrium was reached in which pedananna did not offer so much advice and criticism to his son in laws, and they hired a maid to help pedamma with the housekeeping.

During this time I remained close with them. Since my mother has passed away, pedamma is like a mother to me, and pedananna has always been my favorite uncle. Even as a child I was never afraid of him, the way I was shy around so many other adults. At one point I was in a bad financial situation, and  I naturally turned to him for a loan. At another time, he urged me to buy "property" and offered to help with the down payment.

Whenever I saw him, we spent a lot of time talking. He has always had a phenomenal memory for names, dates, and events. Increasingly, as the years passed, I would ask him questions and then just listen as he would tell, for example, a story from 1973 that occurred over several months. He would be sure to remind me, every time I visited, that I had peed in my bed in Romford, under the electric blanket, and had come downstairs to tell him.

Anjan had a stroke a few months ago and I visited him recently. I got the updates from my akkas but it's difficult to really gauge the effects of a stroke when you hear them related over the phone. When I met him in person I found him to be quieter. I asked him if he could follow the conversation around him and he said yes, he can follow the entire conversation and formulate things he wants to say, but he is unable to say them aloud. He is all right saying short sentences, for a while, but after the conversation has gone on for a few minutes, or if he tries to say longer sentences, he stumbles.

It is like when someone is trying to refer to a movie they once saw, and they can't say the movie's name or its actors, or the director. The memory is there, but it is so difficult to articulate it exactly. I can use a smartphone to look up the movie's name, but there is no such aid to help you recall your own core memories of people, places, and events. Obviously, it is difficult to understand the point that someone is making in conversation if they can't use these details to help us follow what they are thinking.

Near the end of my visit I sat with pedananna and tried to prompt him, as I had often done, to tell stories from the past.

"Do you remember how I plucked gray hairs from your head?" I asked.

"Do you remember when I was four years old I peed in my bed and came downstairs to tell you?" I asked him.

There used to be two witnesses to these memories. Now there is only one. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

I can still feel the bond between my pedannana and myself, but it is no longer based on memories, it is based on love and service. Service does not depend on witnesses to give it meaning. Love has existed since the beginning of Time, and will outlast all our memories.

Sunday, July 14

If a tree falls in the forest, Part Two

There is an old philosophical riddle that goes like this:

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? 

This riddle has never interested me. When it comes up in conversation I usually get up and leave the room. Whether the answer is 'yes' or 'no' I cannot see why it makes any difference at all.

To be honest, I never understood the riddle. Of course the tree makes a sound! Why does it matter if anyone hears it? The riddle's premise is that something is real only if its perceived by something else, or perhaps only if it is perceived by a human being. The riddle is therefore a succinct description of a philosophical problem which has bedeviled Western Philosophy since Descartes wrote, I think therefore I am. Descartes meant that reality is bounded by what we can perceive; but since we do perceive our own minds we can conclude that our minds are real. (What a relief!) Kant elaborated on this premise to identify a reality shared among all people. A red truck was understood to be a red truck by all people, and so this object must really exist and have properties of "redness" and "truck-ness." This broad, shared reality covers many objects, but it doesn't cover our poor lonely tree, fallen in the forest, with no human being around to perceive it. How do we know that the tree even exists? 

I understood the riddle but considered it a thought experiment for the classroom. I never thought it offered insight into my life. But recently a friendship ended, and it reminded me of this riddle. I had some final communications with the friend and it was pretty obvious that their life would be simpler today if they could just erase our friendship. But on the other hand I was puzzled how a friendship can be ended. Don't the memories live on? Don't they cry from the ground like blood guilt? They do and they don't. We remember friendship with many gradations of intensity and clarity. It's possible to recall all the details of the room on the night when you first met, like staring at a famous and familiar painting in your mind. Or you might remember only a sketch. Or a one word note written on a napkin. Friendships are filtered by the strength of memory. 

Our minds are like a forest, and each memory is like a tree. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Two friends may remember their friendship differently, one seeing a painting and the other a sketch note. For the one who has strong memories, then ending the friendship will be painful, like throwing a Picasso into the fireplace. But if your perceptive filter has left you with hardly any remembered details of the friendship then ending it is akin to emptying your pocket of lint. And afterwards, you need not fear that memories will cry from the forest floor for your attention, because those cries also will be outside your perception.

Sunday, July 7

If a tree falls in the forest, Part One

Indian languages have an extensive vocabulary to indicate fine gradations of familial relationships. Some of these words can be hard to remember and, since my parents spoke different languages, my burden was even more onerous since I had to memorize two entirely different vocabularies!

On my dad's side, who spoke Marathi, there were various words for aunt. A father's sister-in-law was a kaku. A mother's sister was a maaushi. A father's sister was an athaya.

On my mom's side, who spoke Telugu, a mother's younger sister was a pinni, while a father's sister was an attha, and a mother's older sister is pedamma.

Learning all of this was complicated by the fact that we were emigrants, and by leaving India we had pruned our family tree to the extent that we did not have examples of family who could "fill all the slots." Therefore I learned some relationship words through practice, when I happened to have a relative who filled the slot of (for example) my mom's younger sister, but I found it impossible to remember some of the obscure relationship words because I never had to speak them.

My American friends sometimes joke with me by saying that I have too many cousins. This is because when a relation passes through Seattle who is of my approximate age I introduce them as my "cousin." The same thing happens with my aunts. I will introduce an older woman as my "aunt" regardless of whether she is my pinniattha, or pedamma. When I simplify in this way, I lose awareness of fine distinctions. I forget that I feel different degrees of closeness towards my mom and dad's 1st cousins, not to mention 2nd cousins and family friends. I forget that in Hindu society we might feel quite differently towards an aunt depending on her age vis-a-vis our parents.

When I forget relationship details, and remember only a simplified version, have I altered the relationship in some fundamental way?

Sunday, April 28

Can We Punish the Mentally Ill?

Instead of guilty, sometimes a trial returns a verdict "not guilty by reason of insanity." What does this mean?

To understand it, you have to consider the whole edifice of our criminal justice system. Guilt and punishment are linked together. Because you are guilty, you must be punished. But punishment and reform are also linked together; any punishment must also reform the criminal by teaching them the moral principles of right and wrong. If the process works then criminals released from prison will bring a different moral awareness to their decisions and not repeat their crimes.

For insane people this process does not work. Insane people do not know they are committing a crime and so they are not really guilty. Since they are not guilty they do not deserve punishment. If we punish them anyway, then this would not rehabilitate them or teach them a moral code.

But our process for handling normal criminals and the mentally ill have the same basic goal. They both want to make people practice common moral principles of right and wrong so that they can fit in society. Mentally ill people must be cured. If they are cured then they will again have access to moral principles of right and wrong, and can be released and live among us.

I mention all of this because I think that our personal morality should also follow the same pattern. If we ever choose to punish a friend, it can only be justified if we are attempting to teach them a moral lesson. If they learn the lesson then the friendship will live; otherwise that friend cannot fit in your society.

A Proper Apology

People are apologizing all the time, but sometimes it's not enough, and only a proper apology will do. There are four parts to a proper apology.

But first a little etymology. The word "apology" was originally a rhetorical term, and meant a self-justification or defense of one's actions. The meaning has shifted and today and apology means a frank expression of regret for wrongdoing. 

People often get upset nowadays if you say you're going to apologize but end up explaining and justifying your actions. But the fact that this happens so often suggests that self-justification is still an integral part of an apology. 

I think that we resort to this older meaning of apology when we are seeing the situation from our own perspective. But to apologize in the modern sense, to frankly admit wrongdoing, you have to be able to see the situation from the other person's point of view.

And with that preamble, let's move on to the four parts of a proper apology, by which I mean an apology in the modern sense, where we admit wrongdoing. First, you have to say you're sorry. Second, you have to say what you did wrong. Third, you have to explain why your actions were wrong. And fourth, you have to promise you won't act this way in the future.

While people apologize all the time, they do so easily. They might not intend to apologize at all, but merely to smooth over hurt feelings. On the other hand, a proper apology is very much like swearing a vow; it's a serious thing. 

Wednesday, February 27

Five of Apple's Faults

The great pendulum keeps swinging. Apple is falling out of favor. I'm pretty frustrated with the Podcast App, and with general problems when syncing to iTunes.

The process of syncing has gotten steadily worse for the past few years, ever since Genius results were included, which doubled or tripled the time to sync. Who's bright idea was that? Maybe a USB 3.0 cable would have mitigated the problem, but Apple fans will have to wait months or years for it to arrive.

The latest sync problems stem from wireless syncing. I'm totally confused. It just doesn't work. While the sync is on, all my songs are grayed-out and can't be played. Quite often when I leave my home (and wi-fi network) and try to play music on my iPhone 5, I'll see that most of my songs are grayed out. I'm quite sure this is because of auto-syncing.

For Podcasts, I don't understand where I'm supposed to make podcast playlists, in iTunes or in the Podcast App? The "auto-subscription" feature, where new podcasts are loaded to my phone without needing to sync to iTunes, doesn't work very well. Podcasts that are availabe on my computer will not be available via auto-subscription until a few hours have passed. Even worse, my apple devices no longer seem to notify each other when a podcast is listened to.

 This article identifies five core problems with Apple. Number 4 is a bit weak, but otherwise it's a pretty fair list. Are you listening Tim Cook?

  1. Relatively weak cloud services
  2. A less than optimal approach to Internet services: MobileMe, Apple Maps 
  3. A bad track record with social products
  4. Difficulties with big acquisitions: Siri
  5. An apparent lack of awareness that Apple has some big problems

Tuesday, January 15

Facebook Search

I am waiting for FaceBook to grant me access to their new "Graph Search" feature. In the meantime, I torture myself by reading about its conceptual differences compared with Google Search.
With a typical Google search, the objects we search for are web pages, with the connections (or graph) that help determine the pages that rise to the top primarily being links from across the web. Links, simple form, are like votes, helping Google decide which are the most popular pages to show for a particular topic.

With Facebook Graph Search, the objects we search for aren’t web pages but instead virtual representations of real world objects: people, places and things. The connections are primarily Facebook Likes. Did such-and-such a person like a particular photo? A particular doctor? A particular restaurant? Those likes are the ties that bind the information in Facebook together.

Saturday, January 12

Inside the Mind of a Gun Nut

Here is a very interesting video interview with a gun nut. He seems to say that the conditions of the American Revolution have returned. He seems to be saying that he's a combination of Washington and Jefferson, reborn, and it all flows from his certainty that the 2nd Amendment is the "clearest" of all the Amendments. He reminds me of religious nuts who take such pleasure in imagining the "end times" and how only a few people, who believe the same things they do, will survive.

Thursday, January 3

I, Government Budget

Isaac Asimov wrote his famous "Robot Series" of novels in the 1950's. It is one of my favorite sci-fi series of all time. Each novel is structured like a detective story in which a human police investigator, Elijah Bailey, is paired with a robot named R. Daneel Olivaw. Like any mismatched pair of fictional characters, their sum is more than their parts.
File:I Robot - Runaround.jpg
The Robot Series introduced Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics, which are elegantly stated as follows:
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
A recurring plot device is that, when Det. Bailey is faced with a hostile robot, he can manipulate them using the Three Laws. For example, if the robot was ordered to arrest Det. Bailey, it would be an example of the Second Law to obey orders. But if Det. Bailey asserted that he was sick and arresting him might cause him to die, then this would be an example of the First Law, to not injure a human. When faced with these choices, the robot would weigh the (weak) violation of the First Law against the (strong) violation of the Second Law. The robot's movements and thinking would slow down as he grappled with this contradiction, allowing Det. Bailey to make his escape.

In the political debate about the US Government's debt ceiling, I see a strong analogy with the Three Laws of Robotics. The constitution gives Congress the power to "lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts...." In a later paragraph, Congress is granted the power to "borrow Money on the credit of the United States." In my analogy there is a robot named US Government. The robot is controlled by someone named US Congress. The Three Laws of Budgeting are:
  1. US Government must obey orders given by US Congress to spend money.
  2. US Government must obey orders given by US Congress to raise money through taxes.
  3. US Government must obey orders given by US Congress to raise money through issuing debt.
You will notice that these laws omit some of Asimov's language from the Three Laws of Robotics; namely, they do not structure these rules as a hierarchy. Specific to our political debate about the debt ceiling, Law #3 does not helpfully say "as long as such issuing of debt does not conflict with the First or Second Laws."

How much trouble would we be spared if the Constitution had limited Congress's power to issue debt? Let's return to the analogy with the Three Laws of Robotics to find out. Det. Bailey was able to confuse and befuddle the poor robot by playing the Laws against each other. Today we are in a situation where the Congress is trying to confuse and befuddle the poor US Government by playing the Three Laws of Budgeting against each other.

The US Government has been told by Congress to do three separate things that, taken together, contradict each other. The US Government must spend money as directed on the military, roads, agriculture subsidies, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, etc. The US Government must raise money through taxes by collecting 15% of capital gains, 15% of dividends, estate taxes, income taxes, tariffs, and various fees.

These two functions do not contradict each other as long as the Third Law, to issue debt, is flexible. But Congress now wants to tell the US Governement that it must not raise money through issuing debt.

Great job Congress, you sure did teach that robot who's boss.

It makes me wonder if the Supreme Court has ever had to review a law for logical contradictions, and made a ruling on that basis? What if the Executive Branch brought a case to argue that Congressional acts, which are known to be logically contradictory at the time they are passed, can be ignored by the Executive Branch?

Monday, December 3

Android vs. iOS

Android vs. iOS is one of the most exciting battles for market share in the history of tech companies. It surpasses the IBM vs. Apple battle from the 80's because that battle was lost as soon as it began, when the IBM PC immediately overtook Apple for market share.

One mystery of Android vs. iOS is whether we can trust the market share numbers. As one blogger recently pointed out, Android's ecosystem is more fragmented:
Using the word 'Android' to describe these devices is somewhat problematic. The great majority of them come with no Google services: no Google Maps, no Google Play and no Gmail or Google Calendar. These cannot be installed by the user either, without a great deal of fiddling with ROMs. Google Search is of course largely blocked in China, and those devices that do have Google Play can only download free applications: purchases are not supported.... In other words, these devices are 'orphaned' from Google in an analogous way to the Kindle Fire. They provide no Adsense revenue and, equally importantly, give Google none of the signalling information about user behaviour and intention that, for example, feeds Google Now.

Android is a very popular operating system, but its users don't seem to care about Apps, search, or browsing the web. Perhaps they use it primarily as a phone and mp3 player?