Thursday, June 01, 2017

Socks

Do you ever feel like the final dinosaur?
The last of your tribe
No one speaks your language anymore

Are you a letter sent to an empty home?
The diary of a young girl
Who doesn't write anymore

We were a pair of identical blue socks
But I was left behind in the washer
And you won't find me anymore

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Indistinguishable from Magic

Harry Potter is a story about friendship, courage, and doing the right thing no matter what. But Harry Potter is, of course, also about magic: the flying brooms, the wands, the magical creatures, the talking pictures and moving staircases.

Fans of the Harry Potter universe eagerly await their Hogwarts acceptances, not for plot, but for the impossibilities offered by magic.

But what if I told you that the magic from Harry Potter exists today in the muggle world?

Well, you wouldn't believe me of course, and that is why I must offer evidence. Here are seven magical devices from Harry Potter that exist, or soon will exist, in the real world:

  • The Flying Broom/ Arthur's Flying Car/ Sirius's Flying Motorcycle
I am speaking, of course, of the drones and flying cars made possible by science today. Kittyhawk offers the potential for personal flight, no different from a flying broom, except in that you cannot also use it for cleaning up a mess. The Hover-Bike, although not quite as cool as Sirius's actual flying motorcycle, gets the job done.

Better still, we actually have self-driving cars, which, in my opinion, is more magical than merely cars that fly. After all, muggles conquered flight all the way back in 1903.

  • Firecalls/ Floo network
While we haven't yet figured out how to use a fireplace to teleport - and really, no one has fireplaces where I come from, so this would be a rather useless invention for me - we have far better solutions for long-distance communication than sticking your head in the fireplace. We have Skype and Facetime and numerous other options that let us communicate with others over long distances via video, without the unpleasant side-effect of nausea.

  • Libraries / Information
Do you realize that most of book 1 was spent doing a manual Google search through a library to find out who Nicholas Flamer was? That Hermione spent much of book 2 figuring out that the monster was a basilisk? That book 4 was spent searching for ways to defeat dragons and breathe underwater?

Do you realize that a muggle would have spent less than 0.54 seconds figuring most of this out? In fact, success in the wizarding world seems to be determined largely by how well you memorize information: spells, potions, clever ways to treat or defeat a magical creature. Hermione could have been replaced by a Mac and WiFi.

  • Invisibility cloak
Okay, so maybe we're not quite there yet. But scientists are working on it. They plan on using materials that bend light, thereby giving the illusion of invisibility, which, come to think of it, actually sounds closer to the science described in Wells's The Invisible Man. Pretty cool.

  • Molly's Magical Clock
Do you remember the ingenious clock with 9 hands that Molly used to keep tabs on her family's whereabouts? Knowing where your child is at all times and whether he/she is in danger was a dream of concerned mothers everywhere.  My own mother would pay a handsome sum for such a device.

And like teenagers everywhere, I sure was glad this device existed solely in the magical realm. Not anymore. We now have apps that let us locate our family members using GPS. Thankfully, it is opt-in.

  • Magic Spells / Wand
Now I should warn you, my inner computer geek is about to shine through. So, what is so magical about a magic spell? Well, you can change things in the real world by the power of your words alone.

This is also something we computer programmers do. After all, what is code but a magic spell converted by a compiler into binary commands which a computer follows. With a mere spell, you can control a robot, a self-driving car, a video game or a phone.

What then is a wand? Well, it's a combined speech to text converter/compiler of course! Which makes me, a compiler engineer, essentially a wandmaker, like Ollivander :)

  • The Sorting Hat/ Legilimency
Brain computer interface technology, such as neuralink, could give us insight into a person's mind. I must confess, I did not realize this myself, and therefore, let me redirect you to an interesting article that will wrinkle your brain.

Honorable mentions:

  • Howlers / Letters
Honestly, the magical world has been left behind when it comes to communication. Think about it. They still use letters! Delivered by birds! Compare that to how long it takes to send an email. Or an instant message. Oh, and a howler is just an angry voice mail of course.

  • Quick-quotes quill
A less accurate speech to text converter. And I'm sure we will someday be able to generate sensationalist headlines using machine learning.

  • Skele-Gro

  • Impervius charm
Hermione used this to help make Harry's glasses waterproof. Muggles use hydrophobic glass coating.

  • Talking paintings
  • Moving images
Aka GIFs.

  • Gillyweed / Bubble-head charm
Diving gear.


I hope you have been convinced now of the Arthur C Clarke quote:
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Turns out, the magical realm really is hiding in plain sight. Just takes a little imagination to realize it.

"Impossible" magical devices that we want next:

  1. Teleportation
  2. Transfiguration
  3. Things that are bigger on the inside
  4. Time travel
  5. Dragons

Friday, May 05, 2017

Destiny and Karma

Do you believe in destiny?

That everything is fated, and all that happens is just as it is meant to be. That we are simply actors playing out a script, or self-aware sacks of flesh along for the roller coaster ride that is life?

I think it takes an enormous level of acceptance of life and its horrors to believe that all that happens, happens for the best. To give up control and submit to fate. Or maybe it is fear that drives this belief: the fear of uncertainty.

Because when we were children, our days and our futures were planned out for us. A ten year old knows that he'll be in sixth grade next year, and that he will get that bicycle for his birthday. He knows that he will start swimming lessons this summer and that his parents will take him to his grandparents for the holidays. There are no uncertainties, no decisions to be made. Life is so easy.

Growing up is a disillusioning process of discovering that no one really knows what is going to happen tomorrow. In my opinion, giving into destiny is a reversion to the childhood acceptance of a faceless parent-figure who knows what's best for you and will take care of everything.

At the other end is the belief in Karma: what goes around comes around and bites you. I think it takes a great deal of optimism to think that way. That life is just and fair and that you deserve all the good and all the bad that happens to you. Or maybe it is fear once again: the fear of a lack of control.

Because belief in karma gives you complete control: if you get sick it is your fault; if you get rich, you worked hard and deserved it; if you get injured in an accident, you must have done something to deserve that too.

It's a simplistic view centered on oneself that takes away agency from other creatures and the impact that chance events, and your environment, have on you. I wonder how you can have empathy for someone else if you believe in karma. After all, if they don't have it as good as you, it's only because you deserve it more.

I myself have been accused of this belief in karma. I don't necessarily think that if I do the right thing, that the world will pay me back. I just think that society is more than the sum of its individual elements. That not only does your environment impact you, but that you can influence it back. That you aren't a slave to fate but one of its makers.

As adults, we all find a way to cope with reality. Some with destiny (acceptance), and some with karma (control). And then there are those who choose neither, but instead try and analyze and root cause everything to figure out why things are not the way they should be. They are the ones who have no time to discuss philosophy. They are the ones who change the world.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Logic in Wonderland

I know what you're thinking: "Logic? In a place filled with food that makes you shrink and bunny rabbits that talk, not to mention power-crazed card-queens and floating, invisible cats? That Wonderland? Pfft. You must be mad."

And to that I say, we're all mad here, sir. But really, hear me out before going off with my head.

I refer specifically to the events at the tea party. I know, I know: "The tea party? The mad tea party with a capital 'M', where time stood still and the maddest of characters sat around having tea forever and asking riddles with no answers and speaking of drawings of muchness. That tea party?"

To which I say, yes indeed, that tea party. And if you were stuck in a crazy world that made no sense, reliving the same hour over and over, having nothing but tea (I hate tea), I dare say you'd go mad too! So let's try not to be quite so judgmental.

But I promised to reveal a lesson in logic, which Lewis Carrol, being a logician, decided to sneak into his fairy story. So here it is.

Here's part of the exchange that took place at the table with unlimited tea:


"Then you should say what you mean" ~ the March Hare.

"... I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’ ~Alice


Let's find out if Alice is right.

Let A represent the statement: "I mean."
And B represent the statement: "I say."

Then, the first quote, which can be re-written as:

"If I mean something, I say it",

becomes: A => B.

Whereas, the second quote, which can be re-written as:

"I say something only if I mean it", 

becomes: B => A, 

which is really the converse of "A=>B" and therefore does not necessarily follow (check the truth tables for yourself).

In fact, as the Hatter said, it would be rather like saying, "“I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!", which is quite absurd (unless you're Jughead maybe) and an apt example showing that the converse of an implication need not hold.

And there you go! A lesson in logic from a beloved children's story that tickles my brain to this day.

Stay curiouser! 

(Tips hat to Lewis Carroll's ghost, saying, "I see what you did there, Mr. Carroll.")


Sunday, January 01, 2017

A dog's life

It is no secret that I am a huge Harry Potter fan. Harry Potter was my childhood. I read the first book when I was eleven and the final book when I was seventeen. My Dad bought me that book as a surprise the day it released even though he had to go on a business trip that day. It's my favorite present from him. Those books taught me about friendship, and bravery and right and wrong. They also made me cry, and I am not an emotional person. To this day I await my acceptance letter from Hogwarts.

Before we moved back to India, I had to give away all my old books. But guess what I did with my first salary as an intern? That's right. I bought the entire Harry Potter book set. Again.

Now that my Potter-obsession has been established, I'll get to the point of this post: Sirius Black, Harry's godfather. I was nearly dehydrated when I reached the end of book five (not because it was such a long book, but because of the tears I shed). I still keep a glass of water nearby if I know I'm getting to that part. The part when Sirius dies.

There are many reasons his story and its premature end made me sad. He grew up in a house filled with hate, in a time when the Dark Lord was taking over. He rebelled against his family as a teenager and was disowned and rendered homeless.

As a young man, he saw two of his best friends die, and another stab him in the back. He went to a soul sucking prison for a crime he did not commit and lost his mind.

Until one day he was free and so close to proving his innocence. But he failed and was reduced to living on the run. He could not even participate in the new rebellion because he was a wanted man.

And then he was killed, by his own family. And it was basically all Harry's fault. How could a fifteen year old live with that? But worse, Sirius deserved none of the tragedy that plagued him.

Sirius, as you know, grew up in a family of blood supremacists, most of whom worked for the Dark Lord and whose ranks he was expected to join when he was of age. And he may as well have. But he rebelled instead.

Because Sirius, you see, was truly heroic. And he wasn't just good in the sense that Harry or James were. It's easy to be on the right side of history if you're the one being oppressed. It is easy to stand up for others if your family expects you to. That's why it was easier for Remus and James. They never had to make a choice.

Sirius was truly, actively good because he did have to make that decision to go against the beliefs of his family. He had to choose to give up a life of privilege, wealth and safety to fight evil. Good did not come easy to him. Sirius had to beat both nature and nurture in his quest for doing the right thing. And he died in this quest, heroic to the end.

Rationally speaking, for Sirius, joining the rebellion wasn't expected as with James, and it certainly wasn't necessary as with Remus or muggle-borns. On the contrary, he had only to lose by fighting the Dark Lord. And that makes you wonder why he did it. I think it was because of the one thing that set him apart from the rest of his family: he was sorted into the wrong house!

It was just that simple thing. Had he been a Slytherin, he would have lived among others of his kind: the pure-blood supremacist children of his parents' friends. He would have shared their ideals and grown to be like the rest of his family.

But he was a Gryffindor. And so he spent his formative years sharing dorm rooms and life experiences with muggle-borns and werewolves and children of "blood-traitors". And he learned that they were no different than him. And he could not imagine hurting them or wanting them dead or cast out from the magical society! They were his friends. They were just like him: fun-loving trouble-makers, rebellious teens searching for a place in the world, and scared kids trying to make sense of life. They just came in different shapes and colors. And that made all the difference.

Sirius's story was a heroic tragedy, but it held the essence of what Rowling was trying to teach us all along through her books that shaped a generation: once you get past the fear of the "other", you realize that we are all the same on the inside.

New Beginnings

It is said that well begun is half done. I think that's a good thought. But most of us begin things with bright eyes, brimming with enthusiasm and determination. We are all good at the half-done part. It's the other half that's the problem.

It is so easy to give up. You can spend days, weeks, months trying to get better at something. But it just takes a busy day, a lazy weekend, a vacation, or an "I'm too sick" week to get derailed.

That's why you see people flocking to the gyms on New Year's and quitting their too-optimistic one year memberships by Easter. It's why Coursera's course completion rate is less than ten percent. We are just too darned lazy (although I prefer the euphemism "power efficient").

But the idle shall not inherit the earth! So this year, let's resolve to keep our resolutions :)

Resolutions

Tiny truthful thoughts -
"It has never worked before"
Resolve: Don't give up



Happy New Year!

Strings

Fledgling fingers bleed
Sunlight seeps into darkness
The strings sing at last