Saturday, 4 November 2017

The Three Singularities In Our Future

1. The Technology Singularity

Ray Kurzweil's 2005 prediction of the "Technology Singularity", the point in time when machines will finally overtake humans in intelligence, is looking more inevitable as the years go by.

The moment that Skynet becomes self-aware...

This is exciting, but it's also scary, and not just because of some Terminator-style doomsday scenario, but because of the much more mundane prospect of mass unemployment.

2. The Energy Singularity

There is a second singularity that is also approaching, which I call the "Energy Singularity". I define it as the point at which the marginal cost of energy production and transmission is virtually zero. In other words, the world can access as much energy as it needs at virtually no cost. The infrastructure to deliver energy has already been paid for at this point, and the investment can thereafter be harvested ad infinitum.

We're seeing some early signs of this. Germany is now producing 35% of its power requirements from renewable energy. Chile is producing more solar power than it can consume, and is consequently giving energy away for free! There is talk of households being able to go "off the grid" with solar panels and battery storage. The cost of solar panels has been dropping significantly over the years.

Solar is becoming a formidable source of alternative energy with each passing year

Vertical Axis Wind Turbines promise much greater efficiencies in wind power generation, because they no longer need the amount of real estate that the earlier generation of "windmills" required. And when wind and solar come together, they can smooth the fluctuations in power generation from either one alone.

The state of the art in 2017 - Maglev Vertical Axis Wind Turbine (VAWT) and solar panels for solar-wind hybrid LED street lights

It's not hard to extrapolate forward to a future where energy is available in abundance at a price point that is virtually free.

These two singularities together have very significant implications for the production of goods and services. At a high level, the three classic inputs to the production of any good or service are raw material, labour and energy. If energy is free and labour (even that of knowledge workers) can be replaced through automation, then it is only the cost of raw material that is relevant. Again, if the major cost of raw material is its extraction or harvesting from nature, and if these activities can be directed by artificial intelligence and powered by cheap or free energy, then the cost of raw material plummets as well.

It bodes very well for the productivity of industry in general. In fact, since energy is the ultimate currency, the availability of cheap and abundant energy means that human society will become unimaginably wealthy in a very short time.

However, the imminent arrival of the Technology and Energy Singularities doesn't necessarily and automatically translate to a higher standard of living for human beings. There is a certain conscious economic "rewiring" of society that will be required to transition to this better future and to minimise the pain of the transition.

The point at which this rewiring takes place is what I call the "Economic Singularity".

3. The Economic Singularity

After all, the implied social contact between households and firms has looked like this for a few generations now:

A classic diagram from any economics textbook - "The Circular Flow of Income"

As firms become capable of replacing human labour with machine labour, the inner circle begins to weaken.

"Jobless growth" occurs when the outer circle remains healthy but the inner one weakens

In other words, the consequence of rising productivity through increased automation is unemployment.

But the inner and outer circles have to be in equilibrium! That equilibrium is what sustains the economy. When the inner circle weakens, it's only a matter of time before the outer circle weakens as well.

It cannot last. The economy will grind to a halt.

It's easy to see that if households suffer from mass unemployment, they will not have the means to spend on goods and services produced by firms. So it doesn't matter how productive firms are, or how competitive their prices become. They will simply not be able to sustain the volume of sales as time goes on.

Of course, long before that stage is reached, there will probably be bread riots and violent revolution, because people are unlikely to starve quietly.

It's obvious that firms are being extremely short-sighted in their headlong pursuit of productivity advantages through automation of their workforce. They are unravelling the delicately balanced wiring that keeps the economy going. If the captains of industry don't want their heads to be carried on pikes at some point in the inevitable popular revolution, they should start to look at alternative wiring of the economy to compensate for the weakening of the inner circle.

The Economic Singularity, the point when society rewires itself in a sustainable way so that equilibrium is again attained, will require the intervention of governments. Here is what that could look like:

The long-prophesied "leisure society" after the Economic Singularity

In other words, the firms that produce goods and services for profit without employing human labour, consuming virtually free energy and using cheaply acquired raw material must pay taxes that are then distributed to households as a "Universal Basic Income", credited directly into bank accounts. Households then use this income to spend on goods and services.

This is a new equilibrium that gives every person what they need without their having to work for it. The Economic Singularity will mark the beginning of the much-awaited Leisure Society.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

My Thoughts On The Netflix Film "What The Health"

At the urging of a friend, I watched the Netflix movie "What The Health".

Initially, I thought I wouldn't be able to sit through the entire hour and a half, but after a while, I was hooked. The film is nothing if not gripping.

You can watch it here.

Plot, dialogue, humour - the film has it all, not to mention a crop of the most chilling villains you'll ever come across

The basic message is short and simple enough: A plant-based, vegan diet is good for our individual health, for public health and for the environment. A vast conspiracy involving powerful corporations and corrupted institutions that should be watching out for citizens' interests is preventing us from learning this simple truth.

There were many surprising or shocking pieces of information contained in this documentary, some of which I knew and some of which I didn't.

For example,
  • The conditions under which poultry and livestock are raised for dairy and meat are cruel, unhygienic and ecologically devastating. I knew this already, and the shocking footage only reinforced this knowledge.

  • The institutions that are meant to provide health advice (The American Cancer Society, The American Heart Association, Susan G Komen, The American Diabetes Association) are completely compromised due to their sponsorship by corporations in the food and pharmaceutical sectors. I knew this already, but it was good to see some actual names and funding relationships. The interview with the representative of the American Diabetes Association was particularly damning.

  • The entire healthcare system is oriented towards helping people live with disease through medication and surgical procedures (all of which are sources of revenue to powerful industry players), rather than towards helping people prevent or overcome disease (which would cost society a lot less but would also end those sources of revenue). I knew this already, and this was reinforced quite strongly by interviews with people across a spectrum of roles.

  • The strategy used by the food industry is to sow doubt in the minds of the general public, which works brilliantly at blunting even the most adverse research findings. I knew this too from my past knowledge of how the tobacco industry worked.

  • Whistleblowers who attempt to unearth evidence against livestock companies can be charged with crimes and jailed. I didn't know this, and it was particularly shocking to me, even though I am familiar with how lawmakers have been coopted by industries in the past.

  • Doctors are only exposed to 7 hours of instruction relating to nutrition during their 4 years of undergraduate study, even though their patients trust their doctors as authorities on nutrition. There is corporate-funded legislative opposition to doctors being provided more instruction on nutrition. I didn't know this, and this was the single most shocking piece of information I received from this video.

  • A lot of the farms and livestock-raising facilities are located close to poor neighbourhoods and pose a severe health risk to certain demographics, which happen to be ethnic minorities. I did not know this, and I agree with the viewpoint expressed in the film that it is a civil rights issue.

  • A number of athletes claim that their strength, endurance and ability to recover from injury improved after they started on a vegan diet. This was surprising to me, and I intend to research this further. A couple of the athletes interviewed, who said they were close to 50 years of age, looked to be in their thirties, which is pretty impressive.

  • Moderation isn't actually a good strategy. When the evidence is clear-cut that certain things are just bad, then it makes sense to cut them out entirely rather than consume them "in moderation". What is being achieved by consuming them at all? This was an interesting argument that made me think, because I have always unconsciously accepted the idea that everything in moderation is probably the right way forward.

There were a couple of areas where I think the video overstated the case.
  • For example, I don't think sugar can be let off the hook that easily as a risk factor for various diseases.

  • And I'm not sure that eggs are as bad as they're made out to be in this film. Of course, it could just be my personal biases at work, since I cannot do without eggs for breakfast.

What I liked best in the film were the three case studies of individuals who had serious health issues earlier, but who showed dramatic improvements within a few weeks of switching to a vegan diet.

Here is a mildly critical review of the film from Time. There are more strongly critical ones, which I suspect are funded by the organisations exposed by it.

In sum, the film has sensitised me a little bit more to this most important topic, and I will do more research, especially into the benefits of a vegan diet and lifestyle.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Henry Lawson's "The Drover's Wife" As An Allegory For The Female Condition

One of my Aussie friends pointed me to a classic short story by the Australian poet and writer Henry Lawson, called "The Drover's Wife". (Click on the link to read it now.)

Read superficially, this short story is a recounting of a few dramatic hours in the life of a woman living alone with her children in the Australian outback. A venomous snake appears, and then ominously disappears under the floorboards of the rough house. The vigil she mounts against the threat of the snake's reappearance, aided only by her dog, occupies the bulk of the story, together with some reflective passages that recount some of the other struggles she has faced alone. Her husband is a "drover", a stockman who drives livestock over long distances, and is consequently away for months at a time. Her children are all very young and require her protection rather than being of help to her.

"The Drover's Wife", immortalised in an Australian postage stamp

However, the story is much more than just an evening in the woman's life. It is an allegory for the female condition, and it is as valid today as it was in the 19th century when it was written. I believe it's a feminist text that should form part of any Women's Studies program. It appears from Henry Lawson's biography that his mother's own struggles as a single parent (his father being a miner and away from home for long periods) sensitised him to a woman's struggles and enabled him to write about them so insightfully.

As an allegory, the story actually deals with the specific issue of women's physical safety, and there are five main players:

1. The woman herself, who has to be alert, cool-headed and courageous at all times.

2. The men in her life, whom she cannot rely upon to protect her. The men here are either absent (her husband) or incapable (her young sons).

3. Society as a whole, which enables her to survive when things are otherwise going well, but is not of much use in a situation of immediate threat. The barter she has with her brother-in-law's family is an allegory for the social contract between a family and society.

4. The snake, a classic phallic symbol which here represents the predatory male, the ever-present threat to a woman's physical safety. She has no way of telling when the threat will appear. When it does, she cannot let her guard down for a moment, and has to stay calm and collected to deal with it.

These two passages describe that constant, chilling menace.

Occasionally a bushman in the horrors, or a villainous-looking sundowner, comes and nearly scares the life out of her. She generally tells the suspicious-looking stranger that her husband and two sons are at work below the dam, or over at the yard, for he always cunningly inquires for the boss.
Only last week a gallows-faced swagman — having satisfied himself that there were no men on the place — threw his swag down on the veranda, and demanded tucker (food). She gave him something to eat; then he expressed his intention of staying for the night. It was sundown then. She got a batten from the sofa, loosened the dog, and confronted the stranger, holding the batten in one hand and the dog’s collar with the other. “Now you go!” she said. He looked at her and at the dog, said “All right, mum,” in a cringing tone, and left. She was a determined-looking woman, and Alligator’s yellow eyes glared unpleasantly — besides, the dog’s chawing-up apparatus greatly resembled that of the reptile he was named after.

5. The dog, the one entity that can protect her with its sharp teeth. The dog represents the Law. That's the only thing feared by the predatory male.

The moral of the story is that women cannot rely on the protection of friendly males, or on other families in civil society. Women are partly responsible for their own safety, in that they must remain alert about potential danger, and must also be level-headed and courageous. They also need to work with sympathetic law enforcement machinery to ensure their safety.

At the very end of the story, after the snake is killed and consigned to the flames, the release of tension makes it possible for other, repressed emotions to come rushing back. The woman's eldest son, an "urchin of eleven", declares,

Mother, I won’t never go drovin’; blarst me if I do!

I believe that was the author's own voice, expressing anguish at the struggles to which his own mother had been abandoned.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

"I Want To Sleep On Your Snout..." And Other Tales Of Monsterly Affection

A curious game evolved in our family when my son was growing up. When he would come upon me lying on my back, he would climb on top of me and press his cheek against my nose. Finding it hard to breathe, I would tickle him to get him off me, and that became a recurring game.

He would approach me saying, "I want to sleep on your nose!" He had a cute Aussie accent too, and to me it sounded like, "I want to sleep on your na-ous!" So I mimicked him, going, "I want to sleep on your snout!"

And suddenly that developed into a full-blown story of a baby monster playing with papa monster and demanding to be allowed to do all sorts of alliterative things:

"I want to sleep on your snout!"

"I want to hold your horns!"

"I want to feel your fangs!"

"I want to touch your talons!"

"I want to walk on your wings!"

"I want to stroke your scales!"

"I want to twist your tail!"

Long after my own baby monster grew up and went to University (not Monsters University, thankfully!), I was browsing at K-Mart when I came across this DVD.

The wings seem to be tucked away, and there are no scales, only fur and a spiny back, but I won't complain too much.

I had to take a picture of the DVD and text it to my son.

You remember the baby monster that told its papa all the alliterative things it wanted to do ("I want to hold your horns, I want to feel your fangs", etc.)? What do you think they looked like?

The response was as expected.

Hahaha we need to watch that

So I bought the DVD. I discovered there was a prequel to this one, so I bought that too.

I'm pedantic about a number of things, especially about sets. If there's a prequel, we must have the prequel. If there's a set, we must have the whole set.

So when the baby monster comes home on holidays next, we'll probably have a binge-watching session, initiated by, "I want to devour your DVDs!"

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

An Early Prediction For India's 2019 Election

In financial markets, two types of analysis are common. Fundamental Analysis goes into all the factors that affect markets, and attempts to predict them, and thereby their impact on the prices of assets. But Technical Analysis completely ignores fundamentals. Operating under the idea that "price discounts everything", Technical Analysis looks purely at the movements of prices, and attempts to discern patterns from time series data.

I've decided to do some Technical Analysis of the Indian Lok Sabha (parliamentary) elections. I'm going to look at vote shares and seat shares, without worrying about the fundamentals that impact them. We will see that this approach has some merit too.

The Indian parliamentary elections of 2019 are likely to be the biggest in the world, as usual

First off, I noticed a curious fact, i.e., that the sum of the seats of the two main parties, the Congress and the BJP, has been virtually the same in the last two elections, suggesting that the gains of one come mainly at the expense of the other and not any third party.

[In 2009, the Congress had 206 seats to the BJP's 116, for a total of 322. In 2014, the BJP had 282 seats to the Congress's 44, making a total of 326. The strength of the house is 543.]

I then plotted the correlation between the BJP's vote share and its number of seats between 2009 and 2014, interpolating for all the percentages in-between. A screenshot of the spreadsheet is below.

A straightforward analysis with some stark results

In interpreting this spreadsheet, I made two fundamental assumptions.

1. The BJP's vote share of 31% in 2014 is unsustainably high, since it represents a swing of 12% in a single election. It will have to drop in 2019.

2. However, the BJP's vote share is unlikely to drop below its 2009 level of 19%. That represents its core base.

Hence, we have to look at all the vote share percentages from 20% to 30% (inclusive) to assess the likely outcomes.

And two facts are immediately obvious from this analysis:

1. The BJP will not succeed in replicating its absolute majority in 2019. Even a 1% drop in vote share will take its seats tally to 268, which is below the 272 required for an absolute majority. Hence a coalition government is virtually guaranteed even if the BJP does return to power. It will have to be as part of the larger NDA coalition.

2. It is highly unlikely that the Congress-led UPA will return to power. The BJP's vote share will have to fall from 31% all the way down to 22% or less, for the UPA to have a chance at returning to power. In no case will the Congress get an absolute majority on its own.

In spite of these fairly certain outcomes, the power dynamics after the results are out are likely to be very interesting. A lot depends on the personal characteristics of Modi himself. His flexibility, humility and ability to reach out to different groups in a spirit of compromise will be on test. So far, he has shown discomfort in dealing from anything but a position of absolute power.

Those days now look numbered.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Real Miracles In Scripture -1 (Kanakadaasa And The Idol That Turned)

One of my pastimes is to ponder "miracles" from scripture and conjecture how those stories must have originated, since, after all, there are no such things as miracles. As Sherlock Holmes says in the case of The Sussex Vampire,

This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.

When we look at the stories of miracles with a completely rational eye, we begin to see things that we would have missed had we swallowed the mystical explanation.

In this post, I want to analyse a "miraculous" episode in the life of the Kannada poet and mystic, Kanakadaasa.

Kanakadaasa and the "miracle" that granted him access to his deity

To cut a long story short, Kanakadaasa was a devout person who once visited the town of Udipi and wanted to see the idol of the god Krishna in the main temple. The priests denied him entry because he was of a "low" caste. Kanakadaasa was despondent, and he went to the rear of the temple and sang his devotional songs. The story goes that the idol of Krishna turned around during the night to face the rear of the temple, and a hole mysteriously appeared in the temple's rear wall, allowing the "low caste" devotee to have a darshan (view) of his deity.

This sequence has been dramatised (melodramatised, perhaps) in the eponymous Kannada movie.

The miracle scene in "Bhakta Kanakadasa" (Devout Kanakadasa), set to a very melodious tune

To this day, the idol of Krishna at that Udipi temple faces the rear wall. A window placed where the hole is said to have miraculously appeared is now the standard way for devotees to obtain a darshan of the idol.

The rear is now the new front

It should be obvious to us as rationalists that no miracle actually occurred. The god Krishna did not turn his idol around, nor did some divine force break a hole in the wall. Yet, the idol is turned the other way, and the rear wall does have an opening in it. Someone human must have done these things. Who was it?

It's in pondering these "miracles" that one realises something fairly heartwarming. Society at the time was officially observant of caste rules, which is why Kanakadaasa could not have been allowed entry into the temple, but someone's humaneness ensured that the man got his darshan after all. I'm betting it was one or more of the temple priests. No one else would have had free access to the sanctum sanctorum where the idol was installed, and it is highly unlikely that anyone else would have dared to enter that area to do something so sacrilegious. If caught, their punishment could have been severe.

No, my bet is on one or more kindhearted priests who did what they believed was the right thing. (I think we can rule out bribery, since Kanakadaasa was probably too poor to afford that.) They turned the idol around, made a hole in the wall, perhaps whispered a "Psst!" to Kanakadaasa to come and get his darshan, and then they must have put on the act of their lives to convince everyone around that a major miracle had taken place.

I'd say a miracle took place all right. Human kindness, and the willingness to break rules to ensure justice, never fail to touch me.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Fixing The Symbolism Of The Dashaavataar Mythology

The mythology of the ten incarnations of the god Vishnu is one of the best-known in Hinduism. It is known as Dashaavataar (dasha - ten, avataar - incarnation).

A beautiful representation of Vishnu popularised by ISKCON, a Western-oriented sect of Hinduism
(yet another favourite example of mine to illustrate the advantages of cultural cross-pollination)

Each of the avataars of Vishnu is believed to have appeared at a critical juncture, to save the world and the righteous from the depredations of some evil character or natural calamity. A nice twist is that the tenth avataar, Kalki, is depicted as one who has not yet arrived. This is a future avataar who will save humanity from a final apocalypse.

There's also a very intriguing interpretation of the dashaavataar that treats it as an allegory for the theory of evolution.

I will cover these aspects, but first, there are two major problems with the dashaavataar as it stands.

One, the exact identities of the ten avataars is not settled. There are two major variants in the popular narration.

Two, a significant avataar is omitted in both of the popular variants, and this needs to be addressed.

Let's look at both these issues before I propose my variant.

1. Who are the ten avataars of Vishnu, exactly?

This rendition, popular in the North of India, has the following avataars:

In the South of India, this version is more popular:

The differences may not immediately be obvious, so the following diagram should make things clearer.

The first set (the typically North Indian variant) is shown on the left, and the other is on the right.

In other words, one variant treats the eighth and ninth avataars as Krishna and the Buddha, respectively, while the other treats them as Balaraama and Krishna. Krishna's place in the overall line-up is secure, but there is some jostling for the eighth position.

The problem with Balaraama as an avataar is that his value is not clear-cut. This avataar exists at exactly the same time as Krishna, so it is not quite clear why two avataars should have appeared at the same time. Besides, this also violates the no-two-avataars-at-once rule that is often invoked to explain the retreat of the otherwise unbeatable Parashuraama when he finally confronts Raama.

The inclusion of Buddha, on the other hand, is troublesome because it seems to be more of a cynical ploy to deny the separate identity of another religion by co-opting it under the Hindu umbrella. If the Buddha is just another avataar of Vishnu, then Buddhism is just another sect of Hinduism and not an independent religion in its own right. In addition to angering Buddhists, this interpretation doesn't seem to have much scriptural basis, since the teachings of Buddhism are quite distinct from the mainstream Hindu canon (significantly, in rejecting the supreme authority of the Vedas).

[As an atheist, I also enjoy my mythology unadulterated by actual history. Treating a real-life historical character like the Buddha as an avataar of Vishnu is, to my mind, a bit like saying Noam Chomsky is a member of the Justice League. While I admire both Chomsky and the superheroes of the Justice League, I prefer them in separate compartments.]

I would find this juxtaposition cringeworthy

2. A significant omission

In addition to the above question of who the eighth and ninth avataars really are, there is a significant one that is entirely missing! Every avataar listed above appears exactly once, as per scripture. However, there is another avataar of Vishnu who appears at least three times at different junctures to save the day! Yet this avataar is curiously never included in the two common variants of the Dashaavataar shown above.

The missing avaatar is Mohini.

Mohini is a female avataar, and Vishnu takes this form on at least three occasions:

1. To distract the asuras (demons) when amrit (the nectar of immortality) is being served to the devas (gods)

2. To turn the power of the demon Bhasmaasura against himself, and thereby save Shiva

3. To mate with Shiva to produce the warrior-god Ayyappa, since a prophecy holds that only the progeny of Vishnu and Shiva can vanquish the demoness Mahishi

It is most curious that an avataar of such obvious (and repeated) utility should be neglected in the pantheon. I ascribe this to the pervasive misogyny of Hindu society, in which brahmin males have traditionally controlled the narrative.

Here is Mohini doing her thing.

Mohini using her charms to persuade the swarthy asuras to wait while she first serves the nectar of immortality to the clean-shaven devas. (Predictably, the asuras get nothing)

Mohini tricking the demon Bhasmaasura into copying her dance moves and ultimately touching his own head, turning himself into ashes, saving the cowering Shiva from his rashly granted boon

Mohini seducing Shiva, so as to enable the birth of Ayyappa, a god with their combined powers

3. My proposed version of the Dashaavataar

My version makes room for Mohini, and removes the two troubling inclusions that detract from the elegance of the sequence.

Why do I believe this is the most elegant? Ah, for this we need to look at the evolutionary analogy.

4. The Dashaavataar as an allegory for evolution

The idea that the Dashaavataar represents evolution has been around for a long time. The first five avataars represent the physical evolution of animal species, while the latter five represent the sociological evolution of humankind. The sixth avataar is the crossover point.

Physical evolution from lower forms of life to humankind:

1. Matsya - Fish
2. Kurma - Turtle/tortoise (reptile)
3. Varaaha - Boar (mammal)
4. Narasimha - Half-beast/Half-man (early primate)
5. Vaamana - Midget/dwarf (early hominid)
6. Parashuraama - homo sapiens

Sociological evolution:

6. Parashuraama - A violent, merciless society
7. Raama - A society governed by the rule of law, but an unbending one
8. Krishna - A pragmatic society that understands subtlety, diplomacy, Realpolitik, and shades of grey
9. Mohini - A gender-equal society that is also accepting of gender fluidity
10. Kalki - Future human society

I would say the world is currently in transition from the Era of Krishna to the Era of Mohini.

I would recommend this version of the Dashaavataar as the preferred mythological narrative for both believing Hindus and cultural Hindus to embrace. It is scripturally supported and its symbolism plays well to modern sensibilities.