The illusion of control

The fear of AI is rooted in an unquestioned assumption: that we are in control of ourselves. One look at the President of the U.S. and we should rid ourselves of this illusion. Wait, you might say, but that guy’s not representative of the human population!
Arguably Trump is on another level of dysfunction than many presidents, but I believe his attention span is about in line with the average voter. But let’s not digress. My point is that there is a lot in the brain that works beneath the surface, beyond our sight and as a consequence, poorly understood by us. But around and around we go with claims to consciousness when regardless of how large our attention span, we can’t explain how the brain germinates creative and original ideas, because most of it is done in a cloud.
The danger of AI is not unique to AI – it is a function of technology. In the hands of a bad user, it is most likely a catastrophe. In the hands of an incompetent user, it is very likely a catastrophe. In the hands of the best of users, it still holds the potential of a catastrophe.
So here’s my conjecture: The only thing that insulates life against its reach into the subatomic is its reach into the cosmic. Until we figure out that reality is nonlocal and then all bets are off.

The American Opinion

Throughout my life, next to Indians, I’ve interacted with Americans more than any other culture. So you could say that I’m a product of both cultures. So one of the clear distinctions I’ve seen about the way Americans talk compared to Indians is that Americans give a lot of importance to the habit of forming an opinion.
I haven’t kept count of how many times I’ve been told by people here that having an opinion matters. But I wonder if as a culture we have swung to the other end by emphasize the act of holding an opinion over the process of forming an opinion.
As a culture we Americans value one metric of our reality above all else: velocity. The numerator being space and denominator being time. The quicker you arrive at an opinion, the more control you can exert over your environment.
But this is a short term goal. Because pretty soon, everyone is shouting their own unsubstantiated opinion over each other, without acknowledging the elephant in the room: that we don’t know anything.

A life rooted

Yesterday I lost my grandfather. He passed away from a heart attack, without much pain, but quite unexpectedly. And so when I turned up for my citizenship ceremony today, my thoughts turned to the arc of his life and mine.

Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 9.41.43 PM.png

When people ask me – where are you from – increasingly, I find myself pausing to think about it. But it was not always so. Once upon a time, I would without hesitation point to a village in the southern state of Kerala on a map of India. Being born in China and growing up in half a dozen different countries, the only place I found myself returning to every other summer was my grandfather’s house in this part of the world.

Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 9.40.11 PM.png

My grandfather moved to what became our home village when he bought a traditional (nallakettu) house here from a Brahmin family along with four acres of land. And it was in this tropical paradise, a few miles from the Arabian Sea, where he raised his family. As the Municipal Health Officer in the town, he was intimately involved in the local community, a cause he carried to the very end. Well after he retired, he conducted himself as an agent of change in the community. In addition to regularly visiting his friends and acquaintances, he raised money for local projects, including building a community hall at our temple.
Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 9.55.22 PM.png

My grandfather had a strong sense of history. When he had guests over at his house, he loved to talk about the age of the house. Made from solid wood with giant doors that swung open and shut with a mysterious ease, the house hardly seemed more than a hundred years old. But its true age as per my grandfather was pegged at more than four hundred years old. When I first heard him say this, the number was so outside my grasp that I used to wonder whether he was bragging. But over time it sunk in that we were living in a house made completely of solid hardwood, that would outlast any modern home, and could have been around well before the US was colonized.
Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 10.03.29 PM.png

There are so many stories I could tell about him – how he proposed to my grandmother, how he sang nursery rhymes in marching band tones, how he doted on my mother, how he had the village children over at his house every Sunday to watch the weekly movie on his color tv, how he showered us with more money than his monthly pension every Vishu, how he tried (unsuccessfully) to get me to become more interested in his flourishing farm – but these vignettes into his personality will scarcely convey the ambitious, hard-working, loving, strict, complicated individual that was my appuppan. What I carry away is a man who was not afraid to take risks, a generosity that puts many to shame, a grower and builder of things but also a very stubborn man with a temper (the last of which I inherited).

Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 9.39.00 PM.png

Once upon a time, I wanted to sit down with him to get his stories down. Unfortunately, I have waited too long to ask him. But my greatest regret will be that he will not have the chance to meet my children in person – I honestly don’t know a person rooting more for our happiness in that department than him.

Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 9.48.40 PM.png

And so when I think about my feelings becoming an American citizen, I feel an incredible sense of relief, but a sense of loss as well. Where am I from? I was born in China to an Indian couple. I went to elementary school in Frankfurt. In between, I spent a few years in India only moving on once again to spend my middle years in Bangkok. I graduated from high school in Romania. And then was lucky enough to come here to attend college, get a job, meet my wife, have our children and end up at the latest stage of my journey here in the Bay Area. Through all those moves, I could always rely on coming back to Kerala and recharging my batteries at our ancestral home.

For many people, becoming a US citizen is the culmination of a life’s journey. But I have to be honest – as I was swearing the Pledge of Allegiance and leaving behind all formal ties to India – a part of me was rebelling at the thought that I needed to say goodbye to a sense of home I have always felt. I am not a refugee, I have never been persecuted; I am one of the universal citizens, the international school crowd, the privileged few that got to travel the world, live on a Indian diplomatic passport and yet had a place to come home. Why should I become an American citizen?

I was seventeen when I arrived in this country. This coming October, I will have spent seventeen years or exactly half my life here. But all this time, I have never felt a sense of conflict – never once been asked where am I from as if I don’t belong here. These doubts I have felt these past couple of days – they have been from within. So why did I choose to go through with this process? Because as much as I have a place to call home, I have put seventeen years of toil into building a second home. Sometimes, one home is not enough. Sometimes, you meet a girl that changes the reasons you want to move back to India. Sometimes, you end up with a job that makes you happy. Sometimes, you realize how fragile your situation is when your brother calls you with the news that he could be deported on a bureaucratic error. Lastly, becoming a US citizen is the next step, but I doubt it’s the last step for me. I hope as time increases, these things become meaningless because as far as I can tell, I have found happiness in more than one place.

Appuppa, I will miss you greatly but thank you for being you because you gave us our roots so that I would never feel uprooted wherever I go.

Love,
Kannan

That which is she

As the moon waxed and waned,
She cut through steadily,
Tunneling wider and deeper,
As the one she bore watched idly.

In time she may reach
That warm place in his heart.
But is she still the same
The one that started?

A passion that cut across years,
They described hers.
Looking at the then and now,
But not knowing

That which is she
Is not her without him
or he without her

Observations on Content and Distribution

When I interviewed with Rhapsody two years ago, I was asked to divine the future of entertainment: between content creators and distributors, who would have leverage in the long run? Based on what little I knew about the music industry, I sided with content.

Content is king, I explained with borrowed inspiration from the Bill Gates memo. This was true as far as the music industry was concerned, where three music labels (four back then) control a comfortable majority of music content. By contrast, consumers have dozens of services to consume music.

My interviewer took the opposing view: for every example I brought up, he brought up Amazon or Zappos. We went back and forth debating at length, and both of us dug further into our respective positions. At the end of the interview, I remember waking away with this unsettled feeling like neither of us had gained much from the debate.

I got the job but the question has remained with me like an incomplete thought. In the time since, I’ve had some insight into brokering deals with music labels, designing partnerships with everyone from mobile carriers to hardware manufacturers and modeling new product ideas. Today, I am going to share what I’ve learnt so far about the relationship between content creators and distributors.

But first, I want to re-frame the debate because it doesn’t help to talk about the entertainment industry the same way we talk about manufacturing industries. By talking about content and platforms as if they are separate, we are applying an Industrial-age separation to something which is indistinguishable from the consumer’s perspective. In industries where production and distribution are separable activities and/or undifferentiated, this paradigm may be useful. Entertainment is completely different.

Entertainment is a higher-order human activity. These are the products humans create and consume out of choice. As long as it engages the senses for the sake of engaging them, any product has the potential to entertain. Once you define entertainment this way, it becomes obvious that what people choose to consume is not content, or medium piecemeal but something we can only call an experience. It follows then that we should be deconstructing the product that is the experience and plotting the fates of platforms and content creators by how much they contribute to these experiences.

By framing the debate this way, it becomes easier to understand the rules that shape the fates of “platforms” and “content”:

a) new mediums create opportunities for new experiences
b) any new medium can be replicated in the long run

In the short run, the creator-distributor relationships are pitched as David-Goliath battles. The negotiations between Apple and music labels and Amazon and book publishers offer plenty of fodder for a media seeking that type of controversy. But what good comes to platforms that don’t support their content creators? In the long run, as content creators go so go the content distributors. Particularly in entertainment where the experience is the whole package. And those who get this can build great businesses.

Take video gaming as an example. Once upon a time this was a solitary activity. Yet, I can’t help feeling it always had that potential to grow up. I remember the days when I stared over my friend’s shoulder as he played Prince of Persia and passed level after level. And then when my dad bought us a computer, my brother and I competed to complete the games we bought, an activity that has today become a professional feat called “speedrunning”. It took me an entire weekend to complete Dark Forces II and at the end, I gloated. The internet throws that sport wide open to millions of competitors and spectators. Due to platforms like Twitch, video game play has become a professional, lucrative occupation for those seriously talented at it. Twitch idolizes and places these activities on a pedestal. It has turned the deepest myth about video games – that these are anti-social activities – on its side and laughed all the way to the bank with it.

There is no telling from which garage the next big experience is going to emerge. Take James and his team for example – these guys are the brains behind the DepthKit, a set of tools to create true three-dimensional videos using real-time footage. These are the early days for James who describes his work as an “experiment”, although the work others are doing with the DepthKit can scarcely be called experiments. With each iteration of the DepthKit, things are headed in favor of more immersive, interactive and realistic experiences. There is no better way to describe it than to see it in action.

One can imagine how a future iteration of the DepthKit can enable a more interactive format for TV shows and movies. At that point, consumers are not going to care where the story ends and the medium begins. So to answer that question from two years ago: the future belongs to those who create worthwhile experiences. Whether you want to call them creators or distributors is beside the point. So who has leverage? The customer has leverage. Always.

10 things they didn’t teach me on the outside

I miss college. It afforded me a great deal of time to learn some new things. But these days, undergrad education is getting a bad rap, which is a pity, because in my experience, college was useful.

They say there are some things they don’t teach you in school. Well, there are some things they don’t teach you in banking, private equity, or the entertainment business. And some of the models and tools I picked up in college have changed the way I see the world (for the better):

1. Comparative Advantage: The concept of comparative advantage is simple, but can be counter-intuitive: two parties, no matter how good either of them is at producing a product, can at the very least, benefit from trade. It’s a powerful conclusion and it rests on a truth about any economy or individual: we all have opportunity costs. I remember doing the math the first time, because I had to take a break afterward to enjoy this new idea taking root in my head. How often does that happen to you in the real world? Economist Jodi Beggs does a great job explaining this concept here.

2. Recursive programming: If there is one awesome idea I retain from my comp sci classes, it’s probably this one. If you can express a problem in terms of itself, you’ve discovered something wonderful about the very nature of the problem. This is one of the most practical tools I picked up because I still code as a hobby.

3. Humans as the vessels of ideas: The next best thing to this part of college was picking up a copy of the Selfish Gene, which captures the biological equivalent of this idea. Back in the day when Richard Dawkins was focused on evolutionary biology, he did a great job explaining this idea that organisms can be seen as vessels for these units of life called genes. This helped to explain a variety of behavior where life seemed to favor other life with similar gene sets. Those internet memes you see floating around – they are the social equivalents of successful ideas and will probably outlast you and me for very similar reasons.

4. Ishmael: I came home one day and began talking excitedly to my two roommates like I had just smoked something. We had just been assigned this book by a guy called Daniel Quinn who had wrapped up a depressing outlook on human civilization in a trippy tale centered on a talking gorilla. I retain one important quote from this work to this day:

“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act as the lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.”

To this day, one of my roommates refers to this time as my “Ishmael” period. I think that’s fine because everyone is entitled to a post-paradigm trance.

A couple of other models and skills I picked up in college:

5. The bit (1/0) as the foundation for a useful language. I’m just scratching the surface of information theory here. There is a fascinating history and science herewhere you can get lost (in a pleasant way).

6. The factors that shape human culture. Starting with Guns, Germs and Steel.

7. Asymmetric cryptography. Every cryptography course starts with some interesting problem-solving insights like the Alice and Bob story. Understanding this technology gives you the basis for understanding some of the cloud security issues we face today. If you own a cloud business today, you would be remiss to not take a class on cryptography.

8. Mathematical induction. The idea that combining a truth for n = 1 and a truth for n = n + 1 gets you a truth for all n. More here. Very abstract and basic stuff but extremely powerful.

9. Hypothesis testing and regression analysis on data sets. Once considered very dry but data science is all the rage nowadays. Funny how often that happens.

10. Fund-raising. Somewhere along the way, I began to feel that our economics program could do more to excite undergrads about economics. With the help of a team I drew together, I conceived a journal dedicated to undergraduate writing and research in economics. We had plenty of skeptics, one of whom had attempted the same project the prior year. So although I wasn’t working on a terribly original idea, I persisted. I canvassed the whole economics department and eventually landed several thousand dollars in funding. We managed to release two editions before I had to graduate. Here’s how I sum up what I learnt. Two people with the same idea. One didn’t stay the course. The other did and that made all the difference.

What I picked up in college was more than a couple of mental models and tools that you can find in a library or on the Internet. What I brought away was a far more curated and useful experience.

As individuals, we have a decent understanding of a variety of personal behavior. We can appreciate the survival of the fittest. We can appreciate cheaper is better. These are concepts most of us pick up through our immediate experiences. But our understanding of the world tends to break down as soon as we attempt to rise above this level. Without the ability to consider the sum of the parts, people tend to make poorer decisions or none at all. In my opinion, that’s the essence of a decent college education: it gives you a foundation to make better decisions.

Is it that surprising that so many startup founders are college dropouts or that they spent any time at all there? Where would Facebook be if it hadn’t been founded in a college dorm? Even the universally admired college dropout Steve Jobs found a good reason to return:

“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great.”

We have to shift this debate from the black and white discussion it is today to more useful questions like: how can we make college affordable? Do college degrees need to be four years? How can we make degrees more meaningful indicators? How can we help students gain business experience? Can we rebuild the college education in more digestible chunks? Not everyone can afford a $120K education, but everyone should have access to it in some form.

United behind an idea

A friend whose opinion I value raised a point about Modi’s election about how it worried her and what it implied for India when its people elected someone like Modi.

My two cents: One way of looking at it is that the pantheon of choices we have is a reflection of our society more so than the ultimate choice India makes. We have Rahul – who pays lip service to freedom of expression and economic development alike, Arvind – whose notions of leadership are immature and policies are positioned in opposition to those in power, not self-standing on their own and finally Modi – whose economic credentials are probably stronger than his social freedom and development credentials which are questionable. Why these tradeoffs? Seems unfortunate, but it is a reflection of the progress India has to make.

Yet there is a silver lining in this cloud and that is this: for a country of 1 billion (or at least the majority in the best way possible in a representational democracy) to agree on one leader in a democratic manner is saying a lot for how far we have risen above caste and communal lines. Did Modi get the vast majority of Muslim votes? Perhaps not. But India is not just divided along Hindus vs Muslims lines. India has also been pitted as a battlefront between Kshatriyas and Brahmins and every combination of caste and sub-caste possible by every party. This is probably the only country where you can be a practicing member of a non-Hindu religion and still face discrimination as a member of a caste within that religion. It’s easy for us (and by us, I mean the English-speaking Indian middle class that have reaped the benefits of the economic liberalization) to access an identity as an Indian above everything, but for most people in India, that is still a pipe dream. So these election results have surprised me in a pleasant way; I am hopeful now about India’s future, because if the youth of India can unite behind a leader, that means they are ready to unite behind an idea. And that day too is not far away.

Upward and away

Image

I saw a bird flying outside my window
Caught in a vortex between our buildings
Swaying gently to the right
And then soaring upward and away.

What it must be
To be a bird
To bend to nature
And still get its way.

The best use of the best

I find it ironic when people talk about “hiring the best” and then set up those roles to be the worst use of “the best”.

I get asked all the time: what do you look for in a successful candidate? I wish I was asked something else more important: what about this role makes it successful for the ideal candidate? Quite frankly, what I’m looking for in a team member is pretty cookie-cutter criteria by now. Mind you, cookie-cutter criteria is still tough to fill:

1) Analytical horsepower
2) Intellectual curiosity
3) Creativity
4) Attitude

But what happens when you get that ideal candidate? It is very important to make sure they are set up for success. And that can be as tough as getting the right candidate in the first place. Because the right candidate will:

1) Question the status quo
2) Set personal stretch goals
3) Follow through with their ideas

All these positive behaviors require a culture that rewards dissent. And that is challenging in a company unlike a startup. If a startup is in search of a scalable business model, a company is constantly executing against one. That brings with it a certain amount of structure to ensure execution against rules. But if company leaders don’t reward dissent, before long, you’re left with a wilted culture and sub-par results.

I say reward because anything less is just lip service. There are three degrees of action or inaction in my experience:

1) Tolerance – a passive reaction to dissent
2) Communication – a verbal call to dissent as duty
3) Reward – as in to recognize the value of dissent

I have seen way too much of 1) and 2) and not enough of 3) to ascribe much value to the former. To be fair, I am not saying reward dissent for dissent’s sake. What I am saying is that if you set up your organization to absorb new ideas, kill bad ideas early and measure success early and often, rewarding dissent becomes a path to creating shareholder value.

Unfinished

I checked Ajay Varma’s blog on a whim today – a few days after I restarted this blog here – and found this intimate and honest post. I’m going to respond to a particular part of his post:

“It is easy to be a fount of rationality and say these things, of course – but beyond the chatter, we actually have to come to terms with it. It eats me up, knowing that I am just a speck of dust in the larger scheme of things, and that soon I’ll be gone, poof, just like that. What good is my existence if I won’t be around after the fact to reflect on it? As loved ones die and I grow older, I can’t help but envy those around me for their false consolations, their anesthesia: they cope, they thrive, they manufacture meaning in their lives. Our job is harder.”

I appreciate his honesty here. I can’t say I disagree with much of his post. I can’t say life has made me more of an expert on it than him. And I quite possibly fit the definition of an atheist that he’s laid out.

None of it gives me any comfort. I understand deeply Ajay’s “envy”. And yet, I cling to it. A belief. A hope. I have nothing much else to go on.

To be gifted with the power of reasoning is as inadequate description of a human capability as it goes. We are to appreciate this imagination that deals both happiness and sadness.

It is said when Buddha was confronted with human mortality, he abandoned his worldly duties in search of enlightenment. And the answer he discovered lay in the removal of attachment, the source of desire and the suffering that came from it.

So does enlightenment lie on the path of the removal of attachment? The removal of manufactured meaning (quite possibly redundant unless there is such a thing as natural meaning)?

But where are we left without manufactured meaning? That which is and just that, which seems so inadequate.

Without the answer to this question, I am left with this:

It is ironic that Yann Martel’s ambiguity is unsettling for many on the religious right, because it gives them an out. A hint of a battlefield where there is no level playing field. But maybe I should not be so surprised. The religious right was never about a search for truth or value. It has always been about power, as with so many other human organizations. I digress.

Certainly, it is easier to create meaning than to search for the truth. But there is another way to achieve immortality and overcome mortality. And that too is an act of letting go.

When I pass, I hope that those lucky enough to outlive me or come after me resemble me in some meaningful way. When I share 99% of my DNA with everyone else, it seems ridiculous to desire some unique trait or memory of mine lives on through someone else. So I must be content that I have already left a thumbprint that will outlive me and any meaning I manufacture.