The Torments of Choice

This is for posterity. I do not want to forget how I felt while choosing this path I’ve decided to tread. So trying my best to freeze this state of mind.

The torments, too real. The uncertainty, unbearable. The guilt of preference, heavy. The effort, exhausting. The self-inflicted suspense, agonising. The confusion, maddening.

It was as if there were two familiar but opposing people inside me.

In the wee hours of early mornings, I would wake up totally convinced of one and have concrete reasons for not taking the other. And when I’d wake up again I would have flipped with all the more concrete reasons against the choice.

Now it’s done. I used logic over emotion (hopefully) and have made a choice. It has not only, as the proverbial saying goes, lifted the weights off my shoulders, but it feels more like I’ve dragged myself out from quick sand.

Is this path the right choice? I’ll never know. All I can do is feel right on a daily basis and that has already begun.

Robert Frost, of course, summarised these feelings best in his poem “The Road Not Taken”.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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Five years in Scandinavia

It’s a strange place to be in. Not in space but in time. August 22nd, 2013, was the day I landed in Sweden, and it’s been full five years in Scandinavia — more importantly, 60 full months away from India.

I have written extensively about my experiences in the past five years — of joys and trepidations that this chunk of “western” Earth has had to offer. However, in this post, I am hoping to go to places that I previously have not. Dwell on the less dramatic and probe into the more somber aspects of my time away from home.

There is a sense of — I wouldn’t call it loneliness — a deep longing that germinated that very first day I moved out of Bangalore and has been growing ever since. It is not the soul-crushing melancholic feeling of homesickness, that one encounters in prose, poetry and pictures. But it is, in my own calculative way, a lacuna created by the lack of purpose in certain spheres of my personality which is conditioned on living in India.

Now that I think of it, it might even be something very selfish: an altruistic yet shallow sense of purpose that I want to derive from being, part of and, connected to the culture and people I know the most about.

Or, did I just define patriotism in a contrived manner?

Or, am I just being plain cynical?!

This longing is more for the people than the country; for the culture than for the landscapes ; for the struggles than for the triumphs; for the chaos than for the comfort.

In a recent reminiscence about Bangalore with my friends (I don’t miss an opportunity!), I was describing how some amenities that are taken for granted (like uninterrupted power, running water, punctual public transport, safety on roads, high-speed internet) are less of a norm and more of an exception. But it rose more out of a sense of nostalgia than an excuse to whinge. I could see myself sounding a romantic. And longing does that to you. Aspects of life that one would otherwise crib and complain about are the ones we look back with fondness. As with art, it seems that the imperfections are what define our memories and, hence, also the longing.

This might be one of those posts that derailed after the first paragraph. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the essence of my five years in Scandinavia is defined as much by the positive space of Scandinavia as the negative space of being away from India.

Until we meet again.


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Swan Lake in the city of Bach

A couple of weeks ago, I read a sarcastic piece by Sampath G in The Hindu about his experiences of watching Swan Lake — the ballet by Tchaikovsky. His point mainly seemed that the audience was pretentious because it was mostly what the media dubs as the Lutyens who were at the show in Delhi. His was also a criticism that the bourgeois product, that western classical music is, was being consumed mindlessly by the aspiring bourgeois.

While I wanted to remain unaffected after reading this piece, I realized it had upset me a bit. Why? Because I was going to see Swan Lake in Germany. I had planned an elaborate trip from Copenhagen to Leipzig and was super excited as it was also one of the most intimate pieces of music that I knew anything about. See my piece on my obsession about Tchaikovsky to see why.

This being the premise, I was wondering if I was also one of those pretentious pricks that Sampath has scorn for.

I don’t think so, and I hope not!

My connection to Tchaikovsky’s music has been at a different level. When I started listening to his works, I barely had any semblance of what western classical music was. But through his works I have broadened my musical perceptions. Wanting to see Swan Lake in Europe was also a pragmatic choice because it is next to impossible to find any good venues in India, as far as I know. Why miss out an opportunity to see it in the best venue if possible?

Various flavours of Bach were on display in Leipzig, celebrating the Bach Festival Week.

So, I ended up going to the ballet in a 325 year old Opera in the city where Bach is resting. Leipzig is so aware and proudly conscious of its connections to classical music that my ad-hoc decision to go there to see the performance turned out to be icing on the cake.

There’s abundant erudite discourse on the musical aspects of the ballet itself, which I am unqualified to add to. So here’s a piece that I fully endorse and mostly understand. That being said, to see a full orchestra perform the more than 120 minutes of Tchaikovsky was a dream come true. The main motif, which is the soul of this composition, can appear in my head any time and to see it come to life was the most beautiful thing. The grandeur of this composition is only accentuated, as it should be, by an able orchestra.

Scene at the Leipzig Opera

From one unknown to another.

The ballet, the visual aspect of it, was mind-blowing. As I only have a reference of the Russian rendering of it which i assume was true to the original vision from 1870, I could appreciate the modern interpretation of this one.

The moves at the overture already established that this ballet was not going to be filled with fluid moves that one expects from a ballet, but would be interspersed with break moves. It was odd at first, but the production of it was sufficiently modern to not seem discordant.

The main theme of Swan Lake begins in the second act, and I remember sitting there in awe, with gooseflesh. The visuals at that very instant transcended to becoming a true spectacle. It was a massive stage and the dancers were moving gracefully in their swan-like costumes on waves that were projected on the floor of the scene. As the theme progressed, the background of the scene started acquiring a fluid quality, as it waves were also moving along the walls. And it turned out that the backdrop was as alive as the entire scene because a giant mirror, as large as the scene, was being tilted from above to capture the dancers and it stopped at an angle where you could also see the conductor from the orchestra floor. While the dancers were running from one corner to the other, the mirror captured them and added a surreal dimension to the entire scene. It was one of the most perplexingly gorgeous sights that I have ever had to behold!

The ballet was also breaking ground in other regards like transforming the story between a princess and two female swans, while the witch was a male. I’m not sure if this is a common interpretation these days, but it was a neat touch.

I could write more about the dancers, the orchestra and the ambience, but what still moves me most is the genius of Tchaikovsky. His soulful music. I am glad to have witnessed this spectacle and coming to terms that my fears of Sampath’s piece were unfounded.

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An Outsider’s peek into Danish Political Incorrectness

My initial impressions of Denmark were formed quickly, within the first few weeks, after meeting only a handful of Danes (and by now has been corrected for sampling bias). That I had lived in Sweden just before I moved to Denmark played a strong role in forming these impressions, which were by and large small increments to my impressions of Swedish culture.

One of the prominent  aspects of Danish culture and that most (men; you will see why) are proud of is the fact that they do not hesitate to speak out even if it might sound crude or offend another person. This is in contrast to the assumed Swedish political correctness, which is legendary in Denmark for being extreme and overly sensitive. To paraphrase a friend, he believes Sweden brushes its problems under the carpet whereas Denmark likes to confront them. A typical example is the immigration debate. Sweden for a long time took in more refugees than the country’s system could handle and while there were, consequently, obvious problems of integration, it is perceived that Sweden was a bit late to openly acknowledge this fact. The brushing of problem under the carpet takes a metaphorical sense in this case with the ghettos that were formed in the suburbs of many Swedish cities. However, Denmark has been one of the most vocal countries from northern Europe to be discussing immigration politics. Until recently, Denmark was also taking in a lot of immigrants but the perception is that Denmark confronted the problems with integration more openly than Sweden. Not to say that Denmark does not have the same issues as Sweden or Germany with integration, but the perceived belief is that by bringing the issues out in the open there are no hidden surprises down the line — like a sudden majority for a right-wing nutcase political party.

This aspect of Danish point of view is commendable; to whatever extent it might be true. And this becomes a consistent theme of Danish social etiquette that criticism is honest and unfiltered. For an outsider it takes some time to get used to, but honesty is great, and one can quickly get used to receiving and giving out sincere feedback.

A related tangent to this social etiquette is the Danish humour which, at the outset, is crude and brazenly politically incorrect and is inescapable on a daily basis. I have mixed feelings about this brand of humour though. Let me present a case in example from a series of events, and we can discuss the merits of this sense of humour.

I was at a recent, typical, Danish house-party with several international people, and until it was pointed out I was not paying attention to the fact that I was the only dark-skinned person in a crowd of about 12.

A Danish friend bumps into me while I was settling down on a seat, and interrupts me with this quip: “Well my dark friend, what are you doing? You better get back to cleaning up our stuff”, with a wide grin and to the shock of couple of others. I smile and carry on.

For better context, it is a white-male conveying it to me while several others hear it.

While I have gotten used to this being Danish humour, it does seem to upset people, or make them uncomfortable. And maybe it does not get called out by others because I, “the victim”, let it pass. Personally, I am not offended by these silly comments, but certainly makes me wonder as to how skin colour stands out as an attribute that can still characterise a person. Of course, I could analyse the privileges in that joke and point out that it is entrenched in a colonial mindset heavily loaded with racist stereotypes perpetuated by toxic white-male complex.

Or I could let it pass and endorse it as a cultural nuance that is typically Danish and ignore it. But, I also feel responsible that by not challenging these “jokes” I might be enabling a toxic environment which down the line might affect someone else more adversely than me.

I have not made up my mind about what my response should be other than ignoring it. A close friend of mine thinks I should call it out but also sees that it is not my responsibility to educate a “sophisticated” person on how not seem a racist, even for fun.

I am interested in hearing what you think.

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Tales of Caution for the times of Big Data and Machine Learning

“Big Data processes codify the past. They do not invent the future.”
Cathy O’Neil

A good ( meaning smart) title for a book can be an important factor that drives me to take it up for reading. The last book that I read had one of the best done puns and used it effectively throughout the book as a theme.

The title in question is Weapons of Math Destruction, and if you already haven’t noticed it is a smartly done pun on Weapons of Mass Destruction. The author, Cathy O Neil, does not simply stop at using this pun in the title but the recurrent theme in the book is also to point out how math has been turned into an effective weapon, operating at mass scales and in most instances used for destructive purposes.

These are the main attributes according to Cathy O Neil to call a mathematical model a WMD: if it is opaque, has a damaging effect and is scalable. While these features seem simple enough, the author takes up revealing examples from stock markets, to college ranking and the controversial recidivism models used in courts of law.

The book was also topical for me, as I now work along the peripheries of the much hyped Machine Learning models, which are perfect examples of black box mathematical models. The story however, is not all grim; as with all technologies this force can be turned either way.  As the author also points out, depending on the objective function that is being optimised one can use these models for the benefit of societies as much as it can be used to hamper it. Unfortunately, in most cases it seems, these models are easily adaptable to work on optimising efficiency which can have negative consequences. When the trade-off is between efficiency and fairness, it is easier to work out models that can improve efficiency simply because it can be measured and fairness is not a tangible quantity that can be measured and plugged into models (at least in comparison to attributes that measure efficiency). Efficiency can be measured as reduction in costs of some form or another and in markets driven by profits these translate as effective models. When models are used to drive efficiency, they end up dislodging the fairness equation. This is further aggravated when the models, that the author attributes as WMD, usually do not get feedback from their predictions. And a model that does not correct based on its predictions is either destined to go bonkers (the 2008 recession) or becomes so powerful that it propagates a self-fulfilling prophecy by generating data that might fit its predictions. For instance, recidivism models used to predict criminality punish people from poor background (and in the US of non-white ethnicity) and the ones who are scored by these models to be more prone to committing crime have lesser chance of getting back to a normal life (fewer jobs, for one thing) and end up fulfilling the WMD’s prophecies by most likely committing more “crime”.

All models are wrong. And no models generalise well. This means, any given model can only be applied to fit majority of the data and, in cases of people, it can explain only the average person. While average people are a useful notion when they are seen as data points, in reality, each one of us is far from that average data point person. The outliers of the system, who are not described by the models come on both extremes: invariably, these are the super rich and the poor. The models, going by the examples in the book, seem to benefit the rich and punish the poor.

The caution that the author places on using these models which use proxies to measure intangible quantities, use no feedback, are opaque and applied to a broad population are growing to become all the more powerful with Big Data and Machine Learning. The time is rife to take tremendous caution when we are either prescribing these models or to be wary of the results that are provided to us. Unfortunately, however, there is very little we can do if we are victims of these increasingly pervasive models. Except unless we are able to convince our governments towards stringent regulations of these Weapons of Math Destruction.

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How I consume Art

Modern art, for all its quirks and provocations, is often hastily brushed off as hypocritical.

I watched a Swedish movie The Square, which was disconcerting to watch. By disconcerting, I don’t mean it in a gross manner but it did so by pricking into the bubbles of shallow opinions and crude aesthetics. While there are umpteen cases to pick on and dissect from this movie, I’ll try to talk about what it did to me with respect to my perception of art.

The Square, primarily, made me revisit the question of what art is to me.

I am not a big fan of pitting art schools against each other and having a stand on which ones I prefer.  For instance, in painting, the debates on classical versus modern or abstract versus realistic are either too scholarly for my abilities or I sincerely appreciate all of them. Or, this solidarity in perception could be due to my humble expectations from art. That might also explain as to why I don’t really get “offended” or “upset” when one school is hailed to be better than another; I don’t recognise those distinctions or actively try to transcend them.

A simple, but important, expectation from art is that it should evoke a response in me. I give the artist due respect in my head and do not question the credibility or the worth of their vision. That I have chosen to be an audience to that vision is my choice and the artist has no responsibility and is not obligated to cater to me as an audience with her art. Art, then, is just the interpretations inside me; thus, it crystallizes into a very intimate relation with the artist. And this rapport is nurtured based on monologues and not dialogues. For, the vision of the artist is fixed as the art does not change, per se, but my reading of it can and this can evoke abundant emotions and responses in me that can vary over space and time. In my world then, art is limited but not its impressions.

Seeing art as a means of reinterpreting myself through the artists’ vision is a grand way of consuming it. And good art, to me, evokes as many different versions of interpretations as I can — I don’t necessarily mean positive, it can also take me to uncomfortable places — and thus also helping me grow. The only requisite is that it should evoke a unique response in me. And even when it does not, I take responsibility for this inaction and see it as the art not working on me, rather than the artist’s vision having failed.

A particular scene in The Square reminded me of my impressions of the surreal dinner scene in Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, a concept he had explored more comprehensively in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and also my reading of Sigmund Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents. The dinner scene in The Square, just did not remind me of these but recalibrated those experiences by assimilating it with them. And that’s art well done for me.

PS: As a clarification, the spectrum of what I see as art encompasses everything including but not limited to literature, architecture, painting, cinema and music.

More media related to this post:
Trailer for The Square
Scene from Phantom of Liberty
Civilisation and its discontents

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Wish you a ________ year!

With all the greetings of “happy new year” floating around, I began to ponder if we really ought to aspire for a happy 2018 or something else; something that’s more profound. My hopes with 2018 turn out to be more complex than merely suggesting unanimous happiness.

Without sounding alarmingly pessimistic, I did find the trends of 2017 take a regressive slump: bigotry and intolerance fueled by ignorance and misinformation seem to have gotten further rampant or at least more visible. Don’t just think of the apparent western deterioration with Trumps and Brexits; it has been a global trend. India, for instance, is fiddling with toxic Hindu nationalism and is unlike the India I have known growing up. The prime numbered year that has past by, unfortunately, accentuated this deterioration and might take the blame for being a fulcrum point in steering the course of history.

Carrying this burdenous feeling into 2018, I am inclined to believe that while a happy 2018 would be welcome, we cannot overlook the means to achieve the utopian goal of ubiquitous happiness.

I sincerely wish we can have a rational and intellectually stimulating 2018 that can also end up being happy. For, happiness is highly subjective, whereas factual consistency is not. By wishing unanimous happiness, we are already ignoring the challenges that lay ahead as we enter into another calendar year of struggles. In any case, happiness is overrated. It will follow when there’s understanding and peace.

Let’s hope for a year that will improve understanding: amongst people and of the world, and peace: within ourselves and in the world.

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Transcribing a dream

It was a tall tree. In fact, it was the tallest in all of that ancient forest.

Sitting at its foot, he was angry from the encounter before. Not just angry, he was agitated enough that he started to chip away the tree, with the axe that appeared to him from nowhere. He very quickly had chopped away quite a bit of the trunk, leaving a bare-minimum connection from which the tall trunk kissed the tree’s bottom.

As before, it happened to him again; he heard a voice. This time the voice was asking him to stop. Few more strikes and the tall tree would have collapsed on the canopy of the forest, stretching far and wide. Before he could realise, he had stopped swinging his axe.
Who was it that asked him to stop? Was it a voice inside his head, or was it through a rumble in the skies, or was it the tree?

Nevertheless, the instructions were clear. So clear that he had to give heed to it.

“You stop it now, the tree will fall, when time is ready. It will be brought down by the resonance of a bass guitar. Quit it now and calm down.”

Although, he did not know what a guitar was, or what bass was; A warped name started flashing in his head:
|| Water || Rogers||

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Young Karl Marx: Up the list!


Engels, Marx with Marx’s daughters

As the pilot would have said, we were cruising at 35000 ft above sea-level over the Atlantic, and just about 2 hours into the flight I was beaming in my seat, with goosebumps all over. Thanks to the movie protagonist reading out the opening lines from the most published work ever in the history of publishing, only after the Bible. The lines were spoken in German, but I knew the English lines even before the subtitles flashed on screen,  “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.”

The opening line of the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, were the climactic portion of the brilliant German movie Young Karl Marx. I had sought out this movie upon its release, to no avail. Serendipitous, it seems, that I found it on the German airlines Lufthansa’s entertainment system when flying into Germany.

A movie filled with dialectical materialism and heavy jargon related to the relations of means of production were dealt with a human touch, making it more accessible. The love between Marx and Jenny, Engels and Mary, Marx and Engels anchors the movie to the unmissable human side of this story of the Revolution of the masses . The antagonism, when exaggerated, between Marx and Proudhon is amusingly engaging. The moment when Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy is revealed to be his response to Proudhon’s Philosophy of Poverty caught me all giggling. I already thought it was one of the best take-downs just in the caption.

Also, in a scene midway in the movie when Marx and Engels grow to respect each other and form the bond that was to change the world, while being drunk, Marx recites one of his most famous lines or something to that effect: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”   This scene pivots the rapport of these two great minds, making it most effective.

The role played by Jenny Marx and Mary in moulding and supporting Marx and Engels is also delicately handled with due credit to the rebellious women.

As the movie was called Young Karl Marx, I was wondering which portion of his life would seem befitting to be the climax. Unsurprising, yet pleasantly, it was publishing of the Communist Manifesto. To top it all, the end credits begin with Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone, and just like that the movie found itself into my perfect, favourite movies. 

Trailer of Young Karl Marx, the German movie.

And one of the best archives of Marxist ideas.

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Four years in Scandinavia

To say that time flies, I believe, is a grave misnomer. I’d rather see time as something that flows and flows hurriedly; like a stream rushing down a mountain crevice.

As of 22nd August, 2017, I have lived four years outside India. And in this blur of the past four years, I have garnered a master’s degree and I’m about half-way through my PhD project and I’m set on an academic career that I envisioned when I first decided to move to Scandinavia. That is, if I reduce my time in Europe to a mere metric of my academic progress. Endorsing such an outlook is not only reductive, in every sense of the word, but also does little justice to the evolution of the person that I am.

That being said, this post will not be an introspective one for having tried to embrace The North. So, apologies for click-baiting you into reading rest of my rant. This, I hope, will be an attempted exposition of how I perceive India to be different from these northern lands and vice versa. At the outset, this does appear to be an easy task; like a task that we most rigorously perform in Machine Learning — to compare apples and oranges.

Or is it?

One significant change in my own perception of India is to acknowledge a seemingly innocuous trait that is so innate to India, that shapes everything about India; both her flaws and features come to light differently when seen from this point of view.

That One Indian Attribute

There is no more need for suspense. I am talking about the most obvious feature of India: Diversity. And it does define India.  If you were thinking chaos (arrogantly) or curry (ignorantly), read on.

The vibrant diversity, in all quarters of one’s social life, is the reality when growing up in India. We are never aware of the culture we grow up in. Culture is to people, what water is to fish. The process of assimilating culture that we are drenched in goes unnoticed to us like we are barely conscious of the complex mechanism of breathing while we still soak in the air. It is only when placed in a different frame of reference does culture come to life. For instance, in the backdrop of Scandinavia, that is equated to be the epitome of Western culture.

Born a Hindu, I studied in a Catholic Convent in Bangalore for twelve years amongst plentiful students who hailed from all possible religions, spoke innumerable languages and different social backgrounds (read caste, which I was oblivious to then); such overt heterogeneity was never surprising to me. Each lunch break was a potluck of food from across India. I could speak four languages effortlessly by the time I was 12. Such experiences only get excessive when you travel within India, to see how the local cultures vary from town to town.

Every Indian grows up believing that such rich diversity is the truth everywhere. I did too. And then to my unpleasant surprise, it hasn’t been the case. All that my travels have revealed is a well-meaning but conscious attempt to assimilate differences, rather than see them as being normal. I am not implying discrimination, but that rest of the world does not see diversity to be the norm is saddening when you come from India. And that is unfortunate, as we are inevitably growing into a heterogeneous global society. The inertia of homogeneity in cultures is aggravating the circumstances, leading to massive problems of integration and assimilation. This is then turning into rich fodder for the extremists who want and campaign for imposed homogeneity.

On the other hand, the diversity in India also explains the problems in India when compared to the West. A homogeneous culture is easier to steer and evolve than to hone a multi-faceted one. Even practical aspects of administration are hard in India (we have 30 official languages).  Other than a shared history of our struggle against colonialism, there is very little that is common to all Indians. Comparing this diversity in the backdrop of a historically homogeneous Scandinavia contrasts the differences and the related problems in far more accentuated manner than when seen from inside India. It is this insight that I attribute to my time outside India. It has helped me come to terms with understanding some of the larger problems grappling India. And no, I don’t have the solutions to them.

Or maybe I do.

The Scandinavian model will not work in India. But what might work is the theoretical European Union kind of a solution. Wherein, all Indian states are given substantial autonomy (as if they were independent countries) and then India strives to be a true federation of autonomous states. And that has a glimmer of success.

Well, I hear you sigh or hanker I go to Pakistan (for the uninitiated, due to my anti-national statements above)!

In this commemorative post, I don’t have a dream or a wish, but a plan. I want the rest of the world to embrace diversity as something natural,  and India to become a federation of autonomous states. I don’t think that is much to ask.

That’ll be a wishful recipe for a prosperous India and a peaceful world.

Yours Truly. Until my new world order comes to effect.


A surreal picture of a famous street in Copenhagen.

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