Friday, January 21, 2011

Content with Content?

Wide World of Content
The ease of content availability and accessibility in today's world is simply astonishing. With the advent of phones that are smarter than necessary (and put to shame the communicators used in the original Star Trek series which, interestingly enough, might have been the seed for the cellphone concept), have data streams tethered to the ether 24x7, and have processing power greater than what a typical home computer had 10 years back, information is not only literally at our fingertips but is also parallelly processable, viewable in streaming format, and manipulatable in-place. The web of information cast over the whole wide world is so addictive that we start hyperventilating when our broadband connection suffers an outage. Nowadays a power outage is not that unbearable for its own sake, but for the fact that it renders our routers impassive and stops the steady and comforting stream of content.

'Like' Minded
The most interesting recent phenomenon in content generation and sharing is social networks of course, and by that I mean Facebook - it's the Microsoft Windows of the social network world. Facebook appears to have fulfilled the inherent and constant need in human beings to be 'Like'd (Facebook is quite 'Like' wise - what a simple yet powerful concept - you get to make someone's day via one mouse-click) and be heard, even if it entails the oh-so-interesting minutiae of nail-clipping or rearranging furniture. What Facebook provides is a distracted audience that is waiting to be informed and entertained. It tests our capability to garner interest, acknowledgement and best of all, 'healthy' debate regarding what we have to say - the number of 'Like's increases our self-esteem and the appearance of the number '1' (higher the better) on the 'notifications' globe signals the fulfillment of our destiny.

'Weight' for Information
An article last year in the Wired magazine talked about how social networks are going to bypass the standard web in traffic because of the fact that information coming from a person we know (or pretend to know, or knew eons back and haven't even interacted with once after adding as friend) carries more weight. Not sure of the reasons, but Facebook already bypassed Google in terms of web traffic. The fact that social networks rely on the web to deliver the information sourced from our 'friend' on Facebook does not appear to get acknowledged. What it basically means is that a social network without the underlying web infrastructure would be feeble at best and non-existent at worst because most of what we share with our friends is web content.

The 'Glocal' Concept
What I struggle with is the absence of localized content served through standard content dissemination channels and seamlessly blended in the navigation menu to fulfill the 'Glocal' concept. For example, we still do not have active content blaring at us the high energy consumption by our home appliances, the awareness of which would translate into valuable savings (unfortunately, 'savings' typically involve spending first in this world - you even get the opportunity to purchase a 'savings' coupon booklet - these are savings you cannot deposit in a bank). We pretend to be or are genuinely shocked every month by our energy bill, even though the cycle repeats every year. With due respect to the worldwide scarcity of potable water despite the fact that water bills are not high in the US, an active water consumption display would really help. Combining the energy and water consumption display might help cut down on the long, hot water showers. We do not have easy and direct access to our medical information (it needs to be secure, I understand that). We get a lot of local store coupons via mail, but never have it handy when there comes the time to use them - hope that content becomes readily accessible via an app - most phones have location-tracking capability anyway.

You Don't Mess with the Lohan
Finally, while content provides quick decision-making capability nowadays, it does appear that a lot of it is generated to create a want instead of fulfilling a need. How much more information on Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashians do we really need? The web appears to be quickly becoming a tabloid as far as entertainment reporting is concerned. Journalism has been replaced by sensationalism. Also, content-capturing devices allow us to record every minute of the day - what is not accounted for is the time or the inclination to play back that recorded content - if a map were to capture every square inch on this globe, it would be as large as the globe itself and utterly useless. Content comes at us fast and furious, and the struggle is keeping up with it - we have all become islands already, poring over our mobile convergence devices ('cellphone' does not cut it anymore) at home, in a public place, and even trying to sneak a peek at work in order to catch up on our to-do list comprising of a YouTube link posted by a friend on Facebook a week ago.

So are we content with content yet? Or do we keep wanting more and more till it reaches the point where it owns us (maybe it already does) and we have to say:

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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Ambiguity towards Tolerance

The corporate world relies heavily on leaders to make profits. Leaders are expected to possess essential skills including the ability to look at the big picture and make confident decisions based on limited and oftentimes vague information (this particular skill also demands the capability to exude confidence as well as generate it in the team about the decision) . That is commonly referred to as 'tolerance to ambiguity' and has gone beyond just leaders as a required skill nowadays. I would like to discuss here the ambiguity in my mind towards tolerance.

Let's tackle ambiguity first. Everyone is expected to have tolerance to ambiguity, which brings up the question of how it comes about. The dictionary definition of ambiguity is 'doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention'. From a corporate perspective, that translates into doubtfulness regarding the current situation and future direction. It is quite easy to attribute ambiguity to external factors typically beyond our control, but there's uneasiness in acknowledging that it originates internally too, from the sheer fact that human beings by nature are not willing to step outside their familiar worlds, not always willing to be on the same page (mostly unintentionally) and not willing to ascend (descend has a negative connotation - ascend implies the right direction) to the level of detail that would allow the picture to be constructed more accurately. Things would not be crystal clear, but they would definitely be less ambiguous if internal factors are recognized and addressed. Hopefully this clears up some ambiguity regarding the concept of ambiguity.

Before we move on to tolerance, I would like to take a moment to talk about a relevant topic - solutions. The term solution implies a problem but it is applied universally, regardless of whether a problem exists or not. It goes to say that human beings view everything as a problem, whether they would acknowledge it or not. Interestingly, many solutions are a result of problems resulting from previously applied solutions. I don't think there is a solution to this recursive problem, so let's move on.

Tolerance. There are some problems with this word - apart from implying passivity which is the last thing to expect from action-oriented leaders, it casts a shadow of another word - tolerate. Not sure if this is an expected or unexpected connotation, but whoever coined these words decided to move very quickly on to the next word starting with 't'. Tolerate implies a blended sense of dislike, inaction, and superiority - maybe it's only myself who sees it that way, but that's sufficient for this post. Similar to the words restive, enervated, and fundamentalist which appear to imply something different from or opposite to what they actually mean (one-word oxymorons in my dictionary), tolerance does not come across  as the most tolerant word in the context. And it goes beyond the corporate world - I read a news article recently which talked about the inefficacy of this word in the cultural/religious context.

Allow me to illustrate the connotation of tolerance and the one-word oxymorons noted via an unnecessary visual which sheds some light on what lurks in the shadows:

Hope this explains the ambiguity in my mind towards tolerance. Maybe the phrase should be replaced with 'intention to eliminate or reduce ambiguity' - doesn't roll off the tongue that well, but definitely more accurate.

Deja Who?

Definition - Déjà Vu is a feeling that the present situation has occurred before, but the details are elusive because the situation never happened before.

Déjà Vu, like epiphany, is a sophisticated-sounding elusive term that evokes feelings of accomplishment when experienced simply because it's called that. If it were called 'false recall', it would not have garnered that much attention (the French are obsessed with eliminating consonants from their pronunciation and emphasizing vowel sounds - that adds to the sophistication. Hebrew is the written equivalent of spoken French - it looks half-formed!). The cliché factor here is less than epiphany because déjà vu typically occurs when you visit a new place or are presented with a new situation, while epiphany does not worry about place or situation at all.

I think deja vu was coined by acidheads after seeing the same event execute in their head over and over again. There are a lot of theories regarding this phenomenon, including one that suggests a mismatch in the brain that causes it to mistake the present for the past. Come to think of it, a futurist with Déjà vu would mistake the future for the present and plunge to a sad demise while jumping off a building to fly with his/her non-existent personal jet-pack - interestingly, the futurist did not see that coming.

The utter coolness with which Keanu Reaves utters 'déjà vu' in The Matrix is only enhanced by the coolness of the concept which suggests that this phenomenon is caused by modification of code in that cyber-world that manifests itself to its inhabitants via a repeat of a particular situation (e.g., a black cat passes by again). Quite interesting, and brings about conjecture regarding the Designer who notices that the human race is fully intent on running this world into the ground (a weird construct like falling on your head - you need to have been successfully beheaded beforehand and then positioned by your beheader to be able to fall on your own head), realizes that His/Her creation has gone wrong, and starts making minor changes to the design of this world that manifests itself as déjà vu.

I have a different theory. If there are infinite possible actions at every moment in time and there is a universe for each possible scenario, then there's a version of me in a parallel universe visiting some place that I am going to visit later, and I experience a feeling of having been there because my parallel version has already been there. But considering how space and time are intertwined and with the past and future not being exactly linear, I might experience déjà vu because a parallel version of me is going to visit that place or encounter that situation in the future. In which case, déjà vu would actually be a glimpse into the future, and end up being really confounding for the futurist.

Déjà Vu, like epiphany, is a sophisticated-sounding elusive term that evokes feelings of accomplishment ... oops, I think I have been here before. But I do feel accomplished.

Corollary: "Vuja De ....the feeling that this has never happened before." - George Carlin

Musical CreditsBass: Pankaj Kanth, Lead Guitar (on Bass): Pankaj Kanth, Rhythm Guitar (on Bass): Pankaj Kanth, Drums: Korg Pandora preset rhythm

Creative Input: Roy Wilson

Monday, January 3, 2011

Building Stories

William Ding was a construction worker specializing in skyscrapers, and an aspiring writer. He had 3 passions in life: constructing floors ('building' stories), writing tales (building 'stories'), and knowing about constructions with many floors ('building stories') - I think this phrase qualifies for a triple pun. Let's tackle his passions one by one:

'Building' Stories
Construction is boring and involves some 'boring' too for a strong foundation and possibly water supply. Not much else to talk about here, so moving on ....

'Building Stories'

There's an obsession with building the tallest building (somehow the largest and longest are not at front of the recall queue, but tallest is) and getting a place in the Guinness Book of Records, from the Empire State to Sears Tower to Petronas Towers and now the Burj Khalifa, an immobile monster with 160 floors. There have been attempts to fudge the numbers in order to break an existing record by adding antennas and then adding their height to the total building height, but I am sure it's all with good intent. The key question is, do any of these buildings scrape the sky, as the name suggests? A skyscraper should look like this:

Building 'Stories'
Building stories is tough. My expectation as a science fiction enthusiast is for a story to have the following: a strong visual narrative supplemented by identifiable and relatable context regardless of how futuristic the premise is, a controlled unfolding of events which keeps the unsuspecting reader involved but not privy to plot-points prematurely, and a growing sense of awe and wonder which culminates in surprise or fulfilled expectation but with closure nonetheless. The story is in the telling, and the tell has to be given away at the right moment. As a reader I don't want to be led to and pushed off a cliff without some warning or at least a parachute, nor do I want to be led to more flat ground when there is promise of a cliff. A tall order all of this, but 3 writers come very close in different ways: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, and Robert Silverberg. Details to be covered in a separate post.

As you can see, Bill Ding did not get to build much story-wise in this post (but he did write a book later, called 'Bill Ding Stories: Building stories, building stories, and building stories'. That's because writing posts is much easier than building stories. There are verse things too, which I have tried with meandering results and don't plan to return to in a while.

Note - The British word for floor is storey (with an 'e') and the plural is storeys (these show up as bad spellings in the American spell-check). 'Storey' was not going to work for my story, oops, post, and was therefore conveniently ignored.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Cyberia - The Qwest for Cingularity

Kurzweil the Futurist 
My knowledge of Ray Kurzweil has been limited to the 'Kurzweil' moniker on keyboards in Pink Floyd concert videos, so I was surprised to learn that he is an author, inventor, as well as a futurist. Most people live in the past and a few manage to enjoy now - this reminds me of profound words of wisdom from the old and wise tortoise in Kung-Fu Panda - "Now is a gift, that is why it is called the 'present'". Movie quotes range from vapid yet enormously popular ("I'll be back" - Terminator) to cheesy yet catchy ("You had me at hello" - Jerry Maguire) to the resoundingly impressive yet utterly redundant ("On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero" - Fight Club). A select few choose to live in a future, which while fantastical at face value, is grounded in science (as Arthur C Clarke, a futurist who predicted geostationary satellites in 1945, noted - 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'). They are known as the futurists. 

Ray Kurzweil posits (finally found a good use for this word) that continuing advances in computing will lead to a singularity event in 2045 when apparently computer-based intelligences will significantly exceed the sum total of human brainpower. "The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains ... There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine". There is a corollary to that - advances in computing before that date "will not represent the Singularity" because they do "not yet correspond to a profound expansion of our intelligence." The first Singularity existed just before the Big Bang, if that theory regarding origin of the universe is to be believed. I will refer to the Kurzweil singularity event as Cingularity (Cyber Singularity). Any resemblance to cellular networks dead or living is unintentional.

Plugging into the Matrix
This is interesting, if not horrifying yet. The idea of human beings uploading their consciousness (with the next logical step being a total surrender of their physical being) into cyberspace, a man-made construct, is not very appealing. As noted in my post regarding Alzheimer's (Leaving Just 'A' Memory?), having a cyber-backup structure to prevent losing invaluable constructs like consciousness, intelligence and creativity makes sense, since having these continue to exist in a biological structure subject to all kinds of damage is ridiculous. It of course brings up configuration management issues, e.g., which particular version of your consciousness backup to use if you start 'losing it', but I digress. Utilizing advances in computing to facilitate a neuron-by-neuron cyber-backup of our consciousness makes sense, but the concept of human beings giving up their physical being altogether is fraught with danger.

Implicit Promise, Shaky Premise
While the vision of man-machine convergence might be wildly exciting, one cannot ignore the nagging thought that this is not just about that - it's about man wanting to defy the natural constraints imposed on this blip of a life in the cosmic timeline and attempting to attain immortality because that is the implicit promise of Cingularity, isn't it? But it is unfortunately undone by the shaky premise of it all, which is that the upload of consciousness is going to happen in a hostile, volatile, free-for-all web cast across this wide world.

In Cyberspace no one can hear you scream 
The web works because it still operates on rules implemented via code. Having sentient beings live in cyber-form (and they will want to live on the web and possibly in the cloud since who wants to be tied to a machine without connectivity?) will result in complete anarchy. Human consciousness will immediately start operating with ego, marking their territory, establishing boundaries and firewalls, 'routing' and 'switching' traffic however they want, and rewriting programs to suit their needs. Net neutrality would be neutralized in an instant and get replaced by net brutality. The web would be the scariest place to live in, with viruses and worms ready to hack into your consciousness and causing Dalzheimer's (Digital Alzheimer's) if not complete deletion. 

Anarchy Rules!
Laws and rules will have to be created to deal with that anarchy, and the cyber-world that will result from that will not be too dissimilar from the ancient empires like Rome. If you think about it, human consciousness will end up building a world similar to ours because the effort to transcend and think outside the box is astronomical and beyond the capability of most. Case in point - the movie Tron. The Tron: Legacy world is actually medieval, with programs competing in arenas like gladiators and subject to deletion at the slightest transgression (you might get to drive the wonderful Light Cycle, but your lifecycle will be premature and you will shatter into innumerable 1s and 0s very soon - there will be b100d!). So where is this headed? And the scariest thought of all, we will be at the risk of being switched off anytime since we will be at the mercy of the machine, if not at the mercy of human beings who decided not to live in cyberspace. We would also want to travel via the 'ether' through cellular networks (digital ones replacing the biological one of the human body) which, like Qwest and Cingular, are at the risk of going defunct or being acquired/merged and subject to change at any time. Human consciousness in cyberspace will be akin to the sorcerer in the movie Aladdin who, drunk with power, wanted to be the mightiest genie in the world, got his wish granted, and ended up trapped in a lamp at the mercy of another entity. Not so in'genie'ous.

Perception is Reality
The kicker is the question that if people basically need to feel something real and end up in a Matrix-like world, what is the difference beween the tangible and the intangible? Reality is based on perception - a true and confounding contradiction. Our interpretation of the world is based on human sensory input. So who's to say the current world we are living in is matter-based and not some giant software keeping us in a dream-state? Are we just waiting to be unplugged, which might mean a descent into nothingness, or waking up in the real world? Everyone ready to take the plunge down the rabbit-hole? One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you, don't do anything at all!

Existing in a non-physical state would only make sense if scientific advances allowed controlled matter-to-energy conversion and all humanity made a decision to transform into an energy state at the same time to live in an Asimovian hyperspace where there is no dependency on machine or man. Now I am sounding like a futurist. This brings to mind an amazing cyber-spiritual (if there could be such a thing) short story by Isaac Asimov called The Last Question, my favorite: He wrote this in 1956 - what a futurist!

I term this dystopian cyber-world projected by Kurzweil as Cyberia, a desolate, hostile, barely livable place. I would rather be in Siberia, instead of risking living in a digital wasteland and having to deal with cyber-toothed tigers, trolls, viruses, worms, trojan horses, denial of service attacks, writing this article one day and suddenly being attacked by a worm and getting deleted mid-sentenc

Footnote (written before I got deleted mid-sentence. Looks like I was unwittingly prescient!) - The term futurist has a 'motion' connotation, maybe because it sounds similar to motorist. It does make some sense because a futurist is traveling or has already traveled to the future in his/her mind. Futurian on the other hand, like historian, lacks that sense of movement or urgency which is essential to the futurist's thought process (a futurist is getting or trying to get somewhere new or unknown, a historian is merely visiting already visited places), and sounds more like a chronicler of the future, an impossible feat if not difficult. A futurist is a scientist who systematically predicts the future, as opposed to an astrologer who uses the position of celestial bodies to asystematically predict the position of physical bodies on a temporal plane. I wonder how the demotion of Pluto from planetary status affected astrologers worldwide. Indian astrologers also account for hidden planets called Rahu and Ketu that have not yet been discovered, so there is no risk of those getting demoted - they will need to be discovered first.

Musical CreditsBass: Pankaj Kanth, Lead Guitar (on Bass): Pankaj Kanth, Rhythm Guitar (on Bass): Pankaj Kanth, Effects (on Bass): Pankaj Kanth, Drums: Korg Pandora preset rhythm