An Impotent Illumination.

So this one has been a while in coming. And honestly, only because a friend pushed me. This is a short story (utter crass, I say, !) I wrote for a magazine that, in the end, decided not to publish it. 

Meh. Kids these days.

The man looked at the trigger in his hands. Then at the timer on his watch. Five minutes. Five minutes till the signal was strong enough. Till the plan came to fruition.

Five minutes till the world came to a grinding halt.

And they started it all over again.

It had been in the late 2020s that the first entirely autonomous organization, governed simply by a board of thirteen people, sprung up. The company ran itself, and had every operational base covered – finances, workforce, publicity, administration – every aspect, mass producing clothes and other apparel. The only humans the company employed were the thirteen that were responsible for opening doors that no amount of Artificial Neural Networks could be trained to or machines learn to do.

Politics,it seemed, was where the AI drew the line.

The Internet went crazy. The ratio of humans to machines in organizations had been going down around the world, but nothing of this stature had been planned or tried before.

After the first economic quarter the Company’s stock prices went up. The stock market oscillated violently. Numerous scams bubbled up. Fortunes were lost and made.

Rumors about the people behind it varied from a secret government organization to a collaboration of private, opulent multinationals to a group of crowd-sourced misanthropes. Explanations as to how it functioned spanned the spectrum, right from Computer Science at its peak to Aliens having made their first contact with a very naive and young human race.

Where the Internet did concur was the idea of “working for a living” coming to an end. A golden era where the machines did all the work and all you had to worry about was how well you lived.

The Arts flourished. Space exploration was being considered as the next big challenge. Nuclear fusion was on the verge of being tamed. The first comprehensive base was established on the Moon.

There was already an abundance of resources, the first asteroid having been mined in 2019; the treacherous NGNI-120C flew right between the Earth and the Moon.  Earth’s kitchen had been restocked. There was a new chef. And everyone at the table was hungry.

The second Company came up in 2030. It produced machine components. The board had ten people. The third had six.

No one had the dynamics figured out. At such a tumultuous time, who could ? Who could clearly say where this was headed ? Sure, there were heretics but when did that ever stop anything, or anyone ? There was no visionary; rather, there were too many. Everybody just rolled along, in one global, passive resonance, that this was where we wanted to go all along, this was the current mankind had been waiting to catch for over six thousand years.

The first blip came in 2043. In the form of a minor workers’ strike and subsequent riot on account of rampant layoffs.

There had been growing concerns about what to do with the working middle class which no longer had work and thus no longer earned money. The notion that money was no longer needed to explain one’s wealth was regarded, initially as a practical joke, then later with doubt and confusion. And the wealth and benefits of artificially intelligent autonomous beings taking charge of the daily so and so activities of the human race could not, or rather politically, would not be passed on to sections of the society which were weak, socially or economically.

As more and more robots got work done cheaply and efficiently, an increasing number of the people lost their jobs.

Assemble car parts ? We have a robot for that. Package products at the supermarket ? We built an automated system for that. Bank clerk ? We improved upon ATM machine and removed the human factor out of your banking experience! Are you a consultant ? Our Analytics sector handles that now !

A disruptive murmur, almost a whisper initially, creeped into the global commentary. “We can’t live this way !”, it said,”we need to work !”. It seemed to say,”We need work to define ourselves ! Where do we go from here ? What do we do with all this free time ?”

That line of thought was for the privileged though. The poorer sections of the society became poorer. They could not survive in such an intelligent, labor-less world, a world where the physical labors of man were scoffed as inefficient and erratic. Machines were better in every way; and who ever cared for the human factor in a football stadium with immaculate construction ? You either learned how to deal with such technology, or died trying to.

On the other end, curiously though, the extremely wealthy also started looking for the human factor. Hedonistic splurging could only satiate the human mind so. And soon even the plutocrats started displaying a deep desire to work , if only to apply their minds in something productive.

To calculate the orbit of the next inhabitable planet on their own without using the computers; to invest in the stock market and not use an intelligent algorithm to predict stock trends; to hear the scratch of pen on paper and not mindless mechanical clicks or capacitive touchscreens.

But it was the people who ran these companies that controlled the world now – the way it developed, the people who received the benefits, the way the media reported. Any rebellion against their system was systematically crushed, being reprimanded with bad publicity thereafter to squish any such further thoughts.

This generation still remembers what it was like to work. The next generation will be different. They will never know work. They will be easier to control.

It seemed even the rebellious thought so. Thus, before it was too late, a plan was hatched. A plan to end the tyranny of the AI, and to go back to where it all started, Something that would get them back to how things were and start from scratch, doing things correctly this time.

And so, here he was, holding the trigger to a satellite that held the largest EMP gun ever built, albeit not for the purpose he had in mind. The EMP (or Electro-magnetic Pulse) would render every technological device and machine, every AI on Earth useless, disrupting electromagnetic properties of the materials that were used to manufacture them, effectively throwing back human civilization to pre-millenial times. The mid-20th Century was the closest he could fathom, if not further back.

He wondered what would happen after he pressed the button. The communications base on the moon would certainly be the only technological hub to look to. All the intelligence supplied to the base would make sure that the human race never went to being as under-developed as they were back in the 1950s.

It would just give people on Earth enough time to wrangle power from a few and give it back to the many. The closest any one could come to to restart the complex machine that was human civilization.

Kind of like a second chance really, he thought, but funny, though, how nobody will ever see – 

The timer on his watch went off. Time was up. The end.

He pressed the button, firmly, keeping his finger there for a few seconds longer than necessary.

He could see the power grid failing, the power switching off, through his window. He lit a cigarette as his room went dark.

To a new beginning. 

My list of Incompletes.

This year’s reading list.

I have been trying to do this for a while, but finally, I think, making a comprehensive and loud commitment out of this would help me read all the books I’ve bought (sometimes on an impulse) and not read.

Yep. I’m pretty sure we all have that list.

I’ve been trying to get my head wrapped around TZ Lavine, but getting a complete picture is too hard until you have it a coursebook (probably an intro to psych course). The same thing happened with “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. I took too long with that too.

“Nausea” was an impulse buy on a recommendation by an aunt, but Existentialism is too complicated right now, especially being introduced to it in Sartre’s own words. “Confessions” by Tolstoy is my father’s. And “Blue Citadel” and “Life is Elsewhere” were birthday gifts I haven’t got around to yet.

“Lord of the Flies” just slipped my view otherwise it would have been over quite a while back and again, I had trouble getting used to Camus’ narrative. Currently, I’m going through Berger, a recent addition (along with Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”), and Walden, treating each as a series of essays…hopefully I’ll get the first six finished this semester.

I don’t think I’ll ever get through “Anathem”. Or “Shadows of the Mind” by Roger Penrose for that matter, which should be a thesis on advanced theoretical computational philosophy. No, seriously.

The accidental eavesdropper.

I recently submitted a story for the annual literary magazine of my college. It got printed. I didn’t want to post before it got printed. So here it is !

— — —

He woke up with his head throbbing. He opened his eyes slowly. It was dark outside.

It was night ! How long had he been out ? Where was he ? Marie will be furious !

As more of his environment swam into focus he saw that he was lying in a bush, a neat one at that. He tried getting up, using his arms to prop himself. But as soon as he did so, his arms gave way and he fell, his head spinning around.

Okay maybe I should lie here a bit longer. 

He heard a few hushed noises. Two, he discerned after a while. A stern voice, a woman’s was saying, “celebrating all right…flocks of owls, shooting stars…Diggle…never had much sense”. He supposed he was in someone’s garden, toppled over from all that partying the night before.

It came to him in flashes. He had been with strange people, dressed in different robes and pointy hats – he had met a few celebrating and hugging each other in his usual hangout place after work. They were so bent on celebrating that they had ordered several rounds for everyone present and had proceeded to go berserk, partying and gallivanting across London. And somehow he had gotten caught up in all that mess.

Marie would be furious.

He had gone all night and the next day with them celebrating god knows what ! It had been the craziest time of his life. He couldn’t figure out what had happened after a point in his memories, it was all so muddled up. They had been strange people though; all the while they had been chanting … some name – he couldn’t remember – and speaking their own language and waving small wooden sticks around as if they magicians or something.

His brief reminiscence was broken by the sound of a loud roar of a motor – an engine ?  It was quiet but in that quiet night, it was quite distinct. And near him. The owners of the voices were in the porch.

The voices seemed to have been waiting for this event. They greeted the third voice with questions. He grasped some more. “…fell asleep as we were flyin’ over Bristol”. This was the new voice speaking. Rough, heavy and labored.

The third person in the trio now spoke, a calm, old voice,”…scar forever… better get this over with.” Then someone sniffing, a rough, loud sniff and a “there there” from the lady again.

Robbers ? Odd group, if so.

They put something on the ground. He almost missed the soft thud of something being softly put down. Some more murmurs.

He realized he could almost get up on his own. But he dared not; these people were behaving strangely. He stayed put.

Then he heard shuffling of steps, and silent murmurs.

Probably saying their bloody goodbyes!

There was the motor again. And it softly receded into the distance.

Finally when heard no more and the motor was at a distance, he got up. By now, he had almost regained control of his limbs and was staggering out from the porch towards the gate of the house.

There was no sign of anyone. He looked around the neighborhood. It was a darker night than usual. None of the street lamps were on.

He looked at the porch. He saw a basket with a blanket inside it. He moved to check it out but turned, startled, as he saw something bright fly from the corner of his eye.

What was that ? 

Suddenly the night was bright again. The street lamps were lit. And the sound of the motor was gone.

Okay what did those guys make me drink ? 

Freaking out, he’d feel better when he was at home; he staggered out of the gate.

On his way out, he noticed a small sign, smartly placed, declaring the house to outsiders. But as he turned round the street the only thought which went through his mind was:  Marie will be furious !

He had forgotten all about the sign which had read:

No 4, Privet Drive.

A few lessons from this summer..

Okay. I had 11 weeks off from college this summer. 8 of those involved an internship. Needless to say my summer was wrecked. And hectic.

With my internship taking up more than half of my days from Monday to Saturday ( yes a 6-day week ! ) I never actually had time to catch up on all those carefully crafted plans and indulgent lists made before the internship, during the first week or so. Those lists and plans got flagged down or ended up as botched attempts as soon as I realized I travelled 2 hours to my place of work, each way.

During this unappreciated preview of my adult life, I found some treasures and realized quite a few epiphanies.

1. Pink Floyd (esp The Dark Side of the Moon) still heals the day. The psychedelic experience, besides still being shockingly relevant –

“..And you run and you run

To catch up with the sun

But it’s sinking

Racing around

To come up behind you again

The sun is the same

In a relative way

But you’re older

Shorter of breath

And one day closer to death..”

-Time, Pink Floyd ( Dark Side of the Moon )

just puts you in a completely different mood, soothing your mind; warm, caressing, trance-like music that fills out the voids with its queer and unimaginatively complex harmonies.

 

2. Life without the web, the internet can be shockingly painful. For me, at least, not having an internet connection when I’m at my laptop or the iPad can be very, very dull and painfully restrained. The very immediateness of subjects, to be looked up without a  moments notice has gotten addictive. Because I recently shifted over to Open Source and I’m constantly learning new things on the web through forums and courses, not having an internet connection was, to repeat again, restrained.

Believe me, I’m the kind of guy who collects and reads a lot of books, a huge music collection to listen to, a more than acceptable social life, is a sports fanatic and its not like I was craving for the web while on the Metro back home. But if my laptop has some issue (usually some linux device driver problem in the beginning) the instant craving, shamefully, takes control.

3. Spain still beats the heck out of any footballing nation. Not even Germany, the Netherlands or her Royal Blunder – England could do anything about that this Euro. Although I’m all for the competitiveness of the English side of football, the Spanish side pretty much ruled every base in football, except for that freak of nature – Chelsea – winning the Champions League. But more on that later.

4. Roger Federer still rules the grass season. Though at the time of writing, he lost to Murray horribly in the Olympic finals. But the way he’s holding and smiling at his silver, me thinks he might just be trolling Andy Murray and the entire British nation. Oh and yeah, Nadal is still the King of Clay.

5. Delhi University cut-offs remain ridiculous, mocking and laughable and I just pity those looking for seats there this summer. The JEE is a mess too.

6. You can probably earn a college degree online (at least a Computer Science one ), what with all the free courses shrooming up on the web. Don’t believe me ? Check out this link and then talk.

7. To drive is to attain nirvana. Having got a little more than 600-odd km on the road under 4 months, I believe I was destined to drive (stick that is). My dad being my role model here though, I have come to hate most of the traffic in Delhi with their retarded sense of traffic rules and self-righteousness.

Nonetheless be it a hatch-back or an SUV, I can probably drive the wheels off it, given enough time and asphalt. And costly, precious Petrol.

8. John Mayer’s “Born and Raised” is the perfect album to drive to. (You know, apart from Sabbath, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Maiden and Metallica, Alter Bridge, Audioslave, Floyd, Hendrix, Foo Fighters and probably Coldplay) With its soft sounds humming you to peace, not even the most retarded of drivers can shake your composure. His previous works were good enough with him hitting a low point with Battle Studies but I believe he’s really come back with this one.

9. You can probably spend an entire day browsing through Hacker News, and still not get to the bottom of all the cool links and knowledge of the users and commenters. It boasts of a user base of people genuinely passionate about topics they post, and almost all links, questions, projects and topics to be found here, from economics through math, science, tech, startups, to astronomy, are assured to be deep and insightful.

Regular visits, probably once or twice a day can be enlightening on many different levels.

10. I think I probably need to write and post more often. Hope to do that during this half of the year.

How was your summer ?

Makings of a bibliophile ??

It was April, and I was back home for the last time before my my end semester exams. My mom and brother were leaving for Lucknow to meet a few relatives so it was gonna be me and my dad alone in the house for about a week. I was hanging around the house when I took up a long forgotten idea of mine.

I started cataloging my collection of books; mine -that is both me and my dad’s – collected over the last 3 decades or so. My dad too was supportive and with mom being absent to fuss over the mess, it was the perfect time.

It was with almost childlike glee that I stacked up my books on my bed, stacks as tall as I am( not that I’m tall) ! It was good holding books which I had not touched for over half a decade, and had spent a large chunk of my childhood getting lost in.

I was so jobless I actually took up a few – reading my favorite parts of them was so refreshing ! Some book s are too much fun to only read once. Sometimes I was surprised that I found a new meaning between the lines, other times I was left dumbfounded that my younger self ever read such material. But I guess that’s how life is.

The books on my bed. A lot have been cataloged already and are missing from this picture.

There, just right above the Harry Potter series was the space occupied by the Wheel of Time series. There on the top is another hole – probably dad’s photography books.

A lot of this was done on time ( before mom came back ) with the help of my dad.

Check out the full list.

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

  -Groucho Marx.

The (almost) 5 books that have influenced me the most..

This is part of  the daily post’s post-a-day journal. So here goes!!

 

I have definitely read a lot of books in my as yet, short, life. But  to me, they have never been enough. Sure lately,having not enough time,  I have started perusing the open page and the editorial pages of  the HINDU to sate such literary thirsts. But I’ve never grown tired of them.

Strangely, being exposed to a plethora of subjects and genres (reading is in the family) of the literary world, I haven’t been much interested in graceful, elegant works – high art as one of my cousins says – like the Naipauls, the Rushdies, the Bellows – and instead am driven towards the likes of the Tolkiens, the Jordans and, lately, Ms. Rand.

And although I can’t say I have a genre that I stick to, but the works of Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and King also never got through to me.

Amongst those who did are the ones that have influenced me the most –

1. Atlas Shrugged : I read this one fairly recently and its safe enough to say that this book is one of my top 3 of all time. With Ayn Rand’s thoughts on objectivism, rational self interest, and the power of ability over need truly made me think a lot more than I’m used to. Yes, there were a few ideas that I did not agree with, but its has had impact on me to the extent that I have started incorporating some of the beliefs and concepts in my life. I am still amazed by the her perception of the world, at her time and with such intensity.

2. For one more day : I would rather write Albom’s name instead of his book’s title buts since this is 5 books and not authors that influenced me, I’ll have to stick with one of my favorites of his.  It speaks of the regrets and missed chances in Charlies life, how he wishes to see his mother,depressed after a bad divorce, who passed away. It is heavy on nostalgia, reminiscence and a light read although very touching.

3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : Yeah the name is a mouthful. But Pirsig’s takes on quality and his thoughts on the ghosts of science, musings on Kant, Hume, Poincare particularly interested me. His descriptions of Phaedrus’ detachment and suffering was a little too much at times but I thought a lot during this one too (although it took me 3 tries over two years to get through this book). It was a thesis on quality in a world obsessed with quantity and where quality is usually a luxury. It completely changes the way you think ! And I absolutely loved the motorcycle ride.

 

 

4. The Kite Runner: This is one of those stories of lives touched by violence, tragedy with glimmers of hope and peace and closure midst all of this. Narrated beautifully by Hosseini, his simple, elegant and innocence style writing was a brand new experience for me. It tugs at you and makes you feel, even where you think you can’t or won’t. And with such depth of detail it seems as if the author has himself suffered through similar times mentioned in the book. Humility and grief,too, are deeply embedded in this novel.

5. I can’t narrow down the list to last one. To this last one I leave the list open with my options:

  • Malgudi Days
  • The Alchemist
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 
  • The Namesake
Take your pick!