martial’s ways

I had been avoiding seeing anyone from the previous job, still fiercely and intensely angry that none of them spoke up for me (I liked to think I had always spoken up for anyone else when necessary), still struggling with feelings of loss and betrayal and grief (the ease with which they would rather question my competence and turn a blind eye to the actual issue), still feeling a moment’s slip away from quitting the industry. Buoyed by the utterly unlooked for and unassuming decency of my latest boss, I find it in myself to forget the horrors of those months and meet a few old coworkers again. It has taken me a few months of isolation to come to terms with how truly alone I was in a world of men, where the rules are theirs and belonging to me is extended only under tolerance, despite coding together and working together (I’ll never be one of you, to you, when it matters). It is not easy still, their obliviousness to what I’d undergone is painful and I struggle with questions of worth when I see them, but I begin to realize that it will almost always be so.

My favorite Latin poet is Martial. His Epigrams carried me through many glum days. When I had to pretend to keep a job, I would return in the evenings to read his delightfully lewd and unpretentious take on all the affectations necessary to carry on in the world.

Very early on, I picked up the habit of doodling Latin epigrams of my own when teachers droned on about virtue and chastisement, about the importance of being polite and respecting authority’s many manifestations. Eventually, this led to a fledgling job in writing nonsensical prose that appealed to the repressed wanting to be set free by the fertile fruits of another’s imagination.

I came here, and gave myself a burial in the sea along the way. I became all that I loathed, full of fears (immigration and the right to work/stay were at the root of it all). I put up with a great deal of cares and concerns I would have shirked away from before, lived my own disillusioned Catcher in the Rye day by day, let myself survive, shaking away any urge to be.

I’ve a love/hate relationship with this country. I traded away my life’s freedom for the daily, delightful freedoms available to me here which I had never had before in an oppressive society. It was addictive, and I crashed hard when I realized every now and then what exactly the Faustus had given in return. I bought my safety to live and travel as I please in exchange for feeling unsafe and unnerved every moment of my work life.

Each time I change a job, I hope that at least this team will care enough to speak up against the subtle humiliations and harassment dished out just because I don’t have a cock. Negging, I learn, is the word that encompasses this sexual behavior the best. It goes hand in hand with a culture of covert victim blaming. Each time I have raised the issue with what I assume is a sympathetic male coworker, I’ve felt debased even more just because I am forced to repeat the experience all over in my mind and only to find that they are blissfuly oblivious to the consequences (to my morale, to my career), and utterly on the side of the perpetrator (it’s not that bad, he’s just autistic, I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way, have you taken it to HR?, did you report it to your manager, and to your manager’s manager?). All of it has an accumulative effect until I flee to the next job and hope that I can have a few months’ reprieve before it happens again.

I had not expected it to be different with the latest job. I had even planned a vacation in late September to go interviewing in anticipation. Then, when I thought nothing would surprise me anymore, I ended up working for a man who is frightfully decent without trying. He speaks up against men who try to neg, in a firm and courteous manner, without even thinking twice. They retaliate as they do, when he is not around, but I take courage from his acts and words, and don’t let it get to me. My self-confidence and my morale, both in tatters, begin to spark up again. I am usually only a man away from leaving it all behind and running to some far flung corner of the world, tired and wretched as I’ve been. It is surprising to find myself mildly optimistic.

“You don’t have to do that,” I tell him one day, after one of these episodes.

“Do what?” he asks, distracted, already busy with looking up the conference room for his next meeting.

I promise myself that I won’t do something as stupid as building a shrine to him. It is really stupid that all it has taken to get my vote is acceptance and basic decency. It’s also telling of the state of our industry, unfortunately. I’ve usually been decent at managerial roles, even if they are not my cup of tea, thanks to my general notions about having agency restored to everyone. Due to my newfound glimpses of safety, I take on more than I like. I’m a very visible target for the politics, because I am the youngest at that level, and the only woman, and I prefer quietness to the flashiness and arrogance prevalent in those circles. It’s all right, I think to myself, because my chronic concerns have been alleviated a little with this measure of unlooked for grace.

I go back home and pick up Martial’s Epigrams for the first time in a long while. [you, of yourself, create a Rome for me.] His pen bursts into wit and colours, and I read him with wine and peaches, and let myself be once more (timidly, dreading that all of this is a mirage that will pass too soon).

(I’ve met an unicorn and I wonder how long I’ll be lucky. It doesn’t matter, perhaps; all that matters truly is that for the first time a man I worked for has left me better off than worse.)

—-

maybe | maybe not

I am told it helps to know your desires to set the right goals. Today, my desires are mostly wavering and vague, and utterly materialistic.

——

I have been considering buying one of those aluminum fold-up bikes. I don’t know that I necessarily like the idea. The convenience sounds appealing though. I am an awful lifter of heavy objects and that is a surefire path to causing myself damage. There, I have justified the fold-up contraption to myself. Now if only it came in lovelier colors.

——–

Marilyn Manson’s coming to Concord. I’d really like to go, but his live performances are either extremely good or awful, and there is no predictability about his form. On the other hand, it won’t be a summer proper unless I go to at least one awful concert where I am in love with a lead singer’s voice and stockings. And he does wear stockings well, carrying them with more flair than many women half his age.

——–

With summer here, I have been looking for excuses to buy a new wetsuit. I don’t have any good reason to. My current one, even if positively ancient, is sturdy. It’s just that I really want a new one in neon pink.

——–

I have been coveting a convertible for a few years. When I worked for an automobile manufacturer, one of the few perks of the job was a lease from their vehicle inventory. I enjoyed the convertibles the best. So now I am wondering if I should. I imagine I won’t, because I have named my car Marcella, and I am quite attached to her. She’s given me solace and a place to sleep in or hide in, in various circumstances long ago – now my life isn’t that happening thankfully. Still, it would be nice to drive around a convertible. It’s about the only redeeming qualities of this coast, apart from the surf.

——–

And chia-seed yogurt. I hate avocado toast, acai bowls, and turmeric lattes, but chia-seed yogurt is a hip trend I wholeheartedly endorse (today). My appetite, ever a fussy thing, is now set on only eating yogurt and marinara sauce, and peanut-butter with tea.

And goat milk. I like goat milk.

——-

beyond the north wind | the flute plays

Pliny, Plutarch and Ptolemy all talked about these stones I am walking amidst. There were holy men and strange rituals here in these desolate lands, cold and gloomy, beyond the northern most winds the Greeks knew of then.

The Hebrides is close, even today, to the stories I had read as a child. I came back younger, fat on milk and cheese, head full of a young girl’s dreams once more.

They are an open, hospitable, warm sort out there, sparsely populated as the tiny villages are. The women mothered me, and the men fathered me. At this point in my life, I must wonder if I come across a perpetually lost lamb that even hardy men in kilts and no-nonsense women who flinch at nothing have begun to pat my head and ask me to eat more. I sang Omnia sol temperat for them, badly, and they humored me nevertheless. All things were warmed by the sun that day, for their weather was playing coy for once, retreating with clouds and rain to make way for a taste of spring or two before it returned with vengeance to drench everything once again.

I felt safe as I wandered. There were no irksome flirtations, no expressions of interest that when turned down became nasty and troublesome. There was just plainness and honesty, even when I was invited for more, and that was a remarkable change from everything I fear in my daily life.

Bluebells bloomed everywhere, on the barrows and in the crags crawling to their coastlines. There, among the bluebells and the heather, as the gorse bloomed yellow on hedge and rock, under cloudy skies through which sunlight streaked through in patches, I could only stand in my muddy clothes and ruined shoes, armed with my trusty umbrella that has accompanied me for many years now, watching the fishing boats return, watching the crofters head home after a day’s work, watching how life thrived even here, even beyond the northernmost winds that the Greeks knew of. I thrive too, relaxed and young once again, enjoying more whisky than I ought to, enjoying pies, black puddings, and cheese and haggis. Each time I deviate from my general regard for my health, I promise myself I will give it all up, and return to water and tea starting the next day. Unfortunately, my promises to myself are very rarely kept.

The prospect of returning to San Francisco is unappealing. I don’t live there. I merely exist. I’ve never really known how to give up on a lost cause gracefully, though. So I’ll return to suffer and whine, I suppose.

At least, I have matters to look forward to. I need to buy new shoes. And I need to find a way out of the tedium that is the self-driving industry running on hype and stupidity of people who have never done anything real before in their lives.

Even if the hype doesn’t drive me out, then the men will.

[All those little boys who were the apples of their parents eyes, raised to believe they can do no wrong, successfully transitioned into poorly socialized men who believe everything they do is for some greater good (even if all they do is optimize clicks by getting the naive public addicted to things), and therefore they deserve whatever they set their eyes on, damn the consequences.

I give it a week before the next one tries to hit on me and then promptly goes weird after I decline. No, I don’t know who the next one will be. It doesn’t even matter. After a while, it’s become a blur.]

To think that I was once so set on robotics back in my naive and foolish youth, keen enough to do unpaid or poorly paid work because of how much I loved it.

——-

I was wandering about on the continent when I heard the loveliest folk song performed by some buskers. I had to write it down and then look it up later. It is a haunting song about a flute-player in the spring. The girl promises to love him from dawn till dusk if it is someone she knows already. If it is a stranger, then she agrees to love him all her life. I laughed at the translation, if only because of how ironically it reflected my general sentiments about life these days. I’ve always liked new people and new places as opposed to anyone or anything I know already. I ought to plot a chart seeing how my whining about life increases as the novelty of the place where I live in or the people I know goes down. The bay area, though, and the people, utterly drive me nuts with how painfully stereotypical they are, and how much unintended harm and deliberate cruelty I have faced over the years I have worked here.

——-

emoticons

I was clearing up messages on my phone, and I noticed that most of it was just me throwing emoticons over the fence at other people. Sometimes, I can’t be arsed to bring myself to write words, to think of words, and emojis are an excellent defense. I can be wildly cheerful, optimistic, and generally awesomely American by blandly thrusting emojis into your face. Take that, you intrepid communicator!

(Take that, and suck sweetly and long on it…no, wrong blog).

Not everyone is receptive to my emoticon tactics. My previous landlord outright told me that English was the only acceptable language.

Even she thawed, though, in the end, when I was moving out, and offered me a rent cut and two sad-face emoticons. We had brunch together at my new place, and I’d made a mushroom-gruyere tartine that I’d first learned to make in Atlanta. She deplored the lack of a garden here and wondered how her little villager tenant was faring. We’d managed to move some of my flowering plants over to her garden last week. I’d been writing when she arrived. Taken by a sudden whim, I monologued the first few pages to my captive audience. She did not run away frightened. Perhaps there is hope for my legacy, after all. I’ll write for the goth teenagers and the lonely housewives eating up Valium like candy. I’ll write for the depressed, anxiety-ridden tech workers living cooped up in their tiny studios, and we can spend our old age battling carpal tunnel together.

I picked up emoticons from my Japanese friends. There is enough to mine an anthropological thesis or two in their obsession with emoticons. Let the Kawai flow, they taught me. So now I am all about that Kawai.

Sometimes, I wonder if I find them easier because I find words precious. Giving words feels at times like giving myself. When I write of someone, or write to someone, I feel it is an attempt at gifting just like giving darned socks for Christmas. Giving emoticons, on the other hand, is cheap and effortless, perhaps as many other find words to be.

Most emoticons look like my facial expressions anyway, round-faced and toothy and very expressive despite the audience. It is faithful communication, then.A few friends from Japan had visited me over the weekend. They gave me a nekomata scarf, because it tied in with my excessive emoticon use, because it reminded them of my endless fascination with myths of the old worlds, because my intern and I had once searched for nekomata on nico-nico and ended up flagging the IT folks when the search results took us to role-play site where the men were old and the women were high school girls dressed up as feline yokai. I am not particularly a cat aficionado. I don’t use cat emojis. And now I have a nekomata scarf.

“It was either this or going to vista print to make you a shit-she-says scarf,” one of them told me.

Ah, yes, I’d forgotten that they used to snippet my rambling and tweet those out. We had very little entertainment in the garage, now that I think of the lows they had fallen to.

“It wasn’t me, it was Spinoza,” I’d tried telling them, to little avail. What did it matter? Spinoza was a grumpy sort who stated the obvious and the random, who managed to inspire Rawls and Wittgenstein and the rest who actually could put blocks to build a house. If philosophers were emoticons, he’d be ūüôĄ.

My Japanese friends noticed my haircut. And they were the first, other than my mum. Figures, she has an eye for meticulous detail, and wouldn’t be out of place in their company.

I’ve been getting to the beach after work since the weather turned. It has been a wonderful way to end the day. It is that coastal blood in me, needing sand and coconuts and the ocean breeze to feel alright. My beach is rather desolate during the weekdays, except for those layabouts knocked out on weed (they are in the same location each day – hope somebody checked they are breathing still) and the intrepid yoga practitioners (sunscreen, Gaiam mats, and Athleta). The weekends are a different story, once the tech armies converge. Ah, no wonder the poor locals complain so. It is a rather beautiful land, when we aren’t around to flatten it down to the Bay Area’s general lack of personality.

I’ve some delicious treats from Japan thanks to the visitors, and my family sent savories for Vishu. Since I have a mostly empty wine rack, I’ve been encouraging guests to bring me gifts of libation. So the evening is set for tea and kuzhallapam, and then wine and wagashi.

—–

–begin existential angst–

My current workplace consists of people I get along with, generally pleasant and nice humans (except when loose-tongued by alcohol, when they notice I am female). There are a few who seem to be interested in me, pursuing that with the stereotypical push-pull courting rituals that engineering workplaces seem to bring in the Valley. I’ve been avoiding them like the plague, with skills honed from years of practice (It isn’t that I am too good for you, it’s that you are too good for me.) Plotting my exits so that they can’t catch me outside work, not even in the parking lot, while still ensuring that it doesn’t impact my ability to collaborate with them professionally. Despite that usual issue, though, they are some of nicest people I’ve worked with. They are about IPOs and ROIs. I admit I am bored out of my mind when they start going on about that. Financial security is important. God knows I learned that the hard way (and God forbid I should forget that lesson). Still, it is drudgery to hear people talking about money all the time. It’s easy to float along on repeat-mode, as almost every conversation is simply an echo of a previous one. Grin and bear it with grace, they used to tell the child I had been growing up. I’m doing that now, though sulkily and not with an iota of grace. And then I wonder how many of us are doing the same, doing and talking ‘geek’ things just so that we are networked in and considered ‘one of us’?

Now that everyone can’t stop raving about AI and robotics, I guess I’m resigned to being a killjoy with my weak smiles when they gush on about how cool it all is. Quite so, my darling. Quite so.

I’ve a dinner invite tomorrow. Must remember to retrieve my agreeability and manners before then.

I don’t shirk effort, but I’ve never sought it either. So I planned to stick to the norm, to just do whatever seems to work for most of us, to follow that well-paved road with plenty of trail markers and handholds, avoiding risk and uncertainty wherever possible. There seems to be vague contentment in following that path. What more can one ask for? I’ve been thinking how perfect it would be if I can stick to that standard valley recipe. Date that boyfriend who works for the competitor, spreading the risks nicely, and get married, and get a mortgage and two kids, and then spend the rest of my life in a bubble with a bunch who’ve followed the same recipe. It’s proven difficult though. Mind over heart, or heart over mind, they say. I wanted both, and I’ve no idea whether that is even achievable in this place. At least there is inspiration in the insipid, and a morbid fascination with my reluctance to leave behind a place that’s not working for me, and in this pit of existential angst I can get some writing done. I notice more when I am unhappy than when I’m happy, and observation is key to writing.

Meanwhile, I use emoticons.

— end existential angst–

—-

I’ve a new Mathematica subscription, as a Vishu gift to myself. It is one of my favorite tools. My friends were all about Matlab, back when we were young. I liked Mathematica for the power and flexibility of its representational primitives. What are we, but nodes and edges?

Abraham’s Daughter

The Story of Issac and Abraham is one of my favorites from the Bible, because it is so telling of what parents do to their children, are willing to do to their children, in order to bring about their desires and expectations. Abraham, wishing badly to be validated by his God, thinks his son is an okay enough price to pay. I’ve written before about someone in my life who was badly affected by parental expectations. Most of us don’t quite get to Abraham, but we still cling subconsciously to the idea our children are only tools to serve our purposes, to fulfill our needs. I’m back to write today, again, after a while, because I have been watching from the sidelines of a brutal, cold war.

She is one of my oldest friends, and one of the closest. I’ve watched her grow from a precocious child who was stubborn and often temperamental, to a woman beautiful and accomplished who fights the arsed-up society back home everyday silently and with grace. It isn’t the battles outside that gets to her, though. It is the one at home that chips away at her. The scars that are hidden are often deeper than ones that we see.

I remember her long hair, her glasses, her expressive soulful eyes, and her fierce temper. We were close, and she is one of the few who’s known me so well for so long, as we grew up together before I knew to construct a simplified facade over myself closer to what the world wanted to see, an artifice that was hurt less by the callous and the thoughtless than the flawed flesh and blood creature within. It took me quite some effort, after I reached the age of twelve or thirteen, to give the whole of myself to friends I made, to let them know me without distillation, without refinements and tweaks. I am not writing of myself today; I am writing of her, because she loved me for a long time for what I was (and I’d like to think she loves me still, across oceans and circumstances changed), and I’ve always wished her well and hoped for many good things come to her.

Living in that country I left was something that scared me; and the thought of returning is something that scares me still. I was very unhappy there, unhappy to the core of my bones. She is worn down by the society. I was broken down by it. So I admired her for her resilience, for how she managed to make things work for her, for how she carried on doggedly with her dreams even when all of the odds were amassed against her, even when she had to deal with indignities and financial constraints, even when she had to watch the rest of her friends go ‘forward’ with their lives in ways that the society deemed necessary, even when she has to constantly engage with well-meaning elders who think all of this has gone for too long and that they’d rather put a drastic end with a true and tested method (marriage). I am insulated by distance from them (and even then I shudder at the thought of returning for Christmas often). She is not. She bears the expectations gracefully, and when she is called a failure, she still finds it in her to brush off the harsh words, the psychological manipulations, and outright witch-hunt to focus on her plans and goals. I was never like her. My flight instinct has always been stronger than my fight instinct. So I watch her fight and I wonder how she does it.

[It is a cycle. You marry early because you are asked to, and then you are pushed to, and then you might be manipulated into. And you do all of it in another twenty odd years to your child. You break them enough until they are tied to your apron strings, emotionally dysfunctional, careening towards anxiety as they clamor for promotion, for new cars, for new houses, for a pretty bride or a rich husband, and two kids, and then having those kids ace every entrance examination of their lives, and then making sure that they marry right and early, and all over again. I am not here to write about that cycle. Many others have, at length, and with eloquence and passion.]

We went to see Jumanji. I heard her laughing carefree throughout the silly film at the actors’ antics, and I wondered how she lightened her burdens. I came away inspired, trying to lighten the burdens in my life as she did in hers. Over here, people try to find God, or at least a cult, or chemical aids (prescriptive or otherwise), or crossfit, or meditation, or a hundred other external sources. And there she was, strong in herself, resilient in ways I never was, fiercely focused and light of heart despite her burdens, despite the fact that even at home she had no respite. She isn’t just carrying on, which is the most that most of us can do in her place. She seeks out joys actively and doesn’t stay down. I don’t know how she manages to do so. And I don’t know how to do that. Many years ago, when we first met as children, I had fancied myself the stronger one. Time has proven me wrong and I don’t grudge her this victory at all.

And yet, at what cost? So many of us internalize the expectations placed on us until they frame our psyche even if we’ve resisted, until they determine our reactions, our anxieties, until they dictate what we stress out over, what we strive to like even if we fundamentally don’t.

Someone once tried to teach me that sons doing things right bring honor to the family, and daughters doing things right meant not bringing dishonor to the family. They don’t speak to me anymore, resigned as they are to the fact that my life has veered off sharply in directions they don’t approve of and have no control over. What they said though, registered in the child’s brain, and I still think about it often, and I see imprints of it all over in how most women pursue their dreams, and I have walked amongst women who say they lean in and help other women though they fight like dogs for a male supervisor’s approval, and the Raj isn’t dead yet in the country where I was raised.


He was known as the son of Joseph,
the son of Heli,
the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi,
the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph,
the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum,
the son of Esli, the son of Naggai,
the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein,
the son of Josech, the son of Joda,
the son of Joannen, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel,
the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri,
the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam,
the son of Elmadam, the son o
f Er,
the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim,
the son of Matthat, the son of Levi,
the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph,
the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim,
the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha,
the son of Nathan, the son of David,
the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz,
the son of Sala, the son of Nahshon,
the son of Amminadab, the son of Aram, the son of Arni,
the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah,
the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham,
the son of Terah, the son of Nahor,
the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg,
the son of Eber, the son of Shelah,
the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem,
the son of Noah, the son of Lamech,
the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared,
the son of Mahalalel, the son of Cainan,
the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam,
the son of God.

Not a woman in there. Where did the mothers go? I remember asking my catechism teacher about that, as a child not yet ten, and getting scolded furiously. I ran away. It was only the beginning of what turned to be very many years of running away from many matters, primarily rooted in faith. Faith, as I had realized then, was a powerful tool to psychologically manipulate us not just into arcane rituals and superstitions, to take our work and bread, but also to keep some of us down and lift others up, and even when we break away, the scars are still deep in us. So most of us end up sacrificing ourselves on those altars down the line, voluntarily, psychologically impacted by society and family as we are, even if we managed to rebel and resist when we were dragged there. And since it is our own doing now, everyday, in our daily lives and choices, it doesn’t even register.

I know what it’s done to me, as I stand here free and in exile. I wonder what it’s done to her and how she keeps her flame going.

————–

Here, I cooked for Vishu and invited friends over. My new apartment rang with laughter and smelled of traditional food. It was delicious. We inaugurated a new tea service and had an impromptu violin recital. Later, there was tawny port and the plum cake my family had sent over. Now I am well-fed, quite drunk, and sleepy; the combination has left me content and in the mood to torment my neighbors with another impromptu recital. Fortunately, they have been quite tolerant of my quirks so far.

I was a shoddy driver last week and smashed the front of my car against a pillar at the office parking lot. The dent and the scratches look woebegone. I will get it fixed in a couple of months, I’ve decided.

I sneaked into the opening night of the Death of Stalin here at the local theatre. The crowd was an eclectic bunch of professors from Stanford and conspiracy theorists. I stood out rather.

There is a float spa nearby which is all the rage these days around here. You get in a water pod and they shut out the lights. Then you float in the dark for a hour or two, and it is supposed to help you bring self-awareness and peace within. The parking lot is full of cars and taxis, and so are the side-streets, and I have to park a few blocks away to get to my dry-cleaners which is alongside the spa. Seekers all, and I wish them luck.

————–

easter passover | spring break

Headed out to New Mexico for a spring break. It turned out to be cold and windy, and I spent most of it sighing to myself, sniffling a great deal, and feverish, popping aspirins and swigging caffeine to stay on my feet.

Came back to find my car battery done with. So now I have that to sort out. My dryer is also on hartaal. You shall be dealt with too, in due time. I returned in a bouncy mood, so I am not yet cranky about all of this.

Why a bouncy mood, you might ask? New Mexico is a wild and wonderful place, the arid, western frontier of reds and ochres that the Hollywood films exaggerate to paint loyalty born of dreams in faraway kids. The vast expanse of land, dotted only by tumbleweed and the occasional shack, is a sight to drink in after spending the last three months in the Bay Area sprawl, after working in San Francisco.

New Mexico is a land of stark contrasts: California retirees go there to buy homes to die in, because it is affordable, and they go about in their mini-coopers right past the heroin addicts (it is heroin country here), the homeless, and the teeming masses of unemployed young men of local descent. There is tourism catering to the coastal vacationeers, nice tours that take you to pueblos, not unlike how wildlife sanctuaries in some countries organize tours to see endangered wildlife (Pointing is rude, unless they aren’t one of us).

While I managed to get my usual quota of socio-political observations, I didn’t go there for venturing into amateur anthropological absurdities.

I went to R&R (rest and rejuvenate, in New Mexican tourist parlance). I wound up at a hot springs pond in the mountains underneath the full moon.

Passover was marked at the Jewish association, and the food and the company left me replete. We wound up discussing how altars and sacrifices emerged from psychological needs to surrender and to give up self and agency to another authority. It had been a long time since I’ve had a conversation that touched on interests in that domain, in exploring how the human psyche births into being the same needs and fantasies with common themes across geography and society. The last person who I had a conversation with on similar topics had been a diehard Foucault disciple. That had been a long conversation. Foucault isn’t really a philosopher in my book, as much as he is a hacker/interpreter/assembler putting things together succinctly and accessibly for the benefit of a broader audience. Going by the standards of today, where subjectivity and objectivity have become blurred, it is perhaps not unreasonable to call him a philosopher for our times.

I attended Easter Mass at an old and beautiful chapel, captured in faith by the beautiful choir ensemble they put together. I went to see an opera in a theatre by the desert, that opened out to the arid landscapes. I had my fill of art and food, of economically exiled California hippies and weed.

[I missed my family. Perhaps it is because I am not yet settled into my new apartment, and was traveling during a holiday I usually spend at home. Some tidings from there too, made me think of life and mortality and the importance of making things work for me as best as I can, cutting out stuff that isn’t working (all those todos that were never going to get done), without waiting for another day, for another time.]

just you wait | the creature

I went to see The Creature at the Ballet. It was sold out. It had rave reviews during the last season. It had its moments. I liked it well enough. It was beautifully choreographed.

I’ve been spoiled since Hamilton. I’d gladly have chanced the Solstice rituals that people believe will give them a chance at Hamilton tickets (harder to get than Green cards, they say). I loved the production last year. It had been impossible to obtain tickets; everything had been sold out early at all price ranges. I had given up. Fortunately, I finally managed to go along with a doctor who had tickets from his employer. It was worth the indignity of calling the box office everyday, of filling in endless raffle forms, of calling everyone I knew and asking if they had tickets.

I have been lukewarm about theatrical productions after Hamilton. I am still wondering if I should go for Nijinsky later next month. I wonder how closely the production mirrors the rise and tragedies of one of the greatest dancers of modern ballet. I think I won’t say no if I get the chance to tag along with a more hardcore fan.

black panther | drakon

I went to see Black Panther. I had my qualms since it is a superhero film. I avoid those like the plague normally unless social pressure forces me to be versed in pop-culture for small-talk purposes.

I went to see the film because I had been fascinated by the Black Panther Party movement of Huey Newton etc when I had first moved to the San Francisco Area. The 60s were a socially awakened (woke!) time here, and back in my motherland too. I have been curious about how these movements started so energetically and loudly, and how it all ended in a wisp.

The film isn’t bad, if you are into that genre. I went in with different and unrealistic expectations. So take my words with a grain of salt.¬†

I had to go all the way to the outskirts of San Jose to see the film since the local ones with reclining chairs were sold out.

The action sequences were amazing, and doubly so because I rarely see anything in the genre, and this was my first experience in a Dolby Imax theatre. It is the most expensive film I’ve watched in a theatre. Next time, I think I will wait for seats at my local theatre.

I didn’t like the soundtracks much, but I am fussy when it comes to soundtracks harmonizing with plot progression and character development.

The lead was predictable. It was a standard hero’s journey, as he gets over Daddy issues, gets betrayed by his best friend, combats the villain who is from the same family but wronged by the mistakes of the father the hero idolizes, and gets the girl. The end of journey makes the hero more aware of the pain in the world and turns his ways from bravado to healing and fixing, as is the standard formula. I haven’t read the comics, so I don’t know about how truthful the portrayal is.

It was nice to see the little chap from The Wire grow into a big, bad villain, even if his character had more layers in The Wire. He has a nice, moving dialogue sequence at the end, about his ancestors dying in the ocean on slave-ships, and about how he would like to die in the ocean too. The words were heartrending, and the truth is, but the package missed something. It missed the lack of closure, the open wounds, the failures since, and the polarization of contemporary mores and conversation.

The women were strong and virtuous, and had beautiful eyes. The single woman who didn’t have much in the way of virtue was killed by the villain boyfriend, so I guess she is redeemed by love in the end.

Andy Serkis was hard to identify because I have rarely seen him in a non-CGI/Motion Capture role, and in this he looks unusually human. He reminded me of a colleague I used to work with,  with his swagger and madness.

Martin Freeman was there. I don’t know why. I also don’t know what happens to him in the end, because I cannot remember a closing scene for his character.

I would love to watch a sensitive film that goes into the socio-political and historical context, consequences and characters of the Black Panther movement. The villain of Black Panther, who was in the Wire, had been the protagonist of a well done film called Fruitvale Station, which is about a shooting victim at the Bart Station in Oakland in the 2000s. I think I expected something along those lines, with all the critical and popular acclaim that this film was.

I cannot say I fail to understand why the acclaim is warranted. It has many firsts to its credit, and many of these firsts are very late in the coming. I am glad to celebrate them, but I guess I just expected something more well-crafted. The actors were capable, but the plot wasn’t. Many elements of this production (the casting, the plot itself) are relevant to the national conversation, though there must be a balance between celebrating today and wondering why it took so long, and what’s still left (an awful lot, as it stands).¬†All in all, it was a film of our times, with its heart in the right place, and it wasn’t the worst film of our times (Star Wars was awful).

They do have a late-era Bowie style music video (when he decided he had enough of face-paint and costuming expenses) which was kind of quirky-cool (and perhaps had more heart in it than the entire film):

——

This panther/human hybrid affair reminded me of Drakon.  I am Dragon is a Russian Fantasy film. It is Beauty and the Beast, if the beast came from a line of beasts which bring forth their young by breathing flames into virgin vaginas (born from the ashes, literally).

I saw it a while ago. The awful trailer had nearly put me off but I am used to foreign language films having less catchy trailers and ploughed on, and was glad that I did It was a beautiful film, though a rather unusual one. A girl who is getting married gets kidnapped by the local dragon. She is taken to a large island, which is just the skeletal remains of a dead dragon. She isn’t fazed though. She plots her escape continuously, while trying to stay on the dragon’s good side. She enjoys her life as it is, while looking forward to the life that waits her afterwards. Life, though, likes getting in the way of best of our plans, and so it does for hers. She is struck hard by Stockholm syndrome, naturally, as happens to anyone if they are isolated in fearful and uncertain conditions to just one person to turn to, even if that one person is the last you’d trust if you were in full possession of your senses and had agency. Some say that beauty loved the beast. I imagine psychologists disagree with the assessment. If the story ended there, it would be no fun, though. So our beauty feels love, and her captor too is ensnared. Most beasts don’t fall back in love with beauty, though. For plot purposes, this one must, and so he does. What she does then is where the story brings heart over mind. It is a predictable plot, but it isn’t badly done. In some parts, it is rendered excellently.

It ends well. There is no fiery copulation. Love heals all things, up to and including pyrophilia. I really liked the musical accompaniments, the plot structure, and the feisty girl who is stupid enough to fall in love with a dragon. I liked the colors, the costumes, the innocence that came through at times in both the protagonists. I liked that it is a sensual movie, though there is no overt sexual element to the plot. In fact, the makers of the film mock that at the end, as a father tells his little girl that babies are plucked from the skies.

It is a fairytale, but a well-told one, and in parts it is even dire as it shows without words, in the music, in the juxtaposition of scenes, in the characters’ expressions and gestures, ¬†the darker elements behind a beauty who falls in love with and is loved by a beast.

We’ve all loved monsters, and we’ve all been monsters in turn, so perhaps it is easy enough to sympathize with both the girl and her monster.

——-

 

Hello Spring

The trees in the local park are abloom now. It has been raining and the drive-ways on this street are covered by carpets of flowers.

I am getting used to the train. It isn’t without grumbling and mumbling that I have deigned to be one of the commuter proletariat. However, it has its moments of interest. I have started speaking to some of the regulars. The station at the other end is under a bridge, graffitied and decorated by litter of dubious origin, and there are usually more drug transactions than ticket transactions at the early hours I get there. I’ve been living it real these days. I am so glad that I did not move into the city proper. I can only imagine the grit I’d need to survive seeing all this everyday without a break. Now I get to be a sensitive, bleeding-heart snowflake who sees all this on the commute and gets to come back to a bubble of denial at night.

I found a cafe near my new place. It is family-run and they have really good coffee. It is a different crowd from the one I used to see at the cafes near my previous lodgings. There are more entrepreneurial freelancers and small-business owners here. People are more courteous about wishing me good-mornings and hellos. The men, particularly the older generation, are very different from the samples I’ve encountered before in the Valley area. I’ve never been complimented as much as this in my life after moving to California, unless I take into account the intrepid men of Mexico City.

All is not wonderful. They drive big pick-up trucks and RVs, tugging along boats and boards, and eat up narrow streets with little concern for traffic rules or other road-users. I’ve started wearing flashy clothes just to alert them when I am walking along to and from the station. I admit that I only just needed a half-decent excuse to justify wearing flashy clothes.


 

I need to spend some time plotting what to do after this gig. The more I see the explosion of interest in my core fields, the more I feel abruptly dispossessed as the field is overtaken/hijacked by those from other areas.

There shouldn’t be any gate-keeping. Anyone with interest, passion and aptitude should be welcome, anywhere, in a technical domain. This I am firm about. I am not advocating gate-keeping. We do a lot of gate-keeping forming academic cliques in industry labs, and that is terrible. It leads to insular echo-chambers with little room for borrowing concepts from other fields or bringing in fresh perspectives and solutions. Gatekeeping isn’t good and that isn’t what brings me here to write today.

What brings me here today is that I see new people from other areas inventing poorer solutions to solved problems, just because they have seen it solve different and almost similar problems in different fields. I am left wondering about the state of affairs, about what the slow and painstaking progress in the field has come to.

Robotics isn’t Data Science, but it is getting there. It has come to mean anything and everything, a catch-all for everyone with interest to come and try out things with no interest in looking at what came before. If you sound important enough and carry on loudly and persistently, if you are from a demographic that’s traditionally considered to know more, you are going to make it big right now in this. It is getting to be the Big Data of our times, spinning away from concrete meanings to vaguely important buzzwords. Money attracts a different sort of people than who would do it otherwise. Getting paid makes me happy, of course, and I am glad that we are getting paid what we do, but I cannot help wonder if it has hijacked our field completely.

There is this pervasive mindset that the problems are too hard to be solved without hacks or that they are too easy and can be solved by approximating a single joint distribution from end to end. There is this newfound idea that each new entrant has sufficient knowledge and context to bring in innovative solutions, that hacking and brute force and max-likelihood is how we solve problems, that nothing was solved before because nobody capable was there to solve it. I find people leading teams with tunnel vision, adding chains of if-else, shifting their problem formulations at each iteration to be narrower and narrower as they come to understand that they don’t actually understand, trying to create problems that they’ve got solutions for so that it seems as if they’ve actually innovated, trying to avoid creating and comparing against standard or classical baselines because this is clearly, inescapably superior for reasons. I find people talking about convex optimizations and L2 loss without knowing or worse, not caring, what the objective function should be. I find people reinventing everything from search to approximation, overloading terms, and excusing a lack of logic and generalization because this is just engineering and not science. None of this is necessarily as bad as the fact that we’ve reached a point that looking back at the history of the field is not only rare, but actively discouraged. Everything that came before was so bad that it isn’t worth discussing any of it now. We’ve got to move on from the loser ex.

Every field has its share of talkers. And they are necessary, to get funding, to attract interest, to broadcast advances etc. Some, though, want more say in how things are done, want their ego stroked in a different way by exerting control over the work of other individual contributors. These are people who are attracted by not interest in the field itself, but by other motivations: their day in the limelight, money, proving they are cool etc. These are people with superficial knowledge who posture themselves to be specialists, who are always claiming to know how to do things better, whose verbal output is more than their actual output, bullying, manipulating to get the outcomes they want with little regard to merit or commonsense. What motivates them are often different reasons: ego, getting off on power over another, a fear of being found out as someone who isn’t good enough and has to keep ahead of being outed by posturing etc. In an ideal world, they get ignored and life goes on. In this world, what happens usually is that there are chains of them in the hierarchy, each amplifying the voice of the next, until they poison entire projects as they set policy. ¬†When a field becomes high-value or cool, it¬†brings these ¬†people forward. They aren’t interested in making anything, or selling anything, ¬†as much as they want power and their share of the limelight. ¬†Then they set about excluding who is a threat to what their goals are, overtly or covertly, until they have destroyed an entire ecosystem of innovation. ¬†When the field fails, eventually, they place the blame on the original ecosystem. In the case of robotics, generally the specialists are called out for not being computer scientists, and this is where the blame is laid when projects fail. Robotics is engineering Artificial Intelligence, which is just mathematics and computer science. The Mars Rover didn’t get there without roboticists applying a bit of computer science. Before the era of GPUs and easier abstractions of computing, roboticists were just sitting around in labs optimizing code to exploit architecture and algorithms to do expensive operations for vision and motion. Scaling is a different problem, altogether, but it is perhaps unfair to expect that anyway given the problem formulations of that era.

Assertiveness is what is necessary to combat this toxicity. Assertiveness, unfortunately, is not a part of the standard engineer make in the valley. You see bullying, you see aggressiveness, you see passive-aggressiveness, but you rarely see assertiveness. In fact, many cannot understand the distinctions, being as unused to assertiveness as they often are. And I can see why. We have become creatures that silently suffer injustice until we no longer can, and then we leave with or with out exploding in anger and misery. It is easy for us to jump jobs. So why not? Assertively calling out dark patterns of behavior and decision-making isn’t easy, feels like a losing game anyway, and it doesn’t seem as if it ever changes anything.

In robotics, in the industry, we’ve now so many of these toxic chains of hierarchy, of people who talk and posture and are busy trying to reap in the limelight and the power while it lasts, while pushing back research and innovation by years, squandering away the golden opportunities and faith that investors and others have given us now to make products that are actually tangible, at scale, and in the hands of interested consumers.

Yes, it is easy to impress someone without the background with point-cloud segmentation or A* routing or the output of a CNN, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be fooled for too long. And I wonder if we’ll even have the expertise necessary to explain why the failures exist on the tails when the investors come asking, because we’ve gotten used to hacking together demo after demo to bring in the funding, and cornered ourselves into non-modular systems where a poor end component tries to solve everything because the components above haven’t been designed to be robust, or even designed at all.

Our promises of our systems are often only as truthful as fake online dating profiles. One day, if you meet them in person, they are going to know, and then it’ll be too late to make it work. A sad day that I am comparing a field I used to love with online dating, with a similar number of false positives! I hope it doesn’t kill the field in entirety for another long and sad winter.

I am passionate about the field still. I have enjoyed working with and learning from each high-school student group that I coach over the summer for projects. I have enjoyed mentoring and learning from each intern, researcher or engineer I’ve hired from within or outside the field, each discussion I have with people who care about these problems and want to solve them. I have been fortunate to enjoy an excellent rapport with my mentors and colleagues in the field, in both academia and the industry, and we cherish our debates on the tradeoffs of compute versus coverage. I want the interested or curious outside world to think of us, of our field, as something that is cool, welcoming, and not toxic. However, I am afraid we’ve veered off that track. Perhaps we’ll come back to our senses soon.


 

move

It has been a busy week. My house-hunt came to an end, thankfully, and I now have a landlord who drives around a RV tugging a boat up and down sloping hill-roads.

There were many applications, as always, but I played dirty this time, having my mind set on that place. I asked about his boat, about the best surf-spots around, laughed along when he asked about my singleness a lot, listened to his tales about his kids and wife number 2, and about his tattoos. He had many stories about the changes in demographics, lifestyles, and the fabric of local institutions over the past three decades. The house-hunt had worn me down, but getting to sign that lease revved me up right back. I am now excited about the move, about this new location, and wonder if I’ll catch religion thanks to the churches nestled on that block three to a house.

There was a major lawsuit settled this week and many of my current co-workers were relieved about that. A party happened on Friday, and people spoke of the long days of stress that impacted their work. Lips loosened, aided by the late hour and a great deal of alcohol. Some spoke of their families, of how they wished their wives put out more, some spoke of mid-life crises brought about by having their first child, some spoke of immigration and how it wore them down. They spoke of the President and of Russia, of the tabloid affair scandal that is the latest on the menu. As the only woman at the table, and as someone who was still new to their group, I didn’t have a lot in common. In this field, as time goes by, people from my background are outnumbered badly, given the huge amount of influx of people from other fields these days, attracted as they are to the acknowledged next big thing. I listened to their conversations carefully, curious about what made these men, curious about their dreams and drives. I think this has always been my greatest fault, this curiosity to understand and see the fabric of another mind, even at the expense of great trouble to my own. This fault brings me to engage with strangers even when I should just stay at home and do something less fraught like baking a cake. Sobriety that night was low, and I am told I spoke very little, but that whenever I spoke, I was fixated on Florence to illustrate city-state theories. Apparently, even a coworker, who was trying to hit on me a few times, was treated to a lecture on what taxation and tithes are actually meant to enforce. Good. If taxes keep them away, I’d wear a placard of the tax code about my neck all the bloody time.

It has been logistically draining to plan this move. I have been here for a considerable while, and have a great fondness for the old redwood trees that surround me. Time it is, though, to fly away, to somewhere new, to somewhere closer to the sea. I’ve had negative associations with moving in the past, due to the reasons that necessitated the move, but this one is voluntary and very much one spurred by a desire to go somewhere new. It is perhaps the first time I am going somewhere instead of leaving somewhere. So while I’ll miss the trees, I am looking forward to everything else that I’ll gain.

I am letting friends pick dates for me, and it has been an improvement over the usual, and I hope that will bring out the non-tech types that I tend to like more. I have spent too much time in close company with the tech sorts, with and without the influence of alcohol, and don’t want that in my life entwined close. Until April, and if nothing on that front improves or changes, I’ll plan a move across to the East coast.

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