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.



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.

The power of six

I spent yesterday night with my first bunch of engineering mentees and reports. I was so happy to be there with them, and we partied late into the early hours of the morning with much laughter and stories. There were stories awful too, but their potency waned a bit in the presence of so much energy and enthusiasm for the technical problems we are fortunate to work on.

In those years, I used to host parties at home every now and then. These six have had the misfortune to be there before and after I purchased an actual dining table. They were pesky, as a rule, and always cajoled Sibelius and I into playing for them. So we had bad music combinations [Faure and Duel of the Fates] and overcooked rice with side-dishes that bore no resemblance to the true Syrian Catholic recipes they were inspired by, and spoke of reinforcement learning and motion prediction late into the balmy, summer nights.

How did that come to be? Not by design, and all by chance. When I was young and stupid, I had imposter syndrome in the industry, still fresh off academia, feeling unequal and a failure for having dropped out of a doctoral program. And then I ended up at a small research lab for an automotive company, responsible for six engineers.

I had been careening, spiraling into a blaze of anger and sadness and misery. Life hadn’t treated me well, and I hadn’t treated me well too. So there I was, in the throes of existential angst sharp and bleeding, alone and trying to fix my finances, trying to fit in, trying to find family in friends, trying to politely ignore the many seniors who wanted to add in a touch of unsolicited personal attention along with mentoring. It wasn’t the perfect time to be responsible for someone’s career then, when I had made a series of dubious decisions over years and wound up where I was. Natalie’s video (later below) showcases nicely the kind of person I almost was then, still very raw and easily affected, not having the strength or experience to put on a polite front of harmless cooperation at that time.

So there were these six. They were brilliant, all of them in excellent doctoral programs in AI, robotics and computer vision. I had handpicked four myself, spending long hours at different universities trying to find the perfect fit. They weren’t accomplished enough to merit the attentions of the senior researchers there, though. Some say I ruined them; four of them dropped out of their degrees with a Master’s, like I had before them. I had more engineers later, but these six were a steep learning curve for me, taught me a lot about my strengths, and what I wanted to be in this industry. I watched one of them move from his more research-oriented background and become a really good programmer. Another tried Wall Street and came back sad, and by then I had a network strong enough to immediately make sure his incredible skills in the field was noticed. One went on to do his own company. Another refrained from the lure of dropping out and soldiered on to finish his doctoral degree. Two were women. They had been my focus often, because the senior male researchers didn’t attribute credit correctly to their accomplishments often, because I saw them struggling with the same imposter syndrome I had been developing coping mechanisms for, because I wanted to spare them the stuff I had to deal with regularly as much as I could. When I left, things turned difficult for them, and I felt personally responsible. Given how talented they were, it was easy to quickly refer one to a search engine company and she found her groove there. The other… the other is the reason that makes me write today.

She is exceptional. She is still stuck in a difficult situation that doesn’t let her spread her wings and learn new things, in a situation where she doesn’t get credit on what she works on, where difficulty in team interactions is blamed on her for not being social enough, and so on. It is easy to find a new job, no doubt. And yet, there she is, stuck for months, because of a visa situation. All the others were citizens or under less restrictive regulation, which meant they could change workplaces and roles easily, and I’ve always encouraged them to do so, and not to worry about their length of tenure at companies. This last engineer, though, as I watch her count down the days for a visa transfer, as she tries to transfer her shackles from Employer A to B, I find it so hard to look at her and not think of my own reasons to stay much longer than I wanted to, much longer than I could manage to put up with a toxic, inappropriate work situation. I feel personally responsible in that she dropped out of a doctoral program to join the industry. She has done more than she could have done in a lab, I think. If we measure impact by economic value created for this country’s economy, she is high-value indeed. If she had come out with a doctoral degree, though, she could have gone directly to the personal interest, independent EB1A track instead of the EB2 category of green-card applications, which is tied to employer whim and wish. Now since she is from China, though she did two degrees in the United States, she is stuck for almost a decade because of how arcanely arse-up the immigration system is, and until then each time she is as good as a slave to an employer, she has to bend over and let them do whatever they wish.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said yesterday, embarrassed as people in her position are when attention is given to their difficulties.

“Maybe not, but you matter,” said one of the men in that group of six, and the others nodded.

[It is ironic perhaps, but always true, that support and validation from someone who has privilege (regardless of whether they believe in it, or exercise it) matters more to someone underprivileged or sidelined or vulnerable, more so than support and validation from someone in the same boat as them.]

I could see the change on her features then, as she moved from resignation to hope. I wrote her reference letters this weekend for excellent positions in Toronto and Singapore. They were all very keen to have her there, to move forward their technology. I will miss her, but it is best for her, given how this country has treated talent like her. If you have no ties here, these days I recommend that you look to another country instead of subjecting yourself to the depersonalizing, degrading, outdated immigration system here, and the employers and bosses who exploit these loopholes to keep you at their bid and call…or get very good at licking arse.

For every woman who comes forward to speak of sexism in tech, there is another who must keep quiet because of how the work visa works and the high penalty for speaking up, unless she has accepted that she may need to find another country to work in.

Immigration reform has been long overdue in this country. I know so many families here, where both the husband and wife are highly educated, work high-paying jobs, pay tons of taxes to the federal and state governments, and yet fear buying property here, or giving birth to kids here, or sending kids to schools here, because they are little more than slaves to companies under the work-visa, and have to leave this country as soon as their company fires them. So many women I know are very leery of reporting sexual harassment, for example, because they don’t want to be let go and lose the visa. So many parents are worried to do anything about exploitative bosses because they have kids enrolled in school, and they don’t want to be abruptly forced to leave the country and uproot the children from the only home they have known. It is fine to say that there is no way to citizenship for immigrants, absolutely, and that is a national prerogative. However, there is the need to at least remove the restrictions that tie people to employers and subject them to emotional and financial penalties ridiculous, prolonged and hard to plan for. And it makes little sense economically to drive out lower and middle class folks who contribute so much in the way of income taxes.

It is easy to forget our privileges, earned or given by birth, because we don’t really have cause to wonder about the ones that don’t have it yet. We have concerns about veterans, about the homeless, about the poor kids in Africa, about arranged marriages and marital rape in Asia, and about religious societies in the Middle-East. I’ve always held that it is easier to say the right things about these topics when they are far away. It is horrible that Syrian refugees face what they do, but we shut up fast when it is about the Iranian neighbor we have who can’t bring his wife over to live with him. It is horrible that a woman was exploited in Hollywood, but it is convenient and easy to keep quiet and stay deliberately ignorant when your coworker’s quality of work is questioned and she is let go or shunted to a different department because she reported inappropriate behavior targeted at her.

We live under a system where we’ve put the onus on the underprivileged, the vulnerable and the victims to prove that they are underprivileged, vulnerable and victims, and that they have earned the worth to have a better quality of life. We want our Muslim friends to prove that they are not terrorists, we want our LGBT neighbors to prove that they aren’t paedophiles before they move into a school zone, and we’d rather never give anyone who went to prison for minor misdemeanors the chance to hold down a job again. This is what fear does to humans, and fear and divisiveness have always been tools of those who would wield power, which is something the average privileged person doesn’t see. We are handed conclusions – Feminazis ruined the American family, Muslims ruined Europe, and the Jews have always been evil cretins who’d make away with pounds of flesh if we stop persecuting them. And if we want to believe anything else of them, they have to prove it to us over and over, many times.

All is not dark. Yesterday night, I was cheered up immensely by how the men in my group of six spoke up strongly in support of their female coworkers. It was easier for them to not bother, to just focus on their stuff and ignore the rest of it. Like understands like, and in this valley, like attracts like. Why would they need to go attempt to understand the minorities when they have enough people who are like them to collaborate and work with? They still strive to, and actively at that. I am very proud of them. I’d always thought that I was a horrible creature to be responsible for anyone else, given how introverted and shy I am by nature, but looking at this group of six yesterday, maybe I hadn’t fucked up as badly as I thought I would.

I am grateful to them, for they were the beginning of a bunch of young and bright-eyed talented engineers that pulled me out of my cynicism and angst, and made me look forward to collaborate on technical problems that had meaning and importance to me, and along the way they wound up teaching me a great deal about this country and the valley, and what it takes to weather the vagaries of both gracefully without embitterment. Their progress and prospects became important, and defending those became a crucial interest, and I grew more experienced in putting on a front of nonchalance whenever I came across matters offensive, learning that it was easier to fight for your interests when you stopped reacting. Also, I doubt I had it in me to be a rapper anyway; so I am doubly grateful they pulled me off that career path.

call me by your name

I had watched Tilda Swinton in I am Love, all those years ago, and it had left me with a lasting impression. There was the protagonist, secure and secured, in her mansion, with her perfect family and manicured gardens. There was the lover, a chef charming, her son’s best friend, waking the protagonist with shrimp. There was the beautiful Italian countryside, and all their ancient ruins, and slow, sweeping music to herald it all. I remember it being a vivid movie, full of color and music and feeling.

Call me by your name is the last of the Desire trilogy that started with I am Love. I hadn’t realized this before watching the movie this week. The photography, the music, the languor of the plot all pointed to something familiar. I made the connection much later. I was informed by untrustworthy sources that this was a soft gay porn film, and had gone in to the theater in high spirits. Please don’t make my mistake; there is no soft gay porn. At the same time, it was refreshing to see a homosexual relationship without homosexuality being the main theme of the story. It is a theme, celebrated softly and without ado, and the archeologists work hard in the background on a Venus that was once Hadrian’s lover.

I have long wanted to see one of these films without the angst. LGBT films tend to be about the stigma, about the highs of passion, about gritty sex, about tragedy. Call Me By Your Name is softer, sweeter, and looks more at the unexpected bloom of our first love than at the gender of our first love. It spoke to me because of that, perhaps.

(In several parts, I was reminded very pleasantly of my family in my early teenage. I was especially reminded of my grandmother. The religion-mixing in their family reminded me of my childhood too.)

The young actor who plays the protagonist is talented. He blends the raw boldness of adolescence with the fear of those who think too much. He is both Michelangelo’s David and Tennyson’s Arthur. He strives to impress his amore, through music and wit, through sensuality and charm. For all his sophistication, he is still a teenager though, and he isn’t below stooping to the oldest trick of the book: making his lover jealous by getting it on with someone else. He screws up and learns not to do that. He is clumsy at times, and his introversion doesn’t exactly make him comfortable with the good-humored, American ideal, extroverted, even-tempered, cheerful man he has fallen for. The love, the learning, the loss, and the lull in between – all of it echoed on his expressive features throughout the film. There were so many little moments throughout where flickers of emotion on his face reminded me of the girl I used to be, when I loved all those years ago.

Then he fucked a peach. I hadn’t realized until he did it that this might be the Ancient Greek inspiration behind those male masturbation pockets. Somehow I had always pinned that on the poor Japanese.

It is a beautiful movie. I am glad that I watched it, even if I had the wrong expectations going in.

“Do you know everything?”

“I know nothing about the things that matter.”

a river’s tale

I was by a river this week, among the detritus of a steel town. There is garish gentrification gobbling up the deserted warehouses and boarded-up shops. Amazon might come soon, they say.

I dislike the institution that defines this place, nearly as much as the priced out locals here do. It churns out expensive, mass degrees in various trendy specializations and the result is an utterly random distribution of skills and talent.

The group I came to visit was born of the vestigial remains of the old research center. They are classical folks, leery still of the deep ways we do things now. I had forgotten what it was to work with that bunch.

You leave wonderland behind. Then you go on to a sane, suburban life. Then you fall back right through the looking glass.

I do things that I used to do a lot, there is familiarity and ease, and there is common terminology and shared understanding of the problems. So far, there’s no having to deal with people who’ve never bothered to see how and why these things are usually done and go about reinventing the wheel inefficiently and brokenly because of some god-ordained authority, and try their hand at bullying and harassment when that stops being enough to get a high out of. It’s rather pleasant to have an old and familiar setting which doesn’t have all that, even if it is a hark back to an earlier time, even if it is just in a little bubble in a tumultuous sea of controversy.

There is drinking a lot, something I hadn’t been doing since my days of Japanese revelry. There are late nights and the old discussions about modeling stuff, a far cry from the if-else mindset that was pervasive with my previous job crowd. I met many old characters of my earlier days. I feel a bit protected and safe, comforting myself in the conclusion that there will be people to speak up for me if I am unlucky enough to attract the wrong sort of attention. Things aren’t pristine and sunny, but I hadn’t expected that.

The institution loomed over the city. I skulked about trying to avoid the edifice, until a postdoc came and grabbed me.

“No!” I muttered. “I don’t like stepping inside that factory.”

“It’s an university.”

I still have idealistic notions of what education should be, and I refuse to grace that travesty with my goodwill.

Later, I scowl and let him take me to his nice apartment overlooking the river. He still has the sofa he has been carrying around since our Atlanta days. I remember the exact configuration to make myself comfortable on that.

“I’ll cook,” he promises, and I find that he has done grocery shopping for ingredients to my Malabar Biriyani.

So I find myself cooking, though I glare at him until he starts chopping the lamb, and he complains, and it is like days of old, though we are missing the rest of our old group. We are deep in a discussion about Resnets when I realize that academia still hasn’t let me go, even though I left so long ago. We talk about steel and what it means in that city, and about flyover country, and about the yawning mundaneness this industry is going to collapse into. It isn’t as exciting anymore, but it seems to be still the most exciting job that pays that we are capable of. He is still waiting for that tenure track position he has interviewed for, but he admits that the industry is hard to resist. He is a horrible host, but he makes the best tea.

I meet old coworkers and friends, and we discuss the foibles of our lives over a great deal of alcohol. One of my mapping company friends is there and we discuss the cool stuff a Chinese lab has been doing in a pub that is a deactivated church.

A coworker takes me around, and I see the sights of this strange, new land. There are thin sheets of ice on the river, the trees stand bare, and there is no birdsong. Cars clog up the up-and-down streets, there is snow on the sidewalks, and people look at us suspiciously. There is graffiti everywhere, on gutted buildings, on a stack of broken tires right by the entrance to the office where it declares many determined fonts of Fuck You. It reminds me of San Francisco. This sea of change must be crippling and alarming for many, and a door of opportunities for some.

I arrive early to give a talk, and the polite security fellow thinks that I am cafe management staff. I don’t even bother to correct that sort of thing these days. When he sees the talk and gets what I am there for, he is graciously and endlessly apologetic, and we have a nice chat afterwards.

There isn’t enough sleep. So I am grumpy. I’ve needed to drink espressos, and that has made me grumpier. I like my caffeine weak and diluted.

A local shows me a commute-time shortcut, tells me to keep it secret. I feel like Frodo, and I nod solemnly.

The food is rich. I am fed with omlettes, breadbowls, cheese, potatoes, gnocchi, poutine, fish, and creamy onion soup, in various combinations, every day. I am a finicky eater when drunk, and a finickier one when sober, so I am pleasantly surprised when I really like the onion soup.

It’s not where I like going, I suppose, and the locals have started disliking this stuff more, but it’s something we’ll all have to get used to. The gig economy era is here to be around, for the rest of our days, until our middle class completely vanishes, and until then we have to find our places in it somehow.

shape of water | avalanche

I went to see The Shape of Water today. I had been wanting to see it for a while, ever since I saw the trailer last month. The film was everything I expected and more; I wasn’t disappointed at all. It was a full theater, and we gasped and sighed together as a single entity, as they spoke of longing and love and loss, and everything was beautiful and bleak. It reminded me of Amelie at times. When I was returning to the underground structure where I’d parked, I had been walking at a brisk pace, and a lady walking ahead of me was startled enough by the sound of my footsteps to turn around and look at me frightened. Oh, that this first world we live in still requires us to be as wary as deer come to water at a lake, touting our pepper spray and begging men to accompany us to view rentals and ferry us around after dark, lest we be carried away by evil terrible.

Star Wars managed to do worse than the low expectations I had for it. It had nothing that resembled vaguely a plot. It had moments of choreography that stood out amidst awful dialogues, little to no progression, and extremely poor and wooden acting, perhaps except the villain who did manage to bring a touch of flesh and blood into his performance. I have to say that I see these movies, various sci-fi franchise movies, and the superhero ones only to stay in loop with my colleagues who enjoy them. I feel excluded enough without knowing all this to nod along sagely at lunch conversations. Now that I have seen Star Wars, I have enough membership credit in those groups to manage along for a few months. It isn’t all darkness and misery. Wonderwoman pleasantly surprised me. They talk about white-knights and social justice warrior plots that have plagued the recent years’ movies. The suffragette movement had once been called disruptive and threatening to the fabric of civilization. Critical thinking isn’t our forte now. Whatever plagues Star Wars isn’t social justice warrior pandering, but an utter and complete lack of continuity and coherence in plot. And what worked for Wonder Woman isn’t that it catered to a specific crowd, but that it had a decent story told well and acted out passionately by its cast.


Yesterday, I had a call from an old friend. She was one of my first friends when I came to this country, to attend grad-school. She had been three years older than me, and had been doing a Masters in Computer Science. She had been married. It had been an arranged marriage. She had taken me under her wing, taught me to cook a bit, taught me the ways of this new world, and I had delighted in speaking with her in a language other than English when all around me had been changed from all that I had once known. Her brilliance impressed me, when we worked together. She is one of the best programmers I have worked with. I looked up to her then. I had wanted what she had, to be accomplished, to be married to someone who spoke the same language and had been from the same social-economic-educational background. She graduated, went on to work for a large company in Seattle where her husband was based. They had a child, were planning to get a mortgage and everything seemed settled. My life turned away in one of its twists and turns, and we barely spoke in the years after, apart from the customary greetings on birthdays and New Years. So when she called yesterday, I was surprised. I had already wished her for New Year’s.

“I have decided to be a home-maker,” she told me.

I processed that slowly and tried to find the right response. Life and life’s choices rarely have any single right answer, so I just opted to let her speak. The hesitation surprised me. She is one of the boldest people I have met.

Then the story came in pieces and bursts, of a male boss, of attentions covert and overt, and of how she had tried to find inconspicuous ways to deflect the issue without affecting her job. Then it had ended her being called out as an easily offended little princess, and the other person had been promoted nicely with a raise, towards more responsibilities. Perhaps he was more valuable in terms of what he contributed. I don’t see the point in asking about any of that. So I let her talk.

“I don’t need this,” she finished. “My husband earns more than enough. I’ll do consulting later, perhaps. Maybe I’ll become a K12 teacher. I like teaching.”

“You’ll be brilliant at that,” I tell her honestly, because I know her skill set and abilities.

She had tried to teach me, under the red leaves of our school’s canopy, as we coded away in C for our high-performance computing assignment. She had told me to wear a ring on my left hand to keep the men away. She had told me that nothing good happened if I reported weird talk and touch to people whose job it was to listen to concerns like this. She had told me that the best way to deal with it was to learn to be very good at what we did, and to always have the ability to walk out on Friday and find something new on Monday. I learned under her tutelage and I am so very grateful. I hadn’t believed, sheltered as I had been then, that such things happened outside Mad Men. I had seen very little of the world. She taught me other matters too: how to slice onions without crying, how to use GDB effectively, and I’ll never forget the amazing explanation she gave me about how the compiler works. She was generous with what she knew and what she had, of her time and of the lessons she had learned. After my first breakup, I had run to Seattle to her, and she had told me kindly that we hadn’t been right for each other, and it was better for both of us in the long run. I had spent that week in a daze, walking with her by the piers, nodding along absently as she spoke of her life and work. She loves programming.

“You love programming,” I told her yesterday. I was unsure what I meant by that. Was I trying to get her to change her decision? Was I trying to offer a solution that avoided this sort of problem?

“Not enough to deal with this shit,” she told me cheerfully, already immersed in her plans for her future, already determined to leave all this behind her. I have always admired her boldness and strength of conviction.

“I read what you write,” she said then, apropos of nothing, changing the topic away from her news. “I like that you keep going on when such stuff happens at your work. And you’ve always worked in those male only type settings.”

It hasn’t been honestly as difficult as it could have been, as it has been for many. At the beginning of my career, I had strong male colleagues and superiors who were willing to protect me from this sort of stuff, when I needed that protection. And recently, when it happened, though there was no support system in this team setting, I was sufficiently confident in my ability to land on my feet somewhere else.

“I remember telling you to wear a jacket inside always because otherwise what if your nipples poke out through a t-shirt,” she says, laughing. “And you said that you weren’t going to obsess over your nipples when you had to take it in your stride that many of your colleagues wear jeans that just flash their arse-crack whenever they bend and stretch.”

I must have been very young then. I have seen much more than arse-cracks I hadn’t planned on seeing since that time, so long ago. I am rarely phased by that sort of thing, though. Bodies are bodies, and work is work, and I am not so demented that I hold people’s dressing choices against them. I expect that I am returned the favor, so that I don’t have to stress about wearing jackets to shield people from the perils of air-conditioning. Not everyone is the same though. I have had colleagues eye my legs when I skip shaving in the winter and wear skirts.

“Don’t you care?” a Japanese colleague had asked me once.

“Not enough,” I told him frankly. It was only a week after I had to deal with an intern whose clever tactic of dropping his keys whenever I wore a skirt had attracted quite some attention in our little team.

“I remember telling you to put up with things, to not complain, because nobody likes a whiner, because they’ll write you off as just a team downer,” my friend continues.

Yes, she had told me that, many times. Acceptable and unacceptable aren’t binary variables. It was all about the grey in between. And don’t complain. Whatever else you do, don’t complain, she had drilled into me.

“I hope things get better before my daughter becomes an engineer,” my friend continues merrily on the phone.

I hope so. I certainly want all that to happen sooner than later. I have also become less optimistic. There isn’t much of a business case for changing things from how they are. I’ll continue until I transition into something better and nicer for my life, walking out on Fridays to go somewhere new on Mondays as long as necessary and able.

“I wish they get it someday,” she mutters then, falling from her self-forced cheerfulness.

That is a slippery slope, from what I have seen. It is just easier to pick up and leave, and not deal with the ugliness that is past and futile, and not try to explain in vain what professionalism could be. Why swim upstream when you can swim with the current? I rarely get treated with anything less than condescension, as if I was hired as a quota-filling head, and mostly everyone is always surprised whenever I show competence. If I took that as a personal affront everywhere I go, I’ll be a very tired me. Instead, I bet on how long it will take for each new colleague to be convinced that I am capable enough, and I am always so happy if they are convinced faster than I expect them to be.

I don’t think that I should talk about these coping mechanisms of mine. So I change the subject, and tell her about my new job, which has been surprisingly pleasant so far, despite the vagaries of the commute involved. I’d commute to hell if it meant that I was treated like a human being, so that isn’t a deal-breaker.

When we end the call, she has managed to cheer me up, and promises to cheer on, and I promise to do the same for her. I wonder if I want all that she has, after all these days. Perhaps I don’t, not anymore. I have changed so, and on some days it terrifies me.

I end up drinking wine and crying a bit, even though I don’t really have any good reasons. Perhaps I am just sad that she’s leaving me behind, that I’ll have to carry on, lonelier than before, and we weep at night because joy cometh in the morning.


It goes back to you. It goes forward to you. You have to exist, somewhere, and somewhere close. That faith is the crux of my carrying on now. Perhaps that is folly, but I think it is less delusional that waiting for a better dawn in this industry. All that I take in my stride today, I try to think about what waits at the end of this road, of you. I try to label these characters as inconsequential, in the big picture, and on some days I fear if this is to be all that there is. I’ll not last very long in this line of work if there is nothing beyond, if there is no you beyond.

I hope one day, soon, you’ll enter my life, and what you bring will be nothing like the crumbs I have been offered before.

Perhaps I shall tell you of what I have seen in this industry, and we’ll laugh together at the silliness of it all. Perhaps I’ll tell you what I plan to do, about how I plan to get away from this madding crowd.

Perhaps I can tell you of how much I love Lisp, without having to tell you what that brilliant man, who taught me so much about it, suggested as a Saturday past-time.

Perhaps I can tell you of how much I love this business of cars, and that I look forward to my mother being able to click and summon a ride one day on an app, without having to worry about unknown drivers and her safety, and when I tell you about this work of mine, I wonder if any of my words will be tainted by the men who had little qualm or care about trying to sabotage a career over a refusal to give them what they wanted.

Perhaps I’ll tell you of how you became the fulcrum of this simple machine, of how I have painted your flesh in my dreams. I have begun to long for you. I have begun to ask for you. And I’ll choose to believe that somewhere you are doing just the same, equally fiercely and full of longing, waiting for our lives to join and twine.


trainsongs (The Sibelius Chronicles)

I started my new job on a windy, rainy day. When I arrived in San Francisco, one and a half hours after I’d left home, a cold gust of wind greeted me as I got off the train.

Then there was a brisk walk of half an hour, and I took in the forgotten smells and sounds of the city. There were people carrying briefcases and umbrellas, neck craned to support the wedged in phones that they were yelling into, a papercup of coffee part of their emphatic gesticulations as they tried to make many, many points. There were men carrying backpacks with laptops peeking out, Bose headphones about their necks, their thick fingers swiping away on Iphones. There were Lyfts and Ubers many in the traffic snarls at every junction, ferrying passengers about. There were also those giant, white shuttles, skulking about in corners, waiting to carry serfs down to the South Bay fields. I didn’t see any children. I carefully tuned my sight away from the tens of homeless men and women at bus-stops and under shop awnings, huddled tight in rags. I don’t understand the photographers who find it necessary to go all the way to India or Africa to take pictures of poverty and misery.

I’ve been jet lagged and feverish. So everything, from the shine of steel-grey clouds reflected off skyscraper glass windows, to sight of the trash on the sidewalks, to smell of coffee overbrewed, to the locomotion of the train, all sent me reeling slightly in overstimulation. I scraped it through the day, got back tired and hungry, and sat down to make a spreadsheet: time to look for lodging in the city.

Yesterday, I went to see eight to ten places. At each place there thronged about a dozen interested parties, mostly couples. They came prepared with credit reports, with cheques to cover the first and last month’s rent, as well as an additional month’s safety deposit. The places were expensive, with a minimum of three thousand five hundred for the base rent, without including parking and utilities. One of them charged for bike lockers. Only a few had washers and dryers installed inside the apartment. And when I took my customary walk to scope out the surround, I was greeted by the smell of piss, there were littered needles all around, and homeless souls staring at me bleak. I wish this was a writer’s exaggeration. My home state had a problem with stray dogs loose on the roads, and there were heated debates about what to do with them. Here, we’ve moved up the food chain.

“Remind me again why I wanted to move to the city,” I moaned, utterly desolate and devoid of hope in mankind.

“You wanted to meet non-tech people.”

My friend is always too blunt and rhetorical questions aren’t a concept she understands. Non-tech. Yes. About that, I didn’t meet many of them at the renters’ showings. They were mostly tech people.

“I don’t think this is going to work out,” I mutter, looking at my spreadsheet, looking at the dots on the map of San Francisco, looking at the worryingly red crime contours nearly everywhere.

“Moving to the city?” she asks, being literal about it all as she usually is.

I struggle for words then. Moving to the city is only a logistical issue. It is the rest of it I am referring to. Establishing a home, establishing a partnership, establishing a future. The possibility of meeting someone I like, someone outside tech. I am looking at that big three in two years, and I’d hate to wake up on that birthday alone. I feel I’ve been alone long enough, but I am also resolved not to waste time on people I don’t want enough, or who don’t want me enough. I’ve done all of that before, and felt sordid at the end. I’ve also done it right once, and we had flown from East Coast to West Coast and back every weekend until we ran of money and time, and we had completed each other’s thoughts and sentences, and he had always made a cappuccino for me at the end of our meals together. Everything else had always ended with recriminations and anger, with claims of me not being willing enough to fit into the role they desired me to fit into. Not this. We had eaten tiramisu one last time and we played together with borrowed instruments Mendelssohn’s Opus 81. I’d never cried during the period, always floating on a puffy cloud of happiness and contentment as I had been. There had been no pressure to be more or less. There was no exhortation to have a mind of my own, but to resign my will to his. There was only music and philosophy, tiramisu and wine, gardening and long road trips, brunch in Palo Alto and rowing on the Charles. I willfully stopped thinking about all of that, afterwards, and let my friend pick and choose my dates for weeks that dragged into months and then finally to a year. Not one sparked my interest, and I found most of them self-absorbed, with little in the way of empathy. They were really never sure if they wanted to keep it light, or if they wanted to immediately change their Facebook relationship status. They were all about personal discovery and improvement quests, aspiring disciples of Stoicism, detoxing and on juice cleanses, talking about supplements and crossfit, rock climbing and how they love hiking every weekend before brunch. Some had discovered Buddhism. For others, it was yoga and mindfulness. For yet many others, it was about meal prep and readiness for catastrophes. They were analyzing their previous relationships and looking for red flags. There were a few that were empathetic, but they had been battered by the world, and the ruins were not pleasant to see. Most found me too intense for their tastes. I don’t bother being less me these days. I’d tried that before, when I was younger, and it had only done me harm. So life went on, and I changed jobs once again, and decided to run away in between. It took me running away to the edge of the world, to far off Tasmania, to be alone listening to the waves of that great ocean, to properly grieve all that had been, and I came away resolved to look for it once again, now that I know what to look for, for someone fierce and true.

My friend notices that I’d spaced out of our conversation. I attempt to catch up with her, but she knows me too well by now, and she says, “That is going to be tough to find.”

“Well, I found it once.”

She sighs and says ‘Oh Darling’ in such a kind voice that I have to struggle not to cry. She has been trying hard to help me, but perhaps she doesn’t understand what I am looking for. I tell her about Nabokov’s Vera. It is a cherished childhood dream. Ever since I read of them, I’d wanted that for me too. So I’ll just have to keep looking for my Vera.

There are no women in the new group I am working at, again. It is quite nice though. I think they have cleaned up house after all their scandals last year. Nobody says anything hurtful or condescending, there is no ‘ragging’, as is usually the case on the first day to make you feel excluded and an imposter. I am tentatively hopeful about them continuing to be professional. Here is to that, and to finding an apartment in the city, and to finding my Vera.


When I was young, I thought I’d have a torrid affair with a circus artiste. I’d swoop into their life and save them, and we’d live happily ever after. Once I got into a mundane field of work, my chances of meeting circus artistes were next to nil, and I moved my fantasies to masseuses. They too were nomads, and often had escaped difficult regimes and families to make their living here. I also had fond memories of the highly skilled, highly educated Ayurvedic masseuses one finds in my home state.

The masseuse was a step down from the circus artiste, but I thought it had potential. The parlors usually had bordello themed decorations and tacky music. All of that seemed appealing to the hot-headed girl I was. Then I met them, and found that they spoke very little English, that they were mostly scared and meek and did not make eye-contact most of the time. I heard terrifying stories of exploitation. So that snuffed out all my glitzy dreams of saving one. I used to get massages when I was cycling a lot, to get my neck and shoulders back in working condition every other week. I tried whichever places were close enough and cheap enough. They spoke little, had little training or talent to speak of, and were utterly forgettable.

Then I got lucky, and met one in a dingy parlor nearby my internship, back in 2013. She was highly skilled. She spoke little to no English at the time. Her technique reminded me favorably enough of Keralite traditions that I became a regular. The dingy parlor closed, but I asked around and found that she was now working at a more upscale, respectable location, under a different name. That did wonders for her over the years. She got a valid Social Security number, her English slowly improved, her clothes looked better, and she began smiling at her clients. We began to slowly talk, and I learned her real name. She told me a bit about her family back in Thailand. She told me about her kids and how they were learning English faster than she was. After two years, she started refusing my tips. And right when I thought she could surprise me no more, she began asking me questions, in stilted, broken English, about my life.

I’d been raised semi-Catholic, and remember those confessional stands, the curtains and the seclusion, of whispering secrets into another’s ear, of waiting to be judged and forgiven. In the privacy of her parlor, with only the faint sounds of classical music to keep us company, I began telling her of my life. It was a clunky conversation often, as I scrambled to find words she understood, as I tried to explain in many different ways until she exclaimed in comprehension. Some sessions were quieter than the others, as she worked and as I let her work. Twice, she set up dates with other clients of hers. I was quite happily surprised by the men she had selected. If not for my resolution to stay away from dating men who work in the tech industry, I think I might have liked to see how things went.

I went in today after quite a long while. She asked me what had kept me away for so long. I told her about work and resigning from it, about being harassed at work and about how I’d been implicitly signalled to put up with it. Then I felt silly, because she had seen much worse, if that first dingy parlor was anything to go by. She must have sensed what I was thinking of, because she said that sort of stuff hadn’t happened in a long while to her. It happens to the young ones, she said. They tip well, those clients, she said, and she seemed serious enough that I felt very sorry for the world we live in.

When I set out to leave, she gripped my arm and told me in her broken English that I reminded her of the lotuses of Thailand. I asked her why. Eats mud, flowers for Gods, she said. She was smiling and serious, so I nodded, still poorly practiced in accepting compliments gracefully. She did not mind my clumsiness, and surprised me once more as she hugged me for the first time of her own initiative.

I didn’t find a torrid love in the massage parlors, but I found someone important nevertheless.