Good luck with your Maggi

You know when you’re cooking a packet of Maggi noodles in a saucepan, and you haven’t used enough water or don’t move the stuff soon enough from the pan to a plate once it’s done cooking, and you’re basically left with a hot lump of maida stuck to the bottom? That’s 2020. When you cook Maggi right, right up to mixing in a stick of butter at the end, you get a flavourful, well-lubricated, springy mass of strings that’s a pleasure to eat at the end of a long day. Once in a while you stick a fork into the plate and pull up a particularly long noodle, and you relish sucking it into your mouth from start to finish, with the masala dripping off at the end. That was probably many other years – when you had a strong sense of time moving from one event to the next, a sense of progression that helps you recall chronologies even long after you’ve forgotten what happened in March and what in September. For example, 2015 in my mind is cleanly divided into two parts – before May 11 and after May 11 – and memories of little personal accomplishments from that time are backgrounded by whether The Wire existed at the time. If it did, then I know the accomplishment happened after May 11. The Wire‘s birth effectively became an inflection in time that cut a little notch in the great noodle of 2015, a reference mark that created a before and an after. 2020 had none of this. It forsook all arrows of time; it wasn’t linear in any sense, not even non-linear in the sense of being exponential or logarithmic. It was practically anti-linear. Causality became a joke as the pandemic and its attendant restrictions on society fucked with the mind’s ability to tell one day apart from the next. So many of us beheld the world from our windows or balconies, although it wasn’t as if the world itself moved on without us. We weren’t there to world the world. Or maybe we were, but our collective grief at being imprisoned, literally and otherwise, seemed to be able to reshape our neighbourhoods, our surroundings, our shared cosmologies even and infused the fabrics of our every day with a cynical dye that we know won’t come off easily. Many of our lived experiences carried an awful symmetry like the circular one of a bangle, or a CD. How do you orient it? How do you say which way is up, or left, just by looking at it? You can’t. In the parlance of Euclidean geometry, 2020 was just as non-orientable. There was no before and after. Even our universe isn’t as bad: despite the maddening nature of the flatness problem, and the even more maddening fact of Earth’s asymptotically infinite loneliness, the universe is nearly flat. You’d have to travel trillions upon trillions of light-years in any direction before you have any chance of venturing into your past, and even then only because our instruments and our sciences aren’t accurate enough to assert, with complete certainty, that the universe is entirely flat and that your past will always lie in the causal history of your future. 2020 was, however, a singularity – an entrapment of reality within a glass bubble in which time flowed in an orbit around the centre, in perpetual free-fall and at the same time managing to get nowhere really. You can forget teasing out individual noodles from the hot lump on your plate because it’s really a black hole, probably something worse for shunning any of the mysteries that surround the microscopic structure of black holes in favour of maida, that great agent of constipation. As you stare at it, you could wait for its effects to evaporate; you could throw more crap into it in the hopes of destabilising it, like pushing yourself to the brink of nihilism that Thucydides noticed among the epidemic-stricken people of Athens more than two millennia ago; or you could figure out ingenious ways à la Penrose to get something good out of it. If you figure this out, please let the rest of us know. And until then, good luck with your Maggi.

Ending 2020

My blogging took a hit this year – as did everything for everyone. I couldn’t publish nearly as much as I’d have liked. While the average post length was the highest it’s ever been – 989 words – and audience engagement was through the roof, I had to just forget many ideas for posts I’d had because I lacked the time and more importantly any creative energy to produce them. Since around May, I felt like writing only on the weekends, and only if an idea or an insight crossed a threshold of interestingness that for some reason kept climbing higher.

YearPostsWords
201211981,710
20139671,096
2014163117,302
2015209181,233
20166455,206
2017135114,737
2018184145,530
2019169136,241
2020113111,752

That said, I have two takeaways from blogging this year. The first is a minor one – that I’ve published 1,200 posts in all now. I don’t think of this number except at the end of every year; its bigness feels reassuring, and reminds me when I’m down that I haven’t entirely wasted my time.

The other takeaway is that it’s certainly becoming harder to get through to The Other Side, as their louder commentators clamber further down their rabbit hole, and further persist with argumentative tactics guided not by reason or even the pursuit of common ground but by the need to uphold Hindutva at all times. And as they’ve dug their heels in, I’ve found I’ve been doing the same thing, although not deliberately. I’ve used the first person to refer to positions and the provenance of argumentative tacks more in 2020 than in any other year, and I’ve also been less and less inclined to spell my position – as if I’ve become sub-consciously aware that I’m no longer speaking out to change minds as much as to harden the stances of those who have already expressed solidarity.

I’m not entirely happy with this shift, this closing of the gates – even if it sounds more productive, as the engagement data also attests – because I don’t know whether when all this tides over, and it will tide over, I will be capable of reopening the gates as swiftly as I might need to. Granted, keeping the gates open even a little bit now – i.e. attempting to reason every now and then with those who aren’t amenable to reason – could prove injurious, but I remain convinced for now that it’s the smaller price to pay. And this is why I think the continuously rising threshold of interestingness is a coping mechanism of sorts, an internally supplied resistance to the hardening of the exterior.

I’m excited to find out where blogging, writing, reporting, editing, publishing in 2021 will take me – will take us all, in fact.

“Enough science.”

Edit, 6.04 pm, December 15, 2020: A reader pointed out to me that The Guardian may in fact have been joking, and it has been known to be flippant on occasion. If this is really the case, I pronounce myself half-embarrassed for having been unable to spot a joke. But only half because it seems like a terrible joke, considering how proximate the real and the surreal having increasingly been, and because I still suspect it isn’t a joke. The astrologer in question is real, so to speak, and I doubt The Guardian wishes to ridicule her so.

From ‘How to watch the Jupiter and Saturn ‘great conjunction’ of 2020′, The Guardian, December 15, 2020:

I don’t know why The Guardian would print something like this. Beyond the shock of finding astrology – especially non-self-deprecating astrology – in the science section, it is outright bizarre for a question in an FAQ in this section to begin with the words ‘Enough science’.

To my mind The Guardian seems guilty of indulging the false balance that science and astrology are equally relevant and useful the same way the New York Times deemed that Democrats and Republicans in the US made equal amounts of sense in 2020 – by failing to find the courage to recognise that one side just wants to be stupid and/or reckless.

But while the New York Times did it for some principle it later discovered might have been wrong, what might The Guardian‘s excuse be? Revenue? I mean, not only has the astrologer taken the great opportunity she has to claim that there are bound to be astrological implications for everything, the astrology being quoted has also been accommodated under a question that suggests science and astrology are on equally legitimate footing.

This view harms science in the well-known way by empowering astrologists and in turn disempowering the tenets of reason and falsifiability – and in a less-known way by casting science in opposition to astrology instead of broaching the idea that science in fact complements the arts and the humanities. Put differently, the question also consigns science to being an oppositional, confrontational, negatory entity instead of allowing it a more amicable identity, as a human enterprise capable of coexisting with many other human enterprises.

For example, why couldn’t the question have been: “With the science, what opportunities might I have as a photographer?”, “With the science, what opportunities might I have as a poet seeking inspiration?” or even “Enough science. Break out the history.” In fact, if with its dogmatism astrology discourages deliberative decision-making and with its determinism suppresses any motivation one might have to remake one’s fate, it stands truly apart from the other things humans do that might serve to uplift them, and make them a better people. It is hard to imagine there is a reason here to celebrate astrology – except capital.

If revenue was really the reason The Guardian printed the astrology question, I admit none of these alternatives would make sense because there is no money in the arts and the humanities. I hope the newspaper will explain as to why this happened, and in the meantime, I think we could consider this a teaching moment on the fleeting yet consequential ways in which capital can shape the public understanding of science.

The overlay bias

I’m not very fond of some highly popular pieces of writing (I won’t name them because I’m nervous about backlash from authors and/or their supporters) because a part of their popularity is undeniably rooted in technological ‘solutions’ that asymmetrically promote work published in the solution’s country of origin.

My favourite example is Pocket, the app that allows users to save copies of articles to read later, offline if required. Not long ago, Pocket introduced an extension for the Google Chrome browser (which counts hundreds of millions of users) such that every time you opened a new tab, it would show you three articles lots of other Pocket users have read and liked. It’s fairly brainless, ergo presumably non-malicious, and you’d expect the results to be distributed equally from among magazines, journals, etc. published around the world.

However, nine times out of ten – but often more – I’d find articles by NYT, The Atlantic, The Baffler, etc. there. I was reluctant to blame Pocket at first, considering their algorithm seemed too simple, but then I realised Pocket was just the last in a long line of other apps and algorithms that simply amplified existing biases.

Before Pocket, for example, there might have been Twitter, Facebook or some other platform that allowed stories from some domains (nytimes.com, thebaffler.com, etc.) to persist for longer on users’ feeds because they were more easily perceived to be legitimate than articles from other sources, say, a Venezuelan newspaper, a Kenyan blog, a Pakistani magazine or a Vietnamese journal. Or there might have been Nuzzle, which auto-compiles a digest of articles that others your friends on the social media have shared most – likely unmindful of the fact that people quite often share headlines, or domains they’d like to be known to be reading, instead of the articles themselves.

This is a social magnification like the biological magnification in nature, whereby toxic substances pile up in greater quantities in the gizzards of animals higher up in the food chain. Here, perceptions of legitimacy and quality accumulate in greater quantities in the feeds and timelines of people who consume, or even glance through, the most information. And this way, a general consciousness of what’s considered desirable erects itself without anything drastic, with just the more fleeting and mindless actions of millions of people, into a giant wheel of information distribution that constantly feeds itself its own momentum.

As the wheel turns, and The Atlantic publishes an article, it doesn’t just publish a good article that draws hundreds of thousands of readers. It also rides a wheel set in motion by American readers, American companies, American developers, American interests and American dollars, with a dollop of historical imperialism, that quietly but surely brings the world a good article plus a good-natured reminder that The Atlantic is good and that readers needn’t go looking for anything else because The Atlantic has them covered.

As I wondered in 2017, and still do: “Will my peers in India have been farther along in their careers had there been an equally influential Indian for-publishers tech stack?” Then again, how much is one more amplifier, Pocket or anything else, going to change?

I went into this tirade because of this Twitter thread, which describes a similar issue with arXiv – the popular preprint repo for physical sciences, computer science and applied mathematics papers (don’t @ me to quibble over arXiv’s actual remit). As the tweeter Jia-Bin Huang writes, the manuscripts that were uploaded last – i.e. most recently – to arXiv are displayed on top of the output stack, and what’s displayed on top of the stack gets more citations and readership.

This is a very simple algorithm, quite like Pocket’s algorithm, but in both cases they’re algorithms overlaid on existing bias-amplifying architectures. In a sense, they’re akin to the people who might stand by and watch a lynching, neither egging the perpetrators on nor stopping them. If the metaphor is brutal, remember that the effects on any publication or scientist that can’t infiltrate or ‘hack’ social biases are brutal as well. While their contents and their ideas might deserve international readership, these publications and scientists will need to spend more – energy, resources, effort – to grab international attention again and again.

The example Jia-Bin Huang cites is of scientists in Asia, who – unlike their American counterparts – can’t upload a paper on arXiv just before the deadline so that their papers sit on top of the stack because 2 pm in New York is 3 am in Taipei.

As some replies to the thread indicated, the people maintaining arXiv can easily solve the problem by waiting for the deadline to pass, then randomising the order of papers displayed in its email blast – but as Jia-Bin Huang notes, doing that would mean negating the just-in-time advantage that arXiv’s American users enjoy. So here we are.

It isn’t hard to see how we can extend the same suggestion to the world’s Pockets and Nuzzles. Pick your millions of users’ thousand most-read articles, mix up their order – even weigh down popular American publishers if necessary – and finally advertise the first ten items from this list. But ultimately, until technological solutions actively negate the biases they overlie, Pocket will lie on the same spectrum as the tools that produce the biases. I admit fact-checking in this paradigm could be labour-intensive, as could relevance-checking vis-à-vis arXiv, but I also think the latter would be better problems to solve.

Science prizes, wealth location and social signals

One count on which I almost always find myself to be an outlier in India is my opinion that the Nobel Prizes and their derivatives belong in the gutter. But while many people in other countries share this opinion of the Nobel Prizes, and often put their weight behind advancing this view, there are very few people who focus on similar issues with Indian prizes.

For example, I just sent my colleagues at The Wire a note suggesting that we desist where and when possible to play up notions like eminence, vis-à-vis scientists, and not associate anything but the quality of one’s work with their success. My concern had been prompted by a PTI copy advertising the fact that scientists, “including from MIT, Stanford University and Harvard University in the US”, had been awarded the 2020 Infosys Prizes.

My congratulations to the laureates for doing good work, irrespective of what they’ve won for it – but let’s consider what we’re celebrating here, really. We’re talking about a jury of well-known scholars coming together to consider a list of 200+ nominations and somehow picking only a half-dozen ‘winners’, and to those winners awarding a pure gold medal, a certificate and $100,000, or around Rs 74 lakh.

Most mediapersons pay attention to the Infosys Prizes because of the substantial purse, and when we do pay attention, what are we looking at? We’re looking at a lot of money going to a group of people who already have a good job and access to funds, especially in the name of a job well done that quite likely happened in the first place by virtue of having a good job and access to funds. The Infosys Prizes are in effect heaping more privilege on already privileged scientists.

Consider this year’s laureates, for example. Three of them – Hari Balakrishnan, Sourav Chatterjee and Raj Chetty – have full-time jobs at three of the world’s most well-endowed universities. Rajan Sankaranarayanan is a chief scientist at CCMB Hyderabad and runs his own lab. The sole female laureate this year, historian Prachi Deshpande, is at CSSS Kolkata and used to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. Arindam Ghosh is an associate professor at IISc Bangalore, again with his own lab. I can’t comment on the relative fortunes of Sankaranarayanan, Deshpande and Ghosh (although at least one other person from CCMB and six others from IISc have won Infosys Prizes, speaking to the localisation of resources and opportunities). But these are all scholars who have, as some might say, settled – scholars who have been able to sidestep or surmount, as the case may be, the numerous barriers to finding success and renown as an Indian scientist.

The case of Balakrishnan seems particularly curious (vis-à-vis the prize-giving entity, not Balakrishnan or any of the other laureates): he is a chair professor at MIT and the CTO at a six-person startup with $500 million in funding.

As an offshoot of what I said earlier, it is not unjust to reward people who have done good work – but too often we do so to the exclusion of those who lack the opportunities to begin doing good work in the first place. For example, instead of Balakrishnan, Chatterjee and Chetty, the prizes could have been awarded to three accomplished scientists working in India. And I argue that we need to reapply this criterion and select even other laureates who are yet to settle, so that we may ultimately expand the possibility of there being more successful scientists in future. Ultimately, we do need more successful scientists, not more laureates.

Of course, it isn’t implicitly wrong for any individual or entity to gift a large sum of money to anyone or any other entity (but perhaps it is bad in some cases). The wrongness arises when the money becomes part of a deleterious idea – such as that excellent scientists are men and/or that they succeeded by working alone. Thanks to their reputation, the Nobel Prizes are the foremost examples of this problem. As I wrote in The Wire recently:

That the prizes’ prestige is a construct, and not an innate attribute, matters because constructs represent intent. The construct of prestige or reputation surrounding the Nobel Prizes exists by reinforcing the beliefs and myths that some experts (in the relevant topics) held in order to maintain their privileges, to secrete away their power and perpetuate the status quo. That is, their intention here was to preserve the idea, and even glamourise it by attaching a purse of SEK 10 million (Rs 8.24 crore) with each Nobel Prize (no strings attached), that individuals make inventions and discoveries, and that men were always better at science than women, and more so than people of other genders.

The Infosys Prizes, as also the S.S. Bhatnagar Prize and the Swarnajayanti Fellowships in India, are different only in scale, not in spirit. They seem disinterested in addressing any of the issues, and seem keener on getting media attention. (By making this point, I hope I’m being clear that the media’s attitude towards the constitution of ‘news’ is also part of the problem.)

This year’s Infosys Prize laureates include only one woman; in all, 22% of laureates are women, fewer still if the social sciences are left out. And the prizes have only ever been awarded to individuals. This is disappointing because the prizes can do so much more by virtue, again, of the amount of money in play.

For example, the prize-giving foundation could give ‘senior’ laureates a citation, a certificate, etc., and split the purse into smaller chunks and award each one to promising young scientists, or those who are likely to have a hard time breaching science’s ‘in’ groups without good fortune. This could help separate the prizes’ extant wealth- and virtue-signalling from the distinction-signalling – as well as greatly expand some of the foundation’s other initiatives that directly help students.

I recently wrote with regard to the announcement of this year’s Swarnajayanti Fellowships, in mid-November, that resource constraints encourage us to think that only a few people can be selected for an award every time that award is given out. This in turn leads to the question about which candidates should be left out from the final pool of winners. And this question is to begin with singly misguided, becoming doubly misguided when it is used as a defence against questions about why so few women are awarded important recognitions, and triply misguided when the resource constraints are made-up, a fiction of funders and administrators to retain power.

Instead, we must demand more material wealth and supply it at the springboards of where young and/or struggling scientists take off. These scientists plus some other groups (incl. those from marginalised sections of society, those who need to learn the English language, even those who promise to stay in India for a decade, etc.) are in my view the only ‘segments’ that have justifiable need for not-insubstantial sums of money. Beyond this point, we can be generous with immaterial rewards for those who do good work and may no longer need the money.

The thing about π

Consider the following setup, from the game ‘Factorio’, the game about factory management and automation:

There are two factories visible in this image – the two rectangular, green-walled buildings. Take the one on the left: it’s manufacturing electric furnaces, with steel plates, stone bricks and advanced circuits as ingredients. These three resources are visible on conveyor belts leading up to the factory (top, left, bottom resp.), terminated by blue and green inserters that move the objects from the belts to the factory floor.

In order to maintain a steady supply of electric furnaces, I need to keep the ‘resource pressure’ up. Think of it like a strong wind blowing against your window: even if you opened the window just a little, there’s enough air pressing on that side of the wall for a lot of it to flow into your room. Similarly, I need to make sure sufficient quantities of steel, stone bricks and advanced circuits are available whenever the factory needs it. And within Factorio, as in the real world I imagine, maintaining this resource pressure isn’t easy.

Even if we assume that all the raw materials for these ingredients are available in infinite quantities, the time taken to transport each resource, manufacture the required parts and then move them to the factory takes a different amount of time. And in the factory itself, each electric furnace consumes different quantities of each ingredient: 10 steel plates, 10 stone bricks and five advanced circuits). As a result, for example, if I maintain all three resources with equal pressure on the factory, I will still run out of steel plates and stone bricks faster than I will run out of advanced circuits.

In fact, I will run out of steel plates first because its crafting time is 32 seconds, versus 3.2 seconds for one stone brick. So the proper pressure to maintain here is P for advanced circuits, 2P for stone bricks and 20P for steel plates. (I’m ignoring the crafting time for advanced circuits to keep the example simple.) If I don’t keep up these proportions, I won’t have a steady supply of electric furnaces. Instead, I’ll run out of steel plates first, and by the time more plates are available, stone bricks will have run out, and by the time stone bricks are available, advanced circuits will have run out. And so on and on in a continuous cycle.

The concept of orbital resonance is somewhat similar. Did you know that for everyone two orbits Pluto completes around the Sun, Neptune completes three? This is the 2:3 resonance. And it’s comparable to the Factorio example in that the ratio between the two periodic activities – Neptune’s and Pluto’s revolution and the rate of repetitive consumption of stone bricks and advanced circuits – is a rational number. ‘Rational’ here means the number can be expressed as the ratio of two integers.

Animation of planets in a 2:1 resonance. Credit: Amitchell125/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
Animation of planets in a 2:1 resonance. Credit: Amitchell125/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

With Pluto and Neptune, it’s 2/3 of course, but in a more intuitive sense, the implication is that if you wait for long enough, you will be able to count off the number of times the orbital resonance plays out – i.e. the number of times both planets are back to their starting positions at the same time, which would be once every two Plutonian revolutions or once every three Neptunian revolutions.

Similarly, the resource-pressure resonance plays out once every 10 stone bricks or once every five advanced circuits are consumed.

This meta-periodicity, a term I’m using here to refer to the combined periodicity of two separately periodic motions, allows us a unique opportunity to understand how bizarre the number known as π (pi) is. π is an irrational number: there’s no way to express it as the ratio of two integers. (The following portion also applies to e and other irrational numbers.)

In ‘Factorio’, all resources are integral, which means there can only be 1, 2, 3, … stone bricks, and never 1.5, 2.25, 3.75, etc.; the same constraint applies to advanced circuits as well. So there is no way for me – no matter how I align my resource extraction and processing chains – to ensure that for every advanced circuit, an integer-times-π number of stone bricks are consumed as well. I can alter the length of the supply lines, increase or decrease the ‘normal’ processing time, even use faster/slower conveyor belts and inserters for different ingredients, but I will never succeed. So long as the quantities in play remain integers, there’s no way for me to achieve a resonance such that the ratio of its terms is π.

This is what makes π so beautiful and maddening at once. It exists on terms that no two integers can recreate by themselves.

There’s another way to look at it. Say two planets begin orbiting their common host star from the 12 o’clock position in their respective orbits. If they are in a π:1 resonance, they will never be exactly at the 12 o’clock at the same time ever again. It doesn’t matter if you wait a century, an epoch or forever.

This example offers to my mind an uncommon opportunity to understand the difference between attributes of π and ∞. There’s the oft-quoted and frankly too prosaic statement that π’s decimal places extend infinitely. I prefer the more poetic: that efforts using simple mathematical combinations of integers will never create π. Even if a combination operates recursively, and each cycle produces a closer approximation of π, it can run for ∞ time and still not get here.

Like there’s an immutable barrier between two forms of unattainability.