Humour in the Upanishads

Religious and philosophical works tend to be relatively free of humour. This is a pity, for many a solemn tract on the meaning of life could be improved out of all recognition by a few carefully-timed knock-knock jokes. Observe:

“Knock, knock”
“Who’s there?”
“You who?”

No? Didn’t work for you? Perhaps Uddalaka should have hit Svetaketu with a stick? Or mooed? Crude, I know, but it’s the very essence of Tao and Zen parable, and they do get a lot of laughs.

I recently went through Max Müller’s two-volume translation of the principal Upanishads, and found that it ran true to form. Several brilliant passages, which were more than outnumbered by long dreary marches through featureless wilderness, like the Aitareya Aranyaka. However, I did encounter two pieces of humour so unexpected that they made me laugh out loud. I will reproduce them here as a public service.

The first is a delicious piece of satire in the Chandogya Upanishad, called the Udgitha of the Dogs.

1-12:1. Now follows the udgitha of the dogs. Vaka Dalbhya, or, as he was also called, Glava Maitreya, went out to repeat the Veda (in a quiet place).
1-12:2. A white (dog) appeared before him, and other dogs gathering round him, said to him: “Sir, sing and get us food, we are hungry.”
1-12:3. The white dog said to them: “Come to me to-morrow morning.” Vaka Dalbhya, or, as he was also called, Glava Maitreya, watched.
1-12:4. The dogs came on, holding together, each dog keeping the tail of the preceding dog in his mouth, as the priests do when they are going to sing praises with the Vahishpavamana hymn. After they had settled down, they began to say Hin.
1-12:5. “Om, let us eat! Om, let us drink! Om, may the divine Varuna, Pragapati, Savitri bring us food! Lord of food, bring hither food, bring it, Om!”

There is, of course, the question of whether the translator has been kind to us and given us a joke where none existed. Indeed, other translations tend to smooth out the really funny bit (each dog keeping the tail of the preceding dog in his mouth).

Now Max is a great guy – I took an instant liking to him on reading the preface of the first volume – but he’s the very archetype of the relentless and scrupulously correct German scholar. Neither his best friend nor his severest critic would accuse him of levity. So one can be reasonably sure that any funny bits which filter through his very technical translation were intended in the original.

The second is perpetrated by Yagnavalkya, whose dialogues with other Vedic worthies form much of the Brihadaranyaka.

3-1:1. Ganaka Vaideha (the king of the Videhas) sacrificed with a sacrifice at which many presents were offered to the priests of (the Asvamedha). Brahmanas of the Kurus and the Pankalas had come thither, and Ganaka Vaideha wished to know, which of those Brahmanas was the best read. So he enclosed a thousand cows, and ten padas (of gold) were fastened to each pair of horns.
3-1:2. And Ganaka spoke to them: “Ye venerable Brahmanas, he who among you is the wisest, let him drive away these cows.”
Then those Brahmanas durst not, but Yagnavalkya said to his pupil: “Drive them away, my dear.” He replied: “O glory of the Saman,” and drove them away.
The Brahmanas became angry and said: “How could he call himself the wisest among us?”
Now there was Asvala, the Hotri priest of Ganaka Vaideha. He asked him: “Are you indeed the wisest among us, O Yagnavalkya?” He replied: “I bow before the wisest (the best knower of Brahman), but I wish indeed to have these cows.”


Yagnavalkya, ladies and gentlemen – peerless in the knowledge of Brahman, and owner of a thousand cows!

Why Do Hens Lay Unfertilized Eggs?

(a Just-So Story)

[ I wandered down this line of thought just after finishing Richard Dawkins’ excellent book, “The Greatest Show on Earth”. Be warned that I am not an expert; I merely pretend to be one on this blog. Poetic license has been taken; speculations are far from scientifically proven.]

I’m talking about supermarket variety eggs, which don’t hatch in spite of several childhood hours spent with a lightbulb incubator. Why do hens lay them, indeed? An egg requires large quantities of protein and valuable calcium. A fertile egg is worth the trouble – after all, the hen’s primary Purpose in life is to replicate via eggs. But if the hen has not mated, it should be easy enough to avoid this costly expense. The primary trigger for egg-laying appears to be long days – signifying spring – rather than successful mating or presence of sperm. Why did natural selection not penalize such a glaring and expensive mistake and evolve something sensible?

Sunny side up

No tiny chicken here… whew!

Could it be due to artificial, human selection? Perhaps some enterprising man from long ago found a freak jungle fowl which laid without getting laid and assiduously nurtured that bloodline. After all, we have done so with other freaks like seedless bananas, so why not an embryo-less chicken egg?

[ Aside: There do exist seeded bananas. And some people consider baluts (fertilized eggs) a delicacy. I urge you not to click on those links as they cannot be unseen. I still have nightmares of seeded bananas… ]

Man is off the hook for this one, however. Chicken farmers do exploit the egg-laying trigger by faking spring and turning on the lights early, so their hens lay in all seasons. They have bred for egg qualities, but they’re not responsible for the unfertilized egg laying habit itself. Other species, both near and far, exhibit the same phenomenon. Among humans, it takes the form of menstruation – expelling the unfertilized egg and a goodish bit of nutrients which would have gone to nourish the potential embryo. Yes, the unfertilized chicken egg is directly equivalent to menstrual effluvium in humans. (I’m sorry, did you have an omelette for breakfast?)

The evolutionary design process is very counter-intuitive, so let’s remind ourselves of some of its peculiarities.

Firstly, evolutionary design is blind and lazy to the point of utter stupidity, at least as viewed by a human engineer. For example, a standard oxygen-nitrogen mix is assumed for any gas entering the lungs. In above-ground mammals, the trigger for breathing is based not on depleted blood-oxygen levels, but on rising blood-CO2 levels, which sounds downright loony. Usually, falling blood-O2 and rising blood-CO2 are strongly correlated. But in some cases, like a roomful of nitrogen, both blood-O2 and blood-CO2 levels drop. So if you’re curled up with a book in a room and a sinister hand floods it with pure nitrogen, you won’t turn a hair; you will keep reading until you keel over and die.

Since roomfuls of nitrogen didn’t normally exist in nature, we got by without an explicit oxygen check, even though it would be so simple to add one. Evolution is test-driven development in a very strong sense: if there’s no selection-pressure test, there’s no code.

Secondly, DNA’s operation is unlike anything we’re used to. It’s like seed data for a multi-step, multi-layered process where the output of one stage is input for the next. Embryology – the process of development from single-celled zygote to full-blown animal – is best thought of as an exceedingly complicated origami, going through different folding stages, as the organism, the blooming flower of the DNA seed, is revealed.

All descendant species arise from gradual, successive modifications of parent species. Each step must be a viable, reproducing life form in its own right. Design-from-scratch is just not done. This means animal bodies are riddled with design artifacts from their ancestors and the path they took while evolving from them.

The change from an ancestor to a descendant species is achieved mostly by distorting embryological processes. Speeding up this, slowing down that relative to the other, so that the expanding, warping, folding origami of the growing embryo takes on different shapes in the descendant as compared to the ancestor. There’s the famous example of the laryngeal nerve which illustrates what this can lead to. In the fish design, this nerve was routed straight from brain to gill. In the (fish-descended) mammalian design the routing is preserved, though the surrounding geometry has got distorted to awkward levels due to the neck. So the nerve comes all the way down from the brain, loops around the aorta and goes back up, finally reaching the now-modified gill (larynx). It reaches farcical heights in the giraffe, as you might imagine.

Pharyngeal arches

Pharyngeal arches

This concept of evolutionary action taking the shape of distortion of embryology might help you understand why the growing human embryo initially looks somewhat fish-like, with pharyngeal arches and all (a.k.a. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”) before being squeezed like silly putty towards a human shape.

Even grossly different mechanisms like egg laying and giving live birth – which appear to be so different as to require very different origins – can be shown to be evolved via a clear series of gradual steps from one to the other. Eggs can be held in and develop more and more inside the mother, being laid later and later in the gestation cycle. Taking this extreme, you get eggs which don’t have shells, held inside the mother for the entire gestation cycle and “laid” at maturity. There’s actually a fascinating little skink which alternates between egg-laying and live birth depending on the survival tradeoffs for the mother.

Skink with embedded eggs

A yellow-bellied three-toed skink carrying embryos, visible as light orbs inside its body. (Photograph courtesy Rebecca A. Pyles)

To summarize:

  1. We have more similarities than differences with our ancestors and cousins as far back as the fish. After all, the important inventions – circulatory system with blood and heart, digestive tract, liver, kidneys, sense organs, brain, bone – had already been done, so land animals should really be considered minor modifications of fish.
  2. Inertia. Systems which worked well in the past will continue to be used, unless acted upon by an external selecting force.

Let’s apply these points to our problem.

We know from all the salmon-run videos we’ve seen that many fish practice external fertilization, using water as a mixing medium for sperm and eggs. Indeed, it seems natural that underwater external fertilization was used by the first sexually reproducing animals. In such cases, you can’t really have sperm presence in the reproductive tract trigger egg production, which must start well in advance of any actual mating. For salmon and most other species, place and time of year is an extremely important factor, since laying eggs at the wrong time or the wrong place would severely penalize or even completely ruin their chances of survival. The availability of sperm is almost never really an issue. If the female is ready to lay eggs, chances are extremely good that there is a male nearby willing to do his duty.

This technique could have easily been continued even with the advent of internal fertilization, change in body plan, moving out of water and so on, in the absence of any real selection pressure to the contrary.

Mammals too have an estrous cycle, where they prepare an endometrial layer and ovulate in advance of mating. This layer is either reabsorbed or – in the case of apes and humans – bloodily discharged, in case that fertilization does not take place. The mammalian reproductive system is perfectly capable of optimizing resources and avoid “firing blanks” by suspending the estrous cycle during off-breeding-season periods or while the mother is nursing.

So here we are, at the somewhat anticlimactic answer: natural selection never penalized unfertilized egg laying because it never came to its attention. In the wild, the non-presence of males in the presence of fertile females almost never happened, and the few natural “blank” eggs were simply too rare to bother optimizing for.

The implications for the human condition are uncomfortable, to say the least: it means we’re falling into the “blank” error case much more frequently than natural selection designed for.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed this little evolutionary thought experiment, and I hope I haven’t permanently ruined your appetite for egg products.


If you’re from a “good” Indian family, especially one South of the Vindhyas, chances are that playing cards were taboo in your childhood. Cards were the gateway drug which would entice you away from your shiny engineer-doctor destiny to spiral down into the depths of gambling, drinking and gutter-dying. This means you never played poker. Emerging from the unreal cocoon of university into your first job, you wandered into the stock market with the naive innocence of a farm-bred bakra. And watched your money burn to a crisp.

Well, it’s about time you remedied this major gap in your education. A few hours of poker will teach you a lot about practical game theory, emergent “social” values and a cartload of cognitive biases. More importantly, it will give you extremely valuable insights into yourself, widely applicable to your life in general.

I’m slowly becoming a big believer in Taleb’s Golden Rule: “We favor the visible, the embedded, the personal, the narrated, and the tangible; we scorn the abstract.” One of my interpretations of this rule is – no amount of reading will make you understand as quickly and as deeply as raw experience.

Anyway. If you’ve promised your dead grandmother never to play cards, or, like me, can’t be bothered to learn card scoring combinations, there’s an easy, fun and free alternative: Word Ace, an online multi-player game available on iOS, Palm Pre and Facebook.

Word Ace

Word Ace

Word Ace uses word-tiles with variable scores, just like Scrabble, instead of cards. The setting is Texas Hold ’em style poker. At the beginning of a hand, each player gets two private letters. There is a common pool of 5 letters, one of which is revealed every round. As usual with poker, players can bet money (fake money – don’t worry!) at each round, or give up and leave whatever they’ve bet so far. You must put into the pot at least what others have bet, or more, to stay in the running. The final showdown involves everyone remaining making words out of the 5 common and 2 private letters, with the highest score collecting everything in the pot.

I could wax eloquent about how hard it is to avoid throwing good money after bad, how hard it is to convince your limbic system that it’s ‘just a game’ and it’s ‘just fake money’ (and consequent musings on the artificial value systems in human organizations), how a good reputation is necessary to sustain an occasional outrageous bluff, the frustration of spending so long coming up with an optimal word that you run out of time, only to discover that ‘CAT’ walked away with the pot, how the quality of your play veers from the optimum either by overconfidence after a string of victories or vindictive rage after a loss…

… but my whole point is that you need to find out for yourself. And once you’ve discovered some of your problems, you can work on them, practice folding when every instinct is urging you to bare your teeth and throw all your chips in…

I wonder if there are other simple-and-fun games, perhaps based on Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, which give insights into other aspects of the social ape – selfishness and altruism, co-operation and betrayal.

Word Ace is the best dollar I’ve spent in the App Store (there used to be a pro version, but it’s all free now). Thanks to Self Aware Games for a beautiful idea, nicely executed.

The Many Boons of C. Steve

Tenali Rama

There’s a story about Tenali Rama, poet and jester at the court of Vijaynagar, no doubt put out by the old fox himself. He was a lazy young layabout, until he successfully sued a local deity to grant him a boon. “You may choose only one of these two cups,” she said, “Drink of the milk and be wise; of the curd, and be wealthy.” Quick as a flash, T. Rama thulped down both cups of prasad. Using his newfound wit, he proceeded to mollify the angry deity, saying that either one without the other was quite useless. And went on to amass fame, fortune and the undying hatred of his peers, who might have withstood a smartass, but simply couldn’t stand a rich smartass.

One can only speculate what multi-armed deity  Cupertino Steve summoned, and what cups he was offered. But you can bet he scarfed down every last one of them.

I’ve long been puzzled at the indecent glee that a certain set of people exhibit at the lightest missteps of Apple. Now I think I know why there are so many who absolutely hate Apple in general – without ever having used their products – and C. Steve in particular. It’s because Apple has violated a fundamental law: they operate outside the Pareto envelope of technology-esthetics-business.

You’ve heard the usual pick-any-x lists:

  • Features, quality, time: pick any two
  • Beauty, intelligence: pick any one
  • Popularity, critical acclaim: pick any one

The tradeoffs they represent are held to be almost universal laws, feeding the very strong human tendency to make excuses for the virtues and successes of others. “Oh, he bribed the Government, that’s how they made their billions”, “She may be hot, but she’s dumb as a brick”, and so on. Even the silliest reason will do, but a reason is necessary. It fills a need.

I Pie With My Little Eye...

People dislike Microsoft, but they don’t hate them the way they hate Apple. Redmond Bill craftily maintains a mild-mannered Clark Kent look, just so people can think, “He may be the richest man on earth, but what a dorky haircut!” One pie did more for R. Bill’s popular image than all the billions he’s spent on philanthropy.

Someone who makes it all work is violating a sacred no-free-lunch law, leaving the rest of us looking bad, lazy or stupid. Apple – like Be Inc. and Jean-Louis Gassée – might have been remembered with fond nostalgia and regret, if they’d had the decency to fail. Or at best, been content with the scraps available to a marginal player. Instead, they created beautiful, highly usable amalgams of hardware and software, invaded multiple markets (iPod, iPhone), created new business models (iTunes) and product categories (iPad) and most unforgivably, became a roaring commercial success.

What is everyone else supposed to do now? How can we keep saying people won’t pay for good design, that a f*$#@ing ugly user interface is fine, it’s the thought that counts? How can we half-heartedly mould some plastic and stick two prongs in it, shamed by an Apple plug gleaming at us from a nearby socket? How do you keep throwing crap at the cheap end of the market, when the $50 iPod Shuffle docks with a Lego-like snick into its base?

Mmm... Lego

Pundits and naysayers have been trying, of course. “Reality distortion field”, “Form over function”, “It’s all marketing, they could sell those fanboys turds covered in white plastic”,  reaching its nadir in Charlie Brooker’s masochistic “Beat me, whip me, make me use Windows.” Sorry, folks, that stuff won’t stick any more. Metrics talk, bullshit walks. Apple has eclipsed even Microsoft in market cap, their user base extends far beyond a fanatic hipster core, they’ve started from scratch and made huge inroads into mature markets with established dominant players. If it’s so easy, why doesn’t everyone hire suave, turtlenecked hucksters and make billions?

There are many reasons to criticize specific Apple policies and products, but if you hate them in toto, as a sort of ideological stance, then I have to reluctantly conclude that you are either technologically or esthetically naïve, unable to appreciate just how goddamn hard it is to create an Apple-level experience, or…

Envy. Sorry. The word is not mentioned in polite company, but there you are.

Envy isn’t all bad, it drives a lot of human behaviour, provoking imitation and competition. Apple’s severest critics would have to admit that it’s raised the bar and influenced other players to produce far better user experiences than before. With luck, consumer expectations will be raised and Apple DNA disseminated widely enough that it survives Apple itself. We’ve got to dig ourselves out of the Malthusian trap where poorly designed and written software consistently outstrips hardware gains to deliver a mediocre user experience.

And Steve – the next time you have an Antennagate? Get that chap to throw a pie at you. R. Bill will be happy to give you his number.

Karma Dilemma

In “Nice Guys Finish First”, the penultimate chapter of The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins digresses into game theory to explain the evolution of co-operation. The centerpiece is a simple game called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The one-shot version of PD is straightforward: the rational move for any player is to always defect. The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma or IPD, where players face each other in multiple rounds, is much more interesting, because co-operation emerges as a viable strategy. “As a biologist”, Dawkins says, “I agree with Axelrod and Hamilton that many wild animals and plants are engaged in ceaseless games of Prisoner’s Dilemma, played out in evolutionary time.”

You can read the gory details in Wikipedia, but my eye was caught by this particular notion:

But none of this works unless the game is iterated. The players must know that the present game is not the last one between them. In Axelrod’s haunting phrase, the ‘shadow of the future’ must be long. But how long must it be? It can’t be infinitely long.

From a theoretical point of view, it doesn’t matter how long the game is; the important thing is that neither player should know that the game is coming to an end.

But it can be infinitely long! The Hindu-Buddhist doctrine of karma and reincarnation provides an almost mathematically ideal playing field for IPD.

  1. The universe keeps score.
  2. The game is infinite, and your karma score is rolled over to your next billing cycle on death and reincarnation. Some of your karma points may be redeemed towards determining your next birth-form. Players believe that the game is not limited to this lifetime, and this increases their tendency to play co-operate rather than defect.

Since the universe keeps score and deals out retribution, players find it less necessary to get caught up in rounds of mutual retaliation. Of course, this biases strategies perhaps a tad too much towards Sucker, with the usual failure mode of being invaded by Cheaters. As a neat side effect, the doctrine also “explains” unjustified success and suffering as the result of account balance brought forward from previous births.

In a tribal society, where everyone knows everyone else, the tribe itself can keep score. Since most transactions occur between members of the tribe, and all tribe members realize that they will be playing again and again, a karmic structure appears superfluous. Older members who are about to exit the stage are the ones in most danger of getting defected against. According to Steven Pinker, this probably stimulated the development of ancestor worship.

Ancestor worship must be an appealing idea to people who are about to become ancestors. As one’s days dwindle, life begins to shift from an iterative prisoner’s dilemma, in which defection can be punished and cooperation rewarded, to a one-shot prisoner’s dilemma, in which enforcement is impossible. If you can convince your children that your soul will live on and watch over their affairs, they are less emboldened to defect while you are alive.

In larger agglomerations, like urban areas, where most transactions are one-shot interactions between strangers, there is a tendency for defect to prevail. It’s interesting to speculate that the rise of the doctrine of karma and reincarnation was part of a self-reinforcing “virtuous circle” with the rise of post-agricultural civilization.

Non-intelligent Non-design

A living organism is so very, very complex, yet fits and works so smoothly, that the straight-line code-path is to impute this to a Designer of superhuman intelligence and superhuman skills. Creationists, furthermore, postulate a single overarching Divine Designer for all organisms. One of their favourite anti-evolution arguments is to pick something – the eye, the bombardier beetle and so forth – and claim that it could not have evolved, because it’s irreducibly complex. While each such example can and has been refuted, it gets tiresome (and they’re not convinced, anyway). Let me present here a counter-example, a breathtaking flaw in so basic a life process that is very hard to reconcile with the notion of intelligent and intentional design. I’m talking about something we hold synonymous with life itself – breath. The absolute and unyielding importance which the body attaches to its air supply is readily familiar to anyone who has tried to hold his breath for a while… but it’s not very consistent about it.

Years ago, my father told me of an industrial accident he had witnessed. Someone had climbed into a reaction chamber for routine inspection during a plant shutdown, when, unknown to him, a hidden hand opened a valve which flooded the chamber with nitrogen. He collapsed after a few minutes, unconscious. Another person climbed in to see what was wrong, tried to revive the unconscious engineer and himself collapsed. Both died for lack of oxygen soon after.

I remember being extremely surprised and somewhat skeptical – surely they would have felt the same rising panic we feel when holding our breath? There would be enough time and strength left over for a mad dash to the exit, even if it involved a climb… something didn’t add up.

Recently, I heard of a few more such accidents, and remembering the old story, dug around a bit. Turns out that the urge to breathe – air hunger – is triggered, not by low blood oxygen levels, but high carbon dioxide levels! Wikipedia continues: In mammals (with the notable exception of seals and some burrowing mammals), the breathing reflex is triggered by excess of carbon dioxide rather than lack of oxygen, so asphyxiation progresses in oxygen-deprived environments, such as storage vessels purged with nitrogen or helium balloons, without the victim experiencing air hunger. There are other interesting links about using nitrogen asphyxiation as a painless, humane method of killing animals including humans.

Wow. So as long as you continue to expel carbon dioxide from your blood (which will happen if your airways are unrestricted and there is some gas flowing in and out), you aren’t going to turn a hair if oxygen rapidly gets depleted and you die as a result. I can hardly find words to describe the gross incompetence such a “design” would suggest. How difficult would it have been to add a one-liner to the breath reflex trigger? Given the cardinal importance of oxygen, the violent reaction in the standard case of air hunger, and the vast array of biotechnology (as exhibited by other animals) available to the purported Designer, such a lapse is simply unbelievable.

When viewed through the lens of evolution by natural selection, it makes perfect sense, of course. Standard atmospheric nitrogen-oxygen mix was the only thing which the affected animals were ever exposed to. In such environments, a rise in carbon dioxide levels is always strongly correlated to oxygen deprivation, so a panic response to CO2 is good enough. Such “good enough” solutions not-designed by blind, not-intelligent evolution can be stable for millions of years, in the absence of selection pressure to the contrary.

Bad Designer, no cookie.

The Times Archive

The Times (the British one) has opened its archive from 1785 to 1985! Although it’s free for a limited period only, this is something I’d be willing to pay money for. The Onion’s Our Dumb Century, a collection of faux newspaper front pages from 1900 to 2000 occupies a favourite and much-reread spot on my bookshelf. This is its real-life analogue… if only they’d release it on a DVD or something easier to browse.

One of the earliest articles in The Times reports on the execution of Marie Antoinette, the copy a perfect imitation of the style of the day, complete with broken type and s’s which look like f (Hmm… sorry, it was the style of the day. The Onion and Pierre Menard have really addled my brains :)) Continues on through the the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the heydays of the British empire – my favourite historical fiction period – Flashman, Jack Aubrey and Dr. Maturin… now I can see it as it happened, through the eyes of ye olde Times. Of course it won’t be a neutral point-of-view, but you know it – this is actually an improvement over the supposed NPOV of objective historical accounts. So refreshingly different, so current, so free of the sanctimonious hindsight bias and inevitability which plague so many post-facto accounts. Napoleon has just escaped from Elba. What will happen next? A disturbing dispatch has just come in from Rorke’s Drift about the massacre at Isandlana. Can it be true, Zulu savages getting the better of modern British troops? In other news, an exciting report of Boat Race night. No doubt someone got pinched for failing, as is so often the case, to apply the forward shove before the upward lift, and was sentenced to 15 days without the option at Bosher street police court.

Some day I’d like to teach the kids history by pointing to the newspapers of the day. Google Earth for geography. Education 2.0, here we come.

It’s not limited to news articles, but the whole deal – complete with ads, letters to the editor and other such tidbits which let your taste buds swirl over the whole zeitgeist. I particularly love the little nuggets which one stumbles upon, while chasing down some “historic” event. Here are a couple of letters to the editor from October 1942, at the height of the second world war.

[transcribed for your convenience]


Sir, – To the thousands of Government servants shivering in unheated rooms in the stone buildings of Whitehall your headline “Waste in Government Departments” is a grim pleasantry. Yours faithfully,


Sir, – I have a bumper crop of pears in my London garden. Having heard Lady Cripps’s broadcast appeal, I thought I would sell the pears and give the proceeds to the Aid to China Fund.
To make sure this was allowed I rang up the local Food Office, and was told that I should be acting illegally, as I have no retailer’s licence. I was advised to give the pears away on the principle that “charity begins at home.” Still with Lady Cripps in mind, I applied for help to the Ministry of Food. They at once passed me on to the Divisional Office. The Divisional Office immediately suggested that I try the Ministry of Food. I said I had been there, too. The Divisional Office thereupon volunteered to tackle the local Food Office themselves. As a result the local Food Office informed me that if I would put in my application in writing and deliver it by a stated time the next day it would immediately be put before the committee, who would consider granting me a temporary retailer’s licence. I asked if it would save trouble to dispose of the pears through my fruiterer. I was told that if I did so I should be acting as a wholesaler, and the matter would have to go before the Ministry of Food, who alone granted wholesaler’s licences. So I gave up that idea and applied for a retailer’s licence, and delivered my application before the stipulated hour. That was a week ago, and nothing has happened, except to the pears, which are slowly rotting.
I do not question the necessity of these restrictions. But why in such a trivial matter cannot the responsible officer give an immediate decision? Why must the buck always be passed?
Yours, &c.,
Hampstead, Oct. 19.

Now I know where Monty Python and Yes Minister got their stuff 🙂

Letter to the Editor

You’ve gone on a vacation with a bunch of friends. Each of you has taken a gazillion pics, posted the best few on Flickr and shared it with the group. While browsing through the collection, you realize… that’s a good one, but hey, I was there in that same place, I took a photo at the same time… how come I didn’t see that?

Is it because your friend had a few megapixels extra, or a faster lens? Let’s extrapolate the galloping advances in optics, CCDs and storage to the point where you have a camera which can take continuous 24fps ultra-high resolution pics of everything you see, so that at the end of your vacation, you have a complete digital recording of everything you ever saw. Would that be a good thing?

Of course not. Sitting through somebody else’s vacation home video is the second deadliest form of torture (the first, of course, being an Indian Wedding Video, with accompanying voice-overs about unke mause ke chachere bhai), because so few bother to edit the video.

Which brings me finally to my point: Editing is one of the prime functions of the brain. Like shellfish unfurling their fan-like appendages to strain bits of food from the flow of water, the brain has evolved to pick out interesting bits from the raw wash of sense data. To pick that one instant, that particular subject, that particular angle, that particular framing, is one of the highest expressions of this skill. Photography is all about editing. All that bull about megapixels and lenses and F numbers is just nonsense – you can take interesting pictures with a point-and-shoot and Patel shots with a Nikon D300.

At least, that’s what I tell myself when I see the $@#% price tags on those $@!% lenses. I bet they taste sour, too.


I was waxing eloquent on the new gzip compression program when Guru Hemal turned to me, a twinkle behind his soda glasses.
“I can tell you how to compress any file of any size, down to”, he waved his hands with airy nonchalance, “8 bytes. Or 16, at the most.”
“OK, I’ll bite”, I said warily, wondering if a bar of unit length and an infinitely sharp pin were about to make an appearance.
“Imagine an infinite disk”, he said, “give me any file – I’ll copy it there and give you a unique index number for that file on the disk. Whenever you want it back, just present the index number and I’ll retrieve the file. See?”
I saw. “With 16 bytes, you could store 2^128 unique files and we could never produce that many… of course, there’s still the small matter of the infinite disk…”
“Moore’s law!”, he handwaved again, “just you wait!”

This was in the early ’90s, when 100 MB disks were considered big, the web was still a glint in Tim B-L’s eye, and Usenet was the Great Time-Eater. Today, the infinite disk is a palpable reality. With Wowbaggerian resolve, Google decided to suck up the world’s information and – this was the part they really decided to grit their teeth over – make it universally available. Many a conversation has, in this age, been compressed to a pithy, dehydrated phrase. Just Add Google for it to spring to full and lush meaning.

Not only does the infinite disk exist, it is addressable in human language. It is a measure of how deadened we are to the pace of technology that we do not wake up every morning in utter amazement and awe. I vividly remember trembling with excitement when first summoned the ftp daemon behind, half a world away and – in real time – it asked me for a username and password. Today, I routinely use the Google genie – still half a world away – for trivial math, just because it would require a few extra keystrokes to fire up the local calculator program.

This is not an unmixed blessing – any pretensions to original thought, which a poor education might have enabled you to sustain indefinitely, are swiftly and mercilessly killed. Someone, somewhere already had your “original” idea, and expressed it much better than your crude attempts to rub two metaphors together and produce a spark of… see what I mean?

Autonomous Software Agents as Trustees

Now we come to idea #2: immortality.

“Arthur’s brain could always be replaced,” said Benji reasonably, “if you think it’s important.”
“Yes, an electronic brain,” said Frankie, “a simple one would suffice.”
“A simple one!” wailed Arthur.
“Yeah,” said Zaphod with a sudden evil grin, “you’d just have to program it to say What? and I don’t understand and Where’s the tea? – who’d know the difference?”
“What?” cried Arthur, backing away still further.
“See what I mean?” said Zaphod and howled with pain because of something that Trillian did at that moment.
“I’d notice the difference,” said Arthur.
“No you wouldn’t,” said Frankie mouse, “you’d be programmed not to.”

My limited definition of immortality is – ensuring that a part of you lives on, so that your wishes are carried out well beyond your expiry date. The traditional way it has been done is

  1. Genetically
  2. Make a lot of money and establish a trust fund run by a bunch of lawyers whose firm has been around for centuries.

Both methods have their limitations. The genetic method involves creating a creature which develops its own ideas about what to do with your legacy. The other one has a high barrier to entry and is prone to creative interpretation on the part of trustees.

Now consider the breadth and depth of data available online and the increasing number of things possible to do simply by being connected to the Internet. It is possible write a program – essentially, an autonomous software agent trustee, an asat, which will

  1. manage the resources required to fund itself and its objectives.
  2. monitor the net for events
  3. carry out actions like selling stock, sending roses, periodic emails, giving money to individuals, institutions, charities based on triggers like timeouts and events visible on the net.

The legal framework would be the same as that used by trusts. It’s just that the human trustees now have a very simple job – they need to verify the legality of the program, host it somewhere where it has net access. This enables the trustees to deal with orders of magnitudes more clients than they possibly could if they had to function as “human executors” of “wills”, which is essentially the same thing. It also reduces the scope of creative interpretation.

Given Moore’s law, the cost of running the asat is next to nothing. Given compound interest, after several decades, its financial power will be far greater than you could achieve in your lifetime. Especially since it will use strategies which work well over really long terms (buy-and-hold), whereas impatient monkeys like you can’t resist the urge to meddle. You can then use it to do significant stuff without relying on your descendants. You can leave the bulk of your assets to your descendants in the traditional way and a small amount to power your asat. Compound interest will do the rest of the job.

The asat would use abstractions which would be meaningful across long periods (~100s of years) of time. The framework in which the asat is written will provide fixed APIs and implementations of these abstractions. The framework will need to be upgraded from time to time as the implementation of the abstractions changes, but the core logic can remain as-is.

Here is a simple example something which can be done by an asat:

  • Generate some amount of cash every year from an investment portfolio.
  • Pick some descendants at random, probably the younger ones. It’d know who your descendants were, from walking through the births/deaths/DNA fingerprint database. It is possible that you might be even be able to compute who your favourite great-great-great grandchild is, by looking online at their school scores, favourite books, toys etc.
  • Pick at random from the 10 most popular toys for that age which fits in the budget. (Today’s implementation in the framework: look at the Amazon top 10)
  • Buy and ship, optionally with a note and a sermon from great-great-great grandma appropriate for that occasion.

This simple example illustrates a few common characteristics of such agents:

  • They can identify people by a chain of trust which extends through time, with resources available online, and make decisions with a high degree of confidence.
  • They can make a good buying decision – appropriate for the time in which it is made – without having any conceivable idea at programming time, of what toys would exist or be popular 100 years hence.
  • The framework needs to translate a time-independent command like “give me a list of the 10 most popular gifts for 6-8 year olds under 100 dollars (indexed for inflation)” to an Amazon API call. 20 years later, this may be a lookup on some MegaGoogle API. Someone needs to keep updating the framework.

There are many interesting points about asats. I will talk about a few of them below.

  • One of the most important issues is that of legality. Human trustees would be ultimately legally responsible for the actions of the software agent. Therefore, one immediate barrier to agent complexity is that the code needs to be simple enough to verify and get certified (and recertified, on demand, when laws change) by a qualified human that its behaviour would be legal. One way is to translate the code to LEGAL, an Anglo-Saxon language full of whereases and heretofores. This LEGAL document can then be examined by the trustee – if he is comfortable with executing this piece of LEGAL, then all he is doing is outsourcing his execution to the software, which presumably functions as advertised. This is not such a big deal, since humans are called upon to validate, certify and audit the behaviour of very complex information systems for compliance to regulations specified in LEGAL. Anyway, there are going to be any number of tiny island republics with liberal laws, submarine fiber (and maybe nuclear deterrents), which will gladly host your asat for you.
  • You don’t need AI, strong or otherwise, to accomplish this. It’s possible with today’s technology. However, AI would certainly make it possible to specify more and more complex behaviour (approximating your own), although it would pass the behaviour verifiability event horizon at some point. Asymptotically, this would lead to the download-yourself-into-teh-intarweb immortality which strong AI and Singularity proponents are dangling in front of us.
  • A language for speaking to asats will emerge. Let’s say you want to build a hospital in Hingane Budruk. You would write a blog post or a press release, with a Request for Funding tagged with the appropriate keywords. Some asats would notice – through MegaGoogle news – that someone is planning a hospital in their home town. They would then put up some money towards it.
  • “Exploits” targeting such agents to get money out of them (“I am the ghost of MRS MARIAM ABACHA…”)
  • A stronger way to ensure that your asat doesn’t squander his money on fraudulent RFFs would be to create a chain of trust. For example, I trust the judgment of X, Y and Z for financial matters and assign scores to each to reflect my level of confidence. A, B and C for political matters. I will encode this, sign and publish my trust matrix. X, Y, Z, A, B and C will also do the same. Sooner or later, the trust chain will include younger and younger people. So some guy in 2100 may endorse a particular scheme and you can evaluate the value of his endorsement by computing the path through the trust graph and the weights on the edges. It won’t be just one guy, of course. Thousands will vote on schemes and by aggregating their judgment, your asat will have as good a way of getting sound advice as any. This is similar to the PageRank and other Web2.0 peer rating methods, except that it extends much further through the time dimension. Using the temporal chain of trust, you would even be able to take a stance on the then-extant politics and contribute to political causes.
  • How do you update the core logic? Again, the chain of trust will help. The agent could fork(), with the new copy getting some money and trying out some other “highly rated” code fragments for financial planning from other asats, etc. Asymptotically, this line of thought points towards DNAesque evolution.
  • The asat never tires, never wants to die, doesn’t waste money on vacations or health care. Asats may be among the richest people in a century or so and society may be dominated by “dead hands” (this, of course, may already be true).
  • The asat can have a presence in Second Life or other online virtual worlds. A soup of ELIZA, voice recordings, text to speech, some seed data would make for a really creepy experience. People generate massive quantities of content – photos, email, videos, which can be mined to provide some idea of their behaviour.
  • You can run one, or two or twenty such agents. You can start running them right away (“living trust”), with yourself as the human trustee responsible for guaranteeing their good behaviour.
  • Extra-legal agents using anonymous funding can be created to run in some offshore data haven. They can do a lot of mischief, like sponsoring terrorist activities, verifying their occurence via news events, then paying off the perpetrator…
  • Collaboration between asats. You might help out asats of your “friends” (computed through the chain of trust), descendants, peers who are in danger of extinction due to some imprudent investments. Or collaborate on filtering events, financing ventures, etc.

Technology can empower millions of people to create asats, just as millions of them create avatars, Sims or tamagotchis today. Extending it to a solution which can function as a will will require you to grandfather in a company of solicitors which has a hundred-year track record, in addition to developing the framework, the language, the chain-of-trust, etc. This is the standard way for new insurance companies to acquire a veneer of respectable age and stability – they buy up the tailor whose great-great-grandfather made chaddis for Mangal Pandey and proudly claim “Covering your assets since 1857”.

Go ahead, play God. Program for eternity!