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© Rakhesh Sasidharan


Law of the Quantum of Solace

One keep hearings of “Quantum” dots with CES 2019 going on, obviously in association with the physics concepts of Quantum computing and very small in size etc. in the context of TVs. But when I think of “quantum” I think of the following passage from the “Quantum of Solace” James Bond short story by Ian Fleming.

The Governor paused and looked reflectively over at Bond. He said: “You’re not married, but I think it’s the same with all relationships between a man and a woman. They can survive anything so long as some kind of basic humanity exists between the two people. When all kindness has gone, when one person obviously and sincerely doesn’t care if the other is alive or dead, then it’s just no good. That particular insult to the ego – worse, to the instinct of self-preservation – can never be forgiven. I’ve noticed this in hundreds of marriages. I’ve seen flagrant infidelities patched up, I’ve seen crimes and even murder forgiven by the other party, let alone bankruptcy and every other form of social crime. Incurable disease, blindness, disaster – all these can be overcome. But never the death of common humanity in one of the partners. I’ve thought about this and I’ve invented a rather high-sounding title for this basic factor in human relations. I have called it the Law of the Quantum of Solace.”

Bond said: “That’s a splendid name for it. It’s certainly impressive enough. And of course I see what you mean. I should say you’re absolutely right. Quantum of Solace – the amount of comfort. Yes, I suppose you could say that all love and friendship is based in the end on that. Human beings are very insecure. When the other person not only makes you feel insecure but actually seems to want to destroy you, it’s obviously the end. The Quantum of Solace stands at zero. You’ve got to get away to save yourself. 

I copy pasted more than I wanted to so there’s some context for the quote. But the part italics (by me, not in the original text) are what I really love.

Life and all that…

I went traveling to a different country recently. The day after reaching there I realized that I have loose motions. Not sure what I ate that disagreed with me as I was fine all night long and only had this sudden urge to rush to the toilet an hour after I woke up (during which I ate nothing). Coincidentally, on the day that I was leaving for this place I had also packed my Imodium tablets (they put an end to loose motions, they are amazing!). I hadn’t packed them for the trip but when I woke up that day I had a headache and so decided to pack some Panadol just in case. Looking for extra supplies in my medicine drawer I chanced upon a pack of Imodium which was expiring this month and so took it along just in case. And the very next day they turned out to be useful. “How lucky!” my mind thought.

But is that luck? Wouldn’t luck have been not having loose motions in the first place? I am “lucky” in that I generally don’t get loose motions when traveling (in fact the last time I remember getting loose motions on a trip was maybe 4-5 years ago) so considering I had to get loose motions, yes I was lucky that events conspired such that I took the tablets along; but I would have been luckier if I just didn’t get loose motions at all.

I suppose I should be thanking God for the stroke of luck. But then again couldn’t God just have prevented me from getting loose motions (either through a more resilient stomach or just pointing me away from whatever food triggered the loose motions). If God is all seeing and thus all this is predestined then I was meant to get loose motions and also meant to carry tablets along – so this is all just pointless no?

I don’t get a God who is all seeing and does pointless things just for self-amusement or something. A better explanation is that there is no predestination and God isn’t all seeing. Things just happen but God is someone who is more aware of the probabilities and multiple futures. I too as a Human can calculate these but I am nothing compared to God who is able to calculate things infinitely better and with more nuance perhaps. He can then nudge me along such that I am better prepared for things. This is the God in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs”. The God who arranged for things such that the family was able to kill the aliens and the preacher’s brother nearly escaped having his kiss messed up forever by the girl puking into his mouth.

So what makes things happen? I dunno. Random chance I guess. Is God able to influence things? I dunno. If he can influence things directly – like send a thought to my head to take medicines or avoid a certain food – then it doesn’t make much sense as he can avoid a lot of the drama of life by just making sure certain things don’t happen. So direct influencing doesn’t make sense to me, it has to be indirect. He can arrange for things to sway the probabilities this way or the other perhaps, but what eventually happens is not His direct doing. Thus He can arrange for me to wake up with a headache (make sure I have a bad sleep and I will wake up thus) then arrange for things to be such that I open my medicine cabinet to look for headache medicines and see the stomach upset medicines; but whether I actually take the medicines along or not depends on me. That bit is my decision, he can only arrange things so I have a decision to make.

Thus God is not responsible for my actions or those of others. But He can influence actions – both mine and others. Because I wake up with a headache chances are I might go pick up a fight with someone or be unnecessarily rude, but that choice still rests with me and what I do is my responsibility. The cards are stacked against me but it is my free will to act out. A lot of times I will fall into His trap and act poorly, a few times I will act better. This too has His influence written all over it because the person I am today is a result of my past and the events there, and if He so influenced my past events to be one which has left me full of negative thoughts and a depressed nature chances are I will react very poorly to the events in my life (making my future prospects poor in turn). He has slowly nudged the probabilities to be better able to nudge me the way He wants. I was probably a clean slate when born (sort of, coz my environment and parents etc too matter of course) but over time He is able to influence my actions more.

One could split God into the God and Devil I guess. One tries to do good by you, the other bad. Or there could even be a host of Beings I guess. I mean who knows. Even if there’s just one or a whole lot, the question is why should any one or more of these care for me. Why should they try to do good by me (take medicines for instance) or bad (eat food that causes a stomach upset). What’s their stake in it? Is it because I pray and so God wants to do good by me and the Devil wants to hurt me; or am I just a pawn in a game between them where things have to happen for the sake of the drama? I dunno. I don’t like to think in terms of black and white so this concept of God and Devil sounds rubbish to me. I prefer to think of things this way: one, there’s Life which is the random happening of events; two, there’s Beings that can influence things one way or the other because they can see more of the big picture in space and time; and three:, there’s us Humans (and other Animals?) who can make individual choices which may not necessarily be easy to make because the Beings I mentioned could influence our decisions but we nevertheless have free will and so the decisions are ours in the end and these in turn feed into Life and affect others and have an interplay with everything. Life + Beings is what one would refer to as the Tao I guess.

Why do these Beings do what they do? Are they just impartial beings or themselves influenced by other things? Maybe they are influenced by Humans too via their deeds and prayers (or lack thereof)? Maybe Beings influence each other, maybe the random events of Life influence these Beings too? My “guardian angel” Being (for lack of a better term) had some interest in ensuring I don’t have a shitty trip (literally haha!) so ensured I took tablets along. Other Beings have negative interests towards me for whatever reasons so They ensure a lot of other things don’t go well with me. Or maybe it’s the same Being who both didn’t want to spoil my trip but otherwise has it out for me in certain matters so spoils them and helps out in other matters however He can. Who knows.

Part of me knows that this is me anthropomorphizing things. Things happened, I was lucky to take tablets along, now I am trying to find a reason of explain things. Big deal! But I don’t think so. I don’t feel life is entirely random. A lot of times things seem to have a pattern. It’s like a fractal. Seems very complex and varied but there’s a kernel of a pattern which influences the overall structure. I find life to be like that. It’s a mix of random (the capital L Life) and some non-random ordering (God; Beings) working together. A sensible philosophy for mental peace would be to accept things and find understanding but it doesn’t work that way. It is irritating when things don’t work out even though you may put in a lot of effort, or things always seem to go a certain way as if there’s some bad luck or jinxing involved. What does one do here? Keep trying? Work harder? Pray!? :) I don’t know. I don’t think praying or pointlessly trying is an answer. But I do feel that one must try as much as one can, without getting frustrated. Try because that’s in ones nature, but couple it with an understanding perhaps that there is a non-random element at work too which for whatever reason nudges things around so you may not always get what you want (and will sometime get things when you least expect it). If there are some non-random sequence of events which work to ensure that you are never stuck without loose motion pills in case you have to get loose motions during a trip, then there are also non-random sequence of events which will work to ensure the probabilities are always stacked against you in certain aspects of life and how much ever you try things will always seem to work against you. There’s nothing you can do in the latter, but that doesn’t mean you give up. The same way these Beings can’t make you win by taking tablets, They can’t make you fail either. The only time you really fail is when you fall down and stay down (I am paraphrasing this from something I read). As long as you get up, even though your legs might be broken, you haven’t decided to fail. At the end you might have failed because the cards were stacked against you but you (the capital H Human in this game of life) hasn’t given up.

Before wrapping up, something I want to add as a reminder to my future self reading this. If things have conspired to make it a bad day and are nudging you to make bad decisions, remember the final decision is still yours. It is hard to resist because of all the environmental factors, but remember you have a choice and try to exert it.

Ps. Typing this post on my iPhone from the beautiful (but hot, wrong time to visit!) Armenia. Maybe all these thoughts are thanks to the monastery visits or the long hours spent half asleep half dreaming in the car rides to these monasteries. I didn’t know Armenia had such a rich heritage until I visited the place. I knew of Armenia somewhere in the back of my mind but didn’t realize how old and historically rich it was.

[Aside] Quote

Listening to “The End of the Affair” narrated by the amazing Colin Firth (a pleasure so far to listen to! wow). This sentence caught my attention:

How twisted we humans are, and yet they say a God made us; but I find it hard to conceive of any God who is not as simple as a perfect equation, as clear as air.

[Aside] Quote

Came across this when listening to “Fahrenheit 451”:

We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.

It’s from a book by James Boswell and the full paragraph is worth reading.

Two nice quotes from “Wakefield”

Saw “Wakefield” (movie) just now. Loved it. Not at all what I had expected from the synopsis. That sounded like a creepy/ stalker sort of movie, but the actual movie was amazing. Two nice quotes from it.

This is from a point in the movie where the main character (Howard) realizes how he has escaped from a prison of his own making (his past behavior and insecurities):

If anything, I’ve come into my senses fully.

My god, I can see it so clearly.

I’ve constructed the whole thing.

The jealousy …

… the resentment …

…the selfish urgency.

Howard is victim.

Howard is persecutor.

Howard has mastered the world.

That was my prison. That’s what I’ve escaped.

Leaving me where now?

An outcast of cosmos.

And this is just a line he says sometime as he is watching his wife.

I just want you to want me as much as I want you.

Good stuff!

A nice quote from Maigret “Night at the Crossroads”

On men. I liked it. Found it to be very insightful and true. 

I liked Michonnet. 

He didn’t want to protect me or kiss me, or own me. He just saw a scheme where he could make some money. 

Men aren’t usually that honest with themselves. Women are a fantasy, or a path to redemption, or a way they can escape their life. 

Maybe all men want to trap you in the end. And I was sick of that. 

[Aside] The Ultimate Guide To Being An Introvert – Altucher Confidential

I tweeted this link but then thought I should put it on my blog too mainly as a reference to myself. Sometimes I wander through my blog looking for wisdom and I hope to find this post then. A great read, especially if you are an introvert and view that/ have been told that it’s a bad thing.

Read the full article (it is long); here’s an excerpt I liked. 

Being an introvert has nothing to do with being shy. Or being outgoing or not outgoing. Or being socially awkward.

All it means is that some people recharge when they are by themselves (introverts).

Other people recharge when they are interacting with many other people (extraverts) and most people are in the middle.

I lose energy very quickly when in a group of people. Getting invited to a party is horrible for me.

I say “no” to almost every social situation. Because I know they will take energy away from me doing the things I love.
If I’m giving a talk it’s no problem. Because I’m by myself on the stage. It’s one to many instead of me just one in a mess of people. I recharge on the stage.

[Aside] Quote (on God)

I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.

– Albert Einstein, from “The World as I See It”

Came across the above in a book I am reading (“Ganesha on the Dashboard” by V. Raghunathan & M.A. Eswaran). The book attributes this quote to Bertrand Russell, but the Internet attributes this to Albert Einsten. I’ll go with the Internet.

Reading this quote blew my mind. That’s exactly the argument I too have about God! Each time my wife or parents insist I visit a temple or pray that’s exactly what I go through in my mind. The God I can conceive of does not punish me for my “mistakes” nor is capable of rewarding me for “good deeds” or “prayers”. A “God” who does all these is simply not a God for me. Such an entity might be a demigod or some other force, but definitely not God.

God (or Tao or the force or whatever) made us and everything around us. If we behave a certain way the onus of those decisions are on us. God gave us a brain and thought processes. Right and Wrong are relative and while there are many things that are Wrong for everyone, it is up to each one of us to discover and feel this for ourselves. Simply classifying something as Wrong and/ or not doing Wrong deeds even though we may not agree, but going along with it just coz God said so, is not the right way to do it in my opinion.

All that aside, the last line of the quote is another thing that resonates so well with me. The world is something. WE are something. There’s a beauty in it all, a mystery. The journey is the thing, not the destination. Putting up a God and chasing after what He/ She says isn’t the end goal for me; the end goal is the discovery. Of discovering the world around me and also the world within me. The “growing” I do – of my values, frames of reference, what I find to be right and wrong – that is the important thing.

Of course Einstein conveys all this much better than I do an in fewer words! Amazing!

Context is everything …

Some of my colleagues call me “Mr. Fix It” while the users I support call me a magician. That’s because I am good at fixing problems and getting to the root of an issue. I tend to immerse myself in the problem I am solving and easily pick up whatever techniques and knowledge that might aid in troubleshooting. I think this is because I have a problem solving mind and I enjoy finding out why things don’t work the way they are supposed to. My mind likes to understand how things work and fit together. Not all things mind you so I wouldn’t really call myself a geek, just things to do with computers. The weirder the problem is, the happier I am to take a stab at it! And my day is made if solving a problem also involves me picking up new stuff I didn’t know so far.

Now, in the context of my work life this is a very useful skill to have. I think it gives me an edge over my colleagues because I am like a hungry warrior. They might be stronger and bulkier than me (read: know more stuff than me because of experience) but they are not as hungry nor do they live for fixing stuff. As long as things work, they are happy to let it be. They don’t go about poking beneath it or ask questions to understand why things are so. Nor do they lose themselves in a problem and chase it down to its end. These are advantages I have over most people I have worked with, and I am happy about that.

But take these skills out of this context and they backfire. When my wife tells about a problem for instance, my mind goes on a tangent thinking how to fix the problem. I ask questions to try and understand the problem. I offer solutions – maybe crazy ones – to try and solve the problem. And if she gets put off by the questions or doesn’t like the solutions, I just move on because as far as I am concerned there’s nothing more for me to do. My mind lacks the emotional element that empathizes with her. It doesn’t understand that sometimes asking more questions isn’t the correct response to the situation. It is not willing to just listen to the problem without thinking of ways to solve it. And if the problem is something which I can’t find a solution for immediately – most “life problems” are that way – then my mind ends up ruminating over it as is my nature. That doesn’t work well for such problems; so rather than get bogged down it, a more practical part of my mind kicks in and tells me not to ruminate like this. That’s easier said than done, so over time I have developed a shield to such situations – if the problem’s fixable, I offer suggestions; if it’s not, or the other person doesn’t seem interested, I just don’t care about it. Which again doesn’t work out well in this context because now I give an impression of someone who doesn’t care! Not only am I a jerk now who can’t empathize and keeps asking questions, I am also someone who actively doesn’t care and blocks himself from the situation.

Context is everything!

These same skills and strategy however work well when it comes to work colleagues and users. When a colleague calls me up to talk about some work problem they don’t really want empathy or for me to care much. They want someone who listens and offers practical suggestions. They want someone who can offer a different point of view to the problem. They want zero emotional investment from you, just a listening box.

Had the above illumination when I was driving to work today, so thought I’d put it down before I forget …

On comparative advantage and doing things yourself

Today I got the answer to a question that had bothered me many times.

The question was this: I work as a System Administrator and encounter plenty of users who are clueless about computers and don’t seem to want to learn anything about it. I understand the cluelessness but I don’t understand their disinterest in learning. Because the way I see it computers are a tool aiding them in their tasks and isn’t it better they know their tools and at least a basic understanding of how it works, it’s problems, quick fixes and workarounds? Of course the fact that they are not bothered to pick this up is what gives me a livelihood and so I shouldn’t complain, but still…

The logical answer I used to give myself was the economic theory of comparative advantage. In a given amount of time these users are more productive doing their actual work rather than fixing or learning computers, and so it makes sense for them to be illiterate about these tools. They are better off using that time to learn their field and leave it to engineers like myself to understand and fix computers. Somehow that answer didn’t feel right though.

Today, at my in-laws home, I volunteered to fix a broken door. Houses in Kerala often have a door frame with a mosquito net on it. This allows residents to keep the main door open and this door frame closed – letting air etc flow from out to into the house, but keep mosquitoes out. In my in-laws case, however, the net had come out and they were waiting for the net people to come and fix it. I too never bothered with it until a few minutes ago, when perhaps due to having just finished the excellent “Superman Earth One” and so feeling intellectually stimulated and hence enthusiastic to try things out, I had a look at the frame to see what was wrong. Turns out it was simple. The net is held into the frame by a rubber padding and that had come out due to the dog thrashing against the net; all I needed to do was put the net in place and push the rubber back in. Not an easy task – due to the heat and the blood sucking mosquitoes outside! – but not too difficult either. So I spent about 15-20 mins fixing it and now I am pleased about a job well done.

Doing this however made me realise why the comparative advantage explanation wasn’t satisfactory for me. Yes, in the time I fixed this net I could have learnt some PowerShell or read the latest features of Windows Server 2012 R2 – and that would probably be a better use of my time as well – but the thing is doing something else (like fixing this net) too helps me in a different, unmeasured way. I know more about the door now, I have a sense of accomplishment, and I think more importantly doing a physical activity switched my brain from a bookish mode to a physical mode and so gives me a different perspective on other things too. Probably it won’t in this case, but maybe if I had some problem in my head such a change of context could have spurred my brain to take a break from it and tackle it differently. And that’s why I didn’t like the comparative advantage theory. It doesn’t take into account all the unmeasured factors and so the explanation wasn’t satisfactory for me.

In the case of my office, if the users took some time to learn their computers better perhaps that would lead to a better understanding of the system and its limitations for them. Perhaps this might lead to them being able to better explain to IT what they need. Perhaps they will appreciate computers more and in turn be more productive. And perhaps they will stop treating computers (and by extension technology) as some new fangled thing that they don’t understand and which only alienates them from work and others. Perhaps…

I am reminded at this point by the Chautauqua in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. The author mentions similar points though much more eloquently. We need to expand our reasoning systems to include technology. We don’t, and that’s why it feels alien to us. Replace technology with whatever one is doing. It applies to work such as fixing doors, motorcycle maintenance, computers, cooking, cleaning, and so on.

Wet Shaving

Today I want to write about shaving.

The past few days I have been experimenting with “wet shaving”, which is the traditional form of shaving where you use a shaving brush and razor. I was inspired to try it by an article I read some time ago, coupled with boredom and a general dissatisfaction with my current shaving methods.

I used to hate shaving. For many reasons. One, I felt like I was being cheated by Gillette and others into using expensive razors with low blade life that I had to change frequently and weren’t giving me a good experience. Two, the process of shaving itself was so boring and mechanical. No involvement to it, you just shave shave shave and are done with it. This leads to a lackadaisical attitude while shaving with the result that most of the time my shaves weren’t perfect. Three, a combination of the previous two points – I wasn’t happy with the quality of the shave. It wasn’t as smooth as I wanted it to be, and usually within half a day of the shave I’d find plenty of rough patches on my face.

I experimented with alternatives of course. Tried disposable razors for a while – that took care of my first issue (expensive blades that need regular changing) but the quality of the shave wasn’t any better, and worse disposable razors tend to be less accommodating and so there’s more chances of nicks and cuts on your face. Still, I used to alternate between disposable razors and regular ones just to spice up things.

I also tried electric razors for a while but they weren’t much fun. Took ages to get a decent shave and then too it wasn’t as smooth as I wanted it to be. Electric razors are useful for trimming and styling but I never got used to them for regular shaving.

Now on to traditional shaving. I don’t have any of the “good” equipment mentioned in the article coz I live in Oman and you don’t have that many options here. I wonder if anyone here even does traditional shaving – maybe just the low class people who can’t afford disposable razors either! That’s the impression I get from the limited (and cheap) razors available here.

This limited variety is fine I think. I managed to get a short razor – short in the sense the handle is short unlike lost other razors I have seen. And I got some random shaving brush and also shaving cream and blades by a SuperMax (no particular reason for choosing this brand, I had seen their disposable razors before so it wasn’t unknown to me). All this doesn’t really matter though, I think, because the big thing about traditional shaving is the experience. Unlike all other shaving techniques where it’s just a mechanical task you complete as soon as possible, traditional shaving is more involved and (to me) is sort of like a meditation. You are “in the moment” of shaving. Your mind is focused on the task and your thoughts are concentrated on what you are doing. With each stroke you pay attention and that lends the meditation feeling I was referring to.

I spend about 10-15 minutes shaving this way. And usually put on some relaxing music in the background. The net effect is some time to myself where all I do is spend quality time with myself and my face, pampering the face for a good shave and enriching the mind with calm and peace. It’s not like I spend this time thinking much. Rather it’s the absence of thoughts and the state of just thinking nothing but the shaving is what I am referring to. A zen state of mind.

I just finished reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance” the other day and a lot of what the author talks about makes sense in this case too. Life nowadays is about a subject and an object. It’s about us doing something just for the sake of it – in a mechanical way – without really being in the moment with it, without being one with it, and that’s why life seems so hollow nowadays and we feel things like technology are alienating us and degrading the quality of life. That resonates in the case of shaving too in this case. Previously I used to shave mechanically, but now I am in it. And that gives great peace of mind. To be in that state when shaving I have to start with peace of mind, so the influence of the shaving extends to before the event too.