Life and Personal

Fun with Apple Photos

Go online and search for ‘what will my baby look like’ and you’d be faced with dozens of websites that claim to use AI and machine learning to guess your baby’s appearances. It’s almost sort of curious to find out your baby’s potential looks, judging by the kind of techniques used by these websites to lure you in and make you pay. One such website claimed to be free up until I uploaded pictures of myself and my wife, at which point, I was asked to sign up for a 3-day free trial. The weekly cost henceforth — €9 a week.

But what if you do have a child? There’s an even more fun game now, and that’s trying to figure out who your baby actually looks like. Does the nose belong to the mom … or dad? What about the eyes? It’s even fun for all your relatives and friends as they spend time staring at your child, and, in essence, judging your looks! 😄

This is where AI has a fun role to play, too. Case in point — I have a somewhat large collection of photos of myself and my wife over the years. After every vacation, I make it a point to ‘train’ the face recognition by actively helping it categorize a face as either mine or my wife’s. And, my ‘People’ album is only family, which means that the AI is theoretically very well trained.

Here’s the awesome part — for a long while, I have maintained that my daughter looks quite a lot like me. A few people agree, while some strongly disagree. The AI is on my side, as very frequently, especially as she gets older, the face recognition algorithm would flag a picture of mine and seek confirmation if it’s my daughter’s. The first time was an anomaly; the second co-incidence; but, the third was most definitely the algorithm on to something.

So, there we have it. She really does look quite a bit like me, and I have the screenshots to prove it!

Life and Personal Politics Tech and Culture

On Regulating AI

There has been quite a bit of chatter on all chatter-worthy platforms about the need to regulate AI. There have been a few epochs in modern history where the term ‘AI’ has almost gone mainstream and either threatened our very existence or helped us slouch just a little bit more towards utopia. I am not sure when the current one started, but I do remember that it was Facebook rolling out AI based content moderation systems that started it all. It’s been a few years and a few national elections since then, and AI still hasn’t solved the content moderation problem, mostly because moderation gets squarely in the way of monetization, but that’s a different topic.

What’s curious this time around is that the large technology companies that usually strongly dislike any oversight or are usually very reactive in their damage control are the ones calling for clearer laws and regulations. I strongly believe that this is an effect of lower trust in these companies driven by their monopolization of every business they get into as well as the strong desire to set a ceiling to how far they’re able to use any technological advanced to upend older and more important regulations around employment and intellectual property. What better way to gain positive press and intellectual debate sentiment than to ask to be regulated because you believe that you’re in control of dangerous technology and want to use it only for the public good, recent history notwithstanding.

This brings me to ask — what exactly is regulation? What do we even mean by regulating AI? Isn’t regulation supposed to be reactive based on public perception and impact instead of proactively built upon doomsday scenarios?

Today, I came across an essay (archive) by a renowned FT columnist where she points out that AI regulation ought to tackle three areas — it needs to be released from the shackles of rich technology companies, the technology behind it needs to be made public to help debate, and lastly, that regulation should be flexible yet enforceable.

As I see it, regulating something that isn’t even fully defined is way way ahead of its time. The EU has taken a giant leap by drafting an AI Act, and although, I haven’t read it, it seems to focus a lot on ‘high-risk AI systems’ and upon applications of AI rather than how it is developed and trained. There is a presentation to get the bigger details here. Furthermore, while the EU could limit applications of such high-risk systems, there is a lot of procedural lag to protect citizens were they to be exposed to a system’s output from another jurisdiction.

There are still a lot of questions around regulation. This led me to ask if there is a checklist for effective regulation that governments use. That turned out to be be a not so bad idea as, indeed, there is such a checklist used by OECD countries, at least in principle. When I look at it, I find that the current debate misses a lot of context. For example, how do people understand any regulation when they don’t even know what AI is capable of now other than remixing some public domain pictures or producing often-inaccurate chat transcripts. And then, how do we know if what helps someone doesn’t have a negative impact on another, which is often where regulatory actions fail? What about geopolitical differences? An AI platform in the EU might be designed to augment democratic systems while one in shadier geographies might be used to supplant any such setup. There is also focus upon the impact of AI systems but not on how they’re trained in the first place. While there is a cursory requirement to use high-quality training data, where does that come from?

And this is all before we even get into the realm of regulating an AI that is generic and self-advancing. Why wouldn’t this kind of AI be capable of figuring out loopholes and exploiting them until patching them is too late for humanity? Who would legally be in control of an AI that has improved far beyond what it was submitted for regulatory clearance?

There are so many questions simply because there is no AI, yet. We need to get back to the current epoch and have our companies and governments focus on issues that plague humanity today, and addressing which would make the world a better habitable place in the future.

Life and Personal

Blogging in 2023

Blogging today isn’t the same as it was back when I was a grad student and aspired to write something, anything, every day. And yet, WordPress today powers more than 40% of all websites. That’s a mind-boggling statistic considering that a lot of huge websites use it as their CMS.

Because while blogs have transitioned from personal to hobby to professional to spam, the CMS powering them has also transformed itself a few times, and keeps doing so.

At the same time, the cost of maintaining your personal blog has oscillated from being free to cheap to relatively cheap to downright expensive, both in terms of money as well as time spent upon technical maintenance. Spam is a foregone issue as a lot of authors have shunned comments entirely, instead moving them to proprietary social media or discussion platforms, and also because spam detection and deletion is now a solved problem. Even this seldom updated website gets a few hundred spam comments a day that are efficiently detected and removed from the queue by WordPress.

Spammers have been trying to find new means of hijacking websites so that they could inject some kind of scammy content and drive SEO. As blog comments have died down, this means that the latest series of attacks center around authentication itself. Also, driven by complexity of underlying software, there are newer bugs every day that need to be promptly patched by updating the entire stack. If you’re self-hosting because you don’t have enough traffic and want to keep costs low, as I do, you now have to train to be a good sysadmin. All of this takes time and effort, which is one of the reasons that a lot of casual bloggers have moved to social networks where it’s far easier to drive conversations and gain a following.

Blogging is still a completely different experience where you get to say what you want with the amount of words that you’d prefer in. It’s just that the gates to enter your own garden are rickety, and yet, hard to push open.

A while ago I was seeing a lot of failed authentication attempts on my old setup. So much so that the database would often crash. Resetting the server required me to open a command prompt on a desktop computer. Sure, I could have written a script or made a little app to do it on my phone, or I could have simply spent time on hardening the setup so that it was up-to-date on security checklists. But, I didn’t have time for any of that. So, I did what was easiest. I simply blocked the login page from being served. And, voilĂ , no problems!

The downside to my easy ‘hack’ was that I could no longer log into my own server without first making some changes in the web server configuration. What was already a dying habit (writing here) was now facing a huge deterrent. I avoided writing anything at all for months, even as the pandemic almost fizzled out in the eyes of everyone.

Interestingly, I had been learning the basics of the Docker containerization system over the past few months to host the API of my new pet project. After I got it working, I started wondering if I could take some time to use it for this blog as well as my other portfolio websites/projects. And that’s what I did. This blog is now running on a Docker container and this means that it is much more manageable. I am still learning the technology and it’s vast!

While I still need to find motivation to write as often as I used to in the past, that’s one major hurdle passed.

Tech and Culture

From Subscribing To Renting

The other day, V went looking for an older movie to watch with her friend, and asked me to help out. Now, we don’t subscribe to any streaming services (barely have enough time to commit to watching series), and while we do have a family TV+ subscription, it currently does not offer a movie selection.

I searched on the iTunes Store, and of course, the movie was available to rent as well as ‘buy’. It was also available as a streaming option on an MGM subscription service that was only available in the US.

The price to rent — €3.

That immediately took me back to the days of renting VHS tapes every weekend. It’s not that there was a lack of quality viewable content then, but the renting was almost always a family affair and a special event. The transition away from VHS to DVDs only exchanged one physical medium with another, but not the ritual. We continued to rent sparingly and wisely, to account for the convenience and choice of one and all.

This was also when families usually had one common television and, rarely, a second smaller television that was usually not fully utilized. Contrast this with today, when family members of all ages walk around with a video display at all times. Watching video or movies doesn’t need to be a family affair at all.

While this has given us the option to watch what we want, when we want, individualized video consumption has taken away the fun aspects of the planning, the anticipation, and the pre and post discussions that resulted from a choice of what to rent to watch. Surely, that time has to be used somehow; what better way than to watch something else.

With reduced attention spans, increased consumption, and greater production budgets, there is just not enough time to actually plan and enjoy content. Rather, we binge-watch, which is quite an apt metaphor, as consuming video content today is not at all different from subscribing to your addiction fix.

The companies that provide this endless stream of personalized content spell it out bluntly and plainly, like Netflix telling us that its biggest competitor is actually sleep.

My small experience in finding a digital rental for a movie made me wonder — what if this became the norm again? What if we stopped subscribing and instead started curating what we pulled in to watch? What if we went back to dedicating time-slots to watch series episodes and movies together.

You could immediately start to imagine the ramifications. There would be more debates, more discussions, perhaps more sharing of lessons or personal decision-frameworks, and overall, more time spent together. Is going back to renting video content such a bad idea?

The one major change in today’s digital setup is that you no longer need to buy a physical copy if you like something so much that you’d want to re-watch it. You could always rent it again. Sure, there are options to buy a digital copy, but while you could ‘purchase’ DRM-free music today, it’s not easy, or even possible in a lot of cases, to do that for video content, especially movies. I put ‘purchase’ in quotations because you only ever buy a license to watch content on a specific type of video player, and that license is malleable and volatile, and the content could also just disappear from your digital shelf.

Whereas back in the day, new releases would have extremely limited rental copies and long wait-times to get a hold of a copy, digital distribution has no such limits. Rent early, rent often. It saves you quality time otherwise spent enjoying leisure individually, and arguably even saves you money as you spend it only on titles that really excite your whole family or group of friends.

Now that we are approaching Web3, perhaps we would soon have a digital version of the neighborhood video rental store that also sells digital copies of content that you could hold onto for life or even rent out to your friends.


Economy Life and Personal

Bill Gates and Vaccine IP

Bill Gates, needless to say, has been a controversial figure for most of his adult life. From being reviled for his intellectual property stance against open source to his monopolistic and capitalistic approach to business, he’s seen it all. Contentiously, apart from his success in building Microsoft, he has been largely left longing for ground-breaking success.

There is an overworked machinery that ensures that the narrative around his newfound philanthropic endeavors is portrayed in the most positive light. If there’s one thing that the richest people on this planet can afford, it’s the best publicists and media personalities.

This post is not meant to be a funnel into the awfully copious amount of conspiracy material around Bill Gates’ global immunization efforts. It’s easy to get pulled into all of that, though, and the primary reasons are — people only read the headlines, and secondly, a lot of philanthropic work, especially by the ultra-rich, remains shrouded under a blanket of tax evasive and complicated hops of company structures, foundations, annual reports, confidential agreements, etc.

Take his recent interview with Sky News, where Bill Gates states that IP laws are important to make sure that everyone gets immunized against the coronavirus, and that the bottleneck isn’t availability of technology but the lack of infrastructure and ‘regulatory approvals’ to manufacture the vaccines. Jump to around the 3:00 minute mark for the rant about intellectual property.

It is noteworthy that in the same interview, Bill Gates points out how his investments are able to use factories in India to manufacture vaccines at scale for global consumption. He posits, though, that if these factories had access to the technology sans patents, they would be unable to do the same because of a lack of branding, trust, and regulatory approval. That sounds a little self-serving, and, possibly, insidious. Governments are paying up the nose for procuring these vaccines; most of them have been developed as a result of generous public funding and investment, often in the form of grants, research or post-development purchase guarantees. In investment terms, this would be a combination of ‘supply-push’ and ‘demand-pull’. The former provides a subsidy and funding for manufacturing, while the latter provides for a guaranteed market in order to be able to be financially viable. This was how the AstraZeneca and the BioNTech vaccines came about.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation generally steps in when it’s time to create a market for these innovations. Their focus is in leapfrogging the development of innovations to under-developed and developing economies from the developed countries they would have developed in (link). The foundation is constantly under the limelight, and Gates does a good job of pushing a very great narrative. So much so that his services are actually quantified in dollar amounts in the foundation’s annual statement. The point is that the foundation exists to maximize impact, and thereby, prolong its own existence. The best way to achieve that is by forging agreements and deals that create value for itself.

How does this translate to real world dynamics? Even though the Serum Institute of India was ‘granted‘ millions of dollars by the foundation to provide low-cost vaccines to the globe, the same institute has sought additional grants from the Government of India to scale up production. As a result, the private company is now selling vaccines in India at a much higher price than it is to the GAVI alliance/Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation collaboration. The agreements and financial jugglery is extremely hard to decompress without access to journalistic tools, and very few professionals are willing to speculate or investigate for fear of losing access.

Had the technology been freely available, the government grants could have been used to manufacture at cost, or with a minimum profit outlay. Right now, it is not exactly clear how much of these costs fulfill the licensing obligations on the part of the SII.

Now, the foundation itself, is a very complicated beast. Apparently, it is a unison of two entities — the foundation that allocates equity and cash to achieve philanthropic objectives, and a trust that provides the foundation with the actual financial instrumentation. The foundation’s mandate is to dissolve 20 years after Bill/Melinda die, and in the process allocate 100% of its resources. The trust has no such mandate, and only provides finance upon request by the foundation. There is a lot of financial maneuvering.

Take, for example, the foundation’s use of ‘Program-Related Investments‘. These are complicated beasts that are engineered to provide both financial upside as well as progress towards a foundation’s mission and philanthropic goals. As a result, they enjoy a lot of tax benefits. Reading up on them is an adventure in itself, and in the context of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, there is not much reading to do, as they’ve only been deployed more recently. There is, however, this excellent reading — ‘Investing for Impact with Program-Related Investments‘ (Archive).

In essence, philanthropy in itself is paid for by public money, and so when Bill Gates professes for tighter intellectual property restrictions even in a pandemic, he’s being disingenuous, and just doing his paid job for the foundation. Without IP rights, most of the foundation’s work, which is awesome and ground-breaking, no doubt, would be much more impactful for others, but come at a short-term cost to the foundation’s objectives and financial sustainability. After all, when the foundation provides a PIR/Strategic Investment Fund investment, it has to generate enough value to be able to re-invest in the short term. By indirectly obligating the Serum Institute of India to sell vaccines at a higher cost to India than to other countries, the foundation ensures that it remains financially solvent up until Gates’ time is up.

There is absolutely no justification for not making vaccine technology open and available to everyone today — people are needlessly suffering. There has been a golden age for pharmaceutical profits, and there would be more opportunities to make money, but now is not the time.

Life and Personal Tech and Culture


So much precious time and resources are wasted on separating your work relationships from your personal relationships. I mean, it is always a good idea to separate your work life and obligations from your personal ones, but there is this ongoing narrative that your team at work has to be different from your team at home.

A few people, mostly entrepreneurs, manage to work together as a team in the office and at home, but it is rare. If you’re starting a business, investors would advise against it; if you’re looking for a job, you’re supposed to not work together.

Imagine if we became good at compartmentalizing our work obligations from our professional ones. We would be able to solve so many problems easily, faster, and probably more efficiently as we wouldn’t have to spend time on making new teams and relationships for every project.

In fact, if you look at some of the top success stories, they were a result of professional/personal collaboration. Successful people have this innate capability to separate concerns, much like we aim for in our software code.

Companies need to investigate coaching employees on this instead of spending resources on creating rulebooks and curbing our natural human tendency to leverage effective teamwork for bigger and better goals. Given the opportunity, this would lead to better execution and possibly even more innovation.

Sure, there are challenges; some people are not good at teamwork, and if they bring their personal challenges into their workplace, it might be a recipe for disaster, which is what led to rulebooks around teamwork. The answer, in my opinion, though is to focus on coaching. Instead of shuffling the human problem here, the goal should be to tackle it head-on, and look at the bigger picture.

Life and Personal


One of those things that we take for granted in our work as engineers is the concept of a ‘framework’.

Simply explained, a framework is ‘a basic structure underlying a system, concept, or text’ (Oxford dictionary). We have frameworks in architecture, software engineering, music, poetry, prose, politics, social science.

What we need are frameworks in our life. A lot of successful people have already credited their successes to mental frameworks that they have built along the way. A framework in our daily life is a rules based system that reduces slow decision making to quick actions that rely upon a combination of our values, past experiences, and our goals.

Just like engineering frameworks are extensible, so are personal frameworks — your framework for socially responsible personal products procurement could be extended to build an entirely new framework for building that new tech company you’ve always aspired for.

Frameworks are battle tested, and since they’re used so often, they are constantly refactored to be aligned with worldly externalities and our own status. Frameworks help in translating failures and blame-finding to internal process improvements and learnings.

How could you become more efficient and a better human through your use of great frameworks? You have to build your own. What works for anyone else will not work for you. It is also more fun and enriching to live your life your way and to aspire to be a role model for at least some other people.

How to get started
  • Start small — focus on small things like behavior or body language
  • Constantly find spots where you could apply your in-progress framework to improve your decision making
  • Generalize so as to be able to arrive at logical conclusions with just a little substitution in events and locations
  • Always focus on improvement
  • Keep in mind that it is never finished

Once you get in the habit of building frameworks around decisions in your life, you will get better at time management and achieve much more than you ever did. All of us have the same 24 hours in a day, and the way to optimize those hours for mental and physical well-being is to get into the habit of isolating repetitive decision-making inside quicker, tested, and effective frameworks. Things like walking the same route, or eating the same food for breakfast daily, or wearing the same clothes everyday are basically frameworks that work for some people.

You’d think that frameworks would make you a predictable person, but no, it’s actually quite the opposite. Since you would be always learning and recalibrating your framework, you’d work on the basis of new information and experiences instead of some irrational belief that cannot be explained.

This has been my power for the last 6 years.

Economy Politics

Globalization, A Short Take

This might very well turn out to be a sequence of posts. The topic is curious in nature and one that has been generating headlines for at least the past year, ridden with the impact of the pandemic on global supply chains and incomes.

Yes, I am talking about ‘globalization’.

According to Wikipedia, globalization

is the process of interaction and integration among people, companies, and governments worldwide. Globalization has accelerated since the 18th century due to advances in transportation and communication technology. This increase in global interactions has caused a growth in international trade and the exchange of ideas and culture.

That globalization has made the world smaller and advanced trade so far is not a debate. In the recent months, though, globalization has been buffeted by strong pandemic level winds that have stopped all but essential travel and ‘integration among people’.

On top of that, there has been a race towards reopening the local economy, at the cost of borrowing from future generations, playing havoc with all kinds of monetary and fiscal best practices, and making arbitrary political decisions on what/who receives taxpayer support and what doesn’t.

Two things have played out — the pace of vaccine research has accelerated, and, demand for technology products that enable people to work remotely and do business has skyrocketed. The latter of these has also been exacerbated by geopolitical arguments about maintaining ‘technology lead’ that were born much before the pandemic struck, under the guise of advancing 5G networks and to curtail oppressive regimes by imposing international sanctions. Some of the world’s biggest economies had already begun a trade war by imposing tariffs on international trade in order to ‘level the playing field’.

Globalization also makes markets more dynamic; prices are more aligned with demand and value. At the same time, it’s capitalism at its best — you get what you pay for.

In theory.

When I read news about countries planning to impose barriers to vaccine exports or companies prioritizing semiconductor fabrication for industries that are more lucrative, it quickly becomes apparent that so much of our future has been held captive to the promise of a world that follows rules. No one does.

Countries are now realizing the value of having their supply chains more integrated within their geographical barriers. The vaccines, although researched by companies and individuals globally, are manufactured at specific locations, and if it’s unable to be exported because the country deems it more important to immunize their own population first, all contracts are rendered worthless. In the chip fabrication industry, there is such a shortage of microprocessors that companies have entirely stopped assembling some models of cars. This has a much bigger impact in countries like Germany that manufacture a lot of great cars but have no global leadership in semiconductor design and fabrication.

For the longest time, the mantra at schools was ‘think global, act local’. Perhaps it is now time to put it in action.

Life and Personal

Amsterdam’s Orange Plastic Recycling Containers

Every day, for the past few years, my morning walk has also included a short detour to the recycling bins where I would deposit reading material as well as plastic disposal from the previous day in their respective containers. What started as a one-time endeavor to get rid of all the magazines I had accumulated for the past few weeks slowly turned into a habit.

The daily accounting of all the recyclable waste we were producing was also a good way to limit consumption of food stuffs that were often packaged in single use plastic containers. It is easy to lose sight of just how much plastic we ‘consume’ when we throw all the packaging out along with the normal trash. But, when you have to separate it every day, there is no easy way to not feel disgusted.

Last week, the city of Amsterdam started phasing out the plastic recycling containers throughout the city; the reasoning being that people are generally not good with separating what could be recycled from what couldn’t. For example, a lot of people that even I ran into regularly didn’t realize that milk containers are not paper; they actually go in with the plastic. Similarly, a lot of plastic packaging, especially that with liquid food stuff inside cannot be recycled easily and needs to be thoroughly washed before it is mixed in with the other plastic. Not doing so often leads to entire batches of recyclables having to be burned with the rest of the trash from the city.

The city apparently has invested in machines that could perform the task of separating and washing plastics much better than ordinary people, and so the new recommendation now calls for everyone to just throw out the plastic along with their regular everyday trash.

My morning trips now just include tossing the newspaper into the paper recycling bin.

While this daily habit has pushed me towards using less plastic, I fear that for a lot of people, the new lack of plastic recycling bins might be a reason to forget about the tremendous impact that plastic has upon our planet’s sustenance. We often take action when we are impacted personally by something; it’s easy to fall back to bad habits.

I wonder if the right approach would have been to keep the containers, doubling down upon messaging to people that they need to do a better job at separating their plastic from other types of refuse, and using the new machines as a backup on both the regular trash as well as the plastic coming in from the familiar orange containers.

We need every little nudge possible to force us to get rid of single-use plastic packaging from our lives.

Life and Personal Tech and Culture

Communication in Startups

I read the other day that what separates great teams and relationships is not avoiding disagreements, but rather the quality of bringing up even the smallest disputes for discussion immediately and with an open mind.

It makes so much sense.

Humans are fundamentally opinionated and driven by past experiences. We have also evolved with the genetic machinery to look out for our own personal well-being. We are also resentful. When things don’t go our way or if we are impacted by something, we will often hold a grudge or be generally distracted. This creates long term, and often, permanent fissures.

Startups epitomize the need for great communication and open-mindedness. Especially when the foundation is being laid, everyone is on edge — people don’t know each other so well, there is uncertainty about the product-market fit, and there is just so much going on that essence is often lost in communications, even if you create a framework for daily meetings and catch-ups.

I was recently involved with a startup working in a very interesting and prospective space. The team was not very experienced in that space, but they seemed to have the grit to move through difficulties and find opportunities in tight spaces, so to say. The only issue was that the communication was terrible. I would send an email or a message and it would most often go unanswered. I would bring up this issue, and it would be minimized. We would all promise to be more responsive, but the elephant still comfortably sat in the room, day in and day out.

This was a wonderful lesson in communication — even if you are very smart and capable, communication is what makes or breaks a team. It is easier to find skilled professionals than it is to find professionals that are great at being accountable and communicative. Things have a propensity to boil over.

Especially in small teams and startups, the assumption should always be that the smallest of ideas have the potential for major impact. If a team deprioritizes internal communications, it sends out a negative signal to external partners and investors, too.

So, what do you do if you find yourself in a situation where the team doesn’t communicate well (or at all)? The best plan of action is to bring it up early and often. Humans are also mostly wonderful with good intentions. Most probably, they have different priorities and were of the belief that they were doing their best for the team. However, if the situation doesn’t improve in a reasonable time-frame, your best bet is to just bail out.

As for me, I sent them an email about a prospective investment opportunity, but received no reply! 🙃