The Bodhisattva of Compassion

Yesterday I learned about Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. This particular bit about, Chenrezig, one of the forms of the bodhisattva stood out to me:

The bodhisattva vowed to clean up samsara once and for all. He put in a heroic effort. He thought he’d done it. But when he turned around again, the mess was back, unapologetically.

Chenrezig was so devastated by his failure to fix things that he shattered into a thousand pieces… What to do when even a bodhisattva of compassion can’t bear it any longer?

The story takes an instructive term. Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light, comes down from his Pure Land and converts Chenrezig’s thousand shattered pieces into a thousand arms (plus eleven heads, so he can look in all directions). I find it hugely instructive that Amitabha gives Chenrezig a thousand tools and says, Hey, keep going.

Chenrezig’s thousand arms are a token expression of the patience and fortitude essential to the bodhisattva vow. As our world prepares to blow itself apart yet again, Chenrezig becomes more than just a symbol; the bodhisattva is an absolute necessity, a guide and refuge.

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I’ve been reading The Way of Life by Lao Tzu, translated by Witter Bynner. A paragraph from the introduction struck me as relevant to our current times.

Maurer is right than democracy cannot be a successful general practice unless it is first a true individual conviction. Many of us in the West think ourselves believers in democracy if we can point to one of its fading flowers even while the root of it in our own lives is gone with worms. No one in history has shown better than Laotzu how to keep the root of democracy clean. Not only democracy but all of life, he points out grows at one’s own doorstep.

I sincerely hope that all of us can find ways to clean the root of democracy in our own lives.

Sunday Selection 2018-05-06

I promise that one day there will actually be another proper post on this site. Until that time, here’s another issue of interesting things from around the Web.

Around the Web

Reconsidering the Hardware Kindle Interface

The Kindle is probably my favorite single-purpose electronic device. I’m currently using the Voyage and generally love the acceptable high resolution and contrast, the fast page automatic backlight adjustment, and the flat, clean design. That being said, I agree with Craig Mod’s opinion in this article: moving a few key interface elements to dedicated physical buttons would make the whole experience much smoother.

Why Local Newspaper Websites are So Terrible

It’s no big secret that newspaper are having a rough time in this age of ad-driven everything, and free content. This article summarizes the contending issues and priorities that drive newspaper websites to be, by and large, terrible. While I continue to hold out hope for an online newspaper that is as clean and easy to read as Longreads or Instapaper, there are deep economic problems that need to be solved first and I have no idea how to go about tackling them.

From the Bookshelf

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

I remember having a book of Norse mythology as a child and reading it many times over. Neil Gaiman’s version reminds of those readings often, but with Neil Gaiman’s signature style that brings out the quirky, whimsical, and often just plain weird details of Norse mythology. If you’re a Neil Gaiman fan, or interested in old-fashioned mythologies, or just like fun, slightly silly stories, this is worth picking up.

Video

Avengers: Infinity War

Enjoyable and worth watching once. Fitting together so many characters with their intertwining stories and motivations is no mean feat and this version manages to do so quite well. I liked some of the details and the storylines of some characters, but overall there was a lot happening in not a lot of time, leading to things feeling rushed at times.

Sunday Selection 2017-06-25

Around the Web

The Largest Git Repo on the Planet

I’m always a fan of case studies describing real world software engineering, especially when it comes to deploying engineering tools, and contains charts and data. This article describes Microsoft’s efforts to deploy the Git version control system at a scale large enough to support all of Windows development.

Why our attention spans are shot

While it’s no secret that the rise of pocket-sized computers and ubiquitous Internet connections have precipitated a corresponding decrease in attention span, this is one of the most in-depth and researched articles I’ve seen on the issue. It references and summarizes a wide range of distraction-related issues and points to the relevant research if you’re interested in digging deeper.

Aside: Nautilus has been doing a great job publishing interesting, deeply researched, and well-written longform articles, and they’re currently having a summer sale. The prices are very reasonable, and a subscription would be a great way to support good fact-based journalism in the current era of fake news.

How Anker is beating Apple and Samsung at their own accessory game

I own a number of Anker devices — a battery pack, a multi-port USB charger, a smaller travel charger. The best thing I can say about them is that by and large, I don’t notice them. They’re clean, do their job and get out of my way, just as they should. It’s good to see more companies enter the realm of affordable, well-designed products.

From the Bookshelf

Man’s Search for Meaning

I read this book on a cross-country flight to California a couple months ago, at a time when I was busy, disorganized, stressed and feeling like I was barely holding on. This book is based on the author’s experience in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The book focuses on how the average person survives and reacts to life in the brutality and extreme cruelty of a concentration camp. The second part of the book introduces Frankl’s theories of meaning as expressed in his approach to psychology: logotherapy. In essence, the meaning of life is found in every moment of living, even in the midst of suffering and death.

Video

Black Panther Trailer

I’m a big fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run of Black Panther and really enjoyed the Black Panther’s brief appearance in Captain America: Civil War. This trailer makes me really excited to see the movie when it comes out, and hopeful that it will be done well. If you’re new to the world of Wakanda in which Black Panther will be set, Rolling Stone has a good primer.

Moshe Vardi on Humans, Machines and Work

Yesterday evening I had the pleasure of listening to Professor Moshe Vardi talk about the effects of automation on the workforce and the economy, and how the continued development of AI and machine learning-based technologies might further tip that balance. This post is based on the notes I took during that talk. Please read it as more of a high-level summary, rather than a transcript. The talk itself contained more links and references that I haven’t had the time to chase down, so any inaccuracies and misquotations are probably my own fault.

Professor Vardi is a professor at Rice University, and currently Editor-in-Chief of the Communications of the ACM, and the winner of numerous awards including the ACM Gödel Prize, and the EATCS Distinguished Achievements Award. He is also an excellent speaker and it was wonderful to see a coherent narrative formed out of many disparate threads.

The talk started with a brief mention of Turing’s thesis, which can be read as a compelling philosophical argument for thinking machines, and the related intellectual questions. The early history of artificial machines was characterized by unbridled optimism (expectations that general purpose AI would arrive within a generation), punctuated by several AI winters (1974-80 and 1987-93) where funding and support for AI research dried up. However, 1997 started a new era in AI research when a chess playing computer, IBM’s Deep Blue, defeated Garry Kasparov. More recently, DeepMind’s AlphaGo defeated European Go champion Fan Hui. Crucially, AlphaGo combines machine learning techniques (including deep learning) with search space reduction, resulting in an approach that could be termed “intuition”.

With the resurgence of AI research, automated driving has been the holy grail for about a decade. Cars were one of the most important developments of the 20th century. The automobile shaped geography and changed history, and led to lots of infrastructure development. By some estimates, there are over 4 million truck drivers in the US, and 15 million jobs involving operating a vehicle. Today there are about 30 companies, working on self-driving vehicles, attacking an estimated market of $2 to $5 trillion a year. Experts predict that the main technical issues will be resolved in 5-15 years. While this will be a great technological achievement, it will produce profound business disruption. For starters, there is likely to be major industrial contraction (cares are idle 90% of the time), and a major loss of business for insurance, legal, medical fields, as automobile accidents are drastically reduced.

Unfortunately, this industrial disruption follows a trend that has already been in progress for a while now. The last 40 years has resulted in a harsh negative impact on middle & working class. For much of the 20th century there was a “Great Coupling”  between productivity, private employment, median income and GDP growth: they all followed a linked upward trend. However, since the 70s, this trend has “decoupled”, a fact observable from many dataset. In particular, there has been increasing inequality: a massive decline in the bottom 50% of earners, and a massive increase in the top 1% of earners. There is a declining chance that a person in their early 30s is going to be better off than their parents.

This in turned has resulted in an “Age of Precariousness”: half of Americans would have trouble affording $400 for an emergency, and two-thirds would have trouble dealing with a $1000 emergency. Labor force participation for men 25-54 has dropped from 97% to 88% and those with high school degrees or less were the hardest hit — almost 20% are not working.
Technology is eating jobs from the “inside out”. High-paying and low-paying jobs are both growing, but middle class jobs are declining. According to a Bloomberg 2016 report: as we move towards more automation, we need fewer people in manufacturing and more people go into the service sector, historically a low-wage sector.

All this paints a pretty bleak future, and from Prof. Vardi’s talk it’s unclear what the way forward is. Universal Basic Income seems like one idea to help offset this dangerous trend, but UBI is still a hotly contested topic. The following discussion raised some interesting questions, including asking what the role of “work” and employment is in a mostly-automated society, and questioning the role and responsibility of educational institutes in the near future.

Personally, I feel lucky to be in a field where jobs are currently booming. Most of my work is creative and non-routine, and thus not amenable to automation yet. At the same time, I am very concerned about a future where the majority of people hold poorly paid service sector jobs where they can barely eke out a living. I am also afraid that jobs that seem more secure today (administrators, doctors, lawyers, app developers) will also be gradually pushed into obsolescence as our machine learning techniques improve. Again, no good solution, but lots to think about, and hopefully work on in the near future. As the Chinese proverb goes, we live in interesting times.