thoughtwisps One commit at a time

Hello and welcome to thoughtwisps! This is a personal collection of notes and thoughts on software engineering, machine learning and the technology industry and community. For my professional website, please see race-conditions. Thank you for visiting!

prodding a painful tooth

Humans avoid pain, I’m told. This is, apparently, why we tend to avoid exercise and why I can’t sprint uphill for more than a few seconds. Stop, my muscles scream in the burn of the lactic acid, and I, obediently, listen.

Yet, this tendency of physical self-preservation seemingly does not apply to emotional pain.

A metaphor comes to mind. That of a painful, loose tooth that one cannot stop prodding with one’s tongue even though every touch results in a jab of pain.

That metaphor is how it sometimes feels to be on Instagram or Twitter where everyone, but you, is constantly succeeding, busy winning at life publishing books, running ultramarathons, getting promoted, starting new jobs or companies or YouTube channels, while I, still in my pajama pants at an hour past midday and with my hair neither washed nor brushed am struggling through a boring list of very basic chores.

This infinitely scrolling highlight reel of everyone else’s life quickly slips one into an endless cycle of jealousy (during which one frantically scrolls through a person’s Insta or Twitter or whathaveyou, trying to find a rational explanation for why they have a better handle on this thing called life), self-hatred (during which one ragelogsoff the platform that is tormenting one) and then, finally, apathy (during which one logs back on, because what the hell, this pajama-hair situation is not going to get any better, so might as well go back to scrolling). The rat goes back to pressing the lever, that, seemingly at random, dispenses either little morcels of dopamine pleasure or little eletric shocks of self-loathing.

Somewhere an algorithmic god is having a cruel laugh as she meticulously adjusts the timeline to find the exact dosage of weightloss pics, marathon wins, promotions and happy engagements.

to be loved but not by anyone

Author’s note: This piece is from a notebook I kept during my London years between June and November 2018. The title of the notebook is: “London and other soulscapes of modern life”. I considered titling this piece “what we lost to the screens” but realised it didn’t really capture what I wanted to convey. The original notebook text has been slightly edited for clarity and completeness.

a chance encounter among strangers a chance encounter among strangers

I came to London to be loved but not by (just) anyone.

I came here to be lost among millions and then to be found by that one, for in a city of millions what could be more erotic than two strangers, meeting by chance, in a fleeting glance or an accidental brush of the arm on the rush hour Tube or in the morning latte queue at one of those crowded hipster cafes.

Because I am afflicted with an overly active imagination, over time, this (tall, dark) stranger came to have a certain shape and form, certain clothes (the generic uniform of a man working a generic job in the City) and a slightly crooked smile (this particular feature generously supplied by the imagination of thirteen-year-old me and a certain novel - at least in my adult version this stranger wasn’t a vampire and his name wasn’t Edward) with a dimple in his cheeks.

But how does one, in an age when people attend more to the screens in their pockets than to one another, go about realising this fantasy of a lost and found love?

I went to places, as one does, not for any functional reason, but to be seen by others, to give this fantasy of a chance encounter a space to occur.

I walked, up and down Piccadilly and the little posh streets with beautiful porches and beautiful doors that concealed beautiful lives of the rich and famous.

I sat in cafes in Soho and watched the constant stream of people: tourists and families and groups of fashionably inebriated young men and women, sometimes couples that walked hand in hand, among everyone but seeing no one but each other.

Seeing their imagined happiness on display made my chest clench into a fist and filled my mind with determination to exist, be seen, look for the chance encounter.

I walked around the parks and rose gardens in Regent’s Park and the little streets in Marylebone. The paths along the Thames that led to and fro Tower Bridge, through Shadwell and Limehouse, beneath the splendour and shadow of Canary Wharf and all the way across the foottunnel to Greenwich and far beyond until the metallic sails of the Thames Barrier appeared.

As the years went by and this imagined encounter failed to materialise, I became bitter at the sight of people who had found some sort of partnership. In their casual intimacies, I saw a reflection of my own failure and slowly, day by day, the romantic notion of a big city, of being one among millions, dissipated into distant rumble of the city at dusk.

sometimes i think

Sometimes I think the happiest people are not here where I am. Where we are.

Sometimes I think the happiest people are not on Twitter sharing hot takes and subtweets.

Nor being tres soft-filtered-light parisienne to their 15.6 k followers on Instagram while drinking coffee and eating croissants and casually dabbing their lips with some classic Parisian red.

Nor swatching the latest cream blushes and highlighters and eyeshadow palettes, unboxing subscription boxes or showing hauls or filming their daily meals or 5 am morning routines before asking us to just remember to hit the subscribe button.

Anti-hauls, makeup swatches, what I eat in a day as a model, my new york morning routine, unboxings, reviews, a day in the life of a harvard student, pretty little thing haul, how I lost 10 pounds following a victorias secret diet, inside this very famous persons complete unrelatable apartment in a ridiculously expensive city, inside the makeup bag of this or that famous actress.

The ever-present tide of little tidbits of soft consumerist porn which I surf all the day, every day, sometimes into the little hours of the night.

Surely, the happiest people are not here, inside those little cute YouTube video thumbnails, beginning their mornings at 5 am, 4.45 am, 4.30am (yes, really), showing us their beautiful french presses in tasteful bohemian kitchens in ridiculously priced brooklyn brownstones, before they show us their 38 step morning skincare routines and 28 piece timeless, time-capsule wardrobes, and dash off to their wonderful, fulfilling jobs, before returning home to unwind with a 50 step evening routine.

Where did ordinary life, the kind where you wake up and hit the snooze button one too many times, because you were up late worried that life is slowly passing you by, and then frantically search for last night’s tights and bra, because you were too tired to do laundry on Sunday and have nothing else to wear and have to get to this 9 am meeting and don’t have time for brekafast even though it’s the most important meal of the day (according to Kellog’s), disappear.

It was co-opted, coaxed, polished and staged until it became the perfect marketing machine to sell you everything possible you never even knew you wanted but surely needed, purged of everything but those elements that could serve as the aspirational, the unattainable fantasies meant, at once, to seduce and slightly depress, tantalizingly offering a future that remains just out of reach of one’s wallet.

around the moon is where the extinguished stars cluster

Lately, I have largely been operating on autopilot. Waking up, plugging into work and drowning the constant din of anxiety with a constant stream of internet distractions served up on YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. While with Insta things can either go very well (“ooh, look at this gorgeous flatlay” or very badly (“I will never be as beautiful as this model with a gorgeous boyfriend”), Twitter and YouTube are drugs with a more steady ride, if you will. Plugging myself into Twitto-matrix means an instant relaxation as the constant din of Slack notifications and unanswered emails is replaced by the steady drip of hot takes, subtweets, roasts and Twitter murder-replies. My brain quietly surfs this wave of information. Sometimes I catch myself reading tweets and not really comprehending what they are about. I’m unlikely to remember anything I’ve read in the past 10 minutes. When I re-emerge, hours may have past.

YouTube is much the same, but with a veiled consumerist slant that proves to be surprisingly effective. Although I have previously been immune to the siren calls of the reviews-meets-advertorial content, this year the compounded effect of moving to a country where any form of social communication requires overcoming a large language barries and the slow realisation that the career I had sacrificed many healthy early-20s years to build was slowly fizzing out into nothing, has had me hitting those channels harder than ever before. And the effects have been tangible, most visible in my wallet and the bulging makeup collection that now inhabits my bathroom closet. From the various coloured bottles and tubes stare at me with quiet disapproval as I ignore them in favour of watching reviews for the next great makeup release and run out to buy it.

The digital brainfog is punctuated by repeated small doses of dopamine and honestly, when everything else is an endless slog of anxiety, those small notifications feel like bliss. So much so, that I found myself becoming a labrat pressing a lever, except in this case the lever is yet another piece of content, another topic on Reddit, another tweet on Twitter, another photo on Instagram, another little byte-let crafted from myself and launched into cyberspace in the hopes that it will yield more dopamine.

A few nights ago, I caught myself spiraling into the “I’m a failure, I haven’t achieved anything cycle” - insomnia. What made matters worse, is that the choice drug for dealing with this was to log on to Insta to lull my brain into happy, pretty images of make up and it backfired. Insta fed the flames with accelerant instead of putting a lid on them. In a teary-eyed late night frenzy, I posted a makeup flatlay photo on my insignificant insta page and started hitting refresh, but the likes weren’t coming. Well, crying yourself to sleep is no substitute for notification dopamine, but it’s better than nothing.

When I woke up, all puffy and hungover from last nights mishaps, I instantly reached for the laptop, which I nowadays keep always on and next to my bed (because I often need to watch ASMR videos to even have a chance of falling asleep) and checked my Insta. The makeup flatlay photo had received exactly two likes. Two. Just two. Pathetic.

When I examine this behaviour, as I am doing now, as a third party describing events, as a narrative that happened to an “I”, still me but removed, I feel terrified. What have I become? I rely on the constant stream of digital low-cal infotainment to be able to do even the most basic of human functions like sleep.

And it’s not just in the low moments of my day that I reach for the digital-dopamine crutch. Slowly, but surely, the desire to constantly watch and engage in the content on these platforms has quelled my desire to do other things that I used to find joy in: running, playing the piano, reading and writing.

Even now, as I sit on my sofa and type these words into a text editor, the urge to click into the Chrome tab I know I have open and minimised is overwhelming. No wonder, on most days with the added pressure of work and life, I don’t even bother resisting. I just let go and become one with the anodyne sea of cyberdopamine distractions.

I feel like the tools I am compelled to use at work (like Slack) have made it impossible to shake off the latent anxiety that right at this very moment when I’m trying to focus on something, I have an unanswered direct message or a mention somewhere on Slack. And even though I try to get myself to finish whatever task I am doing, the anxiety from not knowing whether or not someone expects an answer from me on the other side of that jovial Electron app is often enough to ruin any chance of focusing. This frenzied notification anxiety also bleeds into my outside-of-work life to such an extent that I find it hard to focus on tasks like basic housekeeping unless I’m also constantly refreshing Reddit, Twitter and Instagram and checking YouTube for new content.

[I got distracted by searching for “bathbomb ASMR on YouTube for a good half an hour - time flies when you’re distracted]

Alireza Savand writes in “A busy mind with big dead dreams”

This is a life of constant distraction, 10 notification at a time, another email to respond and inquiry to take care while I’m trying to get something else done.

At my job, I’m getting crazy amounts of email on an hourly basis and most of them need my direct attentions, slack messages that ring the bell of stress and mass execution of grey cells in my small brain.

Life has shrunken for me to a very alarming extent.

Life has shrunken to a point where things that used to bring pleasure like “opera and cinema experiences” have shrunk to mindless time-fillers mediated by “other people accounts” used “to look at things that I don’t like and don’t matter to me”.

Or trips, trips to new places that used to be filled with a feast of new experiences are now simply there as backdrops for Instagram posts and YouTube videos. This fall I went to southern France and while driving among the now-barren lavender fields, I remembered this piece by Paul Reiffel. “Photographers, Instagrammers – Stop Being So Damn Selfish and Disrespectful” - the title of the piece says it all.

Given the alarming extent to which my human, lived experiences are becoming raw materials for the massive machine learning algorithms and other kinds of software that make billions for a few overseas companies, I’ve started examining why is it that I am so desperate to participate in these platforms, to be seen by these algorithms and the people, who like me, ride the highs and lows of this digital nootropic. And I realised that the answer was my ever-present anxiety of slowly slipping into obscurity.

I’m afraid that if I bring the Don-Knuth-I’ve-had-enough-of-email energy into 2020 and detach myself from everything, I will no longer be. I tweet, therefore I am. I post, therefore I exist. Otherwise, how could I be me, if I’m not constantly chipping off bits of the me and chucking them off into the big, vast bitspace in the hope that someone will like what I am and who I am.

“I Used to Fear Being a Nobody. Then I Left Social Media” proclaims the title of Bianca Vivion Brooks’ piece for the New York times and I wish I could channel this energy. Though perhaps being a contributing writer for the NYT would help alleviate my constant FOFO (Fear of Failure and Obscurity) to the point where I could actually quit the hivemind machines.

The natural question to follow this with is to ask, well, why is it so important for me to be a somebody? There are over 7 billion people on this planet, dreaming, wishing, hoping, searching. What makes me so different from all of them that I deserve to be somekind of “somebody”? It’s hard to answer this. Dave Bennet in Bennet Notes recently wrote in a piece “People Who are Obsessed with Success and Prestige “What does it look like to be obsessed with success and prestige? It probably looks a lot like me at the moment.”

And me, too. And not just at the moment, but in all of the moments for many years. Being in the tech, there is the added spin of the “college-dropout billionaires”, the luminaries in our sky of hot takes and unicorn startups. As Dave notes,

As I became more submerged into the tech scene, I started reading story after story about these young guys who all created their own million dollar startup. I envied all the comments of praise and admiration that these people received.

I realized that I needed to be this. I needed to be the next Elon Musk. So what did I do? Started working on projects that I found passionate regardless of the outcome? No. I started consuming useless content from YouTube and the internet. Articles and videos like, “The Habits of Successful People” and “Tips to becoming Successful.” In my mind, I was doing steps to achieve this enlightened state of being.

Unfortunately, after a year of purposely trying, I was still not becoming Elon Musk nor any other “successful” person. Despite reading everyday, meditating, getting up early, taking cold showers, and many more things. But what makes these guys successful anyway? Their fame? Money? Contribution to society?

For me, this syndrome had the added spin of constantly being fed the narrative that I don’t belog and thus needing to prove myself to earn a seat at the table.

So where has this all lead me? After five years working, striving and hoping I am addicted to likes and retweets and routinely use ASMR videos of people tapping on crinkly things to fall asleep, because I usually can’t any other way (no shade to anyone who likes ASMR videos, I love them too, I just wish I didn’t need to constantly use them as a sleeping aid).

If you shoot for the moon and you don’t make it, at least you’ll end up among the stars. Too bad that from the earth, you can’t see all the ones that burnt out.

I’m not sure if there is a cautionary tale in here or a life’s lesson. If there is, I’m still trying to learn it.

threadbare light

This piece of flash fiction or micro fiction was first written in 2013.

Back in 2013, I spent the summer between two university courses at home. For some reason, during these sleepless summer nights, I rediscovered a passion for Linkin Park that I hadn’t known since they published that remix of their classic hit Numb featuring Jay-Z. I started listening to their album “A Thousand Suns” and soon became obsessed with the voice-over tracks mixed in at the beginning or over the music. One of my favourite tracks was the one (Wikipedia tells me it is calle the Radiance) that had an overlay track of J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb reciting a line from the Bhagavad Gita. I kept listening to it on repeat and eventually wrote what I would imagine the inventors of the bomb felt when they saw the first test detonations. This is by no means historically accurate and the style is quite juvenile. I’ve edited it lightly to tone down the most cringey parts.

threadbare light

The proper decorum was dignified silence. A good deal away from the blast. They stood. They were the reason the world stepped into a different tomorrow. She thought about the run in her stocking, how she was the only woman on the team. How her mind had generated this weapon. This yellow burning diamond in the sky. A thousand yellow suns burst forth.

Some clapped, some cried. She wanted to do both, but instead she was silent. There was a sibilous space of silence. The kind of loud silence, littered with random sounds, scratching of the coat, a shifting of feet. It expanded to fill the space of their mind.

When the man stood, watching the cinders burst forth from the sky, a golden found of brilliance, incineration, he thought about a passage in the Bhagavad Gita, where a thousand suns burst into being instantaneously, consumed. He thought about many things that moment. His own impending death perhaps, the first time he had known a woman, the mornings when had woken up and been at peace with the world. He thought at his own power incinerating the world, atoms by atom, bursting worth a thousand suns. The eternal wheel spinning around and around.

He could well imagine the world ending like this. Was it imagination or a premonition of things to come?

Not everyone unplugged to see the last light, but she did.

The two of them watched the sun melt away. The last rays languished lazily on their patio. He touched her arm. The golden light was around her, in her.