Category: Writing

Web is free, when you don’t afford to pay

The date that I went on a short while ago was by far among the best first-glance interactions that I have had with a person of the opposite sex in as long as I remember. She sipped her white wine and I submerged my psyche in my second double-shot of Kahlua. The thick bitter liquid was at the right temperature, thanks to the two cubes of ice that shined in the glass and glittered under the dim light of the cozy pub that I had chosen for our special night.

We spoke at length of existence and agency. Whether the table in front of us existed, and if there are different kinds of existence. More specifically, whether we existed in a way similar to that of the table. If agency was a phenomenon to be analyzed, or if it was merely the mirage of the coexistence of the multitude of cells that constitute us. My companion did not miss the opportunity and opined that a true relationship happens at the atomic level, and not on the more apparent conscious stage. A nuclear physicist by profession, and passion as well, as I was to reckon soon, her view of the now was intimately based upon the physical, as opposed to the magic of a notion of the supernatural.

We “met” less than one hundred hours prior to that rendezvous on a dating app. I had set up a profile that reeked of distaste for the mediocrity of the mainstream and would urge only the one who “thinks Chomsky is important” to bother to cause a splash in the electromagnetic ether that we have become used to accepting as a sixth sense that connects our brains absent of the need for physical proximity. She liked me and then sent me a “Hi :)” message.

I would have not noticed the like, had I not paid the premium that allows one to have a full picture of her presence in that environment. In other words, you can interact with the app, or rather allow the app to interact with you, in two distinct ways. One, you are a freeloader; You set up a profile and like people and wait to be liked and called upon. When people interact with you, however, you don’t see the details. “Someone liked you”, that is what you are told. Someone. One person amongst the eight billion occupants of the planet thinks that you are worthy of a few seconds of her time. Or his time. Or its time. How many years in the future and we would first encounter and then get used to, as we always do, bots running people’s presence on the web? What if it is an app that is “liking” me? Maybe it wants to test the waters before the master allocates a minuscule of her attention to me?

There is a second, rather more affluent, way to interact with the app and that is the route that passes through your bank account. For the price of a few pints of quality beer, you get the full picture. You see who liked you, and you can let them know that you like them. You also receive boosts to the top of the list, especially when everyone is looking for a mate. Come next Friday evening, when the population of single women are pretending to be solely interested in their drinks, and you can pay to show up at the top of the list of the available bachelors in the vicinity. A larger transfer, and you can feature a handsome profile picture and boast about your familiarity with Hegel and Schopenhauer and how well you know the underground culture in Toronto. Alas, this second payment is to a different merchant, but that is not the point. You have better chances when you pay.

Last night I decided to pay for porn. It is a valid question whether porn strips women off of their humanness. While the answer to that question is vitally important, with so many women identifying with their erotic appeal, I, as a man, can manage to pack up a clear conscious and enjoy the sight of evolution having gone astray. All in all, my concern last night was not whether or not porn is an acceptable form of pastime. On the contrary, I questioned my decision in the past two decades that I would not give my interest in exploring my sexual desires the same opportunities that I allot to my urge for food and shelter. I have chosen to live in a paid residence, and not in the streets for example, and do not pick up food from the dumpster. Why and why then do I succumb to the mind-numbing repetition of unimaginative free porn?

The same logic is applicable to not only dating apps, but apps in general, and in fact the entirety of the digital sphere. Recently, our book club was postponed for two months due to some glitch in the human psyche. That was painful, no doubt, but what was more daunting was Facebook’s refusal to allow me to change the date of the corresponding event which had been scheduled to happen in the past and never did. It was, and is, clear to me that I must be able to interact with Facebook as I wish. Yet, Facebook does not allow me to do just that. “An event can’t be created in the past.” That is what Facebook keeps announcing, or “toasting” as the Android terminology suggests, when I try to update the date of the book club Facebook event to tomorrow.

I know that the event has not happened yet and, no, I am not “creating” an event “in the past”, but how am I going to let that be known? No one is liable to listen to my complaints. Zuckerberg has guaranteed it in the fine print whose acceptance is a prerequisite for living and breathing on Facebook that I, as a non-paying user, am not more than a tolerated leech, whilst unbeknown to me it is my blood that lets the wheels of the digital machinery churn out the billions of dollars that pay off dividends to the investors as well as is the source that yields the salaries of the executives at Facebook.

Here is the core of the argument, unveiled of the shroud of allegories and half-baked thoughts. As long as I do not pay to Facebook the price of my ticket, I am not a passenger, but a mere cog in the ship. If I am not paying, then I am needed to behave in a certain way, and while I admit that the conundrum is more complicated than such a dichotomy, I would like to dictate the terms of my ride.

The dating app that I got to know the fascinating lady on at least gives me the option to pay, and I do pay, and as a result I go on dates that stimulate my mind and give me food for thought well past the date night. Similarly, because I am paying for my porn, I now expect better content and at least a shred of imagination and a tangible storyline. I want to be given the option to pay for the treatment that I receive on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and hence expect a minimum level of acceptability for the service that I receive there as well. Decidedly, that is going to segregate, even further, the haves from the have nots. My brain is not at ease with that. I fathom, however, that such a move would at least put an end to the shortsighted declaration of the digital sphere as an idealistic utopia in which “things are free”.

Cat videos are what we need the Internet for

It is 2:37 pm on Sunday November 11st, 2018. One hundred years and a few hours ago, the first World War concluded with an armistice. The use of the word “concluded” is rather unwarranted here, because twenty years later a conflict that strode on a more technologically advanced basis shook earth and its inhabitants. The use of the word “shook” is not allegorical in this sentence, as the second world war did indeed end with the massive eruptions of two nuclear detonations.

Last night I watched in horror the despair of the German submarine soldiers onboard a U-Boat that was under attack by British soldiers during World War II. I had found the film a few days earlier, and I need to admit that it took me a substantial amount of time in order to sift through the heap of what constitutes the common stock of Netflix’s offerings, before I landed on anything that appeared to have some notion of value and content.

The film is narrated from the perspective of the “aggressor” and that makes it particularly interesting. Here I am seeing the victimization of the victimizers. That is a particularly interesting vantage point as it rips the discourse off of its use of victimization as a justification for the criminality of the war. Too many films and books, especially of the type that mainstream Hollywood loves to utilize as a cash grab, hone on into the scapegoat of portraying armed conflict as an evil act imposed from without. That, inherently, makes it unnecessary for the capitalist-artist to have to address the controversial question of “why do we fight?” Das Boot is void of that. The tormented souls whose life and misery is chronicled in the film are the aggressors, they are the bad guys, they attack an already burning Allied tanker and then watch in shock and awe as burning human figures jump into waters that are covered with oil that is ablaze. And they watch in horror as the sailors swim towards their boat, which intentionally distances itself from the inferno and makes itself unreachable by the dying men.

I can almost never watch a film from start to end in one sitting. When I arrive home, generally past sunset, and after I hurriedly take care of the usual chores, I have a mere hour to dive into life as it must be lived. The rest of my time is, mostly, occupied by the necessities of survival: sleeping, making money, and transitioning from one to the other. Such is life of a bourgeois white-collar mental labourer in the last decades of the reign of Capitalism. Hence, I had to pause the film and then it slipped off of my mind until I stumbled upon it again on a list published by CBC, carefully scheduled to show up on the website a few days before the Remembrance Day, and leave no trace behind on the day in which no one is supposed to dare to ask about the futility and criminality of the concept of military conflict and the supposed valour encoded and experienced in it. Alongside All Quiet on the Western Front, Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, and The Pianist, Das Boot is another testament to the validity of the question “why do we fight?”

I am in Stratford, a small town one hundred and fifty kilometers west of Toronto. I have never been this far west. I used to live and work in Waterloo a few years ago and, thus, the first half of the road brought in notable memories to me. I approached, and passed, Shakespeare, an even smaller town in the eastern outskirt of Stratford, and then I found myself in the usual scenery that identifies almost any small town in Ontario. There is always a singular busy road that is crossed by dirt roads and other more commonly commuted paved passages that lead to farms and cemeteries in the horizon. Antique shops, diners, rundown houses, and the usual car that advertises on its windshield that it is up for grabs, are the ever-present decorations along such roads. Then the town erupts into the view. There is always an elaborately erected and neatly maintained core to the town, where the main diners are and which is the place to go for the dwellers of the urban area as well as the passing tourists and curious individuals who travel from a distance to soak in the exquisite vitality of the town people.

And that is where I am. Seated in a Balzac’s Cafe on Ontario street. I had been to Balzac’s cafes, in Toronto for sure and also possibly in other towns in Ontario, but B. told me that this is where the action started. This is the first Balzac’s cafe, according to her. “It used to be a hardware store, and that gives it its rustic charm”, B said. B’s comments are preempted by my inquiry into what I can do in Stratford. She has just poured my second cup of coffee and I have just told her that the steak and eggs was fascinating. “Fascinating? A breakfast being called fascinating?” she asks and then leaves me in order to respond to another customer. When she comes back to the bar, my place of choice in small diners like the one that I am in now as well as larger pubs and eateries in the city, she tells me about K., “the only other person that I know that uses this word in this context”. We are a gang of three, I think, but before I can utter these words, she starts combing her mind in search of an attraction in Stratford that she can guide me to. She is short of ideas and, therefore, stares into my eyes and asks me “what do you do?” Her eyes are gray or blue, I cannot recall, as I was absorbed into the deep glister of the spheres of life that sent out waves of livelihood and mischievousness for the entire time that I was with her. She must be in her fifties. I imagine that she has had a full life. One spotted by lovers and hardships and moments of desperation and elevation, intermittently shaking her vessel to the core.

“You mean what I do for a living?” I ask. “Well, that, and also other things; what attracts your attention?” she replies. “I read, and watch films, and go to plays, and while on that topic, what’s up with the festival?” I am referring to the Stratford Festival that I have heard a lot about and have never attended. “They are only doing The Rocky Horror Picture Show on December 2nd this year”, she says. I remember watching the film, or rather the communal performance that included it at the Apollo Theatre in Kitchener. The sight of people throwing toilet paper in the air and the request from the owner of the cinema to avoid targeting the screen by the water guns. I even took one of the playing cards that were dispersed on the cinema floor with me when I left. “I have watched the film, it was hilarious” I say. “You need to watch the live performance, or you haven’t seen anything” she says as I bathe in her irises.

Back to the topic, she is warmly inquisitive of the lone man who has driven one hundred and fifty kilometers to have a non-remarkable breakfast that is the staple of any diner in the one-thousand-kilometer radius around where I live. “What do you do in life?” she is now asking about my packcheck, I reckon. “I am a Machine Learning scientist, I replace people with machines, I am disgusting.” I give her my canned response. “How fascinating, that is indeed disgusting!” she stares back into my eyes and after a pause that takes a few seconds to converge into any tangible thought she tells me about the Balzac’s Cafe.

I want to pay a visit to the cafe and, therefore, I decide to get back to my car, take out the laptop from the trunk, and spend a while in the cafe doing what I do in these circumstances; a hard-to-explain combination of life and work. I don’t need to think about it, it always comes to me when I install myself behind a table in the cafe and before my latte starts to consider letting out the heat that makes its oily bitterness so deliciously desirable.

I need to cross Ontario Street before reaching the church parking lot that I decided to let my compact SUV squat in. The lights are red and I have a few seconds of existence that are void of any purpose. As I casually canvas my surroundings, I notice that a cat is staring at me. The gray feline is taped into a pole and is advertising the Feline Film Festival. It seems to have happened two days ago in the basement of a Presbyterian church, and as the signage appears to be suggesting, it featured the “Best of the Best” short cat videos. Did anyone tell her friend, “hey I am going to this FFF thing, do you want to check it out?” Or is that an unintentional harmless ploy by the mad random generator that governs the world? Is it a mere coincidence that the three f’s are lower-case? I don’t know.

I approach the car and for the umpteenth time take pleasure at the fact that the hatch opens upon my touch. Wonders of technology! I am carrying a pendant that belongs to this iron and plastic creature in my pocket and therefore it listens to me without the need for me to ask it to. That is enjoyable. I am a master and the black bent down piece of technological marvel is my obedient servant. And what’s more, I don’t need to feel any agony when I make it accelerate and maneuver as I wish. Which slave owner of the eighteenth century would have hesitated upon learning about this possibility?

As I feel and enjoy the inner warmth that is sliding on my skin in this cold November day, I feel something else bubbling up inside me. B., K., the triple F, words start spilling out. I run into the cafe and start typing “It is 2:37 pm on Sunday November 11st, 2018”.

eternity.py: what it is and how it happened

Writing has been a passion for me ever since I started reading the short stories that I found in my father’s library in our basement. At that time I was supposed to put in everything in my disposal towards landing on one of the sought after seats of one of the “Ivy League” universities in Tehran. With a maximum of four universities on the roster, each admitting a few thousand fresh students and about a million students competing for the prize, this was not a task to be taken lightly. That is how it started: I would read and reread my high school books for hour after hour. In between that activity I would indulge myself in our garden or spend some time with a book.

I had been sent to a room in the basement so that I was safe from the daily deluge of the main floor, where my smaller sisters would be living their usual lives that included the TV and other sources of distraction. In the silence of the basement I did take the mission seriously, and yet, at the same time, I developed a love affair with the written word. Coincidentally, the room that I was dispatched to also contained my father’s collection of leftist books and contemporary short stories in Farsi.

The plan worked. I got admitted to a top engineering school in Iran and I packed up and returned to the surface. The books, too, followed me. And they stayed with me until I left Iran thirteen years ago.

Passion towards the act of writing is a curious business for an immigrant, whose communication skills are one of the first casualties in the new home.  How could I write when the mechanism for writing was alien to me? I did insists, though. First, writing in Farsi for a long while at Persian Kamangir. That effort was interjected by attempts at writing in English, a project that reincarnated itself a number of times before landing here, at English Kamangir. I also did a sizeable amount of “serious” writing, on matters related to data clustering and signal processing and also on Iran’s lively quest for democracy and freedom. Those were both pleasurable experiences, and yet, neither was sustainable. My work on mathematics and machine learning was soon cordoned off from the public through subsequent non-disclosure agreements (NDA) that were a basic requirement for my paycheque.  Around the same time, I started to have misgivings regarding the subliminal function of the Internet in closed societies. Books such as The Net Delusion were a major contributor to the fact that I started to have serious concerns about “The Dark Side of Internet Freedom”. Was the Internet a means of colonialism in the digital age, disguised under the innocuous facade of cute cats and hashtag activism?

There was only one way to know. I had to retreat to the basement and work on it. I enjoyed and cherished working on mathematical problems during the day and writing about them for employers and receiving a properly sized cheque in return. That activity, therefore, was going to persist. I was, on the other hand, going to quit writing about democracy and human right until I had a better understanding of the dynamics of the digital world and its relation with the power dynamics of late capitalism.

The closure of my breathing channels garnered the ideal environment that after a few experiments resulted in eternity.py. eternity.py, as its name implies, is a script written in Python and although I used the Anaconda platform, the story of eternity.py shares nothing with the tale of the large snake in the Amazonian wilderness. Since parting ways with the dying alternative Matlab, I had been using Python on a daily basis, in order to experiment with mathematical concepts and to build machine learning models, amongst other tasks. A sizeable portion of these usages occured in Jupyter Notebook, which is a browser-based platform for combining code that is executed with text that may be read by a flesh machine. Breathing day in and day out in this environment, it is no wonder that I started to write my short pseudo-novel on Jupyter and in Python.

eternity.py is the story of a Python script that starts its execution on the eve of the departure of its author. The script has access to half a million dollars in cash, that it uses to throw parties every year on the same day. The script spends the rest of its time assessing and analyzing the activities of the list of 256 people who have acquired its copies on the social media. At the end of that excruciating period, a subset of the 256 people are considered to be intellectually alive and are invited to the festivity. The details of the implementation of eternity.py that allow it to shoulder this task constitute the bulk of the human-friendly text of the script. The rest of it is the actual implementation of those ideas.

eternity.py is also responsible for maintaining itself. It creates a backup copy of itself every time that it is modified and it publishes its 256 copies. And that is a unique feature to that script; there can only exist 256 copies of eternity.py and these copies are all created by the script itself. Practically speaking, after the script executed, I was left with 256 html files that I had to print on an Epson LX-350 impact printer that I had acquired for the purpose of printing the copies of the script. I had also sourced continuous paper, that I purchased as heavy boxes, each of which provided the material for about 70 copies. I also purchased black printer ribbons that I could use for printing 20 copies until the ink faded. I would then roll the copies and send them to the individuals who acquired them on the social media or through Amazon. Here is a snapshot of the list of files that were created.

Each one of these unique files contains an engraved ID and looks like below. Click on the image to enlarge.

At the time of writing of this text, 91 copies of eternity.py have been acquired. From these, 59 copies have been shipped and 52 copies have been delivered. Except for Africa, eternity.py has arrived in every other continent, in total to 12 countries. Click on the image to enlarge or visit the flattened map here.

A lot more could be said about eternity.py. Some of it is documented in the @Kamangir channel on Telegram. Instead of dwelling on this completed work, however, I will be spending my time on a second project that is still in its infancy. wish.mp3 will be a larger text, to be printed both in the conventional book format as well as the limited script style. It contains 1+11+1 chapters with the middle chapters acting as semi-independent narratives. The book utilizes an elevated regime of automation, with a separate Python script providing the back-end. While eternity.py resided on a linear scale of 0..256, wish.mp3 takes the readers to a three-dimensional space that utilizes encryption in order to protect the script IDs.

I will be posting additional information on wish.mp3 on its tracker and also in @Kamangir.