Unequal Climbs

September 2018. The rickety rickshaw maneuvered its way through a narrow street in one of the oldest and most crowded areas of Delhi. But it was still early in the morning and the shopping and business rush hadn’t started. The rickshaw hit a small crowd and I noticed a child walking on a tightrope with a steel plate for footwear. In the background religious music blared while an older man solicited donations for the miraculous spectacle that God had enabled.

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In my Rs 4500 ($60) a month climbing gym in South Delhi, as well as in American climbing circles, this activity is known as slacklining [1]. Given how I struggle with the simple act of standing up on a slack-line in a highly controlled environment of a gym, this kid was outstanding. The rope was sketchily tied to two pillars balancing each other. If he fell, he would hit hard concrete and injure himself. My anxieties for his safety were mixed with a strong feeling of self-inadequacy.


 

I was first introduced to climbing in India in the context of mountaineering; but I adopted it as a routine activity in the US. When I moved back from the States, I found myself desperately clinging to the activity even though it was shockingly expensive and a lot less convenient in Delhi. While my day to day cost of living is less than a fifth of what it was in the US, my gym costs almost the same (about $10 lesser in India). This however isn’t unique to climbing gyms; all gyms are expensive. In a third world country fitness is a luxury and you pay first world prices for it (whether or not you draw a first world salary).

Often foreigners visiting India are struck by the jarring inequality coexisting in the same space-time. While they can’t fathom it, locals are inured to it. But seeing this child tightrope walking reminded me afresh of the absurdity of class inequities globally present but locally apparent. On one extreme is the figure of a man like Dean Potter (one remembers a particular image of him grinning mischievously before base jumping off a rock). Even with the destitution that climbing brought him, the ability to walk away from the aspects of life that he disagreed with, without fearing for his daily safety was a luxury. On the other was this child whose daily survival depended on impressing enough people with his skill. I doubt that this child viewed slacklining as a borderline spiritual activity. It was a necessity- money is what bought him his safety. Safety of shelter, food, clean water…

This inequity runs all the way up to the highest pinnacles in the world.  And sometimes it clashes in ugly ways, as it did in the much publicized brawl between European climbers and Sherpas on Everest in 2013.


 

At fifteen, on a school trip to a camp organized by Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, I saw the most dense star filled sky I had ever seen. It had been an exhausting, feet crushing, uphill climb to the campsite. But on that two day stay, sleeping on a stone slab, staring at the night sky, I decided I would take up mountaineering if only to see skies like these. Three years later I took a month long introductory mountaineering course. I remember cold, rain, snow, crowded dorms, singing, some ropes, an accident while bouldering and some tears. There were some vistas but scant time to take it in. There was a lot of grit. At the end of the course I had the grade needed to proceed to the advanced course, and I thought I would come back to that course in another year but I never did. Psychologically, the course left me diffident about my ability to take on many aspects of mountaineering (of course, a big part of this is personal). To reference my favorite animation series (Avatar, The Last AirBender), the course was led by Earth Benders. But there’s something in the mountains for people of all elements. The course however left me thinking that the high vistas in the mountains weren’t meant for people like me.

Seven years later, on the prodding of my housemate in the US, I tried the climbing gym in my university town. After the mountaineering course I was convinced that I was a bad climber. So I started my gym climbs awkwardly, apologetic for my falls, avoiding crowded spots and times. Soon enough though, climbing became an escape from a hectic and social grad school life. It also reminded me of the capacity of my physical body in an otherwise cerebral existence. With time I started noticing and simply enjoying the movement of climbing. As I discovered all the weird things that my body could do, I began to look back at the grit of the mountaineering course with disdain. Screw method and processes. There was enough of it in everything else I was doing. Every time people told me how climbing ‘should be’ I would mentally mute them. Fortunately, perhaps for cultural reasons, unsolicited advice in the gyms I was frequenting in the US was rare.

Possibly because of my ‘anarchic’ approach to climbing, I got better, only very slowly. One time after I complained to my housemate about the pace of my progress, she asked me in true Yoda style, ‘Why do you climb?’

What she was getting to was that if climbing is something I was doing for fun, why did I care about the pace of progress? But hedonism even in its mildest form has been a struggle for me. I still struggle to absorb the tenet- it is OK to not be good at something if you’re having fun doing it.

I was forced to confront the thrust of method head on again when I moved back to India. A trainer in Delhi told me to place my hands in a particular way to make the climb more efficient. Another contrived a route with no hand matching so that there was precisely one way left to do the climb. This was an exercise to build planning. I am grateful for this kind of free expert advice that in the US would have come through a paid class. But climbers come in all flavors and I am the introverted kinds that enjoys the puzzle solving aspect of climbing. Someone telling me how to do the climb can take away from the joy of discovering a solution. In most other aspects of my life I don’t have the luxury of time for slow discovery.

Not to say that I haven’t found myself some rituals with climbing. Over time, I have discovered that certain tendons hurt after climbing- they are overused and must be balanced with other exercises. That warm up can really affect one’s climbing performance. But all these rituals make sense to me now. I perhaps wouldn’t have internalized their significance if it had been handed down as instruction when I just started climbing; and didn’t understand the problems they aim to address.


 

“I have climbed Mount-Everest twenty-one times but I wouldn’t wish this for anybody.”

-Opening line of Loved by All a documentary on Napelese Sherpa Apa.

I discovered during the mountaineering course that for many, mountaineering is a vocation, a desperate source of income for day to day maintenance. Locals make money on expeditions for tourists and amateurs, or by supporting other climbers/mountaineers in their expeditions. The choice to define my pace of learning, that I have desperately sought in climbing, is a luxury. It isn’t a surprise that big wall climbing as an activity emerged out of mountaineering and gained prominence after the second world war- in an era of relative peace. Mountaineering does have some obvious utilitarian benefits- history is replete with wars fought in mountains and passes. Many of the tools used in mountaineering and now climbing can be traced to war related developments. Mountaineering also promises access to places that can only be reached by foot. Climbing on the other hand is carried out with the specific goal of pushing physical and mental performance. It is similar to sports in that the rules and structures are contrived, but distinct in the risk involved. For people struggling for basic necessities, it would be an especially odd (but possible) choice.

Even with some of the tallest mountains, I doubt big wall climbing could have emerged out of India. The mental freedom that one needs to enjoy and excel at an activity like that can be in short supply when one is confronting destitution. But as India gets richer, one sees a heartening trend of more people taking on adventure sports, finding both sustenance and joy in it.


 

On a recent trek in the Himalayas I had ample time to exchange notes with a local guide. He had recently completed the introductory mountaineering course that I had taken many years ago. Since we both spoke a different dialect of Hindi, it took us some time to fully understand what the other person was saying. So as I spoke of my disdain for the needless grittiness of the course, he spoke about the grit with pride. And then realized much later that I didn’t share his sentiment. At the end of our four day trek, he did honor me with the comment that he felt I was strong enough to lead treks myself and that I should think about leaving my job and building a career with tourism in the mountains (wouldn’t that be the dream). It was very encouraging to hear this comment coming from a local male.

It struck me that it wasn’t grit that got me to that stage. In fact, grit almost took me away from it. While many are motivated by grit, it doesn’t drive everyone. My first impulse to climb mountains came from a starry night sky. The strength to walk the distance we did in the mountains has been a very slow and irregular journey, spanning nearly a decade. I’ve bumped up my skill and strength when I’ve felt like it, often not doing anything with it for a year. I’ve often also stumbled and embarrassed myself (miserably, if I may add) in learning these skills. And it has all been for the solitude and serenity of the mountains.

Adventure sport documentaries always glorify grit. It is understandable why- these activities often land you in a miserable spot, physically and mentally, and you need to find some hidden inner motivation to push through it. My grouse is that starting with grit can turn away many who would eventually find it, but aren’t motivated by it. There are so many other motivations for pursuing these activities- the joy of moving, the rarefied cool air on altitudes, the intriguing physics of playing with natural elements…

I realize that such narrativizing makes me the kind of outdoors person that the dirtbag folks  roll their eyes at. But here’s where I have to remind myself of my housemate’s Yoda words- “Why do you climb?” And then remember my authentic answer to that question, and not muddle it with other people’s answer to that question.

There are some who exalt grit and use adventure/extreme activities to actualize it. There are some like Apa Sherpa and the kid on the tightrope who find courage for these activities early in life. One group needs grit to confront the exigencies of life. The other seeks it, often at the edge of death, to explore the potency of life force.

I fall in neither of these groups.


 

Through my slow journey up and down mountains, I’ve realized that it is more important for me that people have a conscious relationship with nature, than have a specific kind of relationship. Outdoor activities like hiking, climbing, kayaking, surfing are means to explore that relationship. Grit adds color to that relationship. But sometimes, especially when it it is perceived as a prerequisite, grit comes in the way of it.

For a person like me to get into outdoor activities like climbing or tight rope walking, it has to be pursued as a leisure activity with minimal burden of performance. Given the risk and equipment involved, pursuing them at leisure requires money. In India, the monetary cost is still out of reach for a majority of the population. It is no surprise then, that  climbing facilities and outdoor schools are limited in India (though surely growing). It is also no surprise, that in the smaller community in India, it is common to be climbing/hiking/kayaking next to very gritty (and talented) adventurers. I am only glad that I have found my ground besides any specific love or interest in grit.

I am sure there are others like me, who could discover joy and potentially excellence in these activities, if introduced to them in a certain way. It pains me to accept that money affects a person’s likelihood of slithering past the onslaught of grit that is far too common, and perhaps even inevitable, in a resource constrained environment.

It also feels irreverent to call for more safe, leisurely spaces of adventure/outdoor space, when for a large group of people this exploration is a job they can’t escape. For Apa Sherpa, or the kid on the tightrope, there is no romanticism in these high consequence activities. Grit is a survival skill. 

But perhaps as more people are able to afford the luxury of safe exploration, the returns to risk for those who pursue these activities as jobs will increase, providing enough choices for a subsequent generation to pick alternate vocations. Perhaps, some in that generation will discover the fierce grit that aims to conquer, and some will discover joy in quiet solitude and starry skies. But I hope everyone finds some reason to dance in nature’s playground.

 


[1] There is a technical difference between tight rope walking and slack-lining but it isn’t critical here.

Misinformed Cheekiness

For the last few months I have been dabbling in the world of misinformation. After being taunted endlessly by members of gen Y on my generation’s obsession with screens, it is with grim satisfaction that I see my parents, aunts, uncles, glued to WhatsApp and Youtube on their handheld screen devices. Every so often I receive a message from one of these educated elderly person that provokes an almost physical expression of frustration. Why is the obvious inaccuracy of the message not obvious to other educated folks?
The challenge of misinformation has brought to fore the social aspect of knowledge absorption- people don’t learn everything by empiricism- the transaction cost of empirically verifying every piece of information would leave no time for operating in the world. Instead we learn the rules of trust- we learn how to discriminate between the different kinds of information we are receiving, how to separate signal from noise. There are several signs that help us discriminate- the language the content is shared in, the format it is written, how known the source is, etc. The case of misinformation on WhatsApp suggests that the rules of the digital world might be different from the rules of trust in traditional print media, and have to be learnt anew. Of course, I who grew up watching these platforms evolve absorbed these rules organically (being tongue in cheek here). In several interactions I have assumed the role of the educator, telling older folks about the tell-tell signs in digital content that gives away fake content.

So it was high time that I was awarded for the cheekiness.

I recently moved to a house in India, and needed to hire a technician to repair my Air Conditioner. As a smart consumer in the mobile first, digital age, I Googled ‘*Company Name* Customer Care’ on my phone and clicked on the link. It instantly opened the toll-free number in my caller app. I dialed, spoke to a representative and registered a complaint. As is customary with customer services, I was informed that a technician would visit me within the next 48 hours.

The technicians showed up within in 2 hours. In the process of setting up home I have dealt with many customer service centers. This was the fastest turn around time. I was impressed and relieved.

The technicians were adept- they did a preliminary check and chalked up a repair plan. They asked me to call customer service to get a cost estimate for the repair they had planned. The customer care representative took a few minutes to calculate and presented a hefty bill. I told him I needed time to consider it, and hung up. At this point the technicians in my house presented me with a counter offer- they reduced a couple of thousand rupees from the official bill, if I was willing to work with them directly, instead of working through the official customer care.

This was an attractive proposition. In terms of skill, it would be the same people repairing the AC- the only question was whether I wanted to get it done through the official customer care. I tried to weigh out what I’d gain from going the official route, but couldn’t think of a tangible benefits. The technicians were even ready to match the official customer care’s three month warranty on the repair.

As should become evident, there is something odd about this arrangement- if a local technician provides all the same benefits as an official customer care at a lower cost, why would anyone contract with the official customer care? While in the background I was processing the oddness of the situation, I had a decision to make in the moment. I agreed to contract with the technicians directly.

As the repair work continued, the mental processing continued. I started noticing other oddities- the technicians didn’t have a company logo on their shirts. While this isn’t entirely uncommon, it isn’t the norm either.

Mid-way through the repair work, the technicians told me that I shouldn’t inform the customer care that I was working with them unofficially for repair. That made sense- they didn’t want to lose the business they were getting through the call center. After a few minutes they added, barely comprehensible, “he too is doing this work unofficially”.

And the penny dropped.

In short- a man hatched an extremely clever plan to exploit various features of the online world to present himself as a legitimate customer care center representative. He then tied up with a bunch of local technicians and promised to get them work on a commission. The technicians were happy to team up and get more clients. The technicians unlike this con-man weren’t digitally savvy.

While I recognize my own gullibility in falling for the trick, I think this person should be credited for his skill and sophistication in the operation. He bought a call center number starting with 1800, tied it to a web domain name closely resembling the actual air conditioner company’s name and paid for an advertisement on Google so it was listed right at the top. When one clicks on the website, it automatically opens the toll-free number in your phone’s caller app. When you call the number one hears the common boiler plate IVR voice- “Welcome to customer center. We are connecting your call to an executive. Please wait.”

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This is how helplines listed on Google generally work. For example, when I search Air Canada customer care on Google, it shows an ad for Air Canada and shows the customer care number along with the Air Canada logo. When you click on the number it copies it on your phone app through which you can dial. Often companies will pay to advertise their customer care number at the top of the search results.

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The difference, that has become clearer in hindsight, is that the ‘call on tap’ feature is available for Air Canada only when I click on the large highlighted number. If I click on the advertised website, it takes me to the company web page. On the other hand, when I clicked on the AC customer service, the number opens up directly in my app. There is no web-page tied to the domain name. Just a phone number.

Of course on scrolling down on the Google search results for AC customer care the second time, I found the official website listed after all the advertisements.

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As the saying goes, the owl of Minerva flies at dusk.

But here’s the twist, and my source of misplaced pleasure that in some small way justice was served. The technicians eventually learnt to con the con-man. One of their clients, much sharper than me, understood from their attire and behavior that they weren’t official customer care technicians. He had the same realization that I had on looking back at the Google search results. He informed the technicians that their partner was getting clients by masquerading as an official customer care online. But here’s the subtlety- he wasn’t explicitly misleading customers. But he understood people were reaching out to him assuming it was an official repair center, and preferred not to correct them. He adopted all the signals of an official customer care center, but he never explicitly claimed to be one. The IVR didn’t say “Welcome to *company name* customer center”. It just stated, “Welcome to customer center”.

For the technicians, an understanding of their partner’s game, came with a realization that they didn’t have a lot to lose from exploiting his operation for personal benefit. They began cutting him out of the loop and making deals with the clients directly, as they did with me. This way, the technicians got to keep all the money without giving him a cut. There was a risk that a client would call back the partner (thinking it was the official customer care center they were calling) and report back to the con-man about the technician’s informal dealings. At that point they would lose access to the clients who were contacting him but that was the worst that would happen. He couldn’t take any legal action- he had no official authority to.

At first this conning and double conning was alarming. But on more consideration I figured that this double con served as an insurance for me. The con-man needed to do a decent job so that his ruse wasn’t caught, lest someone probe more, spot his game and report him to the official company or some authority. The technicians in turn wanted to continue their association with the con-man so that they could get clients through his call center. If they did a shoddy job, someone could reach back to the parnter and request for another technician, blowing their cover. Simultaneously, the technicians also wanted their client to like their work so that they would continue their association with them rather than reach out to another customer care center through a digital world that they didn’t operate it.

At the end of all of this, I had a well working air conditioner. And I paid much lower than I would have, had I hit the company’s official customer care center on my first Google search. But I came out of the experience a tad bit more humble- I am not quite far from falling for a fake myself.

 

Montana, Finally!

Montana was on my radar of places to visit since I was 19- long before I applied for graduate studies in the US. None of my travel/work plans in my three years in the US led me there, so it was the obvious choice for my last trip before I left North America.

I spent a day in Bozeman, a day in Whitefish and three days in West Glacier National Park. During my time at Glacier National Park (GNP), I realized that my itinerary was a less common one and might be useful for other travelers. It might also provide reasons for incorporating some elements of this itinerary in one’s travel plans. There were three aspects that made planning for this trip more involved.

  1. Using public transportation.
  2. Traveling in shoulder season.
  3. Traveling alone.

This piece is partly a travel guide, and partly a reflection on some of my travel choices- I am an ardent supporter of public transportation; I pretty much always travel in shoulder seasons and every so often I take a trip by myself.

Hopefully the part guide, part reflection has uses beyond a personal logging exercise

 

Using Public Transportation

I entered Montana through Bozeman- a town I wanted to visit since I first read about it in Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Over time I discovered more interesting stories and people tied to the city (1, 2). The right way to get to Bozeman would have been on a motorcycle, Pirsig style, but I had neither the time nor the skills to do that, so I took a flight in.

Contrary to all descriptions I had read/heard about the city, the city was quite urban and active. The local uber drivers told me that it had changed significantly in the last two years; it is currently the fastest growing county in Montana. I met some of the kindest folks in Bozeman. There are a lot of canyons and ski resorts if one has the time for it. I spent my time in a museum with giant dinosaur skeletons, walking through Montana State University and checking eclectic stores and eateries. I would have loved to spend more time in the city but there were so many places to get to.

There are a number of national and state parks at a day’s driving distance from Bozeman- Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Flathead Region and Glacier National Park- of which I had to pick one. Since there are no shuttles inside Yellowstone and Grand Teton, I wouldn’t have been able to do much once inside. So in eager anticipation of mountains, I headed to Glacier National Park (GNP).

Fortunately, before being declared a national park, GNP had a thriving residential village. It still has an absurd number of private residences, resorts and shops. Consequently, Amtrak goes right up to the park entrance! I discovered on this trip that taking the Amtrak into GNP is a fairly logical (and common) way to get to it. Since there wasn’t a train from Bozeman, I took a bus to Whitefish where I stayed the night before catching a morning train to West GNP. The 30 min train ride cost $16.

I remembered on the bus ride that my first trip to a national park (Yosemite) was also on a bus. On that trip, two months into my stay in the US, I was in belligerent denial that a country would actively disincentivize public transportation. I dragged my fellow traveller through an overnight bus journey with a 5:00AM connection in a region with no signal reception. Belligerent denial doesn’t make for a great planning mindset. I now see a similarity in the pride in wild lands and pride in personal automobiles in this country. The inadequacy of public transportation still frustrates me, but as this trip shows, I haven’t given up on it. Using public transportation however, implies that one has to be ready for a slower pace of travel. In my experience this is true for other countries too, but is especially true of the US. If you want efficiency, and aim to do and see a lot in limited time, get a car.

The bus ride from Bozeman to Whitefish was one of the least pleasant parts of this trip. There is no direct bus between Bozeman and Whitefish so you have a four hour ‘lay-over’ at Missoula. Though reservations were made through Greyhound, the service on road is provided by a private company called ‘Jefferson Lines’. The bus from Bozeman to Missoula was crowded, smelly and dirty. The driver was exhausted from the day long driving and missed a few turns. Also, you have to board the bus in Bozeman at 3AM!  The bus ride from Missoula to Whitefish compensated for some of the unpleasantness of the first leg- with three passengers in a 20 seater bus, it felt like a private tour. The journey through the Flathead area was picturesque, and I was glad to not be driving. I could alternate between sightseeing and snoozing (very important when you catch a bus at 3am the previous night).

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I got to Whitefish with plenty of time. I spent the evening getting a nice meal, watching a beautiful sunset, and catching up on sleep.

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Whitefish Beach

Next morning I caught the 7:30AM train to West GNP. While it is a easy ~2 mile hike from the Amtrak station to Apgar Village in West GNP, I payed $5 for the shuttle (more about this in Nabbing Campsite section below). The shuttle should be reserved ahead of time, especially if you are not traveling alone.

Three days later, I caught the night Amtrak out of West GNP to Seattle.

Some notes about using public transportation:

  • As mentioned earlier, be ready to slow down. Public transportation isn’t the most efficient way to travel in the US. In three days, I only saw parts of West GNP.
  • Make sure you like walking- I don’t think of myself as particularly fit, but I do enjoy walking, which I find essential when using pubic transportation. There is no door-to-door service, and the small distances between bus/train stops, visitor centers and the actual destination add up to quite a bit. One my first day at GNP, I  walked upwards of six miles just for logistics (getting campsite, renting gear, etc). This is apart from the miles hiked on trails.
  • Why do it?
    • It is a more immersive way of traveling- you learn more about the people by sharing spaces with them. Public transportation gets you (or forces you) to share spaces with other individuals for a definite, non-trivial amount of time. In the process you talk and learn more about people, and through them about the place you are visiting.
    • You don’t have to worry about driving or parking and can enjoy the views along the drive.
    • To enjoy the slow travel.
    • Environment, cost, etc.

The more common way to reach West GNP is to fly into Kalispell, a town 30 miles South of the park. Backpackers on my campsite at GNP took an Uber from Kalispell to the entrance of Glacier National Park for $50.


Traveling in Shoulder Season

I get the most bang for my buck at popular tourist sites just before the peak season begins. Many of the activities available during the peak season are open during the shoulder period; there are enough daylight hours and the weather is generally tolerable. It is also easier to get reservations and often the rules are more relaxed- At Ajanta Caves (India), during the peak season tourists are allowed to spend at most ten minutes in any cave. But the art work in some caves is richer and more detailed. Traveling a month before the peak season gave us the flexibility to distribute our time between the caves as we wanted.

Similarly, there were a ton of benefits to traveling to GNP in May, the biggest one being able to bike the Going to Sun Road. In the time that snow is being cleared out from this high road through the continental divide, the cleared section is open for cyclists. Since the road is narrow and windy, once open to motorists, it is inaccessible for cycling. Fortunately, the weekend I was there, they were done clearing most of road and I could bike the entire 16+ miles from Avalanche Campground to Logan Pass.

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It was a beautiful ride through waterfalls, and breathtaking views of the GNP valleys. The ride back with gravity doing all the work was absolute joy.

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7 miles and Counting

 

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Spray Away!

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At the End (Logan Pass)

Other benefits were not having to scramble for rental gear and getting easy(ish) access to campsites.

There are downsides of course. For one, shoulder season means uncertainty around the weather. Weather.com is not your friend in the mountains, especially not in transition seasons. To certify the predictions of the omniscient human, on my first day, strong thundershowers graced West GNP at the hour that the website (and Google) declared bright sunshine. All you can do at such a time is to pray that you were prescient enough to carry a rain-jacket and are close to a shelter. But braving the rain meant that I got to see the most magnificent rainbow I have ever seen (no exaggeration here):

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Desperately Wishing for a Better Camera
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Rainbow(s) in all their Might

 

Other downsides- many park services are still not available. Other than the campground I stayed at (Apgar village), there was only one other open. Some of the closed campsites that I crossed during my hikes were definitely nicer than Apgar. In shoulder season, GNP runs shuttles only during weekends and holidays. If you’re without a car, as I was, your options are biking to trailheads, hitchhiking or landing in the park on a holiday. I planned to be in GNP over a weekend so I could use the shuttles, but GNP turned out to be a pretty great park to bike in. The 16 miles from Apgar village to Lake McDonald Lodge, that the shuttle runs on, is flat(ish). Once the day tourists left, the number of motorists on the road became manageable. I ditched the shuttle for a pleasant bike ride along Lake McDonald.


Traveling Solo

Part of the motivation of traveling to GNP by myself, the last American National Park I would visit in the near future, was knowing that I wouldn’t be able to travel as freely in India. As far back as my memory goes, I have loved the idea of traveling alone. I have reluctantly come to accept that in India women can’t loiter by themselves. If they travel alone, it is usually for work affiliated with an organization, or they travel rich. I got to do a fair bit of former, but in US I could travel alone without an agenda, an opportunity that I am extremely grateful for.

Even though traveling alone is fairly common, when discussing an upcoming solo trip, I am frequently asked questions that fall in these two broad buckets:

  • Don’t you feel scared?
  • Don’t you get lonely?

I increasingly wonder if the frequency of such questions for a traveler is a function of her/his gender and culture.

For the first question- Do I feel scared? In India, yes! Not in American National Parks. I am scared of things other humans can do to me, but not of the animals that visit campsites at national parks. Perhaps backpacking alone on a less trafficked trail would provide reasons to be scared (thinking of bears here), but day hikes and camping in the busier camp sites seems pretty harmless. Also you’ll find enough people who have either traveled by themselves at another time, or are the cautious kinds and will readily dispense useful advice.

As for getting lonely- even when traveling alone, it is easy to find conversation and company if you want to. There are other solo travelers; old folks; friends and couples who have been traveling together for a long time and are happy for fresh conversation. And there are books! My personal rule is that in a group bigger than three people, the experience is predominantly about the people in the group and less about the place they’re traveling to. Not that having the group be the focus makes the travel any less worthy- it is just a different kind of a trip. As per this rule though, if I want to focus on a place, as I often do with wilderness and nature, I would visit it with at most two other people, and possibly by myself.

There is a third bucket of questions. This ‘Gen Millennium’ bucket has questions about finding yourself and soul searching on a solo trip. As far as I can tell, traveling/hiking alone has always happened. Elizabeth Bennet was taking long solo walks in Pride and Prejudice in 1813. But for some reason we now feel the need to impose exalted motivations on a historically unexceptional activity.

 

Traveling alone is, on average, more expensive- you can’t split room and meal costs. But there are some practical advantages. People can usually find spots for a single person whether on campsites, or between other group reservations on buses, restaurants and rentals, so you can be a little more spontaneous in your planning. I had the co-driver seat in the shuttles at GNP, giving me wide angle views of the valley in the 30 minute drive. In some aspects I push myself closer to my physical limits when I am traveling alone, since there is no one towards whom I can direct the mental crankiness that comes out of physical exhaustion. On the other hand there are certain activities, such as those where I could potentially injure myself, that I won’t undertake when alone.

Perhaps solo traveling is more likable for certain personalities, but I believe that it teaches you important skills about self reliance and provides a window to understand yourself better. For those who have the opportunity to travel alone, I would say seize it, at least intermittently. There are many who don’t have that luxury.

 

Renting Gear

My trip to GNP was part of a longer trip in which at some point I had to take a flight. I didn’t want check-in luggage, so didn’t carry all my camping gear with me. As I learnt on this trip, most things you need for camping (food, stove, detergent, cutlery) can go in carry-on luggage. I rented a sleeping bag, sleeping pad and tent from Glacier Outfitters in Apgar Village for $50. Between the camping gear rental and the campsite I paid $60 for three days, which I thought was a decent deal. I also rented a bike from them, for the bike ride on Going to the Sun Road. The bike reservations should be made ahead of time since they run out. They are definitely expensive, but they are a monopoly in the tiny West GNP market.

You can also rent kayaks and paddle-boards from them. There is another boat rental right by the lake which is cheaper for shorter duration rentals.


Nabbing Campsites

Since I planned my trip too late to reserve a campsite online, I had to rely on the first come first spots. The campground status page helped evaluate the likelihood of availing a spot- an evaluation that is critical when you don’t have a car to take you out of a full campground. I learnt from previous year’s patterns for Apgar campground that finding space on Memorial Day weekend could be a challenge- it was the only weekend in May 2017 where campsites filled up. Unfortunately, the weekend I picked was the Memorial Day weekend. So, instead of walking the 2 miles from GNP Amtrak to Apgar Village, I took the shuttle that got me to the campsite at 8:30AM. What could have only been learnt after reaching the campsite is that there is no scramble on the three non-motorists campsite- there was ample space for my one-person tent. Even if I had walked I would have been fine. Cars however were turned away from the campground by 11AM.


Bear Territory

After two years of reading cute signs on my university campus declaring it as ‘Bear Territory’, I finally got to be in one. The threat of bears in GNP is far more serious than that in parks in California. GNP has Grizzlies and Black Bears, and every trailhead begins with a reminder to carry bear spray.

At $9 per day (for something you in all likelihood won’t use), bear sprays are ridiculously costly to rent. But if you are taking a flight to get to GNP, you have no other option. I rented one for three days, and remembered to carry it on only one. I did see a Black Bear by the road on my bike ride, but it didn’t mind me. More accurately, it didn’t notice me. A local Montanan thought bear fear was exaggerated- we could outpace the bear on our bikes. It didn’t seem necessary to her to have a bear spray on noisy, well traveled trails and roads. As someone who knows very little about the terrain, I would say if you are leaving the main road carry one- better safe than sorry.

On trails where I was alone, I sang a lot to keep it noisy and on advice of a family, jovially called out to bears in Hindi. The family thought using the english word ‘bear’ could mislead hikers at a distance who might assume that you are warning them about one. They used a Native American language.

 

Lessons for Future

Even as a ‘foot traveler’, I could have been more efficient in how I planned some of the activities. On day two, I waited for the clouds to clear up before leaving my campsite to get to the Going to the Sun Road. When I reached the shuttle stop, the weather was gorgeous but there were thirty cyclists ahead of me waiting to get on the shuttle that would take us to Avalanche campground, the point at which cars are blocked off and we could safely start biking. I waited for an hour to find a spot on the shuttle. By the time I started biking, it was already noon. General advice to self- start early and beat the crowd, especially on a long weekend.

On my first day, on the advice of the park ranger, I hiked an uninspiring stretch of seven miles, which along with all the other walking that day, left me rather bored and tired. I knew two miles in that it wasn’t the kind of hike I would enjoy, but reluctant to turn around half way I got till the end of the trail, only to find myself at a closed campsite. The highlight of the day were the rainbows at the end of the thunderstorm which were close to Apgar. Instead of seeking a far off adventure, I would have been better off kayaking at the lake in Apgar.

Lastly, if I got better at hitchhiking, I could get quite a ways. Just got to get better at asking strangers for help.

Artificially Intelligent Matrimony

What should have been a productive morning on a research proposal, quickly devolved into an experiment for self-amusement. A few months ago a friend shared a website ‘betterhalf.ai‘ claiming to use ‘Artificial Intelligence’ for matrimonial match making. The website boasts that its users are professionals from top notch companies like Amazon, Morgan Stanley, KPMG and Shell.

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No surprise this website comes from India. As a Malaysian friend pointed out to me, there seems to be an inevitability about marriage in the Indian society- a subconscious agreement that marriage is an essential aspect of a well lived life. Also, there is a lot of money to be made off people getting married. As it turns out, the wedding industry besides being bigger than Indian Government’s expenditure on all social programs, is also recession proof (it is second only to the wedding industry in US, but then the American Federal budget is ten times that of India’s). Some well intentioned, but obviously deluded member of the parliament introduced a bill last year to curb expenditures on weddings.

All this to say, that as ludicrous as the idea of this website seems (to me), there is clear business foresight here. The Indian matrimony market is wide open for all AI interventions. With all the overt and covert assessments around income, caste, color, neighborhood, the process of arranging marriages is as unintelligible as social customs get. AI is exactly what was missing here.

How is it any different from the multitude of dating apps that also use machine learning for match-making? Well for one, it starts with asking for your LinkedIn profile. Because your performance at work is the best indicator of your ability to be a good spouse. Who needs all the noise from Facebook or Instagram?

As a non-Artificial Intelligence agent once said, AI/machine learning systems compel us (coders/business developers/society) to make the values behind our decision making explicit. What this website makes explicit is that the creators of this service, like many in India (and the world), prioritize on education and organizational brand names as proxies for social status, which is oh so important in matrimony. This website also makes explicit many other values that I loath to identify in Indians. Read on.

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A disclosure- In all seriousness, I am quite ill-qualified to compare this with other matchmaking services. I haven’t used an online dating app and I am not on any matrimonial website. But I have to make a start somewhere, so it might as well be with one of the more intelligent ones out there.

Once I linked my LinkedIn profile, it asked me to enter personal details. When I select India as the country of residence, it defaults to Adilabad as my current city, which I am perfectly happy with even though I had to Google to find out where in India this city is. I am also happy to be born in 1982.

screen-shot-2018-02-14-at-1-09-40-pm.pngThen the service wants to know the ‘real me’.
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Knowing the real me entails a six-dimensional personality survey. I am asked to rate myself on a scale ranging from ‘Not at all’ to ‘Very Well’ for the following list of words:
1. kind
2. religious
3. lively
4. curious (I mark myself as ‘very well curious’, because what is this post if not an experiment in curiosity)
5. intelligent
6. humorous
7. dominating
8. calm
9. short tempered
10. confident
11. Too tired to type the rest of them out.

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I want to meet the guy who marked himself as ‘not at all’ kind, and ‘very well’ dominating.

And then comes the section on ‘Faith and Family’. My Indian school textbooks incorrectly taught me about only four castes. But this drop down menu informs me that there are over 70 kinds of Brahmins! I guess the current government can fix that mistake in old textbooks. Never too late to learn more about the stratifications in your own country.
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Oh and there are precisely two castes in Islam and no castes in Buddhism. I don’t know how much BetterHalf will learn about me, but I am definitely learning a lot about the background of the creators and the audience they are targeting.

And should I be surprised that ‘Homemaker’ is listed as an occupation for mother but not father?

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As with other dating apps, I was asked to add an image for my profile, and then at least two more to continue.
I picked images that vaguely resemble faces, in case this intelligent matchmaking system was using an intelligent image recognition system to identify spurious accounts (pretty sure it isn’t, but no harm being cautious).

 

Lastly, I was asked to enter the kind of people I am looking for:

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I am tempted to leave it to this setting- I want this system to find me a 4 feet 10 inch to 5 feet 1 inch dude who never drinks. Unfortunately, I genuinely want to see how well this system works, so I leave all the windows as broad as possible. I’d be game for anyone who is matched to my BetterHalf persona.

Oh and since nothing in India is complete without an Aadhaar linkage, there is a page for that too (which fortunately is optional).
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*******************

As amused as I was while filling out the form on the website, it made me want to shrivel into a tiny ball- the underlying assumptions driving this website aren’t a surprise, but it is a painful reminder that some of the most educated and talented Indians hold on to exclusionary values that all the progress of the past centuries hasn’t been able to shake out. We are intelligent enough to design systems that can replicate our most complex and important decisions, but where shall we find the intelligence to fix our entrenched beliefs and values?

As an aside, I don’t know how good the ‘Artificial Intelligence’ behind the matchmaking process is, but it is striking how unintelligent the form filling system is. It should be fairly easy to do some basic checks to ensure that I am not lying on the form- how probable is it that I was born in 1982 and graduated college in 2009 (information you can gather from my LinkedIn profile)? Or that I work in the US, but my current city of residence is Adilabad, India? And don’t allow me to enter a US number when I have listed my country of residence as India.

If it seems like I am being exceptionally severe in my assessment of this website, it is because I am. You set yourself a high standard by advertising yourself as an elite, ‘better’ matrimonial matchmaking service that uses sophisticated but ill-understood technologies, only to achieve the same bigoted outcomes that previous systems achieved. At least get the tech right.

In what is an excellent twist of irony, it seems like the website uses manual intervention to ensure that your information on your profile is accurate. From a technical view point, this is necessary since you don’t want noisy data (such as the kind I have entered) messing up with your predication models. But, they didn’t get in touch with me after 48 hours, so I assume everything is hunky dory in matrimony data land.

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Against all that statistics tells me about one outlier affecting a model significantly, I am going to take some sadistic pleasure in the hope that my little experiment might have slightly distorted this unpleasant mirror on the Indian society. Now waiting for those matchmaking recommendations.

Edit: I reached out to the founders through a link on the website. They were extremely approachable and patient about my questions. They emphasized that the crux of their AI was in how they matched based on the six-dimensional personality survey.
This is similar to how other match-making platforms such as e-harmony work. As an enterprise based in India, they perhaps found it necessary to incorporate fields about caste that other matrimonial sites in India use. Perhaps it is too much to expect a business to set normative standards.

A Full House

I got a little too excited when I saw this place in Ubud. Now that I am trying to recollect what charmed me about it, I can’t think of a lot of things- it is right by a stream. As I emerged through bushes and stood in front of this little house, I was re-living the past- it reminded me of my grandparents’ house. No, my grandparents didn’t live by a stream. They lived in a part of Gurgaon that most new gen millennium city folks don’t know about. Or at least they don’t want to admit its existence- old Gurgaon as it is called now.

I think it is the style of construction- the light blue wall paint, the dark wooden doors, bathroom access through a verandah. Since, shifting to a new country where I don’t understand the language is obviously not sufficiently solitary for me, I chose to stay far far away from the main market and popular neighbourhoods, hidden by trees, right by a river. Interestingly, when I came to look at the place, it was open and nobody was around. I loitered around for a bit, and then sat on a parapet of the verandah still recovering from a thirty hour flight, half lost about where I was, but thinking that this would be the perfect place to catch up on all the reading I have missed in the last year at grad school. Never mind that the place doesn’t have a bed or cupboards. I barely ever use my bed in the US (I sleep on a mattress). In fact, the functional simplicity of this place was a bonus. Every thing seemed manageable.

 

 

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The Verandah

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Functional Simplicity

So in semi comatose, overcome with nostalgia, I didn’t bargain for the house, paid for the entire three months and shifted in two days later.

*—-*

Day 1: It has been a rough night- I just shifted two hours ago and am eager to sleep, but I have had a tough time turning the air conditioner on and off. I land up leaving the AC on and curling myself in a ball to keep warm. At 4:00 AM I hear some strange music which sounds like the background score of a horror film. After an hour, there are some tunes on a piano. Piano is good. I wake up, wander around, convince myself that everything is fine, even though I don’t understand what is happening. Finally the sun comes up, and I feel safe enough to go back to bed for another hour.

*—-*

Day 2: I  meet my neighbour! So that is a good explanation for all the music. ‘The man’ (as one of the caretakers calls him) likes mixing music and is waiting for his Visa to go work in Europe.  Almost everyone in Ubud has an interesting reason to be here. Have I mentioned this before?

*—-*

Day 3: The AC remote has been fixed but I can’t control the temperature on the dry mode. So I keep waking up to excessive heat and cold alternatively (depending on whether I turned it off/on the last time I woke up). I wake up in the morning to the sounds of bikes parking outside my house. As I get out of my room, conscious of my night attire, I notice that the river is a popular hangout spot for the locals. With puffed eyes, I start my morning rituals cursing myself for letting nostalgia get the better of me.

My solitude plan is not going too well.

*—-*

Day 4: ‘The man’ has left for good. Seems like he got his Visa. I feel relieved. I am the only one on the entire compound now. I don’t have to worry about cleaning up in the kitchen or looking presentable (though in Ubud no one really cares about that). The refrigerator is all mine. I put on loud music in the kitchen and fool around as I cook. I don’t know how long this will last, but this is exciting.
I didn’t stress this earlier, but there is a LOT of ‘flora and fauna’ around my house. I am in the tropics, by a river, next to wild bushes and trees. As it became amply clear to me, I am cohabiting this space with many other animals. The other human is gone; I am the minority species.

 

*—-*

Day 5: As I dust my sheets this morning, a little spider tumbles out through the creases. Evidently we’ve shared the bed last night. But this incy wincy spider is dead, and I am obviously the murderer. I am wondering if this little thing had its revenge before I crushed it under my weight. Maybe I should be worried.

*—-*

Day 6: Ouch! It is 4:00 AM. I slap my arm to get rid of the ant that just bit me. The AC isn’t working. Ubud has a prepaid system of electricity. It seems like someone forgot to pay for electricity. And then it strikes me. I am the only one living here- I am supposed to be paying for electricity.

I groan. Logistics.

As I roll out of the bed, I notice the ants around my mattress still deep in sleep. I try and sweep them out of the room with a paper. There is also some variety of small creature feaces. That couldn’t be from ants. Maybe crickets? But do crickets defecate? I realize it is too early in the day to follow these thoughts, and I am perhaps better without knowing what crawled beside me last night.

*—-*

Day 7: It is usually the men. I mean the random strangers saying hello to you as you walk on the streets, are usually men. I am not unused to this, it happened while I was staying in a village in India too. In Delhi, I would respond to the ‘hello’ with the super(wo)man stare, which is my version of please f*** off. But in rural India and here in Ubud, the ‘hello’ doesn’t seem sinister. The nicest way out is to reply smilingly with a hello. It is usually a call for attention, not eve teasing. But today, one of the locals asked me if I was going to XYZ (XYZ being my home). So they know where I stay.

Now that is another level altogether.

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The Walk to Work

I am trying to sleep. I have in the past claimed that of all animals, homo sapiens is the species I am most scared of. Other species don’t have complex psychologies and social structures. They kill but aren’t sadists (though my housemate informed me that cats have been found to find pleasure in hurting other animals). Homo sapiens, followed by reptiles- I am not exactly scared of reptiles, I just find them repulsive.

About eighteen years back, we were living in smallish town in Western India where the sewage system was designed for frogs to have access to WC  in people’s homes (if it isn’t clear, the design wasn’t on purpose). I won’t go into graphic details of why doing anything in those washrooms was an absolute nightmare- you just realize that your parents’ domain of control doesn’t extend into frog world. Of course eventually you realize, that it has its limits even in the human world. These frogs also found shoes to be a nice night time abode. So one morning as I put in my hand in my school shoe to pull the tongue out, I found myself giving a slimy amphibian a nose rub. It gave me goosebumps and the thought still does.

Strangers and reptiles who know my residence- I am wondering if I am safe in this place. I sleep with all these thoughts and wake up at 3:00 AM from a Kafkaesque dream of seeing a lizard-man (you know something like the monkey man) standing outside my door.

This is not going well!

*—-*

Day 8: I finally admit my timidity and tell my mother that I can’t sleep at night because I am too scared. My mother has some suggestions. She suggests chanting- maybe the Hanuman Chalisa?
Now I don’t come from a very religious family. But I did spend a long part of my childhood in places that didn’t have regular utilities. So at night during blackouts when we couldn’t do much, my mother not wanting us to waste our time would teach us- songs, grammar lessons, stories, and well also the Hanuman Chalisa, which I guess was her way of handing down tradition.

That sort of explains why I only know something like 20 lines.
I don’t think the Gods would be very pleased with my progress and would probably leave me for lizard man.

That rules out chanting.

As is normal, when all goes to hell and I can’t think of any other solution, I meditate. Which is what I do now- trying to confront my fear. After a few minutes, a long chain of thoughts has culminated in this question: ‘What do I really want?’

Pat comes the reply “The most bang for my buck”.

Deep Stuff.

I chortle. ‘Maximum bang for your buck’ is the essence of all the economics I have learnt last year in grad school. Nothing to do with lizard man as far as I can tell. I sleep laughing at the ludicrousness of this inner dialogue and well, the entire situation.

*—-*

Day 9: I am complaining about all the insects in and around my house, to a Czech traveler I have befriended here. Escher could have clicked a snap of the roof we are sitting under and substituted it for his lizard tessellation. I stopped counting them at 15. My Czech friend tells me that insects in Bali don’t do anything to humans. The karma is good here, he explains. Just yesterday, there was a snake sitting in his garden and it didn’t do anything.
Benign snake!

*—-*

Day 10: I have begun to enjoy my dinner routine. Ants and lizards share my kitchen, and we are all contesting for the same food. Every unattended plate, open biscuit packet or bottle, dishes in the sink, is a point won by them.

I am pretty much always humming something in my mind. I realized today that at my home here, I don’t have to hum in my mind- I can actually sing myself hoarse. I can’t remember the last time I was in such a place. I can scream all I want, hitting all the wrong notes and no one can hear me. That feels liberating.

 

*—-*

Day 11: I have finally figured out how to deal with the AC in my room. I also have a tactic for the insects. I have kept aside a separate sheet that I mummify myself in, so that no ant, spider, cricket, cockroach, millipede, centipede can crawl in.

 

*—-*

Day 12: Weekend!
In all my fearful stories, I have forgotten to point out that this place is gorgeous during the day. This is the second Saturday that I will spend just sitting in my house, working. I considered a cafe, but nothing came close to the ambience of my place. It is sunny and green, I can see the bees pollinate the creeper outside, birds chase one another and hear the stream and children playing in it. I see the lizards and frogs in the unkempt wilderness and everything is alive. Somehow everything feels safe in sunlight.

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The Perfect Study

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The room from the kitchen

*—-*

Day 13: The caretaker of the house is a very happy Balinese woman. Every night when I come back from work, I find this flower arrangement that she leaves on the stove in the kitchen. It is a Balinese tradition. That biscuit along with the flower offering is obviously gone the next morning. I imagine the midnight wars for that coveted biscuit. The ant army vs. the long tongue lizard vs the tiny frog. Maybe a rat makes a guest appearance?

The caretaker comes in post noon and we have a lovely chat enabled by her broken english, my three word Bahasa and Google translate. I tell her about the insects in my room. She is very concerned. She points to an aromatic cleaner that she is going to clean the room with. She thinks it will help. I have my doubts.

After all the cleaning, she tells me that she needs to go for a ‘ceremony’. I assume it is something in the village. She puts on her sarong and asks me if I will join; the place is right here. I think, “why not?” and follow her.

Turns out it is literally right here. In our house. She explains that Balinese ‘do ceremony’ every day but a special ceremony on new moon and full moon day. Today is a new moon day. I had never noticed that at the corners of the house, beneath the trees and bushes are stone statues of Balinese Gods. I follow her through the green foliage that I would never dare cross alone for the fear of stamping over something (or being stamped over by something). I watch her pray in deep devotion, to one statue after another.

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I eventually leave her to her prayers to go hang out with this kitten that I am having some communication problems with. It sits outside crying and hissing at me. I serve it some milk but it doesn’t seem interested. It likes hanging out in my bathroom but only when I am not around. I think the kitten thinks I am intruding in its home.

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This kitten reminds me of another one. Two years back when I was living in a much more simpler construction, a cat thought my little tin shed room would be good place for her to house her new borns. I didn’t share her opinion. So after feeding the family, I thought it was time for them to leave. While the mother was out, I tried to tempt the kittens with milk outside the room. I landed up lifting one of them and carrying it out. What I didn’t know at the time, was that if you touch a new born kitten, it associates your scent with protection and expects you to perform the role of its mother. That kitten left its family and followed me everywhere. It stared and meowed at me when I worked, came after me during lunch, slept outside my room (since I wouldn’t let it in).  Cats confuse me- The mother cat disowned the child.  Thankfully though, my neighbor’s children adopted the little one as a pet.

*—-*

Day 14: Most men come to river to bathe and, in the eloquent words of a naturalist, to commune with nature. The young boys however, spend hours just playing. On the walk back from work today, I notice young naked boys challenging each other to some kind of ‘jump in the river’ game. They are noisy and chirpy.
Unbridled freedom. That is what I see in this.

There are no girls. As expected. I am reminded of a scene from ‘Becoming Jane’ when Jane and her cousin Eliza run after the boys towards the river, in excitement for a swim. They cut themselves short when they realize the impropriety of their action.

Women skinny dipping in this part of the world is unimaginable. Unbridled freedom isn’t for everyone.

*—-*

Day 15: I wake up this morning and tip-toe around the ants and insects on the floor. It almost feels like a dance. A morning dance!

I open the front door and it is a beautiful day. Like every other day here.

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The River

I am thinking of Macondo, from one Hundred Years of Solitude. Strange, I think; I barely understood the book. Maybe it is something about the way everything grows here- without control and supervision, and the way life flows through it. Or that everything seems transitory- the vines and trees are growing fast around the house and the little creatures won’t leave anything untouched.

Day 15, Evening: I am just finishing this monologue and it is raining outside. This little one is gawking awkwardly on the other side of the glass door. I should probably stop now.

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Online Platforms and Information Assymetry

In a recent lecture for a course in Information Technology economics, the professor introduced the concept of information asymmetry. In traditional economics, models are built on an assumption of perfect information- producers know how much consumers value a good, consumers know how much it cost producers to produce it.

I won’t get into a discussion about the utility and demerits of such simplified models. It suffices to say that this assumption is rarely true in reality- evaluating a consumers’ willingness to pay is very complex and fuzzy (remember Ford’s quote on cars vs faster horses?). Given the complexity of modern day systems, consumers almost never know what it cost producers to make the good.

The discussion in the class was on whether online platforms were creating, exploiting or closing the information gap in the market. The professor started with example of Yelp. With a recommendation system that helped people share their food experience with each other, the platform was reducing the information asymmetry for an experience good. Other people’s recommendations were helping a consumer gauge the quality and hence calibrate their willingness to pay for it.  The next example was similar- another recommendation platform reducing information asymmetry between faculty teaching quality and students.

The third example was an interesting one:

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It wasn’t exactly this site, but something very similar. I thought that this platform was exploiting information asymmetry. I reasoned that caskets were a niche product, that people purchased only rarely. It is unlikely that an average consumer would know the true cost of a casket. Since the transaction cost of searching for goods online is ridiculously low (as opposed to driving around town and looking for one), online sellers are likely to exploit the consumers lack of willingness/means to hunt for caskets locally and sell caskets for more online. This was based on my experience of buying some niche products in India. Handloom products are much cheaper in their regions of production than on online sites. If one had access to the electronic components at Lajpat Rai market in Delhi, one would not consider eBay.

But it turned out I was wrong. As the professor explained, in absence of online platforms, people would buy caskets from their local mortuaries. And mortuaries aren’t exactly found in abundance- basically they operate as monopolies. But with an online platform, when people visit a mortuary, they can also compare the prices from a bunch of other producers through the online platform. It makes the market more competitive (which is a good thing for the consumer because it lowers the price). The online platform removes the middle agent and directly connects wholesalers to consumers.

I was convinced by what the professor said, but it wasn’t coherent with my experience in India. As of now I have managed to crystalize the incoherence in two points:

  • Online platforms such as a casket selling platform would reduce information asymmetry if there were multiple such sellers online.
    Just as multiple sellers make physical markets competitive, multiple sellers online make online markets competitive.
  • Online platforms remove information asymmetries between wholesalers and consumers only if wholesalers can get onto the Internet. If not, then online platforms actually create a market for middle agents who benefit from the reduced transaction costs from an online platform.
    This sounds like an obvious point, but it isn’t trivial. Basically, most wholesalers in India can’t get online. Low literacy corresponds to low digital literacy so you don’t have handloom weavers or electronic component sellers online. Instead you have people/bodies with digital literacy act as intermediaries. So we as consumers would prefer online platforms because of lower transaction costs for us. But on the whole we might be paying more online for these niche products. These intermediaries are technically exploiting the information asymmetry- consumers don’t know how much these goods actually cost in wholesale markets.

I am not making any value judgments on whether this is a good or bad thing. This was more of an exercise in understanding and applying the theory I am learning. Wholesale markets in India are extremely competitive. Also, the first and second points are opposing forces. So perhaps if we had more online platforms, even if run by intermediaries, it would drive the price down?

Three Phase Power Alarm

Note: This is a project in progress. It was undertaken as a part of my work at Vigyan Ashram. I would be surprised if there weren’t errors in my understanding and documentation. So please be liberal with your views/opinions and mention any errors that you find.

Edit: Due to a renewed (and correct) understanding of the physical structure of how the power supplies were reaching houses/farms/workshop, we have changed our approach to this problem. I have persisted in publishing this older documentation to allow a little more (digital) space for serendipity. The problem statement, and the approach might benefit someone in an entirely different context, and allow us to learn from it.


Problem Statement:

Electricity is supplied to everyone through the power grid. However, for different usage patterns, the electricity board supplies different ‘types’ of electricity. For example, the average household would consume maximum electricity in lighting, fans, and on the higher end in washing machines and heating and cooling appliances. But it is highly unlikely that any device would consume more than 5KW. On the other hand, machines used in industries and motors used in agriculture consume over 6KW.

To account for these different usage patterns, the electricity board supplies different ‘types’ of electricity. These different types of supplies carry different power of electricity. The tariffs on theses different types also varies. Commercial and agricultural electricity, is carried in three separate lines (conducting wires). The phase of the voltage in each line varies from the next, by 120 degrees; the resultant supplied voltage is 415V . Such electricity is called three phase electricity.

Electricity supplied at individual homes, comes in only one line and it measures 230V.

Now the problem comes in an agricultural home, or in a place like Vigyan Ashram which pursues activities that fall in different electricity plans. An agricultural home runs household appliances as well as agricultural motors. So a home in a farm, would be supplied domestic as well as agricultural electricity, but at any point, the house can only consume one of these supplies. Both these supplies reach the house’s MSEB board, and the farmer  has to manually switch between these two supplies. Both the electricity supplies are intermittent, and more importantly, independently intermittent. Thus sometimes a farmer is forced to run his agricultural machines on the more expensive domestic supply, simply because agricultural electricity (three phase electricity) is unavailable.

The problem then boils down to something very simple- People using single phase (domestic) electricity, often forget to change over to three phase electricity (agricultural/commercial) even when three phase electricity is available. We need to devise a system to warn people when three phase electricity is available.

 

Approach:

Three phase electricity can be distinguished from single phase electricity by detecting a current in at least two of the three conductors. In single phase electricity, the voltage is present in only one of the three conductors. The problem could be understood by an AND gate logic.

Given two conductors (wires from supply), A and B:
IF (A = 1) AND (B = 1),
THEN ALARM
(Where A = 1, implies current through the conductor)

As of now, instead of an Alarm, we are using a simple LED. This shall be replaced by an sound system soon.
A video of the functioning circuit can be found
here.


Technical Details:

Circuit Diagram:
Threephase_schm

Circuit Description:

Voltage Rectifier and Regulator:
The voltage in the supply wires is 220V AC. This voltage must be transformed to a lower voltage so that it is suitable to be input to the NAND gate IC.

TR1 transforms the voltage to 12V AC, after which it is rectified and passed through a 7805 voltage regulator to supply a constant 5V voltage.

NAND Gate IC (HD74LS00P):
By default the input to the NAND Gate should be pulled down (to provide a logical zero). The 440K resistors are connected in parallel to the the 5V output of the voltage rectifier for this purpose. In absence of a positive voltage (no current through conductor), the input to the NAND gate will remain zero.

Components Used:

1. HD74LS00P

Quad two input NAND gate. We only use one of the four gates.

2. 7805 Voltage Regulator:

It is used to regulate the output voltage. It gives 5V DC constant voltage to the circuit. It can take input voltage up to 25V DC.

 

Acknowledgements:
Till about two months back, I hesitated in anything that involved electronics beyond LEDs and resistors. I didn’t understand much when I was studying the concepts in college, and I didn’t work hard enough to understand it myself.
People at the ashram had amongst other projects developed an LDR circuit, and in my first week here I implemented it. Ever since then, different connects between the theoretical concepts and practical applications are emerging in my brain. I owe all this brain activity to all those people who have worked on these circuits in the past, and enthusiastically led me from apparent dead ends and wrong roads to the right path.

The Food We Eat

vada pav3

A village offers less food varieties and distraction than a city. I am on a somewhat staple snack meal now. If I feel like eating something sweet, I reach for Oreos, but if it is for something salty/tangy, I get a Vada Pav. Vada Pav is a very popular Marathi snack. I had tried them once or twice earlier as well, but I never found them too appetising. But the one’s I eat now, are amazing (Louis CK, is going to get me for this one). And it isn’t because of lack of options. I think I would reach out for them where ever I was living.

While eating my Vada Pav, I realized that all the magic was in the Vada (the potato fritter). Why was I even eating the Pav? Then it struck me? Why was anyone eating the Pav? Why were they even serving the Pav? I asked the last two questions aloud, more as loud thinking than to actually get an answer.

But prompt came a reply.

“Kyunki bread pani mein phool jaati hai.”
(Because the bread swells in water)

“Hain?”
(What?)

“Toh pet bhar jaata hai”(So your stomach fills up)

The boy was obviously more connected to ground reality than I was.
Vada Pav, is a cheap meal. The Vada is made of potatoes- the cheapest vegetable around, that almost never runs out. It is fried, it lasts for long, is easy to carry. As for the bread swelling bit, I haven’t found any mention or explanation for it on the internet, but perhaps the boy knows it from experience. He said the idea was to drink water after vada pav, and your stomach would fill up. For a lot of people, Vada pav is a staple meal.

Turns out my appetizing snack is a lot more than just that.

A Yatra With A Twist

I had promised myself in December that I would keep a better log of my life. I haven’t done a very good job of it. But I have had very active and refreshing two weeks which definitely deserve some narration.

I moved to Pabal- a village 60 KM from Pune, Maharashtra. I will describe my general experience this far in another post, but before the memory becomes too old, I want to log about something that was definitely new for me, as I am sure it will be for many people reading this.

On 13th Feb, the village celebrated something called a ‘yatra’. Yatra, in Hindi translates to journey, or travel. I expected that on 13th, everyone would take a tour of the entire village. It was a very naive and silly assumption. The ‘yatra’ is something that happens at different times in the various villages in this region. Different religions have different Gods, each of whom is worshiped at a different time, thus explaining the disparate timing of the festival. The iconic thing about the yatra is not a tour, or a puja,  but a bullock-cart race. My first reaction on hearing this was, how fast can a bullock run anyway? I imagined it after the fashion of a horse race- lots of bullock-carts at standing behind a start line, with a charioteer sitting in the cart, driving the bullocks to the finish line. I heard there were 500 teams participating, which is why they had to extend the race to two days.

I will attempt to take you through the festival sequentially, through pictures. Bullock racing is quite a craze in this region. At every yatra, there is a bullock cart race. While there are monetary gains for victors, it is more for the prestige than anything else. The team (bullocks, horses, and people) trickle in from other villages, with pomp and splendor, with musicians marking their entry:

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The bullocks are worshiped and some of them coloured with haldi (turmeric):
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Oh wait, we have to look at the track first:

IMG_1674So it is an uphill climb, with definitely not enough space for even four bullock carts to run together. But it turned out, they were not supposed to run together.  At a time only one team’s bullock carts ran. They were timed, and the one with the least time, won.

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Here is a team preparing for the race:

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The bullocks are led by a pony. So the pony stands at 50 feet from the start line. Two bullocks follow at 25 feet. And another two bullocks are standing at the start line. The timer starts when the pony starts running, and stops when the last bullock has crossed the finish line. A couple of apparently fearless boys and men stand at the finish line, dodging the bullocks at the last minute:

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Here you see the bullocks in action:

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The fastest I saw a bullock-horse team run the distance was in 12.20 seconds.

Once in a while, the bullocks did not want to run and tried to turn around:

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I am sure a lot of people are going to cringe for animal rights here. I have tried my best to just describe the event here, without any judgement. Two years ago, the government banned this event but with elections round the corner, the ban was revoked. I was told that the day the announcement for removal of the ban came, people across villages were celebrating. There is a whole economy around these events (yatra, and bullock races in different villages)- ‘DJs’, musicians, tempos to transport the animals and people… I saw the event at non-peak time, around noon, and this is how crowded it was:

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The overhead sun and blaring commentary gave me a headache, after which I had no interest in attending ‘the finals’ of the race at 5:00 P.M. I was told that it was so crowded that one would barely be able to see the track.

Another, marginally less important part of the festival is the ritual of carrying out a procession from one’s house to the temple of the God in whose name, the yatra is being carried out. EVERY procession has a  ‘DJ’, which is basically a bunch of speakers on a trawler/tractor which leads the family.

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I heard there were 250 speakers in the village in total, on the day. The women are dressed in their best, and some of them walk to the temple in a ritual, wherein they lie prostrate after every three steps. It seemed quite painful.

Also every house in the village offers meals to anyone who visits them through the day, even strangers 🙂

I’ll leave other ruminations about this event out of this piece. But there is one that I am really tempted to share- all societies, cultures love the excitement of a wager. Some like it in the form of sports, some play with stocks, some in terms of opinion polls, in the future we may like it like real steel.
I won’t get all Chomsky about it, but our obsession with wagers is worth thinking about.

The Greatest Common Denominator

My last job was at a non-funded, not-for-profit organisation, and my work responsibilities there had little to do with my education as an engineer. Yet, at the end of the day, if I had the time, I would help out with the small IT related problems. Initially I had no inclination to get into that side of things at the organisation, but I was very unhappy with the ‘tech-support’ person who would consult them. The organisation didn’t have a dedicated IT team within the organisation, so every time they had an issue- like a virus attacking a machine, the intranet not working, or the printer ink running out, they would call the tech-support guy. The number of virus incidents and the money spent at maintenance of these machines made me cringe at the whole closed-source, windows ecosystem but I won’t descend into a elegy about closed source stuff in this post.

Now our tech-support person, Mr. P. had a simple answer to almost all problems- format the computer and reinstall windows. If the internet stops working on a machine, format the computer (I swear this happened); a virus detected on the PC, reinstall windows. And if you asked him, as to why, even after installing an anti-virus software, there were still virus on the machine, there was an ambivalent, ‘you-won’t-get-it’, kind of an answer. The fact is that since most people at the organisation weren’t very involved with technology, they too assumed they wouldn’t get it. To me it seemed as if Mr. P. counted on people’s ignorance to earn more money. Initially I would wonder, as to why Mr. P. wouldn’t simply explain some of these solutions, so that he wouldn’t have to come back so often, especially since these solutions were so trivial. Then I realized that Mr. P was in no mood to; maybe he genuinely believed that people wouldn’t get it. Mr. P. wasn’t vicious. I have been told that this style of working is the de-facto style of IT support in most companies. This attitude seems to share its etymology with the (ostensibly and fortunately diminishing) holier/smarter/cooler-than-thou air, that a lot of men (and a few women) exude when talking of the latest technologies and gadgets, even in casual conversations. It often results in a competition of who knows more. Such an attitude banks upon, and in fact condones ignorance in the other person. Closed-source and open-source are not just movements around software and hardware, it really is an attitude to life.

While there is a certain level of tech-literacy that we all should aspire to, people would and should still hand out their tech-support to ‘experts’. Obviously. As knowledge and civilizations have evolved into greater complexity, we have become more inter-dependent on each other. Unless one chooses to opt out of mainstream civilization, one naturally relies on the knowledge of other fellow human beings- one can’t be an expert on law, medicine, financial markets, technology, and these are just the functional knowledge domains that one must necessarily engage with, in a society. There just isn’t enough time, to master all of them.

So suddenly, in our clean, rational, deductive understanding of knowledge and ignorance comes this messy, human element of ‘trust’. You have to trust the experts in your life; and it is a leap of ‘faith’ because you don’t have the know-how to judge if what the other person saying is right or wrong; you simply don’t have the knowledge to rationalize their verdicts. There is nothing better to exemplify this fact, than the field of medicine. You can still Google, and read up on how to fix your PC virus. But you can’t Google and diagnose dengue or cancer. The risk and repercussions of wrong judgement are way too dangerous. The only thing you should do when you catch a disease, is go visit a doctor. And at the moment of the doctor’s visit, you trust them and their medicine. If you heal, your trust in the doctor is fortified but it is quite likely that your judgement is reversed in the future. For example, a doctor, once treating me for a weakness of some sorts, gave me a medicine- Nimesulide, that worked perfectly at the time. A month and half later, I was lying in the hospital, almost dying of hepatitis (again, not exaggerating). I was twelve. It was a mystery of sorts- how did I get hepatitis in the first place, and why did it take so long for it to be detected? (I had been visiting the same doctor for a long time before it was corectly identified as hepatitis; and by that time it was already critical.) Months later, my mother read that Nimesulide was banned in many countries and led to hepatotoxicity, i.e. chemically driven liver damage (hepatitis is liver inflammation). Nimesulide administration to children below the age of twelve is contraindicated (no reasonable circumstances for taking this medicine). I am not blaming the doctor entirely, maybe my liver was weak, but she did have a role in pushing it to the edge (and she should have identified the disease in time).

Now coming to the incident that urged me to write this piece. Last week, I visited a dentist. I had that pain, that they show in all toothpaste ads. I would get this shock at the upper left corner of my teeth if ate something extremely cold or extremely hot. We enquired about a ‘good’ dentist from our neighbour and fixed an appointment with her. First the dentist’s assistant did a preliminary check. She poked around a little, and grimly announced to the dentist, that I had four cavities. I was a little shocked. I had four cavities filled five years back, and I took better care of my teeth than most people I knew. Then the dentist peered into my mouth, pointed this spatula like instrument at some tooth in the upper left corner of my mouth, and hammered it; a shiver went through my entire body. The dentist looked at me and said, “I am sorry but you will have to get a root canal surgery done.” She did an X-Ray, just to be doubly sure. She explained the reason to me in utmost scientific detail. Bacteria had developed behind one of the big cavities that I had got filled five years back, and eaten up the nerves. So she would have to dig out the initial filling, and do a root canal treatment. My first question to her was, “Am I not too young for this?” And she said, of course not. She pointed to her ten-year old son and said that children his age got the treatment done. Then she told me, that there was nothing I could have possibly done to avoid it, because the bacteria were behind the filling; brushing doesn’t even affect that area. I don’t know if I felt happy or sad to hear that; I just didn’t want a root canal treatment done. I know it sounds silly, but to me this was like some sort of a defeat. I am too young to be losing my original teeth matter.

I took an appointment with her (the dentist) for the following week. I happen to have a friend who has a lot of dental problems and told her about this new development. She told me that if it had to be a root canal treatment, I should get it done by a dentist who specialized in root canal treatments- there were specialisations within dentistry :-O. So we fixed an appointment with an endodontist (a dentist who specialises in root canal treatments). He, like the previous dentist peered into my mouth, did a little poking around and did an X-Ray, just to be ‘doubly sure’. He announced that the pain was because …drum roll… my wisdom teeth were coming out. The pain was caused by an inevitable maturation of the body, not some uncontrollable pest infestation. I didn’t quite believe him. He explained, equally scientifically, that as my wisdom teeth were emerging, they were pushing the adjacent teeth for space, therefore exposing the lower (sensitive) regions of these teeth. When something of extreme temperatures touched these sensitive regions, I got shocks. As for the cavities, they weren’t cavities; these were just caveats that could heal by themselves.
Perhaps, those four cavities that I got filled five years back, were also not cavities.

I had these two drastically different diagnoses, both sounding equally scientific. Both dentists had been tagged as ‘good’ dentists by someone we knew. They both went as per procedure, did an X-Ray to be doubly sure, and came up with absolutely different conclusions. How do you know which one is correct? Which diagnosis should I trust?

We eventually trusted the second dentist’s diagnosis. Why? Because we figured that root canal treatment is a rather expensive treatment, that is used as a money-making scheme by many dentists. Also, the first dentist seemed to be pushing for a root canal quite strongly. It seems contradictory for a root canal specialist to tell me not to get a root canal treatment done when one requires it; he must be honest.
It so happened that I visited a general physician that day (yes, my body is full of ailments at the moment) after the dentist, and the general physician happened to consult the second dentist in the past. She said she trusted him. That was the second reassurance we needed. I am quite convinced by my mother’s conclusion that in medical matters, one must always get a second opinion.

I shudder to think of the first dentist, performing root canal surgeries on ten year olds when there is nothing wrong with their teeth- all that pain. If it is so easy to fool the educated citizenry living in India’s ‘millennium city’, just imagine how easy it would be to fool people with lesser means and education. Moreover, what about the people who have to struggle to pay for a doctor’s visit. Where is their second consulation? The secretive and perhaps wrong tech-consultation done by Mr. P. seems inane in comparison to the wrong consultation done by doctors. In medicine, the consequences of the expert’s actions are borne by someone’s body; and there are no replacements and second chances.

I think I can pick out a case of experts abusing and misusing their client’s trust in almost every field. Lawyers often cheat their clients, by tying up with the counterpart, while claiming to defend them. The wolves of the wall street, made money by misusing the trust that their customers reposed in them. I am sure, everyone knows this.

What am I trying to get to? Actually I am not too sure myself, or maybe I am scared of making bold statements. I’ll try anyway.

In a globialising world, and the melting pot of cultures that has resulted, most people have settled with a personal theory of ethical relativism, i.e. that there is no objective right or wrong; “it depends on the prevailing view of a particular individual, culture, or historical period.”[1] I think this is a coping mechanism to assimilate all the diverse world views we encounter in our daily lives. I have a ‘been there, done that’ relationship with ethical relativism. And what that means is, that I am quite over it. There are more literary and historically-rooted critiques of ethical relativism and post-modernist values, but my opinion against it stems from my understanding of its impact on people in the long run, that I derived while working with people. I don’t think I can rationally defend my stand against absolute ethical relativism, I would need to read a lot more for that, but the thing is that I don’t feel the need to, anymore. I like the simplicity of the word that my parents use- ‘values’. ‘Values’ aren’t caught in the intellectual battles of ‘ethics’. And just because it is a simple term, doesn’t mean that it is a redundant, or a non-functional term. If there is anything that I have tried to ‘prove’ in this piece, it is the functionality of the value of trust and its partner, honesty. As knowledge becomes more specialised, we will become more inter-dependent on each other. And in this web of inter-dependency, for the human race to move together towards the indisputable goal of greater happiness, we need strong bonds of trust and honesty. With our diverse professional goals and intellectual pursuits, human values must become our greatest common denominator.

References:
[1]
http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ethical+relativism