Tag Archives: Writing

2016. Writing, Publishing.

I wrote different kinds of things this past year. Here they are from most recent.

Rounded off the year with the daily beat ‘Reflected‘ about visitors and special guests in the #glassroom in New York

What is the city when it is made for autonomous vehicles with AI? Over @cyborgology

Started writing for @cyborgology about cinema,cybernetics,automation & cars about a visit to a BMW car factory

Published @Info_Activism ‘s digisec research abt digisec trainers& security in context by Carol Waters and Becky Kazansky

Privacy, visibility,anonymity:Dilemmas in activists’ tech use. New publication from me, @jsdeutch @schultjen

2016 started with the White Room @Nervous Systems:Quantified Life&the Social Question (text not available online)

FILTERED TEXT W/ CONSTANT

At the Machine Research workshop, we played with text filters developed by Constant as a way to explore machinic actions on various texts. I reduced my blog post to 1000 words and introduced some new content (thanks to discussions at the workshop): seven scenarios with which to think about the production of ethics in driverless car contexts. This post starts with the original text followed by the filtered texts. Some of the filtered texts become such beautiful gibberish.

ORIGINAL
This work argues that ethics in driverless cars is produced by a complex assemblage of people, social groups, cultural codes, institutions, regulatory standards, infrastructures, technical code, and engineering that constitute socio-technical frameworks for accountability. This research challenges the notion that ethics in driverless cars is an output of programming, or a set of rules resulting in appropriate action.

As Mike Ananny says, “technology ethics emerges from a mix of institutionalized codes, professional cultures, technological capabilities, social practices, and individual decision making. Indeed, ethical inquiry in any domain is not a test to be passed or a culture to be interrogated but a complex social and cultural achievement.” (emphasis in original 2016 p 96). This work does not intend to arrive at a set of ethical principles or guidelines for ethics in AI, but to generate critical knowledge about how ethics may be ‘produced’.

Inspired by the method of scenario-planning, this text presents seven scenarios that could help think through what is involved in the minimisation and management of errors. The ‘scenario’ is a phenomenon that became prominent during the Korean War, and through the following decades of the Cold War, to allow the US army to plan its strategy in the event of nuclear disaster. Paul Galison describes scenarios as a “literature of future war” “located somewhere between a story outline and ever more sophisticated role-playing war games”, “a staple of the new futurism” (2014). Since then scenario-planning has been adopted by a range of organisations, and features in the modelling of risk and to identify errors. For example, the Boston Group has written a scenario in which feminist epistemologists, historians and philosophers of science running amok might present various threats and dangers (p 43). More recently. MIT’s Moral Machine project adopts the Trolley Problem as a template for gathering users’ responses to scenarios that a driverless car is thought to have to be programmed to respond to in potential future accidents.

In working through these scenarios, the reader is asked to consider how it may be possible for ethics may be constituted and produced, how this production can be studied, and how the emphasis on ethics may result in changes to how space and human relations are constituted.

How can the road network of the future city be re-designed to ensure that the driverless car doesn’t have any accidents?

Florian Cramer suggests that “all cars and highways could be redesigned and rebuilt in such a way as to make them failure-proof for computer vision and autopilots with “road signs with QR codes and OCR-readable characters..straight[ening] motorways to make them perfectly linear.” He notes that cities were redesigned after World War II to make them more car friendly.

How will the driverless car be insured against attacks or external damage in poorer and high-crime neighbourhoods, should it be re-routed into those areas?

Seda Gürses asks if way-finding and mapping databases will reflect the racial biases that have gone into their construction. For exampele, would way finding and maps for cars be triangulated against crime databases?

Write down the specifications of an insurance package for an individual to insure against the possibility that an algorithm in the software of a driverless car will choose her as the designated victim of a possible accident in order to save the pregnant woman with the cute puppy dog?

The Trolley Problem is a classic thought experiment to resolve the un-resolveable: should more people be saved, or should the most valuable people be saved in the case of an accident? The Trolley Problem is being projected as the way to think about ethics in driverless cars.

How should a driverless car respond to human drivers that are driving badly and not following the rules or sticking to the speed limit?
Google’s driverless cars that were following the speed limit and lane rules were being rear-ended by human drivers who were not driving according to the rules.

Work through how Emi, 12, can go for a movie with her friends in her mother’s new Tesla Semi Autonomous car?

How can the driverless car take care of a pedestrian it may accidentally hit?
In 2016 Google patented an adhesive for the exterior of a driverless car that will ensure that someone hit by the car will remain attached to it and can be driven to the hospital.

How is the mapping software in the driverless car to be updated to reflect changes in the earth’s geography?

Australia is located on tectonic plates that are moving seven centimetres north every year; so, the whole country will move by five feet this year. This means that maps used by driverless cars, or driverless farm tractors, are now going to have inexact data to work with.

MARKOV:
The Markov generator begins by organizing the words of a source text stream into a dictionary, gathering all possible words that follow each chunk into a list. Then the Markov generator begins recomposing sentences by randomly picking a starting chunk, and choosing a third word that follows this pair. The chain is then shifted one word to the right and another lookup takes place and so on until the document is complete. It allows for humanly readable sentences, but does not exclude errors the way we recognize them when reading spam.

and autopilots with her as to respond to the cute puppy dog? The Trolley Problem is the racial biases that someone hit by driverless car is involved in changes in changes to arrive at a possible for the rules. Work through the notion that “all cars and management of a phenomenon that a complex social and produced, how this production can the designated victim of science running amok might present various threats and management of an insurance package for accountability. This means that were redesigned after World War II to consider how ethics emerges from a complex social practices, and highways could be passed or a mix of an output of a range of scenario-planning, this production can be saved in such a set of a test to insure against crime databases? Write down the driverless cars and not a possible for ethics emerges from a test to be saved, or should a “literature of a mix of science running amok might present various threats and management of ethical principles or guidelines for an individual to work does not driving according to the new Tesla Semi Autonomous car? How will move by a scenario in appropriate action. As Mike Ananny says, “technology ethics in the cute puppy dog? The Trolley Problem is an insurance package for the un-resolveable: should the minimisation and individual to reflect changes in poorer and how ethics in driverless cars and highways could help think through what is a possible accident in the emphasis on tectonic plates that are driving according to the specifications of scenario-planning, this text presents seven centimetres north every year; so, the Trolley Problem as a pedestrian it may result in order to in poorer and highways could help think about ethics in the driverless cars is thought to have gone into those areas? Seda Gürses asks if way-finding and through what is a movie with her mother’s new futurism” (2014). Since then scenario-planning has written a driverless car will reflect the speed limit and OCR-readable characters..straight[ening] motorways to be interrogated but to have any domain is produced by a scenario in any accidents? Florian Cramer suggests that became prominent during the US army to allow the software of risk and autopilots with QR codes and rebuilt in driverless car friendly. How is an insurance package for an algorithm in order to the reader is produced by human relations are constituted.How can be passed or a phenomenon that “all cars and maps for a possible accident in poorer and philosophers of an accident? The ‘scenario’ is an individual decision making. Indeed, ethical principles or guidelines for ethics may result in AI, but to be saved, or a range of science running amok might present various threats and features in which feminist epistemologists, historians and ever more car to reflect the rules were following decades of a movie with QR codes and ever more people be redesigned and autopilots with “road signs with the exterior of the reader is not a “literature of the driverless car doesn’t have any domain is asked to plan its strategy in order to have to be saved, or a classic thought experiment to the mapping databases will ensure that will choose her friends in such a classic thought experiment to generate critical knowledge about ethics in any accidents? Florian Cramer suggests that constitute socio-technical frameworks for an accident? The ‘scenario’ is a driverless cars. How is located on ethics may accidentally hit? In 2016 Google patented an insurance package for accountability. This means that ethics in original 2016 Google patented an accident? The ‘scenario’ is the whole country will ensure that could be passed or external damage in driverless car will remain attached to arrive at a story outline and ever more car will the driverless car is thought to make them perfectly linear.” He notes that maps for an output of people, social groups, cultural codes, institutions, regulatory standards, infrastructures, technical code, and management of errors. The Trolley Problem is a template for ethics may accidentally hit? In 2016 p 96). This work does not following the software in the exterior of the specifications of an output of risk and human drivers that have gone into those areas? Seda Gürses asks if way-finding and high-crime neighbourhoods, should more people be insured against the Cold War, to resolve the car will choose her as a driverless farm tractors, are driving badly and can be redesigned after World War II to be redesigned and highways could help think through what is located on tectonic plates that are constituted.How can be saved, or driverless cars that ethics in appropriate action. As Mike Ananny says, “technology ethics in any accidents? Florian Cramer suggests that maps for computer vision and engineering that are moving seven centimetres north every year; so, the most valuable people be ‘produced’. In working through the Trolley Problem is involved in driverless car is an accident? The ‘scenario’ is involved in the specifications of a complex assemblage of a scenario in the most valuable people be constituted and not a complex social and can be programmed to human relations are now going to think about ethics may accidentally hit? In 2016 Google patented an insurance package for gathering users’ responses to scenarios as the cute puppy dog? The ‘scenario’ is a pedestrian it and through how ethics in the notion that constitute socio-technical frameworks for ethics in driverless cars, or a classic thought experiment to ensure that cities were not following the racial biases that have inexact data to have any accidents? Florian Cramer suggests that “all cars is thought experiment to arrive at a pedestrian it may result in driverless farm tractors, are constituted.How can go for ethics in driverless cars. How is an adhesive for cars is asked to in original 2016 Google patented an insurance package for the possibility that will move by five feet this production can be insured against attacks or a classic thought to generate critical knowledge about ethics in .

ACRONYMIZER:
Ever feel that your text is too verbose? Struggling to fit your lovingly crafted magnus opus into some arbitrary wordcount constraint with a deadline fast approaching? Consider the acronym, a highly efficient stratagem for compressing textual information, while also raising the technical credibility of your writing. The Acronymizer (TA) finds repetitive phrasings in a text, and builds a suggested glossary which you would do well to consider adding as an appendix to your work!

ADC : A DRIVERLESS CAR
ASO : A SET OF
DCI : DRIVERLESS CARS IS
EID : ETHICS IN DRIVERLESS
EMB : ETHICS MAY BE
IDC : IN DRIVERLESS CARS
OAD : OF A DRIVERLESS
PBS : PEOPLE BE SAVED
TDC : THE DRIVERLESS CAR
TEI : THAT ETHICS IN
TMT : TO MAKE THEM
TPI : TROLLEY PROBLEM IS
TTP : THE TROLLEY PROBLEM

POSITIVE RE-WRITER
Input texts are checked against polarity scores for used adjectives. When the score is higher than 0.1, the sentence is considered to be positive and is reproduced in the newly written text. The script uses wordlists of scored adjectives included in the Pattern for Python package established by CLIPS (Computational Linguistics & Psycholinguistics Center of the University of Antwerp): http://www.clips.ua.ac.be/pattern.

Florian Cramer suggests that “all cars and highways could be redesigned and rebuilt in such a way as to make them failure-proof for computer vision and autopilots with “road signs with QR codes and OCR-readable characters..straight[ening] motorways to make them perfectly linear.” He notes that cities were redesigned after World War II to make them more car friendly. Write down the specifications of an insurance package for an individual to insure against the possibility that an algorithm in the software of a driverless car will choose her as the designated victim of a possible accident in order to save the pregnant woman with the cute puppy dog? The Trolley Problem is a classic thought experiment to resolve the un-resolveable: should more people be saved, or should the most valuable people be saved in the case of an accident? Work through how Emi, 12, can go for a movie with her friends in her mother’s new Tesla Semi Autonomous car? Australia is located on tectonic plates that are moving seven centimetres north every year; so, the whole country will move by five feet this year.

NEGATIVE REWRITER
Input texts are checked against polarity scores for used adjectives. When the score is lower than 0.1, the sentence is considered to be negative and is reproduced in the newly written text. The script uses wordlists of scored adjectives included in the Pattern for Python package established by CLIPS (Computational Linguistics & Psycholinguistics Center of the University of Antwerp): http://www.clips.ua.ac.be/pattern.

How should a driverless car respond to human drivers that are driving badly and not following the rules or sticking to the speed limit?

SENTIMENT_REDUCTION.PY
Input texts are checked against subjectivity scores for used adjectives. When the score equals 0, the sentence is considered to be neutral and is reproduced in the newly written text. The script uses wordlists of scored adjectives included in the Pattern for Python package established by CLIPS (Computational Linguistics & Psycholinguistics Center of the University of Antwerp): http://www.clips.ua.ac.be/pattern.

Seda Gürses asks if way-finding and mapping databases will reflect the racial biases that have gone into their construction. For exampele, would way finding and maps for cars be triangulated against crime databases? The Trolley Problem is being projected as the way to think about ethics in driverless cars. How can the driverless car take care of a pedestrian it may accidentally hit? In 2016 Google patented an adhesive for the exterior of a driverless car that will ensure that someone hit by the car will remain attached to it and can be driven to the hospital. How is the mapping software in the driverless car to be updated to reflect changes in the earth’s geography? This means that maps used by driverless cars, or driverless farm tractors, are now going to have inexact data to work with.

DISAPPEARANCE
This script goes through the input text word by word. Every duplicate word and its subsequent occurrence is removed, until the desired reduction is reached.

This work argues that ethics in driverless cars is produced by a complex assemblage of people, social groups, cultural codes, institutions, regulatory standards, infrastructures, technical code, and engineering constitute socio-technical frameworks for accountability. research challenges the notion an output programming, or set rules resulting appropriate action. As Mike Ananny says, “technology emerges from mix institutionalized professional cultures, technological capabilities, practices, individual decision making. Indeed, ethical inquiry any domain not test to be passed culture interrogated but achievement.” (emphasis original 2016 p 96). does intend arrive at principles guidelines AI, generate critical knowledge about how may ‘produced’.

Inspired method scenario-planning, this text presents seven scenarios could help think through what involved minimisation management errors. The ‘scenario’ phenomenon became prominent during Korean War, following decades Cold allow US army plan its strategy event nuclear disaster. Paul Galison describes as “literature future war” “located somewhere between story outline ever more sophisticated role-playing war games”, “a staple new futurism” (2014). Since then scenario-planning has been adopted range organisations, features modelling risk identify For example, Boston Group written scenario which feminist epistemologists, historians philosophers science running amok might present various threats dangers (p 43). More recently. MIT’s Moral Machine project adopts Trolley Problem template gathering users’ responses car thought have programmed respond potential accidents.
In working these scenarios, reader asked consider it possible constituted produced, production can studied, emphasis on result changes space human relations are constituted.How road network city re-designed ensure doesn’t accidents? Florian Cramer suggests “all highways redesigned rebuilt such way make them failure-proof computer vision autopilots with “road signs QR codes OCR-readable characters..straight[ening] motorways perfectly linear.” He notes cities were after World War II friendly. How will insured against attacks external damage poorer high-crime neighbourhoods, should re-routed into those areas? Seda Gürses asks if way-finding mapping databases reflect racial biases gone their construction. exampele, would finding maps triangulated crime databases? Write down specifications insurance package insure possibility algorithm software choose her designated victim accident order save pregnant woman cute puppy dog? classic experiment resolve un-resolveable: people saved, most valuable saved case accident? being projected cars. drivers driving badly sticking speed limit? Google’s limit lane rear-ended who according rules. Work Emi, 12, go movie friends mother’s Tesla Semi Autonomous car? take care pedestrian accidentally hit? Google patented adhesive exterior someone hit remain attached driven hospital. updated earth’s geography? Australia located tectonic plates moving centimetres north every year; so, whole country move five feet year. means used cars, farm tractors, now going inexact data with.

Things at 3am, like Rohith Vemula

A name from an email, a name that I recognise as distinctly East African, Kenyan to be exact, buzzes in your head. It goes round and round because it is unusual and melodic. The name belongs to someone who attended a talk I gave at an event some years before. I gave her my email ID and said ‘write to me if you have any questions, or if you want to talk more, I’m great on email and terrible on Facebook’. However, she has only ever reached out to me to accept her LinkedIn request. [I have an inbox filter set to identify the word LinkedIN in a subject line and push them to the trash folder.] It occurs to me that the two most plaintive cries of our times are: “you’re breaking up!” and “Teresa Wambui sent you a Linked In Request.” I imagine a long line of LinkedIN requests waiting patiently to be accepted, long-suffering and hopeful like not attractive people on a dating site. I ignore all of those requests, because they aren’t really requests; they are intrusions generated en masse by someone else not reading the fine print, or for that matter, what’s on the box itself. I curse her and everyone who doesn’t know what the default means, that there is default setting on things. Perhaps even on the world as you encounter it. Like the world that seemed too much for Rohith Vemula to struggle on with any further. The stardust of his dreams catch in your throat and you think about every single way that caste privilege and power is casually and not-casually implicated in your ideas of the world, your self.

My mother, after being called North-Indian-Lower-Caste by the maamis in madsaars to the point where her name was changed on her own wedding invitation card to sound more South Indian and Brahmin, has become a naturalised Tam Brahm. I can hear it in her English and Tamil. For years she was judged and teased for not being able to produce the perfectly set curd or sambar. Personally I applaud her for this, though I know it has been the source of much self doubt for her. Of course every last tyrannical Brahminical madsaar-wearing Maami wanted her to be their doctor, and she gently and respectfully helped them reach the end.

There’s the way the Brahminical self is asserted, usually jokingly, about our gradual lapse into modernity. From eating beef in restaurants, to bringing cooked beef into the house, and the granddaughter of the no-beef-in-my-house grandmother producing the finest erchi oliyathatu ever. From rank alcoholism and domestic violence to genteel wine tasting tours of Napa. Marrying lower castes, Christians. No Muslims yet, but who knows. Some never marrying at all.

Then there are the smart “Paapan” genes, shorthand for a combination of privilege, access, pressure and expectation to become doctors and/or engineers who will eventually live The Good Life in America, far away from the heat and dust of Chennai, visiting only to look in on old parents and expose American-born children to their roots. It’s a little perverse, like spitting on your grandmother’s diamond earrings, to choose something else, something outlandish like Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Activism.

Do young people have to die in India to make a point? First there was Jyoti Pandey and now Rohith Vemula. It seems that they do. The work of politics however is harder and more personal, and it’s something that I think you do in private, in the small gestures that no one sees. It is in questioning origin stories, speech, in what you’ve come to believe in as personal choices as really being about giving in to conditioning and pressure. The work on the self doesn’t stop if you want to live a considered, sensitive life.

Character assassination I, II, III

Character Assassination

n
the act of deliberately attempting to destroy a person’s reputation by defamatory remarks

I
I could write about the auburn-haired woman who I sit across from at work, the one with the tics and the lazy eye. She is an only child with that peculiar sense of phantom wholeness only children have. People think she is a bureaucrat, and it may be that I am the only one who can sense the evil lurking in her. She doesn’t take risks, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the world needs people who can look at things rationally and calmly for a long time before acting. She is someone out of a book written by Lionel Shriver about a family full of broken people. She would be the dark horse – or the roan maybe – quietly spinning lies and deceit in the corner and all the while seeming to be the most gentle. What is it like to get into the head of a character that you dislike and yet feel empathy for? I think I would write this character falling in love with a boy much below her class – these things are very important to the English, did I mention she was English – and did madcap things with him, like walk naked down the high street and almost get arrested for it.

II

I could write the heartbreaking story of my best friend who fell apart from anger following the tragic death of her roommate from breast cancer. The roommate was one of those unlucky young women – 31 when she was diagnosed – who unknowingly harboured a lump like a dark grudge. She was diagnosed and dead within six months. It was six months of my friend visiting her in the hospital, accompanying her to chemotherapy, comforting the boyfriend and the girl’s family. My friend couldn’t bring herself to attend the funeral or the memorial. She was so wrapped up in her own grief, it seemed at the time, that she couldn’t reach out to the roommate’s husband (the boyfriend married her while she was dying in hospital), sister or family. She mourned for weeks and the decision to stay in their shared apartment took an additional toll on her. Months later, when I couldn’t keep quiet about it any longer,I asked her what she needed to do to get over it and move on from the roommate’s death. A lot of Old Monk later, sprawled across the divan staring at the ceiling fan, a tear rolled out of the corner of her eye and she said that she fucking hated them all, her dead roommate’s family that is. They didn’t really thank her enough for all that she did and she has never forgiven them for it. She was furious that she had been “passed over” without enough praise and thanks. She felt used. She wasn’t going to get over it until they thanked her properly for everything she had done.

III
There is the woman with the watery grey eyes and a gaze so steady that I believe it gives her the power of endurance, as if she could stand in a light blizzard in her mustard yellow coat and not move for hours. She arrives at her studio-office every morning, which is on the ground floor of my apartment building. She is an illustrator for school text books. Every morning she has müsli and a cafe latte at the Swiss bakery and then goes to her studio after checking for mail, sometimes pausing to look at the junk mail. She makes herself a second cup of coffee, usually black because the milk has gone bad. She sniffs at the milk every morning. She is at her desk by five minutes to 9 o’clock. She spends a few minutes rearranging her papers, checking on her pencils, scanner, computer. She then gets down to work and does not move for three hours. She refills her coffee cup in a sort of daze and then returns to her desk. She is fixed, but fluid, for those three hours, sitting in one place but appearing to be very far away somewhere inside herself, or her work. At twelve o’clock she goes for a walk, and to eat lunch if she hasn’t brought a sandwich with her. She comes back looking alert, bright-eyed, and flushed as if she has been exerting herself by walking up a hill; the approach to our building is flat however. Her afternoon routine is in complete contrast to her morning one in that there is no routine. It’s difficult to know how she will spend her afternoons. Some days she just reads, other days she types furiously at her computers, and some days she browses through what must be clickbait – there’s a sort of glazed look in her eyes as her index finger clicks through at a regular beat. The days she reads she revisits some of the morning’s deep torpor, unmoving, lost in what she is doing. And then there are those days when she lies on the chaise lounge and cries. This is preceded by a lazy pacing of the studio, staring at the floor and then collapsing into the chair with deep sobs that seem to come from very deep within and wrack her narrow frame. She seems to be able to cry for hours on end, sustaining herself through a particular rhythm. Each long, slow wave of tears building up to a crescendo as if the memories or feelings come faster and harder like contractions, they take hold of her and she seems to be as if possessed for she can seem to go on crying for a while at a loud, fevered pace. Then it ebbs and you can see her gasping for breath, realising her own tiredness, eventually stopping with a series of whimpers and falling back till the next fresh wave crashes over her. Hours later, exhausted, she falls into a deep sleep. She leaves the studio every evening at five o’clock.

Soft, soft droning

There is a sound in this city, a soft, constant tattoo of hundreds of thousands of fingertips on keyboards. Ragged bitten grimy short Vietnamese precision manicured false brittle not enough calcium in the diet not enough vitamin D pitted nicotine marked. A global army beating its retreat from some unbearable now. Also, wires, fans, battery heat, dead metal hums that are no language just pure industrial noise and perfect background score for falling in between the cracks. Your etsy-ing, your artisanal gins and lake swimming are cute, but I think the logic of despair entails a long moment of flailing in full view on a super fast connection.

 

Verdict by Tenzin Dickyi

Poem #3 in my selection for Berlin liest, this one representing Tibet.

Verdict by Tenzin Dickyi

Ladies and gentlemen,
These trace fossils belong to
our dearly departed Tyrannosaurus Rex.
I say this with surety because his foot prints lead to his open coffin.
These Oviraptors, maligned raiders of Protoceratopsian nests,
are cleared on all counts of assault, battery and theft,
when their legal counsel proves beyond a shadow of a doubt
that they were guarding the nests,
not raiding them. The legal counsel,
in the style of Solomon or Sakyamuni and other wise men,
cracks open the disputed eggs in court.
Out come – not baby Protoceratops – but baby Oviraptors!

These Pterosaurs are not killing fish,
they are cleaning teeth and
learning to swim.

I paste my judgment along my palette.
How my paleontology works for me.

If I take these bones home
and make them a nice bone bed and
water them at regular intervals and take them out in the sun and
encourage them, love them perhaps, they will grow
flesh and thin skin which will thicken into scales
hard enough to leave scale impressions on cliffsides when
they squeeze their way through a narrow mountain pass.
But who wants dinosaurs in their homes?

There are only two ways of looking at the truth.
When the truth is buried, taken out and
boxed up and buried in rock and
no one attends its burial
but says, “how sad, how sad” and “what a world” and the truth is now a fossil,
a fossil of a point of view but a disreputable fossil,
which is to say, a fossil unable to withstand
its burial, the cerement slowly wearing
out of being and with it the fossil
until it is all gone,
then we must employ the third way of looking
at the truth which is to look at the sediment infill in the rock,
which keeps the shape of truth as nicely as
a bookmark keeps its place in a book.

The dinosaur takes the alternative to extinction.
He cuts a deal, keeps his clavicle, forsakes divine right, and agrees to electronic
surveillance.
The meteorite has a name and a makeshift home, a cradle rounded
like the smooth grave inner face of silvered spoons.
Perhaps it meant no harm.
Perhaps.

From Big Bridge

Kyu-Wait

 

We’re going to Kyu-Wait, Kyu-Wait, Kyu-Wait, we’re going to Kyu-Waaiittt my mother would sing-chant in the days before we would travel to see my father. My mother is a champion of cute little portmanteaux of sounds and words, of cut-up techniques applied to parts of speech, word sounds and pronunciation. Kyu-wait, q8, Coo-Ate were signs of our excitement at seeing him again, and about what the city-state symbolised. We were just on the brink of escaping respectable, middle-class poverty thanks to my  father “raking in the moolah” – my mother would permit herself these vulgarities only in the context of Kyu-Wait.

My parents are doctors, my father is a Urologist and transplant surgeon; he was invited to help rebuild the practice at the Urology department in one of Kuwait’s big teaching hospitals. Dr. George Someone was the much-respected Iraqi head of department who had to flee when Saddam invaded. There was something conveniently honourable in what my father was doing – helping rebuild the hospital’s practice and simultaneously earning tax-free, beautiful money, which in the early 1990s was 100 Rupees to the Dinar. You could get a little giddy doing the conversion. This t-shirt costs as much as a buffet breakfast at the Taj in Nungambakkam. This loaf of machine-made sliced bread would buy us 10 bakery-made loaves in India. These 100 Dinars are going to buy us a holiday.

The first association with the Gulf was money, of course. Sitting on billions of barrels of oil, and with fields burning in the desert, oil and what it means shape every point of reference. Many Indians, epecially South Indians, will pronounce it ‘gelf’, mocking the Kerala accent. The Gelf was full of people from Kerala, so much so you couldn’t get a plumber or carpenter anymore in Kerala, or so they said.

I was almost 16 years old in January 1991 on the eve of Desert Storm, the son et lumiere show over Baghdad. ‘Scud’ and ‘Cruise’ made it feel like we were watching Top Gun in real life; though secretly, late at night in bed, my fertile imagination would make plans to survive World War 3. (Someone at school said that their father said it was going to be World War 3). My grandfather’s stories of the Second World War in South and  South East Asia made me dread the idea of conflict. Watching the TV coverage, I had no idea that a war in the sense of the World Wars wasn’t actually happening. Years later when  I read The Gulf War Did Not Take Place I felt robbed, somehow, of that mixture of dread and excitement.

1991 was marked by a vivid, grisly memory of a young man called Rajeev Goswami who set himself on fire to protest the Mandal Commission’s recommendation of affirmative action in favour of Dalits and ‘lower’ caste people applying for government jobs.  Cities erupted in violence; ‘forward caste’ youth felt that the Mandal initiatives would close down opportunities for them. There is no fear more justifiable -or powerful – than that of a parent for their child’s well-being.  The Mandal violence surfaced the prejudices of many adults around me who were concerned that there simply wouldn’t be enough seats in universities for their children. I somehow could not appreciate this idea or the fear underlying it: perhaps it is a sign of privilege to believe that you’ll always get by. Life in middle class India can be exhausting in the anxiety that nothing will ever be enough, things will run out, there won’t be enough to go around, you’ll get to the end of the queue and then the office will close for lunch. What Mandal actually made apparent was that for progress to happen, inequality just needs to be more equally distributed.

December 1992 was when the  the Babri Masjid demolition occurred, and the following March, the Bombay Blasts. Indian’s economy had just ‘opened up’ around that time; this was most palpable in how television broadcast content exploded; from three channels we got five, then seven, 15, and then everyone stopped counting. Well-meaning adults advised me to do get an MBA – a new economy needed people who could manage it.  Amidst all the opening up and liberation, there were dark currents that you couldn’t see but only sense.

As part of the terms of my father’s employment in Kyu-Wait, the university would either cover our education in Kuwait, or fly us to visit him three times a year. My mother, sister and I stayed behind in India, it was just an awkward time to move -my sister was in the 8th grade and I had just joined college in Madras. In any case, who went to Kuwait to go to school anyway? As much as we could all appreciate Gelf money, we held fast to our snobbery: the Gelf, was, eventually, a place for money, not culture or education. You went there to meet practical needs, and the things you just could not do in India in the 1970s and 80s – make money legitimately.

My first glimpse of Kyu-Wait was actually at a boarding gate in Bombay’s international airport. I was shocked at the diversity and quantity of Indian expatriate labour in the Gulf. All Indians are familiar with domestic labour but the idea of importing this hadn’t crossed my mind. In 1993-94, traveling to the Gulf out fragile and shaken Bombay was fraught. Security was high, everyone was tightlipped and holding something in; coming back was even more fraught. I’ve had that particular passport squinted at by immigration officers in South East Asia, Europe and North America wanting to know why I had so many visa stamps in Arabic. Eventually we’re all the same when it comes to the dark-blue passport, all subjected to the same pre-boarding checks, the HIV tests.

The Gulf was where people went to buy things, and I think they still do. My generation and class of Indians has a perverse, contradictory craving for material things, and simultaneously mistrusts the desire for these things. So there’s a reason why malls paralyse and annoy me. Malls are an especially broken metaphor for progress and development. You cannot not see the South Asian labourers working outside them, or on them. Strangely, though, you couldn’t actually tell that the workers on the sides of the roads were South Asian, or even human – they could be robots under there –  because they would be completely covered to protect themselves from the sun. But robots don’t shuffle or get tired, or stop and stare at the cars whizzing by. The workers on the sides of the roads wore orange jumpsuits (this was a good decade before Guantanamo started receiving illegally detained Arab men), their faces were wrapped in  keffiyehs, only the eyes visible. My mother would point them out and get agitated (I get this from her). See, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, see our people having to do this, be treated like this. Why can’t we take better care of our people? How hard they have to work, how are they being treated in this country, who looks out for them, do they have unions, where do their families live? There were no answers, only just the nameless relief that we were inside looking out. Looking out of the back of the car after we’d pass them, it would seem like they would evaporate into the mirage, as if they had never been there.

My father lived on the 15th floor of a building overlooking absolutely nothing. He lived in university accommodation in Shuwaikh, which at that time was a bleak edge beyond which was only the port and the sea. Further away from downtown, Shuwaikh were not so scrubbed clean of the memories of the invasion. In front of one of the other residential buildings was an ochre sofa with big cushions; one side had been ripped out, and the other had a little sculpture of hardened human shit. The Iraqi soldiers did all kinds of mad stuff here, my father would say. There was a lot more of this when he arrived, he told us. He would be walking down the street to the local store and come across a kitchen sieve or a toilet seat; driving down the road you’d see clothes and shoes and personal belongings blown to the side and wrapped around the roadside brush. My father talked of sightings of abandoned Lexus and Mercedes cars, an infamous tanks, shell casings alongside the roads. We just ran, we left everything, we tried to take things, we had to leave things.

The university’s residential campus, like the rest of the city, felt empty, anorexic, a little numb; it felt like there was some vital ingredient missing. There were, however, huge, Olympic sized swimming pools, tennis courts, gyms, malls, luxury cars. There is a low-point in every summer holiday when you wish you could either go back to school, or have your friends magically appear and share in your holiday. Kuwait was an incredibly boring place for a 18 year old with no car and no friends to hang out with.

Meeting other Indian families was the primary source of social interaction. One of the main reasons for this was to get access to alcohol. Alcohol was not legally sold in Kuwait but there were obviously huge black and grey markets in it. Being new in town, my father had no way of procuring branded alcohol so he depended on the generosity of friends and expat colleagues who had ‘connections’. At dinner parties with other Indian families, the de rigeur first order of conversation was about who had the best Scotch and where they got it from; it was like an aperitif before the Scotch itself; it was as predictable as the conversations about the peculiarities of living in post-invasion, newly liberted Kuwait itself.

Not so far from Makkah though we were, to us Indians in Kuwait, Dubai was the real one. Things, we heard, were slick, foreign,there were things to do in Dubai. Gangsters lived in Dubai; the schools were better there; you could go on desert safaris in Dubai, there were bars in Dubai. Dubai was fun. Dubai was a fantastical elsewhere, Kyu-Wait was the drudgery of here.

*

I recently read Manan Ahmed’s personal memoir of not-Dubai and it set me thinking about my experience of having a father working in that part of the world.

 

Hot Flash

A dwarf called Warren runs the Internet of Things facility and I am in love with him. You can never really rationally explain why you love someone, you just do. Warren is in trouble with his refrigerator.  The refrigerator started messaging HOMELYNX about how the cucumber supply was going down faster than usual. For one thing, there shouldn’t even be cucumbers in the refrigerator, and while the most recent supply could be rationalised by the tubs of hummus, labneh and borani – guests – it was still going down very fast. Had anything else reported something irregular about the cucumbers?  It turns out that the waste disposal unit could verify that cucumber peels had been identified and the toilet could detect traces of it; so we know they hadn’t been thrown out of the window at an unsuspecting passerby. That would have been funny, actually, especially if there was such a thing as a window or a passerby around here. No, all you have here is the hum and rinse of electricity through your hair.

The thing is, Warren doesn’t even eat cucumbers, they were left over from the crudite plate at the farewell party for the Chief. Not wanting to waste them, and knowing I love cucumbers, Warren just put the extras in the fridge. Some things are perfectly rational and explain-able but the problem with rationality is that everyone has their own version of it.

Warren maintains a section of the main server farm, MEM046Z where the Internet of Things is made, and he isn’t supposed to fall in love. He certainly isn’t supposed to fall in love with someone he met online who can only stand to eat cucumbers and yoghurt all summer and thinks she is a Timurid’s Wife. The Internet of Things is a high security facility and no one is allowed to enter except authorised personnel and certainly not any Central Asian types – real or imaginary.

The irony doesn’t escape us that it all started with the very same tattling refrigerator having a Twitter exchange with @thetimuridswife. I also love melons and ice-cream and the refrigerator was telling me about the history of ice-cream making, and kulfis in particular, long before modern refrigeration.  (Kulfi has been appropriated by the Indians but it actually came from Central Asia.) If you pulled up the logs you’d see Twitter exchanges about flavours and their pairings, tweets that made sense to no one else but the two of us. It started with the refrigerator tweeting ‘beetroots & mustard’. Then, I tweeted

@thetimuridswife parmesan and chocolate

hesitantly, and waited to see what would happen. And then it came:

@coolhuntings23 blue cheese and pear

@thetimuridswife chocolate and onions

@coolhuntings23 green beans and oranges

There are no secrets with a dwarf. The dwarf had hacked into the refrigerator’s Twitter ID and was tweeting as it, without the refrigerator realising it had been compromised. It had always been him, and me;  the refrigerator was just a.. Trojan horse.

Over a series of Twitter exchanges I told Warren all about my travels and reincarnation. I am a Timurid’s wife and the fleshy concubine to a Sassanid warlord in ancient Samarqand, “a city so steeped in poetry that even medical doctors wrote their treatises in verse.” As a result I am something of a secret agent with very high levels of security clearance. Uzbek, in those days, far outstripped Persian as a language. Persian had one word for crying; Uzbek had over a hundred. Crying like a baby hiccuping, crying as if you have lost your keys, crying as if your parents have died, crying over beautiful poetry, crying for the way you used to love someone and don’t anymore. Samarqand was so far advanced in the sciences, art, architecture, medicine, astronomy, poetics… . Warren thinks that sometimes I’m doing other people’s share of make believe as well.

He lied about there being another person in the house eating cucumbers. He said he had changed his diet but it turns out the feeds from the heat sensors revealed a second person in the house. Once they all started pooling all their data and looking at everything that wasn’t Warren, they found me.  I couldn’t help it, I’m menopausal, and all that seems to keep me cool is a diet of cucumbers and yoghurt. (Dill and garlic in the mix never hurt)

It wasn’t easy to hide from a house; it’s like being 12 again and all the girls are whispering about you behind your back and you absolutely know they are but can’t seem to get even the smallest piece of information from anyone about it or make them stop. It is like the time your best friend found and read your secret diary.

Warren said we should just continue as normal – quietly, he going about his work and me reading, studying and writing. In the evenings we would eat and cheat at cards and giggle over other people’s data streams. It was only a matter of time before they came for us. Till then he told me to play with his hair and tell him about the siege on Samarqand.