Posted in Personal Stories

The Family Tree Project


It was a quiet morning in the spring of 2020. Yes, the year that we would all remember as the black swan of the twentieth century. A novel virus which was initially discovered in late 2019 in China had spread itself across the world, and we were in the middle of the most massive quarantine around the world. What it meant was that our small family of three was stuck indoors in our rented Bay Area house – as we , along with the entire world navigated on how to weather this unprecedented healthcare crisis.

The County where we lived had declared a shelter in place for all its residents, which meant that all non essential businesses were ordered to close, and residents were advised to go out only for essential chores like groceries or any emergencies. The ordinance had been in place for almost 2 months now and we had invisibly adapted to this mode of life. Weekdays and weekends blended into a flatline, and we started coming up with inventive ways to occupy our time.

And this was the start of our Family Tree Project.  

Reminded of a first grade school assignment from long ago, we started working on this project of building my daughter’s family tree – picking up the abandoned pieces and data points from where we had last left off. Fueled by reignited curiosity and with ample time to kill, we began tracing out the leaves that chalk my daughter’s bloodline. We commenced with my family, tracing up to my ancestors ,  including my grandparents and then their parents. After a point, I could not recollect the names, so we called up my father to get them. He jogged his memory and gave me some, but soon after memory also gave up.  He did not know the name of ancestors on his father’s side – including his father’s mother. She had died many years ago and no one had ever asked him her name his entire lifetime ! 

The story on my husband’s side was harder  to fill up – we joked as he struggled to remember the formal names of some of his uncles and aunts ( yes, we Indians affectionately use pet names like Chintoo Mama or Chikoo Chacha all our lives ) . So then again we had to call my father in law, and he made a few more calls to fill the rest of the picture. Slowly the nodes started lighting up with long lost names, and for the first time in my life, I could see an emerging vignette of the many people who constituted my extended family. Indian families are indeed large ones, so after a certain point we had more than a hundred names on the page, still missing many more – which would need a more sophisticated method to catalogue and fill up.  

It was this exercise of writing down the names of my ancestors that led to two consequences.

One is the realization of our own mortality in the backdrop of the raging pandemic around the world. The other one is the cognizance of how little I knew of my ancestors. For one, there were many I didn’t even know the names of , and others whose lives could not be summarized by me in more than a paragraph.

Yet these were real people who lived their whole lives with such rich experiences ,  gave birth to and bred wonderful children and with some combination of their DNA which fuels my existence. Many components of the way I think , how my body reacts to its environment, the processes that  keep it alive have been learnt from this heritage passed on through Genetics. 

It also made me realize that sometimes we are so much focused on the future that we fail to look back and make sense of our past.

Our Family Tree Project – undertaken without much forethought at the start left me with some quiet yet deep wisdom. Your history and past is written down indestructibly in time but it is a story that you will always have.   It is something to own. And it is a story worth knowing more about!

Photo by Fallon Michael on Unsplash

Posted in All things Data, Personal Stories

What Humans can Learn from Machines


In my job, I work closely with all things Data. And the magical words you’d hear most likely after that is Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. We work with clients to help them use Machine Learning – gleaning insights from their data to gain a sustainable advantage in their business.

In other words, we help them discover what they do not know yet with the Data they already have. And that’s made possible with programming and building algorithms that can learn from the past to predict the future.  

The concept of teaching algorithms to learn from the past and replicating the future is a powerful one – and a lot of it has roots in observation of human behavior.

Look back at the history of how the various branches of Machine learning and AI evolved. Most of the thinking that contributed to this discipline was around making machines intelligent by mimicking inner workings of a human brain. Dig a little deeper and you would find branches like Neural networks & Reinforcement learning – entire paradigms of Machine learning inspired off human thinking processes.

After having worked in this industry quite a bit, and getting familiar with the inner workings of these algorithms, an insight that struck me was how much of the reverse is true.

Of course, many types of Algorithms have been taught to learn based on how Humans think and learn. However, there is a also lot that we Humans can learn from how algorithms get trained , tested and then and perform in the Real World.

Here are some examples:

You learn from what you Observe: Any machine learning algorithm you develop has this computationally intensive phase called the learning phase. You train the algorithm with a certain set of inputs and outputs – the machine picks up the patterns in the data to build a model of the world. Now, when you give it a new set of data to make a prediction – it generates an output based on the representation of the world that it has built.  Isn’t this how real life works?  Oftentimes we lament on our lack of ability to respond favorably to unexpected scenarios.  The reality is – you always learn from what you observe.

Generalizations from scant Data leads to Overfitting – Developing your life’s principles from scant data gives you an inaccurate representation of reality.  When models learn from too little data, then they fall into the peril of Overfitting. What that means is – they perform very well in test scenarios i.e. the environment where they have learnt, but fail miserably in the real world. In real life too, when you develop very strong viewpoints based on little data – it is quite certain that you might be wrong.  One observation of that in the workplace is how every person’s world view gets skewed by what they have seen in their previous roles and organizations – with learnings that might not be completely transferable. Hence, if you have a limited perspective and a new world before you – anticipate that you might be wrong. Look for new data that challenges your established beliefs, and that would help you be aware of the biases you have.

Exposing yourself to new Data enriches you to the next level: When a model does not give us good results – there are usually two ways of improving the accuracy. Either you feed the model new data – which is called ‘feature engineering’, or try a new way of looking at the data which is ‘Algorithm selection’.  Considering that you’ve done your homework right in the first place, in my experience – ‘Feature engineering’ (almost) always trumps ‘Algorithm selection’. The more relevant data you expose an algorithm to, the better it learns.  And the reason that happens is that more and varied data helps the algorithm develop an understanding of a wide variety of scenarios. In real life, the advice you hear is – get out of your comfort zone.  So, while the advice is to go ahead and do something that challenges you, what we are really saying is that expose yourself to a situation that you have not dealt with before.  More data helps you develop a worldview that is diverse and captures the intricacies that enable superior decision making. 

You need many models to map the complexity of the world: With one viewpoint, your understanding of reality is most likely biased. So, don’t depend too much on the opinions of those who are very similar to you. Research, ask questions – seek out diverse viewpoints. Pursue varied opinions because you achieve wisdom through a multiplicity of lenses. Otherwise, if all you know to use is a hammer – everything seems to look like a nail. Taking the parallel from machine learning, we observe that various models perform differently in different data dimensions, and a combination of models usually gives us superior results. So, the learning here is that if you want get a more accurate understanding of reality – think of multiple approaches for solving a problem. “Get a toolbox, not a hammer.”

The world is not Binary: One of my key instincts after years of management experience was to obsessively simplify messaging – get to the heart of the problem and find simple solutions. What I have realized over time is – the world is complex, and working with data and algorithms has helped me appreciate and embrace that complexity. For example, when we build machine learning models – say propensity to upgrade a product, there is usually no single data point that is overwhelmingly predictive of the outcome, but a combination of scores of signals or features that can accurately predict how a customer would behave. Similarly, machine learning also reveals that there can be hundreds of micro-segments in your data – customers with their own unique needs, wants and aspirations, which can be addressed uniquely. The world is not binary, even though we have strong instincts to view it so — ‘We are losing our jobs because immigrants are coming in and taking them’, ‘Equal pay for equal work will solve all women’s problems’. Binary answers are usually not accurate – and can sometimes be downright dangerous.

“Beware of simple ideas and simple solutions. History is full of visionaries who used simple utopian visions to justify terrible actions. Welcome complexity. Combine ideas. Compromise.”

In summary – as researchers and practitioners, we have built AI and Machine Learning systems by replicating the learning processes of human neurons and building patterns in the data that is fed to them. Unknowingly, we might have created a mirror image of real Life in these self-learning systems.  

One which powerful, dynamic and feeds not just from Human learnings, but also informs Humans on how to Learn!

Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

Posted in Personal Stories

Five Hacks to help you Read More


When life happens, there are a million distractions coming your way. Notifications on the phone, work goals, your child’s homework, that super critical mail which came in at the last minute when you were leaving office. There is always something urgent that is screaming for your attention.. And as expectations on how soon you should respond to messages and emails grow tremendously, there is this time crunch squeezing our lives into tinier and tinier moments. One of the side effects of that has been the inability to see the bigger picture,  relish a quiet moment, or even read long books. There was a time when I couldn’t break away from “the arc of unbroken concentration” which a good book could bring.

Today,  I feel perpetually lost in this trough of shallowness.

So how do you break out of this ? How do you dim this digital hum and  develop “the willpower to focus on a sustained argument”.

Here are some of hacks to read more:

Make goals: Goals help us stay consistent, and give a constant nudge to move on to the next step. So go ahead and make goals.Long term ones in terms of books per year, or even short ones like minutes read per day. Even if you have only 30 minutes you can spare in a day – every second of it is worth being spent on reading!

Borrow rather than Buy: Counterintuitive as it may seem, abundance is one of the biggest killers of motivation. “Ah, I bought this book and it is right there on my shelf. Why spend my time trying to focus and read it when I binge watch mindlessly on Netflix?”.  As our attention spans dwindle, it is easy to discard book-worthy moments for easier options.  There is a sense of scarcity that exists with borrowed books, a deadline by which they will expire and go away.  And that can help you read more.

Begin reading new books on a Thursday or Friday: This hack words for me, because if you have a busy week , then starting to read something while you are easing into a weekend is a good way to stay motivated and focused. Weekends are great for long reading stretches, if you have the willingness to be alone.  

Disconnect from technology: When reading a book on my mobile or tablet, every tiny notification costs you minutes of lost focus. So go for low tech – the most basic Kindle or hard copy book. Even on phones, Apple has this screen time feature that shuts off my phone at 10 pm every night, and those are the most peaceful moments of my day –  when I can pick up and read a book.

Share your insights and learnings: When you’ve read a book that you liked or enjoyed, talk about it to friends, your spouse, or even write down how you felt. Sharing what you’ve learnt will help you internalize it, and also motivate you towards finding the next book. 

Well.. Quite honestly, finding the next book always makes me anxious . When I’ve finished one, and am wondering which one is going to be my next – there is an expectant longing in air.

From this vast rich expanse, which one would I  choose ?

Curiously – “Some like to believe it’s the book that chooses the person.” !

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Posted in Personal Stories

Learnings on the Highway


The black car zoomed through the darkness, interspersed with the glare of many others moving in perfect symphony across the dark highway. And I am driving inside it within my own perfect bubble. The music blares on the car audio, with a personally curated Spotify list algorithmically doling out songs for my pleasure. I am acutely focused, my mind in sync with the vibes on the road. The gray asphalt silhouettes against a dark blue and orange horizon. Night has fallen long ago, with rebellious shards of light appearing  to replace a sun long gone. I gaze at the dashboard and the traffic ahead, unconsciously looking out for the impatient lane changers who zip across lanes as they find an opening, trying to achieve a hypothetical advantage over others.

The car noiselessly glides ahead like it has a life of its own, the needle on the speedometer at a constant seventy. The entire world shrinks down to a tiny pinpoint of light ahead of me. 

In the dark confines of this shared space , there is a strange kinship that develops with all the motorists going my way. It is almost like we are some randomly distributed molecules who have been drawn by a strong magnetic force to move together in alignment towards a common destination. 

And in that moment, there is an epiphany in my mind. In today’s fast moving world, we blame so many of our problems and stresses on speed and pace at which things need to move. This is something that impacts our family, our work and friendships.  The general advice we give ourselves is to slow down. 

What I learned today from the highway is: 

Moving fast is not a problem – misalignment is. 

The highway is a perfect example of harmony – where everyone is moving at incredibly high speeds but yet there is perfect order because there are rules of the game which are followed by all travelers on the road.. Pass from the left.. Make way for newcomers entering on the right.. Stay on the left lane if you want to go faster than the rest..These elementary rules can make what seems like an impossibly dangerous commute become so simple and seamless. 

So next time you are harried with too many things moving too fast in your life – think of the Highway Analogy. Align your priorities or take the Exit.

What would you do to make Life go smooth !?

Photo by Jonas Von Werne on Unsplash

 

 

Posted in Personal Stories

The Cross Walk


It was a bright new day in an unfamiliar country. Fresh off the boat – just a day into the United States, I stepped out with the toddler in tow for a walk around the neighborhood. There was a huge park right in front of our house, surrounded by roads and cars whizzing past. The sights and smells were new – as we were beginning to get accustomed to life in a new country. We didn’t know how long we are going to live here, nor realized what it will take us to blend into life in this habitat. All that we knew was that we are here… and let the adventure begin…

So coming back to the story –  I am taking the girl out for a walk. She is 14 months old and I am using a stroller to move her around. Both of us are soaking in the new world we are in – me being particularly overprotective and motherly about it. At that time I had moved to the country without a job – so both mother and daughter had plenty of time to kill during the day. It was lunchtime, and with the help of Google maps and some fuzzy toddler translation, we zoomed down on a local restaurant to have our lunch in.. The trek began and everything was hunky dory until we reached an obstacle that we have to cross to reach the other end – a road!

Now normally, you wouldn’t consider crossing a road a huge hurdle, right? You will say – Ah, just wait for the light to turn green, and you can cross. Yay!!.  I thought so too.. waited for the light to turn green and some pedestrian sign to show up – but it never did. The light did turn from red to green, but the cars continued to zip past.  I waited and waited.. then we got a bit uncomfortable. At this point, I am getting more and more worried – How on Earth do people cross the road in California ??

As all humans do in situations like this ( to not look foolish )  – we observe around us and try to copy what everyone else up to. And that generally helps you get to the answer to your question.  So I patiently prevail and bide my time…

The light turns green again. I see this lady in high heels hurry up and stand right next to me. The traffic is a bit slow… she furtively glances on both sides of the road and then quickly sprints across it when no car is in sight.   I’m half in a mind to follow her, my muscles tense for a split second..but I stop.  My instincts tell me that something is wrong –  That most certainly doesn’t seem to be the right way to cross the road in a civilized country! So I dig my heels to prevent myself from dashing behind her. The kid is fidgeting in the stroller — and I’m still hanging around.

A minute passes by and this dude comes along – casual jeans and hoodie, half whistling under the breath. He presses a button on the lamp post beside the street and disappears into his phone. I am observing him very carefully ( and pretending not to) – by the looks of it  – he definitely seems to be on to something. And lo and behold.. a blinking white man ( the pedestrian sign ) started flickering on the other side of the street. Today, it is a very familiar sight for me, but at that time it seemed like a sign from the heavens! A blinking pedestrian sign accompanied by an intermittent beep emanating from the lamp post across the street – and I know that we have been saved. Hallelujah… Now we can cross the road!

As I look back to this day – this was not a life-changing moment. It was a run of the mill experience – my first learning out of the innumerable discoveries to follow.

But it taught me a very significant lesson – To listen to and trust my Instincts. 

I mean – it is a marvelous thing – how the brain makes snap decisions – trustworthy/not trustworthy, good/not good, Safe/not safe… The instinct of recognizing dangers and steering yourselves into safety has been bored into our heads so immaculately over millions of years and is certainly something that the human mind can neither explain nor ignore!

 

Image credits: Unsplash.com

 

Posted in Personal Stories

The Non-Fiction Reader


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It is a few months since I have been stuck in this persona of a non-fiction reader.

And this turn of events surprises me because there was a time in my life when I thrived on fiction. I would read almost a book every day – and get consumed by the ebbs and flows of all the action in those pages. In my teens, it was the Nancy Drews and Agatha Christies. The twenties started with the intensity of Ayn Rand – followed by Booker prize nominees and winners – Aravind Adiga, Amitav Ghosh,  Emma Donoghue, you name it. The only non-fiction books that sneaked into my reading list were celebrity publications. One that I distinctly remember is Shashi Tharoor’s ‘The Argumentative Indian’ – that one was like a workout for my vocabulary!

And then later, as screenwriters ran out of creative ammunition and the trend of books screenwritten into movies took over – The Twilight Series, Vampire Diaries,  Game of Game of Thrones, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I had always read the stories cover to cover before anyone had even heard of them on TV or Netflix.  Boy, was I ahead of the game!

But then, one fine day – the rush stopped.

It is hard to pinpoint what caused this, but there was this long phase when I didn’t do much fiction reading and the switch flipped.  I think that with time – you are more aware of your factual ignorance, and a lot of non-fiction reading I began with was to bridge that gap. Some of them – like ‘Homo Sapiens’ helped me understand my own roots.

And slowly my bookshelf filled up with the Ray Dalio, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Tim O’ Reilly and Malcolm Gladwells of the world. In fact – the last book I was hooked on to was  ‘The Society of Mind’ by Marvin Minsky  ( a friend of mine was appalled when I had tugged it along to a coffee shop – Seriously, this seems like a dense reading assignment you’d punish someone with, how can you read it for pleasure?!! )

Well honestly  – it was not an easy read. And even though the language was simple, I had to read it over, again and again, to connect the dots and get the message right.  Still, with my current frame of mind, it was easier for me to absorb than a work of fiction. Nowadays,  I pick up fiction books to read but it’s hard to follow along with the emotional threads and vagaries of a story.  I get exhausted and give up.

Surprising, isn’t it?

My guess is that after a while of practice –  facts and logic get hammered into your brain, and you almost start predicting what a logical argument will look like. There are, after all only a few ways in which you can get the logic right.  And somehow I observed that there is a lesser cognitive load in reading non-fiction- because is almost an extension of what I do in my day job.

Or… Perhaps I am going through a phase – you may say.

Whatever that is,  I would hate to lose that appreciation of fiction, poetry and intense emotions that a string of words can bring.  That’s what attracted me to the lure of reading in the first place!.

Those stories that can take you through a rollercoaster of thrill, happiness, hope, dismay, and laughter have burned timeless memories in my brain.  So many solitary, but memorable moments spent with a book – alone at times perhaps, but never lonely.

Which brings me back to the current state of things.

The long weekend is here –  I am struggling with Zadie Smith’s ‘Swing Time’ .. nursing a cup of coffee.. and fervently hoping that my Fiction reading bug comes back!

 

 

Image credits: Unsplash.com

Posted in Fiction Experiments, Personal Stories

The Window Seat


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I am gearing up for a lonely three hours, bracing myself for the impact of this all too familiar feeling – a sinking sensation in the stomach, ears popping gently, a faint smell of invading gasoline and the gentle whirring of engines that morphs into an angry roar. Yes, my flight is about to take off. And as it is with all kinds of travel, an agonizing movement from point A to point B – I am hoping that this journey ends sooner than later!

Up.. up .. and away! We are in the air, and I can sense that tiny tilt as the wheels disengage from the runway. On journeys like this – tied to the claustrophobic confines of an ever-dwindling airplane economy seat, I always prefer the aisle. It gives you a decent (but mostly false) sense of space and control.  But today is one of those days when I haven’t been able to grab one despite futile attempts, furiously checking the American Airlines app hoping that an aisle seat opens up. So… a window it is!

Settling in – I peer out of the glass porthole that separates me from the cold, harsh yet spectacular expanse outside – and that sight almost takes my breath away.  It has been just around five minutes after takeoff, and all I can see is this mingled rush of blues, and a vast expanse of the horizon tearing the colors apart. Squinting my eyes, I try to decipher if the lighter blue is perhaps our atmosphere or the cold inhospitable outer space, trying to recollect the long-forgotten geography lessons of past. The darker shades of blue, with a garland of tiny Christmas lights, is a rapidly disappearing San Francisco Bay.  I imagine my family somewhere down there – having a quieter dinner tonight with a distant glow of the TV humming in the background. I sigh, then noticing a dozen boats circling the harbor like tiny glowworms attracted to the brilliant display of lights – each on a purposeful journey of its own.

I smile.

This thin layer of glass, delicately woven with tiny stitches along the seams and precariously placed thousands of miles up in the air takes my loneliness away for a brief moment. Ah, I hear myself saying – the Window seat is not so bad after all!