Author Archives: Rahul

 


Viewed though an Orion Skyscanner 100. Photographed on an iPhone SE. Captured using Camera+ in Macro mode. In the heart of light-flooded, haze-suffused Bombay.

This isn’t anywhere as sharp as what you can see directly through the telescope, extremely sharp features and edges, and brightly lit by the sun. Also, as with telescopes, the image is up-side-down, so the Tycho crater is in fact in the moon’s southern hemisphere.

Thoughts on Do Humans Have a Moral Duty to Stop Procreating?

This is the article in question. Equating the human species to pests that are, through overpopulation and overconsumption, a grave danger to their environment, the writer makes a moral case for humans to drastically reduce their own population, even make themselves extinct by ceasing to reproduce, or at least reflect on doing so, for the alternative is the destruction of not just the human species but also all life on earth.

Here is some thinking about this, including why any moral case is ultimately doomed. Originally an email to a friend:

If the problem definition is ensuring a sustainable, quality life for our species’ future generations, halting procreation temporarily is one of the many options humans have. Further down this response I’ll list a few others. There are, though, fundamental issues that will prevent us from exercising any of them meaningfully. 

I think human beings, even at their relatively advanced state of evolution, are incapable, when it comes to procreation, of rational thought, in depth, length and breadth. Let me explain.

Consider depth of thought. Assuming humans have perfect birth control, ie conceiving a baby is always a conscious choice, I would wager few if any consider whether they are themselves capable of bringing up a child. Have they figured out for themselves how to live without conflict with themselves, with others? Have they found the peace they wish their children to have? Have they understood how to live in harmony with others who are fundamentally self-interested, so that their child might too? If not, what upbringing do they provide their child beyond food, shelter, clothing? What concepts of self, of ownership, of rights, of obligations, of purpose do they instil? What response do they teach when these above are threatened? Do they teach at all or allow the child to learn on its own? If it’s a balance, where do they draw the line, for they – the parents – are themselves conditioned to protect the child and have expectations from it, imposing pretty onerous constraints on its development. But try having a rational, honest, respectful, deep discussion on this with the father (or mother) of one’ child, or its grandparents, and you’ll see how quickly you reach not just an impasse, but an actual repudiation of the necessity of considering any of these.

What of length? Of time? How far into the future do we think for ourselves, much less that plus one generation? Are we confident that the environment – in the broadest sense – that the child will live in in not five or ten years but thirty, forty years from now will be one in which he or she can thrive? What are we doing to maximize the odds before conception? And do we have any individual control over climate change, or pervasive pollution, or resource crunches (water primarily but also others)? Simply moving from say Bombay to one of the most liveable cities doesn’t solve for any of these in the long – even intermediate – term, but have we a plan to bring up our child in one of these places? 

Which brings us to the question of breadth. Our entire toolset of values and actions to ensure that our child thrives presupposes that others don’t have as effective a toolset. To complete the previous example, moving to say Copenhagen to bring up our child also carries an implicit expectation that the city won’t open its doors to all and sundry to move in. That there is a certain high bar of exclusion so that the baby, the child can grow up unsullied by the very environment you have worked so hard to escape. If the problem is one of sustainable quality of life for the species, this isn’t the right strategy, and we haven’t even gotten to morality yet. Preserving the bubble means your new homeland erects walls (hopefully ones of policy not concrete), and years later deals with the issue of underpopulation, where an increasingly small base of the young (grown-up baby now part of this!) supports the old. With calls for and incentives to have more children, couched in some form of appeal to nationality/identity but really just a call for more drones for the colony (Baby’s babies mere drones? Never. Let us look for another society to move to).

We are yet incapable of thinking as a species. We have only just (relatively speaking) reached a point where we consciously identify ourselves as such, distinct from other species. No pan-species organization (league of nations, UN), no pan-species policy (global free immigration, global free trade, global health care) has worked, or even has a shot at becoming anything more than a farce. The ideals we create and invoke – of mother/fatherland, of gods, are so abstract as to be meaningless, and are for our individual benefit, not our species’.

If we could think as a species, we’d be able to realistically consider several options for not just survival but much higher ideals. We know, have invented so many such options that could support much higher populations: vertical farms, renewable energy sources, cities two orders of magnitude larger than today, with fast, comfortable, ubiquitous public transport. Self-paced, universally distributed learning. Self-learning, self-replicating automation. And so on and on, in different spheres of human lives.

Yet we see each of these as threats, not opportunities. We artificially constrain the availability of learning so that a ‘degree’ from a particular institution has value derived primarily for its scarcity than its inherent content. We resist automation and preserve ‘jobs’. We resist renewable energy, resist moving to newly built cities (the Jing-jin-ji experiment in China or Manhattan, NYC?), we resist GM foods, resist public transport (freedom!). Many of us can see the end point (more honestly, some far-off point down an infinite path of progress as a species) that involves all of the above solutions, but we refuse to change to begin the move from this point to that, because we do not think of ourselves as a species. 

We are yet far too much a dramatically, fanatically individualistic animal for morals to have any meaning, much less any motivation. 

A walking circuit of Thane’s major lakes

Thane has gone by the monicker city of lakes for as long as I can remember.

Now I’ve been to the major ones dozens of times. But what would a circuit of the main lakes look and feel like?

Early one morning this week, we set out on a walk connecting seven major ones on the eastern side of the Eastern Express Highway (‘old’ Thane). Here’s what the route looked like:

Here’s a set of screenshots that show progress along the route (the blue dot is where we were; the time stamp is on the status bar at the top), the names of the lakes, and the overall distance:

In general the lakes are in far, far better shape than when I remember them in the nineties. Several of them, though, have yet to live up to their potential as clean, safe public spaces that are woefully scare in urban India. 

Now for some pictures:

Began at Kachrali Lake opposite the Thane Municipal Corporation building. This is easily the best maintained of the lakes, with a large walking track, lighting that works, benches, overhead seating areas, even a tiny boating fountain at the center. Dead trees are colored with amusing, imaginative artwork. I’ve seen this lake being dredged and expanded as a child, just as I’ve seen the TMC building being constructed (and have simply wandered in and played in the construction site, in what were much simpler times). Ironically, I’ve missed taking a picture. So, to the next one:


Masunda Lake, or ‘Talao Pali’, Thane’s flagship lake.

Jail Lake, near, well, Thane Jail.


Ambe Ghosale Lake – or Uthalsar Lake more colloquially, after the area of Thane it’s in. It’s home to a flock of geese by the lakeside.


Brahmala Lake. It’s ringed by a walking track and a garden that has, uniquely, public exercise equipment that’s well maintained and well made use of. Brahmala’s more a large pond than a lake, really, but it does well as an open air community center.


Makhmali Lake. This is a downright tragedy. It’s choked with pond scum and refuse. At this time it’s more a public health hazard than anything else. The photograph is rather charitable.


The last lake of the morning, Siddheshwar. Apparently it’s a miracle the lake even exists. Special interests had wanted to drain the lake and build atop it, stopped only by civic protests. Even today, the lake, while large, is infested with shanties alongside. At least there’s an excuse for a garden alongside.

BONUS: The same evening, we drove to two other major lakes on the other side of the Eastern Express Highway:


Here’s Raileshwar Lake. Large lake, clean water (relatively), but under-developed and under-maintained. Again, this photograph makes the area look better than it actually is.


Finally, the Upwan Lake (or, alternately, Pokhran Lake). This is the largest in the city if you include both side of the highway, and is rather well maintained. It’s the site of a cultural festival every year (Facebook page). 

The experience is a lot like the walk down Bombay’s wester coastline. Some lakes – Kachrali, Upwan, Jail lake, Bhramala – are beautiful, quiet, cool, airy, clean, and actively maintained. Some others have withstood indifferent maintenance to remain communal places – Masunda, Uthalsar, Raileshwar. The rest  – Makhmali, Siddheshwar – have been actively neglected, are in a state of disrepair and are a net negative to the population around. Thane’s lakes have the potential to be the open community areas that the city needs – the population’s risen substantially in the last decade as a spillover from Bombay – but they haven’t lived up to their potential.

Walking along Bombay’s western coast

This is something I’d been curious about:

Is there a continuous stretch of walkable coastline from Khar to the northern tip of the island of Bombay?

There was only one way to find out.

I began, on a whim, at some 9:50am on Tuesday and ended at about 2:20pm, without a break. Here’s a series of screenshots I took while on the way, with the blue dot marking progress and the time displayed on the status bar at the top:


The short answer is the stretch is mostly navigable along the beach on foot, although increasingly less so as you go northwards.

Though sunny, the weather was pleasant. As long as you’re on the beach there’s a constant breeze from the sea towards the island. This isn’t such a good thing on the stretches of beach strewn with trash.

There are large swathes of clean, quiet, flat beach that are an undiscovered joy to walk along. And equally large expanses of polluted, malodorous, garbage-littered beach. Trash that the sea brings back unfailingly, and that the local shanties toss out.

 Began from Khar Danda. This is one of the jetties north of Carter Road.


Another shot from the jetty, looking north.

From here, you walk across a perilously narrow concrete bridge over a trash filled nallah onto a trash filled stretch stretch of beach. Half a kilometer or so down, you’re at the southern tip of Juhu beach:


Further north:


At the northern end of Juhu beach, past the crowded Juhu Tara stretch. The beach is remarkably clean, with trash cans every hundred feet or so. Possibly the best part of the walk.

At some point, you hit a creek, narrow but long, just north of Juhu. You can see Versova beach right across. But there’s no bridge across it even though it’s only about three dozen feet wide at its narrowest.

So you backtrack, make your way through a shanty, through covered lanes barely wide enough for your shoulders, onto a road that leads eventually to Juhu circle. When you finally reach Versova beach after walking along the Versova link road, it’s 40 minutes and several extra kilometers.


On Versova beach.


Rock beach at Versova, looking south. Unfortunately, Rock Beach means that the southern stretch of Versova beach isn’t a contiguous stretch of sand. You’re mostly walking down Versova Road and dipping down to the beach and back as access allows.


The northern stretch of Versova beach. The faint land mass across is Madh, and you can see the outlines of buildings through the smog. This stretch is, unfortunately, strewn with trash, debris and poop. It’s a tragedy, really.


You can literally feel Madh now. This is when, having walked as far north as I could, I turned right & headed east along the coast.


The Versova jetty with local fishermen and their boats. The smell (stench?) of drying fish is overpowering. It’s clearly a bustling local industry, with ships, cottage cold storage and processing facilities and a trucking area. But it’s filthy, almost certainly unhygenic, and upkeep is ad-hoc and inadequate. This could be a larger, cleaner, happier and vastly more efficient enterprise with the right funds and management.


Finally, the ferry that takes you to Madh.
That’s all, folks. I then navigated my way to the closest road, and caught a rickshaw back to  the Bandra area where I began.
All in all, here’s the route (marked in purple) and other stats from my Fitbit:

It’s been a bittersweet experience. Bombay’s suburban coastline is quiet, over a dozen kilometers long, wide and predominantly sandy. But, it’s been long neglected, and therefore encroached upon and polluted along many stretches. There’s just so much potential here.

Ps: granted the northern tip of the island isn’t really Versova jetty; it’s the northern end of Uttan beach. So rounding the Madh and Uttan peninsulas is another journey.

Circumnavigating the island of Bombay by road

This is something I’d wanted to do for a while. Unlike most cities, that Bombay is an island means there are natural definitions of Boundary and Circumnavigation. 

On a whim, I set off today from near Bandra around 11:20 or so in the old Maruti Swift. Here’s the route I took: 

Start -> SV road -> Khar subway -> Western Express Highway -> Dahisar -> Kashimira -> Ahmedabad highway junction -> Ghodbunder -> Eastern Express Highway -> road to Deonar -> Eastern Freeway -> Regal Circle -> Gateway/Apollo Bunder -> Colaba Causeway -> Afghan Church -> detour to Bhabha Auditorium -> Mantralay -> Marine Drive -> Pedder Road -> Annie Besant Road -> Worli Sea Face -> Sea Link -> SV Road -> End
Here’s a set of screenshots that show the route and progress. The blue dot is my location at the time on the status bar at the top. 


Driving 114 km took 5 hours (well, actually 4. Spent 1 hour changing a flat tyre on Colaba Causeway; then getting it fixed at the next petrol pump). 

Many parts of the route were picturesque, smooth and quiet: The Dahisar – Ghodbunder stretch. The Eastern Freeway. The Navy Nagar complex. Marine Drive in the afternoon.

Others were a noisy, hostile, clogged mess: Khar Subway, parts of Ghodbunder road, parts of Causeway, Pedder Road. On these stretches, podcasts and music were a necessary distraction. 

Could have been far quicker if I’d planned it; started at, say 5am. All in all, nice time though. 

Robot Barista

Cafe X, by a Thiel Fellow. Robot operates multiple machines at once, takes customized orders via an iPad and makes a drink in 20 seconds.

Grinding, brewing and making your own coffee’s going to go the way of hand-written letters. A craft you pursue at home or with fellow enthusiasts for the joy of the process.

Outside of that, you’ll still pay a premium for the experience of a specialty coffee made by a highly skilled barista, in the same manner you’ll pay for a fine handmade leather bag. 

It looks like the inflection point for automation in everyday life is close. Self-driving cars. Delivery by drone. 3D printed items that previously required people operating tools to make. Automated fast food. Routine diagnosis & surgery by robots. Investment advisory & tax optimisation. All of these either exist commercially or will in the next couple years. 

(Via NexDraft)

Office of Citizen

Vanity Fair Magazine ran President Obama’s interview to the writer Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s more an easy conversation than an interview, on decision-making, the change in the political environment over the last half century, and presidents past. 

Some bits caught my interest in how they contrasted with Indian political norms: 

– The idea of the ‘office of citizen’ ingrained in American democracy, that fundamentally the president is a citizen who has assumed office for a period, as opposed to a different class of human being, as many countries tend to treat their senior politicians. This is more significant when you consider that the American president is the head of state and the commander of the armed forces, not the seniormost administrator like a prime minister. This is an office where, during the course of an interview, a senior journalist like Goodwin can get in a line like ‘… I’m teasing you!’, a line that can still make it to print. 

– The political neutrality of presidents’ legacy after they remit office. Presidents are judged almost exclusively as an individual and an office holder; their political affiliation is just one attribute. This may be changing in very recent years, the most common example being appropriating Reagan as the forerunner of today’s extreme conservatism. However, most presidents have been examined, criticized, written about and learnt from across the political divide. There are no holy cows. This is remarkably egalitarian. It’s also an important factor in maintaining perspective; that the past wasn’t entirely better or worse than today, and that not one single individual was responsible for any phase in history. Politics and policy making is complex with enormous externalities, and viewing leaders of nations in that context is critical. India has mostly failed here.

– The idea of a presidential library, the idea of all presidential communication being archived and made available for the public, save classified information. The progression of the idea of public availability of presidential information is, to me, fascinating:  and doing a road trip of the US connecting the Presidential Libraries is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now. 

I would also love for India to have this put in place as soon as possible. I can imagine the throng of historians, politicians, lawmakers, policymakers, publishers and bloggers at these centers (think libraries of the papers and correspondence and photographs of Vajpayee, Narasimha Rao, Modi) and what works they could produce out of this information.

– A hint of what Barack Obama’s post-presidential passion (currently) is: “creating a platform for the next generation of young leaders across disciplines to work together”, and what a wonderful thing that would be if it were done right; a variation of the United Nations where people that mattered met for the sole purpose of getting things done as opposed to a warren of bureaucrats periodically hosting leaders for displays of pomp and theatre, where driven people from science and engineering and philosophy and marketing and business and politics and the arts learnt, prioritized, traded, synthesized and solved issues that matter in the long term, require the application of multiple areas of human discipline and needed to be packaged & sold to the public.