Category Archives: Society

FAQtechism

What is this?

Questions and answers, because my friends and I have been doing a lot of asking and answering, in unequal measure, with more asking than answering. Because I’ve been distraught by the incessant stream of reductionist observations about Mozilla, each one like being punched in the heart with the hard fists of righteousness and conviction. Because questions and answers once brought me peace, when I was much younger.

Who are you?

A man with no titles. Formerly, one of the first technology evangelists for Mozilla, when it was still a Netscape project. A Mozillian.

Who is Brendan Eich?

A man with a title titles. An inventor. A unifier. A divider. A Mozillian. A friend.

What has Mozilla done?

From humble and unlikely beginnings, Mozilla entered a battle seemingly already decided against it, and gradually unseated the entrenched incumbent, user by user by user, through campaigns that were traditional and innovative, and increased consciousness about the open web. It became a beloved brand, standing firmly for open source and the open web, championing the Internet, sometimes advocating politically for these convictions. It relied, and continues to rely, on a community of contributors from all over the world.

What has Brendan done?

Many things intrinsic to the open web; he helped shape technologies used by countless numbers of users, including to write and read this very post. Also, a hurtful and divisive thing based on a conviction now at odds with the law of the land, and at odds with my own conviction: in 2008, he donated $1000 to California Proposition 8, which put on a statewide ballot a proposition to define marriage as strictly between a man and a woman in the state, thus eliminating gay marriage, and calling into question pre-existing gay marriages. The amount donated was enough to oblige him to list his employer — Mozilla — for legal reasons.

What are my convictions?

That any two people in love should be able to marry, regardless of their genders; that the marriage of two such people affords all legal protections intrinsic to the institution of marriage including immigration considerations, estate planning considerations, and visitation rights. That this is in fact a civil right. That matters of civil rights should not be put before a population to vote on as a statewide proposition; in short, that exceptions to the Equal Protection Clause cannot be decided by any majority, since it is there to protect minorities from majorities (cf.Justice Moreno).

How do such convictions become law?

Often, by fiat. Sometimes, even when the battle is already seemingly decided (with the entrenched weight of history behind it, an incumbent), one state at a time. State by State by State (by States), using campaigns that are traditional and innovative, to increase consciousness about this as a civil right.

How should people with different convictions disagree?

Bitterly, holding fast to conviction, so that two individuals quarrel ceaselessly till one yields to the other, or till one retreats from the other, unable to engage any longer.

For real?

Amicably, by setting aside those convictions that are unnecessary to the pursuit of common convictions I share with other Mozillians, like the open web. Brendan embodied the Mozilla project; he would have made a promising CEO. My conviction can be governed by reason, and set aside, especially since the issue is decided by courts, of both law and public opinion. His view, only guessable by me, seems antediluvian. Times have changed. I can ask myself to be governed by reason. We need never touch this question.

But I can do this because my conviction about the law, stated before, has never been tested personally by the specter of suicide or the malevolence of bullying; marriage equality is the ultimate recognition, destigmatizing lifestyles, perhaps helping with suicide and bullying. And, my inability to marry has never disrupted my life or my business. I cannot ask others to lay aside convictions, without recognizing the sources of pain, and calling them out. (Here, Brendan made commitments, and Mozilla did too).

What will the future hold?

Brendan has said his non serviam but calls out a mission which I think is the right one: privacy, also a civil right, especially privacy from governments; continued user advocacy; data liberation; a check on walled gardens (and an end to digital sharecropping); the web as mobile platform, even though it is under threat in the mobile arena, the battle seemingly decided, the entrenched incumbent slightly less obvious. This latter — mobile — is reminiscent of the desktop world in 1998. It’s the same story, with smaller machines. Perhaps the same story will have to be told again. I’d like Mozilla to be a major player in that story, just as it always has been a major player on the web. And I’ll be looking forward to seeing what Brendan does next. I’ll miss him as part of Mozilla. This has been crushing.

Coda: what have wise ones said?

“I don’t know why we’re talking about tolerance to begin with. We should be at acceptance and love. What’s this tolerance business? What are you tolerating, backpain? ‘I’ve been tolerating backpain, and the gay guy at work?’” — Hari Kondabalu (watch him on Letterman). And blog posts: Mozilla is not Chick-Fil-A; Thinking about Mozilla; The Hounding of a Heretic (Andrew Sullivan); a few others, discussing what a CEO should do, and what qualities a CEO should possess, which are out there for you to discover.

Smells and Compassion

There are days when I smell gangrene on the subway. I mean this quite literally: gangrene, as in, human flesh decomposing bacterially on the F train. The smell causes other passengers to move away, or cover their noses with their scarves. Typically, the smell comes from someone on the train that got on at (say) East Broadway, pushing a shopping cart and wrapped in blankets. This happens often enough to call it out. It is not always gangrene, of course. You sometimes get the pervasive odor of the unwashed, the whiff of vagrancy, or the regurgitated excess of intoxication. But there are times when it smells like Death, and the animal in us senses this instinctively; of that, I am convinced. A diabetic condition gone terribly wrong? A festering wound? Both?

Even if you feel the kind of fleeting compassion that trains foster between passengers, the truth is, you are probably glad to get out of there when your stop comes around. Rotting flesh smells really bad — menacing and putrid and full of despair — and you want to run from it. What can you do against that, really, other than flee?

Recently, I read one of C.S. Lewis’ counterblasts to agnosticism, “The Screwtape Letters.” This is admittedly weird reading material and is not very zeitgeist at all, given Christopher Hitchens’ untimely demise (author of “Why God is Not Great”). That, and the fact that Lewis’ book is a bit of Christian propaganda. But rest assured, I read it for the literature value only, and maybe to see how Lewis would have approached the matter of the smell. Charity, devilish Uncle Screwtape would have us (not) believe, is a daily attitude shift that starts at home. Then, the Dalai Lama’s “The Power of Compassion” is a series of lectures on the subject of compassion that an old friend once sent my way. I certainly didn’t set out to write a book review, and find each book I’ve mentioned pleasing in its own way; I’m also not about to launch into a propaganda piece about compassion in general, and how we could use more of it. If anything, I have ambivalent views. I once set aside a Buddhist tract on the subject with frustration because it counseled us to “love our children a little less” and “love our spouses less” all in order to achieve a more transcendent kind of compassion: the kind accompanied by true detachment. That may be fine in the Himalayas, but it doesn’t resonate in NYC, where the intensity of every day experience is amped so high. Detachment itself seems like a goal that’s hard to achieve. Anyway, love seems to be the good stuff in the universe, so why not love your child or your spouse as much as you can, helplessly and without restraint and to distraction? And there’s still the conundrum of the smell on the train; reading doesn’t help with that, unless your book is so engrossing that you forget the stench between stops.

Last year ended on a high note for me. In December, Samosapedia was asked to speak at a conference in Jaipur called INK. My business partner Vikram gave a well-received talk, and attending the conference brought us inspiration and opportunity. Like TED, the INK Conference is the kind of venue that eludes categorization; you bump into exceptional people from different fields — scientists, dancers, artists, actors, humanitarians, entrepreneurs, musicians, technologists, doctors, and historians, amongst others — and then, after a day of talks, you go out on the town and experience synergy. At INK, I saw someone speak that gave me a radically new perspective on compassion. Just knowing someone like that even exists is inspiring.

I saw Prakash Amte being interviewed about his life. Prakash is a man who has dedicated his entire life to providing medical care for tribes in a poverty stricken part of India, in a way that verges on mythical. He set up shop as a doctor in an area so forgotten by time that human sacrifice was still practiced there by a malnourished populace, seeking cures from witch doctors. Amte and his wife slowly introduced modern medicine to the area, often uncovering extraordinary human courage coupled with devastating tragedy. There’s the story of a man attacked by a bear in the forest, who was carried through the forest for 48 hours till he reached the make-shift hospital. The man’s face was horribly mauled; his scalp hung off his skull like a loose bandana, and he had lost both his eyes. Amte cleaned up the wound, and stitched him up without anesthesia, giving the man over a hundred stitches in front of his family. The man didn’t even flinch or cry out once as his scalp was stitched back on, showing extraordinary tolerance to pain. He was sent back blind, but alive. And the story may well have ended there, with Amte as a local hero. But when Amte asked after the man’s fate some time later, he found he had died slowly of starvation. His blindness prevented him from feeding himself properly.

You can watch the talk to learn of how he performed a cataract surgery straight out of the manual for the first time, and how he helped someone recover their eyesight, or about what it is like to raise leopards, tigers, and lions, and watch your children play with poisonous snakes. He was asked by the interviewer why he feels no fear around wild animals; he answered with a word, predictable and saccharine, yet so affirming: “love.” I thought of sadhus in ashrams, mystical men surrounded by a coterie of big cats, radiating peace. I found it inspiring, and deeply moving. I glanced around the room, and saw a few damp eyes. This wasn’t just the love you give your children, or the love you give your spouse. It was something bigger than that, something that encompassed other beings, whether they were humans or animals or the environment you live in. Do a search for Prakash Amte on the web. One of the images that comes up is of him with his hand in a leopard’s mouth.

Towards the end of the talk, he was asked what he might demand of the audience. Here, you could imagine a solicitation for donations, but instead, all he asked was for us to visit places that give you perspective, like the remote forest village where he works. To go to places where people live so differently than you do, that you gain a bigger understanding of the world you live in, just by having having that experience.

Which I suppose brings me back to the F train. I had to come back there somehow, didn’t I? A city like New York is like Mumbai or Sao Paulo, maddening with contradictions. In the same city as last night’s venture capital event, someone with a gangrenous wound, huddled by themselves, isolated beyond recognition, is sharing my ride. Now I suppose I’ll gesticulate adamantly into the ether, saying we have to have a health care system that doesn’t let this happen. I didn’t promise to solve the problem; I’m just calling it out. But I know that by leaving the house, on my way to a place I’m supposed to get to, I’ve ventured to a place that gives me perspective. The year’s still young; taking the NYC subway might not be what Amte means, but it’s all I’ve got for you now, really. Every day gives you a chance to be “conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” DFW said that to a graduating class; I’m going to crib my New Year’s greeting to you from him, too: I wish you so much more than luck.

Samosapedia

When Vikram and I shook on building samosapedia.com after a boisterous lapse into the kind of Bangalore patois so typical of the average South Indian porki, we honestly didn’t think it would get the kind of attention it has been getting, delusions of grandeur notwithstanding. Of course, the whole team is delighted by it. CNN, the Economist blog, the Wall Street Journal blog, The Huffington Post, and The Times of India have covered it, along with a few other online and offline publications. And given that I recently wrote a small exposé about the foundational three Ms behind the idea, it’s high time Samosapedia got some airtime on my own blog.

I spend a substantial amount of time either thinking about or working on Samosapedia, which is not surprising for any co-founder. Software alone is not really what keeps me busy. The very smart Braxton, who joined us because he loves the concept, stewards the code (Ruby on Rails straddling Heroku) really well, and puts up with our proclivity to IST with humor, which cemented our bond. The big questions to me include the editorial oversight needed to build the world’s largest cultural dictionary.

Let’s first touch very briefly on the imperfection of calling it The Definitive Guide to South Asian Lingo, since in choosing to call it that, we reveal something about ourselves as editors. One of the most priceless reactions we got to the term “South Asian” was “Aren’t South Asians Filipinos?” It turns out the term “South Asian” causes a small modicum of irritation and confusion. Other observations were that we shouldn’t use the term South Asian at all, but instead say “desi” or “Indian.” On this one, we’re sticking to our guns. There are enough commonalities linguistically and culturally, and enough radical differences, for us to be geographically inclusive on the site. The term “South Asia” may come from a taxonomy generated outside South Asia itself, but we can’t find a better, more inclusive term that matches our aspiration for a giant cultural dictionary. We’re ceasing to worry about labels. The existing one has been well received so far — thanks to our users, we have over 6000 entries now, and we’re going to keep on growing.

What becomes interesting is that sometimes, definitions aren’t merely objective. We don’t really want them to be objective, which is why we allow for multiple entries for a given term. Take for example entries like the one for the Jan Lokpal Bill, which as of this writing, still features prominently in popular press in India. One user’s idealism may test another user’s opinion on the whole approach taken by the bill, with the result being controversy. We welcome it — the lingo we’re collectively cataloging is multifarious, and controversy is the by product of engaged users. By that same token, one user’s humor may offend another. Here, we’ll traipse as lightly as possible, because we want to allow maximum self-expression, liberating language and encouraging our users to be creative and playful. Soon enough, we’ll also want to have users help with moderating words. It’s not just a dictionary we’re building here, but a community, responsible for its own editorial oversight, without the founders being gatekeepers.

Samosapedia has rapidly become a small anthology of South Asian writing, and makes people laugh, bringing delight and nostalgia (nostalgindia?). I am really excited about it, and about all the things we’re going to do with it in the future.

My Valentine

Let us say you move to New York after the bold liquidation of some chutzpah, and that your friends back in west coast cities want to know what you’re up to. They want to know how you like NYC and what you’re doing on a daily basis ever since you moved there. Naturally, others are curious about who you’re seeing romantically, if anyone at all. What’s up, they ask (inquiring minds, etc.).

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No Sleep Till Brooklyn

Sometimes a potent mix of wanderlust and the allure of an unanswered “what if” question causes change to happen. I recently moved from San Francisco to New York, and I recently transitioned from my full-time role at Mozilla to a part-time consulting role.

Of course, soon after I left, the Giants are making a World Series run, making me long to be near Willie Mays plaza. I love San Francisco, with its micro-climates, improbable topography, and draconian parking inspectors. I spent one third of my adult life here. I worked with inspiring people to advance the reach and capability of a massively hyper-connected world; I played enthusiastically (if not adeptly) in the magnificent outdoors; I got up to all the usual urban shenanigans in my twenties, even getting my heart broken and wizened; and — at the great risk of courting the obvious metaphor — I emerged from the fog of a prolonged adolescence into what I hope will pass for maturity. I’ll miss the City by the Bay. There’s no place like it in all the world.

Within reason, I relish change, and seek it out whenever I feel I’m getting lulled into complacency. I’ve wanted to explore non-technical projects for a long time now, and the best way to do that was to leave the epicenter of technology for a while. My childhood brought with it much travel; I was raised in India, Hong Kong, Ethiopia, Russia, China, and France, with some time in Canada. I often dodge direct questions about where I grew up, preferring the quick version of the story, but I am sticking to the facts when I tell people that San Francisco is the longest I’ve ever lived in any one place. So why, then, New York?

I’ll spare you my romantic observations about cities. E.B. White (of Strunk and White and Charlotte’s Web fame) said it much better than I ever can back in 1948 (but you should read him in 2010, since his words have aged so well). A small snippet:

“There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last — the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.”

For the next conceivable while, then, I’ll be a settler. I’ll bring to New York my “what if” questions, and see what happens when I pursue the answers with passion.

The transition does mean I’ll miss the people I worked with over the years, particularly at Mozilla, a project I grew up with almost right out of college. Few things compare to the thrill of contributing to something that you really believe in. Mozilla paved the way for what is now the triumph of open-source on the web over a closed-source monopoly. Not working on it full-time means that I’ll no longer be associated with some things, like being the Chair of the WebGL WG or being front and center for developer relations. But it also means I can take on some manageable tasks and make sure they get chaperoned through to completion.

I’m in what seems to be a a bigger pond now — a chaotic, crowded one with four seasons and a subway and even more draconian parking inspectors. The Fall is lovely here, and I am optimistic.