Sunday, July 9, 2017

How to sit down in meditation

Not happy with how you meditate? Maybe a change in how you sit down could make a difference... 

The thought of writing this post has crossed my mind a few times even as I sat meditating, in the middle of my own attempts to let go of all thought and distraction—but somehow I couldn’t bring myself round to jotting it down.

Today is Guru Purnima, and what better day than the ‘Teacher’s Full Moon’ to give shape to a noble thought! Guru is a Sanskrit word that means one who removes darkness or ignorance, thus allowing the light of knowledge to shine through the disciple’s intellect.

This post assumes that you are convinced of the value of meditation in your life, and perhaps have even had a go or two at it, but are unable to find the peace and tranquillity that meditation entails (If you are curious about what meditation really is, maybe you can find some clues here).

So let’s get on with it, without further ado.

At a very basic level, when you sit down to meditate, all you need is comfortable clothing, a relaxed posture and a decent, quiet place. After all, what could be there to really learn about “sitting down to meditate”?

But, believe me, at a deeper level, there’s a lot to it. And I’m not saying it for the sake of it but drawing upon my close to three years of regular practice (which, by the way, doesn’t make me an expert—though it should lend a bit of credibility to what I’m going to say).

The first thing I would suggest is to review your approach to the whole process of meditation. Are you meditating just because of peer pressure or some vow you want to get over with? Or is it some deeply felt need that has been pulling you close to setting aside some time regularly for being at peace with yourself and your environment? Do you consider meditation more of a physical act or a fad? Or do you realize the involvement of your whole being in its ‘practice’?

As they say of an arduous journey, “Well begun is half done,” so it is with meditation. If you are able to start it on the right note—which essentially means being able to “sit down” in the right frame of mind—you are more likely to get up peaceful, rested or even feeling blessed at the end of your session rather than find yourself wondering what went wrong.

What to do? Let’s do a mock-up. Suppose it is time for you to meditate (while one can meditate any time of the day, I find setting aside a regular time-frame to be of help in developing the practice). Typically, what do you do? Do you sit down hurriedly, put on some music and close your eyes quickly? Start telling beads or chanting some mantra, while shaking your body with each repetition?

Instead, give some time to the process of sitting down. Make sure your surroundings are quiet and comfortable (to the extent possible), you have set your mental clock to the time available for the current session (I vary mine depending on the other tasks and schedule of the day). And last but not the least, sit down in peace, noticing your whereabouts and closing your eyes gradually. (Before you sit, you can play some soothing music if it works for you; it’s fine otherwise too.)

If you need to cough, regulate your unruly breathing or do any fidgety thing to enhance your comfort, do it now. Do not jump headlong into the process of chanting—nor should you worry too much about the flood of thoughts that continues to lap at the shores of your mind even after you shut your eyes.

On the contrary, after slowly closing your external eyes, turn your attention to your mind’s eye and to all the thoughts coming to your mind. Breathe deeply but simply a few times and gradually bring that same attention to the act of inhaling, holding and exhaling of breath. While you do that, pay attention to your spine and try to make it as straight as you can (but hey, straight doesn’t mean rigid or taut like a bowstring!)

Once your breathing has stabilized, the tide of your thoughts has turned to a slow ebb (or almost disappeared) and you are more or less reconciled to your posture, you are ready.

Now, bow mentally before someone or something you highly regard—anything you revere or respect or hold dear to your heart—and be grateful for a moment. Be forgiving, too—of your own self and of the actions right or wrong of others. Sit like this for a while, suspended in thought, space and time—mindful of your breath and thankful of the moment.

Keep still like this, breathe simply, with your back straight and attention relaxed on breathing.

Now you are ready: go on, meditate...


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Artificial Intelligence has long way to go but it's already creating much value: Neil Jacobstein


Neil Jacobstein chairs the artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics track at Singularity University on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) Research Park campus in Mountain View, California. A former CEO of Teknowledge Corp., an early AI company, Jacobstein was in India recently to speak at the two-day SingularityU India Summit (held recently in association with INK, which hosts events such as INKtalks for the exchange of cutting-edge ideas). In an interview, Jacobstein talks about the confusion around AI, how job losses from AI should be tackled and the possibilities of a brighter future for humanity. Edited excerpts:
There are several definitions of AI. Which one is your favourite?
Artificial intelligence allows us to create pattern-recognition and problem-solving capability in a computer, using software algorithms. AI allows us to tackle practical business and technical problems, and it presents an opportunity for us to allow computers to do things that previously only humans did.
There seems to be a lot of confusion about what AI can or cannot do. What is your reading of the prevailing situation?
I think part of the confusion in the market might be that science-fiction movies have given people very vivid and sometimes incorrect view of what AI is capable of doing. Today, we have AI that is already at human levels of problem-solving in very narrow domains such as chess or go (a Japanese board game) or certain kinds of medical diagnostics. But we don’t have human-level AI that is general across the board. So we don’t have AI with natural language understanding at human level, and we don’t have AI that has humour or empathy at human levels. So it’s a kind of mixed landscape.
When do you think will we achieve “true AI”, so to say? What are the challenges to be overcome?
We have already achieved true AI in the sense of creating problem-solvers that add billions of dollars of value every year to various industries. That’s happening now. But if you are referring to artificial general intelligence that is at human levels, I think that probably won’t happen for several years: it could be as early as mid-2020s or as late as 2030s. The critical thing is not the time frame but the consequences of having AI at a human level and what that means for jobs, for global security, and for opportunity to solve problems.
While there are those who believe in the potential of AI and its applications, a sizeable number— including Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk—have expressed fears that AI-powered machines could rule over humans. What’s your take on this?
To his credit, Elon has changed his views on this over time. He has invested over $1 billion in an entity called OpenAI to democratize access to AI and to create new AI test beds and capabilities that will allow us to build layers of control into AI software. He has also participated in creating conferences on the future of AI and sponsored Future of Life Institute’s conferences around developing new principles of AI safety, the so-called Asilomar 23 principles (futureoflife.org/ai-principles). So he’s interested in capturing the benefits of AI and wants to help us work systematically to reduce the downside risk.
There may be an alarmist element to job losses resulting from AI, but robots are indeed replacing humans. How do you think should the situation be handled?
I think there is a need to anticipate things and to have some empathy and foresightedness for people who will be affected by job losses. For one, the quality of life for the rich people goes down when there are a lot of angry and alienated and armed people around. So it makes sense to think ahead as to how we can educate people doing routine jobs now and, in anticipation of problems downstream, provide access to free, high-quality education. Not everyone will take advantage of that and not everyone will achieve high levels of skill in some new job. So it makes sense to have some kind of basic minimum income and there are different potential schemes for doing that—but nobody knows the exact answer to this.
While Peter Diamandis talks optimistically about the future in his book Abundance, there’s a widening gap between the rich and the poor? Do you think a technology like AI can bridge this gap?
I think rather than focus on the gap, it would be better to focus on the quality of life metrics: do people have access to high-quality, nutritious food? Do they have access to first-rate education or clean water? If you look at the evidence for abundance on Peter’s website or read Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Nature of Our Angels, what’s clear is that in some respects, we are living in the best times for humanity. The challenge is to create a world where, instead of having a world of haves and have-nots, we have a world of haves and super-haves. Now, the gap between haves and super-haves might still be very big, but the haves will at least have things they never had before.
You have spoken about the huge impact of atomically precise manufacturing in nanotechnology. When will it be achieved?
The kind of nanotech we have today is mostly materials science; it’s not molecular machines or atomically precise manufacturing. But I do think we will eventually have atomically precise manufacturing, as we know it’s possible and researchers have demonstrated in the lab the ability to manipulate atoms and molecules with precision. What’s missing is to do it at industrial scale; that may take years.
(Note: This interview first appeared on www.livemint.com.)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Time: A Poem Written in Prose


There's a time in your life when you are poised on the precipice of eternity. When you have come as far as you have to go.

There is a time when everything seems all right yet all seems so wrong. When you think it doesn't matter as well as it matters the most. There is a time when you waft along effortlessly, balanced between compulsion and free will. When the people around you smile and frown at the same time.

What do you call such times?

There is a time when the light from the Sun seems neither too harsh nor too gentle but just about right to soak up its warmth. A time when you forgive yourself before you set out to forgive others. When you don't hold anything against anyone.

There's a time when you do not want to go too slow or too fast but just walk on without any thoughts of time, space or greed for speed. There is a taste in your mouth some call bittersweet, but which can perhaps better be described as divine. For it's a taste not only on your tongue; it is felt also on your skin and in your ears and perceived in your gaze and percolated right into the core of your being...That's when you know you have arrived somewhere you always wanted to be, where you know you always should have been living.


That time, that place, that wonderful moment can only be described in one word. And that single powerful word, my dear friend, is what gives the utmost meaning to our life: Now.

(Image credit: http://getrefe.tumblr.com/)

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Still Running after New Year Pledges? Take a Pause...

(Image credit: Pixabay.com)

I know you have been running for quite some time. Not literally, not on two feet maybe. But your mind has been scattered all over the place - running, brisk-walking, trying to fly even, in the face of a relentless onslaught of thoughts, cares, worries, tasks and what not.

Some of you would have made resolutions for the new year, which is already upon us but still new (I think). Some, not many, as the trend I’ve noticed is of giving up on resolutions in the first place: “Why make them if you have to break them!” goes the rationale.

Among those who did, what would the resolutions be about? It is not uncommon to pledge to reduce weight, do exercising, quit smoking (or fuming, if it’s fuming you are addicted to), save up for that dream trip, learn something new, etc., etc.

While all these pledges are important and bring us joy (if completed, of course), let me offer you another promise to make yourself this time. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

It’s nothing complicated. Just a simple word: Pause. P, A, U, S, E, pause. And the promise you can make yourself can be put something like this: “I’ll give myself enough pauses in the year ahead.”

Now, why pause and what kind of a pause?

We are living in an age when almost everything is occurring at an accelerated pace. After dividing the day into 24 hours, we seem to be racing to stuff all 1440 minutes of it with productivity, trying to multiply our fortunes with material wealth, luxuries and conveniences. It's a 24x7, global world, we proudly proclaim, barely catching our breath.

In this fast-moving, racing world, people, especially in the mega cities, are mostly on their physical and mental toes. They are commuting long commutes, running errands or walking erroneously; they are rushing to complete PPTs, attend meetings and meet attendees at events; they pound their keyboards furiously in the hope of spitting out code to lick the competition for that time-to-market edge; and they must party harder to justify all that hard work in double quick time!

We are caught in a never-ending hangover of a time-tortured existence. And as if pencilled notes, stick-ons and diaries were not enough, we now have a digital pile of smartphone alerts to keep us on the tenterhooks.

We have barely learned to put our phones in silent mode when constantly reminded of...the need...to...do so...on certain...occasions. But when shall we learn to put our minds in silent, or pause, mode?

A semblance of pause in our hurried lives began in pop culture with what is called the “slow movement,” which itself expanded from Slow Food, an organization founded in Italy in 1986 by one Carlo Petrini as an alternative to fast food (heard of McDonald’s, have you?) This cultural shift toward slowing down life is catching on and, according to Wikipedia, we now have slow cities, slow ageing, slow cinema and slow church. There’s even an attempt to brand and institutionalize slowness through The World Institute of Slowness!

But the pauses I’m talking about is about you, your pace and your life rather than about a fad, a brand or about joining something just because it is de rigueur to do so.

For one, no one other than you can define the types, quantities and qualities of the pauses that best suit you.

For instance:

- You may want to take a pause by way of a coffee break (nothing new I know but still).

- You may want to pause by correcting your posture in which you are working, perhaps tilting your head backward or straightening your spine or simply getting your bearing for a while before resuming.

- For longer pauses, you may go on a road trip or, like they say now, enjoy a staycation.

- Still longer pauses can be taken through longer, well-planned trips (difficult for many for want of money or ample leave balance).

- You may try one of my favorite pauses, which is to close the eyes for a couple of minutes (cupping them with the hands helps) and savor the relief that comes from switching from a glaring screen (if you work on a computer) to the blankness of black. You can always enhance it with some deep breathing.

Whichever pauses you choose, they should be appropriately timed with the right space between two pauses: too many will interfere with your work and too few wouldn’t bring you sufficient respite.

And while you take these reprieves, it wouldn’t be out of place to take a moment to reflect back on your larger purpose, your bigger goals--as well as the impact of your own journey on those around you.

When you look back on these pauses, you may realize that some of them indeed made the journey worthwhile. You may also discover, and appreciate, that silence often shapes you as a person just as activity does.

In our environmentally degrading world, there aren’t too many roses left, but no harm stopping and smelling them once in a while when we can (or planting some if we fail to find any).

May the New Year punctuate your days ahead with many many becalming, fragrant and refreshing pauses!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Telcos Undergoing Transformative Changes Due to Surging Data Demand

On 2 September 2009, The New York Times published an article headlined ‘Customers Angered as iPhones Overload AT&T’.
Calling the new iPhone 3GS a “data guzzler”, it went on to describe how the device choked up bandwidth on the telecom operator’s network, resulting in “dropped calls, spotty service, delayed text and voice messages and glacial download speeds”.
This is just one among several such instances of how telcos worldwide have been struggling to keep up with the burgeoning demand for data services. And much as they are trying, the demand surges keep happening in one or other part of the world (India being an apt case in point at the moment).
Telcos are fighting this battle on two counts. On the one hand, they have been upgrading their mobile networks from 2G to 2.5G to 3G to 4G. And, on the other, they have been deploying various information technology (IT) tools to operate more efficiently, reduce customer churn (customers migrating to other telcos) and to serve customers better.
The woes of telcos are not difficult to discern. From providing plain old voice telephone services up until the 1980s, operators now have to also provide text messaging, multimedia messaging, video on demand, gaming, music and several other value-added services on a mind-boggling variety of handsets.
In fact, the demand for data services is far outstripping that for voice services and causing major structural changes to the business models of telcos.
According to a report by Cisco Systems Inc., mobile data traffic will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 53% between 2015 and 2020, crossing 30 exabytes per month by 2020 (1 exabyte = 1 billion gigabytes or GB as it is popularly known. It is said that 5 exabytes of storage space will be taken up by all the words ever spoken by mankind).
One of the key factors in that data growth is the global popularity of smartphones to access the Internet, watch videos, consume news and other content, connect on social media or even plug into work-related applications such as email, analytics tools and customer relations software.
While much of the investments telcos are making goes into acquiring spectrum and upgrading their existing 2/2.5G networks to 3G and 4G, they are also investing significant amounts in their back-end systems that help them run those networks, including network-monitoring tools, billing software, customer experience management (CEM) solutions, etc. According to estimates by Analysys Mason, a research firm, CSPs will spend over $100 billion per year on software and related services by 2020.
In this context, India is one of the emerging market hotbeds where intense competition is playing out in the telecom market, especially for the relatively more lucrative and faster growing data segment. The latest salvo was fired in September by Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd, the latest entrant in the country’s crowded mobile communication space. The company claims to have signed up 16 million subscribers in the very first month of the launch, touted to be the fastest such milestone anywhere in the world.
Among other things, one of the biggest competitive edges Jio has, as far as technology is concerned, is that its network is fully based on Internet protocol (IP), the same one using which all computing devices—from tiny smartphones to large web servers in data centres—connect to the Internet. Having an all-IP network allows a telco to use the same underlying infrastructure for voice as well as data and be more agile in terms of market offerings—which is why even voice can be considered just another app on Jio’s network.
Other telcos, in contrast, have a mix of IP networks and the traditional circuit-switched networks in the circles they operate in (India is divided into 22 telecom circles or geographically segregated service areas). From the vantage point of an all-IP telco, their operations would be more complicated and clunky.
That is not to say that telcos with a mixed network set-up are going to scrap their past investments in 2G and 3G technologies: instead, they will compete by optimising their multiple networks and invest in IT tools that allow them to be more efficient and agile.
According to Ekow Nelson, region head, IT and cloud, Ericsson India Pvt. Ltd, “Some of the telcos are looking for a radical transformation of their business in order to look like a digital enterprise. This is a complete transformation of their relationship with their suppliers and customers. Others are looking towards more incremental changes. There is a whole range of different approaches that the operators have and, of course, some of it is driven by where they see themselves (in the foreseeable future).”
“Part of the transformation comes from understanding that this is really about changing the way you approach and interact with your customers and changing the way you organize yourself,” says Nelson, referring to the digital transformation challenges for IT decision-makers at telecom operators.
For example, according to him, if a telco’s distribution channel is through shops and retailers, that is not digital. “A lot of young people buy services online and they want help online. So if you want to become a digital player, then most of your own operating model will have to shift: you need to build online capabilities that allow your customers to interact and operate with you in a way that is very different from walking into a shop.”
He believes that just as the music industry moved from buying and renting CDs to online audio streaming, so is the telecom sector shifting from buying recharge coupons to self-service portals and apps—that is, a digital distribution model. In the case of India, however, a hybrid model that optimises both physical and digital sales for different geographies and customer profiles looks more likely.
Given that roughly one-third (31.3%) of India’s population, according to the Census of India 2011, is in the age group of 18 to 35—a generation cohort more digital-savvy than the rest—telcos that build a greater connect with them can reap significant business benefits. And one tried-and-tested way to do that is to app-ify most of their offerings and throw as many customised pricing plans at them as IT agility allows them to.
An indication of the importance of an app-driven approach is the recent marketing campaign of Bharti Airtel Ltd, India’s largest telco with an India subscriber base of over 250 million. The ad shows how quickly the new and integrated MyAirtel app can be downloaded onto a smartphone.
Earlier, there were several apps for music, movies, money, news, etc. but the new app comes as an integrated bundle (Reliance Jio’s MyJio app, which launched before Airtel’s new app, works in a similar fashion).
According to Animesh Sahay, senior country director of sales (enterprise and telecom business), CA Technologies India Pvt. Ltd, a provider of enterprise software and services, “For telcos, it is becoming increasingly important as to how they can wrap the entire app in a fashion that they are able to record the customer experience. Today, if a customer has a bad experience with an app, they might give it a try twice or thrice, but after that they are just going to junk it.”
So it becomes very important to know what the customers are experiencing on the app and to get their feedback and tie it back to app development, he says.
A telco can install an app tool to have a view of exactly what the customer is doing, exactly where he had an issue, what the screen looked like when a particular transaction was happening on the app, etc.
In short, the tool allows the telco to replay the same series of steps the customer took and find out what went wrong and where.
Another thing operators need to do, according to Sahay, is to move away from the old, waterfall model of application development to agile development methods by embracing what is called DevOps. DevOps is the combination of development (Dev) and operations (Ops), referring to how the IT teams at most enterprises are divided.
Traditionally, there has been some friction or lack of coordination between the two teams that typically work in isolation. The DevOps movement calls for a greater cohesion between the two and the use of agile software methodology and tools that enable it.
The whole idea of DevOps and agile method is to release newer versions of software or apps as quickly as possible so that new features and benefits could be marketed to existing and potential users.
In addition, given the speed at which mobile technology is moving today, more and faster releases help fix multiple bugs and issues with the software.
The dynamism in the telco universe is causing many to move towards what is known as a catalogue-driven architecture, which allows a telco to dynamically serve up data plans and other service offerings (movie/music downloads, for instance) to customers even if third-party mobile valued-added services providers are involved.
Going forward, most telcos in India, including Airtel, Vodafone, Idea and others, will ramp up their digital transformation efforts to increase data revenue and stay relevant in a fiercely competitive market.
(This post first appeared in Mint: http://bit.ly/2fv9srl)