Wednesday, 13 April 2016

A date with the Yeti

"Don't!" Mohit warned. My foot froze, hanging over a slyly disguised crevasse. My heart responded to fresh adrenaline, hammering blood at a frantic pace. There could be no better feeling in the world.

A week ago I had been giggling at my cellphone while lying on an office bean bag, enjoying the butler service provided to have a cup of coffee. The term 'Software Engineer' comes from the Latin word 'sofoengi'; an animal which prefers to stay alone.

What made a guy like me sign up for - ? Wait, no one cares about that. Let's ask a better question.

How much of the world have you seen?

This is what my heart was asking me when I landed at Dehradun airport. A world with little of Ola or Uber. My friend and I hired a cab from the airport. Let me confess that I believed in this stereotype: North-Indians are gun wielding maniacs who start pumping lead for no reason. The trip would prove that I couldn't be more wrong. They only pump lead when provoked.

Knowing that the driver couldn't shoot us with his hands on the wheel gave us unreasonable confidence. An inhabitant wasp taught us how difficult it is to travel while expecting to be stung any second. At least our driver was kind enough to drop us just 2 kms from the destination. With our 30 kg luggage.

On the first day, we met our batch. Most of them were from Bangalore, and most of them were young. Most of them needed to go to the loo once the ride started. Apart from that, the ride to the base camp 'Sankri' was uneventful.

That is, if you consider people puking all over the place as 'uneventful'. Hell yeah, there were guys who were screaming for mercy every time the car stopped. Some tried to ignore this by speaking of the beautiful mountains. They ended up being the first to decorate them.

I would have focused more on the mountains had I not been distracted by the exceptional driving that was getting us to the base camp. Wide, spacious roads ensured a 3 inch safety cushion for the wheels.

From here, the real journey starts. The mountains are calm and huge. The snow capped ones are the most majestic, their height and beauty draw attention to them with ease. Here's proof:

Our arrival at base camp was followed quickly by two remarkable events. First, the food by IndiaHikes was great. I don't know how they manage it, but their food quality and cooking is simply brilliant.

Second, we packed all necessary items for the trek. Anything which was related to bathing was wisely discarded. Anything related to smelling good was an indecent luxury. From my understanding, tissues and jackets seem to be the only important items. I am moving to the mountains soon.

We started the trek next morning to a warm sun and a big mountain-dog named 'Restless'. He smiled at me before saying "Get the fuck along." Eager to impress, I started moving very briskly. When we were clear of the rest of the group, Restless spotted something. He was barking and running downhill before I could react.

The Yeti are an ancient species. Despite reports of them harvesting men's testicles, the Yeti have maintained that they are for peace and harmony. I did not trust them entirely though. The way Restless ran suggested to me that he had a deep love for his reproductive assets.

My appreciation for my body magnified as I ran behind this mountain dog. Our trek guide, Arvind, spotted us sprinting towards the group, tongues out and eyes wide. He calmed Restless before asking him a few questions. It turned out that Restless had seen nothing. That son of a bitch. A polite smack to the rump sent Restless running back to base camp.

We reached our next camp in about 4 hours. People were discussing about the benefits of cannibalism when we saw lemon juice being served. All discussions were put on hold, and what followed was gulping juice while looking at this:

That lemon juice tasted incredibly good. Lunch followed soon after that. 3000 ft above the nearest village, we had food better than many restaurants at Mumbai.

The rest of the day was spent playing team games and snow fighting. 'Mafia' is the game of choice in these situations. My general personality convinced fellow trekkers that I needed to die. So when I was screaming my lungs out about being the Doctor, they wagged their fingers and had me murdered as a mafioso.

Having retired to our tents, we realised that the fun had just begun. A snoring trekker in the same tent as yours guaranteed an eventful night. Also, the required water intake meant going out in freezing temperatures to take a leak.

I won't get into too much detail about that. Simply put, gloves are too alien, and hands are too cold. When doing business, there is a constant fear that something is right behind you. I kept swinging my torch like a maniac.

The next day was comparatively peaceful. Thats because I fell sick. I had recently seen Wim "The Ice Man" Hoff on a TV show. He could get into a bath tub full of ice and keep his heart rate normal. He could run across the Artic in undies and still look good. All this because of some meditation nonsense.

I figured that controlling a single nerve in my body couldn't be too hard, and proceeded to sitting outside my tent in the freezing cold. Wearing nothing but a T-shirt and trek pants. Hence the fever.

Feeling fit by dinner, I marvelled at the night sky. The most beautiful sky I have ever seen. Photos pale in comparison to that moment. It felt bittersweet. I could see the constellations, a dictionary of mythology, and didn't know how to read it.

Speaking of stories, we come to the most awaited point of this trek. The day we climbed the summit of Kedarkantha. An apple, a pack of biscuits, and two litres of water would be our supplies for the 8 hour journey. Start time: 4:30 AM.

A brown blur swept past the virgin snow. The yeti are known to be persistent, but Arvind convinced me that it was just a wild rooster. Great. I swear a Tata Safari isn't that fast. What would happen if we met another animal known to live here: the wild boar?

With that comforting thought, I watched the sun rise. The mountains are simply spectacular in the yellow light.

It wasn't long before our trekking party split into groups depending on trekking speed. Trekking speed is inversely proportional to the number of selfies a person takes. I took a few selfies before deleting most of them quickly. The mountains and I looked like Beauty and the Beast. Except that, I looked more like a geared-up monkey.

The lack of selfie stops left me with a lot of free time. Arvind gave me the thumbs up to move ahead of the group. "Move slowly so that we catch up with you soon" he smiled.

Within 20 minutes, I was so far ahead that I couldn't see a human in any direction. Giggling at my smartness, I figured that the peak will be about 15 minutes away. And I would be the first amongst this whole IndiaHikes batch to get there. Tears formed in my eyes at the thought of this immense achievement.

"Hello Sirji!"

Behind me were two kids, who introduced themselves as Mohit and Rohan. They were locals who trekked the mountains quite regularly. Impressed by my speed, they had decided to accompany me to the peak.

I looked for a way to throw them off a nearby cliff and also make it look like an accident, but it was impossible. We started climbing at a frantic pace then, skipping places that I would welcome as rest spots. After 20 minutes, I looked at the summit again. It seemed 15 minutes away.

"How far is the peak?" I asked.

"About an hour or so. But we are moving slowly, so it could take an hour and a half." Rohan replied.

Every step I took told me of what I had known but never cherished. The mountains held the cold winds in the North. They held them in the palm of their hands. This beastly wind was trying to tear all my protective layers off. Exhausted, I asked Rohan to move on ahead.

When I took my gloves off to have an apple, it felt like -10 degrees. Thankfully, taking a leak wasn't a 'freezing in mid air' spectacle.

The kids from the previous batch had buried tetra packs under the ice. Time to become a cleaning hero. I chipped off ice using karate kicks. Slow, tiring work. "There better be a cleaning award for this", I thought. But a few seconds later, awards were out of my mind.

No award was special enough for a guy at 12000 ft to collect trash. I do this only for the mountain.

After that, the summit seemed very close. I got there in about 30 minutes, greeted by Mohit and Rohan. On the way, there came a point when I nearly fell into a crevasse, as narrated at the start of this blog.

The rest of the trip went past like a blur. Rhododendron, Pine cones, etc...:

The photo makes me smile. It is so easy for anyone to miss this, and yet, nature can't help but be beautiful. She is, and we can only revel at and be humbled by her beauty. I pray that she never loses it. 

Sunday, 18 October 2015

An Interview with Chief Quotard

I recently had the great honour of meeting Quora CEO, Kushan Sen. We were very interested in talking about Quora's business model and how it impacts our daily lives. 

Here is the complete interview.

Me: Hi Kushan! Your company has been valued at around 200 million dollars, with investments from venture capitalists and a sea of people ready to buy Quora shares. What are the key elements to Quora's success?

Kushan: Quora's what? Success? That is an oxymoron. 

Me: Well...yes. But I thought we will start with some bullshit question on how Quora has changed the landsc-

Kushan: No. It isn't bullshit. Its downright hurtful. I will sue you with our BNBR policy soon.

Me: BNBR? What does it stand for?

Kushan: "Suck my dick".

Me: (nervous laugh) That was almost racist. In any case, let us talk more about Quora.

Kushan: Lets.

Me: There have been some complaints on Quora's methods for handling strong views. Tejas from Canada writes: "Quora operates with zero feedback and accountability. There is tremendous defensiveness from their response team. Opinions not conforming to their definition of 'nice' are strangled. The appeal structure is a joke. None of the appeals are upheld, and there is zero transparency in the process. Any-"

Kushan: Okay! I get the gist! 

(Five seconds silence)

Kushan: This Tejas, the taxi driver. Does he have data to base his whims on?

Me: Sir, he is talking from personal-

Kushan: Personal experience! Yes! Does he have people backing him up? No! I am sorry Gaurav, but you can't just ask me questions from people who don't matter.   

Me: But sir, why would we look up to quora for statistically relevant answers? I mean, we have google for that. Isn't quora a platform where I can answer questions relevant to my experiences-?

Kushan: (sharp) Do you have 5k followers?

Me: I, well, no...

Kushan: Well, then quora is not a platform for - whatever your just said. Not for you, at least.

Me: (angry) Sir, why does quora take it's appeal process so lightly?

Kushan: 5k followers?

Me: Sorry?

Kushan: (snorting) 5k followers? Yes or no?

Me: Mr. Sen, the elite in quora (your precious people with 5k followers) pretend as if there is nothing wrong with the site. They are popularly referred to as Quotards. They justify the shitty CSS, the ridiculous quality of questions, everything. But whenever your engineers take it on themselves to change something, usually for the worse, Quotards argue that the change just made the site even more perfect.

Kushan: First of all, there isn't anything such as Quotard.

Me: Sir-

Kushan: They are simply faggots.

Me: Oh.

Kushan: And there is no such thing as changes in quora.

(10 second silence)

Me: That ends the interview.

If you are a big fan of quora, from their content management to grievance redressal, please stop reading now. 

No? Okay then, let us discuss what is wrong with this site.

1) Ridiculous Behaviour Management

I have been banned from three times. Twice, for using a computer to suggest moves. Once, for calling a WGM(Women Grand Master) a whore. On the main chat room.

I can understand why there is no appeal process. cannot afford to have computers take over the site, and any appeal is expensive to investigate. Small chance that an appeal will be valid anyway. Humans don't make the same moves as computers with identical response times.

Quora, on the other hand, depends heavily on the experiences and views of it's users. This sets it apart from Wikipedia. Answers derived from user opinions need to be handled with an open mind. Instead, Quora weeds out uncomfortable views by running an algorithm. It is quite complicated. Here is how it essentially works:

if (content.reported) {
    if (user.warnings > 5) {

It is in accordance to the ancient sanskrit saying:

"Na rahega baas, na bajegi basuri". 

Another site, codechef, handles plagiarism by running all submissions through a checker. What happens to those which test positive? Codechef runs a manual check for all solutions to figure out if they were indeed plagiarised. Quora uses a far more efficient algorithm: it randomly generates a number from 0 to 100 and deletes the user content if this number was less than 99.

2) Poor Content Management 

I logged on to quora right now. The first thing I see is: "Was Lily Potter wrong to refuse Snape oral sex? Would she have reacted differently to anal?"

Something similar anyway. And here come all the eager answers as to why oral was so difficult for Lily, blah blah.

I had once made the mistake of telling Quora that I like Harry Potter. I didn't sign up for the bullshit fan theories though. 'Potterheads' put up the number of times they have read the books in their bio and proceed to give their retarded opinions to even more retarded questions. I honestly don't care what Voldemort's penis looked like....okay, maybe I do...but the content needs to be filtered better.

Similar to the above scenario is that of answering a question. When you have actually answered something, Quora expects that you know quite a bit about the topic. For example, let us say you wrote an answer on "Environment Protection". After a week, you will probably find yourself stuck in the community of global warming/carbon emissions/green house gases. The content is not only stale, it gets sickeningly specific. I prefer filling out my tax forms.

3) Poor User Engagement

The site is infested with Indian enthusiasm. Don't get me wrong, I love my country. But I can't stand all the: 

"What can Indians do very easily that others can't?"
Write shitty questions, perhaps.

"Is the Indian Army the best in the world?"
I respect the Vatican city guards too. Both consist of trained professionals defending their country. 

"Why did Lily Potter suck-?"

The only time Quora has objective use to me is when I google search: a good Quora answer in the results can really save time. Like asking a question on how to study for a masters in the US, etc... 

Dig deeper though, and you will find the Lily Potters of these topics.

Below is an excerpt from a (real) interview with Quora CEO, Adam D'Angelo.

We release code 40 times per day. And we have this thing where code, eight minutes after someone finishes writing it, is live on the site.

Take a minute to absorb what he just said............Wow.

For those who don't have a computer science background, D'Angelo's confession is nothing less than shocking. 40 code releases in a day is heroically stupid. No wonder your site has no consistency. Engineers need some time to test, deploy and verify that published code actually works. That takes both time and effort. 40 times a day? Suck my dick.