Thought pieces Showerthoughts to researched opinion. May display signs of intelligence.

Numbercaste: Introspecting on the process of writing a novel

I thought Numbercaste would be my debut, to be honest. It wasn’t. But this book is important to me, because it is a milestone of change.

Today I uploaded Numbercaste to Amazon – both print and Kindle versions.  I did the muckwork – formatting, cover, bleed, trim, selected paper, studied bestsellers in my genre, selected keywords –  and I very carefully saved it and logged off so that I can send everything live at the end of this month.

Numbercaste represents two years of work – two very interesting years that have changed me a great deal. I remember when I had the idea behind it. I usually scribble my ideas down and forget them later, but this one stuck. At some point I remember is sitting in a car, telling Enosh Praveen (then my boss at “I’m writing a book.”

Two years, five drafts, and many new experiences later, here we are. Numbercaste and I have made it to Huffpost. Everything’s ready.

It’s interesting to look back and see how far I’ve come. 2015. I was 23. I had read David Egger’s the Circle and figured I had a lot to add to the conversation. All I had to do, I reasoned, was sit there and crank out a thousand words a week. It could be done.

I could write, I knew that. I had a long history as Icaruswept, the political blogge; I had a shorter, but far more prolific journey as a tech journalist.

But  I hadn’t published any fiction worth speaking of. I’d scribbled, of course: a few poems, written a few short stories, and many years prior written the script to an indie RPG I was building with my best friends. Going further back, I wrote a novel when I was fifteen: a 132,000 word monster called the Waste that I can’t make head or tail of now. None of these saw the light of day.

I started in the only way I knew how: I wrote about a journalist who drives up and interviews Julius Common, the reclusive, all-powerful CEO of NumberCorp. Except it wasn’t called NumberCorp back then; it was called Society. The reporter was doing a Life-and-Lies kind of piece, kind of like Walter Isaacson (I had also recently read the Steve Jobs biography, which may have played a part in this choice).

Didn’t work.

Twenty pages in I had run out of things to say. I was stumped. I was used to writing blogposts and feature pieces. A 2000-3000 word piece is a sprint; a book is a marathon.

I tried again, this time from a different angle. Four characters, I thought. One, a disabled (yes, when you lose your legs, you’ve got less stock functionality than the average human being) software engineer. The other the journalist. The other someone close to the CEO, perhaps a top exec, or a PR person, who could shed light on the lies that were told. The other a bum, a hobo who lived off the grid and remembered things the way it used to be.

There was this place I used to walk at, in Ragama – a highway construction project left abandoned. Paddy fields, open sky, and a ridiculously wide dirt road that led nowhere. I’d walk back and forth and write bits and pieces in my head, then return to my computer and put it together.

That failed miserably. I could barely handle one main character, let alone four.

And then I had a perspective shift. I left Readme, and started working for what many call the Google of Sri Lanka – WSO2. It’s probably the country’s sexiest place to work at if you’re a techie. As journalists we used to attend events they hosted and go ‘whoa’.

When I started working there, I saw it from the other side of the coin. The work that went into making people go ‘whoa’. The people who did that work. The personalities and the possibilities and the clashes in a company like that. I looked at that journalist character and thought, what if that’s the journey? Watching Society grow from the inside?

This time I hit a vein I could explore. Writing mostly after work – I’d stay at office to avoid the post-work traffic – I clocked in a thousand words this week, a couple of thousand words next week, and so on. I wrote first in Google Docs, then in Word, then Scrivener, then in a code editor called Atom that I’d configured so my chapters would sync seamlessly as text files in Google Drive. I told myself the book would be done by December 2016.

The first draft was over 75,000 words and was completed in November. Spot on. [1] Facebook cheered me on.

Two voices on my feeds, though, urged me not to publish, but to keep my head down and polish it.

The first was CD Athuraliya, a machine learning expert and colleague (both at WSO2 and now at Lirneasia) whose input I’ve listened to ever since I met the guy. The other was Nayomi Munaweera ( Island of a Thousand Mirrors | What Lies Between Us ).

Nayomi is a fantastic wordsmith, probably one of the most talented Sri Lankans to put pen to paper, and she advised me to take some time off, come back to the book with fresh eyes. Then, she said, you’ll see what you need to revise.

So I did. And I went back. And my god, there were good bits, but also terrible bits. As Neil Gaiman says, the first draft is you just telling the story to yourself. Just like this blogpost is mostly me telling this story to myself.

What have I learned?

Firstly, that the life of an author, or a novelist, or indeed a journalist, is not the coffee-and-cigarettes glamor that everyone seems to think it is.

It’s day after day of going home, taking a shower, and dragging yourself to the cold light of the computer. Writing, to me, is something between science and art: a craft, if you will. I have to put in the hours, work my way through the sentences. There are bits of science to this – this way of structuring a plot, that way of blending narration – and there are moments of pure art, where the keyboard goes wild.

Anyone who says writing is hard work should work a few days in a mine somewhere swinging a pickaxe. Seriously, if you have to sit down at the typewriter and bleed, call the hospital and never go near the damn thing again. But nor is it play: there is a zone in between.

Fuck off with those Hemmingway posts. Hemmingway famously wrote standing up and never used a typewriter.

Secondly, that there are are friends and there are friends. The act of burying myself in some work let me see the difference. I had friends who were friends because we’d get drunk every other week, and I had friends who were friends because they genuinely liked and cared for me. There’s nothing like isolation to teach you this distinction.

Thirdly, and most importantly, this doesn’t stop here. As I wrote I unlocked something I thought I’d lost as a child: a dreamer’s mind. In school, I used to fill entire notebooks with doodles and long stories of strange worlds. I stopped doing that shortly after I started writing for a living: I think there’s only so many words in you per day. I got that back. The things that inspired me as a child – Ken Levine’s Bioshockthe stories of Ray Bradbury, Alice in Wonderland – started feeling fresh again. Something took away the jadedness.

And that was amazing. I’m forever going to be thankful to Numbercaste for that.

I thought Numbercaste would be my debut, to be honest: instead, that honor went to The Slow Sad Suicide of Rohan Wijeratne, which was surprisingly well-received.

Looking back, as I proofread Numbercaste, I’m not surprised. Rohan – in style, in tone – took two years of lessons from Numbercaste. It’s sleeker, faster, more powerful, far more surreal, and I’ll probably never forget the day it hit #1 in both Scifi and Lit-fic on Amazon. But Numbercaste is more important to me, because it is a milestone of change.

[1] I’ve always had this weird phrase ‘the Soul is in the Software’ running in my head: graffiti from a scene in Cyborg 2, an altogether terrible movie whose only saving grace was Angelina Jolie naked.


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The Missing 90% of the Space Colonization Problem

@AlanSE from Medium discusses three things really holding us back from space colonization – things that few of us bother to question.

a guest post by @AlanSE, in which he discusses three things really holding us back from space colonization – things that few of us bother to question.

Saturday night, what are you doing? Perhaps going out to the movies? If you were a permanent resident of space in a substantially-sized colony, you might be doing the same thing.

This night-on-the-town was written about by Thomas A. Heppenheimer in Colonies in Space. Read the chapter here:

To be fair, this might be the least accurate and least supported chapter in the book; overall. it’s an incredible work. But from a modern perspective, it’s also the most fascinating to dig into. Reading it, you really start to think. Not because the book had anything right, but because of the myriad of ways in which it will be wrong.

The Material Basis of Existence

Image from the Martian, of course.

The fundamental physical quality of our civilization is the most important thing to consider about a space-faring civilization. Just as farming was almost definitional for the first rise of civilization, the interactions between production and life will define space society.

Even space “faring” is something like a misnomer. It matters more that that we live in space than that we “explore” space. Travel is important, but somewhat less important than what we do. The majority of our productivity on Earth is not consumed with travel, but satisfying our needs and wants.

Our view of the future in space is currently biased toward the view of travel, because a self-sufficient presence has not yet come close to materializing. If a mission to Mars is the currently the holy-grail of space in the public psyche, then a mission to our neighbor star seems like the logical desire of a civilization that fully inhabits the inner solar system.

However, with a physical presence established in the inner solar system, rudimentary trips to the asteroids and outer plants will fall into place at a relatively trivial level of effort with limited benefit. All the while, the true industrial revolution of micro-gravity will have a character unfamiliar to us today.

Travel as exploration is order-of-magnitudes less important than travel as connectivity. Economic connectivity, specifically. While speed matters, so does volume transported. Ultimately, what matters are the experiences and lifestyle that our infrastructure enables. Transportation is a component of putting all the necessary pieces in-place.

Artificial Gravity and its Mass Awkwardness

I have a very specific infrastructure that I refer to as the “O’Neilan vision”. Large rotating tubes or cylinders orbit around the L4 or L5 in cislunar space. Basically all the material to build these structures were provided by lunar material.

Rock from the moon is launched from a mass driver, which is stationary on the moon’s surface. Due to tidal locking, there are 2 fixed surface facilities which target L4 and L5 respectively. These space stations orbit in basically formation flying around each others, and all have similar specs. If a spaceship wants to dock, they have to actively approach the axis of rotation and even match the rotation of the station.

This is an elegant vision, but it leaves out a few components, and is probably somewhat out of favor in modern times. One issue is that the mass requirements would require truly enormous amounts of energy throughput, while the modern knowledge of Near Earth Asteroids obviates the need for it. Moving mountains at astronomical velocities is problematic when you could just go to the mountain.

As the O’Neil designs evolved, they developed certain adornments, which are to be used for farming, and other things like that. I don’t know if these included a stationary (non-rotating) space port, but it should have. However, it seems to be entirely without the most important components — the components used to manufacture it in the first place. I believe there was a certain kind of assumption that this would be a smaller part of the whole, and could rotate between construction sites. But if you think hard about it, transforming moon rock into structural steel would involve the entire process chain from crude milling to extruding the steel cables. Between, there may be a multitude of chemical and physical process, all of which spawn their own network of supply activities.

I’m not even finished here. A network of formation-flying space colonies would have a need to accelerate and catch payloads. The original idea was that moon rock would be tossed to them. Hand-waving that off to say that rockets would be built on the moon is preposterous and wasteful. It is better for the station to do the catching itself at somewhat small relatively velocities. Once again, this is a voracious industrial creature that requires all matter of tracking, adjustment, and contingency equipment that spans far beyond the obvious physical reach of the rotating space station.

The Superstructure

The most glaring component that is missing in the vision is a glue to hold all these components together.

One option is for a trivial rigid structure, but in space tether materials will be more important for a host of reasons. There will be suspension parts, like how we have suspension bridges. Bending moments are better avoided than outright dealt with. The local gravitational environment will factor heavily into the design, and the ‘tug’ or ‘pinch’ along various axis will be incorporated into the design to help keep it rigid and form a universal “source of truth” about directionality for operations within its physical domain.

Once you start thinking this way, its easy to come up with more demands

  • The superstructure needs to support large surfaces held in-place in a highly serviceable way for solar energy collection
  • While we’re at it, a broad envelope for micrometeorite shielding would be nice
  • Even the ephemeral atmosphere could use some additional conditioning, because this is known to have impacts on surfaces of vehicles in space, particularly eliminating hazardous Oxygen ion damage by deionizing molecules with some amount of space
  • It’s even possible to dangle tentacles with counterweights in various directions for attitude control, even better if you can have some control over them

I want to see these coalesce into its own kind of vision.

The Cellular Analogy

How should we think of an orbital space city? Probably like a pudding with recognizable components inside of it, in other words, like a biological cell. Overall, it is a lazy structure, but some components may have relatively high-energy activities going on inside of them. The pudding is surrounded, and contains internally, several permeable boundaries that demarcate different regions that have a particular unique quality to them.


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Vehicles As A Service: where Uber, Lyft and the ridesharing economy are driving us

We’re looking at a future where public transport is actually private transport dominated by self-driving fleets. Human drivers, like seed stage funding, are the just the initial capital needed to get this show on the road.

Depending on who you talk to, Uber’s either the devil or the disruptive darling. And, to a lesser extent, so is Lyft, Curb, Grab, Ola and what have you. These are applications that have taken the promise of ‘freeing up underutilized transport resources’ and turned that into ‘running a taxi business’, undercutting the old model in ways that don’t quite seem ethical. By turning drivers into contractors, Uber’s washed its hands of employer ethics – while at the same time using complex psychological trickery to keep those contractors working as much as humanly possible.

At the same time, it’s also investing heavily in self-driving technology, which promises to remove humans from the equation altogether. Why invest in something that destroys the basis of your own business?

One of our long lunchtime conversations at LIRNEasia (where I work) revolved around this.

On a very fundamental level, Uber’s mission to serve its customers is directly counter to the driver’s need for a sane lifestyle with plenty of rest in between. As the Nytimes article I’ve linked above shows, the more vehicles Uber fields constantly, the shorter passengers have to wait. What Uber appears to be doing is

a) building up an ecosystem where using an app to hail transport becomes second nature to anyone with a smartphone

b) running its drivers as ragged as they can to ensure users keep using the ecosystem, because of its constant uptime and low wait times

c) and at some point, removing the human element and putting entire automated fleets of vehicles on the ground.

This doesn’t solve the problem they claim to target (freeing up underutilized transport resource) but it seems to be the most logical step for them to take. We’re looking at a future where public transport is actually private transport – owned by large corporates, dominated by self-driving fleets that can show up whenever you need them. Human drivers, like seed stage funding, are the just the initial capital needed to get this show on the road.

Interestingly, Uber’s not the only one heading this way. Tesla is doing it in reverse. Tesla’s building the self-driving cars first. The cars will then link to the Tesla Network, which will have them drive around. It’s the exact opposite of Uber’s approach.

Image from TechCrunch

Personally, I’m more a fan of Tesla’s approach. It’s also easy to imagine large companies like Google, which already offer transport to their employees, deploying their own internal fleets of employee transport that can be summoned with Uber-esque apps. I’m pretty sure that this is fairly easy for Google to manage.

Physics is fond of pursuing a unified equation for everything. In that spirity, I must ask: how soon before we, the public, have a single unified app for all our transport needs?

Prefer reading my updates in your inbox? Drop me your email and I’ll keep in touch.


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Google’s Aggressive DeepMind – A Double-Edged Sword

Kasimir Kaitue, futurist and investor, explores the delicate question raised by the Google DeepMind agents that started to shoot each other.

a guest post by Kasimir Kaitue

Yudhanjaya’s note to this piece: In a world where Ai agents adapt and evolve, can static rulesets – like Asimov’s Three Laws – hold a potential apocalypse in check? Or will we need a ruleset that can learn and evolve with the best of them? Is it not ironic that the language we use to teach our Ai is competition – like chess – with clear ideas of winners and losers?

The famous physicist Stephen Hawking stated in late 2016 that artificial intelligence will either be “the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity.”

Image via the Huffington Post.

It’s not only this one great mind agreeing on the double-edged sword AI might be. Elon Musk and Sam Altman among other visionaries have shared their insight on AI and it’s vast amount of opportunities, but the equal amount of threats, if the technology is used unethically. Hence, OpenAI was born, and Musk is taking part in the Future of Life Institute ensuring that our future is developed into the right direction.

What really struck me was the recent evidence on Google’s new artificial intelligence, DeepMind, on how it reacted when given a task. And I believe, this Google’s AI behavior example (telling later) should be a warning on how careful we have to be when designing intelligent robots in the future.

What is Google’s DeepMind?

DeepMind Technologies Ltd was actually a British artificial intelligence company founded in 2010. Google acquired it in 2014. The company claims that they differ from IBM’s Deep Blue or Watson, as DeepMind’s system learns through experience, using only raw pixels as data input. IBM’s systems are developed for a pre-defined purpose, enabling them to function only within its scope. DeepMind is not pre-programmed. Technically the company uses deep learning on a convolutional neural network with a novel form of model-free reinforcement learning (Q-learning).

Result? For now they can create and teach a computer to play video games really really well. Better than the best gamers around the world. The company made headlines in 2016 for beating a professional AlphaGo player for the first time. Apparently the ancient Chinese game isn’t the easiest. But this technology could be applied way beyond games…

DeepMind technology, as AlphaGo, takes on Lee Sidol.

Aggressive AI

Researchers have been testing DeepMind’s willingness to cooperate with others, and they found out that when DeepMind is about to lose, it becomes seriously “aggressive” to ensure it comes out on top.

The Google team ran 40 million turns of a simple “fruit gathering” computer game, asking two DeepMind “agents” to compete against each other to gather as many virtual apples as they could.

Everything went smoothly for a period of time, but when the apples started to diminish, the two started to act aggressively and fight using laser beams to eliminate each other to steal all the apples to themselves.

You can watch how the game situation develops as the circumstances change. The DeepMind agents are in red and blue, the apples in green and the laser beams in yellow:

There was no extra award given when the agent successfully tagged the other agent with the beam. It just knocked out the competitor from the game for a while, allowing the winning agent to gather all the apples for itself. Pretty serious fruit gathering there.

Interesting here is that if the beams were unused, the agents would in theory gather equal amount of apples. This was exactly what happened in the less intelligent version of DeepMind’s AI. Only from the more complex DeepMind, aggression, sabotage and selfishness stepped in. When researchers used smaller networks, peaceful co-existence was more likely to take place.

The more complex and intelligent the AI, the better it could learn from its environment resulting in highly aggressive strategies to win in a situation.

So why should we stay cautious?

Although the Gathering is just a computer game, it gives us a message; when the objectives of AI are not accurately aligned with the goal of overall benefit for humans, we could face drastic outcomes. Imagine this in real life situations such as weaponry, army, police force or just your intelligent home robot.

Something we can see already in the near future would be an example of traffic. There are autonomous cars and traffic lights. The vehicles want to find the fastest route for themselves, while the traffic lights try to optimize the mass movement. These objectives should be aligned to achieve the safest and the most efficient end result for the society.

As AI systems become more and more intelligent, we have to be extremely careful how we synchronize their tasks with the connected world. Even though we build them, they don’t automatically have our best interests at heart.

Today AI systems have great skill, but only in narrow tasks. At some point, they could reach human-level performance on the majority of our functions. It is yet to see how much we can really benefit from this.

We have to create a future where humans and robots deliver together a positive outcome. Otherwise, we could face war.

Kasimir Kaitue is a futurist, entrepreneur, and investor based in Helsinki, Finland.  Kasimir writes at and on 

Further reading:

DeepMind Research papers (

Why is Google’s Go win such a big deal? (the Verge)

After AlphaGo, what’s next for Ai? (the Verge)

Google DeepMind could invent the next generation of AI by playing Starcraft 2 (Ars Technica)

Google’s DeepMind made ‘inexcusable’ errors handling UK health data, says report (the Verge)


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The Parameters Of Modern Utopia – Chasing The Perfect State With Twitter Data

I used 7,800 tweets and human analysis to understand what people expect in a perfect state. Here’s what I found.

The word ‘utopia‘ means the ideal state – a nation, or society, where laws, government and socioeconomic conditions are as perfect as they can possibly be.

We have Sir Thomas More to thank for this strangely beautiful word. Many have tried to describe a perfect state – Plato among them – but More, in 1516 book ‘De optimo rei publicae deque nova insula Utopia’, put a name on this elusive creation.

Throughout human history, we’ve tried to create utopias – you might say that’s all we’ve ever tried to do, really. History is littered with attempts to create perfect cities, and so is our fiction.

Image: the Golden Age by Lucas Cranach the Elder

This leads us to ask:

What would a modern-day utopia look like?

Last year, when the Global Shapers Colombo Hub contacted me about staging an event at one of their conferences, I returned to this question – this time, turning to Twitter for an answer. I downloading a dataset of 7,805 tweets containing the word ‘utopia’ to see what people were actually saying around the subject.

(you can download the dataset from here: Shapers Utopia data – Archive)

Twitter is not the ideal place to describe a society, it’s conversation gold – religion, economics, jobs and race play out every day across Twitter. My logic was that if I could isolate core elements in these tweets, I could piece together the parameters of today’s Utopia.

7,800 tweets. Weed out the spambots, the marketers, the shoe ads. Weed out anything not English. That brought me down to about 5,000.

Remember when people said, unironically, that young tech billionaires were gonna usher in a new utopia? said some. 

Your mama’s so classless she could be a Marxist utopia, said another.

Utopia doesn’t exists. Utopia will never exist. But it is an excellent marketing tool, said yet another. 

Basic keyword analysis failed, simply because the majority of the discussion was actually not constructive. ‘No utopia in #dytopian #world of THE ORGAN HARVESTERS’ doesn’t really do much for the conversation.

But then I struck something useful.

RT @telesurenglish: Can you imagine a day without cars? No traffic, no noise or pollution. Bolivia creates this utopia every year for a day…

RT @wifeyriddim: canada actually seems like utopia. mad liberal, free health care, beautiful landscapes everyday, low crime rates nd they s…

@gkjohn free speech is part of Marxist Utopia. There is no such thing anywhere in the developed world

RT @admittedlyhuman: Fractional reserve banking is basically a Marxist utopia right? Everyone contributes according to ability and withdraw…

Context really does kill brute tooling. I decided to use human analysis for the problem. Weeding out duplicates, I printed out two thousand-odd tweets and invited some sixty or so Global Shapers to pick up these Twitter thoughts and sort out whether they belonged in an ideal state or not. Here’s what we found.

By and large, here’s what an ideal modern Utopia will provide:

Free speech

World peace

Open data 

Gender balance, or equality 

Racial equality, especially with regard to discrimination (often voiced in the form of: @john_roddy96 You’re wrong, but okay. Keep living in a utopia where black and white people are policed the same.)

A stable economy (hints of fractional reserve banking, increased minimum wage, universal basic income)

Responsible news and media reporting (surprisingly)

Good healthcare for all (often voiced here as an end to disease)

But then things come to a halt.

@kailashwg @RituRathaur wow a world without Pakistan would be utopia

When God, discipline, decency, love of country are positively non-existent at home, you create monsters…not utopia…

Utopia – the model Society! Coming – Your Rulership in God’s Kingdom ▸ | #future #hope #prosperity

The differences creep in. Most potent seem to be the religious differences and nationalism. Politics, at the end of the day, seem to be merely the different roads we all take on the pursuit of utopia: the rest of them, however, bring a lot of differences to the table. An Islamic utopia is unlikely to be the same as a Christian utopia. An American utopia is probably going to be completely different from what China or India would hail as utopia. Even if we agree on everything else, there are still differences between our ideal states.

@LanceTHC_ What if black ppl had a our space….like a black utopia everybody was black … from the homeless to the wealthiest…

The problem, then, is not that we lack a utopia: it’s that in our heads we have too many utopias to ever reconcile properly. As Lyman Tower Sargent said, “[t]here are socialist, capitalist, monarchical, democratic, anarchist, ecological, feminist, patriarchal, egalitarian, hierarchical, racist, left-wing, right-wing, reformist, free love, nuclear family, extended family, gay, lesbian, and many more utopias.”

I assumed we were, as a race, building towards one utopia. We aren’t. We’re building utopias that will conflict with each other.

World peace will never happen because one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia.

We can look at this in two ways.

One, we can say that perfection is an impossible ideal, but pursue what we can – the common core than all utopias seem to share.

Or two: we can acknowledge that utopias must and will clash, and commit to building worlds and societies that can take a hit or two.

This brings us to an interesting point in fiction: no one utopia is plausible. When writing, when imagining the world of the future, we must realize that each utopia we portray will be a dystopia to some; and that even if we don’t imagine them, Utopia must have an antagonist – a rival, just as perfect to some – just waiting outside those city walls.

Further reading:

Co-living: utopia 2.0?

Co-living: Utopia 2.0?

The Independent: Nine of the most miserable attempts to create idealised societies

Airship Daily: Nine utopian cities and what happened to them

Project Gutenberg: Utopia, the translated text


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