Hindu holy mountain #1: Pavagadh

He took my hand. “Follow me. Move fast. Don’t stop.”

I’d spent the early morning looking round the tranquil mosques of ancient Champaner at the bottom of the holy hill.

(This is a good guide to them, plus I left a comment on buses which might be useful. It’s in Gujarat, west India, a little north of Bombay.) 

Now it was time to get to the top. Pavagadh. During the Diwali national holiday.

My guardian angel appeared just as I was utterly lost and led me to a crazy place where jeepney hurtle up and down, passengers throwing themselves at them to get in.

Two lads would often lead, running and barging into a moving truck to claim it for the rest of their extended family. A dozen people rammed into each one at all angles.

He was shocked how long it took us. He was a businessman who lived at the top of the hill, running a shop there. He said he was helping me as others had helped him when travelling in Europe, the Middle East and South America, and I can help others in turn.

Somehow we rammed ourselves in and bounded up the hill in jolts like spears fishing. 

Half way up was just as crazy – an endless queue for the cable car. My guide turned out to have an uncle who worked there.

We were whisked VIP to the front and on board.

From the car the thick, snaking pilgrims up the mountain on foot are visible. 

So many people! My first guardian angel introduces me to brothers, cousins uncles in their shops selling food, staged photos, puja materials. 

I say goodbye at his shop, picking up trinkets of Kali, goddess of power and subject of the main temple chaotically perched at the top of the hill. Onwards!

A dressed up cow charges for prayers. 

Shoes everywhere. 

I track up the down path, accidentally skipping the wait, getting away with it as the only European for a hundred miles. A place to tie up my shoes, hop over a bar, and I’m in the temple. 

Oh Kali! 

No photographs – you’ll have to go yourself.

As in all Hindu temples the centre must be experienced in real reality. To have line of sight of the deity for just one short moment!

VIP treatment, the attendant in delight and surprise at my foreignness, pauses to give me extra time. The mark on my forehead of puja to Kali.

The design of the shrine, the materials are ugly. Yet, I am elated. Everyone is elated.

Oh yes and that’s my second guardian angel, a student with his younger brother. Magically Kali makes them appear to go down the hill with.

Although I have a return cable car ticket, the queue is already long, so we decide to go down on foot. It is slow, hours and gets crushed and scary.

At a pinch point of a narrow bridge and the merging of an up and down path with traffic control guards, I can feel why people die regularly at pilgrimage sites round the world.

My new angel gets a tattoo and then finds he can’t pay for it as his brother had 100 rupees stolen in the crush.

I lend it to him, and yes he does pay me back when he meets his cousin at the half way house. His cousin is distraught, crying hysterically as they have lost his father.

They come every year from Ahmedabad, a couple of hours drive away. 

I leave them in a rush to be sure to catch a bus later, and somehow I get into a 4WD back down, sat above the other front passenger at an impossible angle. 

You get no pause to reflect. The mountain – dirty, uncontrolled, raw – sucks me in and spits me out again.

Was it all a dream? 

First, do no harm

A two year old draft blog post I just found, which is too good not to publish. Age leavens its earnest attempts to be ahead of trend.

New computer technology used to be my relaxation, my hope.

As the world has changed, that comfort has gone.

We grew up in a digital village. Now we’re in its seedy metropolis.

Tintin in America 29

A decade or so ago, I used my energy for emotionally hard problems to try and help with international development or democracy or climate change.

All the while, my childhood hobby was getting exponentially more powerful. Wonders appeared each year – the mouse, 3D graphics, buying things online, Python, Kuro5hin, a pocket electronic diary/address book, rsync, Wikipedia…

I now realise that this gave me the strength, the hope to deal with the hard problems.

Yes, there were threats to this nascent information society.

However, by the time I knew about each threat, there were already contervailing forces – free software, TCP/IP, the web. I joined those as they were being taken up by early adopters, missing the long, lonely innovator phase.

So even when our information society was in parlous danger, I was in massive, growing, hopeful communities fixing the problem.

There are three reactions to this. Perhaps we can make them stages of reaction.

1. Just despair

Snowden revelation’s about the routine spying we are all under combine with a certain geek knowledge that even if you love GCHQ, the same backdoors are being used by the Chinese, the Russians, organised crime… Who knows who!

Safe havens such as the Linux operating system no longer feel safe. It’s an age when massive security holes in even open source software are evocatively branded – heartbleed, shellshock.

I can’t even feel safe in the privacy of my once obscure command line. The common command “less” has a severe hole. “less” is the geek word for merely glancing at something on my computer. That should be simple and safe, but now I know it is flawed so attackers could remotely run their own nasty programs on my computer.

What can I trust?

2. Leap to the new fun

Where are the wonders now? It’s much easier to just get excited about them!

Skip the Internet now its tricky… Let’s start learning about augmented reality! Now that Magic Leap has $400 million to commercialise light field displays, let’s read up on our OpenGL and fesnangle a job projecting virtual pets into the palm of our hands.

(My favourite early job was making virtual pets)

That doesn’t have enough roar for you? Space exploration is looking quite fun right now. Let’s brush up on our rocket chemistry, move to LA and help colonise Mars.

Electric cars, blockchain, solar power, DIY bio… So much to pick from!

This summer, I went to Britain’s newish hackerspace festival Electromagnetic Field. The programming of the talks, and the attitude of us attendees, was effectively:

Oh man online privacy is so fucked … Wow shiny! Look at that drone!

Yeah, look at that brilliant quadcopter. Under-regulated, about to crash into aircraft this month, probably used to assassinate someone next.

Jumping to the next good thing is a cute, a tempting attitude. Yet deeply immoral.

Math is hard, let’s go shopping!

3. Be professional

I suspect this swing happens to all professions.

Post-war European architects were on a mission to build housing for everyone in society. Monsterous tower blocks later, funded by South American right wing dictatorships… By the 1990s, they’re building funky sky scrapers for wealthy corporations. Destruction, guilt, complexity everywhere. (See introduction to Radical Cities for a summary.)

Nuclear physicists, it’s obvious why their tech went evil! Well no.

Last week, at an exhibition just across the road from work, I read about three excited Liverpool physicists. They were playing with their radiation in the 1930s, for medical purposes! Using X-rays for the first time to get an invasive object out of a child’s foot. Developing cancer treatments.

And yet, the war comes, they already have one of the world’s few cyclotrons. Before they know it, whisked to Los Alamos for cutting edge refresher courses on quantum mechanics, and leading roles in the Manhatten project.

One of them paid penance for the bomb, spending much of the rest of his life campaigning against it, including founding Pugwash. They’re the organisation which makes the nuclear doomsday clock.

(For a bit more on this, “Why the future doesn’t need us” by Bill Joy covers it, and in its own way much of the ground of this blog post)

So seriously, we’re just whiny. Finally noticing our shiny tool can be used for evil. We had a lovely grace period when computers were innocent. They’re not any more.

Just being sad it isn’t fun any more won’t fix it – professionalism will.

Partly, some of us are fighting a rearguard action – desperately trying to co-opt a few new pieces of information tech, to create new protocols, to boldly reinvent business models.

That’s kinda nice – and you should keep donating to Mozilla, and crowd funding Indiephone. Watch some of my videos over at Redecentralize. Send your first GPG email using Mailpile. Every tiny action adds up.

And it won’t be enough.

I think the missing piece is a code of honour. A hipocratic oath for software.


It has to be shameful, humiliating, career destroying to make insecure, anti-human software.

We can sign it with an elipitic curve cryptography pen on the vellum parchment of a block chain, for all I care.

And sign it we must.

First, do no harm.

In praise of temple elephants

They all seem to be called Lakshmi. 

The first one I met at the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi. 

You pay a small coin for a blessing, which he takes with his trunk and passes on to his minder.

Then he touches your bowed head like this woman in Pondicherry. 

That one was at the Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple. An amazingly clean temple, worth visiting to see what Hinduism would be like in a clean India – something I hadn’t imagined possible, but it works!

I hope the elephants are treated well. I daren’t look it up. The one in Hampi had a morning wash in the river and seemed fed well.

Apparently some temples have four elephants. The south of India is the place to head to see them.

I love them. It’s partly rare to get so close to an elephant. Partly there’s a magic to an animal helping you worship.

Mainly they are just graceful and loving.

Scouring pad

I wrote this post two weeks ago before going on a meditation retreat. It felt too negative at the time; it isn’t in that it reflects my mood then.

India is like a scouring pad.

The dirt the dust.

Litter cast uncaringly – except in Pondicherry, as if to show it is deliberate everywhere else.

The highest ambition of the government cleanup campaign is to end public human shitting. By 2019, in this space faring nation.

India scours your flesh down to your bones.

Pavements are irregular motorbike park marketplaces. Walk the edge of the tarmac, dodge the buses.

Horns blare long and loud, rickshaws and articulated lorries warning that they’re undertaking.

Buses and their stations have labels only in the local language. No English, no Hindi – a different alphabet for each state.

India scours your ego down to your soul.

As if not enough, the Government suddenly withdraws 86% of cash.

Every transaction now a game of will to keep the balance of paper money you hold.
When you think you know any rule, it twists and turns spinning you off the foolish notion of a course.

Eventually the strange Indian sideways tilt of the head in conversations, a twist and back, makes sense.

Nods and shakes are too definitive. The way the world is – chaos joy – is the truth.

India scours you to anger, to impatience.

You can’t hide your lack of equanimity, not even from yourself any more.

Maybe this is why it’s from India so many people became enlightened, so many religions are spun.

India scours you to meditate.

Houses like trees

Zenrainman’s house is like a tree.

Grown out of the earth of its own basement on the edge of Bangalore, pressed into bricks. 

Nurtured entirely by water and light from its own roof. 

It breeds, symbiotically, large primates to maintain it. 

Treating their sewage. 

To water a rooftop rice paddy ready to grow enough to feed them. 

The spaces are full of art and light. 

Architecture students come and go, borrowing books.

They’re a means of reproduction, working nearby to design hundreds of similar houses.

The press call to ask a question on water. Bangalore is short of it, a chance at last for change. Sustainable water use. 

An itinerant British computer programmer appears for dinner.

They talk about technology and politics, about when opening data harms the common man, about dark mountains, about stamps, about China, about villages which aren’t on Google maps, about wasted tomato harvests, about building a helpful information society. 

All find Zenrainman in his chair. 

The house/tree attracting the world to one room like flowers to bees.

Just as our cells and our bacteria are equal in number… Is the organism the house or the rice or the human?

I imagine a million years passing, the methods maturing, the earth scattered with these strange complex constructs. 

An alien passes. What are these novel trees? 

Changing money 

Oh India! 

There’s always another surprise, toughening your way through the day. 

This week Modi, the Hindu nationalist PM, announced to the nation that the two largest bank notes were now worthless pieces of paper.

This clamp down on black markets and electoral bribes has a complex set of rules which let you trade in the old notes in limited ways, and heavily restricts use of ATMs. 

As a result, for the last few days banks have turned into queues like these ones in Hyderabad. 

Note the white pieces of paper everyone is clutching, forms to let them pay in the obsolete notes. 

Tourists are hit in an unusual way. India is largely a cash economy. While you can buy long distant bus tickets using various wallet apps, as far as I can tell you need an Indian bank account or credit card to load them up. Many hotels don’t take cards. 

So most tourists get out a lot of cash from ATMs, way more than any of the new limits on available money. 

As a result newly arrived backpackers in Delhi are living moneyless off the beneficence of strangers.

You can read my own experiences on this forum. In short I’m just about getting enough money, have cut my budget, and am now only using guest houses which take Visa. 

A few people have asked me to change notes in the street, and at a chat stall just now somebody explained that he is getting by on borrowing. Local suppliers are giving credit to people they know.

There are also good things. Hopefully India will become a bit more electronic. This bus ticket agent in Nagpur was putting up signs proud that they take credit cards. 

I arrived in Hyderabad near midnight two nights ago. A rickshaw driver was ripping me off, giving me 400 only for one of the old 500 notes.

A boy operating a nearby petrol pump was so upset at this he took out his own wallet and changed the 500 for five 100s. He gave a speech about India’s honour and reputation. Moving! 

In India everyone asks, if you’re a foreigner, to take a selfie with you. This gets gruelling at tourist resorts. In jokey frustration I often pretend to charge 100 Rs for this, making everyone laugh. 

Yesterday at the Buddha statue in the lake in Hyderabad on the spur of the moment I said, “yes, if you’d change an old 500 note for me”. The lovely matriarch of the family smiled and got out her purse. We laughed and all took some nice photos. 

She then offered to change another 500!

Communal pets

India is unusual in having two shared public “pets”.

Dogs are the ones that I’ve seen before in other countries, prowling every street and temple. These puppies with their sore-furred mum are in Pushkar.

Unusually, people feed them. The other day while waiting for a safari at a tiger reserve, I saw a woman feed a whole packet of sweet biscuits to a cute dog with lovely fur. Apparently the last chapati of a batch is reserved for a dog.

These are really friendly dogs. I’m a bit scared of dogs (I was bitten by one in Cambridge a while ago). A guide told me these peaceful ones that roam all Indian streets are nice because they, like many people here, are vegetarian…

The most famous communal Indian pet is of course the cow. Sacred in Hinduism, they really do just walk about by themselves, such as in the alleyways of Delhi.

And block the traffic – this van in Pushka had to wait 5 minutes to get these cows to move. 

This group are mooching on a major road by the station at Vadodara.

Some gangs cownap these free souls and smuggle them across the border to be slaughtered for meat.

In response, pro-cow vigilantes raid trucks at intersections, banging them to provoke any hidden cows to make a sound and sniffing to smell them out.

There’s talk of rounding up stray cows into sheds. Which would be sad to me, as they are a loving presence everywhere. 

Zero marginal cost

The next page I found in the notebook (after the last one) is my own view of the problem of information goods having zero marginal cost, so not functioning within capitalism. Paul Mason describes this in Postcapitalism.

Walking through the diagram…

“Zero marginal cost newtech” is the starting point. A “marginal cost” is a business term for the extra amount it costs to make one more of something. For digital goods, such as MP3s or converted PDFs, this is essentially nothing. This leads to the possibility of cheaper and cheaper, more and more freemium business models, driving the value of the information good in and of itself to nothing. The arrows lead out to four options at this point.

1.”Hard to build small business” means you slowly and tirelessly build up a tiny, global business which eats on the scraps left, the stubborn customers, the niches. This doesn’t make much profit, and is hard work. Look at pay for email companies, as an example.

2.”Monopolies” is when you force the market to have no choice but pay you, such as Windows in the 1990s. Or perhaps where you reduce the cost to zero to gain the monopoly, and use advertising for revenue – such as Google Maps. TomTom’s old business looks weak nowadays!

3.”Low profit” means there isn’t much money in any pure software businesses there are. This leads to “Poor computer security architecture”.

“Corporate privacy invasion” is done deliberately by the zero-charging monopoly to help sell adverts, or to sell your data to insurance companies, or whatever. It is done accidentally by poorly architected security in low margin software businesses, meaning you have data breaches and loss of privacy.

4.”Social info goods (Linux, Wikipedia)” describes the plus side of the zero marginal cost. You can make public goods and distribute them to millions or billions of people cheaply and easily. This is very satisfying.

“Non-market value” explains that the value of these social information goods is not measured by flow of money. Actually, that’s true of the value of zero-charge capitalistic goods too.

“Low GDP” – so the economic productivity of your nation looks much lower than it is. It doesn’t include encylopedias any more, even though people are getting huge value from them, more than ever. 

“Low wages, part time jobs” – finally both the power of global monopolies, their reduction in local services, and the general reduction in visible GDP caused by zero-cost information goods, reduces wages and increases part time jobs.

This is really a variant on the classic “robots will eat all the jobs” argument. It’s a simpler version of it, based on the robot we all have called a computer, which can infinitely replicate a digital good, tirelessly and at no (marginal) cost.

It’s worse than for physical goods, as you can’t even tax these robots to fund a basic income.

Sea. Sunlight. Calm. Trees. Laughter.

I found another oldish notebook. It’s about the edge of chaos.

The more lightly shaded left hand edge is absence, null, non existence. The dark shaded right hand side is total chaos, randomness. The sharp line down the middle is the edge of chaos – where things are balanced, interest lies, life grows.

There are four examples.

1. “Too few forum members” vs “Too many forum members”. If you start a new community, and nobody joins, it’s pointless emptiness. If it goes wild, and too many join, it ends up like a newspaper comments thread. There’s a pure balance, where the community is interesting and viable. (Reddit tries to avoid this dilemma by dividing itself in a cellular way making lots of subreddits)

2. “House alone” vs “Metropolis”. Living completely alone gives you no services no redundancy, living in a metropolis with tens of millions of people gives you slums and impossible property prices.

3. “No tech” vs “Intense tech”. Without any technology you’re impoverished. With too much, too fast, you can’t absorb it, polish it, make it fair, its dangerous side is emphasised.

4. “No customers” vs “Commodity competition”. When choosing a product/marketspace to enter you might pick one nobody will care about until after you’re bust. Or, just as bad, you might pick one where there isn’t just competition, but industrialised competition, where it is a standardised commodity impossible to compete with.

In every case there’s a balance. The question is, how to viably (with tangled hierarchy?) sustain that balance? A simple feedback loop will eventually steer you off into the void or into the white noise.

Everything that is good, everything that is alive, is at such a balance.

Sea. Sunlight. Calm. Trees. Laughter.

On finding political axes using maths

Drifting in the sea of political beliefs, left and right don’t seem to have any meaning any more.

It’s possible to make up new axes. Alas, these aren’t grounded in real views of the population, instead they’re distorted by the politics of their creators.

Luckily, there is a way of finding actual axes by experiment, using opinion polls and maths.

Back in 2005, my friends Chris and Tom persuaded a youthful YouGov to add a complete set of political position questions to their demographically weighted UK poll.

The results are summarised in these slides they made at the time.

(See methodology details with discussion in a blog post by Chris)

So to summarise, there are only two axes of political belief they observed by using maths to find which beliefs are correlated together.

The most powerful axis combines opposition to the EU, support of capital punishment, dislike of state funded international aid and wanting to tax working people less. I’d like ideas for what we should call each end of it – trust / distrust, soft / hard, open / ordered, internationalist / nationalist, remain / leave?

The second axis, which is quite a bit weaker, combines agreement with the Iraq war, love of free trade, support of genetic engineering and not wanting to tax rich people more. This is neoliberal / not neoliberal – it’s tempting to call it left / right or socialist / capitalist but I think that loses important nuance.

Those first two axes only account for 27% of the variation in beliefs. There are lots more political beliefs, but those are independent of each other. They don’t form useful clusters for the purpose, say, of forming political parties.

Referendum on EU membership

As a remain voter, the political establishment has largely backed my soft, trusting, open, internationalist viewpoint for the last 20 years. Pro immigration, pro international aid, against capital punishment.

My view is that this left half the population disenfranchised. They tried voting UKIP, but because of our electoral system, that got no power. In the end, the only way they could express their views was by threatening to split the Tory vote, forcing a referendum, and taking that one opportunity to exert one binary digit of power.

This is backed up by Eric Kauffmann’s research, summarised by the BBC as “The link between Brexit and the death penalty“.

In short, voting leave is highly correlated with being nationalist on the most significant axis of political belief.

Situation the Labour party is in

The Labour party has leadership and unity troubles at the moment. Would this were the worst of its problems.

The real problem is that the Labour party have lost lots of seats to the SNP, will lose more due to the reduction in number of MPs to 600 (analysis), and are in danger from UKIP in the North of England (analysis).

The referendum result, combined with knowledge that the main axis of political grouping is internationalist / nationalist (not some meaningless left / right), show a significant realignment of UK politics. Any Labour strategy to form a Government needs to take account of this – blindly supporting, say, a second EU referendum without would be foolhardy.

My personal view, especially as a green party member, is that if the Labour party continues to have internal divisions it might be time for them to unify on a platform of implementing proportional representation. The tactic would then be to join a progressive alliance to win a majority in favour of PR, then safely split the party based on other divisions later.

Hacking democracy when not represented

The first past the post electoral system hangs over lots of drama in UK politics.

It makes it impossible to form new parties, meaning any political view opposed by Labour and the Conservative party gets no political representation.

I think of the desperate strategies people have to take in response to that as “hacks” on the political system. They aren’t signs of a functional democracy, which takes on board significantly held views.

Here are three such strategies that have at least somewhat worked:

  1. Form a regional party, and so get lots of seats like the SNP (they have the least votes per seat).
  2. Wait nearly 30 years of pain being under-represented in Parliament like the Lib Dems, until there is a hung Parliament, then join a coalition with a voting reform referendum as the prize.
  3. Form a party like UKIP representing a cluster of unrepresented beliefs on an important political axis, get a couple of MPs by defection (and none from later winning 12.6% of the vote), use that to threaten to split (the vote of) another party, thereby forcing a referendum on leaving the EU.

The Green party’s call for a progressive alliance to implement PR is a new variant of 2. Given the situation of UKIP, it is a bit more plausible now than when the Lib Dems last tried their variant of it.


Ideally, I’d like the research Chris and Tom did to be run again, so we can double check they’re still the axes in 2016.

Meanwhile, I’d like commonly used names for positions on these two axes. Just to improve the quality of political conversation, as it is pretty incomprehensible without such names.

What names would you use?