The Dystopian Future of Big Data

Being a nineties geek, I grew up with the Matrix and Skynet. From there on, I moved to Asimov, HG Wells, Clarke, etc. Sci-fi and fantasy drew me in as surely as a flame does a moth. They talk about dystopias, these authors. Worlds where Ragnarok is about to happen, or has already happened. They talk about times when machines overwhelm humans, or times when the human civilization loses coherence due to any number of factors. Even today, games like Mass Effect strive to keep stories about impending doom alive. With enemies like the Reapers and Skynet coming, humanity needs to prepare as well as it can, right?

Well, maybe we should stop and think about where we’re going first.

Today, an increasing amount of data created by humans is indexed by bots and stored online. We create documents in GDrive/Office 360, send our mail over, blog on WordPress/Tumblr, and tweet and post indiscriminately. Few of us think about what we’re doing. And even fewer think about the consequences of this concentration of data.

I talked to a friend of mine about the demerits of actually using Google services. I was arguing against Google, and he was arguing for. He had many points in his favour (efficiency, awesome interface, seamless integration, etc.) while I had just one. Google collects my data.

“And so what?” he replied. “Number one, you have nothing worth collecting anyway, and number two, the only thing they do with that data is advertise according to what they find out.”

I stared at him, almost aghast at his open face which reflected none of my own disgust at this situation. Think about it. Someone’s looking into the conversations you’re having with your girlfriend, those little virtual kisses you share and keeping track. That same someone is also reading your conversation with your best friend when you ask him or her about life, the universe and everything. Your deepest and darkest secrets, which were once the solely known to the intended recipient and the paper it was delivered on have bots and spiders crawling all over them.

Upon making this argument to him, his reply was, “But they’re just bots. No humans look at this info.”

And he’s right. No one person, or even a thousand person company has the time to look at all those billions of conversations taking place on Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger and actually decipher them. But they don’t need to either.

Big Data

Big Data is the newest buzzword on the block. Wait. Actually, that’s not true. Big Data has been a fad ever since the internet entered its teens. And now that it’s in its tweens, Big Data has begun assuming even more significance.

For the ones living under a rock, Big Data is simply those terabyte-sized chunks of data Facebook generates every minute in messaging volume. Algorithms designed to decipher them fall are selling like hot cakes now. And that’s where the problem comes in. If someone with access to these databases wants to know about you, he doesn’t need to trawl through all your years of Facebook conversations. With the right algorithms analysing that data, he can easily get out whatever information he wants with the click of a button (or the right shell script).

Think about it. Your documents, your music, your videos, your conversations, everything is online. The NSA has already demonstrated that it has the capability to look at this data through any number of back doors. It was alleged that the NSA had compromised the RSA algorithm during the key-generation process. and with the power of Big Data, the NSA doesn’t need to trawl through your conversations to know about you. It simply has its algorithms do that for it.

The future of Big Data

If you think that isn’t such a big deal, you’re living an ostrich’s life. In the upcoming Apple event in September, Apple’s rumoured to be releasing a wearable. Most probably a watch. Google has already built prototypes of Google Glass and is deploying them in the real world. Samsung, LG, etc are building their own category of smart-watches. And this doesn’t even count things like Fitbit, the Nike Fuelband etc.

All these devices track you in some form or the other and store that data online. Whether it’s the number of steps you walked that day, or your heartbeat, your pulse or even the calories you consumed. All that data goes online and is stored on a server where it’s being indexed and analysed.

How does that affect us apart from advertising?

Well, the one place where this data would be extremely valuable is insurance. Insurance is one hell of a data-intensive industry. The more data they have about you, the more accurately they can judge how to screw you over when it comes to premiums. Minor health problems may be overblown, tiny things about you which might actually make no difference to your case might be taken into account while drafting your policy etc.

And it might not really stop here. The government hasn’t exactly shown consideration about user data as of yet. One of the things it might decide to do is to incentivise being healthy by allowing tax benefits to people who show a certain amount of exercise/calorie intake etc.

It might start from here. And it might go somewhere else entirely. Sure, it might be difficult to get this one passed, for there are great arguments for both sides. However, incentivising a healthy population might just win out over freedom of choice, especially in countries where obesity is rising alarmingly. And from there, it’ll become easier and easier to pass laws which convert a welfare state into a nanny state, and finally a police state.

The state might want to track people, for people joining terrorist groups is a national security concern. But once tracking starts for a few, extending that net to cover everyone becomes much easier. And once the internet of things becomes a reality, the state will finally know as much about you as you yourself do, if not more. Today, people are protesting against Israel by refusing to buy kosher goods. Tomorrow, your fridge might log the absence of kosher goods, and the bot reading these logs might flag you as an anti-Israel sympathiser. The anonymity we enjoy today might become a thing of the past as the state slowly extends its feelers onto us.

European police are already advocating that European cars have systems which will allow the police to remotely stop your car in case they need to, a system which will detect the speed limit of the smart road you’re driving on and not allow you to drive faster than that, a GPS tracker, etc. This all might seem great at first, but it has many problems. For law-abiding citizens under a benevolent government, these systems equate to convenience. But if this government changes to one not as inclined to benevolence for some reason or the other, these very same rules will give the state an overwhelming advantage over ordinary citizens. Cars being used in protests might be tracked and remotely stopped, their occupants trapped inside until arrest. In countries such as India, where a politician’s convoy makes regular traffic stop, this privilege might be abused by anyone with a shred of power.

It sounds dystopian and pessimistic. It should, for the future I’m suggesting is bleak. The founding fathers of the United States included a provision for self-defence, in order for the population to keep the government in check. However, the founding fathers, who existed before Asimov or the steam engine, could simply not have realised that the next great war would be fought with not guns and tanks, but with information and crunching capacity.

The language of Indian Education

There was a lovely article in The Diplomat a while ago which talked about one major perceived failing of the Indian education system namely, the medium of instruction. In India, unlike in most other countries around the world, children are educated primarily in English. The article brings some very valid points to the table. English is a foreign language for most Indians, it states. Learning a foreign language and then trying to learn concepts in that new language would be tantamount to Americans learning Mandarin and using it as a medium of instruction right from elementary school.

A primary school in India
Children learning to write, courtesy Live Mint

The article makes many other points; however, the importance of this one point cannot be overstated. And as such, it is important to state all the benefits and reasons for using English in light of this one important point.

Reasons for keeping English

There are two reasons for keeping English as the medium of education in India’s universities and schools. The first, and possibly the most important reason is that English is the world’s language. International journals publish in English, textbooks are written in English, most scientific terms are English words and if you speak English, you’ll be able to communicate with academics all around the globe. A good, working knowledge of English ensures that the only errors you’ll face are experimental and theoretical, not communication-related.

The second, and the more political one, is that the founding fathers, in an attempt to appease every group in India, decided to not take a stand on our national language. Given the time and situation, it was understandable. Even today, if a politician attempts to sidestep this provision of the constitution, he’d be voted out of office quicker than you can recite the alphabet.

The first reason is quite easily dismissed. A vast majority of Indians have no visa on their passports (if they possess passports in the first place) and are unlikely to go abroad or exchange ideas with foreigners. The second reason, on the other hand, merits a pause and more than just a cursory brush-off.

The cultural and linguistic legacy of British India

British India was a complicated place. There was British India proper, and then there were hundreds of different states all over the sub-continent. Sardar Patel was instrumental in getting these states together to form modern India. However, the legacy of these small and fractured kingdoms as well as India’s rich and storied history is the number of languages left behind for us to manage. The 2011 census lists 1,635 rationalised mother tongues.

A map showing the major languages spoken in India state-wise
A map showing the major languages spoken in India state-wise – sourced from

Of course, that’s all the languages they could find, and just to be on the safe side, let’s assume that there are some duplicates on that list. Taking all that into account, though, the census still tells us that the number of languages spoken by more than a million speakers each in India is 30.

Take a second to absorb that fact. There are 30 languages in India which are spoken by over a million people each. And that’s just half the story. They’re not just spoken by a million people each, each of these languages has more than a million people claiming them to be their mother tongue. This poses an interesting conundrum. One argument goes that Hindi remains by far the most dominating language across the sub-continent, and hence should logically be considered the language of choice across India. Bollywood, arguably the country’s most popular film-making industry is predominantly Hindi-based. The language used by most TV shows (ones which have pan-India viewership, at least) is Hindi. It’s also the one language mandatorily taught across the country. Hindi is a language spoken and understood by most urban residents of modern India across its provinces (except for the deep south and parts of the north-east).

However, India remains predominantly rural. The hinterlands of Andhra Pradesh, for example, do not contain people who would understand Hindi. The argument for using a State’s national language as the medium of instruction is a citizen’s familiarity with it. If a language is used with one’s family members, friends as well as teachers, then it removes one great barrier to learning. Unfortunately, many proponents of the status quo claim that Hindi does not fulfill the criteria required to be such a language. Not enough people use it for casual communication, it is claimed.

A third alternative, one which seems, at first glance, to properly address this issue, is to use a province’s mother tongue as the medium of instruction in its schools. It gets people educated in their mother tongues while retaining the diversity India boasts as a result of its rich history and culture. However, if we look at it with a jaundiced eye, we find a big, fatal flaw in this solution. If you use thirty different languages to teach the basics of science, literature, philosophy and society, then one criterion people would have to pay attention to while searching for an institute of higher learning would be its medium of instruction. Engineering students from the Hindi speaking belt, for instance, would not be able to study in IIT Madras or IIT Bombay, while students of the arts from Andhra Pradesh would not be able to fit in well in Delhi University. This policy would end up isolating regions linguistically which would lead to factionalism and quite possibly, calls to secede from India. Another problem would be that the best talent across the country would not be able to learn from the best teachers simply by the accident of being born in another linguistic zone.

A choice between many evils

In summary, the choices before a politician brave and foolhardy enough to moot changing India’s linguistic practices are all bad. India happens to be in a unique position in history, and as such, it is important for us to consider carefully the steps we take from here. Education is the key to a rich, vibrant society and whatever decision is taken will need to take care of the demographic bulge just across the proverbial corner.

  • Keeping the status quo hasn’t exactly paid us any dividends. There are parts of the country where education levels are sub-Saharan, and in some places, even worse.
  • Switching the medium of instruction to Hindi is both political suicide, and it also reeks of favouritism and linguistic chauvinism. Not only is Hindi not better than any of the other 30 languages we can use, but it’s not the mother tongue of a majority of the population either.
  • Switching to a regional language will lead to factionalism and other problems, like the best minds facing communication barriers.

We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. And quite frankly, there’s no wiggle room. Any choice we make is bad, and it’s really time to see which one of these has the fewest cons.

That’s not a car, that’s a lunchbox!

I remember this quote by Jeff Dunham’s puppet Achmed the Dead Terrorist. Powder Blue Prius, Chihuahua, Prius, puppets, Jeff has everything required to be called “gay”, according to both Achmed and Walter, another puppet.

That was my introduction to the Toyota Prius. I’d never seen it in India, and I’d never seen it in Taiwan or Singapore either (though to be fair, I think I’d visited Singapore before the thing had been released). And since I was too lazy to google it up, well, my impression was that it was a tiny car with almost no leg space and room enough for only two people.

So I was jogging the other night. 1am, quiet Kyoto streets, you know. The works. No earphones, though, I like jogging without music. The streets were incredibly silent. Just me, the slight burning in my legs, and my thoughts.

Or so I thought.

The crunching of gravel was the only thing which alerted me to the fact that I was not alone. I stopped jogging. The gravel stopped getting crunched. And suddenly, the road was flooded with light. I turned around to see a glossy black sedan behind me.

A whole bloody car. Not a hatchback. A ruddy sedan, had crept up behind me without getting noticed.

I stepped aside, and the car silently rolled by. As it crossed me, my eyes caught the “Prius” branding momentarily illuminated by a streetlamp. I swallowed, my preconceptions breaking down.

It didn’t look very different from any other car, except the fat in its posterior. Looked as if someone had fed the car through the wrong end, and the car was still chewing.

Okay, it was more graceful than that, but I digress.

And I just stood there for a full minute, watching it roll away silently into the distance. It made no noise. None of the traditional car sounds of revving engines and acceleration were made. It accelerated silently, and it cruised even quieter.

Wow. If a Prius is that awesome, I wonder what a Model S would be like!

The colours of the rainbow

I wrote this as an experiment. This piece does not reflect my true views on the LGBT community. As I am not a member of said community, it would be difficult for me to understand their views properly. Hence, I am neutral in the issue. If I were called to vote on the issue of gay marriage, for instance, I would not vote, no matter what the stakes.

“Should he have resigned?” he asked me.

“I don’t know, mate,” I said, working on my laptop.

“Come, on,” he urged me. “Think about it. Give me an opinion! I want to know your stand on it.”

I rolled my eyes. He could be such a drama queen at times.

“Forget the fact that I’m gay, mate,” he said. “And you know that I won’t hold anything against you.”

I sighed. “Fine,” I responded. “I don’t think Eich should have resigned from his post of Mozilla CEO. Happy?”

“Reasons, man!” he hollered, a large grin on his face. “I need your reasons!”

I groaned. The only way to oblige him here would be by acquiescing to his request. I took a deep breath.

“Look,” I began, “What is a company all about, hmm?”

“Building a product,” he replied.

“And what is Mozilla building?”

“Firefox, and Thunderbird, or they were building it anyway. Oh! And Firefox OS.”

“Exactly. And what does Brendan Eich’s stance on Gay marriage have to do with any of them?”

“A lot, I would think,” he replied, his voice turning a tad serious.

“How is that?” I asked.

“Well, imagine if my employer openly discriminated against the LGBT community,” he said. “Would I be comfortable working with him?”

“Mate, giving a donation to prop 8 is hardly discriminating against the LGBT community.”

“But it is!” he was getting serious now. It had started as fun, but I knew that this would need me to abandon my essay to focus properly. “He’s taking away my right to be with the man I want!”

I sighed. “No one’s taking your right to do that away. What you can’t do is legally marry him.”

“And isn’t that discrimination?” he pointed out. “Isn’t that the kind of discrimination sane, thinking human beings want to put an end to? I realise that you’re not particularly receptive to the feelings of the LGBT community yourself, but you’ve never said anything against their agenda either.”

“Well, think about it this way,” I said. “What is the end product of a marriage?”

“Happiness,” he replied instantly.

“Well, lots of heterosexual men would object, but no, that’s not what I meant.”

“Then what?”

“Children,” I replied as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

He stared at me. “Man,” he said at last. “That is so nineteenth century.”

“No, think about it,” I replied. “Can any other institution allow you to have children?”

“No,” he said.

“Then? The only thing a state gets out of a marriage is new citizens. If you take people’s emotions out of the equation, then what is the need to allow gay or lesbian marriage?”

“But you can’t take human emotions out of the picture,” he pointed out. “Lots of people marry for reasons other than bringing forth kinds into the world.”

“And yet a majority of those in a marriage end up having kids,” I pointed out.

“Agreed,” he admitted. “But still, children is not the reason people marry. People have children when they are comfortable enough. It’s just a side product of marriage.”

“The most important side product of a marriage,” I pounced on his statement.

“Happiness is the most important side product of a marriage,” he pointed out. “People get divorced because they’re unhappy in their marriages, you know.”

“I do,” I replied. “I know that marriages break apart because of tension between the couple. But that tension can be caused due to many factors. You need to be happy in whatever you’re doing. Children could be a major reason for that tension, so could religion. Who knows? Maybe the wife suddenly realises her husband is a dumbass. It could be anything.”

“So the point where we disagree is the biological side product of marriage,” he said. “Well, it has been proven that homosexuality is biological.”

“And you know something else?” I said. “The very nature of human reproduction means that homosexuality is doomed to die out.”

“And yet,” he countered with a smile, “it hasn’t.”

I smiled back. “It hasn’t,” I replied. “But again, we’ve drifted off topic. How does this discussion affect what Eich’s decision should have been?”

“Because Eich supports inequality,” he replied.

I sighed. “I don’t think he does, fella. You’re allowed to marry whichever female agrees to marry you, as am I. How’s that unequal? He never tried to make things unequal for you.”

“He’s taking away my right to love whoever I want and not get vilified for it.”

I stood up. “You know something? If I went back home and told my mother that I’ve fallen in love with a Black, African woman, my mother will try to be happy for me. But she won’t be as happy as if I had chosen a White girl. Quite a large faction of my ‘modern Indian family’ will be scandalized.

It would have been the same thing had I suddenly decided to go gay. My parents would have been supportive, I’m sure, but I’m certain my grandmother would have gone into depression.”

“Well, that’s not right either,” he pointed out. “That’s pretty racist and petty of them.”

“My point is,” I said, glancing at him to shut him up, “that their views don’t mean jack to me. I can go against my family’s views and not care that they’ll stop loving me. I think it’s pretty clear that Eich might have, at one point, been against gay marriage, the same way I am academically, but that hardly means that he’s going to order all the members of the LGBT community to GTFO or STFU. In fact, I doubt he would honestly care what you do in the confines of your house, or even if you bring your partner to work for some reason.”

“But imagine this,” he argued. “Your employer is working actively to make sure that you never get to marry a chick from another country. Would you still work with him?”

“But is Eich actively doing that?” I shot back. “He donated $1000 once to prop 8. If my employer had once donated to some cause I hate, short of a terror outfit, of course, I wouldn’t really care. I mean, yeah, I work for you, and we have different views on something. That’s it. End of story. We smile and move on. That’s what a professional should be like.”

“Except that you probably don’t have issues that hit so close to home,” he pointed out. “He’s not violating a fundamental right of yours.”

“He’s not violating one of yours either,” I countered. “His supported view is not enforced any more, and you’re hounding him for a donation he made to a cause which was supported by the majority at that time. It makes little sense.”

“I don’t feel comfortable working with someone who hates people like me. I don’t feel comfortable knowing that he has it in him to fund something which tries to take away from me something which makes me happy.”

“What? The right to be with your partner? No one’s doing that to you. You can’t marry him, but you’re free as ever to walk out into the sunset holding hands. No one can legally stop you.”

He threw up his hands. “You’re impossible.”

“No,” I replied smugly, “My point of view is different from yours. I’m speaking as the devil’s advocate here regarding LGBT rights. Of course you should have them. But even if your employer decides that he or she personally does not share your views, you should not let your professionalism suffer for it.”

“Also,” I continued after a short pause, “Movements like Feminism and even LGBT Rights tend to irritate me. They make a lot of noise. Yes. I agree that you need your rights. Yes, I know that you’re fighting for them. But why do you have to emphasize it all the time?”

“Because every waking second for us is a struggle,” he said softly. “We’re denied things you heterosexual men take for granted. Freedom to choose who you want.”

“Then get into the government and change things,” I pointed out. “Rallies and excessive noise, like feminism, actually creates animosity.”

“That’s how we make people understand, that’s how we force them to look at the issue.”

“And for someone like me who’s actually looked at it, it’s annoying. I sympathise with your plight. That doesn’t mean I’m going to lift a finger to help you.”

“Evil is propagated when good men decide to do nothing. Don’t be one of those men.”

I took a deep breath and let it out. “I’m not going to be an obstacle to someone who’s doing something about it. I’m not going to be someone who doesn’t support people working on this. But don’t expect me to take the initiative. It’s not my fight.

When LGBT decides to add polygamy to it, call me. I’ll be protesting right up there with the best of you.”

#2 – Doshisha Mae

This is a short piece I wrote to increase my flash fiction writing skills. I’m going to be doing this regularly in order to help build them up and to learn to get inspired from the tiniest of thoughts.


She looked up at me, a slightly quizzical look on her face. Michael and Ju Eun stood around 10 feet away, pretending they didn’t know me. It wasn’t easy, seeing that the three of us had been sitting together with Nick at Starbucks for the past hour. Nick, typically, was already outside, not interested in seeing me embarrass myself with a girl.

I’d been staring at her for the past 30 minutes. There were beautiful girls all around us, but somehow, she had been the one who’d struck me. And this itch to walk up to her, and tell her that she was the most beautiful thing this side of Eden just wouldn’t subside.

“Yes?” she asked. Her legs were drawn up on the couch she was on, a half full glass of black coffee on the table in front of her strewn with books. They looked mysterious to me, with Hiragana and Katakana symbols (which I could vaguely remember) and Kanji (which I’m hopeless with) smattered across them. A notebook was open in a delicate hand and she held a pen with the other, one end of which was trapped between her pink lips in a gesture both innocent and sensual the the same time.

I swallowed.

“I was just wondering,” I began, a slight hitch in my voice (down, boy!), “what you were working on. Are they log tables or something?”

Log tables. Yeah. Way to go. Next thing she’ll be asking me if my name’s Raj Kuthrapalli.

She scrunched her nose up for a second as she processed my statement, and my legs grew weak for a second. Only a second, as I managed to regain control over them a second later. That expression, my brain decided despite being on the verge of shutdown, needed to be burned into my mind and etched into the inside of my skull.

And then she smiled. “No,” she chirruped, “I’m making my timetable. I just started at University today, and I need to pick my professors.”

My brain receded from the edge of total lockdown to saner pastures. “Ah,” I replied, my hesitant smile becoming a tad more genuine. “We did the same thing back at Uni in India. What’s your major?”

“I’m in Political Science,” she replied, her voice sweet as honey. My eyes travelled from her impossibly bright eyes to her notebook, which had nothing but doodles in it. A dainty hand darted forward and shut it. My eyes followed that hand back to its owner and her face, a slight blush on her features.

“I’m not done yet,” she said shyly.

My smile grew wider and slightly conspiratorial. “That’s okay,” I winked, “I won’t tell anyone.”

She grinned, and I grinned with her. “You’re from India?” she asked, stretching in a cat-like manner.

I nodded, my eyes trying not to leave her face. She was dressed beautifully, a white top with the sleeves rolled up slightly to facilitate writing and a short black skirt underneath. Her legs were two smooth pieces of marble stretching away to eternity.

“I’m working at Kyodai,” I said. “You?”

“Doshisha-mae,” she replied.

“Ah,” I responded. “Well,” I realised that I had taken enough of her time. Michael, Nick and Ju Eun had to take the last train back to Osaka, and if I just stood there talking to her, I wouldn’t be able to board it with them (I was taking the same train back to Katsura). “I need to leave now, but it was really nice talking to you.”

“Nice talking to you too,” she said.

I turned away, and walked back to Michael and Ju Eun, and we began to walk towards the exit. My head turned reflexively to stare at her. Only to find that she was staring right back with those impossibly bright eyes, a smile on her face as her fingers went through her bangs. An innocent gesture, but one which was enough to make my heart beat at a pace which would have made John Bonham proud.

She had just a hint of makeup on, enough to accentuate the slightly snobbish look she had and make her lips look fuller. In a kimono, she would probably have had heads turning left, right and centre. My eyes strayed below her face to catch a golden pendant winking at me. I looked back up. Maybe I imagined it, but a knowing glint had entered her eyes. Eyes which seemed to say, “You naughty boy. You’ve been looking where you oughtn’t.” They accentuated her snobbish features even more.

Maybe on another day, those features would have looked stuck-up. She might not put on makeup in such an elegant fashion again. Maybe she would not choose her clothes with the eye of a tasteful fashion designer.

But I would never know, I realised with a pang as my brain caught up with my body.

We hadn’t even exchanged names.

#1 – For want of money

This is a short piece I wrote to increase my flash fiction writing skills. I’m going to be doing this regularly in order to help build them up and to learn to get inspired from the tiniest of thoughts.

“What do you mean by that?” I asked

“Exactly what I said,” was his reply.

I looked at the scene in front of me. From the beggar and her baby, both covered with filth to the man standing beside me. I was meeting him after a few years. Back then, when we had hung out together, we used to be inseparable. We’d go out for movies together, go out and pick up chicks, act as each other’s wingmen, you name it, we’d done it. Then I’d gone to the US. I’d received an offer I couldn’t refuse while he had decided to stay on in India. I’d been gone seven years.

Things had changed since then. He’d greeted me like the old friend I was at the airport, but everything since then had been different. He’d tried to make sure that things remained jovial and normal, but somewhere, somehow I had noticed a tension. My friend had changed. And I wasn’t sure that it was for the better.

He’d been reluctant to tell me what he did for a living. I hadn’t known why then, but I knew now.

“You’ve injected the baby with heroin?” I asked again, to confirm. My brain was certain that my ears had failed it.

“I haven’t done it myself, but that’s what’s been done,” he explained quietly. “That or the baby’s been fed some alcohol.”

“Why?” I asked. Somehow, curiosity overrode revulsion.

“To keep him quiet, of course. She’s not his mother, and what do you think will happen once he wakes? He’ll be screaming and kicking. She won’t be able to beg properly if that happens.”

There was a pause.

“Do you also maim beggars in your jurisdiction?” I asked, my pitch increasing.

“Of course,” he shrugged, turning around, his leather boots clacking on the pavement. “You need an element of pathos for men to care.”

“They’re humans as well,” I said, the disgust finally welling up.

He stopped and turned me around. His eyes were calm, his gaze steady. “Tell that to the next whore begging me to buy her child.”

Customizing the Arch Desktop – Without a DE

One of the most fun things you can do in Linux is customize the way it functions and looks. And if you’re on Arch Linux, this is encouraged. Outrageous configurations are the norm, and if you tell someone that all you have installed on your laptop is tmux and a prayer, no one bats an eyelash. Chances are the next comment is going to be, “Been there, done that.” (I actually have been there and done that. It’s fun, you should try it out.)

The last time I posted about Arch, I posted about getting a stable and infinitely sexy XFCE config running. Since then, I decided to go DE-hopping, and ended up using Cinnamon for around 2 months and KDE for a few weeks. That brought me to a very important question. What exactly constitutes a DE?

A fully functional DE
A fully functional DE

The building blocks of a DE

A DE such as KDE has so many threads interweaved into its fabric that untangling them would take me a few days. There are daemons to tell programmes what time zone I’m in, for heaven’s sake. The others are all relatively simpler, but usually, you can break down a DE (after removing its bells and whistles) into the following:

  • (Roughly speaking) A DE init system
  • A Window Manager (with a compositor, if your DE is any good. I’m looking at you, XFCE.)
  • A panel (multiple, if you like) with a system tray, a menu-type launcher, optional quick launch, task manager, clock, etc.
  • A file manager
  • A terminal emulator
  • A dbus notification server
  • A quick launch/search program
  • Weird services I wasn’t able to understand, but which presumably serve some purpose
  • Weird services I do understand which serve no purpose (viz. Akonadi, Nepomuk, the time zone daemon in KDE)
  • A control panel for all these items

How much of it do you really need?

Not as much as you usually use, that much I can tell you. Actually, answering this question requires you to ask yourself a very basic and simple question. What do you want your DE to do?

A good DE tries to get out of your way
A good DE tries to get out of your way

For me, the answer was plain and simple. I want it to be there when I need it, to be perfectly suited to my workflow, to provide no distractions and to display the needed amount of information for me to have both peace of mind and the ability to work. In short, I want my DE to get out of my way.

All this time, I’d been trying to do that with XFCE, Cinnamon and KDE. To be fair to both XFCE and Cinnamon, they weren’t exactly in my face all the time. They were both joys to work with. However, I had a few weird problems in Cinnamon regarding my phone (I couldn’t browse it at all) and I didn’t really like gnome-terminal. I could have replaced it, but that’s what the DE wants you to use.

XFCE was almost perfect. I almost rue leaving it to go DE-shopping. However, in my quest to find a DE with the perfect blend of features and performance, I decided to leave it behind. (I haven’t tried LXDE yet. Maybe that should be my next target?)

Going to a WM

That, ladies and gentlemen, was my solution. Let’s throw away all this DE crap and go over to a WM! Sounds fun, right? Well, let me be the first to tell you that it was. UI customization is what I love, and starting with a fresh Arch install got my blood pumping. Mind you, though, that I did not mindlessly install base. Several useful components were deliberately left out (like cronie), so if there’s anyone who’s trying to follow my footsteps, I would recommend that you either simply install base and base-devel and be done with it, or head over to LFS and get down and dirty once, ’cause that will teach you a lot more than Arch or even Gentoo.

I installed my base system, got netctl working and happily added Bohoomil’s infinality repos to my pacman.conf. Now what? X server, of course. I took care to install the bare minimum. To tell you what I mean by that, my memory usage after my bare minimum install, connecting to the net and getting a pptp client running (I was going through a VPN) was near around 108 MB. Which is nothing to sneeze at. I use zsh, which is slightly heavier than bash, and I use it extensively. So you’re probably going to get better stats than me if you use bash.

I wanted to keep my work environment clean and slim. Why, you might ask. Why try something like that on a system with so much memory to spare? Well, quite simply this. I want as much memory available for the applications I use. So that when Firefox runs on a laptop with 4 gigs RAM, I don’t open Htop to see that my system has started swapping (it never came to that, but on KDE, it was routine to see 3450/3820MB used).

I decided on Openbox. Why? It’s very light, it’s minimalistic, and it gets out of your way. It allows for endless customization, and plays ball by being toolkit agnostic (not that I care, but it’s a nice point nonetheless).

Because Openbox can look extremely good
Because Openbox can look extremely good

Of course, Openbox by itself doesn’t give you everything you need. Compositing, for one, is simply not there. Many people will tell me they do not need it, but I prefer and use translucent terminals. I also like seeing shadows, windows fading in and out, and a hint of translucency here and there. Maybe Kwin is overkill, but something lighter? I decided to use compton.

I spent a lot of time searching for a good panel. I decided on tint2 in the end. It is quite light, supports all I need from a panel and is insanely customizable. I took the tint2-svn package from the AUR, for it has the ability to add launchers (for which I added custom .desktop files).

For my terminal emulator, I decided on rxvt-unicode-256colors. Not only is it very light, it is flexible and can be configured using your .Xresources file. Perl extensions can extend it to work exactly like the terminal of your choice. Which is good, for you’re definitely going to add just those pieces of cruft you do need.

With urxvt and pcmanfm
With urxvt and pcmanfm

For a file manager, I decided on pcmanfm. However, I did not install gvfs (for automounting) or the like. The whole point of pcmanfm was to make sure that the file manager is light and gets the job done. To replace the functionality of gvfs, I decided to use udisks (not udisks2) with udiskie.

Strictly speaking, udisks isn’t really needed. In fact, if you believe Ignorant Guru (search him up if you don’t know who he is), anything Red Hat is evil. He is the author of a very flexible (albeit visually cluttered) file manager called spacefm. He has written his own tool called udevil in response to both udisks and udisks2. You can use udevil and devmon instead of udisks and udiskie. However, I remember reading the words of an Arch dev who called Ignorant Guru’s views on udisks out of touch, which made me come back to it.

Udiskie is a small tool which makes it easy to mount/unmount devices from your system tray. Is it needed? Not really. I had it just in case I wanted to work with devices outside the file manager. I’m now thinking of adding a few keyboard shortcuts to Openbox to mount/unmount things and remove udiskie completely. I could always open pcmanfm if I wanted to work with multiple pen drives at once.

For knowing my network status at a glance, I have netmon sitting in my tray. It doesn’t really do much, just shows a nice icon which can tell me the status of my network at a glance. Do I need it? No. But is it good for peace of mind? Yes.

For a volume icon, I use volumeicon. It gets the job done, and doesn’t require pulseaudio. I need no more. If I need better control over my audio, I’ll open alsamixer.

My conky is compiled with lua support enabled. This allows me to easily add translucency using a little script I lifted off someone (who lifted it off londonali).

I use feh to set my wallpaper, and gmrun as a quick program launch.

The fruits of this labour?

Well, apart from feeling incredibly self-satisfied, I guess the real fun is in knowing that after I log onto my own, so called, “desktop environment”, I use around half the memory my XFCE used to use (XFCE – 440 Megabytes at startup, I use around 218-220 Megabytes at startup). I don’t have a file manager running in daemon mode all the time to manage my desktop (ala all desktop environments), everything is extremely snappy, all configuration is done using human-readable config files I understand (I wrote them, after all) and there is no extra package on my system.

The applications I use on a laptop configured thusly are Firefox, MPD, VLC, Skype, Calibre, etc. I don’t use Libreoffice (LaTeX FTW), and I am all the happier for it. I’d love to use mpv on this instead of VLC, but mpv skips frames, for some reason, which annoys me. I have a thing about videos. They must be perfect, else I’m going to crib about them. VLC is good, so I don’t complain. Much.

A deeper question is, is it worth it? In the long run? Well, I can’t say. My laptop’s got no battery left (I’ve abused it thoroughly in the 3.5 years I’ve had it), and it runs wholly on AC power. However, judging by the way my fans whir, I’d say yes. ‘Cause I used to have a jet engine on my lap with KDE, and now I have a sleeping baby.

At times it gets up and wails, but it mostly sleeps soundly.