Geneva Diaries #69*

Family Portraits in Pictures, Knights and Knaves, Ex Machina, Travels to Austria

A Family Story in pictures

On Fri, May 8, 2015 at 9:42 PM, Roger Stevenson wrote:

Dear Purnima,

It does seem to be far too long since we last communicated, but you have never been far from my thoughts. It was really delightful to chat briefly with you while you were in San Francisco, and your connection with the Asian Art Museum in SFO sounds terribly exciting. Do let me know how that turns out. It might even bring you back to California on a regular basis.

I’m just slightly jealous of your planned trip from Austria to Geneva and spending time reminiscing at all of your(our) old haunts in the city. I think I told you that when I was in Geneva briefly last October, it was strange being back, especially since most of my Geneva friends no longer lived in the city. I felt very much the stranger/outsider. I hope you all have a wonderful time.

We are all struggling with the terrible water shortages in California. Most of the lawns in front of houses are now brown or else being replaced by less water-thirsty plants than grass. I almost feel guilty watering my vegetable garden, but I do it by hand rather than use the sprinkling system. We even collect the water in our shower that we run waiting for the hot water to arrive and then use it to water the plants and flowers outside. It was supposed to rain yesterday, but it only amounted to about five minutes of rain that barely got the ground wet on the surface.

I’ve been a little caught up in an idea that I know you are also concerned with: Artificial intelligence. We saw the new film, Ex Machina¸ last week, and really liked it. You should go see it if you get a chance. It poses the question of whether a machine can truly express human emotions and learn by itself independently of the humans who programmed it.  Can you fall in love with a robot who has a beautiful face and body and who convinces you that she really cares for you? What are the implications of AI should scientists actually end up programming such a “creation” ? is it something that we should fear or embrace. Would AI run amok pose an existential threat to humankind?

We haven’t done much globetrotting since our last trip. We are taking Alexandra to New York City in July as a birthday present. We have tickets to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch and I’m going to see a play that was a huge hit in London and has now migrated across the Atlantic to off-Broadway, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. It should be a fun trip, and I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t been to NYC since 2003 when Annick still worked for the UN.

We are also planning on going back to Thailand in November, although we haven’t yet bought our tickets.

I hope you survive the month of May and that you get a good start on your magnum opus.

Lots of love and hugs,


– – –

Dear Roger,

It does seem like ages since we sat down and had a nice long chat, I miss our long walks and endless chats in Geneva. For me, you are forever entwined in my memories of that charming city where I lay my wings to rest for a while before i took off again…into oblivion.

It’s such fun to get your news, I get a birds eye perspective of whats up and happening in the world. How did the plays go, a close friend was raving about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. All the while i was wishing myself transported to London watching the play by your side.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

And yes, I finally did watch the movie Ex Machina, initially I was not quite as impressed, but on a re-viewing I found it engaging and pertinent to everything else I was trying to read in the space of art, law and robots. The themes are not exactly novel or pathbreaking, it’s all about developing an AI using data gathered from all devices from all over the earth by activating their cameras thereby giving the AI unlimited sources to simulate a cross section of all emotions found all over the world. This Roger, is not only a reality, it’s kind of old hat, unfortunately not everyone knows that the cameras phones and computers, roads, malls, security devices are not only continuously clicking but can be hacked into and you can be observed. I completely agree that this would be a great source for AI emotional simulations, and the data gathered by this so very Google-esque company would provide an incredible platform for building a very “human like” AI as it would have a map of all our interactions and responses, and as stated in the film even be in a position to anticipate the same. Do check out Ex Machina trailer and very interesting analysis below:

Ex Machina – Movie Trailer
Ex Machina Movie Analysis

 All very real. However, if I were the young man (software programmer) and realized I was being brought into the experiment to determine if the AI  which has passed the Turing test was akin to a human with true consciousness or machine, a number of red flags would have risen. And for me the red flags rose and waved which made me unable to fully swallow the storyline: How could the AI (who was designed to determine whether someone is telling the truth or a lie by their facial expressions) tell the young software programmer that the CEO is a liar. We know the CEO programmed the AI, and he specifically programmed the ability to detect a liar from a truthful person, so then why would he bother to lie to her in the first place. Thus we know the CEO is truthful (he wouldn’t lie to a creation he designed to determine lies in others and to utilize lies to achieve her goals), we know the AI is lying about the CEO being a liar making it a liar, and we know the software programmer is a fool!

Roger, this brings me to the book Cantor, Satan and Infinity which my son brought home over the last holidays (of course he had read it and was trying to quiz me continuously). It really took me back decades, as these were logical questions couched in a different dress, the same logical questions bombarded at me by my father that moulded my mind, and here he was again in the form of Dhruvum, my American teenager! This book deals with logical questions in a story about knights and knaves, the ones that always tell the truth and the ones that always lie, which reminded me about the above movie Ex Machina and the logical conundrums outlined there, I highly recommend it as it’s really fun and worth a read.

Regarding all your other questions stemming from the movie Ex Machina about love, emotions, binary codes and AI, whether they should ever be programmed, and whether they can run amuck…gives me a real sense of deja vu! Roger, believe it or not, I have just spent the last week responding to my 16 year old’s 8000 word essay which essentially deals with exactly the same questions. I get this uncanny feeling in my response to you that somehow I am now talking to my older son, possibly 17, and as much of a questioning, curious and introspective one. It’s wonderful that you are so vibrant and keep that bold youthful curiosity alive, I know I would have enjoyed each and every one of your classes prof! And yes AI’s are a reality, no going back there, and whether they can run amuck and destroy everything in sight, since they are logically programmed I suspect they will not, but they will be keeping us in their pens and garages with minimal sustenance for our survival, to be utilized if and when creativity and out of the box thinking is required to resolve an issue. It was surprising that in the movie Ex Machina the CEO did not have an off switch for the AI whether physical or verbal, but the AI’s which will dominate the earth will certainly put those “off” switches in our brains, keeping the key. The future appears quite horrifying, but every online game involving evolution and progression of man where AI’s are introduced in to the picture, very quickly end the story of man. Then again it may be a matter of definition, its possible these AI’s would be really us in the future but instead of wearing the device, we are the device. In the interim stage, we need smart (young) people who are ahead of the curve, and who recognizing the pitfalls of technology devote their energies to defining and redefining what it means to be human (with your prodding), representing the interests of man and humanity, ensuring the constitution at all times provides protection for the same. 

Roger, in response to your question whether AI will pose an existential threat to humanity, I will have to take us back to Issac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (I think every pre-teen from my village can recite them), but greater still is Stuart Russell’s modification of Issac Asimov’s third law, and this is absolutely brilliant and could potentially save the day:

Stuart Russell :

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

First Law – A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law – A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law – A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Replace Asimovs 3rd Law with Russell’s Third Law (Start Russell) – A robot does not know human intent, It must ask the human. And it must permit being turned off. 

With this astounding 3rd law, I declare that he has taken over from me as the new Power Puff Girl for with this he truly Saves The Day! See Stuart Russell below:

Stuart Russell Saves The Day!

We are all very excited about our trip to Austria, Dhruvum will be returning to Austria after 15 years. I remember very distinctly, taking a year and half old Dhruvum packed in the baby seat at the back of my very old car, across the Alps through Germany and into northern Italy, Tuscany. We left from there for San Francisco. My memories of Austria are very warm and wonderful and I can’t wait to relive them. I remember being quite the dramatic spectacle at the Vienna opera in my red silk patola saree and my Kashmir shawl (the one that actually passes through a ring). See Vienna Opera:

See below a description of the technique, skill and mathematics behind the making of this masterpiece of Indian art and culture-The Patola Saree:

The Making of The Patola Saree

Talking about the shawl that passes through a ring, see below the Shatoosh shawl made from salvaging the fine hair from the beard of Tibetan antelope. These are now banned, but our silver haired grandmothers and aunts adamantly cling on to the last of theirs battling the frost of the north with this single featherlight layer. See below the shatoosh shawl draped beautifully around my aunt Kathy Shourie in New Delhi, India:

Elegant Kathy Shourie in New Delhi, India

I received numerous appreciative glances and smiles, the people seemed to be aware of the complex weave of the Indian silk saree, they also seemed to recognize the shawl and gently caressed it as I passed. In fact, I had two ladies following me into the ladies clock room to tell me that they thought I was very beautiful and they loved my dress. Here I sensed being different was admired, appreciated almost adored, it was a long journey from here to California! Do see attached picture of me in another red saree, but this one is a bandhini saree which is an altogether different technique but almost as labor intensive, see me in pic below titled “Purnima in Geneva” of course.

Purnima in a Bandhini Saree in Geneva, Switzerland

And so I continue sharing my family story in pictures, hope you enjoy it Roger.

Austria and the Alps will remind me of my father as he is forever etched in my memory in his alpine hat. His passion for the mountains, nature, wildlife come alive in the images I have left of him. His was of both the sportive and intellectual pursuit, and though he was a great “shikari” or hunter with crack reflexes, he belonged to another era another time, the time of the Raj. As I had mentioned in a previous email, i was raised on all the birdcalls of the birds of Asia. My home was always like a game room with stuffed animals, mounted horns, animal rugs, but these were all relics of the past of which my father was an integral part. I have attached four photos of my father and grandfather (the Viswanathan men) very distinctive in their alpine hats, I wish to preserve these so that they don’t fade away like so many memories do. My grandfather with an Indian Bison (gaur )from my last letter, my father on a wild boar hunt or “shikar” in India with the “beaters” in the background.

The Boar Hunt, North India – Vijay Viswanathan

Unfortunately, his life was as brief as it was vibrant, and he vanished from our lives exactly thirty years ago from cancer at the age of 48. I sense if I were to ever find him in another time and place it would probably be in his beloved mountains, the Himalayas or perhaps the Alps. He would be in his late 70’s, possibly grey, perhaps with a mustache and of course in his alpine hat, but I’m sure I would recognize the distinctive physique and profile anywhere anyday. He lived for us children, interacting as one of us. The many winters spent in the Himalayas hiking and fishing, the many summers as he took us for a swim on his broad shoulders in the oceans in Mahabalipuram and Puri, boating in Ooty form the picture postcards of my mind. See attached boating in Ooty.


Boating in Ooty – Purnima and Arvind and Papa

As I travel through Austria with Cantor (book mentioned above) and the memories of my father, I’m sure he will glance through time and space to see me with his grandchildren, even if that time and space does not permit him to openly embrace us he will be with us, with his spirit shadow following us, glancing from behind ever pillar and every signboard. I from my side will look out for that alpine hat, that profile…

Do see attached the last image of my parents together, my mother in a ravishing pink saree and my father very elegant in his suit. I can still see this exquisite couple dancing in my dreams and will see them come to life this summer waltzing in in the beautiful palaces of Vienna.

See below a charming Asian Couple, Mom and Dad in Evening Dress – Indian Dinner Party

Charming Asian Couple- Veena and Vijay Viswanathan in Evening Dress for Indian Dinner Party

See below Snapshots of Vienna and a link to the Vienna Waltz:

As I leave the misty recesses of my past behind, I meet with my present, my Midsummer Nights Dream (or shall we call it nightmare!). It’s incredible how all my stories return to Bottom the donkey! See below a fabulous earthy depiction of Bottom the Donkey at the Craft Museum in Delhi, India This fabulous museum collection displays arts and crafts from across India showcasing India’s diverse and rich cultural heritage. The following terracotta piece (donkey)was on sale by a traditional craftsman on site, see donkey below and Purnima at the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s fab performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream-San Francisco Shakespeare Festival

The story of Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies, the parallel mortal realm, and the interactions between the two. My story started out like a fairytale, I was wed to the the perfect match, a suitable boy, the equivalent of the king of the fairies, Oberon himself. But the twist to my tale, the love potion dropped onto my lids converted Oberon into Bottom! Yes, I was married and living with Bottom the ass for 8 years (in California), and he kept repeating the words “Do you think i’m an ass”, “Do I look like an ass to you”, just like Bottom. I spent these years along with my fairies Peasblossom and Mustardseed (see images of Dhruvum and Tara as Peasblossom and Mustardseed) pampering and indulging Bottom’s every whim. The entire scene was set as a Shakespearean play, with the ridiculous indulgence of ass headed Bottom, his theatrics, his over dramatizations, his foolish self indulgence, his belief in his all importance and that Titania’s love and devotion for him is to be taken for granted, that there was nothing exceptional to be waited upon hand and foot by the fairies of the forest. 

See the Faries Peasblossom and Mustardseed (My kids Dhruvum and Tara) Below:

The Faries Peasblossom and Mustardseed (My kids Dhruvum and Tara)

Returning to Vienna, I found in the biography of Sisi (Empress Elizabeth) an eerie parallel, the similar desire for freedom, to break away from all conventions imposed relentlessly, the omnipresent and all controlling mother-in-law without whose word the son would not sneeze. Her father’s love for circuses and horses and hunting. And of course her fascination for Shakespeares Mid Summer Night’s Dream, as she envisioned herself as Titania, and had the mural painted  of Titania and Bottom in her hunting lodge, The Hermesvilla. See attached mural in the Hermsvilla and link below:

By Carl Rudolf Huber –, Public Domain,

In this family story in pictures, I would like to leave you with images of myself, best reflected in painting by Raja Ravi Varma, the world renowned Indian artist that painted vivid scenes from the Indian epics and magnificent images of women in traditional dress and saree. He belonged to the princely state of Travancore (Kerala and Madras, just like me), and thus being painted by his brush is most apt. Do see attached this Palakkad damsel (me) in traditional dress with her children below:

Image of me viewing Dhruvum through the looking glass (Unnamed -1), and an image of me holding Tara (Krishnaa) in my arms, the embodiment of love and beauty.

Kerala Woman with Child

Looking Into The Mirror by Raja Ravi Verma:

In the interim, I’m trying to see all the movies and read all the books I need to be a good Austria guide for my kids (remember they are demanding American teenagers), so i have seen Sound of Music, Wagner, Amadeus, Sisi, waiting to see immortal beloved and the Story of the White Stallions. I’m halfway through Fin-De-Siecle Vienna by Carl Schorske, which is a good but detailed book, and I’ve just finished The Last Waltz in Vienna , a wonderful first person account of an assimilated Jewish Austrian family and their journey through the end of the 19th century into world war II ending in the death camps which left me all chocked up. I would like to end my story with my daughters favorite Sound of Music (a tour which we have signed up for in Salzburg), and imagine all of us being whisked out of Austria by my very noble and elegant father who would have rivaled the charm of Christopher Plumber in Sound of Music (and would have known the Alps like he knew the Himalayas like the back of his hand) all the way across the Alps into Switzerland and straight to Geneva!

See below the gazebo from the sound of music in the beautiful Hellbrun castle grounds in Salzburg with my 16 and 17 year olds posing in front:

The Gazebo from The Sound Of Music Movie, Salzburg Austria

With lots of love from Purnima who will always be found in Geneva.

Love and hugs to the family.


Purnima Viswanathan

Blog Disclaimer 😛

All persons, places, events are fictitious; all imputed relationships purely aspirational. There were no men harmed during the penning of the Feminist Manifesto

Published by Purrnima

Travel Writer - Art Blogger - CyberSmurf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: