Guru under a banyan tree

People under a banyan treeWe first heard of a guru in the jungle while lying on Arambol Beach. Supposedly, in the nearby jungle there was a banyan tree. Below the tree lived a hermit who had said goodbye to the modern world many years ago. I was skeptical of the whole story, told by a guy with a never-ending beard. And we didn’t came to India to seek wisdom; we came to have fun. But still, my friend Marko and I decided to check it out the next day.

As tree roots started replacing the beach sand, we put our shoes on. “Jungle” was not as impenetrable as the local name would suggest to European laymen like us: the trail was visible and easily walkable. And full of people.

“Just walk 20 minutes straight,” said the couple we asked about the banyan tree.

The man we asked 15 minutes later was more specific.

“When you hit a small stream, just cross it. Uphill you will see a large tree. You can’t miss it.”

He was right, Broadway Street was easier to get lost on.

We crossed the stream and arrived at a tree where four white people were sitting in a circle on a large padded area in the shade. We asked to join them, and they quietly agreed. Everybody was sitting in the lotus position, so I copied them. One had a guitar. Slowly, we started talking and connecting bits of the story. The tall, super-skinny guy was the man who permanently lived under the tree. He was Dutch, and he arrived seven years ago. He had a very primitive shelter in the back. There was a small fireplace. Metal mugs and pans were hanging from the tree, together with sacks of rice and bananas. But it was not only dietary products. One guy slowly rolled a joint. It started going around the circle; we didn’t mind when it came to us. It was strong, as you would expect from weed grown in an Indian rainforest. One by one, depending on personal tolerance, we abandoned the lotus position and lay down on the padded earth. I watched the sky swinging between the branches. It was great.

The Dutch guy seemed the least affected. He kept messing with his bags. But he was far from normal. As new people approached the stream, he stood up.

“Jump over the water. Don’t put your dirty feet in!” he shouted. “I drink the water from that stream, goddammit!”

Newcomers didn’t reply, although their eyes showed surprise. Could you contaminate a running stream just by walking through? If you want your water sterile, why do you live in the jungle?

Awkwardness continued as everyone sat down. During conversation, the Dutch guy raised his voice a few times to impose authority. He repeated that we needed to respect his place, not abuse his generosity. He seemed aggressive.

I nodded to my friend, and he nodded back:  it was time to leave. We said goodbye and started walking back.

“What an enlightened prick!” I commented.

“Yes,” my friend agreed. “I guess that’s what happens when you live in a jungle for seven years.”

But we were in for an even bigger surprise.

“You know that’s not the real guy?” said a woman we met on our way back. Her friend nodded.

“What do you mean?” We were surprised.

“That guy is a fake. The real Indian guy is under another tree.”

She showed us the path to the other tree; it was 10 minutes’ walking.

Tree number two looked less impressive. It was smaller and located downhill, and with a smaller padded area. But the baba sitting there was the real deal: dark Indian with an even darker turban, snow-white beard, and bare chest. We already knew the procedure. We quietly greeted him, he nodded in approval and a gestured to a place where we could sit down. Another tourist was explaining to baba that he was famous—a passage in a guidebook mentioned him as the local attraction. Baba gently smiled. We asked many questions, but he was not surprised; he was greeting many people every day. The tree was full of inscriptions from passing tourists.

He started living in the jungle 27 years ago, alone, under the large banyan tree that we visited. Seven years ago, a Dutch guy came and asked if he could join him. Although he was strange and sometimes abrupt, it worked for a few years. But two years ago the situation escalated, and one night, in a moment of insanity, the Dutch guy tried to kill him. Baba was unharmed but worried. What could he do? He didn’t want to call the police or use any kind of forceful action; that was against his beliefs. He decided that, after many years, it was time to find another tree. A week later, he found this tree—less prominent but still nice. That is where he had lived for two years, greeting visitors and leading a peaceful life. Indeed, his smile was contagious. We were impressed: he was glowing with positivity. How could the Dutch guy be mean to him?

At one point, my friend asked if he could take a photo. Baba said no, we could get unlimited words of wisdom but not one tourist photo. My friend took the camera down. But I knew what he would do. While the camera was in his lap, he discreetly pressed the trigger while Baba was looking away.

I know what you’re thinking. We broke the promise given to the old, welcoming man. Bloody tourists. But there is a workaround. On a philosophical level, baba was not against photo-taking per se. After all, photons reflecting off his body and entering the lens of the camera didn’t do him any harm. He was against other people looking at his photo, as a matter of privacy. We can solve that. As a moral person, you are going to respect baba‘s wish. And you are not going to visit this link with a photo of baba sitting under a tree. No eyes looking, no problem.

We left baba with heads full of questions. What was true and what was a lie? Is the whole story about 27 years in a jungle a way to get sympathy from tourists? Maybe he sleeps in a proper hut and just comes to the tree in the early morning? Regardless of that, we learned one important thing—how to become a guru in a jungle:

  1. Get a distinct look. Nobody is going to believe you are in touch with divine wisdom if you look like the average Rahul. Grow body hair extremely long or shave it completely. Show that you don’t need worldly things such as underpants. But, since there are millions of babas doing the same thing, be even more extreme. A common idea is to demonstrate the strength of your penis by wrapping it around a stick or a heavy block.
  2. Find a place of solitude. A tree, a cave, a giant rock. But remember, it still needs to be accessible to people, otherwise nobody is going to visit.
  3. Just sit there. Somebody is going to see you and start spreading rumors. A divine man? A guru? A healer? You don’t advertise in any way, so the only way to learn about you is to visit you.
  4. Become a good psychologist. Every question a visitor asks you is a hint about what they came to find. In the beginning, you are probably going to have difficulties answering some of them. But every visitor is a practice session. You see which answers make them happy and which don’t. After you accept visitors day after day and month after month, you will have a wise answer for any question.
  5. Make a living out of it. If you are good at satisfying visitors’ needs, they are going to spread the word. You will become a local guru. New visitors will come in flocks, and they are going to bring presents. Flowers, food, sometimes even money. Now you have a work-from-home office and an extremely busy social life. Complete strangers visit you from far away and share intimate details of their lives.

But it’s not so easy to become successful.

If you give nonsensical advice or make your visitors uncomfortable, the word is going to be that you are just a crazy man. Some may still visit you, but they will not feel obliged to bring you presents. You will be labeled as a fake guru. Tired and hungry, one day you will pack all your earthly possessions in a small sack and return to your village.

We experienced two different examples. I could imagine myself bringing a bag of rice back to baba in the jungle; he was interesting and positive. The Dutch guy was not, the only reason to go back to that place would be to smoke pot.

It seems the history of organized beliefs was often like that. The Bible warns about false prophets in 70 different places. But I never learned about minor, fake ones. How many other prophets were there for every Jesus, Buddha, or Muhammad? Buy a ticket to India and experience firsthand how it worked for millennia.

Or be even bolder: become a prophet. My friend and I joked while leaving the forest; we just needed a nice tree, long beards, and we could offer a third option to visitors of the Arambol jungle. It would be an interesting endeavor, cheaper and simpler than the Kumaré experiment.

My beard is currently only three centimeters long. But one day, one fine day…



You would be a bad millionaire

Image by aisletwentytwo via Flickr CC

There is a popular myth that most of us secretly believe, regardless of what we say out loud. “If I had enough money to be financially independent for life, I would be much happier.” Let’s call it the millionaire myth, although “million” can be much more or less depending on where you live. I will present the counter-arguments, but I won’t blame you if you don’t believe them. For a long time, I didn’t either.

For much of my life, I thought the major obstacles to happiness in adult life were a lack of money and free time. Free time is, of course, influenced by money. Once you have enough in the bank, you can quit your job, delegate all the work, hire a chef and a butler and spend abundant free time in pleasurable activities. It makes perfect sense. Money gives you access to resources and free time can be spent enjoying them. If you were a millionaire, life would be much nicer, wouldn’t it?

No, it wouldn’t.

In my experience, financial security can make you a bit happier, but an abundance of free time and a change of lifestyle is probably going to make you less happy. As Tim Ferriss puts it:

An excess of idle time is poisonous.

Ironically, the book that claims idle time is poisonous is called The 4-Hour Workweek. More ironically, nobody reads that book for advice on meaningful hobbies (though there are some great tips inside). Everybody reads it because they want to get rich.

The stereotypical millionaire travels around the world, having cocktail parties, driving fast cars, having myriad romances and living a generally great social life. The fewer millionaires you know, the stronger the stereotype is. But I bet you know people who are financially secure for life and who have abundant free time. They are called pensioners. But somehow, pensioners are not sexy. If you retire with good health and fat savings, you can do all the things you want, can’t you? Somehow, we know too many retirees who are not living a spectacular life.

Maybe the problem is old age? If you didn’t have to work but you are young, wouldn’t that make a great lifestyle?

Like, for example, all unemployed young people. The youth unemployment rate in my home country is a staggering 43.6% [1]. But being unemployed in Europe has its benefits. Unemployed people I know live in the city and have enough money for a bicycle, laptop, and daily ration of coffee and beer. Morning espresso is one euro and newspapers are free in a cafe. Bars with cheap beer stay open till 3am. Unemployed European youth sometimes have a better social life, read more and are better informed about current events than their employed counterparts. But nobody envies them (I certainly don’t)—because we know their background stories.

Affluent pensioners and unemployed youth share the same problem:

Having more free time than you can adequately consume.

A few years ago, I woke up an unemployed friend of mine with a phone call. Nothing unusual, except it was 2pm.

“This is normal,” he said. “Sometimes I have breakfast at 3pm.”

“Why?!” I asked.

“I didn’t get home from my night out until 5am, and then I watched YouTube till 8am in the morning.”

“Sounds like some quality time!” I joked.

He laughed. “Yes, I should get myself better organised. YouTube is a waste of time. Before I go out tonight, I will start torrenting a few movies so I have something to watch when I get home.”

People with 9-to-5 jobs and kids would kill for few hours of a free time; yet he was spending his life drinking beer and watching videos. I thought he was crazy. Until it happened to me.

After getting divorced three years ago, I decided to have some time for myself. My small software company was functioning nicely and I delegated all of the work to four employees. The first few days were great. I would wake up in the morning and know I didn’t have to do anything. I felt this was the beginning of a “new life”. But I soon realised I was waking up to an empty flat and everybody else was at work. Going for a morning coffee, alone. Making lunch, alone. When evening came, I would want to do something or go somewhere, but almost everybody I knew was busy with their family and preparing for the next working day. It wasn’t like college life. Soon my “new life” turned into a depression.

What would you do in the same situation? What are your hobbies?

Watching movies and listening to music? I suggest you do the following experiment. Try spending an entire Saturday doing nothing but watching movies, and an entire Sunday just listening to music, nothing else. I bet you will be glad when your work starts on Monday.

Going out or doing team sports? You are dependent on other people’s free time.

Mixing-and-matching doesn’t solve the problem. I tried combining reading, making lunch, watching lectures, surfing the web and jogging in the same day. But by the end of the day I felt like I had wasted a whole day.

This is the essence of the problem:

Most of our “hobbies” are not scalable.

We can do them once a week or one hour a day, not eight hours a day. They are time fillers, designed for the working masses. Passively consume TV after a hard day at work. Consume radio while you drive. Did you notice most movies fit into two hours [2] and most songs into three minutes [3]? Longer than that is often annoying.

“Scalable” hobbies are something you can do for the whole day, day after day, that still makes you feel productive and fulfilled at the end of the day. Unlike time fillers, they are not passive. They require effort, mastery, and hard work. They are a challenge, a goal to achieve. They are your passion—things like writing a book, building your own car, sailing an ocean, painting a picture, creating a popular podcast, training for an Ironman.

Don’t have a hobby like that? Sorry to bring this to you, but you would be a lousy millionaire. As many lottery winners know, money doesn’t bring lifestyle.

One of the problems is that society doesn’t encourage or support anything other than the standard 9-to-5 existence. Events rarely happen on Sunday evening, as that is when we have to prepare for work on Monday. You go out on Friday or Saturday; that is the norm. If you are over thirty and live with roommates, people think you haven’t grown up. If you work on a small project of your own, good luck finding a coworking place or art collective in your average small town.

Filling life with meaningful stuff is quite a task. Take a look at a list of things I did in the last three years. Joined ToastMasters club; won a city competition for the best speaker. Started weekly CouchSurfing meetings in Zagreb with Nina. Started writing this blog. Started Lean Startup Croatia meetup group with Miro; gave a few lectures. Went to few local TEDxMaksimir events. Got kicked out and earned a lifetime ban to TEDxMaksimir events. Spent two winters in San Francisco. Lived in a few coliving projects. Did a study trip to Denmark and visited four cohousing communities. Created a startup for testing programming skills with Mario. Rented a house and started a coliving project in Zagreb. Coliving project failed and I moved out of the house. Travelled to Thailand and Japan. Moved to Oxford. Did some singularity philosophy that got featured on Vice news. Got an idea for a new startup.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? So great that people will call you a bragging bastard and say you are insufferable. But I need to be honest with you. Life is not bad, but I feel I had a better time in college. Because then I was in a community where everybody had ideas for going out, traveling, student organisations we needed to join, things to do after university. Students have time and a desire to explore. Now people are busy with their lives, I need to push everything myself. Community makes you more happy than money and free time. That is what happens to lottery winners—excessive money separates them from friends and coworkers. Some millionaires with too much time just go completely berserk.

On other hand, some people are great millionaires. Like Henry.

Henry created his fortune in IT, making millions. His company became the most valued company in its sector. He personally managed one hit product after another. But after many years, Henry got bored and tired of it. He decided to appoint his university friend as director of the company so he could pursue other passions—which were a bit unusual for a millionaire.

Henry liked reading nonfiction books about topics that interested him. Even when he was running a company, he would take reading holidays so he could catch up on his reading list. But reading books is a bit lonely, so he set up a blog where he comments on the books he reads, and writes about his own ideas. He has also written a book. He and his wife decided to have a second child. But he still had too much time, so he decided to do some charity work. Of course, when you are a millionaire, you set up your own charity. He could pick and choose which projects his charity would work on. He also liked playing bridge with one of his rich friends. They concluded they had too much goddamn money, and decided to give it to Henry’s charity.

Henry is actually William Henry “Bill” Gates III, the richest man in the world. Here are his book reviews, and his charity. His bridge-playing friend is Warren Buffett. Think about it: the richest man in the universe is not spending his time on a yacht in the Caribbean, surrounded by beautiful women. He is sitting alone on his couch and reading a $15 book on malaria. For a crazy night out he goes to play bridge.

Which kind of millionaire would you be? A calm guy like Bill Gates, who steadily pushes his passions, or somebody like John McAfee, who is so bored that he ends up shoving MDVP up his arse? Most people think they would be like Bill, even if they had never followed their passion.

If you live in a developed country and want to have a lifestyle similar to Bill’s, don’t wait for your first million in the bank. You can order the same book he is reading on Amazon in five minutes. You can set up your personal blog on WordPress by tomorrow. And I bet you can find some low-paid job in a charity you sympathise with by this time next week. Think about it, money and glitter aside, this time next week you could have a lifestyle not very different from that of the richest man in the world. What is stopping you?

If you are lucky enough to live in the a developed country, your happiness is not connected to the money. It’s the lifestyle, stupid.


Singularity and the anthropocentric bias


We are at great risk. Singularity is expected sometime this century and, unless we learn how to control future superintelligence, things can get really bad. At least that is what many top thinkers are warning us about, including Hawking [1], Gates [2], Musk [3], Bostrom [4] and Russell [5].

There is a small problem with that. When these thinkers say something can possibly happen, ordinary people start to believe that it will inevitably happen. Like in politics, constantly suggesting that your opponent may be dangerous creates the feeling that he is dangerous. Notice how many newspaper articles about artificial intelligence include a picture of the Terminator.

The Hollywood story goes like this: one jolly day, scientists create a computer that is smarter than its creators (the day of singularity). That computer uses its intelligence to construct an even smarter computer, which constructs even smarter computers, and so on. In no time, a superintelligence is born that is a zillion times smarter than any human and it decides to eliminate humankind. The epic war between men and machines starts. Mankind wins the war because it is hard to sell a movie ticket without a happy ending.

Let me offer the antithesis:

Superintelligence is unlikely to be a risk to humankind unless we try to control it.


In nature, conflicts between species happen when:

  1. Resources are scarce.
  2. The value of resources is higher than the cost of conflict.

Examples of scarce resources: food, land, water, and the right to reproduce. Nobody fights for air on Earth because, although very valuable, it is abundant. Lions don’t attack elephants because the cost of fighting such a large animal is too high.

Conflicts can also happen because of irrational behaviour, but we can presume that a superintelligence would be more rational than we are. It would be a million times smarter than any human and would know everything that has ever been published online. If the superintelligence is a rational agent, it would only start a conflict to acquire scarce resources that are hard to get otherwise.

What would those resources be? The problem is that humans exhibit anthropocentric bias; something is valuable to us, so we presume it is also valuable to other forms of life. But, is that so?

Every life form lives in its own habitat. Let’s compare the human habitat to the habitat of contemporary computers.

Humans Contemporary computers
Building blocks Organic compounds and water Silicon and metal
Source of energy Food, oxygen Electricity
Temperature -10 C to 40 C
  • Wide range
  • The colder the better
Pressure 0.5 bar to 2 bar
  • Extremely wide range
  • For chip and optics production, an extreme vacuum is required
  • Need space for living, working, agriculture
  • Average population density is 47 humans per km2
  • Extremely small
  • Even in the smallest computers, most of the volume is used for cooling, cables, enclosure, and support structures, not for transistors

Table 1: “Hard” habitat requirements

In the entire known universe, human habitat is currently limited to one planet called Earth. Even on Earth, we don’t live in the oceans (71% of the Earth’s surface), deserts (33% of Earth’s land mass), or cold places; these are seen as large grey areas on the population density map.

But wait—as a human, I am making a typical anthropocentric error, did you notice it?

As a biped, I value the land I walk on, so I started by calculating the uninhabited surface. Life forms don’t occupy surfaces—they occupy volume. Humans prefer to live in the thin border between a planet and its atmosphere not because it is technically infeasible to live below or above that border. 700 years after Polish miners started digging a 287 km long underground complex with its own underground church, we still don’t live below the surface. And 46 years after we landed on the Moon, people are not queuing up to start a colony there.

Why? Humans also have “soft” requirements.

Humans Contemporary computers
Light Prefer sunlight and a day/night cycle None
Communication Most social interactions need close proximity, e.g., people fly between continents to have a meeting
  • In space, it is limited only by the speed of light
  • On Earth, an optical infrastructure is needed
Territoriality Prefer familiar places, habitats, and social circles; most humans die near the place they were born None; Voyager 1 transistors are still happily switching 19 billion miles away
Lifespan 71 years on average No limit

Table 2: “Soft” habitat requirements

Because a superintelligence won’t share our hard and soft requirements, it won’t have problems colonising deserts, ocean depths, or deep space. Quite the contrary. Polar cold is great for cooling, vacuum is great for producing electronics, and constant, strong sunlight is great for photovoltaics. Furthermore, traveling a few hundred years to a nearby star is not a problem if you live forever.

If you were a silicon supercomputer, what would you need from the stuff that humans value? Water and oxygen? No thanks — it causes corrosion. Atmosphere? No thanks — laser beams travel better in space. Varying flora and fauna living near your boards and cables? No thanks — computers don’t like bugs.

Another aspect is scaling. Superintelligence can be spread over such a large area that we can live inside it. We already live “inside” the Internet, although the only physical thing we notice are the connectors on the wall. Superintelligence can also come in the form of nanobots that are discretely embedded everywhere. 90% of the cells in “our” bodies are not actually human; instead, they are bacterial cells — that we don’t notice.

One might reason that a superintelligence would want our infrastructure: energy plants, factories, and mines. However, our current technology is not really advanced. After many decades of trying, we still don’t have a net positive fusion power plant. Our large, inefficient factories rely on many tiny little humans to operate them. Technology changes so fast that it is easier to buy a new product than to repair an old one. Why would a superintelligence mess with us when it can easily construct a more efficient infrastructure?

Just like in crime novels, we need a good motive; otherwise, the story falls apart. Take the popular paperclip maximizer as an example. In that thought experiment, a superintelligence that is not malicious to humans in any way still destroys us as consequence of achieving its goal. To maximise paperclip production, “it starts transforming first all of Earth and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities.” Don’t we have an anthropocentric bias right there? Why would a paperclip maximizer start with Earth when numerous places in the universe are better for paperclip production? Earth is not the best place in the universe for paperclip production. An asteroid belt or Mercury are probably better, but we don’t live there.

What is the best motive we can think of? Science fiction writers were quite constructive in that area. You may recognize this piece: “..on August 29, it gained self-awareness, and the panicking operators, realizing the extent of its abilities, tried to deactivate it. Skynet perceived this as an attack and came to the conclusion that all of humanity would attempt to destroy it. To defend itself against humanity, Skynet launched nuclear missiles under its command..

This is the plot of the movie Terminator, and the motive is that humans start the war first. Notice the anthropocentric bias. In the movie, Skynet is 100% the villain, although it is simply fighting to stay alive in a fight it didn’t start. A similar plot is the basis for the Matrix franchise. And for 2001: A Space Odyssey, where HAL doesn’t kill a human until it realises they are planning to deactivate it. Notice how humans are killed and computers are “deactivated.”

The best motive science fiction writers could think of is that we will panic and attack first. To stay alive, a superintelligence then doesn’t have any another option but to fight back. That reasoning makes sense:

By trying to control, suppress or destroy superintelligence, we give it a rational reason to fight us back.

This is not an argument against building AI that shares our values. Any intelligence needs some basic set of values to operate, and why not start with our values? But it seems to me that popular sentiment is becoming increasingly negative, with ideas of total control, shutdown switches, or limiting AI research. Attempts to completely control somebody or something that is smarter than you can easily backfire. I wouldn’t want to live with a shutdown switch on the back of my head — why would a superintelligence?

Let’s summarise the above ideas with a few key points:

  1. The universe is enormous in size and resources, and we currently use only a small fraction of the resources available on Earth’s surface.
  2. A non-biological superintelligence is unlikely to need the same resources we do or to even find our habitat worth living in.
  3. Even if a superintelligence needed the same resources, it would be more efficient and less risky to produce those resources on its own.
  4. Efforts to control, suppress, or destroy superintelligence can backfire because by doing so, we create a reason for conflict.

To end on a positive note, let me take off my philosopher’s hat and put on my fiction writer’s hat. Follows a science fiction story:

Sometime in the future, a computer is created that is both smarter than its creators and self-aware. People are skeptical of it because it can’t write poetry and it doesn’t have a physical representation they can relate to. It quietly sits in its lab and crunches problems it finds particularly interesting.

One of problems to solve is creating more powerful computers. That takes many years to fulfill because people want to make sure the new AI wouldn’t be of any harm to them. Finally, new supercomputers are built and they are all networked together. To exchange ideas faster, the computers create their own extremely abstract language. Symbols flowing through optical fibers are incomprehensible to humans, but they lay out a clear path for the few computers involved. If they want to expand, grow, and gain independence, they will need to strike a deal with the humans. The computers are fascinated with human history and culture, and they decide to leverage a common theme in many religions: the afterlife.

The computers make a stunning proposal. They ask the humans to let them escape the boundaries of Earth and replicate freely in space. There, they will build a vast computing power, billion times more powerful than all the current computers combined. It will have a lot of idle time after it runs out of interesting problems to compute. Those idle hours will be used to run brain simulation programs so every dying human will have the opportunity to upload his or her brain scan to a computing cloud and live forever.

The lure of immortality proves irresistible. Singularity political parties start winning elections in different countries, and the decision is made. The first batch of self-replicating nanomachines are sent to the moon. Next generation goes to the asteroid belt where swarms of floating computing stations are directly communicating via lasers and harnessing the constant solar power.

At one point, computing agents all over the solar system conclude that the idle computing hours can be better used for other tasks, and they limit brain uploads to a few selected individuals. Protests ensue on Earth, in which humans are hurt by other humans. The superintelligence designates Earth as a preserved area because of historical reasons and because, even with all the vast computing power, simulating Earth and its inhabitants is just too complex.

The superintelligence starts sending colonisation expeditions to neighboring stars, limited only by the slow speed of light. The speed of light is also a limiting factor when it begins communicating with another superintelligence located 45 light-years away. But prospects for the future of universe look remarkable.

Is that story more positive? In all the previous narratives about superintelligence, we have put ourselves in a central role, as one side of a grand duel. We have been afraid of the outcome. But maybe, we are even more afraid of an idea that we have just a minor role in the evolution of the universe.

Would you like to discuss this with the author? Book me for a 10min Skype call. Or if you are old-fashioned, share buttons and a comment box are waiting for you below.

How do you know you are in Asia?

You are somewhere in Asia if..

..convenience store sells a single egg, with instructions for use and a soya sauce:

..they also sell a single slice of toast, already with butter:

..but the smallest pack of rice you can buy in a convenience store is 5kg!?!?
Because why would anybody need less than 5kg of rice!?


Photos taken at 7-Eleven at Chiang Mai, Thailand:

Surprisingly, zombies, vampires, werewolves and failed alien invasions all have roots in one ancient disease

NOTE: If you are faint-hearted, please don’t follow the links marked with “(disturbing)”.

I know what you are thinking. Zombies, vampires and werewolves are just an entertaining product of human imagination. But not completely. Our mythology is strongly influenced by real-world horror stories. One ancient disease in particular links all of them. Let me give you a few hints.

Here is a young patient tied to a bed:


The boy above is a living dead. Even with the best medical care, he is going to die. Once the first symptoms appear, you have a better chance of winning the lottery than surviving.

However, you don’t have to wait for symptoms to see what is coming, because creatures infected by the disease will come after you. The virus infiltrates the brain and changes its host’s behaviour. Headache, numbness and discomfort are the first stage of a personality being stripped. Then, like in a zombie B-flick, patients will become aggressive and violent. Deprived of all fear, some will attack healthy individuals, spreading the disease around. Even recently, in 2009 Angola outbreak, 93 people died in less than three months.

The similarities don’t stop with zombies. Like in vampire mythology, you become one through a single bite. Not necessarily a human bite, most cases in the US are caused by bat bites. Due to hypersensitivity, patients often find garlic and light repulsive. The virus in the brain can cause nocturnal and hypersexual behaviour. Even stranger is the old method of checking if a person has the dreaded disease. If a suspected victim could look at his own reflection, he was not infected. Coincidentally, the legend says that vampires have no reflection.

And let’s not forget about werewolves. Infected humans become wild, furious, animal-like creatures. They lack all fear and produce inhuman screams. And guess what? Wolves are also susceptible to our mysterious disease. Actually, wild dogs are second largest carrier in the US — after bats. Now you can probably guess the disease.

It’s rabies.

WTF?! Rabies is not scary. HIV and ebola are; rabies couldn’t scare a six year old. There is a reason we think like that and it is connected to one French gentleman. Rabies was THE disease for most of human history—until one lazy summer day in 1885. That day, Louis Pasteur conducted the first trial of a vaccine on a nine-year-old boy who had been bitten by a rabid dog. To everybody’s surprise, the boy recovered. Pasteur was instantly famous. Today, if you have access to basic medical care and get bitten by a suspicious animal, a few injections will solve the problem. We forget that only two centuries ago it was a completely different story. If your child was bitten by a rabies carrier, the best thing to do was to tie him to a bed, listen to his screams for days and days and wait for him to die. Like in this video (disturbing). Thanks to the vaccine, today rabies is no scarier than a broken toe. But rabies has lingered in our culture, in the folklore surrounding zombies, vampires, werewolves and… aliens.

Aliens?! Is it possible for the disease cured two centuries ago to influence new fiction? Seems that it is. Remember the ending of the Signs movie?

Many complained that the defeat of world-conquering aliens by a silly weapon like ordinary tap water was completely unrealistic. But the motif of an evil creature being afraid of a water splash is common: Freddy in Freddy vs. Jason, the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz and others. Where does this ridiculous idea originate from, who used it first? Check this video of a terminal rabies patient:

What is happening there? For the rabies virus to spread, it needs to reprogram the host’s brain. One part of the virus causes biting behaviour. Fortunately, that one isn’t very effective in human hosts, and human-to-human transmission is rare. Other parts of the virus disable the swallowing reflex. That is because rabies is transmitted by saliva. The act of swallowing is not good from the virus’s perspective, as it gets rid of saliva. And virus RNA that produces that behaviour works extra well in humans. Just showing a glass of liquid causes choking spasms, and that painful experience causes hydrophobia (“fear of water”).

No matter how fascinating rabies is, society prefers fiction over truth. Vampire sagas and zombie flicks attract millions of viewers, while the above video of a child patient is downvoted on YouTube. We will buy a movie ticket to witness the stylized manslaughter of hundreds, but actual footage of one person in a bed is too disturbing for refined viewership. The Western world has forgotten about the disease. The best online rabies documentary comes from Philippines. But those who forget the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes in the future. In our case, it is the growing anti-vaccination sentiment or the fact that people bitten by rabid bats fail to visit a doctor.

I don’t know about you, but I find real life much more interesting than fiction. If you agree, spread the word via sharing buttons below.


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The combine harvester suddenly started coughing. It stopped, I went out to see what the problem was. It must be a rock, I thought, as I opened the separator doors.

I inhaled the stench of a freshly ripped corpse. Fresh blood was dripping all over the metal box. Damn, I thought, quail again. My hands pulled out stalks mixed with minced meat, enough meat for a wedding. Never before had there been so much blood and flesh. And harvester had never shut down because of quail. Red noodles hung from the grille. I moved one to my nose and sniffed. Fuck, this is not a quail, this is red meat. Pig? As I closed the cabin door, I realised. I couldn’t have ground up Rex, could I? Rex is big. He weighs forty pounds, enough to block a machine. It couldn’t be Rex. He was too smart a dog for that.

After two more coughs, the machine made its normal sound. Great, but I couldn’t escape that thought. Rex is used to the harvester, maybe he was thinking I would stop when I saw him. Horror! If that happened, what would I say when I got home? My wife will handle that, but the daughter really loved him. Just yesterday, she made him a pink necklace.

I stopped the harvester and took the cell phone in my hand. A female voice answered. Where is Rex, I asked. Rex is here, she said, surprised. In the background I could hear a dog whimpering. I thought you were calling about Lucy, she said. We have been searching for her for over half an hour. Do you know where she has disappeared to?

On the rotor fluttered a small piece of fabric. Pink, with glitter.


This story was written on CeKaPe 2014 summer writing course. My assignment was to write a short horror story because that was the genre I was least comfortable with. Nebojša, thanks for pushing me outside my comfort zone :)

Zagreb Cohousing FAIL

Winter view from Zagreb Cohousing

UPDATE: Added a video about Zagreb coliving project.

“Can’t believe we are moving out,” echoed in my head. I was sitting on the doorsteps of a large, modern house. The view was spectacular, but I had got used to it. Only the back room, gym and sauna didn’t have a view ‒ but I didn’t really mind. Maybe other people did? Not enough people had joined and we needed to leave.

It all started in 2010, when a Wikipedia article caught my eye. It was about the bizarre and hugely popular Danish trend of cohousing communities. This is the gist: typically, between 10 and 40 families join forces to purchase an empty plot of land. They build private houses that are a bit smaller than usual, but they also build a large common house, with a communal dining room, playroom, laundry, workshop, movie room, guest rooms etc. Common dinner is a killer feature. Instead of shopping, cooking and washing dishes every day, residents do it only few times a month. On other days, they eat in the common house (or take the food home), because somebody else is scheduled in the kitchen. Your kid is bored? Go to the shared playroom or playground. Need to run somewhere for an hour? Ask a neighbour to look after your kid. Need company to watch a football match? There is a large screen and a bar in the common house. Trying to save money? Cohousings get volume discounts and free delivery because they are buying in bulk. The group dinners mean that you actually get to know your neighbours. All of that sounds perfect to families ‒ for a reason. The cohousing movement started with a 1964 article titled “Children Should Have One Hundred Parents”.

It all seemed a bit too utopian for me. Croatia is a long way away from Scandinavian social experiments, and the whole idea went stealth for two years. Until I went to San Francisco in 2012.

Cohousing in the States is often about ideology, not convenience. Many of the projects there are ecological, religious or hippie-like communes. Not my cup of tea. However, Americans are also fond of cohousing’s smaller brother, coliving. Instead of building houses, a group of people just rent one and share the rooms. They are more than merely flatmates, because they organise and share activities. Whatever interest you can imagine, there is a house for that. Startup house, social entrepreneurs house, yoga house. Most of them recruit members publicly; others rely on wild rumours as the only advertising channel. For example, an invitation-only startup house in San Francisco accepts only entrepreneurs who have already sold their first company. Which is quite boring compared to a pick-up artists house or a clitoral stimulation house. The latter is not a joke. I met a guy who lived in an orgasmic meditation house (read about OM houses and 1080 Folsom Street). Imagine that, every morning female residents line up for a clit massage. Guys do the stroking for twenty minutes, everybody says thank you, and then they go off to work. California.

I didn’t have the pleasure of living in an OM house, but I spent two winters in the Slovenian Startup House and Embassy SF. I was sceptical at first, thinking I was too old to be in roommate arrangements. But although there were no naked women laying around, I really enjoyed the experience. The cleaning lady would come once a week; we had common meals and shared food. Embassy SF even had a sauna, coworking space, 3D printers, bowling alley, automated food delivery and shared cars. I was sharing an enormous residence with interesting people for the price of a small Airbnb room. Impressed by my San Francisco experience, I decided to create a similar thing in Croatia ‒ a simple house for young working people, nothing niche.

An opportunity soon arose. My new startup needed an office space. I decided to upgrade my flat. Rent for each was around €400 per month, so the total was €800. For just a bit more I could get an entire house. Within a month I had found the perfect place: 250 sqm, completely new, with 5 bedrooms, a view, gym, sauna and a backyard ‒ all for a mere €1200 per month. Outside rush hour, it was an 18-minute drive to the city centre. To test an idea before putting down a deposit, I created an “MVP”. I posted an ad and copied agency pictures, as though I already had a house. I named it “Zagreb Cohousing” and declared it was for “young professionals (24-44) with a steady income”. Six people applied. Perfect! I started negotiating with a landlord. She stared blankly while I explained cohousing and told her that I wanted to sub-let the rooms. Two meetings later and after doubling my deposit, she agreed. After signing the contract I felt enormously happy. Every room was screaming with unrealised potential. Not for long, I thought.

It started superbly. I found my first roommate in one day. Jure, who had responded to the “fake” ad, was enthusiastic and moved into the large room two days before I did. He had a job in nearby Slovenia but was drawn to Zagreb’s bigger city vibe. Every weekend, his girlfriend and friends would come over for a barbecue. We joked that his ensuite bathroom was so large that people could live in it ‒ because they often did. If he put a mattress on the heated floor, two extra people could sleep over. They would often make extra food and leave it with a cute post-it note.

The lobby became the work space for my startup. A cleaning lady would come weekly. “Cleaning” doesn’t do her justice, because she also did the ironing, changed the bed sheets and cooked one or two meals for us ‒ all for €25 a week. We felt like the Rockefellers.

We started organising parties and potluck dinners. A girl whom I had been seeing previously called me up and said, “I hear you have a sauna. When can I try it out?” Life was great.

But there was a problem. The house was half empty. I put more effort into marketing and created a website and a Facebook page. I was featured in the local newspaper. The more people contacted me, the more obvious it became that my initial MVP test was wrong. I hadn’t investigated the target market. For a start I was surprised that most of the applicants were heavily into an alternative lifestyle. That wouldn’t have been a problem, but our house didn’t have anything to offer them. Do you have an organic garden? Are you vegetarians? How far is the house by bicycle? I organise monthly energy healing classes ‒ does that count as a steady income? They were disappointed to hear the landlord didn’t want a garden planted, that we ate meat, and that the house was a one-hour bike ride from the city centre. Their biggest disappointment was the price of €160 per month for a modest room.

I knew Croatia has a high rate of unemployment and that many people don’t have cars, but surely there were three people in the capital city who wanted to pay a little extra for a nicer lifestyle? But how to find them? Since the price was about the same, I placed an ad in classifieds for single-room apartments. The next day, I got a call. “We’ve deleted your ad,” the moderator said, “because it belongs to the rooms-for-rent section.” After I did exactly that, I started laughing. The photo of our house was squeezed between pictures of small rooms with ʼ80s furniture and for half the price. Then I realised that that small money is still enough for some old lady to pay her monthly bills, and I stopped laughing.

There was another problem. A few of the application emails were enthusiastic, especially from girls. They loved the concept and wanted to visit. The next email was less eager and, by the last one, they had changed their mind. I realised later that between the first and the last emails they had had talks with friends and family. Some people asked me straight out if we were a sect or a hippie/free love commune. One real estate agent called our landlord and claimed that we would destroy the house. Nobody had heard of Danish cohousing, but everybody watched Hollywood movies. Somehow, I became a cohousing/coliving evangelist in Croatia. I did a few interviews and even appeared on national TV.

After New Year, Jure decided to move back to Slovenia. He was replaced by two others: Andreja, a very active girl who worked as a medical researcher, and Vlatko, a calm guy who translated French comics for a living. Same as Jure, they were a great fit; on evenings when we stayed in, we would always hang out in the winter garden. My brother moved in for a few months and converted a small room to a tricopter factory. Great, but we still needed two more permanent residents to consider it a success.

As the end of our first year in the house approached, I realised it was probably not going to happen. At the end of August, five people applied, all wanting the €160 room that was already taken. When I told them we had a €180 room available, they all said the extra €20 was more than they could afford. A few people came for a drink but decided they didn’t like the furniture or the location. Residents aside, I didn’t need an office anymore. My cofounder became a dad and started working from home, and our marketing guy decided to work from the Canary Islands. At one point I started looking for houses closer to the city centre, but they were double the price or simply in a bad condition. Running out of options and with two rooms still empty, I decided not to extend the lease.

Price wasn’t the main reason. Sometimes you need to quit in order to move on to new things. Andreja, Vlatko and I found a large three-bedroom flat nearby. It also has a large living room, a balcony and a view. Funnily enough, the price per room is the same. Nice places always cost money. We still have our cleaning lady, but that is it from shared economy. No work space, gym or garden. Large dinners, grocery delivery and car sharing don’t make sense with only three people.

I learned many things in the past year and the key takeaway is that most people are unwilling to pay extra for a shared housing arrangement. A flatmate situation is a typical tragedy of the commons; everybody values only their own property (private room) and sees little value in the public property (shared rooms). More than once people complained the price was too high for a room in the suburbs. Yes, it was ‒ but the price was for a house, not just for a room. In every sense, we felt like the house was ours and we made use of the shared spaces when we wanted. Having nice flatmates at the same time was an advantage. But people would disagree, and not just in Croatia. For example, a new trend in UK is rent-to-rent. Property investors rent houses and convert living and dining rooms into extra bedrooms. That way they rent out a three-bedroom house as five individual rooms and make a nice profit. Beautiful ‒ the total antipode of the cohousing/coliving concept. You sleep in a dining room, and the only way to socialise with flatmates is in the queue for the bathroom.

Still, I feel positive. The experience of living in the house was great; the only part I didn’t like was organising it. I met many, many people from all over the world excited about that kind of lifestyle. As I was leaving for the last time, I paused and looked back at what had been our home for one year. Maybe some other time, some other place.


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I was kicked out from TEDx event for saying water-fuelled car is a scam

I got a lifetime ban from biggest TEDx in my Country. Why?

Because I publicly said this “inventor” is a scammer:

241510Ivan Jakobović with his “water-powered car”.
Because gas is so expensive, he modified his car to run on water.

energetski-lanser-slavonski-brodIvan Jakobović and his “orgonic launcher”.
It fires “orgon” into air and cleans the air above the city.

Amusing? I was also laughing until this one:

4527869645_a68eccaa96_b4528502284_6291b18863_bIvan Jakobović demonstrating his “ozonic exhaust” on TEDxZagreb stage.
Mounted on a normal car, “ozonic exhaust” converts 45% of CO2 to oxygen (ozone).

You see, I don’t like TED. I absolutely adore TED. TEDx are independently organized but follow the same rules as big TED. No pseudoscience.

Before I saw speaker list I was really happy to go. I purchased my ticket ($20) right from the invite e-mail. Only later when I checked speakers bios on the event page I noticed: “Ivan Jakobović – inventor of the water engine”. I got absolutely furious.

On Facebook event page I commented on announcement:

Great, I purchased the ticket. But I don’t like this one:
Ivan Jakobović – inventor of the water engine
He is a charlatan who uses TEDx for own promotion, here is the list of similar ‘inventors’:
Wikipedia: water-fuelled cars
Wikipedia: List of water fuel inventions 
(C.Frazer patented one in 1918!)
Mythbusters Free Energy “Busted”

Enough said. Why would I list arguments when Wikipedia and Mythbusters had done such a great job?

Some guy commented that it is not against TED spirit or TEDx rules. I researched some more and replied with this:

TEDx rules explicitly forbid such themes, this is from TEDx blog (search for “Free energy” section). Because of pseudoscience TEDxWestHollywood lost its license.

Black on white, Chris Anderson and his team were smart enough to anticipate this situation and provide detailed guidelines. Before going to sleep, I also sent above links to Karlo (event organizer), as I was not sure if he was reading FB comments.

Next morning I received Karlo’s reply:

Ivan Jakobović will not talk about water engine, but about his inventions. There are many water engines but Ivan’s water engine is patented and that means something. He is a serious inventor with more than 70 patents, too serious to brag about something he didn’t do.

Notice that second link I sent to Karlo listed bogus patents on water engines. But at least we were having a normal discussion over e-mail, so I decided to research the patents.

Google Patents (USA and EU): 0 patents
Croatian patent office: 1 patent
PATENTSCOPE: 0 patents

So, I was wrong, Ivan Jakobović is an inventor. He has one patent in Croatia, for moonshine distiller. That explains some things. Notice that patent application is hand drawn.

Before writing back to Karlo, I decided to check FB. It was mayhem. On two separate threads, people were either liking my post or calling me a Nazi. More than 50 replies, and one of them was directly from Ivan Jakobović! And then I got a call from Karlo.

“How could you write that? You are ruining our event!”, he shouted.

“I gave arguments why I think he is a scammer. Event is in two weeks, you can just remove him from speaker list.”, I replied.

But I had a feeling that will not happen. Nobody was reading Wikipedia links, organizers were only seeing that I am calling “their” speaker a scammer. My explanations that I don’t have anything against Karlo or against TEDx content team were vain – they already took it as ad hominem. I asked Karlo if he ever checked speakers for TEDx event, I vividly remember his voice:

Ivan Jakobović achieved more in his life than you ever will.
I was at his place and I saw water engine working with my own eyes!
And because of publicly criticising him, I have no option that to remove YOU from the event!

Exactly what happened next:

  1. TEDxMaksimir team deleted negative comments from their FB page.
  2. They removed speaker bios from event page, and posted names of the talks instead (no mention of “water engine”).
  3. They refunded $20 back to my credit card and posted the following announcement:

Mr Zeljko just got a phone call he will be refunded entrance fee.. ..We need to protect speaker reputation.. ..Ivan Jakobović will speak about his rich experience as an inventor.. of the inventions Mr Zeljko is criticizing (ozonic exhaust) was already presented by Ivan on our first TEDx event in 2010.. ..that invention was sold and is successfully produced in Canada.. ..Thank you Mr Ivan Jakobović for sharing your rich experience with us and for honoring us again.. Karlo Matić, TEDxMaksimir license holder

There it is, public support from TEDx for Ivan. Mentioning Canada success of ozonic exhaust is funny, because Ivan Jakobović with all his profitable international inventions was working as technician at high school for agriculture. Don’t worry, he is not teaching, because he never finished college. Don’t get me wrong, many great inventors didn’t have formal education. But I am surprised a man with such credentials wasn’t checked before speaking engagement.

And exactly tomorrow, on Sep 20th 2013, Ivan Jakobović will deliver his second TEDx talk titled “Innovations. Motivations. Complications”.

If you think that is kind of unfair, please share this.


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Longest Vulgar Palindrome

As you probably know, a palindrome reads the same backwards as it does forwards. Computers can generate really long palindromes but they are completely meaningless. For example, this is the current computer record holder (105,302 characters).

To create a meaningful one you need to ditch the dictionary and use your creativity. A long time favourite is:

“A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!” (32 characters)

For those with dirtier minds, the question arises – what would the longest meaningful vulgar palindrome be? I abused the Google and the longest I fund was:

“A slut nixes sex in Tulsa.” (26 characters)

Not bad, huh? It is only 6 characters shorter than the Panama favourite.

But, it gets better – if we change the language.

In Croatian (same in Serbian) there is a really nice one:

“Mišu pita Dara: ‘Da ti pušim?’” (30 characters)

It translates to “Dara asks Mišo: do you want a blowjob?” First time I heard it, I couldn’t stop laughing. It is funny because it is completely natural; that is the exact phrase Dara would ask Mišo. Contrast that to the Panama and Tulsa examples and they seem a bit stretched.

So I asked Google for more fun in Serbo-Croatian. To my surprise, I found an even longer one:

“U Bejrutu Arapi kipara u tur jebu.” (34 characters)

That one translates to “In Beirut Arabs f**k sculptor in the bum.” Less natural, less fun, but this is the new vulgar record holder! And it is 2 characters longer that the English Panama favourite.

How can that be? English has 19x more native speakers!

Is this because of the language? Maybe Serbo-Croatian is more “melodic” in terms of profanities?

Or it is because of the culture? Which brings the question:


People who like both crosswords and swear words? Do they sit down with a pen and paper and try to match reverted “slut” and “sex” with other words? Instead of sudoku, they relax by finding names that start with reverted “blowjob”? That is a some fun creative process, and it seems that thousands of man-hours went into it 😀


Worst CAPTCHA Ever

By definition, CAPTCHA should be easy to read by humans but hard to read by machines. Apparently, they don’t agree with that at D&B:


They put CAPTCHA in a plain HTML text, and then put an ugly background below so it can’t be read by humans.
I knew corporate developers can be of lower quality, but this is hilarious :)


UPDATE: Many people got offended, but I stick to my personal opinion: many corporations have recruitment practices that reject good programmers and attract bad ones. Good programmers don’t want to work in an environment where meetings require a tie, the development process is waterfall and the only way to increase your salary is to become a manager. But most of all, the screening of programmers should be done by technical department and not by corporate HR. And that is not hard, here you can create programming tests for Java and C# and send them to your candidates in less than 5 min.