Monday, December 27, 2010

CGI as an Art-form?

We saw it last year with Avatar and again this year with Tron Legacy: spectacular special effects, no real story to speak of.

CGI (computer generated imagery) has evolved by leaps and bounds over the years. The original 1982 Tron is movie is one of the earliest examples of use of CGI in a movie. In fact, the original Tron wasn't nominated for awards in special effects because people felt they'd cheated by using computers. Today, it would be unthinkable to NOT use a computer for special effects.

CGI can be spectacular. As Avatar showed us last year, you can make a grandly successful movie by just showing people something on screen that hasn't been seen before. But Avatar got a lot of flak for it's lack of a serious storyline. More so did Tron where only a semblance of a story was maintained, if at all. But Tron was spectacular too.

Perhaps it is time to see CGI as an art form in itself and free it from the yolk of movie-like story-telling? Would it not be better if, rather than having to sit through a 2 hour atrocity, we could just go watch a short (like a music video) and get our fill of eye candy? I think the web can become an efficient platform for CGI as an art form.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Apples and Oran..., er, Mangoes

I'm reading this fascinating book called 'The Botany of Desire' by Michael Pollan. I must confess I have become something of a fan of Michael Pollan. It is hard to place his writing. It's non-fiction but I don't know what else to call it. He has a knack for combining history with folk-lore, scientific truth and a very poetic understanding of this world together into an engrossing reading. He is a miracle worker with words because nothing else explains why I'm so enamoured with a chapter about apples.

Yes, apples. Pollan traces the history of apples in the American continent. Apples were, of course, brought to America by the Europeans. But then they gained a life of their own in the New World. Pollan takes us on a journey through the life of the legendary and somewhat mythical Johnny Appleseed who is credited with the rise of apple in the US. He tells us about the origins of many different varieties of apples, the Red Delicious being the most prominent of them, and diversity that existed during the heyday of the apple. He finally brings us to rest in an exploitative monoculture that favours a few choice varieties over the myriad flavours that apple had to offer in the days gone by.

Apples in the US have some of the same status that mangoes do in the Indian subcontinent. But they are fruits separated by the gulf of time. The mango is an ancient fruit. It is entrenched in the Hindu religious life as no other fruit. The wood used in a yagya is often mango. Mango leaves are auspicious decoration on happy occasions. India cuisine is infused with mangoes -- chutney, pickle, aamras, or just eaten raw and ripe. There are hundreds of varieties of mango, each different and distinct.

The apple is similar. It is infused in the American life in the same way. There are hundreds of varieties, each distinct. And there is the cider, the pie, the sauce and what not. But unlike it's sub-continental counterpart, it's a modern fruit. It's been first domesticated and then industrialised. It's part in culture has been decided as much by tradition as by trade and commerce. "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" is a clever marketing slogan. It's breeding criteria -- beauty and sweetness -- are dictated by the exigencies of being able to market the fruit in superstores.

Reading the book, I realised how difficult it is for an outsider to really know a culture. Growing up in India, one has a very different relationship to the mango. One has seen mango groves, climbed on mango trees, seen one's grandmother pickle raw mangoes. Growing up in the the US, one sees cider presses and apple orchard and grandma's making apple sauce and apple pies. It is hard for an outsider to have the same relationship with the cardinal fruits of another culture.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Cooking and Baking

These days I’m reading the book “A Place of My Own” by Michael Pollan. In this book, the author, tired of living in a world of words and ideas (he’s a writer/journalist/editor by profession) decides to build himself a cabin out in the woods much like in ‘Walden’ by Thoreau.

The author notes that while writing is like cooking, architecture is like baking. With cooking you have a general plan but after that you improvise. You can take liberties with what you throw into the pan and how long you stir the pot. Baking is more precise. The ingredients must be mixed in a just so proportion, the over just this hot and for just this long.

Really made me wonder how baking-centered American cuisine is. (Some of you might be sniggering at this -- the stereotype is that Americans don’t cook.) Indeed, everything you but at the store comes with precise instructions on how to cook it. Families cherish ‘recipes’, again precise instructions on how to make what. There seems to be a lack of cooking styles like various regional styles in India or the shechuan and hunan styles in Chinese cuisine. Indeed, an American friend how was learning Indian cooking had great difficulty wrapping her mind around that idea that there was no recipe to follow. We all just have a general idea of how stuff is made and then just improvise over it.

The fast food and processed food industry continues with this mentality. It is sad that fast food and ready to eat meals have taken over to such an extent that real cooking has been relegated to expensive ‘gourmet’ restaurants. It’s hard to find inexpensive slow cooked food in America.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Information Addiction

It has been quite some time since I’ve had a long stretch of uninterrupted reading. This isn’t due to lack of time. This is due to the availability of a computer with internet. As soon as I encounter a word or phrase that I do not understand I need to google its meaning. Coming across a reference to another book, author, movie or historical fact triggers another session of googling. And it’s only after several minutes of information consumption that I’m able to get back to what I was reading. Needless to say, the flow of reading is completely destroyed.

The internet has made us addicted to information. We have to satisfy our curiosity right now. We cannot wait even a minute!

This is changing the way we consume information in two key ways.

Breadth vs. Depth
Before the internet, information was difficult to obtain. You had to go to a library to look up information. Most information was available in long form – books and articles. The number of sources was limited. As a result, information consumption was depth first. We used to read something in its entirety, say a book. Of course, several things piqued our interest. But we decided to follow through with one or two of these curiosities. And so on. This led to a consumption pattern that led us depth first into a subject. Or at least our progression was linear.

Compare this to what happens with the internet. We search for something and a hundred results pop up. We open many of these in tabs. Each tab possibly leads to several more tabs. We quickly scan through the gist of each page, often being led far away from our original topic very soon. We learn about a wide variety of subjects which are only loosely related at best. We might even get distracted by lolcats and giving up our quest for knowledge altogether. That is, our consumption is shallow, breadth first. We learn a little bit about a whole lot of topics.

Since information is so easily available, we do not spend much effort into remembering stuff anymore. This makes our consumption even shallower. We learn a little bit about a wide variety of subjects and retain very little of it.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Saving Time

The famous Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano says, “I’m not particularly interested in saving time; I prefer to enjoy it.”

What a delightful way to put it. Indeed, many of us are so busy saving time that we hardly get any time to enjoy it. The urge to save time comes from a culture that teaches us to defer enjoyment for a later time. We work hard at college so we can get a cushy job and enjoy all the money. We work hard five days a week so we can party on the weekend. We work hard through our youth so we can retire in luxury.

Of course, getting a good education, doing well at your job and planning for the future are important. But what stops us from slowing down a little, doing less, wanting less and just enjoying what we have? What stops us from focusing on the few important things, doing them well and enjoying them as we ride along?

So stop saving time today and take the time to enjoy it.

Friday, December 17, 2010

For Minimalist Living – Finish it Off!

Do you

1. Start a new book before finishing the current one?
2. Buy more food before the fridge is empty?
3. Buy new appliances before the ones you own break down?
4. Buy new clothes before the current ones become unwearable?
5. Move on to a new hobby project before you finish this one?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes then you should probably consider finishing it off! Finishing it off is a great way for minimalist living. Do not move onto a new thing before you've finished off the current one. Consume less, spend less and find more time and space for what you really care for.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mathematics Education and Software Freedom

Conrad Wolfram has an interesting suggestion. He says that kids spend most of their time in school learning how to do arithmetic by hand (long division and such like). This is not only tedious and boring it’s also stupid to do it by hand when we have computers! Computers are good at precisely these kinds of repetitive tasks. Instead of spending grueling hours practicing long divisions, kids should be formulating problems, thinking logically and exploring realistic problems.

According to him, math education should be computer based, using programming at its core.

I agree with this, more or less.

However, there’s a curious thing about doing long division on pen and paper. Once you learn doing that, it’s yours. You can go home and do it on another sheet of paper with another pen. You can go on the beach and do it on the sand with a stick. (Yes, a rather sad way to spend your time on the beach.) You can go mountain climbing and carve it out on a rock with a chisel. You can travel to another country and teach it to a foreigner. You can write and sell a book explaining how it works.

In other words, you own long division. You can do with it as you please. You don’t have to buy it from somebody. You don’t have to pay royalties every time you use it.

However, you have to do those things with computer software.

What software are we going to use to teach our kids math? It is going to run on windows? If yes, can he come back home to a Mac and do his homework? What language is he going to program in? Will he be able to run his program on another compiler on another platform? Is he required to pay a royalty to someone every time he needs to run his software? Will he be able to share his work with his buddies?

Remember that Wolfram is not talking about using computers to teach math. He’s talking about using computers to do the math. He isn’t talking about presentation and animations. He’s talking about programming and simulations.

It is clear that unless a completely free and open software environment is adopted for learning, we run the risk of teaching our kids knowledge that’s owned in large parts by one or two companies. Free software is going to play a key role in how learning takes place in the 21st century.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Today we feature a guest post by Behzad Larry.

I moved to Kigali, Rwanda this October. Kigali is a spectacular city- not in the way that New York or Paris are spectacular, but rather because of it's order and uniformity. Qualities that make it the most unique city I have ever lived in.

The main roads are well paved and wide. The traffic is orderly. And the city is clean. Clean? What? Let's take a step back- I know what dirty is. I know what filthy is. I know what downright disgusting looks like. I have stood in the middle of one of the filthiest landfills in India, I’ve breathed in the putrid stench, and I've re-visited it, over and over. For two whole years, I spent most of my waking hours thinking about trash, planning about trash, or looking at trash. I can discuss efficiency rates for compactors and hook-loaders, lecture on concepts of zero-waste, and then some.

What I can't do is come to terms with how clean Kigali is.

The very first thing that struck me as the taxi wound through Kigali's hills towards what would be my home for the next few months, was the stupendous lack of visible garbage. On every sidewalk in New York City one can see an overflowing trash can. There are piles of black 50 gallon bags on alternate sides of the streets. Garbage is a part of life. Our parking system accommodates our compactors along with their slow daily progress through the mountains of trash that the city of New York generates.

It is much more personal in India. There, we can often pin-point that empty plot of land in our neighborhood where all the trash seems to end up. We see the litter as we walk on the roads, even when we drive through the countryside. Plastic bags, crushed water bottles, decaying vegetable matter. All these are familiar sights.

I've been thinking for a very long time now for a solution that will drive us to cleanliness in our cities. Nothing exemplary, just basic sanitation. We do have rules about all this- stuff to force us into behaving. I'm no saint, I've littered on the street, I've tossed that wrapper in the gutter. But then, it's not like the rules on disposing our waste are the only ones we openly flaunt. India is rated 87th on the international corruption perceptions index. 87 out of 178. We don't need Wikipedia to tell us that we are corrupt, though. We know that. A cursory look at the Times of India can tell us that. Scam and ghotala. We know these words well.

But how are corruption scandals, scams that scalp the tax-payer, and a blatant disregard for the rules that govern the disposal of our trash connected?

Move, if you will, your minds back to Rwanda now.

President Kagame is hard on corruption. His government does not tolerate it. Is there still corruption? Sure. So how is it different? Instead of hearing in the news about a new scam, or another corrupt official, one reads about their arrest. One reads about the repercussions and reactions to corruption and corrupt officials. This has an effect that can be seen on the street. It means that someone is enforcing the law. This means that the fines connected to littering are imposed when a litterer is caught.

Enforcement- that is what we lack. Respect for the law cannot come without respect for it's enforcers. And respect cannot be given to the corrupt. Nor can we claim it if we enable the corrupt. Are the bribers as guilty as the one's taking the bribe? Perhaps. One can argue that if one did not bribe, the work would not be done. Or one could argue that if no one gave bribes then no one would ask for them. But life is not a zero sum game. Neither is Kigali, or Rwanda. Outward order, with proper enforcement, is very possible- but one should not make the mistake of trying to understand a society merely through it's external facade.

In the same way, though our image is marred by our corrupt, and often times dirty exterior, we must dig deeper to understand how to bring effective and long lasting change to India. If a strong president and a unified cabinet can bring such remarkable change to Rwanda, a country that experienced a horrific genocide and civil war only 16 years ago, then perhaps there are lessons we must earnestly learn.

It is easy to blame inept leaders. It is easier still to not vote. It is easiest of all to complain.

Change, however, is only possible if we decide to act. If we decide to participate, and if we decide to lead.

Behzad J. Larry is Director of Policy and Development at the Open Learning Exchange (OLE). OLE's mission is to support the spread of literacy and numeracy through the adoption of open educational resources by providers of basic education world-wide. Previously, Behzad spent a year working in Patna, India on solid waste management initiatives as a William J. Clinton Fellow. He implemented a livelihood generating recycling project for rag-picking women and developed and executed the master plan for solid waste management for the city of Muzaffarpur, Bihar. Behzad currently resides in Kigali, Rwanda.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Re-reading Harry Potter

I’m re-reading Harry Potter novels these days. Rather slowly, I must admit because I’m really busy on other fronts. However, some observations are interesting to note.

1. I’ve read too much by now. I last read Harry Potter in high-school. That was between 2001 and 2003, I guess. I think it was the very first fantasy I’d ever read. I was amazed. Rowling seemed so imaginative and new and cool. I was completely floored. Since then, I’ve read Tolkien, Gaiman, Pratchett, and several others. Rowling doesn’t seem that cool anymore. She doesn’t even seem like a very skilled writer. Don’t get me wrong. She’s still fun, but not that much anymore.

2. I’m noting how she has so many woman characters. Of course, there’s Harry and Ron and Dumbledore and Snape. But then there’s also Hermione, Ginny, McGonnagal and several other woman characters. Quidditch is a co-ed sport which has more than a single token girl in it. Maybe this is the reason for Harry Potter’s immense popularity. Many books alienate at least half their audience by being male-centric.

3. I noticed how Rowling ‘writes in scenes’. While this technique is often taught in writing workshops, I’m not entirely sure this is the best way to write. That’s why she doesn’t come out as a skilled writer in a re-read. That might also be the reason why the Harry Potter movie adaptations aren’t as good. The book too strictly defines every scene. Becomes harder for the script writer to change anything and not spoil the effect. Compare this to the Lord of the Rings which is writer in the epic format and was wonderfully adapted to screen.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Smartphones and Tablets are Spurting OS Diversity

Everyone knows how I’m not happy with the growth of smartphones and tablets because I believe they are cluttering our lives with too many devices that we may not really need. However, I am happy about one thing – they are increasing OS diversity.

Long ago, computing hardware was inextricably linked to software. Every brand of machine came with its operating system. Then Microsoft and IBM teamed up and came up with the idea of IBM compatibles. All the myriad OSes died out and all we had left was Windows, Mac OS and Linux. (Sure, there are others but they weren’t major players anymore.)

But with the advent of smartphones and tablets, the diversity in the OS ecosystem is back. We have the iOS, Andriod, Symbian, Blackberry OS, MeeGo, Windows Mobile and what not. Sure, not all of them are open but at least we don’t run the risk of a Microsoft like monopoly in the smartphone and tablet market.

All is not hunky-dory, of course. I’d really like to see more openness in this market segment. Wouldn’t it be fun to see the iOS run on the Driod X?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Corporations are Bad for Dissent

Wikileaks has become big news with what is now being called cablegate. The merits and demerits of wikileaks and the morality and ethics of the way governments are trying to silence them are matters of debate. I do not wish to get into this debate on my blog. I do however want to point out one crucial lesson we can all learn from the whole fiasco.

I think we can all agree that dissent and freedom of speech is fundamental for a healthy democracy. The idea is that dissent is the internal check and balance that keeps people in power doing the right thing, brings about needed changes and challenges established notions.

But the wikileaks scandal has shown how easy it has become for governments to squash dissent in the internet age. A massive denial of service attack was launched on wikileaks. Their move to the Amazon cloud was promptly shut down too. Paypal then refused to handle payments for wikileaks. Their DNS service was shut down. And now it seems that twitter is censoring its trending topics to not show wikileaks at all.

I won’t be surprised if ISPs are asked to completely block wikileaks.

The problem here is that while people and institutions take moral and ethical stands (see statement by a SIPA dean), corporations don’t. Corporations care about profit and not freedom of speech or dissent or human rights. We may harp about the freedom of the internet and all that but the truth is, a vast majority of the internet infrastructure is owned by corporations and there is no way that’s going to lead to any freedom or the so called democratization of information.

To be clear again, I’m not defending or attacking wikileaks here. I’m just saying that corporations are bad for dissent and that the internet is not the magical democratic tool that it’s often made out to be.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Don’t Do Zazen When You Want to Do It

I’ve been practicing Zazen meditation for a few months now. As a newbie to meditation, it’s been a challenge incorporating Zazen in my life. The first and foremost issue of course was making time for it in my daily schedule. I started with doing meditation in the evening after getting back from work. This worked for me because that’s when I felt least guilty about taking time out for myself. Also, I am not an early riser.

But as I progressed in my practice I discovered that it also tended to become an escape mechanism. Procrastination is a major problem for me and Zazen became a way to avoid work. As soon as I was faced with work that I didn’t want to do I’d sit down to do meditation. The good think about Zazen is that as you watch your thoughts flit about in your cranium, their nature becomes evident soon.

So here’s what I did.

I’ve now decided on a strict timetable. I do not do meditation outside of the allotted time. The funny thing is, once you allot a fixed time, you never feel like doing it at that time. And once that time is passed you feel like doing it all the time – to avoid doing something else.

Hence – don’t do Zazen when you want to do it. Do it when you’re required to do it.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Dirty India and Ritual Purity

The first thing that Indians notice when they travel abroad is the difference in public cleanliness. And this isn’t just limited to comparisons with the US or Europe. A friend is right now working in Rwanda and says it’s the cleanest place he’s ever seen. Another friend who visited Ethiopia recently had reports the same from there. Makes me wonder – why is India so dirty?

Of course, there’s that general lack of civil sense in Indians. There’s high population density and the consequent inadequacy of infrastructure. (Although I don’t quite buy the population argument. Sure, there’s a lot more trash to clean but there are also lot more people to clean it, right?) But I also wonder if the brahminical concept of ritual purity has something to do with it too.

When we do a pooja at our house, the remains of the ceremony are supposed to be discarded in a manner that prevents their desecration – they shouldn’t get under one’s feet, for example. Sometimes you feed them to animals or throw them in a river. It’s the latter that my mother often insists on doing. Never mind that the river is so dirty that I wouldn’t step into it even if someone paid me to do it. On any given day, my feet are positively sterilized compared to the river. And yet, the river is more “pure” than my feet.

The same is true for all of our major rivers like the Ganga and the Yamuna which are facing a pollution crisis. It’s ironical that we don’t bother to keep our holiest of holy rivers clean.

This time during my India trip I was forced to visit the Khajrana temple in Indore. (I often have to be forced into temple visits.) It struck me as oddly dilapidated and unclean. There was trash and rubble all around. The walls looked like they hadn’t been painted in ages. Again, ironical that one of the most holy temples of the city (and also the richest) should be this unclean.

Makes me think that Indians aren’t really bothered about real physical cleanliness. As long as the ritual of cleanliness is maintained, they’re happy. As long as the pooja remnants are thrown in the river, they’re happy. As long as no one wears a leather belt in the temple, they’re happy. Who cares if there are heaps of trash in the temple and sewer slurry in the river?

This attitude probably carries into other spheres as well.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Lessons Learnt from Blogging, Phase 2

I started blogging in 2005. I was barely past my second year in college and undoubtedly young and na├»ve. Over time, the focus on blogging has waxed and waned. As regular readers of the blog must have noticed, there has been a sudden flood of posts on this blog. I’m calling it blogging phase 2.

Some lessons have been learnt from over two months of posting each day. Two months might not seem that long but writing one post every day isn’t easy. I admire those who write more. Here’s what I’ve learnt.

1. Be regular. The most important way to maintain your readership is to be regular. As a reader, I myself do not like bloggers who are irregular or sporadic. Decide a posting frequency for yourself and stick to it. I do one post per day. Some bloggers do twice a week. Other, highly prolific ones post several times a day.

2. Say something interesting. Put yourself in the shoes of a reader and imagine what they’d find utterly boring. Then don’t write that.

3. Pay attention to the design. Design your blog with care. Make it pretty but not gaudy. I’ve chosen a minimalist design which emphasizes the latest post and recent comments. Do not cram your blog with non-essential widgets and make it ugly.

4. Find avenues to promote your blog. Twitter and facebook are okay but they often get limited to just your friends. Find other avenues to promote your blog. Avoid sites that are too big. Go for medium sized ones. I found that was very useful for me. It is a network of Indian bloggers.

5. Maintain privacy. I have posts from my younger days that I’m embarrassed of now. Most often these are about friends or people I know. Be careful while mentioning people on your blog. What seems like a good rant today might become embarrassing when your anger has cooled down or 5 years later when you can’t even remember the person you wrote about.

6. Do not stare at statcounter. Staring does not bring more readers. Go do you work. Let statcounter do its.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Why Buttons are better than Touchscreens

The current trend in technology is to replace all screens with touchscreens. The trend has started with smartphones and is gradually spreading to netbooks, ebook readers, tablets and also mainstream computers. I can’t say I’m happy with this trend.

Sure, touchscreens look nifty and flash and when they’d first come out I was completely floored. The idea that you could touch something on the screen and have it respond was completely miraculous. Out went the mouse and keyboard. You could do anything on the screen. Having lived with touchscreens for a couple of years now, I’m not so sure.

But before I tell you why I don’t like touchscreen, let me tell you why I do like them. Touchscreens are very good for “point-and-click” operations – typically the kind of stuff that you’d do with a mouse. What better pointing device than your hand? Instead of using the mouse as a metaphor for the moving cursor on screen, you can directly touch what you want to touch. That’s why touchscreens work great on things like smartphones or tablets. It makes up for a missing mouse on these devices.

What a touchscreen doesn’t make up for is the keyboard. A keyboard is good because it helps the user form spatial memory. Edit -> Copy will always be on a different location on screen. But CTRL + C will always be at the same location on the keyboard. Think touch typing – the whole idea is that spatial memory makes you much more efficient at doing well practiced jobs. I’m also a big fan of dedicated buttons for volume control, playback etc.

Moreover, a virtual keyboard on screen takes up too much screen real estate. There is no physical response. Physical response is shown to increase the accuracy of typing.

So touchscreens are okay for small devices because providing a full-fledged keyboard is difficult there. But for slightly larger devices, keyboards rule. I don’t, however, have anything against throwing the mouse out!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Computer Distractions – Too Many Choices

An overwhelming amount of our modern lives are being spent in front of a screen. While computing devices are useful tools to get a myriad of jobs accomplished, they are also a major source of distractions.

Why are computers so distracting? Human beings have been using tools for millennia. Yet, it wasn’t until the invention of computers that we started getting distracted by our tools.

Part of the problem, of course, is that computers are not just tools but also media for communications. As you work on a computer, you are constantly barraged with an endless volley of emails, tweets, instant messages and facebook updates. It is hard to keep track of all this information.

But even if you turn off the internet, computers are still distracting. If you use a word processor to write your documents, it is not unheard of to be lost, fascinated by the many functions, the in-built thesaurus or the wonderful drawing tools.

Computers are distracting because they offer too many choices. We don’t get distracted by a screwdriver. That’s because all you can do with a screwdriver is screw screws. It doesn’t offer any more choices.

Thus the trick to taming computer distractions is to limit your choices. It might seem like an alien idea in the modern consumerist culture, but it is a good idea. Simplify your software and online life. Limit your choices and see the kind of difference that makes in your life.

Here are some suggestions

1. Don’t install too many software that provide the same functionality. Have one software per functionality. For example, keep one word processor, one email client, one media player or one web browser installed. Uninstall all software you do not need.

2. Prefer simple software to complex one. A text editor is enough to write text. You don't always need a full fledged word processor. Don't use a lathe machine where a pen-knife would suffice.

3. When possible re-use software functionality. For example, if your needs simple, you might just keep all your notes as documents. No need to use a dedicated note taking software. You might use your video player to play audio files. Of course this may or may not work for you depending on your needs. For example, you might be a music collector and want something more sophisticated to manage your collection.

4. Do one task at a time. I do this by maximizing all my windows and focusing only on one window at a time.

5. Try opening as few tabs in the browser as possible. I like to limit myself to a number that completely covers the width of my screen.

6. Try limiting the number of online services that you use. If you’re on facebook, try deleting your orkut or myspace or twitter accounts. Don’t worry about ‘losing touch’ with people. If they really think it important to communicate with them, there’s always email or phone.

Some time ago, renowned computer scientist Donald Knuth said that he’d stopped checking email. He said that “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.” He only accepts physical letters now.

While shutting off email might be disastrous for us mere mortals, his sentiment is worth thinking about.


Saturday, December 04, 2010

Stumps All Around

Dilip D’Souza wrote about how a stump of concrete remains outside Bandra station. The concrete pillar was erected to support a skywalk when it was being built. Once it was done, no one really cared to remove the now useless stump of concrete. We love to build skywalks but don’t clear out the rubble.

We have such stumps everywhere. I remember with much annoyance how they used to dig up water or telephone or electricity or some such thing in my neighborhood but never pave it over once it was done. Often, they wouldn’t even fill it up again. The dug up mud cause inconvenience for the residents for months! Moreover, there used to be absolutely no coordination between departments. Following Murphy’s law to the word, the telephone dept. HAD to dig the whole road up as soon as it was paved anew.

A couple of years ago my home town got a brand new city bus system. Mucho money was spent and new bus stops made. They had those modern aluminum cladding. The aluminum cladding was put in but the plastic covers on them were never removed. What’s the point of having a flashy design if you never unwrap it?

When I visited India this time, I had to spend a whole night at the New Delhi station. Since I had a 3AC ticket, I got to sit in the “Upper Class” waiting room. Apparently the only difference between an “Upper Class” waiting room and a “General Class” waiting room is the AC. The Upper Class waiting room had a split AC in one corner which wasn’t running because it was November. It also had a false ceiling that I always tend to associate with too much money.

It had a toilet which was, well, a railway station toilet. There also was a huge dust-bin in the corner which was, well, a railway station dust bin. Why they could spend money on an AC and a false ceiling and not on a clean toilet and dust bin is beyond my comprehension. I’d much rather have a clean toilet than an AC any day.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Vestiges of the Varnashrama System

It is sometimes surprising how deeply ingrained in the subcontinent some concepts of Hindu philosophy are. One such concept is the whole idea that when you’re young, the only thing you’re supposed to do is studies and only studies and anything and everything else is completely forbidden. And that once you’re done with that, the thing you’re immediately supposed to do is marry and that you’ll be able to switch between these two completely different lives at the snap of a finger. Totally successfully too.

How often have you heard things like – “college ye sab karne aye ho ki padhne aye ho”? (Have you come to college to study or do all this?) Or, “abhi apne career par dhyaan lagao, ye sab baad mein kar lena”. (Pay attention to your career right now, do all this later.)

Nothing could be more absurd. Life doesn’t come to a standstill just because you’re going to college. You will have other aspiration, feelings and desires. And it is not wrong to shape your life around them.

It seems ridiculous that all you’re supposed to do until college is study and then suddenly within a year or two you’re supposed to get married and take on the full-fledged responsibility of being married. They don’t even give you much time before you’ve got to have kids!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

A (Re) Definition of Karma

Karma is a fundamental concept in Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh philosophies. Like any other concept, there are many definitions of the word. As Rama Kandra in the Matrix says, karma is a word. It is a way of saying “what I’m here to do”. What is it that I’m here to do?

The basis of karmic theory is the idea of causation – that every event has a cause and every action has a consequence. Thus, to understand what you’re here to do, you must understand cause and consequence.

You open your refrigerator, fetch a can of soft drink, pop it open and take a swig. A simple action: but a culmination of complex causes and the initiation of complex consequences. Whence does this soft drink come from? Where was it made? Who made it? Did it pollute the environment that it was made in? Were the people who made it given fair wages? Did people have to leave their homes and livelihood for the factory to be set up? Where politicians bribed, media played with to obtain permit to set up that factory? Was advertising subtly used to manipulate you into desiring something that you don’t really need? What does the intense amount of sugar and caffeine do when you gulp down this drink which you’ve been deluded into believing is refreshing? When you throw away the can, where does it go? What becomes of it?

Are you here to drink that can of soft drink? When you understand the causes and consequences of that simple action, you may be able to answer that question. Or you may not. Or the answer may change as you understand better. Sometimes understanding may become an end in itself.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Success of Linux

Every year, at an indeterminate time, we start getting a slew of articles on the interwebs titled, ‘The Year 20XX is going to be the Year of the Linux Desktop’. Or something like that. Or, ‘the Year of the Linux Server’. Or proving what the market percentage of Linux is and how it’s much more than Windows or OS X. Or way less. Or how it’s rising. Or how netbooks would put Linux into the lay consumer’s hand.

I can understand where all these articles are coming from. It is every geek’s pipe dream to see Linux running on every single item of computing hardware sold. We want Linux to be everywhere. We want Linux to be the boss. We want Linux to be successful!

But it really depends on how you define success isn’t it? I doubt if Linux is going to break the hegemony of proprietary OSes anytime soon. But to me, the existence of Linux is success enough. The very fact that free and open source software can not only exist but also flourish is remarkable. Sometimes the existence of an alternative is enough to make the mainstream less sinister than it could actually be without the alternative. Linux acts as a deterrent to complete monopoly. It acts as a safety valve in ideology and practice.

So for me, Linux is already successful. Of course, I still dream about World Domination ™ in the future. But success is already here.