Monday, February 28, 2011

Minimalism does not work with food

Leo Babauta has this interesting article on the minimalism of a pizza Margherita. I enjoy minimalist food. I like to eat fruits plain and I enjoy minimal meals with only one or two items. (My all time favorite is daal-chawal with pickle.) However, food is a classic example where minimalism does not work. You cannot capture the rich taste of a Hyderabadi Biryani or the subtle flavors of chana masala with minimal ingredients. All the dozen ingredients have to come together in the right proportion to create that magic. There is no way you can capture that beauty with just a two or three ingredients.

Thus, minimalism cannot be some universal principle governing all aspects of your life. It has to be a deliberate choice, used only when it fits the context.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How to Use Experts

Noreena Hertz gives a passionate talk on how experts are fallible and how we, as a society, should develop a health mistrust of experts.

I have some gripes with the talk. In the opening lines, she makes us believe that we have always relied on experts to make decisions. This is not true. Relying on experts to make decisions is a fairly recent phenomenon. Take the decision on what to eat, for example. In most cultures, there are elaborate rules, rituals, traditions and folklore surrounding what to eat, when and how. It represents the collective knowledge and experience of a culture about a very important aspect of human life - eating food. Relying on nutritionists a fairly new phenomenon, a by product of the modern capitalist/consumerist culture.

Second, I do not think the problem lies with experts themselves. I think experts are often very aware of the assumptions that they make and the limitations of their methodologies. There is often ample dissent within an expert group, at least during the early stages of development of a field. Experts also know that they are only human and make mistakes all the time.

The problem doesn't lie with non-experts either. People are often inquisitive and cautious. They will always challenge authority whenever they feel empowered to do so.

The problem lies with communication. Experts opinions get to the public in pithy slogans. The media loves taglines - eating chocolate decreases risk of cancer, drinking coffee can help you live longer. Experts will seldom make claims like that. The media fails to deliver the nuances and the details of expert knowledge to the general public.

The communication problem also runs the other way round. In most cases, there is no mechanism for experts to listen to 'user' feedback. Experts are often working with limited eyes and ears. This is perhaps a folly on the part of experts. With the advances in communication technology, this shortcoming can perhaps be overcome.

See this great talk by Thomas Goetz about how to redesign medical data to better communicate with patients.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Getting Carried away by the Internet

The Internet is perhaps the single most powerful change that has occurred in the developed world. It is indeed a wonderful invention that is changing us in ways we never knew were possible. New possibilities are opening up while the old world order is breaking down.

And yet, it is very easy to get carried away. Consider for example the recent revolution in Egypt which was widely referred to by the western media as a 'twitter revolution'. This term, I think, does disservice to the people of Egypt. Revolutions are created by people, not twitter. Twitter was not the cause of the uprising. It was only a medium. Calling it a twitter revolution is akin to calling the Renaissance a printing press revolution.

The danger here lies in ignoring the complexities of human interaction and reducing it down to a single focal point.

I'm reading this book called 'Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think' which is a collection of essays on the topic by leading thinkers of today. The book is compiled by John Brockman of

The book contains an essay titled, 'A Level Playing Field' by Martin Reese, president of the Royal Society. His thesis is that the Internet is leveling the playing field. As an example, he cites the work of Dr. Manindra Agarwal and his two students, Nitin Saxena and Neeraj Kayal (all of whom belong to my alma mater). Dr. Agarwal and his associates posted their work on the internet, thus receiving instant peer review and recognition of their work. Reese then compares this to the relative anonymity of Ramanujan until he was discovered by Hardy and presented to the western world.

What this simplistic analysis ignores is the contexts that these two researchers worked in. Dr. Agarwal works at the premier institute in free-independent India, set-up with American collaboration back in the 60s, deeply steeped in the Western tradition of science. Ramanujan was born in pre-independence colonial India and had little or no western education. Once you factor these social differences in, the level playing field doesn't remain that level after all.

The point is not that the internet is not making a difference. The point is that it is not the magical wand that many people claim that it is. Old power structures sill exist and will continue to exist. In fact, if we are not careful, they will soon devour the freedom and democracy that comes with the internet. Let is not get too carried away with the charmed of the backlit screen.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Problem with Stereotypes

Supporters of stereotypes often take refuge in facts and statistics. For example, people might support the stereotype that children of Asian immigrants in America are high academic achievers. These supporters will dig up data from spelling bees, olympiads and standardized test score to establish their arguments. Often, little fault can be found with their data.

The problem lies with the inference. In emphasizing ethnicity in analysing academic achievement, the implication always is that ethnicity is the cause of said achievement. These kids are good at spelling bees and olympiads and standardized tests because they are Asian immigrants. Correlation is confused with causation. (If not explicitly then at least implicitly.) And that is problematic.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Introducing - The Indian Cow

Today I want to introduce you all to The Indian Cow - an India centric content aggregator. 

We all love to share links on facebook and twitter. Often these status updates and tweets are private and meant only for our friends. But we, the folks are The Indian Cow, thought, why not make it a thing? Of course, the idea is nothing new, there are at least a thousand, if not a million blogs out there sharing nothing but links. But hey, we're special! **insert random marketing jargon here**

We believe that a void has been left behind in the wake of (now defunct) Desipundit and (almost defunct) BlogBharti. We aim to fill this void. We are also...

Bah, we're just doing it for fun. We hope you will enjoy the links we share and have good conversations about them. That's all.

So head over now to our website and subscribe via RSS or email. Or follow us on twitter @theindiancow. We even have a facebook page!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Secularism is Not Anti-God?!

Read this new item where a Gujarat High Court has declared that secularism is not "anti-god" and that it is perfectly okay to perform a religious ceremony to mark the start of construction of a public building. (Via: The Indian Cow.)

Secularism is interpreted in different ways in different countries. In the US, the guiding principle is 'separation of church and state'. That is, the government does no religion. In India, the government does all religions. They sponsor both the Kailash Mansarovar and the Hajj pilgrimages.

However, the problem with the Indian interpretation is that of favoritism. If the state does all the religions, what stops it from having a favorite one. In this particular case, why was a Hindu ceremony performed, as opposed to, say reading verses from the Quran?

Why is no consideration given to how the minorities feel about a Brahminical ceremony being performed for a public building that they have an equal stake in?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Thing to Understand about Internet Privacy

Is that the internet is a public space. Just like real spaces, the level of you privacy varies. You could be exchanging emails with your spouse, and just like bedroom conversations, these will most probably remain private unless someone really comes digging for it. You could shout something out on facebook or twitter. Only your friends will hear it, but you never know who is gossiping to whom and where the word will reach. Finally you may write something on your blog and it's there for everyone to read.

Whatever you write, the internet is a public place. Do not say or write something that you will not say in public.

The second, also important, thing to understand is that the internet is not akin to speaking. It is akin to putting up printed notices and fliers. Everything is at least semi-permanent and hard to destroy or deny. So whenever you post something on the internet, think of it as posting something on the notice board in your own handwriting.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Three C's of Being Human

There are three human emotions that as as fundamental to being human as any other.

We all feel compassion for others. Some of us feel compassion for every being in this universe. Some people feel compassion for the environment or for animals. So feel compassion for fellow human beings. But even if you do not, you might at least feel compassion for your family, your parents, spouse or children. And if not even that, then at least you feel compassion for yourself. Or have, at some time. Compassion is a deeply human emotion.

All of us have felt curiosity at some time or another. As children, we were intensely curious. That curiosity helped us learn how to talk and what to like and what to not like. Even as adults we retain a fair amount of that curiosity. You might not be at the frontiers of science asking the cutting edge questions, but you at least read a new word in the newspaper and wonder what it means. Being curious defines us as human beings.

Human beings are makers. Over the course of our lives, we make a thousand things. Creativity can manifest itself in myriad ways. Perhaps you came up with a clever way to plug that leak in your plumbing. Or maybe you devised a smart shorthand while taking notes in class. As humans we are infinitely creative.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Power of Choosing

I recently read a self help book called 'The Now Habit' by Neil Fiore. The book intends to help you overcome procrastination. Like all self help books, it doesn't quite help you as much as you'd like to. But it does have a take away message that I really liked.

The author asks us to replace "have to" with "choose to". Day in an day out we find ourselves saying to ourselves - I have to go to work today. Or, I have to get this report done by evening. I should be exercising more. I should eat less fatty food. And so on.

The author asks us to replace this internal dialog with a choice statement. I choose to go to work today. I choose to get this report done by evening. I will exercise more. I will eat less fatty food.

When you say "have to", you are putting someone else in-charge: your boss, your teacher, or your doctor. When you say "choose to", you are in-charge. This can be a liberating feeling.

See also:

Friday, February 04, 2011

UI Design and Choice

Good UI design is easy to use, among other things. But easy of use is often in conflict with the amount of choice that is given to the user.

More choice requires more effort from the user. Imagine walking into a super market where they sell a hundred different varieties of bread. Which one do you buy? Instead of being empowering, this existence of choice can be intimidating. The user is likely to just pick up a loaf at random and walk away with a feeling of not having chosen the best option or not having chosen at all.

But having choice is good too. Everyone likes versatile tools. Wouldn't it be a joy to discover that you blender can also juice your oranges?

Designers of computer interfaces have to balance these two concerns. Most go either one way or another. The Linux desktop environments, Gnome and KDE, are almost diametrically opposite examples. Gnome gives the users as little choice as possible and believes in having "good defaults" that the user need not change. Gnome is known to have actually reduced the number of things the user could do over time. KDE on the other hand throws every possible option at the user, resulting in monstrocities like this.

To compound the problem even further, different use cases need different levels of choice. As I've said earlier, if I just want to want a video, a play pause button and a seek bar are enough. If I'm writing code, I need all sorts of sophisticated options.

I'm not sure what the solution to this conundrum is. Most good designs solve it by limiting their target audience and figuring out what is best for them.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Tell Tale of Poverty, Detective novels, Letters in faces, Yearn to become someone else and Hidden meaning of words

Today we feature a guest post by Vaibhav Rathi about the strange allure of Orhan Pamuk.

A fictitious article, an essay, book or just a random conversation with the person you have never met. When you read some of these( or other) things again and again, it will often happen that the old meaning, which you were all too sure of, starts to melt away giving way to the obvious meaning which you have long suspected.

So when you are reading a good book (cue: the one which makes you read the world, rather than just itself) which boast of being a religious-political thriller, and you are assaulted with a chapter titled: We're Not Stupid, We're Just Poor. It’s only natural that you immediately think of the perception that our society is arranged in decreasing order of intelligence. How we think of the poor, it’s because they are stupid that they haven’t figured out how to make money and live good life. Rich folks think this of poor folks, rich country for poor country, and so on. But most of all you’d be haunted by all the new types of Secularist, Islamist, Nationalist, and Leftist you’d find in there. Although a political thriller –as it claims- it doesn’t have any government, government agent, corporation, any establishment, or even spies. All there is are bunch of poor people stranded in a small town completely cut off from outside world for snow. It’s then only, among those individuals with dangerously conflicting ideas, you get to realize what politics is all about: ideas and beliefs. No sooner than you have felt this very basic fact, you’ll be assaulted by secularists who are not as un-biased as they seem, Islamists whose only mistake is that they have self-respect, nationalists who live in the past, leftists, and two young boys who are discovering what it’s like to have faith. Well into the book, you’d know that there is no way this story can end ever.

When you, rather complacently, would figure that it might be the most influential book you’ll ever read, soon enough, you’ll stumble upon another one which will mock you for holding such deluded notions. This new book would look like a detective novel, read like a detective novel, but the problem is it wouldn’t feel like one. No murder, no criminals, no pursuit, ever morphing identities, you wouldn’t know who is searching and what, or even if there is anything to search.

Much early in the book, you’ll read: Galip had once told Ruya that the only detective book he’d ever want to read would the one in which not even author knew the murderer’s identity. Instead of decorating the story with clues and red herrings, the author would be forced to come to grips with his characters and his subject, and his characters would have a chance to become people in a book instead of just fragments of their author’s imagination.

You’d feel the nervous, being intimidated, when the protagonist would say that he finds it incredibly artificial when everything just falls into the place at the end of a detective book, and at this precise moment, the author would whisper all the clues into the detective’s ears, who is till now seemingly ignorant, and who would solve the mystery then and there. Just as you read this, you’d know the following story would not be a simple one, would not be one story, but story becoming another story, yearning to become another story and most of the time passing off as some another story, just as people do.

You shouldn’t be bothered if you are required to solve all the mysteries of the world in pursuit of your search as everything will become a clue: you, your wife, all the possessing of your wife, all the column her ex-lover writes, mystery behind mannequins influencing people’s expression, all the faces around you, the letters engraved in those faces: two brow lines, four eye lashes, and one hairline –seven in all, only till the face is divided into two by ‘late arriving nose’ and then the letter engraved will be fourteen. Then you’ll take account into the more poetic real and imaginary lines, the number doubles again, leaving you with a new twenty eight letter language to decipher. Not to mention the entire history, all the fables that were ever created, parables that were ever told, and secret meaning hidden behind all the words used. The world will be a sea of clues; every drop will bore the salty taste of mystery behind it. Each and everything would morph into a clue pointing you to another world which is bare of mysteries, and where in you can become someone else.

When you’ll see in the faces of people the yearn to become someone else, to pass off as someone else, it is imminent that you’ll think of every time you had already known this. When people would wish Merry Christmas, with an unusual zeal, and perhaps would lack that zeal even their own festivals and would conveniently forget other ones. When people would mention Boxing Day in a place where there is no such thing, and when those same people would wish each other Thanksgiving, you’ll almost be sure that they have already become someone else. At this time, even their voice will change and so will their speech, they will look different but you’ll easily be able to tell the truth just by having one look at the conflict on their faces. They have long forgotten who they really are; they have forgotten their history, their culture, their identity.

It is at this precise moment, you’d be assaulted by two questions:

Do you have trouble being yourself?

Is there a way a man can only be himself?

Each of these clues would lead you to another mystery, that is waiting to be unveiled, mystery behind hidden meaning of words. Words which contains second, third or even more meanings that are hidden; you just have to look for them. You have to convince yourself of the fact that they will reveal themselves eventually. Over time, you’ll know of the mystery words harbor, the secrecy they enjoy, to hide infinite amount of meaning. When you will be conversing with somebody you know, or don’t, and in absence of special circumstances, it is natural that everything will be obvious. But you’ll know what they really mean, its not to say that they are lying, they just mean something else. Just by paying attention to words, you’ll know, since they mean something else, their choice of words will invariably be biased. And sometimes, it will also happen that you’ll be able to know what the other person hasn’t even realized yet. All this just by paying attention to words, and their hidden meaning. As when an accuse becomes upset on being accused, you’d know of the prime thing that makes human upset: guilt. Now think how will you feel when, later, you get to know that the hidden meaning, which you sought after peeling all the layers and which was never said or implied by the unknown person, is indeed the only truth not just your delusional fantasy? So, it is only obvious, that eventually you’d stop looking at the meaning that is all too obvious but at the hidden meaning, because only it is the truth. Words will never reveal their true meaning and it is only after number of attempts you can hope to get the meaning that is always hidden layers beneath.

In the end you know that your gut feeling, the intuition is the only real meaning left in the things.

But mostly, even you wouldn’t realize, you wouldn’t want to look for true hidden meanings because you’d be afraid of what you might find.

It is, at this moment, when you are lost among, and overwhelmed by, hidden meanings; you’d try to make sense of things and this is all that will come out( by that green pen of yours):

I wonder, do people always mean what they are saying, or they are pointing you to an entirely different meaning. Often I feel maybe people are speaking in codes, some subtle meaning, if only I can understand the meaning, I’ll be able to talk to them. Of course I would also say some things, at the same time, implying other things. Then we would, finally, be able to have a conversation. To an onlooker, we’d be talking normally, perhaps about something relevant to current time, about a movie, a book, or some music we both just happen to like. But, all this time, I’d know the other person is reading all the signs, from the things I am saying, more often he’ll also get the meaning of things I had thought I’d say subtly but I didn’t. When we would be talking about a thing, quite normally, it’s natural that we’d both be aware of the other thing that this thing signifies, because we are indeed only talking about the other thing. When we’d be talking about a movie, immediately we both would know, that the conversation is not about this movie but some other movie whose fate is linked with this movie, maybe because the director was only able to make this movie because he had made the movie which we are really talking about. . Or perhaps, we would really be talking about an actor which is not in this movie, but only because he didn’t want to. A song would really mean an incidence worn into its lyrics, a book would refer to the thing which has really affected us, cat would really mean dog, while a dog would mean the book which has dog on its cover, and he would mean she and so on. In our conversation, things will refer to their real meaning, not to the meaning that people take of granted. Then, looking down, we’ll laugh at the world, but maybe we’ll really be frowning for their innocence and shallowness, due to which they will never get the true meaning that things signify.

When you are searching for something very hardly, after long enough the search will become more important than the thing itself. You won’t be sure anymore of the thing you really want to seek.

In the end, you’d know the real question is, Did Apes feel the same solidarity as Darwin did towards them? He hadn’t got any way to communicate by which he could confirm. Even if he’d have tried, it would have been, literally, like talking to chimps.

All the real meanings are hidden and only the hidden meanings are real.