Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Ask for Your 25p

In TMC canteen most things are priced some rupees twenty-five paise. And it's been my observation that the man in the counter invariably returns you 25p less for any purchase, even though he has got plenty of 25p coins in his drawer. I had been noticing it for some time. I asked him today. He silently returned me that 25p. I persisted. I politely asked him what happens to the 25p that they regularly don't return. Who takes it? He first tried to ignore me. I still persisted. He became very uncomfortable, and started fidgeting. I told him, very bad! And requested him to hike to prices.

Anyway, there's some corruption going on there. No good at all!
If you or any of your friends, visits TMC canteen, please make sure to ask back your 25p.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Maintenance Overheads of Human Systems

This was yet another interesting part of the very interesting discussion that I had with Shipra and Piyush this Saturday afternoon.

The discussion started at a slightly comic note. I was asked how my water painting was going on. I said fine. Piyush said something about water paintings. I thought telling him a word or two about other intricacies would impress him favourably. Looks like it didn't. His reaction was that when you hear some technical jargon whose realism, utility, and hence necessity you are not convinced of.

He gave quite a eloquent voice to that impression of his, amounting to that humans are in the habit of creating complicated structures which form ecosystems within themselves which are self sustaining and very energy consuming. In most cases such social systems spend most of their resources in maintaining themselves. Some examples that came up to backup this point were:
  • Infosys/TCS/Wipro etc. build software solutions for financial firms which earn money out of investments by individuals related to Infosys/TCS/Wipro etc.
  • Bell-Labs uses routers sold by Cisco to build solutions which are useful to Cisco.
  • Researchers spend enormous resources to write papers most of which are never read by anybody. The best of them get appreciated by a very limited number of people.
  • Artists create art that's understood by less and less number of people as they become bigger and more famous.
Piyush was particularly of the opinion that these are overheads. The value consumers of any such things could be modelled as a pyramid with very steep sides which start growing flat only very close to the feet of the pyramid. I asked him if he wanted a pyramid which remains flat throughout (which, by the way, shows that I am a Bong researcher from IISc, Bangalore). He said that he wants a very high pyramid, and a linearly steep one. In fact, he was talking of a structure like a column: Whatever is up there, comes down to everyone (which shows that he's a PG from IIML).

Well, the scenario is factual. But, there's another way of looking at everything. And that's what my key argument was in that discussion. Humans have created a very strict crediting system that prevent intellectual despots from hailing people with whatever junk they conjure. A fairly large portion of the population is the consumer of ideas created by a very small number of people. The whole population is composed of a continuum of everything in between. But it's experimentally proved that ideas which change the face of the earth are hard to get. They come once in decades or even centuries (e.g. Newton's laws, DaVinci's perspectives, the number 'zero', The Turing machine). Then there are subsequent intellectual efforts that build upon these epoch making ideas. If the parent-child relations between ideas are drawn in a treelike structure, the shape will resemble that pyramid we were talking about -- very steep in the top, very flat towards the bottom.

This pyramid must stand. Its power of sustainance and growth gets generated at the apex, and has to trickle down. Each idea generated tries to maximise its reach.

If every idea were allowed to reach a wide audience, it would have been a phenomenally flat pyramid. However, due to small height, it would have been easy for non-authentic candidates to reach the top, may be for a short while. Good ideas would have got mingled in the sea of bad ideas. There would not be any way to tell the good from the bad. A high structure is indeed needed so that the ideas generated are well-uthenticated before they tricle down to the grassroot.

If it had taken the shape of cuboidal column, the top would still be crowded. A fertile mind would always be generating ideas. If there isn't created a sharp enough heirarchy at the top, again there would be race between ideas to maximise their impact.

The steep at top and flat at bottom social pyramid is essentially some kind of equilibrium structure that has been created. One thing to note is that every idea down under is a child of of some seminal idea high up. Hence, it's the manisfestation of that seminal idea in some sense. The fact that esoteric ideas at the top make it to the bottom is an ultimate evidence of their authenticity. There comes a point when the society accepts this and allows that work of intellect to affect its grassroots.

Hence, in summary, a high intellectual structure is essential to create a credit system that saves the society from being impacted by not-so-good ideas. Elements that can contribute to the vertical part of the pyramid are numbered. Hence, the fact that elite circles are also inaccessible to most is the result of the limitedness of the number of people capable of making it there.

Some amount of fraud is involved in this. Unworthy people are heard making comments about art that they don't understand. Greedy industrial houses have a strong influence in determining most of the research that happens. These are essential evils. Well! They exist, though they should not!

But the essential aspect of the high maintenance cost of all allegedly elicist social systems is its attempt to be credible enough before it reaches, and hence impacts the lives of, the general populace.

PS: All that's fine. But it's fun-tastic to mentally change the shape of this pyramid into many things -- a tall column, a flat slab, a cubical box, a tall/short cone, a 3D Gaussian etc -- and see what happens. Each will represent a realistic/hypothetical social/intellectual/economic heirarchy. Each will have its sociological impacts! Nice time pass unless you are too well-read about economics and sociology! :D

Monday, June 19, 2006

How Intelligent Are Humans?

I proposed the following model:

On the one hand, a species, if it is beastly enough, will follow simple natural laws. In case of crisis, the species will usually strive directly for survival, and in most cases it will survive.

On the other hand, as sophistication of the species grows, it will start turning away from the natural rules. An intelligent enough species will have enough predictive machinary with it so that it will be able to predict way before a crisis strikes. Therefore it will be prepared for a larger and larger set of crises. Its survival will be longer.

However, there's this gap between these two varieties. A species may be just intelligent enough to be able to defy natural rulings, but may not be intelligent enough to avoid the following:
  • By deviating from the natural rules, it brings on itself crises which grow at a rate faster than its ability to counter them. Finally the species gets annihilated by some demon of its own creation. For example, global warming and other environmental damages caused due to human development.
  • By not being able to predict enough and be prepared. Like aliens, natural disasters, epidemics etc.
  • By having intellectual features which aren't present in other less intelligent species, which eventually turn destructive. For instance, anger, hatred, jealousy, etc that men feel goes beyond the usual features of struggle for existence. Man is well capable of meeting death for something he feels his life stands for. If God forbid, it's associated with something very destructive, the species might wipe itself out in a moment of rage.
Next I suggested that perhaps human species lies in this gap. We might be intelligent enough to create technological dazzle, but might be too weak against our own failings like greed, corruption, terrorism, widespread poverty. Is it possible that there might be growing incipient cracks in the social structure which will eventually so alienate a big portion of the species from the other, that the resulting strife proves fatal to the species. I felt that this musing is more serious than those of science fiction writer. There does seem to be signs that we organisms may just decide to cease to exist when perhaps a simpler organism would try its best to live on and leave back one more generation to prevent extinction. Humans are capable of hating so much that they may decide to finish everything including themselves.

It was a very long discussion. Piyush and Shipra nicely contradicted me on this point. From what I got from their arguments, it's never the case that anybody turns completely suicidal. There's something that one tries to protect even while laying down one's own life. The species is the last thing that everybody would agree to sacrifice. In fact, if everything goes, even humans will behave exactly like other beasts and try their best to protect their progeny.

One interesting insight that Piyush provided was of backup social systems. No human being is a member of a single community. We all create associations with many groups. If one falls, we still belong to multiple others. Therefore, even if a system which seems to pervade our existence collapses, people will quickly fall back to their backup memberships. People always have people who are like them in some way or another. There's always a reason to cooperate. The society can never be neatly and completely get divided into two. These little communities create such intricate mesh of relations that nothing is a strong enough reason to be able to divide the society. The most stark examples of social divide are the world wars. But they reached nowhere close to collapse the social systems of humans. Humans were far far from becoming extinct as a result of the worst things they have done to themselves.

P and S argued that only external factors -- like alien attacks or natural calamities, or internal -- like epidemics -- provide any possible dangers of extinction to the species. Social elements, man's intellectual shortcomings, which might cause him to degrade his surrounding to the point of his own extinction without coming to know of it while he could do anything about it, aren't possibly ever going to wipe out the human race.

I couldn't disagree. But there wasn't of course, anything conclusively proved. We might still be nurturing germs of our extinction. And the danger that we might face from those germs would be because of the fact that we are unaware of their existence, and they might be breeding in the things we take the greatest pride in : our development, our high standards of living...

If such a metaphorical germ exists, then there's no way to know about it. But of course, then it becomes something like a ghost, or an alien. We can't disprove their existence. But that doesn't prove that it makes sense to be scared of them.

But it's a possibility. We should be wary.

Friday, June 16, 2006

A Note on The Notebook Drive

I got slightly involved in this year's notebook drive. But only slightly. I am perhaps not in a position to aggressively participate in social activities right now. But more importantly, I realised that the whole thing was not my type of stuff.

I became a member of 'IISc for Equality' orkut community. I sympathise with anti-reservation protests. I personally don't think that reservations do any good to the country. Hence, I joined the group. The other day, while I was sipping on my tumbler of milk near the mess, these people started gathering for one of their meetings. Quite nonchalantly, I joined them. I was quickly given some small responsibility. I realised that I was getting sucked into the thick of activities quicker than I was comfortable with. Perhaps, I chipped in at the wrong time -- when the activities of the group had already gained momentum; members were pretty excited, almost hyper. I didn't get a fair chance to refuse the little things I was being asked to do. However, my only reason for joining the meeting was coincidence and curiosity!

They are still busy in a very successful notebook drive. A commendable collection of nearly Rs. 80,000 has been done. More is coming. And there's additional contribution in the form of notebooks and other stationery. These will eventually go to the students of the nearby schools which are under-provided with facilities of teaching and learning. A very noble cause! And done with amazing effectiveness.

When during the meeting I came to know of their plans, my interest started getting somewhat kindled, and hence the lack of resistence to responsibilities.

However, in the night, another aspect came to light. 'Notebook Drive' is an event that has been going on in IISc for the last 5 or so consecutive years. It's fairly popular, has earned itself a name, and was already going to happen this year too. There weren't any fine prints to the movement. No political messages.

This time, however, the movement has been taken over by this 'IISc for Equality' people. The message of equality is being passed around along with the notebooks. The idea is: 'This is how you uplift the underprivileged. By providing them with their need for basic education. Not by reserving seats in the premier institutes.' I again nearly fully agree with this message.

I am therefore fully supportive of both 'IISc for Equality' and the 'Notebook Drive.' However, I wasn't comfortable with the idea of mixing them. ND has earned itself a brand name over the last several years. Especially because, noone could call it names in terms of its political leanings. This year, the scenario has got changed. Its effects will probably be felt even in the subsequent years.

I mentioned this issue to the leaders of the movement. They were quite logical in that this was more of a compromise solution, in preference to not doing anything at all or putting in divided efforts as two different teams. They had a point. I suggested that perhaps a better solution would have been to back the 'Notebook Drive' people as outside supporters. Another solution was to make the message of equality loud enough so noone felt cheated after contributing to it. I strongly felt that a person wishing to contribute to ND and not sympathising with IfE should neither be cheated into contributing to a cause he doesn't support, nor should he be prevented from contributing to ND. There's got created a sacrosanct aspect to the concept of ND. Mixing IfE is like violating that!

Unfortunately, these suggestions weren't listened to. I realised that there's some significant amount of game-playing involved here. Negotiations over control, over which message should be louder were going on; statements were being smuggled into the poster which passed IfE messages without letting ND people having a strong argument to oppose it due to its indirectness. I could also sense that there no more was any place for people raising any kind of doubts. I was listened to patiently only perhaps because I share good personal relations with them. But, I could see that their regards to my Devil's advocacy was also almost reaching its limit. The team, all due to its leaders, was all set for action. Time for doubts and arguments was assumed to be past.

Things are overall good. A noble cause is being served with great zeal that's not always seen in IISc. It's being done without too much noise. There's this glitch which made me uncomfortable. But I realise that it's not my business to term the whole thing wrong on that basis. I must say I still support them, although I still say that they should've kept away from the Notebook Drive. They could've actively supported it, and could've posteriori endorsed it. It was somewhat wrong taking control of an almost holy movement with political motives. The response created is a confused mix of people supporting the EfI and those for ND. If EfI claims that the collections denote how much support there is in IISc for their cause, it will be propagating a fallacy.

My stand was therefore to observe caution. I decided to be reactive. I was with them, but was not ready to take strong stands. I am sure, that earns me the status of a coward in the appraisal of the stalwarts of EfI, the way they have been functioning in the past couple of days. But voicing an opinion that's not mine is further from my nature than not voicing my opinion at all.

This episode is a proof of how good things sometimes have to be done with non-ideal methods. I appreciate the EfI/ND people for being active. Their status in this whole game is above mine who is judging the sides sitting in his armchair. This blog is with all due regards to their spirits.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Nice Guys Finish Last!

Topics raise their heads. I reject them if they are cliched. I write them up if they are close to heart. This topic is cliched. Yet, it's too close to heart. And sooner or later I would finally write on it, repeatedly.

Today this wonderful blog motivated me to add my words to it.
(Female readers, in most part, would find the whole thing meaningful from their point of view if they invert the genders in all places in what follows)
Lots of us are unhappy for our singlehood. The loneliness is authentic component of this unhappiness. And there are additional components. Having a girlfriend is the best enough testimony that you have those 'things' in you which a girl likes. It means, you definitely have some attractive components in you. Once that's done, you don't really need to figure out what they are. Having had a girl does irreversible good things to the confidence which then bootstrap the personality in some magical way. Having had an affair, and having broken up, is also better than never having had an affair. Breaking up is a misfortune, an accident. Never having had an affair is a failure.

That's the general line of thought. For most of us, this 'failure' aspect seems far more dominating than the 'loneliness' aspect and contributes majorly to that unhappiness.

Well. I have had my share of woes regarding this matter. As many many other nice guys, I have never had an affair. It hurls me into an abysmal darkness of self-doubts. The summary of all those doubts is: Am I so unattractive that in three decades, not a single soul found me attractive enough to want to make me her own?

One of the instances of the success in brooding away my sorrows is this issue. Brooding hard on this matter has indeed opened up many aspects, which would otherwise have required first hand experience. Clarity has removed some confusions. It's far more peaceful now than it was some years ago. I provide the jist of my self-argumentations on this matter.

1) There might be some relation between one's quality with one's chances of getting a partner. But I feel the correlation is pretty weak. Here, the term 'quality' subsumes everything that can be objectively judged as a good thing to have: nice appearance, intelligence, character, wealth,...
I feel the things which trigger attraction in the opposite sex are either fairly shallow and random, or are far too deeply biological. It might involve some deep rooted calculations regarding the sexual appropriateness as partner. This is evident in the difference in the people's choice of a partner. There's not a single set of qualities which can be marked as sure bet as attractive qualities. In a simpler species, it can be said that a female looks for evidence of masculine powers in men. In humans, it doesn't work. Tastes take a 180 degree phase shift with changing fashions. Many film heroes of past decades who would have young girls swooning about them would be intigating laughter amongs girls of the new generation.

In short, I find that trying to reason about what makes someone attractive to the other sex in terms of things like physique, intelligence, characters and any denomination of power will always prove rather superfluous. Mostly attraction -- not just the first sight one, but the one that sustains longer and has lasting emotional impact -- happens due to unaccountable reasons. These reasons are neither provably shallow and sexual, nor logical and calculable, nor mystical or spiritual.

So, as far as the issue of being qualifiably attractive is concerned, perhaps all of us have some qualities which someone or the other would find very attractive. Which are these qualities? Well, nobody knows. And it depends. If there had been a clear cut answer, the league of royal stags wouldn't have been so big as it is.

2) Of course, this argumentation doesn't bring in a great deal of peace. The next one does.

We are like particles in that cuboidal box -- the one we had been taught about in our lesson of kinetic theory of gases. High energy particles collide more. Low energy particles collide less.

There mayn't be a question of being good or bad (in attractiveness terms) in any universal scale. But there's surely a question of appropriateness of pairing. A good pair of mates requires certain compatibility. It's not the qualities of a person that make him appropriate or inappropriate for pair formation. It's the reactivity between two characters which decides that. Simply put, not all guys can make pair bondings with all girls.

Now, there are guys who are comparable to high energy particle, and guys comparable to low energy ones. Same is the case with girls. Here 'high energy' and 'low energy' don't carry any positive or negative connotation. Some people are active, extrovert, restless, in the move; while some are quiet, peaceful, introvert and sedate. The former class is 'high energy'; the latter, 'low energy'.

Barring some exceptions, it can be said that high energy guys would pair well with high energy girls. Low energy guys would pair well with low energy girls. But due to their very nature, the high energy men and women will check each other out with a higher likelihood as compared to the low energy ones.

A nice guy is not unattractive. He's just low energy. He is less likely to express his emotions and take chances. More likely than not he will create ripples in the heart of a girl of his kind. They in turn are equally less likely than more aggressive damsels to give voice to their feelings. Nice guys, therefore, are quite scientifically less likely to hit it off with an appropriate partner than the more aggressive guys by some kind of square-law.

This unlikeliness and these barriers of shyness also make the first contacts -- if and when they happen -- more intensely emotional. The passion may still remain hidden but they are there. There's a possibility that such people have a way of experiencing love in a way which is inaccessible to the more experimenting creatures. This might also be a kind of protection mechanism for those more sensitive at heart.

3) Yet, it's unfortunate! Here comes to rescue the third argument which might sound somewhat fatalistic, but is sound nevertheless.

A nice guy is a nice person. He mayn't be a nice mate. A human being is just not a biological species. Biology may have its deep definitions of fitness which keep working on us all the time with invincible force. But human beings have created their own definitions which differ from the biological ones. These definitions can't be marked as shallower in an overall sense of the word.

A nice guy may indeed be the loser, an unfit species, in some deep biological sense which might be real, but very inexplicable. He is a winner in terms which are more logical and explicable. Noone has been able to define what that biological fitness means in 100% accurate sense for human race. So, gropping for it is quite unnatural for a nice guy to do. One of the defining aspects of his niceness is his logical and balanced nature. It doesn't suit him to grop around in identity crisis. Rather, it's not in his nature to do it that way. If he tries, he'll make a fool of himself with great odds. Accepting the misfortune associated with being a low energy particle makes much more sense.

Well, again that may sound like quiting the race. But, for a nice guy, the race is merely a nightmare which lasts some moments of naturally unavoidable insecurity. In other times, he's not necessarily in the race of finding a mate. Therefore, he mayn't end up finding one. Again, since biological bases have the advantage of sounding 'natural'; since most of crowd who have paired up already are 'high energy', which means that they would usually be the more visible ones, the feeling of losing out may become quite imposing. But a louder statement mayn't necessarily be true.

A nice guy is a loser in a race which has a larger fan following. Hence, his loss gets more media coverage. This hype may even pursuade him to spiral into self-loathing. But, there're races where he's making great strides. Not many are looking. Not many care. But some do.

Those who care are like us nice guys. Sitting quietly and doing nothing more than reasoning about their loneliness. This will hardly ever make good a real contact. Sigh! But they are there. They must be there. :)

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Steve Jobs' Commencement Lecture at Stanford

Listened to Steve Jobs' lecture at Stanford just now. Had read it earlier. But listening and seeing makes a different kind of impact.

And a while ago I was musing about people, their talents, and what they end up becoming.

I have realised over the the years that most of us are endowed with nearly equal amount of intelligence and muscle power in the beginning. OK, not exactly the same, but almost all those gifts considered, the things nearly balance out for most of us. Yet, most of us end up doing well in our lives in varying degrees, and in a variety of ways. The thing that causes that is the motivation. Motivation is like most other god given talents.

If I run and sprint, my leg muscles will grow stronger. If I lift weights, my arms and shoulders will build. If I keep singing, my voice will grow. If I solve lots of puzzles, my analytical skills will improve. Almost all talents grow sharper with practice. In fact, it's only practice that brings in the difference between 'just talented' and a brilliant person. Practise enough, and one can do anything.

But unlike what impression this statement gives, practising is not so much a matter of chance as it looks. Whether we end up practising hard on any of our god-given qualities is determined by another more fundamental god-given qualities. Motivation.

And sharpening this talent, enjoying higher levels of motivations on the average is usually quite hard to achieve. It requires other things. Bringing up, culture, triggering circumstances (like something very tragic or something really happy) and perhaps good genes.

How does one, with whatever initial conditions he has been born with, increase his motivation to live a fuller life?
Well! Will tell you when I find it!

Friday, June 02, 2006


Tolstoy's stories make us look closer at ourselves. He knows and represents us better than we know ourselves. Each trepidation, each tribulation of the mind is exposed so vividly that we just can gape at the eventfulness of this little mind of ours. And yet, he creates this illusion of innocence as if he is just an observer and has no thoughts of his own. He just describes, without mentioning any opinion, any bias -- just description. But that description will be so excruciatingly clear that if you survive it, you can't but come away with a sea of thoughts, confusions, confessions, resolutions and revelations.

Tolstoy is God!

(Perhaps, it's a bias of an Indian, but I have found Premchand a master of comparable calibre as far as psychological vividness of description is concerned.)