Monday, June 28, 2010

A Proud Moment and a Wishlist

Saina Nehwal scored a hat trick winning 3 tournaments in 3 weeks repeating Padukone Sr.'s feat. She is now going to be World No. 2, probably. That's a wonderful achievement. A very proud moment for India. I hope she keeps doing well for a long time. Would it be wrong to say that India isn't doing that bad in sports these days?

A wish-list:
- Hockey must improve.
- Not being in football map is disgraceful.
- Sania Mirza must get back to her form and put India back into tennis map.

This is the first time I thought so seriously about sports. But this morning while going through the newspaper, I honestly felt proud on seeing Saina's achievement. Really great!

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Thought on Thoughts

There's this angel and devil model of our mind that comic books and cartoons have popularised to such heights. I feel there's a lot of truth in it. The subconscious part of our brain which is supposed to be stronger than our conscious brain, is home to both these gentlemen (or ladies as your case may be). It's also the battleground of moral war which these two people wage against each other. The result of each battle is the verdict of our subconscious. This being the stronger part of the brain, might also be the output of our brain itself. That is, if we equate ourselves, not considering the fact that our conscious brain is equipped with some unique qualities, to beasts.

This may be source of pessimism for some of us. Particularly those, whose brain hosts a strong devil and a feeble angel. If all our actions, and hence our life, are slave to the dictates of these two people, isn't there any hope for us to grow beyond our born destinies?

But there are a few things to note. One is that our conscious brain is the gatekeeper guarding the exit of all things coming from the world of thought to that of actions. And secondly, most importantly, even though its own raw powers are dwarfed before the subconscious's, conscious brain has the capability of learning from years and centuries of conscious thought that has been done and recorded by the entire human race. Subconscious lacks the power to learn (except through the slow process of evolution). Conscious can choose to act on results which it mayn't be equipped alone to arrive at. This incremental process of knowledge acquisition has made conscious mind, potentially a much stronger part of the brain.

Of course, exercising of this power depends on education, learning, reading and listening.

All this sounds so sickenly similar to discourses on karma, praarabh and free-will! That's the downside of learning. Over so many centuries, so many people have thought up so much that it's awfully difficult to sound original every time.

About Value

Why do we do research, man?! In fact, why anything?
One simple answer is: to make ourselves happy, prosperous, richer etc. That's OK.
But the 'why' becomes significant when we are talking about making choices between various things.
Often, there's a question raised about the practicality of the topic of research. For example, should a person do research on philosophy, or on digital electronics. Simplistic answers are:
- Whatever you feel like.
- Whichever is funded well.

These formulae may work in very clear cases. But, sometimes, things aren't clear enough. For example, whether you have enough funds for a research project depends a lot on whether you are interested enough in it or not. As long as the settlement of this balance between interest and funding is with one person, it may reach a steady state after some soul-searching. But what happens when the researcher is not the one who funds the research? His interest will hardly work as a great motivation for the military general who may be the one to sign the funding cheque.

Framing the whole problem of deciding research can be framed conveniently as a business problem where everyone has different (sometimes conflicting) motives. But the motive of profit-making unites all motives. Economic forces reign supreme. A capitalistic model.

But ignoring the fact that this model is insufficient to define motives of research could have disastrous effects on everyone. If economic forces are allowed to decide all research policies, it will drive the frontlines of knowledge in such directions as will mutate the whole body of human knowledge into an ugly monster.

The point is: what really is the meaning of the word 'useful'? What are those basic acts A, B, C... etc which are useful. If we are able to define that set, we could just argue on that basis to define the usefulness of other activities on the basis of laws like the following ones:
Law of composite activities: Say, some other composite act X is a combination of acts A and B. If A and B are known to be useful, we may conclude that X is useful.
Law of enabling activities: Say, an activity X results in increase in the ability of people to do activities A and B, then we may conclude that X is useful.

There might be many such laws if we give it a thought. That's the easy part to come up with such laws. The difficult part is to define a fundamental tenet of usefulness. The law that lets us conclude that atomic activities like A and B are useful. Their usefulness isn't derived from the usefulness of some other activities.

Let me dwell a bit on why our current knowledge falls short of achieving the above. Say, arbitrarily assign some positive value to some activities. If more of such acts are done, there is an overall rise in the 'value'. Thus, these acts are useful in that sense.

Say, one such act is 'eating'. A person who eats feels happy. So, there's a sense in assigning some positive value to eating. The more people eat, the more value there is. Nice and simple!

But there's trouble brewing there. If I eat too much, I get indigestion. My arteries may clog and I may die of heart attack. So, eating too much now may result in my dying early reducing the total number of times I enjoy eating. Also, suppose I am a criminal psychopath. I like killing people. The more I eat, the longer I live. The longer I live, the more number of people I murder. Hence, my eating results in many other people not living enough to enjoy eating. Hence, whether my eating indeed is valuable overall depends on what other activities it enables or disables, and the value contained in them.

Both the difficulties above are operational. They talk about the difficulties in computing the actual value of an activity. The difficulty arises from our inability in determining what other activities it may enable/disable. This difficulty, though significant, is not fundamental. It doesn't still present the fundamental difficulty of defining usefulness, or 'value', to be more precise.

The sense of that fundamental difficulty can be got from the apparent vacuousness of the idea of assigning value to such mundane things like eating, sleeping, having sex, etc. To me, doing this makes the whole idea of life appear vulgar! So, it's all about maximising eating and making merry?! There's nothing more than that?! Even computer programs, which can be broken down into a sequence of bits, or an electronic circuit, which can be looked at as a combination of numerous gates, seem to have a more respectable existence. At least when brought together, they serve purposes which can't be served by individual bits or logic gates. On the other hand, it appears blasphemous to compute the value of the most elevated life on the basis of the number of meals, sleeps and copulations it eventually results in.

There lies the problem of value. That hunch: That the value of elevated acts must lie in something less vulgar than can be reduced to a large series of mindless animal acts. I haven't read much of ethics, but I surmise that this is, in some way, the essential problem of that subject.

...and that's also my underlying thought when I ask: 'Why do we do research?'

Note: I foresee a link to this post appearing in many many of my future posts.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Programming and Home-making

What a tedium it used to look to write functions, let alone classes! During my ME, while I was generally regarded as a good programmer, my obsession with good programming practices was almost jeered at by my colleagues. Once, one labmate of mine had some programming issue which he said he wished to take my help in. While I waited later for a few days, he never came to me. Finally, I asked him what happened. He said that he was afraid I would use a lot of functions in the program which would then make it difficult for him to understand it. Instead, he had taken help of another PhD student there. He had made a program which was one straight line monolithic piece of code with not a single function call. Then I had felt funny. These people are definitely stupid -- incapable of appreciating the beauty of programming, I had thought.

About a decade afterwards, starting to live with a wife who was pedantically disciplined in keeping the household in shape was a shock. It was a toilsome process to learn that each thing had to have a designated place for itself, and that every time after being used it was supposed to be put back to that place. It automatically created an entry barrier to introducing housing articles. The process of procuring a domestic article was invariably accompanied by the process of figuring out where it would sit. The need to avoid cluttering the house with unnecessary articles was paramountly important. The household must be lean and mean. It was more in the fear of meeting with angry stares and words from the better half than from any real appreciation of the method that I learned it.

I haven't changed much fundamentally. I am still a bit untidy and need some monitoring to keep things in place; I am very much absent-minded and need uncountable reminders to keep doing my stuff. But, where I have really changed is in my appreciation of that household discipline that I had to initially imbibe with so much unwillingness. Now, I can see how similar it is to maintain the household in order to the problem of writing a large and complex computer program that is usable and enhancable by others. Same principles apply.

Intuitive variable/function/class naming; using of namespaces/packages and folders to arrange the source code, these are all programming parallels to the discipline of having a place for everything and everything in its place. Encapsulation and modularisation are similar to the division of responsibilities. Maintaining punctuality at home is not so much about mindless discipline. It's objective is the same as that of the discipline of concurrent programming -- to optimise use of processors, to about race-conditions and deadlocks, to keep multiple threads/processes from interfering with each other in destructive manner. All this eventually boils down to good timing. Each process doing its job isn't enough; it must do it when it's supposed to, so that other processes who arrive expecting a readymade output from the process don't have to wait.

Now I am surprised how, in my younger days, I couldn't see that what good principles and practices apply to my intellectual life are applicable to my day to day life too. In fact, I would go to the extent of saying that loyalty to good methods in professional life, if not present to the personal life, loses much of its meaning.

Related post:

5S -- the Management Mantra of Tidiness

Thanks Uncle!

Today, at the gate of the Manyata Tech. Park, a young chap, clad in trendy T-shirt, jeans, goaty and iPod plugged asked for a lift to IBM building. I gave him. And he paid for my favour by saying 'thanks uncle!'

Rascal! *^%*^@%*&^

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Unreality of Reality Shows

Yesterday, I was watching Indian Idol - 5. My wife likes it a lot, and dotes on some of the competitors. But for her thriftiness, nothing stands in her way to send zillions of SMSs to make some of them go ahead in the competition. I am not jealous of those competitors. And that's definitely not the reason for my writing this article

But this article is indeed with the motive of expressing my disgust with the reality shows being aired these days. That's a tacky topic to write on. But I will be more specific in things which I disapprove of.

First, a mention of things which I approve of. I think the competition has risen to unprecedented heights. Competitors are awesome. They are superbly talented. And more than that, they generally show tremendous grits in handling stress.

But beyond that, everything is a minus. Firstly, the way things are judged there is really aweful. SMSs sent by by and large a section of population with nothing better to do are far from representative of the public opinion. More serious listeners (assuming it's a music-based show like Indian Idol) will send a few SMSs under the influence of disgust that's caused by the feeling that undeserving candidates may win because of good looks and other gimmicks. But they can't continue to do so. The scepticism of the knowledgeable and judicious portion of the population about these SMSs mattering is pretty much of the same nature as in democracy -- when people think that there are far too many morons voting for a junk candidate for our votes to count

This pressure of impressing a very thoughtless majority audience brings out startling acrobatics on screen. In the opening episode, a girl is hailed as a simple village based contestant who has struggled her way to the competition against general opposition of her traditional village patriarchs. Some million votes (and SMSs). A couple of episodes down the line, she is found draped in all sorts of dresses which don't fit in well with her village background which was such a strong sympathy earning factor for her in the first episode. But, it doesn't matter if those who voted for the upliftment of an underprivileged talent in the first episode turn up their noses now. A few episodes' survival in the show has already earned the lady a semi-celebrity status. Now there's another -- bigger -- section of the audience for which the co-effecient of reflection of her bare shoulders and calves wins far more support than her underdog beginnings. Millions of votes again. As many SMSs.

Similarly, singers are made to dance, act and make faces. Dancers are made to fight with each other in well-rehearsed manners. Judges applaud and insult competitors in such melodramatic ways! Often they engage in verbal broils with each other which look supremely unbecoming and unnatural. It sends shivers thinking what kind of incentives make these great people behave in such artificial ways in the sets.

On the one hand, these days, judges' participation in the actual fate of the competitors has been drastically reduced by SMS competitions. On the other, during the performance, and in the few critical minutes that follow the performance, the judges bias the audience's judgement critically by making faces and hailing applauds and insults of their choosing. I am sure that most of the people who send their SMSs are impressionable enough to be seriously affected by minor twitches in the face of the judges. The whole thing appear like a setup where people are made to pronounce the judge's opinion. Additionally, it appears that the bias that the judges sometimes show during the performances aren't merely their personal opinion; they could even be pre-fabricated verdicts of the entire strategy of the organisers geared completely towards maximising TRPs.

Overall, the gaudiness of today's reality shows far outweighs the increased levels of talents. I'm not ready to believe that exposition of talents is critically dependent on fake spices of melodrama being played in the name of 'reality.' They stink of a systematic manipulativeness that arbitrarily alters the mass behaviour, and creates business models around them, thus closing the gates of redeaming oneself once the negative aspects start surfacing. In this world of mass-production, there has been little knowledge created on ramping down industries. They have just learned to grow bigger and bigger. And by the time the justifiabilty of their existence becomes questionable, it's too late to wind it up gracefully. The only way is to stretch them, at the cost of manipulating the consumption patterns of the population in unnatural ways. Companies keep getting bigger first devouring other companies, then governments, and then entire nations; soaps keep running for ever and ever, news programmes keep reeling the same sensationilsed coverage of a news item for hours, days, weeks.

Heck! What am I writing?!

I have equally disgusted thoughts about news channels, soap operas and the way the experience of TV viewing has become off late. But, I will speak of it some other time, if I do.

Related post:
SMS Competitions