Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 Balance Sheet

  1. Started staying close to office. less than half hour daily commute time.
  2. Started cycling to work and have continued.
  3. Reduced weight to less that 70 kg (from 73 kg) and stayed that way.
  4. Got rid of samosas and vadas in the evening snacks. Took to fruits and nuts. Have stayed that way.
  5. Have got into a healthy sleep habit. Have stayed that way.
  6. Spent much more time than before with family. Have felt very happy during the evening tea time with wife and child.
  7. Improved significantly in hardwork, discipline quotient.
  8. Got smarter in many domestic activities.
  9. Filed my taxes online myself.
  10. Travelled to USA.
  11. Kept a steady rate at writing and programming.
  12. Read a few really good books: Small is Beautiful, The Shadow Lines, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
  13. Learned a bit about formal method techniques.
  14. Became much more fascinated with idea of sustainable living, Zen and minimalism.

  1. No publications. I am almost happy with the amount and quality of research I have done this year. But I have gone against my own policy that every once in a while there should be a short term deliverable. I have stayed with ideas and concepts for an over-extended period. Hope 2012 will bring most of them to fruition.
  2. Water colour painting didn't improve. I have felt quite discouraged with my lack of progress in this. I think I have found some leads and will try and work on them in the coming days.
  3. Concentration was insufficient. Though my ability to manage many little things improved significantly, I continue to feel that breakthroughs come through concentrated and continued effort. I haven't done so well in that front. Creating space with better organisation is fine. But to be able to use that space well is quite another. Must focus serious energy into this.
  4. Weakened contact with many friends even after trying really hard. This year, for the first time, I see the truth in that, beyond a point, spending excessive energy in maintaining friendships is a waste. Some friends have clung on. But many have drifted away. I also have started accepting that the large network of friends I have always boasted of is not so much a magical blessing, but largely due to ridiculous amount of energy I spend on maintaining it. Now, I agree that with growing age and life conditions, there has to be a natural evolution in relationships. Some new ones will emerge, but many many of them will have to give way. I feel sad about it. But unless I accept and internalise this, I will only pain myself more. Probably, wisdom lies in nurturing the surviving relations, because they have survived the hard struggle for existence, and in accepting with grace the demise of those which didn't.
  5. Weakened contact with extended family.
  6. Failed somewhat in personal organisation. I have tried hard to be better and better in this. But seems I am not good enough. My professional productivity speaks of this. My low self-satisfaction in handling my domestic matters speaks of it. Of course, the contradictory idea is that personal organisation can help only as a fine-tuning step. The major impact depends on the intensity of one's style of working. May be, organisation only helps in managing breadth, not depth. And most of the work I need to do require depth. Let's see.
  7. Couldn't sustain the Yoga habit

Lessons learned
Everything has cost
Progress matters more than completion

Overall score
fitter and happier than ever before.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Forgotten Heroes

Our generation was brought up with very few career choices to pick from, particularly in middle class homes. Engineering and Medical studies were the only so called respectable careers possible. That in itself is so ludicrous and tragic! But worse still was the fact that both being based on science, the love of science that many of us developed was not a love but a compulsion for us all. Not one of us can make out if, even after having spent a lifetime in service of science, science would really have been our first love, had we had the choice to love something else.

No wonder people who don't take up science as a career seem to shun it like a disease. The essential nature of science -- that of asking questions, and using enquiries based on logic and experiments to find their answers -- is completely hidden from most. Instead, what has got ingrained in most of us is that science is what distinguishes the smart ones from the others. Therefore, those who didn't pursue science as a career for whatever reason develop a hatred for it. Who will be stupid enough to accept one's stupidity simply because they didn't become scientists (or technologists). For most, Science appears as a thing which intelligent people make a career out of, and in their spare time, use it to scare and demean others. Most people wish to have nothing with science unless it creates technologies which bring value in terms of entertainment, healthcare, comfort, lifestyle and convenience. That science is by itself a beautiful thing is never considered. And why would it be, when the way it is introduced into our lives is so ugly and distorted?

To some extent, intelligentsia in general, and scientists in particular, are also to blame for this predicament. Most of them carry the illusion that it's their tremendous intelligence which makes them what they are. However, if you look closely, scientists use pretty much the same set of skills which others use to accomplish their tasks. Intelligence is just one of the many properties of a scientist. And I don't see why it should be assumed that pursuing science requires any more brains that anything else? Similarly, the joys of pursuing science are very similar to that of pursuing any other activity. The elitism associated with science is also its greatest undoing.

TV is a potent medium which brings in front of us a wide choice personalities and lives which we and our children could treat as our role models. With the state of affairs as described above, TV channels find it unnecessary and uneconomical to give much of their time to talking about intellectuals, particularly scientists. Probably Discovery and Nat Geo do give some coverage. But I am not sure how close things there are to the spirit of science, with the element of sensationalism they induce. The effect of this on who our children will idolise, and in turn will want to be like, is disastrous I think. In general, mass media, being in the hands of people who are away from science, give a very skewed picture about the population crowding the world, and important things happening around. The people whose images are flashed are mostly movie-stars, sports-stars and politicians. Models. To some extent businessmen and artists. And these days, reality show starlets. But hardly ever intellectuals like scientists, engineers, doctors and authors get any coverage. Similarly, people are always perfectly up-to-date about the movies being released, the wars and protests (sans any indept understanding of the real issue behind them), what's the latest cream in the market which will help keep your skin glowing, how the dance item the starlet presented brought tears to the judge's eyes. Who cares about what interesting ideas researchers are dabbling with, what new secrets about the way the universe works they are trying to unravel, what beautiful thoughts an author is playing with to write his new novel, and what he is trying to say through his stories?

I feel our kids would have got a much more balanced picture of what all could be done with all the time available in a lifetime had there been less fear of science in the current generation; had people looked at it as another way of having fun and expressing oneself like various art forms and sports. In general, I wish we had known how to dissociated the notion of being intelligent with science and intellect. I wish we had identified science for what it is: being curious, asking questions and seeking their answers.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Agnostic's Faith

Meaningfulness of life rests upon not our rationalities, but on some fundamental faith. I am firm that you need faith to find this life worth living.

I too have a faith. My faith is: I am good person.

People who love me know what I mean. People who hate me may think of it as the resounding substantiation of the hunch they have that I am probably an egotistic bastard. I think they are all right. Life's all about myself.

I believe that it's possible to approach a point where this fact is beyond doubt: for others (probably easier to achieve), and for myself (most difficult). Like all other faiths, my faith can't be proved or disproved. Like other un-enlightened creatures of different faiths, I too often waver on my faith, commit sacrileges, and then get back. Like other faith-fuls, what I never do is question my faith. Because, I don't find a way otherwise which would let me live with zeal and energy, and not get reduced to a passive vegetable waiting to be decayed or devoured. Believing in the beauty of life appears to me the only way of making life beautiful. Life may be an accident. But, whether it's going to be a beautiful accident or an ugly one is a choice. And this choice rests on one's faith, because rational thoughts can't resolve this issue.

My faith has another corollary: Everyone is a good person.

I feel, the urge to live is inseparably tied with the urge to be good. Because, being good is the only way you support the idea of life being a beautiful thing. Doing something ugly is an act of sacrilege to the faith of a beautiful life. It's hard to believe that murderers, rapists, corrupt people, ... they are all creatures of the same faith. But, I firmly believe, they too are creatures of the same faith. They too are seeking to make life beautiful. Just that their notion of beauty is in terrible conflict with their environment. Conflict and disharmony is the measure of ugliness.

Yes, life's all about myself. But the I exists in the context of a universe. Discord with the context affects the harmony within. Hence, the state in which the state of perfect goodness reveals itself in a stable glow only happens when the being is in perfect harmony along with the entire universe. This happens only if there's harmony everywhere. This happens when the barriers between the system and environment break down. This happens when the I consumes the universe, or the universe consumes the I. Whichever way. Shouldn't matter.

Probably, I sound similar to advaitists. May be. I don't give my faith any name for the moment.

Related posts:
The Spiritual Way of Life

Monday, December 12, 2011

My Biggest Achievement

Someone was being interviewed. He was asked about his biggest achievement.

I too wondered what was mine. I scanned in my mind through my many experiences. Many of the things I toil hard for: professional achievements, family achievements, social achievements, artistic achievements. In them, I am never completely satisfied; never fully happy. In fact, I walk around with a depressing feeling that I have never quite done so well in any of them. I just manage.

Cold sweat broke when I wondered what, if not these, have ever made me feel really happy, really proud. Have I lived my life so far in the empty mirage of becoming an achiever?

Then, it occurred to me. There have been moments when I have felt really happy. Really proud. That's when a childhood friend met me somewhere, and after a while of chatting, said: 'Sujit, you are still just the way you were in school! यार! तू तो बिलकुल नहीं बदला!'

Monday, December 05, 2011

Practising Presence

We are all continually wondering all the time what we should do and what we shouldn't. At a very superficial level, we may seem to apply so many different criteria to decide the question. Physical, social, spiritual, egoistic, and so on. But, at a more fundamental level, we always strive to do something that yields more value.

The question of deciding the value of something is fundamental.
Here's one thought that more and more frequently appears to me as very sensible:
  • If a moment is spent in conscious joy, the moment goes in our account of valuable moments.
  • If a moment lacks either of the two elements -- consciousness and joy -- it's a moment lost.
  • And then the value of life (or length of valuable life) could be measured in terms of the accumulation of valuable moments.
 (see figure below)
Also, for reference, we use the following definitions of both the above terms:
  • Consciousness: When you are mindful of the current experience
  • Joy: When you are enjoying the current experience. A significant part of you wishes the experience to continue for the moment.


 The above may seem like a naive, simplistic criterion. The biggest disadvantage of the above theory is that it can't be directly put to use to come up with an universally applicable list of value-adders and value-subtractors. We aren't looking for such a list. We are looking for some further insight than nothing.

Let's illustrate our point through a bunch of examples:
  • unconscious, joyless: Coma, death, mechanical toil
  • unconscious and joyful: intoxication
  • conscious and joyless: Boredom, toil, fighting
  • conscious and joyful: Meditation, eating, sex, sleep, sports, nature-view, artistic pursuits, praying, love, humour, living

Not all examples in the above list belong to their respective quadrant permanently. The list is to just bring home feelings of familiarity to understand what we mean by the 4 quadrants. For example, mechanical toil, often when we are doing chores or when a mechanic operates a machine, we tend to loose ourselves in an absent minded way. The mind isn't necessarily thinking anything at all at that time, leave alone thinking something nice. In fact, in such situation, our mind often goes dull and numb to avoid feeling the pain of doing something we don't like. Similarly, eating or sex needn't necessarily be done in a conscious and joyful way. I have met many people who aren't even aware of what they are eating while eating like glutton. For them, getting done with their meal and getting back to what they think is useful stuff is the prime goal of their life at that moment. Similarly, think of prostitutes for whom having sex is merely a part of their job. It's unlikely that they enjoy sex in all its glory. It's hard to say which of the 4 quadrants such an activity should be put into.

Duality between Joy and Consciousness

Why should it be so difficult to achieve joyful consciousness? We often talk about how ignorance is bliss. It can be seen easily that there’s often a direct trade-off between joy and consciousness. The more conscious we are, the larger ground of knowledge we have to deal with; and larger are the chances that something won’t be quite right in the whole thing.

What's here and now?

At this juncture, we need to revisit the definition of consciousness. What does it really mean to be conscious. We observe that consciousness is always partial. Being conscious of one thing results in our being oblivious of something else. Being conscious of the present causes us to forget about past and future.

One may try to tackle this issue by deciding to focus on the here and now. However, to define here and now is, I think, a very metaphysical difficulty. To say that here is where my body is, and now is the time read on my watch, would be an oversimplification. Often the body becomes a very insignificant element of our presence. Similarly the fact that we are situated in a particular point on the time axis could be an equally inconsequential fact. To focus on either in such a situation wouldn't necessarily be the wisest thing to do. For instance, a poet may be giving birth to a beautiful poem thinking about his childhood friends who are geographically separated. Where is he? When is he? Where should he focus his attention to practise presence?!

Spiritual Perspective

Consciousness and joy aren't mere boolean values. They aren't merely determined by their presence or absence at a moment. There's also an aspect of intensity associated. Spirituality deals in intensifying both these parameters. An idea is that a moment conceals in its bossom a possibility of infinite joy and infinite experiences. An enlightened soul would be able to explore all these infinite experiences. That is the state of perfect meditation (समाधि, samadhi). An individual experiencing a moment in all its infiniteness has conquered death in a sense.

An important interpretation of the state of samadhi is the dissolution of the duality between consciousness and joy. In the spiritual state of being, penetrating consciousness is the source of intense joy, instead of being a deterent of the same.

The above idea is mystical. I would take it seriously, if not literally. The state of perfect meditation is probably only achievable in another world devoid of the non-idealness of a physical existence. But, I do believe that trying to approach it makes practical sense. Every finite bit achieved in the direction of infinite joy for infinite time has a non-zero value-add to this life.

I think I will not meet much opposition if I say that the prime goal of our life (apart from self-preservation) is stable state of joy and fulfilment. Worldly ways prompt us to take many circuitous routes to that goal, almost tangential to its direction. On the other hand, I feel, every step taken directly in the direction of that happiness, through self-discovery and deeper understanding of what really makes us happy, is a transcendation from these orbital routes to happiness, closer and closer to the actual goal.

Is it possible to apply the concept of alertness and joy to wider questions of ethics? I think, it is. We'll think a bit about that shortly.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Men, Women and Discussions

Note: This discussion happened over Google Buzz. I reproduce it simply because I feel it deserves something less ephemeral than a buzz conversations. The reproduction is pretty much honest (through effective use of copy-paste). I have removed the timestamps, hyperlinks, and 'da' suffix to my name wherever they appeared.

Acknowledgement: I thank Pritesh, Ananth, Ayan, Hasan and Shipra for participating in the discussion.

You will find men often talking about women not being able to take part in serious discussions. Many impediments have been reported. They range from lack of originality, lack of breadth/depth of thought, taking things personally, not gracefully accepting it if their contribution to the discussion happens to be minor, getting too aggressive (as in turning a discussion into an argument) etc. 
I feel there are people like that. But they aren't necessarily women. I have met many women with whom it is a pleasure to discuss on a wide variety of things. They don't just make good listeners, but have such valuable inputs as is suggestive of wide knowledge and piercing intellect. On the other hand, there are men with whom it's a pain to talk anything beyond meaningless pleasantries. 

But more importantly, what we should realise is that such people who aren't good performers in discussions aren't necessarily intellectually inferior. Handling a discussion is by and large a matter of grooming. Good discussions follow certain patterns, which, through regular practice, are rather easy to catch. When a discussion is approaching one of its pitfalls, when it's straying, and how to avoid these and maximise the benefit of a session, are things which one could learn with practice and observance of discipline. 
To this, probably it is relevant to look at how things culturally are in our Indian families. When men discuss, women cringe into the kitchen or some other part of the house only to appear to provide refreshment. Even now, in a lot of families, men and women form separate groups. No wonder, if someone is routinely kept away from opportunities of learning something, she will not learn it. And then, we attribute it to their intellect. And the sequestration intensifies. It's a vicious cycle! It's not as if men are forcing women to this plight. Men and women are equal parties to this folly. It's more like men and women, all, are playing puppets to a strange illogical custom. If there's any semblance of fact in the opening statement of this piece, I feel, it could largely be attributed to this strange custom (In fact, I was recently made aware of this by one of my cousin sisters, and it struck me like a thunderbolt.) 

What a pity for us all that we lose out on about half the intellect of our race while discussing on matters! What a pity!

Related posts:

Pritesh Dagur - It's a very very valid and thought-provoking point Sujju. I can identify with the pattern of women escaping to the recesses of the kitchen, with or without realizing. In spite of having more than equal opportunities of discussing, I tended to do this too (maybe, I still do it to a certain extent). So, I don't particularly blame the less-educated or less well-treated women doing so. I guess, this goes back a long way and will change very slowly, just like many other things about our Society. Conscious efforts will need to be made to bring the other half of the Society into actively discussing matters and ya, the discussing half to get into the kitchen and bring refreshments too! :-) Change has to happen both ways! :-) The other half of my marriage already does this, I hope the others can learn too and we can have a wider variety of inputs in every discussion :-)
Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti - Yes. Also, the groups that get formed in the living room should be more based on interests, and not gender. Why is it necessary for men to talk about footfall and politics, and for women to talk about recipes and cosmetics?! These days we have women heading prominent countries. Aur to aur, ab to ladke bhi cosmetics use karte hain! ;)Edit
Pritesh Dagur - Hahaha, this is true. But yes, it is also about taking an interest in other topics. I can contribute a bit or two about football now and Ananth can talk about toners and facewashes too! :D
Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti - ...and I will make a good listener to both! :D
Hasan Raza - I may not agree completely. You are trying to relate two things together. However, you are right that it's not the women but people who behave like this. But is that those men who behave like this go to kitchen when intellectual talk is happening, and appear to provide refreshment. 

I didn't like the above post. As simple as that.
Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti - There should be one '[:(] Unlike' option for buzz posts! That would have been even simpler! :)
ananth krishnan - @Hasan: I think what Sujit is trying to say here is that, being part of intellectual discussions is largely a grooming issue, not a brain issue. Less women are able to join intellectual discussions because they are groomed to cater to refreshments, not indulge in intellectual discussions. So when they are exposed to an intellectual discussion, they may find themselves ill at ease, even if they may actually have the aptitude or interest to join in such a discussion. But on the other hand, some men don't like such discussions, but are forced to sit through them because they cannot excuse themselves to go and provide refreshments. 

@Sujit: One solution Pritesh and I tend to follow is the take turns in making intellectual (or non-intellectual) conversation and dropping into the kitchen to arrange for refreshments. If the party is smaller, then we shift everyone into the kitchen and talk while we preparing the refreshments with each of us handling some parts. In spite of that, Pritesh ends up spending more time arranging for the refreshments while I end up spending more time on the conversations. 
@everyone: Usually the women too end up making conversation among themselves, often in the kitchen while arranging the refreshments, in a typical Indian party scenario. I think it would be stupid for us men to label their talk as any less intellectual than that carried out by men. I would sometimes say, their conversation may be more useful, than the so called intellectual discussions by men. As Sujit puts it, it is a shame that one half of the intellect is lost on the other half :-)
Hasan Raza - Ok, let me be more clear. There are two discussions running above: 

(1) How to do a better conversation and lead a discussion to an end; and other interpersonal skills 
(2) Intellectual strength of women 

The first one is altogether different from the second one. I can't question the intellectuality of women, the difference is that the direction is different. Women put their intellectual strength in a different direction than men. Just take an example: 
Skill of not to give up in a discussion - it needs lots of brain power to keep going with the discussion and poke out new things which pierce the opponents mind and stature, and be present with another cross question or incidence which can cancel the opponents statement, and prove ultimately that you are wrong. 

The above is commonly found in women but even men sometimes behave like that (eg. here I am :) Now how does it relate to the way how women are treated in our culture and society? 

The only difference is that people who talk smart (be it a women or men), always follow a path in the discussion and do not deviate from there.
Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti Hello Hasan. Let me try to frame the above two things in one: 'Utilising the intellectual strength of women in discussions.' It's a composite topic. That's OK na?! 

If I try to go into explaining the unity in the topic I had started, probably I'll end up repeating a lot of what I said at first. Let me still try by writing something like a paper abstract. 

Women are intellectually equal. But they don't end up taking equal part in serious discussions in general. I have tried to analyse the problem. In the process I have agreed that the distinction between discussers and non-discussers exists but it's not fundamentally gender based, rather it's a matter of practice. I have concluded by giving a brief explanation as to why in the current society the bias of non-discussers might be towards women, by bringing in our social norms of isolating women from intellectual activities. 

Do you still think I am trying to force two topics deserving separate discussions to fit into one? 

Dear Ananth. Thanks for a solution to the 'refreshments' problem. I'm sure you understand, but for the benefit of all, let me just mention that I mentioned that issue more metaphorically, to represent the fact that normally, women in our society are meant to keep out of intellectual discussions. 
Also, whether women end up making meaningful discussions among themselves is slightly besides the point once we have agreed that the distinction between discussers and non-discussers in not gender based. What is important to highlight is that there indeed are people who never learn to make meaningful discussions not because of their own faults but because prevailing norms never allow them to learn it.Edit
ananth krishnan - I guess the confusion is caused do the assumption that intellectual discussions are restricted to the living room which is usually inhabited by men during a typical Indian family party. Where I beg to differ from Sujit in the light of Hasan's comments is that, women in our society are meant to keep out of discussions which men have, not necessarily out of intellectual (serious) discussions. Because of the different practices of discussions between men and women, the intellect is not shared between men and women. But I have never heard of a man winning an argument with his wife about anything without resorting to violence. So obviously men are ill-equipped at having the kitchen variety of (serious) discussion.
ananth krishnan - But what I agree with Sujit is that men often subscribe to the belief that women can't make intellectual conversations, because of the social milieu of the Indian family and the gender roles.
Shipra Agrawal - that is one reason I am fan of open kitchens, my current kitchen is open, into the living room, that not only allows me to talk while I am making tea or something, but also encourages everyone including Piyush to be more involved in arranging the refreshments.
Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti - Wow! That's really a cool aspect of open kitchens. Never thought of it!Edit
Pritesh Dagur - I so totally agree with Shipra. Open kitchens (like we have in our Pune house) are a really cool idea.........
Ayan Kar - I like to idea of being able to interact.. but I prefer the big separate kitchens that include the dining area.. I can sit and chat with my wife and also we get to do a lot of joint cooking of tasty bengali maach bhaat or spicy chicken masala's my present house has an open kitchen and me and my wife hate it because it limits the options of food we can cook. You can accuse of both of us of being food junkies.. ;-)
Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti - Bindu! Point! I'm fine with both. There should be good food coming out of them prepared and eaten over interesting discussions. :)

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Correct Pronunciation

Two Indians -- a North Indian and a Maharashtrian -- were fighting about how 'either' should be pronounced. North Indian said it should be pronounced as 'आइदर'. The Maharashtrian said it should be 'ईदर'. That's when a Tamilian passed by. So, both decided to ask him. The good-natured Tamilian thought for a while, and said, 'यइदर will do!'

Morale of the story: No point trying too hard to get rid of your local accent.

We, particularly Indians, work so hard to sound like British people (now Americans, of course) when it comes to speaking in English. Is it needed? If you look around, people from every country have their own accents. No one seems to fret so much as Indians do about their English. Nothing wrong in wanting to use a language well. But the unfortunate thing is, we end up thinking too much about being indistinguishable from the originators of English in terms of accents.

We should remember that the only way of enriching a language is by using it in ways other than how their originators did. The only inviolable rule of using a language is that it should communicate what you wish in the way you wish. Everything else is a dispensable trait. Various accents, particularly in India, makes language usage really interesting. Should we emphasise too much on making them all sound similar?

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Dr. Valli Rao for providing the above thought.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Thought Processes behind Ethical Decisions

What do we think when faced with an ethical problem? What goes on in our heads in those excruciating split-seconds?

To help you in following the discussion below, try and imagine what would go through your head when faced with a situation like the one below to make a decision. 
  • The traffic light is red. But there's no one looking (not even cameras). Should you jump the signal?
I tried to conduct the above thought experiment over several sessions of thinking. Follows a list of traces of thoughts that I could detect in my mind. Of course, the experiment was conducted with an attempt to be objective. So, I have tried to keep my own personal dispositions out of the way.

Reward and Punishment
Do that for doing which there is a reward, or  for not doing which there is a punishment.

The above is an obscenely simple, and potentially the most profound of all mechanisms of practicing ethics. Why it is simple is because it works on grown ups, kids and even animals. Why it is profound is because it is parameterised with how one interprets the notions of reward and punishment. A reward may mean something as simple as a kiss from parents for which a child decides to eat his food quietly. Or it could mean a national independence that a freedom fighter lays down his life for.

Except in the most direct ethical problems of day to day life, this mechanism fails to provide a good and timely solution. In most cases but the most trivial ones, it will result in very narrow-minded behaviour if used in a time-budgeted manner. And if we try to use it in very fundamental manner, we mayn't reach a conclusion in time.
Religious Approach
Follow the scriptures.

There are people who do well in ethical sense by sticking to what's considered correct as per their religious belief. Don't cheat. Don't lie. Don't kill. Don't be greedy. Most of it is all there in any religious text and following one is a sure bet that you will by and large be ethical.

Difficulties arise in the implied aspects of religion. So, some people think women should cover up. Others think freedom to dress at will is a part of the notion of freedom. Some people say eating meat is violent. Some say eating some specific types of meat is OK, while eating others is bad. There are too many religions around and there are disagreements. One notion is that all religions are fundamentally in agreement. But the level of abstraction where the agreement is complete doesn't lead to anything actionable. Refinements and interpretations are essential to turn religious thoughts into actionable ones. And that's where disagreements creep in.

Spiritual Approach
Follow your heart.
There are many cases where we are well-aware of what's going on in our mind. We may be able to sugar-coat our greed as something really good. But, the heart is most often ruthlessly clear about such acts of deceit.

However, an act done with an honest sense of good could be disastrous. Even if we discount the direct ethical connection between an act and its consequence, we can't leave out the disagreements that may arise. And then comes the question of how strongly should one stand on one's opinion. For example, Gandhiji was known to be pretty rigid about what he thought to be right. People like Hitler must also have been pretty convinced that they were right in tried to wipe out a complete race. There are so many schizophrenics around. Spiritual approach doesn't help in telling one from others.

Civic Approach
Grant full loyalty to a social structure, movement, or concept and do what you think benefits it.

We can view ourselves as tiny little components of something larger than ourselves. You may call it the country, the world, the society or whatever. It's a human creation, and we all have teamed up to create it. This requires order and cooperation and we owe it in our conduct. Obey rules. Respect other fellows' requirements. You look at it this way, and it becomes rather simple to decide as to what should be done.

Whom to be loyal to? The faith here is that we are components of something which is inherently good. And here lies the tricky part. Let me illustrate this with an example. We find ourselves in membership of composite structures which more often than not conflict with one another. For example, trivially, we are members of our own self. Then family. Friend circle. Organisation. State. Country. Caste. Religion. Human race etc. It's hard to define at which level of this compositional hierarchy should we define our absolute allegiance based on which we drive our ethical decisions. For example, you may be working for a mining company which is taking away precious minerals from your country dealing it a profound long term damage. So, should you not act against your company in the interest of your country? Perhaps. Unless, your country is a hostile one which will eventually use all its mineral reserves to manufacture or purchase weapons of mass destruction.

Hope of effectiveness. The other difficulty arises when the effectiveness of our action is not clear. Then our decision completely rests on how hopeful we are that our act of loyalty will fulfill its intended goal. Most unethical acts fall in this category. Most ordinary people do something wrong not because they directly find it rewarding to do it, but because they feel foolish trying to do something good. Not bribing. Not jumping signals. Not producing false bills. Civic approach to ethics relies on an unflinching faith in entity to which you have vowed your loyalty. This approach becomes ineffective when one loses the faith in the above premise, or in the ineffectiveness of one's ethical act in really serving the charter of that entity.

Scientific Approach
Do what is objectively the correct thing to do. In case of no clear answer choose whichever you please, including nothing at all.

Let me go back to the example of driving -- an everyday act which, I feel, requires a huge number of moral decisions taken in split seconds particularly where application of reward-punishment duality is particularly tricky. The primary purpose of driving is to get from point A to point B. Everything that prevents us from being at B instantly on starting the journey could be taken as an impediment. This approach would lead us to look with hostility at everything: any turn on the road that doesn't directly point towards B, the traffic, the traffic lights, traffic rules, the finite power of the car...even laws of physics! I agree that there's nothing moral or immoral about taking this approach. The one thing problematic about this approach is its stupidity. The most logical approach here is to understand that nobody owes us a right of way in our journey unless its a mutual understanding. It's equally likely that we will not succeed in forcing our way through realities to our destination unless we get them to work in our favour through a mutually agreeable protocol. Similarly, it's ridiculous to think that anyone gains by not letting us be there at our destination as early as possible. In the light of this realisation, treating all the above artifacts with hostility appears stupid more than anything else.

Theoretically, the above seems robust. Except that in my view, I haven't found scientists doing too well in general when it comes to ethical living. They cheat at work. They envy and back-stab their peers. They misbehave with and disrespect the general people, sometimes even their family members. Pretty lousy people, sometimes. Why do people trained to think scientifically fail to work out the details of ethical questions? What goes wrong?

InterconnectionsThe above approaches aren't orthogal. There's a relations between religious approach and spiritual approach. Civic approach is similar to religious approach in most part except that the object of loyalty is worldly in one case and mystical in the other. Religious approach is similar to the approach of rewards and punishments when it's driven with the idea of securing a good after-life.

In fact as aluded to earlier, all mechanisms could be fundamentally based on a notion of reward and punishment. However, to interpret it literally would be dangerous and naive in the same manner as would be equating animal selfishness with principles of advaita.
Concluding Remarks
We must remember that ethics is one of the fundamental problems of philosophy. Like most fundamental problems of philosophy, it eludes a final, universally accepted solution. But like all problems of philosophy, it touches our lives in a very basic way. In some sense, practicing ethics is something we all, philosophers and non-philosophers, must do. In this article, I have tried to list and present a primitive analysis of the mechanisms we ordinary people employ for practicing ethics. Further thoughts on them will undoubtedly add clarity to our understanding of our own mechanisms of practicing ethics.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Dead Pigeon

On Diwali evening, a beautiful pigeon lost its way to my balcony. There were 3 little kids at my house who got very exited on seeing it. They screamed and jumped. The pigeon fluttered its wings in panic. But, blinded by night, and disoriented with terror, it only bumped against the pot with the withered tulsi. I drove the kids away and closed the balcony door hoping that in some time, the pigeon would find its way back out.

I checked up a few hours later. And found the pigeon dead. I picked it up and took it to the security with a weak hope that the dead bird would find an affectionate burial in their hands. They couldn't help. And I left it near the dustbin, to be picked up the next morning, along with that day's trash. I felt very sad. I affectionately asked the bird why it died like that. The only answer I got was an uncomplaining calmness of the dead.

That night, in wee hours, the thought of the dead pigeon visited me again. I thought how it would have been a glorious and beautiful bird that previous day. I mused if there would be near and dear ones at home waiting for the pigeon who would never come back. How would they feel when they learned of the inglorious death? How would they feel to learn that the corpse had got disposed along with municipality trash? Or was the pigeon loved by no one, in which case, being dead was also a homeless state? I wondered why it died like that. Did it get hurt by Diwali crackers, or the commotion of the bursting crackers and screaming kids scared it to death? I wondered what it may have thought of all this noise and fire: sports for the big and powerful; and death for the poor delicate creature.

I also wondered: how many pigeons die without anyone to mourn their death? With no ceremonies to mark their departure? No obituaries? How many beautiful lives are lost due to the splinters from the crackers of more significant creatures? How many beating hearts just wither away while the loud racket emanating from the sports of larger creatures goes on unceasingly?

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Spiritual Way of Life

What is a self-proclaimed agnostic doing talking about spirituality? You may ask.

Just to clarify, it's one of my periodic exercises to revisit the questions: What the hell is going on? What do I want? What should I do?

Here, I will jot down my current thoughts on these fundamental questions. I will be as brief as possible. Disclaimer: It's an opinion. If you manage to read it through, please use it to trigger your own thoughts. I am not a spiritual guru for sure.

Two Stimuli. Whatever we do, we do as a reaction to two types of stimuli: External and internal. These stimuli are distinct, but they mix with each other in a complicated way. One of the important exercises of spirituality is to sort this confusion out. The spiritual way of life is strive and react to only internal stimuli.

How do I know if it's an internal stimulus. Internal stimuli lead to perpetuation of happiness. External stimuli cause temporary happiness without leading to anything perpetual.

The final destination. A state of perfect happiness and perfect harmony. And it will be characterised by complete lack of conflict. There will be no conflict between our inherent needs and wants. There will no conflict between inner and outer requirements.

In real life. Do things which are uniformly good for oneself, and for everything/everyone else. No exploitation. No sacrifices. This will lead to weeding out of conflicts both from within, and from outside. Though inner harmony is what we really want, it can't be achieved without harmony with the external world.

What causes harmony? Any act of violence leads to disharmony. Anything done with the intention of creation a global win is a step towards harmony. Winning competitions are not harmonious. Gains planned over someone's loss are disharmonious. Creating knowledge through thinking or experimentation is harmonious. Creating hope of harmony is also harmonious.

Definition of violence. Anything that causes death is not violence. Anything that seeks death, or is knowingly based on death is violence. Peace can't be achieved via acts of violence.

Seeking harmony and meaning is harmonious. Leading a life which rejects the notion is disharmonious.

There is no logical reason I can think of which can tell if trying to lead a harmonious and meaningful life is any better or worse than not doing so. I think it's a choice one has to make. I even feel that people make these choices in their mother's womb. I haven't seen people switching midway.

My life. My choice is to look for a meaning. As I said, I consider it a choice. Not a logical deduction. It's similar to choices like being good citizens. I believe that all people (myself included) can be happy. I believe that all wars (including the ones within me) can end. It doesn't make an iota of difference if these beliefs are realistic or not. Living for this unrealistic ideal is every bit more fun than resigning to a dismal fate that terms life a meaningless Brownian motion leading nowhere.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Science and Marketing

Science gives solutions to existing problems. Marketing gives problems to existing solutions.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Prof. Priti Shankar

Sharing a sad news: Prof. Priti Shankar of CSA, IISc is no more!

She was the first teacher whose lecture I had attended during my stay in IISc. I feel indebted to all the support she had provided during my early and most difficult days in IISc. Throughout her days she has inspired innumerable students as a great human-being, teacher, researcher and as a woman. And beyond her time, she will continue to do so.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Remembering Jagjit Singh

'ये आज़ान के स्वर हैं. ये पिआनो बाजे में नहीं होते.' It was one of those late live concert albums Jagjit Singh said this. During my PhD days, my labmate used to play it again and again, he being a big Jagjit Singh fan.

Jagjit Singh's songs don't sound hard. In fact, they appear ridiculously simple. But, Jagjit Singh is also the most hard to imitate singer. I was moved to remembering late Jagjit Singh several times in the last one day after his demise. And I tried humming his songs: 'शाम से आँख में...', 'एक  पुराना मौसम लौटा...', 'होश वालो को खबर क्या...' Like every time in the past I have done that, this time too, I felt like a piano, which doesn't have all the notes in it. Jagjit Singh had those other notes in him. His voice weaved magic into songs which would be lifeless if sung in any other voice.

Like many millions, he was my introduction to ghazals. At least 2 of my good friends, who don't claim to be music aficionados, have been devoted listeners/collectors of Jagjit Singh work. I have not seen any other artist having such cult fan-following. So many of my life's emotions often sing themselves to me in Jagjit's voice: friendship, love, nostalgia, separation, pensiveness, tranquility, resignation...

Jagjit Singh's voice is like that aazaan which today's pianos can't create. With his demise, those mystical notes have died too. I join Jagjit Singh's innumerable fans in mourning his death.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


I saw Aarakshan yesterday. It's a good movie, I would say. Not great from a purely artistic point of view. Good acting and dialogues. But some out of place songs. A gradually increasing portion of drama as the story progressed. There were even moments when one felt that probably the story has started draggingand had lost the crispness. But definitely overall the movie scores well in the way it deals with an inflammable topic in a sensitive way while communicating the maker's point of view rather clearly. Or may be it's actually the viewer's (my) view interpreted by him (me) as the maker's view. The climax resembles the Anna Hazare movement in its look. That adds an appeal to the experience of watching the movie, though rather coincidentally.

The way the storyline gradually drifts away from the issue of reservation and casteism to that of education wasn't accidental I am sure. In fact, it makes a very strong point: the issue of reservation and casteism are really not central to the woes of the Indian society. The central issue is that of education. The evils of casteism can't be mitigated by reservations. Not because the idea of reservations in itself is evil. It is not. But because, its correct implementation is probably impossible in presence of too many stakeholders in the game. It's impossible to prevent people from misusing it. In fact, it's not just reservation policies which are misused by politicians but the overall combination of reservations and class-struggle.

There were some dialogues which probably carried the maker's take on the matter. Once, the hero asks the question regarding why we don't have ITS (Indian Teaching Services) as we have IAS and IFS? There was one more where his wife asks why, instead of wasting so much money on reservations at higher education and job, government doesn't invest all its crores on improving the primary education system.

The way the hero deals with the overall situation in the movie was obviously very dramatic appropriate for a movie. But the message was valid for the real world. The key lies in making education accessible to everyone irrespective of their background.

I would like to add the following points from my side:

An idea worth considering for the government of India would be to have a kind of mandatory education service for all post-graduates of the country. If you aren't in teaching and you hold a post graduate degree you must devote x years (May be 1 or 2 years) of your professional life to education. Countries like Israel and Korea have successfully implemented compulsory military services in their country. I feel, it's practical to implement something similar for education.

The other thing, though slightly in a broader interest, is that education must be partially freed from being widely perceived as a professional training. Education is about life, not profession. It should be seen as a vehicle of sharpening thoughts and knowledge which are general tools for leading a better life, of which professional advantage is a small subset. But, let's leave all this to a separate discussion.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

An Anecdote from a Team-Experience

During the first few years of Rhythmica, when I used be active in it, I came across two kinds of people -- those who wanted the best out of the programme, and those who wanted the best out of the people.

Former category people were usually very talented; set very high standards for themselves and for others; and considered a musical performance as the output of the hard work. For them, it wasn't justified to compromise on the quality of the music. Substandard performance was unpardonable. At every stage of preparation, they advocated ruthless curtailing of anything substandard.

Latter category consisted of people who gathered in the music room for fun. They would, on an average, be less musically talented. They wouldn't have much to do with the highest levels of perfection. For them, a glitch here and a glitch there was absolutely OK. They would make friends, get into romantic relations, help out the more talented ones, and sulk if neglected.

Another example exists in all organisations. There are techies and there are managers. Techies don't usually think much of the managers. And managers give a damn to that. The tussle continues, and they thrive under the same roof.

It was when I was trying to characterise my responsibilities as a convener that I realised that both these types of people are required in a team. And whether one wants it or not, both these varieties would exist in any group.

Talented people are good to realise the potential of a group. The peak potential of the group is the peak potential of these individuals. Their presence is a must to take a group to the heights of achievement. The latter group are important for the existent of a group. They aren't dead weight. They are a cement which keeps the team together. A massive structure is required for resources to come together and create something that makes a difference. Usually individual talent is not enough to realise such teams.

A leader's job is to engineer two things:
- Realisation of potential
- Repeatability

The talented ones advocate such high levels of dedication and hard work as would cause severe burnouts in the less capable ones. As individuals, they may be capable of sustaining very high standards demanding exceptional efforts. That mayn't be true with others. A talented person, in absence of essential team-related qualities in himself, will look at this incapability as a disqualification, and will castigate anyone who doesn't concur. Often, this may create conflicts, not just with less capable people, but also with comparably capable people. Everyone is not at their best all the time. Being caught in the weak moment, and being reprimanded by a peer, who isn't necessarily more talented, for not meeting standards may sometimes be unacceptable to them, especially if they are inwardly rather confident that they do maintain high standards. Due to this reason, it is often seen that groups consisting of extremely talented people don't always do well, especially when it comes to durability. Music bands, research groups, etc. often form and fall apart in no time. I guess, the reason behind it could be the lack of team-related talents in its members.

A team will sustain when most of its members are happy, not just with themselves but with each other. They will come together again and again when they feel like meeting each other. A team will make its mark not just by one momentous performance, but by continuing to do so over and over again. A minimal prerequisite for that is the existence of the team.

An individual talent may look at this scenario as a parasitic relation between the less talented and the more talented. That's not justified. A team forms a critical mass for resources to come together and contribute towards the creation of something non-trivial. Such teams don't merely feed on the talents of the individuals, but gives them back a lot. The most important payback is the society of talents.
A society that's formed in an orderly fashion, and not by chance meeting between two maverick geniuses. When collaboration between such two geniuses is good, not just for others, but for themselves too, the presence of a happy group around them supports such an association, even when such an association mayn't be pleasant to the two geniuses themselves.

My Top Inspirations and Inspiring Moments

A list (which I intend to keep editing for ever) of events, moments, people, experiences which have resulted in lasting changes in me (mostly positive) and have shaped my life in a profound way. I don't claim to have arranged them in any particular order.
Learn to understand: When my father had said in my fourth class that I should try to understand the subjects rather than trying to score higher. It affected me deep and has a lot to do with my future attitude towards studies.
Tintin: When I first came across the first Tintin book in eighth class in my friend Sumantro's place, I had never seen a comic any better illustrated than Chacha Choudhary, Phantom, Amar Chitra Katha. I asked my friend what this thing was which did look like a comic but was also like a book. He said it was the best comic in the world. That day, my outlook to comics, cartooning, storytelling, everything changed. In the next 2 years I had read all Tintin books. My style of cartooning still is influenced by it. I finally succeeded to procure the complete series much later, in 2002.
R. K. Laxman: My father had brought home a calendar with one Laxman cartoon per page. I learned from it that cartoons can be drawn with basic instruments like pencil, sketch pens and water colour.
50 Classics: A thick book that Sumantro possessed which contained 46 classics and 4 epics, abridged and translated into Bangla. I came to know that there are so many books which are called classics: novels which are old, but evergreen. My fanciful mind immediately set out on the path of writing novels. In seventh class I had already written a story which ran to nearly 80 pages. In my ninth grade, I wrote a story running into nearly 120 pages. Of course, I gradually lost momentum. But the fascination with books and writing stayed on with me. I continued writing short-stories and essays.
बातचीत : The first chapter in our tenth class Hindi reader, an essay by Pt. Ramchandra Shukla. It had tough  Hindi, arranged in thick paragraphs, all of almost equal length (each of nearly half a page). It analysed various aspects of talking. I found it very inspiring that a simple day to day topic could be picked and a deep analysis could be done on that. I also came to see essays as the purest form of intellectual expression unhindered by narrative forms or poetic rules. Essays are, for sure, my favourite form of serious communication.
अरे तू तो अच्छा गाता है यार! : My cousin, who I always used to think of as sort of a bully, who otherwise used to dismiss me as a studious moron, once remarked when I was casually humming something (a Kishore song). The experience of being thus noticed was so thrilling, I actually started attempting to do some serious singing. This has led to an heretofore unbroken association with music.
Water Colouring: Book by Milind Mulick inspired me to revive my love for water painting. As my juvenile attempts to paint failed, I was instigated to give up painting for 15 long years. I suffered with the idea that I had poor sense of colours. However, around 2005, my love for painting came back in all its glory after I came across the above work. Thereafter, I have continued to make small attempts. Slowly, but surely, I have made significant improvements.
Academic books: There are many academic books which have been major influences in shaping my academic interests. Resnick Halliday (Physics) probably is at the top. But there were others. William Hayt (Electromagnetic theory), D. V. Hall (Microprocessors), C by Ritchie and Kernighan (Programming), OOAD (Booch), Compilers (Aho, Ulman, Sethi), Economics by Samuelson (Economics).
Scientists: The earliest inspirations were Marie Curie, Addison, James Watt. I used to think then that scientists run the world. After you are too intelligent to become a prime-minister, you become a scientist. Therefore, I decided to become a scientist.
Rail Shunting: I always used to wonder how a train stays on a track, and how it jumps from one track to another. I had tried to observed both the make of train wheels and the design of shunting while travelling in trains. I had never been able to make a complete observation. In sixth class, I could work out a design on paper which seemed to work. I cycled several kilometres to the nearest rail-track to my house to verify my discovery. And to my great delight, I found that I had got it exactly right.
Philosophy: I first came across Swami Vivekananda's ideas in 1993 through my friend Abhijit, who, in his first year BTech in IITK had got involved in these things, and had shared with me his initial experiences. He had once said that it's possible not to feel cold by simply imagining that it's not cold. I had tried it, and had found it works. I then bought one of his books in a book fair. It costed me Rs. 55. My father called me mad. I read much of it, and was launched into the pursuit of philosophy. It also sowed the seeds of my interest in spirituality which I have kept veiled behind piles and piles of verbose philosophy.
Ancient Manuscripts: In some TV programme, I had come across images of ancient Indian manuscripts written on this leaflets which then were tied into little stacks with a string. That about around 1986. The idea of the painstaking effort with which ancient wise men had documented their knowledge, with crude writing instruments and surfaces, and no method of automatic copying, had a lasting influence on me. There was a period when I took to doing my homework using nib pens which needed me dip the pen in an ink-pot every now and then. That was probably in seventh standard. Well, I couldn't stick to that method of writing for long. But I managed never to let go of fountain pens. I still use one. I still struggle to write in a good handwriting. And the idea of a beautiful thought written in a beautiful hand still appears very beautiful to me. I still often find it more natural to make handwritten notes of my thoughts before I create an electronic version of my writings.