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Monday, March 30, 2009

Passing him by

I don’t know him well. He is my college mate and I know his name but our familiarity is little beyond ‘hello’. I see him often, coming from and going to classes and mess, and once in a while on campus elsewhere. We didn’t study together in a class, we are not friends and we barely interacted ever. I hear of him indirectly when his name pops up in campus discussions, but otherwise, he might as well be a stranger to me.

Yet, I find passing him by difficult when we happen to be going in same direction. I notice strange feeling of guilt in overtaking him. Sometimes I nod at him as I saunter ahead, but mostly, I don’t. Rarely, we make small talk. In any case, I find it embarrassing to trying to outrun him. I dare not see his eyes and I move swiftly with my eyes downcast. I pretend that I didn’t see him, so that I can sooth my consciousness of my outmaneuvering him. I also finds it difficult to move around conversing with others when he is around, knowing that he can see me.

I don’t know why it happens. I am reasonably sure he doesn’t mind. He has learned to live with that all his life. Indeed, my any deviation from normal behaviour is cruel reminder to him. I shouldn’t even be treating him special enough and unlike others to find it difficult. I don’t think I would have minded that either. I can’t say for sure, obviously, but hey, someone or other is always outrunning me and I don’t mind, so surely, he doesn’t either. Still, I always avoid his glance if I had to outpace him or move in his vicinity. Still, I always find my consciences kicking me. Not that I don’t do it: I do it more often than not, but not without feeling guilty.

I don’t know why should it happen just because he is in wheelchair. He has been in one, perhaps, most of his life.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Washing machine that wouldn’t work

We recently procured a new washing machine for our dorm. It’s quite latest technology front-loading IFB Senorita Dx fully automatic washing machine costing Senorita-DX about 20,000/-. With mere three buttons on front panel ‘Start/Pause’, ‘Rinse’ and ‘Hold’ and a knob to set temperature, it’s also very simply designed. No more trouble of setting wash time or rinse time, just put detergent and press ‘Start’. So what exactly is the problem? Hint: It’s not in the title.

Just hold on to the above and consider its users in our dorm. Washing machine will be used by residents of post-graduate program in management in one of the premier business colleges of the country. Why is that important? Now, we are not arrogant, but we are also not stupid. We’d like to believe that we are at least few points of above average intelligence. Heck, we are at least post-graduate students and many have engineering backgrounds. Ok, so you ask, once again, why is that important?

Well, it’s important because how this machine works has stumped every single person in this twenty member dorm. How can it, if it’s fully automatic push-and-go as I say, you wonder? Frankly, I don’t know, but I will try to answer. More importantly, though, is the fact that I refuse to take blame. If a design fails 20 reasonably intelligent people then fault must lie with the designer. If an idiot cannot figure out, he is to be blamed. If 100 idiots cannot figure out, company should change its design or close the shop.

So exactly what gives? Well, firstly, one of two slots on left (1) is for detergent and another is for fabric-softener but it is not marked which is for which. Secondly, knob (5) has exactly same readings on right half and on left half. Differentiation is neither obvious nor clear. Thirdly, pushing ‘Start’ button (2) turns monitor light red, locks the door, and machine still shows no sign of life. Pushing ‘Start’ button again unlocks the door and light starts blinking. User has no clue what that means and why. Apparently, machine appears dead because in its infinite wisdom it’s calculating automatic settings depending on load and temperature setting. However, this calculation takes anywhere from five minutes to twenty minutes. Sometimes, when you come back half-an-hour later it still is dead. Then one has to push button in frustration until there is some noise signifying response. It’s frustrating to deal with something that just sits mockingly at you! When it starts working finally, it stops only after three hours of washing, rinsing and drying all clothes. Oh yeah, there are four lights (4) apart from start light which blink to some meaning unknown to user. Buttons for ‘Rinse’ and ‘Hold’ (3) serve purpose unknown to me.

You tell me, whose fault it is? Or better you don’t, since it’s not mine. If one needs a manual to figure out a washing machine, then life is doomed. How can company expects common public to use this machine? Of course, one can say, rightly so, that in matters such as these, lesser the intelligence better it is; or to frame alternatively, common man is more smarter than educated man. Now, as I had written on my earlier blog (in Hindi) that if designer cannot even design ergonomics and layout of such simple operation in intuitive interface, am I not right in cursing him every two weeks when I use this evil equipment? Smart designer doesn’t screw-up so simple a system. For example, if people commonly attempt opening the door by pulling rather than pushing when it’s designed for later, it’s sign of poor design. And it tells a lot about how little attention is paid that nearly all doors have sign telling ‘push’ or ‘pull’.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Clocks and Time

Clocks (watches) are everywhere. Perhaps you are wearing one right now. Earlier, you would have had one on breast pocket or in waist chain. There is one on bottom right of your screen. There may be one on your desk and couple on your walls. Perhaps your washing machine, dishwasher, refrigerator, microwave oven, car dashboard and mobile phone also have one. Modern man is so bound by time that he cannot escape looking at one frequently. Most of our activities are dictated by time but even if they are not, we are not comfortable without being aware of current time. Imagine if you had no access to time for one day. Would you be able to manage? Sun provides rough approximate of time but that’s usually not enough for for precision oriented man. 

A while ago I read a short story about a few prisoners imprisoned in a windowless room. Can you guess what was their most prized possession? A wrist watch. A watch which would tell them what time of day was. A watch which will guide them to passage of time, days and dates. It didn’t matter that that information was of no use. What mattered most was the concept of time was alive in their mind. And one day when watch broke, insanity followed. It may not difficult to imagine this if we note our own reaction of unawareness of time. While being fully free in open world, I can imagine sense of irritation, discomfort and panic in timeless world. This was not always so.

There was a time when mankind didn’t have clocks. People worked and planned according to position of sun and routine of daily activities. Perhaps phrase ‘when cows come home’ is derived from that era. Industrialization was the beginning of need of organized and official time. 200 years later time is very precious and looked after measure. With time, time gets meaning. Scientists across the world are devising devices capable of measuring time to smallest of the fraction of second. Synchronization across the world is done to the extent of a second across millennia. Science and technologies have shortened many things, yet we seem to have less and less time for anything. We are eager to learn tips or use equipments which saves time. For what? So that we may work more. We have become slave of time.

But what is time anyway? It’s always difficult to define the simplest concept. Stephen Hawking attempts to define it in his the most famous book A Brief History of Time — which, by the way, is claimed to be a book most bought and least read — as direction in which entropy increases. However, because time is such fundamental quantity that any definition has danger of becoming circular definition. Time may be 4th dimension or time may be figment of our collective illusion.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Recycling blog

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Since frequency of posts on this blog have reduced, I am attempting recycling. I trust you believe in concept of recycling whether or not you personally recycle. In that spirit, let me leave you some of the fine articles from my earlier blogs. I hope them to keep you company until I am in position to regularly start writing again. These posts were made in 2004-05 while I was studying at MIT. You may notice some change (hopefully improvement) in my writing skills in the meantime.

Few key posts from my Hindi blog that are recommended readings, written during 2006-07:

Of course, you are free to browse rest of the English and Hindi blogs.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Female!

My train of thoughts comes to a screeching halt as soon as I hear someone using word “female(s)” when referring to fair-sex of human species. Sample these:

“Four females were walking by.”

“His friend was a female.”

“One day one female goes to market….”

I just find ‘woman/lady/girl’ a far better substitute of ‘female’. Only one person, so far, who seemed to think like me is one of my lady professor. I can understand use of titled epithet when referring to nursing gender in mammalian species or in context where clinical and scientific language is more appropriate. I cannot understand, and find it ostensibly offensive, to use ‘female’ when referring to woman in social or regular context. I think that six-letter nomenclature robs them of their humanity. And both men and women are equally guilty of this use, so my flinching is not discomforting because of feminist or chauvinist implications. Obviously, I find use of ‘male’ to refer to ‘man’ also unacceptable but that doesn’t happen a lot, I wonder why?

Clearly, if large segment of ladies (and gentlemen) themselves find it acceptable then who am I to cringe? On the one hand, I wonder if my sense of gender fairness is stronger than what women themselves desire (See: Of men and women, and preference thereof, Behan Ji)? On the other hand, readers of this blog are aware my aversion to one-sided feminism which applies dual standards (See: Getting rid of him and her, To Sons and Daughters, Harassed by Wife?). Actually I am not easily trusting of dual standards by anyone (See: Colour as indicator of beauty, Need for coherent compensation structure, Holier than thou Mumbai, Who can take life?).

Sunday, March 15, 2009

What were you expecting?

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When someone asks a question, I believe it’s because he wants to know the answer except in few situations. There is (my) simple rule when asking question: don’t ask question which can be answered in only one way. That is when context, position and circumstance of answerer puts him in a position that he has only one way to answer posed question then question is wrong question to ask. You will be surprised how often this rule is violated.

If questioner is only interested in pretending to ask question and doesn’t really care for reply then I can understand intentional breach of this simple rule of common sense. However, that is not the case many a times and I have seen people with sincerity on their face with expectations of genuine reply asking questions which has no other answer but obvious one. Such questions and their subsequent answers are futile in sense of not adding any value to discussion or information, except if questioner himself is unaware of obviousness of answer. What are these questions you may ask?

During pre-placement talks by company representatives on the campus in our college, asking these representatives whether their company permits flexibility, independence of decision making and growth opportunity is one such set of questions. As they are on sales pitch trying to sell their company to students, one cannot really expect completely honest answers from them and they will not say anything which will reduce students’ interest in the organization. Everybody loves to project his organization as good place to work even when he don’t think so himself. That’s why idea of company one gets as outsider is at least somewhat different than what one gets as soon as one joins as insider. It’s not their fault really. In a game called placement, companies sell themselves in presentation and students sell themselves in the interview. If students wrote statement of purpose indicating their real intentions in university admission process, will he get admitted?

When a professor asks students about how are they finding his course, can he really expect anything but positive reviews from the students? Even if students hate the course, they will be polite enough not to reply in negation, unless asked in correct context such as anonymously. When you ask me on this public platform whether I support racism, what do you think my answer will be? It’s not to say that my answer will be necessarily incorrect, but because there is no other way I could have answered the question, any answer is not going to provide insight into my real mindset thus making exercise useless. That's why I always end up smiling when someone puts an obvious disclaimer (me too, but it's not that kind of disclaimer). There are so many occurrence of such meaningless questions everyday that once you start noticing, you will find them everywhere. It’s mostly formality and desire to be praised, I understand, but don’t expect your dinner guest what he really thought of your cooking or your spouse about how do you look.

If you really want to know real answer then provide for opportunity where answerer can answer honestly without compromising himself. There is one exception though. An smart observer of human body language and linguistic ability may be able to pick up some signals in the manner answer is phrased despite it not providing any non-obvious information.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Philosophy of Law

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One day about six months ago while browsing the world wide web, I wandered into a website of a course at Brandeis University titled as Philosophy of Law. Intrigued by the outline which promises to raise profound questions such as
Under what conditions should a person be held responsible for his or her acts? Under what conditions may one be excused? Suppose I simply make a mistake? Or was merely careless? Or was mentally unstable? Is it fair to punish me for a harm I caused but did not intend? And if I fail to commit a crime, should I be punished less severely than if I had succeeded?
I decided to go through the content. Course highlights how difficult it is to define crime clearly but settles at definition which requires simultaneity of (1) bad act, where act is ‘conscious muscular movement’, and (2) evil mind or intent. Giving example of how simple crime as burglary can have ramifications in this definition, website quotes:
So imagine that I leave my house late at night, intending to burglarize…It is unusually dark and foggy; I…become lost, and break into my house. Have I committed burglary? No; though I acted with the conscious purpose or intent to enter, I did not do so with respect to the dwelling house of another. …following evening…even darker and foggier than the night before. I…become lost, and decide to return home. I walk through the unlocked door of what I think is my own home. But it is not my house. Have I committed burglary? No; though I entered the dwelling house of another, I did not do so with the purpose to enter the dwelling house of another; I acted with the intent to go home, even though that is not where I ended up.
The most interesting part of the course is set of 21 puzzles in law, which are not really puzzles of legality but puzzles of formation of law from common sense as and when exceptions were encountered. First puzzle introduces sine qua non (the without which not) test which says that without someone doing something consciously, something else wouldn’t have happened, and hence someone is responsible for crime if something else is defined crime. However, as we soon realize, such chain of causality can extend far back in time and one can say without Adam & Eve procreating nothing would’ve happened in the world and they are ultimate criminals! Further, test fails “in situations where an event is ‘over-determined,’ where two independent causes are sufficient to bring about the same result”. So if two people shot simultaneously, none is guilty as victim would have died without each doing his part by himself. At this point it is necessary to introduce concept of ceteris paribus (everything else being same) to define crime as
With the qualification of such phrases as "on the whole," by and large," and "all other thing's being equal," an act ("A") is the cause of some injury or harm ("B") if A was necessary to the occurrence of B and sufficient to produce B without the intervention of the free and deliberate acts of others or an abnormal conjunction of events.
This leads to an interesting puzzle and dilemma about classifying a death a murder or manslaughter (see this, this and this). If attempt to crime is also punishable, which it should be because evil intention is what matters not success or failure of execution, then how much action is attempt? Further, can one be punished when crime couldn’t possibly have been committed, such as in attempt to murder a corpse? Law recognizes that yes
[A] person can be found guilty of an attempt so long as the crime that was attempted could have been committed had the attendant circumstances been as [the defendant] believed them to be.
But it’s not without another challenge! Sometimes crime is necessary to be committed, such as in self defence, but crime should be just enough and should be really necessary.
Conduct that the actor believes to be necessary to avoid a harm or evil to himself or to another is justifiable, provided that the harm or evil sought to be avoided by such conduct is greater than that sought to be prevented by the law defining the offense charged.
So letting 5 people die is worse than killing 1, right? Perpetrator will be saving more lives. Yet, letting die is mere inaction while killing is deliberate action. Who is more guilty? Is letting die a valid response not requiring any punishment? In most cases yes, except in
[F]our sets of circumstances…persons have a duty to rescue: ‘First, where a statute imposes a duty of care to another; second where one stands in a certain [special] status relationship to another; third, where one has assumed a contractual duty to care for another; and fourth, where one has voluntarily assumed the care of another and so secluded the helpless person as to prevent others from rendering aid.’
Some places have a “Good Samaritan” law under which onlookers have responsibility to attempt to prevent someone from harm if they are in position to do so. There are some more interesting historical cases dealing moral dilemmas inherent in defining crime which are sure to make us think if crime & punishment are so easy.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Recommended Blogs

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There is this thing called Blog Day which is celebrated on 31st August every year where bloggers of the world write about blogging and introduce new bloggers to the world. Since I am not sure if my blog will be alive for next 6 months, I want to thanks some amazing blogs I follow by introducing them to my readers (because I don’t thank them by clicking their ads). Of over 200 blogs and websites I follow on Google Reader, following is collection of the bests of the bests.

  • Web Comics: Brain Stuck is the funniest among the comics I read and targets IT industry in India primarily. XKCD is also nice in geeky sort of way and involves humour around Physics and Software. If you can tolerate constant badgering of religion (and laugh without making fuss) then Jesus and Mo is great comic too. Recently, I’ve discovered What the Duck which is about a cameraman duck which I am instantly in love with. Fly You Fools is comic commenting on everyday news items from India. Among others, I identify with Dinosaur Comics. It’s not really funny but I find character close to me in thinking. Everyday it comes with some interesting, new and strange idea and thinks through the implications.
  • Humour Blog: When talking about funny, Cracked takes the cake. I am a man who loves imbibing new information. Combine that with brilliant humour and you have Cracked. Other humourous blogs include My Mom is a Fob (about commentaries of FOB mom), Greatbong (about news and movies) and Rakesh Jhunjhunwala’s fake blog (about news). If you can tolerate non-veg humour then Best of Craigslist (funny classifieds) and F*** My Life (how a day is ruined) is good place to visit.
  • Photo Blog: Nothing captures the imagination than a well shot photograph. The Big Picture blog brings visual spectacles from across the world and tells stories which news often miss.
  • Not News: Anyone who has paid scant attention to media knows not to trust them at all. News You Can’t Use tells us why not. What better way to make fun of news then to make our own? The Onion is the best website which has been doing that for years. Faking News and Son of Bosey are Indian counterparts which manage to do amazing job in tickling my funny bone.
  • Tech Blog: Digital Inspiration and Lifehacker are blogs targeting technology savvy audience who’d like to learn about computer and web applications.
  • India Centric: Critical commentary on contemporary India is served by Wide Angle View of India though off late quality is at decline. The Better India instills hopes by bringing out rare positive news from the media.
  • Bollywood: Among few Bollywood blogs that I follow, Paisa Vasool stands right at the top with its self-deprecating tongue-in-cheek humour and non-technical analysis of movies.
  • Miscellaneous: The Best Article Every Day is what it says it is. It’s not a original work but it picks some decent work out there in blogosphere for daily reading. Damn Interesting as the name says is collection of fascinating information. This blog is defunct for a while but you can still browse archives. Post Secret peeks into dark depths of human heart. Ask Metafilter is best demonstration of the power of internet in collaborative help.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Where is your God?

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A little essay in Hindi textbook in class 10th has left a powerful impression on me. Essay was titled “Dardidra Narayan” which roughly translates as “God in Poor”. In a passionate writing author appealed to readers to see presence of God in poor people and worship Him in forms which help them. Looking back, I can see argument having socialist leaning which derided rich people and their richness and put poverty on pedestal. Idea of romanticizing poverty has been part of Indian, and particularly Hindu, psyche for long, and has been dispelled only in last decade or so when consumerism became fashionable. Perhaps origin lay in poverty of early Brahmans who were most respected individuals in society due to their wisdom and learnedness. Or perhaps Hindu philosophy of disowning material comforts to connect soul to Supreme Lord was revered in form of poverty. Ills of richness in forms of consumption of meat and alcohol were considered sin. Belief in cycle of rebirth had big role to play in shaping Hindu attitude to sufferings in life where misfortune was accepted as punishment of past sins and had to be borne stoically rather than fought against. Whatever be the original cause, poverty remained associated with innocent, purity and closeness to cultural roots as depicted in numerous 60s and 70s movies.

Despite possible implications of looking for God in poor people, my belief was further strengthened by increasing detachment from formal religious institutions. As I found many holy men using religion as excuse to beg and undertake illegal activities, as I discovered full-fledged commercial operations running in garb of religious charity, as I became disillusioned by absence of any real guiding sage for Sanatan Dharma, I found myself unable to financially contribute to religious institutions and programs. I remain a devout Hindu who believes and worships God sans rituals, but I have practically stopped donating to temples. I collect money due to these places and give it to any charity working for welfare of poor or children. I think I see more value in money helping real people improve their lives in this world rather than helping temple Pujari appropriate even more for his personal gain.

I see God in poor to the extent that I prefer to give money to financially weak rather than to temples. I hope God will still count my credits for punya for admission into Heaven!! (See also: Virtue or Lack of Opportunity)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Though of course

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Warning: Muddled verbiage. Read slowly.

If you have followed my writings on this blog closely then you must have noticed my tendency to use “of course” in abundance. I don’t, though, use so much of it in conversation. “Of course”, of course, stands for “obviously” which suggests that I believe that what follows after “of course” must necessarily follow based on preceding statement and that this fact has been taken into account by astute reader. Yet, my need to mention specifically what must obviously follow for me — and if I am right then for you too — implies either that (1) I don’t trust at least one of you to ascertain that fact automatically, or that (2) I feel need to state the obvious which me as writer and you as reader anyway know.

If it’s former then either (1.1) use of “of course” is not valid completely since it’s not obvious to at least one of you as per my inherent assumption, or (1.2) I must be presumptuous for making that assumption and am indicating limitation in someone’s ability to comprehend written text. If it’s later, though, where I am repeating the obvious, then either (2.1) I am introducing redundancy in the text thus making it verbose and in process consuming more of my time, your time, electricity and internet real estate thus accelerating our way to global warning however marginally, or (2.2) I may have been repeating the text to emphasize point made earlier. Of course, assuming the later automatically implies that (2.2.1) I don’t trust you to understand text when written only once and feel need to elucidate more thus casting doubt on your general intelligence.

Of course, there is third reason as well, (3) which simply means that my written communication is improper and my use is grammatically incorrect. Clearly, there is no way I can get out this mess which my use of “of course” has shoved all of us into, though, of course, I never intended such.

Another thing that I’ve noticed and want to point out here is generous use of “though”, though, again not so much in oral communication. Use of “though” is much simpler to explain because it highlights impending twist in the thought process and indicates that next sentences goes contrary to just stated opinion notwithstanding any fact which just has been mentioned. This could be to (1) point out exceptions to the rule or to (2) rule out generation of possible follow-up thoughts in your mind based on presented statement which I don’t want to imply to concur with. While both are valid uses, I really need to find more synonyms for “though”.
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