Monday, 11 March, 2013

Innovation rules

There is a nagging feeling that there is no, or very little, innovation coming out of India.

There are numerous ways in which this feeling presents itself - sometimes as a itch that needs scratching, sometimes as a job that helps pay the bills, sometimes as a need to prove something to the world and oftentimes as a voicing of frustration.

It is not too difficult to articulate this feeling. Why does a Linux or Google or Facebook never originate in India. Why do we only spawn businesses like Infosys and TCS which help support innovations from other cultures rather than create any themselves. At the same time, you find that large proportions of people in companies, like Microsoft or Google, that innovate, are Indians.

Where’s the glitch?

One explanation that is usually served up, most recently by the CEO of TCS, is that it is a question of perception. This implies that one only needs to make it look like India is innovating - in one word, marketing. This probably makes sense from the point of view of a business, where everything is marketing. If you really wanted to understand the phenomenon though, such an explanation is too easy and in a strange way shines a little diffused light on the fundamental issue at hand. 

When faced with a problem there are two basic ways in which one can react - logically or emotionally. The various shades between these two extremes are what we usually find ourselves painted in, depending on factors like what we were taught and how were made to feel in relation to the world.

Logic, when translated into something tangible, becomes a set of rules. Follow the set of rules and there’s a good chance you’ll get where you want to go to. If you don’t follow the rules, any movement you make will be an error within the logical framework. Rules then, define the boundaries within which expected results can be obtained. 

Rules are meant to make life easier. When a rule is the cause of problems, the logic behind it can be modified and the rule mended to suit reality better. Doing so would, over time, evolve the rules and result in a society based more on logic than on emotion. Western economies have evolved to such an extent that they have rule books for everything - even torture.

We evolve rules in India too. Only, the driving force is emotion. When we don’t like a rule, we reason out an alternate logic, apply emotion to it and implement the rule change immediately - without making it part of the framework. This means that we have a multitude of logical frameworks, each following its own evolutionary path. Bribery and corruption are nothing more than logical frameworks. Bribery in India is not anarchic. There are a set of rules governing it, with emotion being the thread that ties the rules together. You could be driving a stolen car with no license, but when stopped by a Traffic cop in India, your options vary from Death to winning the friendship of the cop.

The changing of rules dynamically and instantaneously requires quick thinking and adaptation - in one word, innovation. However, in the vacuum that exists without a logical framework, the rules are short lived and exist only for the duration of the transaction. Also, since the innovation occurred beyond the boundaries of the original framework of logic, it cannot be recognized as an innovation that can be replicated. The CEO of TCS throwing the ‘perception idea’ in the air is a tangential example of such innovation. The fundamental problem is that there is no innovation coming out of India, but to him the immediate problem to solve is, ‘people asking him why there is no innovation’. By fixing the second, he dissociates himself from the first and evolves a new logical framework which solves the immediate problem.

You take this same person with an immense capacity for dynamic rule creation and place him in a culture where rules are curated and see what happens. All those random rules he’s been creating just to get by are now absorbed into a logical framework and he feels like he’s in rule heaven.

Wednesday, 27 February, 2013

Technology limit

It’s nothing new. There is a limit to extent to which technology can solve problems at any point in time. Some problems, then, are beyond the scope of what the current state of technology can address effectively. Among these problems there are some whose technological solutions can be imagined - and they are usually the stuff of science fiction. There are others where it appears technology can only remain an enabler of solutions and not a solver of problems.

An example might help illustrate this.

Reserving time slots for appointments is now a trivial technological problem. There are a fixed number of slots which can be reserved and once those slots are taken none will be available. The problem is, this works well only until you have a ‘manageable’ number of applicants for the slots. Once you have more than a certain number of people scrambling for the fixed number of slots, strange things start happening.

Primarily, the queue which was in effect to implement the ‘first come first served’ policy now becomes a mob. Within a mob, as anybody who has participated in a railway booking mob will tell you, there is no order. What there is, is a delta - a crowded triangular area that is formed spontaneously around the mouth of the queue, which one needs to be present in to have a fighting chance of obtaining the desired outcome. Within the delta the ‘first come first served’ policy does not work. The dynamics of the delta are highly volatile. Rules and policies are coded, communicated and enforced on the fly in a rapidly changing environment. 

The number of variables that need to be computed to move closer to the mouth are so immense and varied that one needs to function at an instinctual level. To list some of the variables that need to be considered - how important is the appointment slot to your life, How strong are your elbows, how much stamina can you afford, What are your motivations, How many people can you bully without incurring the wrath of the collective mob, how much do you care about other people. To put all these variables together into a usable piece of data is possible only instinctively. 

What is really interesting is that what is described above applies equally well to any queue - even one that is enforced technologically.

The solution that is usually proposed - enforce the first come first served policy strictly through the threat of violence - only displaces the problem. if disorder is eliminated from the queue, in the case of railway booking, the disorder is transferred to the train itself. The desperate ones who do not make it to the top of the queue before the train leaves would board the train anyway or spill onto the platform and start becoming a hindrance to the smooth and happy functioning of society.

The easy solution to this problem is to increase the number of queues and trains until everyone can get a slot while still following the ‘first come first served’ policy. This would require that the requirement of queues and trains is computed dynamically and the required number of people and machinery is mobilized and made available on the fly. This, to me, is in the realm of science fiction - an optimized society where everyone gets what they want, when they want it - and hence something that can be imagined.

But our original problem was one where we have a fixed number of slots which a number of people are seeking to occupy and there is no restriction on the number of people who can try. Not having an infinite number of slots is a real condition and the removal of that condition cannot be a valid solution to the problem. 

The other solution that is usually proposed - use a different selection algorithm - different from ‘first come first served’ - introduces, in effect, a certain randomness into the situation. This seems like a suitable solution; if only it could be made fair.

Without an infinite number of slots on offer and needing to give everyone a fair chance at success, one would seemingly have to allow the delta to be created - and once it has formed, let it manage itself. This would ensure that there is a randomness in making the selection but since the participants in the mob define the algorithm it would be fair for that particular mob.

There it is - technology enabling a solution; the mob generated algorithm, rather than solving the problem itself.

India’s passport issuing service (Passport Seva) has an online interface, developed by TCS, to book appointment slots. About a lakh users try to book from among 200 slots. The interface allows a user to book a slot by choosing from a set of available time slots (possibly arrived at depending on the personnel available) on a certain date in the future. This system seems to make use of the delta to decide who gets a slot and who doesn’t. The window remains open for an hour every day, but when the window is open, all available slots are filled in less than 5 seconds. You might be the first person in the queue, but there’s a good chance that you’ll be ejected from the queue. The fine timing that is required at and between each step in the process ensures that a delta is created. The mob of requests evolves an algorithm on the fly to ‘decide’ which requests would go through successfully. The algorithm evolved by a certain mob cannot be replicated by another, thereby ensuring complete randomness and hence, fairness.

Friday, 6 July, 2012


Rocking movement,  dim lights, warm nourishment, an uncommon selfless camaraderie. There is a reason why traveling on a long distance train in India affects the soul in fundamental ways. 

Firstly, there is the time disconnect. There you are, moving at an even pace across fields, villages, towns and rivers. After a while you get so used to the sights that space detaches itself from the continuum and time is left to fend for itself - and hence loses all meaning. Morning turns to evening when you least expect it. You might see the setting sun and for the first time in your life be awed by it’s magnificence and yet not be affected by the transience of life. Then again, you might not see the setting sun - since you’re up on your berth slipping in and out of sleep as you read that book in your hands; It doesn’t really matter what book it is, since in this alternate universe, even the most inane of texts will coax you into a state of helpless intoxication and sleep.

Sleep. Unhindered, unadulterated sleep. And lots of it. Without any sort of guilt to dampen the experience or the need for alarms to remind you about some pressing errand that needs your attention. Anything that requires attention will be attended to, by others. Or not. It doesn’t really matter. Two days of sleeping will clearly have an effect on your sense of reality. You will do things that you normally wouldn’t. Like wake up bleary eyed at an impossible hour amid sounds that please and yet pull at your nerves - and drink a cup of hot, sweet, milky tea. You’d think the sugar in the tea would keep you awake for hours, but no - just as you saunter back into the carriage from the platform as the train pulls away from the town (with such a beautiful name, you think) and see your fellow passengers in various poses of extreme repose, your mind delights at the possibility of climbing back into your berth and stretching out - as though at the end of a long hard day of work in the fields; like those that are beginning to make an appearance at the windows on the outskirts of the town - detaching space from time again. Until the next meal begins to make its appearance.

After the slight flutter created by the stoppage at the station, things settle back to the usual pace and everybody gets some much needed rest. Yes. Rest. After a while though, some stomachs start to rumble and as though on cue, the catering crew starts transporting food from the pantry car to the bogies. It’s a hard job to do - navigating the reckless vestibule while balancing 20 trays of eminently spill-able food with hardly any rest is no mean task. But the waiter will be bullied. After hours of having nothing to do, a growing hunger and limited communication with fellow travelers, a simple complaint about the missing bowl of curd ends up sounding like a raging fit - probably the stickiness of the vocal chords after prolonged periods without speech have something to do with it - And every attempt will be made to extract maximum empathy from anyone who will provide it. A minor foible by the normally fawning waiter is made to look like a cause for harsh and continuing rebuke. Of course, since the same waiter will serve you your coffee in the morning, you want to keep him in good cheer, so after the meal you make it a point to pat him on the back and maybe even slip him a tip - sometimes just a smile will do.
Space detaches itself from time, but it does still exist - as a bogie. A bogie is a chunk of space, carved out of the surrounding hard metal to keep the harsh weather, and even reality of the outside world, at bay. It is a mobile sanctuary. When you are in it, it is as though you are in a capsule destined for another galaxy, accompanied only by the ones in your bogie. The disconnect from the outside world breeds a benign sense of friendliness. Strangely, the space inside an airplane is more disconnected from the outside, but it breeds contempt. I think the irregular rocking motion of the Indian train is what makes it so appealing. An Aluminum box floating in the sky and fooling your mind into thinking that it’s not moving is just not as comfortable as a noisy steel carriage clattering on steel tracks and bouncing irregularly. Sorry Boeing. 

Perhaps the rocking helps with the digestion too - because there is no other activity that could explain the regular and timely visits to the train loo - which is yet another marvel. The loo orifice is not a static entity unlike your loo at home. On an Indian train, you let go and nature sweeps away all that you wish to discard - in a flash. And there you are perching on your pedestal, far from the mess. It is as though there is an unseen hand that is interested in your staying clean. That the loo could become soiled with abuse only makes continued access to the orifice even more precious. Unparalleled then is the sheer lightness that the spirit indulges in while performing what in the outside world is nothing more than a mundane chore - a chore like countless others that vaporize gently into a comfortable mist when on a train. 

Normal everyday tasks need to be done differently on a moving train in India, if at all. Like the calisthenics of feeding oneself on a train . The runny Sambar and the colorful Biryani cannot really be attacked with the spoon provided for the purpose - the neck of the plastic spoon being too weak to bear the load that the bowl is capable of shoveling up. So, you need to use your hands. Which means you need to first locate a safe haven for your plate of food, head to the wash basin to wash your hands, wading through a sea of humanity in various phases of hand washing and eating, return via the same sea to access your plate - which by now might have been jerked around prompting it to spill some of the food or even drop an egg on your neighbor’s shoe - place it on your berth, climb up after it, crouch into the shape of the bogie’s roof and enjoy your meal in exquisite privacy. Once you’re done, you of course need to repeat the actions in reverse order - literally getting down from your berth in reverse - and end with patting the waiter on his back.

Such habit alterations reset reality and remove the connection between experience and expectation. Rather than think about what you will do after your meal, you just enjoy your meal in splendid innocence. 

A series of such everyday activities, elevated to a realm of pure experience can take you to only one place.

The same place you get to with the timeless-ness, the copious sleep, the license to complain freely and loudly with no long lasting bitterness, the easy and innocent friendships, the guilt-free calorie filled midnight snacks, the rocking, the rhythmic sounds - Your infancy.

Wednesday, 15 February, 2012

A little non-essential reading

The fundamental problem has always been knowing (or not knowing) what to do with what one is surrounded by. 

The progress pursued by humans has always been based on seeking things that are not essential for survival - nutmeg, splitting the atom and space travel come to mind. 

I think the large scale consumption of the earth's resources is a projection of this simple western idea of progress. Create a need where none exists.

Of course, by ‘west’, I refer to a mental state, not longitudinal demarkation.

The balancing force, to this exploration is logically, a ‘preserving’ mindset. Let’s call that the ‘east’.

This east-west balance, shifting across geographies and time probably creates and destroys societies and cultures.

This works to everyone’s advantage. Until a crisis of identity occurs.

If the east, curating the progress of the west, starts believing that curation is progress and the west, creating non-essential things, starts believing that waste is preservation, things are set to get confusing. 

It is possible that this confused state exists during transitory states. And it is possible that we are living through one of these transitions today, aided by technology.

Technology, looks like a great leveler - allowing a person sitting in Jabalpur to use technology to pursue non-essentials with the same ease as someone in Boston. Or so it seems. Problem is, technology does not tell you what is essential and what isn’t for your survival. That is a personal decision one needs to make.

And in the east, personal decisions are usually based on that fundamental idea - of using and preserving what exists. 

With the help of technology, the east is identifying usage with progress.

Progress in the west, on the other hand has begun to be tagged with keywords like  hand-crafted, earth-friendly, design-y and non-greedy. Problem with this is that the carefully hand crafted non-essential thing that is being created requires the entire infrastructure of industrial waste to create the leisure that allows such hand crafting.

The west is identifying consumption with progress.

The real progress - the seeking of non-essential things, and not just consuming or preserving them, is getting harder to come by.

Tuesday, 24 January, 2012

The chip stretch

It’s a common situation. 

You have the most brilliant idea anyone ever came up with - at least you think so. And you do need to think so, even if just to sustain interest in it for a few hours longer until you can pen down your thoughts, before they melt into the atmosphere.

So. The idea seems perfect. From every angle. Even your brainstorming partner - just anyone who happens to be with you at that time - plugs in her ideas and adds to your concept. It seems like a festival of brilliance. The stars will seem to have aligned themselves just so, to shine their combined light on the tiny spot of planet that you happen to be occupying at that moment.

In a frenzy, you create a plan.

In 2 days you find that someone has already thought about ‘your’ idea and proceed to modifying your plan.

In a week your plan is beginning to look elaborate and bulky

In a month, your plan is extremely detailed but your idea appears lame. You get back to watching TV.

In 2 months you find that someone else has implemented your idea. You check it out and get back to watching TV if only to replace remorse with fast moving images.

In 6 months, you look back at your idea as though it were the Sphinx - Familiar, but having nothing to do with you.

Of course, you might be a person who managed to start something and actually finish it and succeed in the bargain. You are needed too, I guess, because we can’t all sit around watching TV. We need someone to create programs for the rest of us to waste our lives watching. So, please keep it up.

In bookshops, they have shelves just to stack books written by people who are dying to tell you how to be guy who doesn’t dissipate himself and his ideas. 

Such books are always boring and following what they say is way harder than watching TV.
How then do we realize our ideas while indulging in activities that rival the comfort of watching TV?

The most obvious things are sometimes the hardest to spot, because their obviousness makes us oblivious to their existence. I realize that the word play in the previous sentence is most certainly a put off, but I’ll let it stay for a reason that I hope, will become obvious as you read on.

You’d like to go on a trek. The planning is great fun - choosing the route, packing essentials, just dreaming about it the night before. You pick a route that you think you can manage to complete and to push the limits a little you factor in a diversion or two along the way. Once you start, if your plan is simple enough, chances are, you will have reached your destination without too much trouble and returned from your trek in one functioning piece. 

Now, if you introduce a few random variables into the trek - like a landslide or bad weather - which you cannot plan for too accurately, two things are diminished. Firstly, your chances of executing your plan fully and secondly your chances of survival. The extent of both, though, are linked to the same factor. And this factor, stamina, is the one we become oblivious to on account of its being obvious.

I think this is true of any human venture - from something like running where stamina is more easily appreciated to something like creating a business - where stamina isn’t an obvious planning parameter.

Stamina is generally associated with going on for long, doing whatever one wants to do. Looking at it in this way makes it quite boring and difficult to achieve. On the contrary, I think stamina needs to be looked at as a moderator of all the qualities that are required to embark upon a journey and reach a destination.

And stamina is a physical parameter. Which is much easier to quantify and comprehend than say something like talent or experience.

How does all this help me ‘effortlessly’ realize my ideas? 

Quite simply, by being driven only as far as stamina allows. Actually by doing a little less - like stretching for that bag of chips rather than getting up to fetch it.

The chip stretch, when implemented to non-food situations, will allow one to do more without wasting too much energy and hence conserve much valuable stamina.

Tuesday, 17 January, 2012

But naturally

I have often faced situations while designing systems and processes where after a point things start going wobbly in my mind..

Here's a simple example:

- Say there's a system with 3 types of users - administrators, managers and users (administrators at the top, managers below them and users below managers)
- each one of these users (including the administrator and managers) has a manager

Now, to change a user's manager, you need to send a notification to the administrator, who then approves (or rejects) the operation
What do you need to do if the administrator's manager needs to be changed?

The administrator chooses a manager and is sent a notification that his manager has changed, and then approves it himself? Sounds superfluous, no?

Such problems are always a pain and make me want to quit my job and start a tea shop called P&T on the highway.

But who knows - I might face a similar problem while managing my inventory of tea at P&T.

Back to the problem then.

The pain, then needs to be addressed.

I turn to nature for help. Because such painful situations must exist in nature and nature must have a way of solving them, for if anyone has been there and done that, it has got to be nature. And I too am of nature, after all.

Hang on. Did I just say pain, twice?

The brain, apparently, does not feel pain, even as it inflicts above mentioned inconvenience on other body parts.

And pain is pleasure taken to absurd limits, but that is completely besides the point - so let me leave this rather tempting diversion alone and get back to the main pain at hand.

If damage has occurred in the hand, the brain finds out and inflicts pain in it, in the hope that the possessor of the hand might use said brain and proceed to salvage what remains of said hand.

Now, If damage has occurred to the brain, who can save it? The hand? Probably not, unless the brain has already instructed it to assist but that too is besides the point.

Nature, it seems, assumes that if the brain is damaged, nothing is worth saving and hence there's no point in inflicting pain in it.

That's a tantalizing conclusion, but wait. It is also possible that the brain is not capable of inflicting pain in itself - because it wouldn't know whom to tell - unless it told itself and since it is the originator too, it would call its own bluff and go nuts in the process.

If you come at it from the opposite end, you'd think the brain is interested in preserving itself. By inflicting pain on other body parts, it is motivating the organism to get moving - to do something - to protect it.

So, the fact that the brain does not feel pain is either a design limitation or a feature.

If it is a feature, there must be a superior authority that designed it. This too is quite besides the point at hand, so I leave another jewel by the wayside as I continue in my pursuit of truth.

Actually, it is not besides the point. The fact that brains (and the rest of organisms) exist is proof that the brain has managed to preserve itself over time. 

So, rather than a limitation, I think the painlessness is a feature.

Actually, the earlier point about pleasure being exquisite pain, too, was not besides the point - the pleasure is the feature.

The summary then, for the benefit of the impatient reader who has skipped this far without reading the bulk of the essay:

The brain is designed to preserve itself and have a good time and it uses the same pleasure it enjoys, to inflict pain in other body parts to motivate them to aid in its preservation.

To go one step further and alienate my audience completely, I'd conclude that the possibility of perishing is probably what provides the potential energy and hence the motivational force that propagates species and intelligence is only a by-product

Intelligence, then being quite visceral (to the extent that it would require the definition of visceral to be changed), if we are interested in creating artificially intelligent systems, we should, like nature, be building systems that can perish, rather than building systems that are designed to last forever.

An indestructible silicon hearted beast is probably not going to be motivated enough to create another in its own image no matter how much data you stuff into it. It's just going to eat all that data and emit a mega burp - that smells somewhat like the world wide web.

Saturday, 17 December, 2011

Uncomfortable truth about an everyday event

I go to a supermarket to buy a few things. I zip between rows of shelves (or are they columns?), trying to avoid uniformed sales persons trying to sell me things I don't need. But that's impossible. Not the zipping, but the avoiding of sales persons. There are too many of them and some of them are in plain clothes. Even if I do manage to avoid them using tact, there is bound to be at least one item on my shopping list that I cannot find by myself - simply because there's something about supermarket air that makes my brain go numb. So, I ask the sales person where I can find a bottle of the brand of juice that I'd bought last week. I had really liked it to the level of  being addicted enough to add it to my shopping list. The sales person starts looking, rather lazily, in the very same shelf where I've already looked. I know it isn't there. That's why I asked the sales person, hoping that they have some stocked in some secret cellar somewhere. But there never is a secret cellar, is there? So, that bottle of juice - they probably stopped making it, or the supermarket stopped stocking it. 

I move on to the next item on my list. But the problem is, I am, juiceless, in the middle of the juice section and the next item on my list belongs in the laundry section and there's no simple way of finding the shortest path from juice to laundry. I have to pass through rows of items that might or might not be on my list. There's no avoiding that. So, I navigate my large empty cart begging for pardon as I dash against similarly lost fellow shoppers and completely by accident, spot the shelf holding the hundred thousand varieties of chips. I know for sure that I want to avoid the chips. So, I make a u-turn, dash against an avid seeker of chips, excuse myself and escape. Or so I think. 

By now, I'm slowly losing track of what it was that I'd been looking for, but I am still confident. My trusted list comes to the rescue. Laundry - that's where I need to get. And realizing that I need to stay focussed, I increase my speed. Shelf upon shelf of things flash by. My mind takes note of everything. The rice that is somewhere down there in my list, the toothpaste on page 2. Now, I am faced with a choice. Either stop and pick up the items in no particular order, as I pass them, or stay focussed and head for laundry. I am still energetic, so I think I can beat the system. I'll do both, I say - pick up things as I pass by them until I hit laundry and tick off items smartly from the list. The problem though is that the supermarket is designed with one thing in mind - to pick the money out of my pocket and the supermarket is bigger than me.  

Let's look at the two options carefully. If I pick things up as I pass by them, after a shelf or two, it will seem as though every item on the shelf is on my list, unless I check every item that I pass by against my list - which is impractical and tiring. On the other hand, if I head straight for laundry, when I get to the next item on the list, I will need to repeat the hunt, passing by the zillion shelves - at greater speed now, as I realize that my cart is still pretty much empty, my list is still long and it's getting dark outside. Now, what I am attempting - to combine the two strategies to beat the system, is exactly how the supermarket wants me to think. Unless I am filled with performance enhancing chemicals, my running between the shelves, looking up and down my list and focussing on the thing I want, all under the gaze of bright lights and much breathed air will drain my energy and gradually turn me into a compliant shopper.

Shopping, if you really think about it, is mostly about obedience.

Thursday, 10 November, 2011

Mystery of little consequence

How many times have you looked at a picture of P.Chidambaram - in newspapers, on the tv, on the internet? Have you ever wondered what that funny little thing on his shoulder is?

Yes. I’m talking about that neatly folded woolly, glossy piece of cloth that you’ve probably assumed to be just a boring shawl he bought at some ‘Kashmiri shop’.

I have this gnawing suspicion that it’s not really a shawl. 

Let me try and explain why I think so.

Firstly, it’s the way it sits around his shoulders - as though it was tailored to fit them. The collar area seems stiffer than the rest of the costume which falls perfectly from his shoulders.

Secondly, It is tucked beneath his collar quite inelegantly, like the much re-cycled drape at the barber shop. Actually, it is more than tucked. It sits too perfectly inside the collar. Now, if it is indeed a standard sized shawl and he has folded it thrice over to bring it to a manageable size, shoving portions of it between the neck and the shirt collar would be quite cumbersome and would hardly result in such a fine finish as he has been able to achieve. In his case, it looks as though the costume is gently oozing out from the back of his neck. There have got to be some craftily placed pins holding up the contraption.

Thirdly, it wasn’t always like this. His earlier photos had him wearing a regular shawl, rolled up, but still looking like a shawl. 

If you focus on the costume alone for about 10 seconds, without being distracted by the straight face which PC wears with as much aplomb, you will see, like those optical illusion pictures where patterns emerge out of patterns, that it is in fact a cape. Like batman’s cape, but cut off at the height of the rib cage.

I suspect that it is a carefully constructed PR move on the part of PC that serves no purpose other than to intimidate people; by appearing to be bigger than he really is.

Here I was thinking PC’s cloak looks pretty ridiculous, when I chanced upon these guys, wearing a similar monstrosity, but in fluorescent colors!

If one inspired the other, I wonder who the inventor of this mutant costume is.

Tuesday, 8 November, 2011

Diddly Squat

This 99% that the wall street squat is supposed to represent is within the 1% of the world's population whose stress in life is caused by having to eat misshapen bananas rather than picture perfect ones, or not being able to go on that cruise to the antarctic to swim with the whales (I'm assuming there's at least more than one whale left) this year, just like they did last year.

The really poor 99% isn't 1% certain about where the next meal will come from. They would probably give an arm to own one of those all weather tents parked in front of St. Pauls. 

So, each one of these squatters - all they're complaining about is the fact that they - not someone else should be making all that money.

They are in fact living in the glass house of discontent and flinging large rocks tainted with greed at everyone else.

The real way to fight the 1% would be to stop consuming what it produces. But does the 99% have what it takes? Maybe not. Because the 99% is no different from the 1%. They are human.

Wednesday, 21 September, 2011

The distraction economy

Before the shiny happy days of the internet, life was quite hard – we just hadn't realized it then. When you had a strange pain in your abdomen at 10 in the night, there were very few ways for you to learn more about it. Today, all you need to do is google it and surf in febrile uncertainty as one page leads to another and it looks like your worst fears are coming true, very rapidly. What you perhaps take for granted at each page that you visit, is a tiny innocuous looking piece of text. This text is a tentacle from google's dark underbelly. Without it, google would not have been able to find you the page in the first place. No. I am not talking about some analytics tracking code. I refer to the annoying advertisements that appear to know what I want, even before I do.

It takes effort to place them on the right pages at the right time. But those ads just sitting there do not do anything. You are required to click on them. And when you do, the economy is fueled that little bit. But there are billions like you. And thus come google's billions.

Just clicking on ads wouldn't obviously provide for a sustainable business model. One would need to pay someone something somewhere so the wheels can keep turning. So, millions of people click on links and enter into contracts with the companies that pay google to distract you with said links while you waste your time searching for something you don't really need.

What google does then, is harvest distraction. Logically, since it's survival depends on maintaining a dissipated audience, it will support activities that promote distraction. Limited attention spans are much in demand. Now you know why facebook and twitter are all the rage. They make distraction look purposeful. And they too shall create micro-distractions to distract you from the main distraction – for they too need to survive.

This being the situation, the current hope is that amidst all this noise there might be wisdom. Wisdom that can be congealed – strangely enough, using artificial intelligence. As we humans spew out whatever comes to our progressively weakening minds, there is a rush to create machines which will help us make sense of the coming madness.

Note: I wrote this... in one sitting... in under 30 minutes... without being distracted by the internet!

Friday, 2 September, 2011

Human endeavor 2.0

The greatest ideas originate in the dark and solitary minds of individuals; Social activity, aka chatter, only helps commodify, propagate and hence simplify great ideas.

The economy, as we know it today, thrives on this simplification and yet opens itself to a massive risk; of compounding mediocrity that over time dries up the well and stops the flow of its own nourishment; killing itself in the process. A reprobate and exploitative economy killing itself may not be such a tragic event; it could perhaps be an event to celebrate, but what is tragic is the dilution and misrepresentation of human creativity.

Being alone lets you digest the information you have consumed, become a better person and if you have a creative bent of mind, create something that is useful to the world.

With each new generation, the bar is being lowered. With information constantly being thrown at us, there is an ever increasing need to be able to superficially skim the surface of understanding and move on to the next piece. We are adjusting to the speed, nausea caused by information overload is redefined as a high, humanity is well and truly on the information superhighway. Only problem is, with the decreased capacity and motivation to digest
information, we are the pedestrians - future road-kill.

So, the economy which will only allow 'monetarily useful' things to survive, and people conditioned to thirst for increased simplification, are together creating a society that is getting slow cooked in its own mediocrity.

Things cannot, quite clearly, carry on in this fashion for much longer.

A point will be reached when the junk we produce will become completely devoid of all meaning and our minds will be diluted to a point where we consume the junk automatically. 

Chances are, we are nearly there.

Monday, 22 August, 2011

Fresh produce

Imagine a family. One where all members live in amity, share what is available and believe that spending quality time with the family does not require anything other than the family.

Now imagine a family where the members constantly quarrel with each other on some matter or the other, do not share resources and believe that the new monster sized television with rock concert scale speakers will help the family spend quality time together.

The second, being the greater consumer, is too easy for businesses to exploit. They aren't the problem. You produce, they consume. The goal then, of all business, is to convert the first kind into the second.

This is essentially a problem of creating disorder from order. It's not as easy as it might appear.

A number of things need to happen before stability, contentment and harmony in a unit such as a family can be replaced with uncertainty, discontent and disharmony.

It will take time before the destruction is complete. Sometimes, a small seed of contentment that is left behind might spring back and spawn another contented unit – which will again need to be targeted. And all the while, raw materials are becoming scarce. These are the kinds of risks that businesses endure just to ensure that the world can continue consuming.

The first line of offense is misrepresentation. It is easy to cheat people who thrive on trust. The simple folks fall for this and start consuming petrochemical filled detergents quite quickly.

The second line of offense involves selling dreams. Wearing a pair of shoes made from petrochemical waste will never help you run a mile under 4 minutes, if you couldn't already. But wearing one will make you feel like you could, if you only tried and just did it.

The third line of offense is the instilling of fear. You are encouraged to plan for the future of your loved ones, by spending less time with them so that you can work harder to invest the extra money in complex stock linked insurance plans, the future of which the company promoting them cannot determine. The company though, expands, using your contribution.

The fourth line of offense is the spreading of hopelessness. Research, a word that signified thoroughness, honesty and humility (for no-one knows everything) has now been hijacked to promote sensational 'conclusions' like 'fighting couples will continue to fight until they die'.

The final line of offense is anarchy. Once humanity is out there, delirious with dreams, scared of the future and buying things without hope, there is a real risk of the smarter among them realizing that they are being had. One way to beat such a minority into eternal submission is to sponsor anarchy. By doing so, businesses obtain access to the revolutionary spark within each human – the one that springs hope for humanity – and convert it into a propaganda machine.

When anarchy has run its course, I believe, simplicity and contentment will seem refreshing.

Monday, 20 June, 2011

Corruption cloud

Corruption cannot be the sole preserve of Indian politicians, who are but a small subset of a largely self respecting group of Indians living in India.

The fundamental reason why corruption is so hard to isolate, let alone fight, is that it transcends boundaries, geographic and cultural.

Let's take an example. It would be naive to think that Britain, or any other country sending aid to India, or any other country, is an exercise in altruism. 'Global aid' is an inter-connected conglomerate of investment funds, which demands returns and expects profits. If it didn't, Britain or any other 'benevolent' society would soon run itself to the ground - something the British empire has managed to steer clear of for hundreds of years. The logical conclusion then, is that the British empire is reaping whatever it wants to reap and will continue to do so without complaining for many more centuries if it can get away with it. The problem today is that the global economy is going through an identity crisis and experts of all flavors are trying to find fall guys to take the rap, even as the really big guys, who control much of the world's wealth get increasingly cautious, selfish and greedy.

Then there are arbitrary, and dubious statements such as "280 Lacs crore of Indian money is deposited in swiss banks which is enough to pay each Indian citizen an amount of Rs. 2000/- for 60 yrs". While being sensational and eyeball grabbing, invoking self righteous exclamations at cocktail parties, which sink into oblivion as the next guest walks in and starts talking about the new car he bought, such tripe does not really serve any practical purpose. It would not take very long for a semi-decent and sufficiently motivated accountant to crunch numbers to come up with a statement along the lines of, "If the British returned all the wealth they siphoned off from India, India could pay its current and future population at least the current British minimum wage for the next 500 years". Such a statement too would be useless to the citizen, present or future, who is never going to have that money deposited in her bank account.

Further, statements like "... Indian money is deposited in swiss banks can be used to execute a 'taxless' budget for 30 yrs",  while being patently inaccurate in the face of scrutiny, also seem to consider a country's economy in isolation. If India were to stop collecting tax, the implications cannot but be global, which in turn will affect India's economy which in turn will affect the effectiveness of the so called 'taxless' budget. Yet another useless statement that does not help address corruption but rather confuses the issue further. I even wonder if the people who would like to cloud corruption are the ones who generate such nonsense.

What is required, instead, is a holistic understanding of the problem (if it is indeed one) of corruption before we even attempt to decipher it.

It is more likely that corruption is just an undesirable but unavoidable consequence of economics; like toxic fumes are a necessary consequence of the convenience of burning fuel. Whether one tries to ignore the fumes or sequester it deep underground, the fact remains that unless you stop burning fuel (which in today's world equates to 'stop living') the rot will spread. Similarly, unless you stop the economy in its current shape and size (which too in today's world equates to 'stop living') the rot will quite obviously proliferate.

I think what the world needs is a change in the attitude to consumption. An attitude of contentment could possibly eliminate the soil that fertilizes corruption. Such a change in attitude, on a global scale, will probably occur only over an extended period of time, or suddenly if forced by a massive global catastrophe. Either way, without that attitudinal change, copious amounts of self righteous finger-pointing are likely to be useful only for mildly entertaining news coverage.

Thursday, 7 April, 2011

Starve the corrupt, not yourself

Scores of people led by Anna Hazare are starving themselves and collapsing from fatigue and dehydration in the pursuit of fairness and a sense of justice. It's an amazing turn of events - resembling a revolution of sorts - spurred on by a salivating media industry. The media could not have asked for a better story, waking up from the world cup hangover, as it were, and waiting for the IPL matches and the assembly elections.

While any voice raised against corruption is better than silence, I think the satyagraha in its current shape and form could use some strategic thinking if it is to have even a fighting chance of making a positive impact. After all, the system that it is up against is one that was elected by people who are not too different from the satyagrahis themselves.

The problems I see are related to the fact that the protest uses a technique that Gandhi perfected over time - against clearly 'foreign' overlords, at a time in history when information traveled slowly.

Every satyagraha needs a clearly identifiable enemy and in the current context, it appears as though that badge is being pinned on the government. It would be naive to think that the Indian government operates by and for itself. Yes, people in government use their positions of power to reap personal gains, but we all know that the real power, of capital rests with industry. Indian industry has over the last few decades managed to create a symbiotic relationship with the Indian political system. A relationship that sanctions and executes the exploitation of the country's wealth. The rest of us are employed by this nexus and have come to depend on it for our sustenance. Unless we go back to the roots, do a real satyagraha and reject all factory produced goods that are sold for profit alone, we will remain dependent on this nexus.

Coming to the flow of information, in today's mad world of TV debates anchored by self-appointed self-righteous keepers of the nation's conscience, it is easy for opinion to be shifted by either party. Yet again, the one who wields the capital will eventually win. The internet has been a great enabler and
consolidator of public opinion, but what happens after the villain has been de-throned? Is the collective intelligence of the Facebook and Twitter 'mob' enough to build a new system that is not half as rotten as the one they denounced? Looking at the example of Egypt, we clearly lack the technology tools to coalesce the public rage and opinion into constructive nation building activity.

So, we have a situation where the satyagraha is taking place with a system; the guys with the power within that system also wield the power to shape public opinion. If the satyagraha manages to overcome the power bias, it is still left with no tools (comparable to the ones that upset the status quo) to use the victory constructively.

What we need then is a two pronged strategy. First, starve the system of power, not yourself. And second, create tools that make the day after the victory pleasant, not seem like a bad hangover.

To starve the system of power is simple. Deny it the funds it requires to function the way it does. While giving up wants and living frugally would help, I think it will not be necessary. All that we need to do is to stop paying tax.

If the belief is that corrupt government officials are looting money, stop giving them the money.

Now to the tools, what we need are simple ones that allow every citizen to play an active part in deciding the fate of the society he or she lives in. The time is ripe to create such tools.

Monday, 31 January, 2011

Organic trading

If I leave the internet aside for a minute and look at the world around me, in an Indian city like Delhi, I see a whole new dimension to life, commerce and trade; one that is vastly different from the virtual tools with slick interfaces that abound on the internet and attempt to make life easier for the one whose lives are already too easy.

The most obvious deduction from this is the inequitable distribution of wealth and how a few are getting more prosperous while the majority breathe in the fumes left in the wake of the speeding economy. Moved by this deduction, one's charitable streak might be awakened; and we have countless NGOs and pseudo-charitable institutions that start with noble intentions and end up nowhere.

This, I think, is precisely where the problem lies. Nobody would indulge in charity if it were not convenient and rewarding, in some way. Charity requires a certain relative degree of downtrodden-ness to exist. If there is none, we humans would artificially create one; so that there would be someone to save. The definition of homeless, for example, is quite different in different societies. Now, a recipient of charity is bound to change with the arrival of aid. It is inevitable that he will begin to look more and more like the donor. As the gap is closed, the downtrodden-ness decreases, the donor is progressively less motivated to be charitable; and starts looking for opportunities where the efforts at charity will result in a greater sense of fulfillment and reward; leaving the earlier recipient hanging in a half saved state.

So, charity as a means to achieve a just future, is part of the problem. It depends on a fix. And like any drug, it requires newer cells to kill.

Having eliminated charity, what remains is trade. sell what you have to others who are willing to reward you for it.

Simple as that appears, there are a few problems that make it difficult for everyone to know how to be rewarded in an optimal way. In a small, insular town, things are simple. Everyone knows whom to call when a pipe bursts; and the plumber can only charge what the people can afford to pay.

With millions of people moving from those small towns to the cities, we are back in an Indian city like Delhi. Walk along any busy street where brisk trade occurs, and usually where bargains are to be had, and you will find hungry bunches of people squatting by the side of the road with the tools of their trade before them - plumbers with their wrenches and pipe bits and painters with brushes and paint mixing cans. It is like a marketplace for casual labour. These people, called naka (street corner) workers, wait for work to come their way. It is most likely an organic evolution of a marketplace, which started with two people engaging in trade, both of whom nobody remembers. There is no entry barrier to trade at this market. OK. Perhaps the mafia regulates the market, but the mafia by its very nature is organic too.

Far from being an unorganized sector, the naka workers and domestic help in India are quite organized. Just that they are organized in organic ways, which are self-regulated. While this is probably a more 'sustainable' way of conducting trade, it does not fit with the inorganic evolution of marketplaces in urban society. Thus you have a home improvement store in a mall that provides plumbing services to people who visit such malls at rates that are not even on the same planet as the rates charged by the naka plumber, for the same amount and quality of work. The quality has to be the same since the store's plumber was sourced from the same milieu as the naka plumber.

The naka worker, squatting in his organic marketplace, charging the same fee to buyers from all strata of society is quite clearly the loser.

So, what is it that differentiates the naka plumber from the store? I think it is the availability of information that would enable trade.

Matchmaking - between the one who wants his wall painted and the one who would like to paint it and be paid for it.

The internet is a great place for matchmaking - of all sorts. However, I get the feeling that internet based matchmaking is restricted to urban and/or inorganic marketplaces. And since there always is a gatekeeper, any marketplace that is purposefully created on the internet will by necessity, be inorganic and hence tend towards inequality.

There are two problems in the above paragraph - One of enabling works in organic marketplaces to better their lives and the second of achieving justness.

Justness, I believe, can come about from transparency of information and I had written about this in an earlier post.

Enabling organically evolved (or evolving) marketplaces to trade with the more rigid forms of business is a challenge.

To give an example, how do you get the naka plumber in touch with a prosperous urban and (normally exploitative) client and help him quote a 'market price' for his services and land the contract?

Monday, 29 November, 2010

Information potential difference

So, wikileaks has leaked tons of potentially embarrassing documents and Nira Radia's lobbying efforts are out in the open.

Like all events, they will have effects, but what do they change fundamentally for the world?

Businesses lobby to get preferential treatment – on policies – policies framed by bureaucrats and executed by politicians – politicians elected by citizens – citizens who work for and use the products made by the businesses.

So, business is the prime mover in our society, and what is the economy but a bunch of businesses?

Business is also, quite simply, the art of optimization. This optimization can happen at both ends – procuring resources for less and selling products for more than they are worth. The better you are at both of these, the bigger your business.

The selling end is relatively easier to understand – in one word, advertising. The procuring end is a little more involved. Recent unmasking has revealed the machinations behind the procuring that have hitherto gone unnoticed and been taken in the common citizen's stride, the fallen crumbs accepted as shiny products worth paying for with one's sweat and blood. This is not nasty per se - exploitation will always appear cruel to those who are not on the right (or wrong, depending on your views) side of the exploitation workbench.

The first deduction, then, is that there is no nexus between businesses, politicians and bureaucrats. There is business and then there is everything else that facilitates the large scale exploitation of resources that the economy requires.

The interesting thing, for me, is not the mechanics of the backroom dealing itself but the mask of propriety behind which people are required to hide. Why the backroom?

I think the answer lies in the nature of exploitation itself.

The exploitation of resources requires capital. Not everybody possesses or has access to capital. The generation, distribution and use of capital is controlled by a few people. Everyone wishes to be among those few. The fact that there is an entry barrier shows that there is an information 'potential difference' between the two sides. Those on the profitable side, the ones who possess valuable information, guard it - to protect their interests and prevent the dilution of the value of their assets.

Now, while these potential differences are critical for doing business, they are also dangerous. Sparks, as we know, can fly if the difference crosses a threshold. Hence it is in the interest of the haves to present an illusion of a smaller potential difference to the have-nots. This strategy was easier to execute when information did not travel too fast and leaks could be plugged before they breached the dividing line. Not so anymore.

The near instant spread of information across the globe reduces the potential difference by making the same information available to everyone at the same moment.

But how does one do business under these circumstances, if the very tools that sustain business are disabled, exposed and made to look vile? How can the economy function?

Recent trends seem to suggest that we are in the midst of an evolutionary process which will fundamentally change the way resources are exploited and as a result, the way business is done.

Rather than a huge potential difference that separates the haves and the have-nots, there will be numerous potential differences between individual citizens that they can choose to utilize for profit.

A move away from a few exploiting the many to a scenario where many exploit many. A more equitable future.

Friday, 26 November, 2010

India - A tall-errant society

The pattern is simple: looting, the indignation accompanying it, biased investigations and criminals being let off, repeated until death.
The solution, according to those in power, is simple too: Show zero tolerance to corruption
The result: is out there for all to see.

I wonder if I am missing something fundamental.

What the hell is Yorkshire pudding?

"Political corruption" is a western, renaissance-ish concept related to social consciousness.

A version of a democratic political system was thrust upon the Indian people by people tutored in universities which grew out of that European renaissance. Indian society itself never experienced a renaissance. Thus, in the interest of adapting to an alien system to survive, we introduced cultural concepts that we were familiar with. We looked up to our elected leader as the king, and his henchmen as ministers who could grant us small favors in return for loyalty and obedience. When loyalty and obedience did not pay, we discovered that bribes worked.

The concept of a king or emperor is political corruption taken to its logical conclusion. A king will get you to till your fields to produce grain and hand over most of it to him, in return for services you did not really ask for or need - and even better, you have no right to question him about the quality of the services he provides. Now, why does that sound exactly like the state of affairs in India today?

They the people, solemnly resolve....

It is hard to imagine a society where only those who happen to find themselves in positions of power lack integrity, notwithstanding the fact that power corrupts etc.

When one visits a temple, a supposed bastion of equality, god being the great leveler, the amount of money one is willing to spend is directly proportional to the 'quality' of the experience. But wait, the 'kings' are the ones who build temples in the first place and one's 'proximity' to god varies depending on how close one is to the king.

The trend having been set, each one of us tries to use whatever influence we possess to achieve whatever goals we might have, lofty or minuscule in the grand scale of things.

We are only the products of whatever came before us. Having sprung forth from a society based on kings, ministers, intrigue and favors granted for loyalty and obedience, it would be naive to expect ourselves to suddenly, without precedent, raise ourselves above personal gain and look to the betterment of all.

For such a change to happen, we would need a revolution of sorts. However, for a revolution to occur, there needs to be a small strata of society against which a large number of oppressed can revolt. Since each one of us indulges in whatever it takes to get by and the society allows us the space to do so, there is no essential difference between the politician who loots tax money and the rickshaw driver who charges an arbitrary sum depending on the weather and the honest citizen who will not hesitate for a moment to ask his cousin, who works at the passport office, to submit an application for speedy processing.

While India has witnessed revolutions, in spiritual thinking, religion and culture, it has never seen a revolution which demanded an improvement in the quality of people's lives, and possibly never will, thanks to our society's DNA. It is a very accommodating and tolerant society, where aberrations are seen not as vile things that need to be eradicated, but as beautiful nuances that make life worth living. This accommodation of diversity, in all forms, is what makes India a great civilization.

How, then?

We need to stop calling what we indulge in, corruption. It is like calling honey, 'bee spit'. It is what it is and we indulge ourselves. This is our take on economics. If you don't want the politician to steal your tax money, there are proven ways of evading tax and getting away with it. We need to stop comparing ourselves to enlightened societies (wherever they might exist, if only in our books). We need to stop acting concerned when transparency international releases a report stating that India is among the most corrupt countries. If the world economy really did care about our corrupt practices, it would stop trading with all 1.2 billion of us and hurt itself in the process. Since every society is designed to protect itself, to the best extent possible, we can count on the essential selfishness of man and in effect each country to try and benefit from our resources; you, me and the land.

Tuesday, 19 October, 2010

Imperial Democracy

Before the idea of India was concocted, it was not as though civilized society did not exist. There were kings and chieftains and their cronies of various sizes and flavors.  

When the Mughals and British took over, there wasn't much of a change. It was a monarchy, plain and simple. Just that now there was an emperor - a super king who ruled over other kings.

As long as the British were calling the shots, 'Indians' had no say in how things were run. In the interest of survival, Indians proceeded to work for the Ruler and learn the ways of the world according to the ruler's guidebooks.

Then, when the British left, we had to figure out a system of governance for ourselves. What that meant in the most practical of senses was that a document had to be written. This was a natural consequence of 300 years of British rule. The British perfected the art of colonization by contract - their true contribution to modern society. You walk into a a stranger's house, make a deal that is favorable to you and get him to sign on the dotted line. when he protests, you unleash your entire machinery of judges and the military on him. So, having got used to doing everything according to a document, Indians proceeded to write that document that would define how India should function.

There were two glitches. Firstly, since India had never existed until 1947, there was no precedent for a system of government, for a giant pudding of city states, other than a monarchy. This meant that the document creators had to create a theoretical model of a system of government that would be a near fit to the problem at hand. This lead to the second glitch; the people who could write were the ones who were trained at the universities of the colonial rulers.

Thus it happened that India became a representative democracy. On paper.

In a country where half (even more just after independence) the people don't know where their next meal will come from, people would be willing to do anything, let alone vote, for the person who comes along and doles out some rice. How on earth could anyone have expected that a model like representative democracy would work in a newly constituted nation like India?

Coming to think of it, the concept of electing an individual who will represent a bunch of people at a group of other representatives is actually quite complex. More so because Indians did not have a chance (thanks to incessant invasions) to learn what election, representative or government meant.

Perhaps the hope was that the country would grow up and mature into a democracy.

How well the theoretical model fits reality is demonstrated by the workings of India's establishment today:

Political parties are exclusive clubs, elected leaders are not accountable to anyone and leadership is inherited
Doesn't this smell exactly like a monarchy? The only apparent difference is the quadrennial charade called an election. But with <50% of the population participating in it and 90% of the participating lot being coerced into voting for one or the other political party, the election is nothing more than an expensive coronation.

Monarchies can be good too; if there is a 'just' leader at the top. But that feeling of justness can be easily eroded if the populace are made to believe that they were the ones who elected the king. By participating in an election and electing a leader, the people are stating that they know what's good for themselves and their country. The leader is subliminally absolved of all responsibility. Once the people have made that commitment, it would be difficult for them to doubt their own choices, and hence they entrench themselves deeper into the political game to try and get closer to the king. This is exactly what is happening in India today.

Politicians and the businesses that prop them up hide behind veils of civility
The rule of law is but a facade created to fool the general populace into complacence so that the looting can continue.

The government expects me to pay taxes. If I fail to do so, it threatens me with violence. If I pay up, I have no way of finding out where the money goes, but I have a faint suspicion that it goes straight into the pocket of the guy driving the inordinately large car, who has not done a single day's honest work to date. How am I to think this is not exactly similar to what the mafia does?
Ah , yes. The mafia does actually protect you when it says it will.

Scams get bigger but our ability to tolerate them seems to grow proportionately
A ruffian in some corner of the country aligns himself with a political party. He gets himself elected by threatening the people into voting for him. The party, consisting of other such ruffians aligns with a bigger party which has more such unsavory specimens. The coalition of parties 'wins' the election and crowns the monarch. our friendly neighborhood ruffian gets to decide what the country's telecommunication strategy should be. Remember that he is a person who has no clue about anything other than taking what does not belong to him. No wonder we are not too surprised by the magnitude of the scams that unfold almost every day. We believe that 'we the people' put him where he is - and have no way of evicting him.

We have started taking inefficiency and slip shod work in our stride
Trains crash into each other more often than they arrive on time, even as a strange and angry woman in a white sari goes around acting like the railways portfolio is her birth-right. Her full time job is politicking. Pure politics unadulterated by work of any sort.

The pavement tiles that were laid (only along the routes which the athletes were ferried over) in haste during the CWG-2010 have not even been cemented in place and await the next monsoon to float away. And the elected leaders claim that the infrastructure created for the games will be Delhi's pride.

After 60 odd years of trying self rule, we are now left with a situation where chieftains and minor kings are roaming free in a capitalist economy and plundering the country from within.

Rather than continuing to imitate a western system (that does not work too well even in the west), we should seriously try and invent a system of government that we can comprehend and implement, keeping the Indian reality in mind.

Perhaps a mix of chieftains and kings is what works in India. We should then just formalize that system and start building this nation for real.

Monday, 18 October, 2010

Dig this

To begin with, we used whatever was already available on the earth's surface - water, plants, animals, rocks.
Then we used those things to build tools to get to the source nature's bounty. We dug.
The problem with pollution starts from this digging. We are digging stuff up from the bowels of the earth and burning it. the smoke from the burning fills the atmosphere and we try to stuff the residue back into the earth. What on (and above and below the) earth are we up-to?

Why dig?
Nature assembles a molecule using the available resources. When nature assembles a molecule, it creates a whole bunch of them until it cannot do so anymore. And then those molecules assemble themselves into bigger molecules and so forth. competing sets of molecules fight for resources and arrive at a 'natural' balance. Thus we are told by evolutionary biologists and is probably the most logical explanation we've got so far.

So, the human set of molecules digs because:
- It can.
- that is what nature intends (aka because that's the way our minds work.).
- The competition is weak

The end result is that the human race has become one of nature's runaway processes.
There is no set of molecules strong enough to contain our expansion except ourselves. Common sense dictates that a lack of competition leads to complacence and weakening until a point where a competitor emerges, thereby restarting the game.

How do we use the bounty?
Between the dug up earth and the polluted atmosphere, we have made the earth's natural produce unusable without "purification" but have 'pure' fizzy drinks and packaged food, both filled with chemicals from the earth's bowels. We have also increased our chances of survival, but all we can do with our extended lives is consume more fizzy drinks and packaged food while sitting inside our climate controlled houses.  Having eliminated all competition, we laze around and weaken ourselves. This recipe for weakening the species is actually the human race's heart rending cry for companionship. We have made disease our competitor.

Free lunch?
If you mess with the source, you are obviously altering the produce. I find it hard to believe that digging for oil thousands of feet below the surface of the earth will not necessarily have an effect on things on the surface of the earth. Plundering the earth cannot be a free meal. there is a price to be paid and humanity is only beginning to realize this, in fits and starts. But we are limited by our imaginations and can only think of danger and calamity in terms of what we see and feel.

Go, stop or escape
Escape is an option, but sadly, glorious visions of the human species plundering planet after planet in the limitless universe remain fantasy fit for celluloid.

What we've got is this one planet. So, our options are to either stop (not slow down) or go full steam ahead. Slowing down is useless unless we extract oil at the same rate at which it is created, which means that we can produce one automobile only every 2,00,000 years or so.

Stopping means leaving all dug up holes as they are and consuming only things that are on the surface. scraping rather than digging. Then we can talk about sustainable scraping, which would be closer to the realm of what is possible than sustainable digging.

The other option, which is the one we are currently practicing, is to have one big party and discuss sustainable development during brief periods when we are hung over from too much consumption.

So, why is it so difficult for us to comprehend the perils of plunder and loot? Is it a limitation of our senses? Perhaps we are at a stage in evolution where a new sense is being developed - one which will alert us to dangers not seen by the existing senses.