Category Archives: ideas

Where everyday is Earth Day…

Looks like it was a success, atleast in our area. Darkness is now becoming a rare pleasure, unless you live in a village, where everyday is an involuntary Earth Day.

The gesture was definitely commendable – millions from the middle class, trying to make a difference, to bring back meaning into their lives, which otherwise is a mad rush from here to there under glaring neon ads and freezing AC vents.

Can people, i.e, society make a difference in a world that is dominated by either the Market or the State ? If they are organized, yes. The market comprises of firms that want to make money, not goods. So, if tomorrow all of the USA decides not to use tree-pulp based toilet paper, toilet paper manufacturers (theoretically) will start making some more environmentally friendly (and hopefully more hygenic) product to clean oneself.  Similarly, people can organize into vote-banks and pressurise politicians (for however brief a period) to allow duty free import of Batman comics, if they so choose. We should preferably do this before human cloning is made legal, since then politicians can manufacture their own vote bank.

Leaving the issue of having to deal with cloned voters for the moment, one should try and understand why the Earth Day is significant. Not only is it to increase awareness about climate change, but it is a call to reduce our consumption of anything voluntarily. The main problem with present-day society is that an IT professional requires 10 times more resources to go through her day than her less fortunate sister cleaning the floor of the office. We require so much because we are entirely geared toward high performance. Anything that comes in the way of performance, especially leisure is curbed. Just like darkness, leisure needs to be given its due importance. Only leisure can allow a person to grow as a person. Unless faced with financial commitments, employees should ask their companies for a four day work day with 4/5 th of the salary, or something similar. Beyond a threshold, what we value more is leisure and not money, and everybody has their threshold. We run the danger of infantilizing our workforce by making them do something over and over and not give them time to stop, step back, look and figure out what the hell they really are doing or where this is leading them.

It is also a call to stop taking yourself so seriously, to stop gloating over your achievements and see them in the context of the disaster you wreak on the society and ecosystem that you are a small but very powerful part of. To learn to learn from your ancestors as well as your children, to replace man from his place at the center of the universe where he thinks he is, and put him in his proper place – on an insignificant planet revolving around an insignificant star. To try and help people not by treating them as inferiors and victims, but as equals and family.

Descartes told us that we think, therefore we are. Earth day tells us that until we value manual labour and stop measuring superiority in terms of how many numbers you can add in a minute, nothing will change. Why should a theoretical physicist be any superior to a superb cook or a creative tailor or a responsible mother ? Because we have been lead to think that the mind is our evolutionary advantage over others, we have forgotten that our intial evolutionary advantage came because of our opposable thumb! Unless we see life, creativity, precision and beauty in the work of a person who uses her hands, Earth day has failed it purpose.

Thus, this day tells us that the world is not a linear succession from brutishness to civilization, but a cycle of life – nothing goes obsolete or out of fashion until we think that it is so, which is one of the reasons why ancestor worship was prominent in most pre-modern societies. ‘Modern’ thinking and attitudes have reduced to rubble the accumulated cultural wealth of millenia by a strange linear conception of time and progress. It is time we started looking back to avoid what is coming ahead.

These are the many reasons why everyday is an Earth day in certain ‘backward’ parts of our country, not just because they have lights that do not work when needed.

The Free Software Movement

Had been to Gnu/Linux Habba today, it elicited quite a good response from the student community, compared to what Im used to from my student days. Gnu/Linux is getting a fair bit of attention, since it is also being viewed as something that can get one a job. The Free Software Movement has grown phenomenally to say the least in the past few years, not least because of events like the Habba.

It is not a coincidence that the FSM exploded with the explosion of the internet. The great levelling power of the internet contributed immensely to the growth of the FSM, and this is well known. If one analyses the FSM, the key features one would find are:

  • Community: pariticipants think (or are urged to think) of themselves as part of a larger community. It is only the mutual give and take that makes Free Software what it is now.
  • Cooperation: Helping each other to solve problems, in whatever capacity possible is a by-product of the feeling of community. Big egos exist, but they are usually reined in ‘for the greater good’.
  • Equity: Notice that Communist also derives from the word community. The reason why the FSM did not end up becoming a dictatorship is the equity among its participants. Any person with a reasonable contribution is welcomed. Communism, for all its hype, never featured equity at the level of the FSM. There is a reason for that, however: most participants, atleast in the development process are of similar skill and background. They differ in terms of ideas and experiences, which makes for the vibrancy in the movement.
  • Communication: members are highly communicative, in one medium or the other. The value of this need not be stated, especially in reinforcing the above three.
  • Zealousness: Firm belief and identification with the goals of the FSM of people from varied backgrounds, skill and intellectual levels keeps the fire alive, at all costs.

The FSM defines a ‘commons’, a shared resource that anyone can use without interfering with anyone else’s rights, especially the right to private property. Noone or, equivalently, everyone owns it. IMO, it is the largest movement of our times which has altruism as a core tenet.

This was one of the reasons for the initial scepticism that it faced from the corporate world, who are taught that everything must be owned by someone (not everyone!). Fortunately for the FSM, the developed economies were rapidly transitioning into service economies at the same time as it was growing and viable business models came into being which put service ahead of the product. The corporates, adaptable beasts that they are, probably saw the value that FSM can bring in a service economy and joined forces. It is quite amazing that two social institutions, one based on altruism and another based on selfishness have managed such a fruitful interaction.

It is not as if only the corporation adapted to the FSM. The other way round happened as well. People who previously talked in terms of freedom also started talking in terms of business models and bottomlines. This is a constant feature of resilient social institutions: they learn other’s languages and develop a hybrid one at the end. With the corporation firmly behind FSM, there is no doubt that it will continue to grow and flourish. Thus, the FSM has learnt to value selfishness to some degree, and corporations have learnt a (very little) bit of altruism.

Similar interactions have happened between the Environmental movement and the corporation, leading to environmental economics for the greens and green manufacturing for Wall Street. One of the reasons that I feel the corporation will be the dominant institution for a very long time to come is this high adaptability that it possesses. Religion pretty much disintegrated in the West after the Enlightenment, but the corporation has withstood many assaults from the time of the Industrial Revolution.

Then why is adoption to Gnu/Linux still slow ? the FSM, quite like the environmentalists, had been interacting within themselves for too long. Not anymore. Gnu/Linux Habba was a focussed session on usability, especially in Kannada. Similar outreach activities will continue to push Gnu/Linux to the mainstream. However, its impact will not be as high as the environmental movement until they make a fundamental shift in approach: most interactive sessions focus on the outcome part of using Gnu/Linux. For a person, especially in places where software piracy(!) is not taken seriously, the outcome of using Gnu/Linux is not very different from using MS Windows or Word. Some things cannot be captured by the outcome of using a software product, like the experience of using it. Like the marketing tenet says, sell the experience, not the product. One has to ‘sell’ the status, moral superiority of using Free software. This is not as outlandish as it sounds. This is what the environmentalists are trying to do by asking for labelling of products, and what Apple does when it is selling the iPod, which is otherwise just a box which makes noise.

This is a slow process, but systematic brainwashing will defintely lead to favorable results. Maybe some perusing of marketing literature is in order ;)

PS: you cannot really sell an experience if the product does not work well. However, I think GNU/Linux is almost out of the blocks in this matter (at long last!)

Designing for people: Lessons learnt

A few lessons learnt from my lighting project design and other things happening now, both from a process and target perspective.

Document, document, document!

I’m sure most people reading this would remark – “Yeah, right!”. But learning it the hard way has made the lesson all the more invaluable. It are useful for the following reasons:

  • Forcing yourself to put ideas into words makes it concrete.
  • Writing down fundamental assumptions in your design will give hints as to why the design failed or performed well in a given situation.
  • It makes it easily replicable.
  • Translating a well documented design into the real thing is extremely easy.
  • Testing your work against a detailed design as a benchmark will be always good.

That being said, it is not necessary to mention implementation level details, which will ruin clarity of presentation. Make it modular, use subsections and sub-subsections frequently.

Have a clear idea of the end product

This should have been the first in the list! As far as it is practically possible, you should be clear of the function your product should perform. People have a good idea as to what they want, it makes sense to listen to them. Unless you can say what your product does in 25 words, you are in trouble!

It is never as easy as it sounds!

Only the most trivial things like say, painting a new color onto a pinhead are as easy as they sound (on second thoughts, even this is quite an issue ): The translation from the space of  ideas to silicon or code or metal is limited by a large number of things, not excluding human stupidity. Like someone once said, “[I]f you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it”.

You are not God…

… and therefore, you cannot know nor forsee everything. Talk to people, pick multiple brains for multiple viewpoints and use the expertise of as many people as possible before, during and after product design. Everyone, from the person who wipes the floor to your boss can have something to offer. This of course means that you will have to swallow your own ego and bear a few unbearable ones, but is a good strategic initiative.

Test what you create

Not everyone will be as stupid as you, and therefore cannot understand the magnitude of your mistakes. Test in all weather, habitations, altitudes, attitudes. This business of “testing teams” is only for large corporations with plenty of money to employ bored people to miss your errors.

Can you do with easily available materials

Ideally, all my designs try to use stuff available on SP road (or KT street in Mysore) or something that any workshop can fabricate. Using off-the-shelf stuff makes it all the more easier to replicate (or as the big boys put it, pirate) and maintain even by local electricians/mechanics with minimal training. The more replicable it is, the more competitive the market can theoretically be, with the beneficiary being the end user (Economics 101!). This is also one of the only ways to beat economies of scale concerns.

High tech is not always best

This complements my previous statement. Most people’s needs can be satisfied by things which are already available, usually in their own village or town. It definitely needs more creativity to make things simple, which is why we have so many complicated gadgets in the market. Simpler usually implies cheaper which, for people living at the margin, usually implies better.

Do not downgrade modern tech, but upgrade traditional tech

Unless you are introducing something which was not part of traditional life (like solid state lighting!), you should look for ways to improve over existing things than making cheaper and smaller copies of things available in the city. I’m extremely cynical about selling toothpaste in sachets when you can make do with the neem tree on your street. The reason why people in rural areas can live on a smaller income is that nature subsidises many of their acitivities. Trying to change that just to sell your product – which was meant for a society that gets no such subsidy and also earn higher incomes – is a trap.

Try and make a significant change in people’s lives

If this is answered with a no – after thinking as objectively as possible – then you are in it for the money. It is definitely possible for products to bring about a huge change in lives, but finding such an application requires networking with people who speak your language and the people’s language (not in the sense of Kannada and Marathi, but in terms of context), or better learn to speak their language.

Normative foundations of human endeavor

Apologies for the bad sounding title, just came out that way. I had a few queries in the comments section about two things, one was about efficiency and the other about my ‘appraisal’ of the Honey Bee Network. Well, I can hardly consider myself competent to do anything like the latter, but the Honey Bee Network is an excellent example of what I want to put forward here. Thanks to the person who reminded me of it!

Some of you may have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is a diagrammatic representation of the way our needs progress, from the crassly utilitarian to ‘higher’ spiritual and moral needs. It is assumed that every person goes through this hierarchy, and most stop at some level where they are satisfied. Correspondingly, your value system gets shaped by the needs that you think are most pressing, or where in the pyramid you lie. Almost all human endeavor has had some normative scaffolding supporting it, and I think it is necessary that we examine these value systems for a clearer understanding of conflict and cooperation: how a Prakash can rationalize the present state of development looking at the Dalits at home, and how a Deepak can speak out against the present development paradigm, which to him is disenfranchising the same Dalits. One has a narrow view, the other a much broader one. One concentrated on the materialist values, another acknowledged the importance of material well-being and went beyond it. Thus, two people who essentially wanted to achieve the same thing go about in different way depending on what values they hold dear. Co-operation, even with similar goals can occur only when we agree on a similar path. Else, an uneasy truce which will eventually break down into conflict will result.

This contradistinction is nowhere as stark as in the role of science and rational thinking which were purported to represent ‘progress’ (by the children of the Enlightenment, like ourselves) vis-a-vis traditional knowledge systems. We have to understand the historical background that the Enlightenment was set in: the Dark Ages preceded it, with a repressive Church which could only maintain its own dominance by curtailing free speech and the right to question authority. In an almost reactionary stance, the great thinkers of the period put forth the ideas of liberalism, scientific method and rejection of all metaphysical and theological stances, and everything else that the Church stood for. (This was followed by a reactionary Romantic movement, followed by an era of logical positivism, followed by postmodernism, i.e, oscillation after oscillation which always resulted from a re-evaluation of value-systems the then dominant paradigm held dear. After the Sokal hoax, postmodernism is quite a bit under attack. Westeners are crazy.) Other highly developed systems of thought, especially in Asian societies have hardly seen the kind of paradigm shift that the Enlightenment (in the form of its torch-bearer, science) has brought forth.

The value systems of science are clear: a mechanistic interpretation of nature, rejection of things that cannot be perceived, dichotomy of natural and normative principles, universal applicability, and a cumulative body of work which progressively controls nature to serve man’s interests. Principles of liberalism take man to be the fundamental unit of analysis, and deal with his freedom and rights.(Women did not figure too much in discussions then). Take the example of certain set of people in India who break stones for a living: They beg the stone’s forgiveness before they break it, since it is the way for them to earn their daily bread. For them, nature is not a set of atoms, but has values that cannot be measured empirically. Logically speaking, there is no reason to accept either conception of nature as correct or incorrect. These are values which cannot be talked of in terms of logic.

At another point in the spectrum lie systems of thought like Ayurveda and Yogasana. From a ‘scientific’ point of view, it is hardly clear how standing on one’s head can lead to good health, but seems like it does. Homoeopathy is another example. Modern medicine ridicules it, but it does work! Now, these systems of knowledge have utmost respect for nature and her ‘healing powers’ , do not differentiate empirical and metaphysical levels of thinking, and tries to harmonise man’s relationship with nature, rather than controlling it. Indian metaphysics hardly gives any importance to an individual as a unit of analysis, and rather opposes all phenomena to the unchanging Brahman. Importance is put on the realisation of the unchangeable than to indulge in the transient material existence. (Ecologically speaking, an individual is part of a huge web of life, and you will never find individuals being taken as a unit of analysis, but populations and their relations with other populations. Thus, one sees more correlation between actuality and philosophy when we take Indian philosophy and Western ecology together.)

We have now reached a point in time where the Western systems of thought, with all their baggage are being accepted uncritically by cultures worldwide. Since it is essentially the doctrines of liberalism and rationalism which have brought such material wealth to Western Europe and the USA, it seems logical that we follow it without questioning. Not that the Enlightenment’s contribution is immoral or invalid (modern science and medicine deserve more respect than being called nonsense), but that it creates a conflict of values, values which are deeply embedded in us. Thus, one cannot be opposed to Brahmin students conducting dissections, but Brahmin students taking up non-vegetarianism because of peer pressure when the West is turning vegetarian is a pathetic sight. Gandhi was deeply troubled by his experiments with meat eating and regretted it thoroughly. Our traditional knowledge systems are losing their value simply because they cannot be quantified and are not ‘valuable’ in the economic sense.

This is where organisations like the Honey Bee Network play such a vital role. HBN is trying to bridge the gap between disparate systems of thinking and trying to find common ground for dialogue. Keeping the western values of systematic enquiry and while not belittling the cultural wisdom of the native is what HBN has been doing successfully for some time now. The results of their untiring work is there for all to see on their website, with traditional wisdom being documented for posterity and rural inventors and entrepreneurs being encouraged. I have run out of my quota to speak about efficiency, will keep that for later. Too much indulgement in philosophy is dangerous, will stop here ;)

What is freedom ?

Statutory Warning: Content that follows may be unsuitable for science, math, engineering majors, and similar juveniles.

Was reading (yet!) another book, this one is named Political Ideas in the Romantic Age by Isaiah Berlin. Halfway through, and there is definitely no way I will review this book, being far too philosophical in content. So, thought I’ll just write a few words about the central theme of the book, or rather set of lectures compiled into a book.

Berlin was a professional philosopher and became interested in politics (like most people in his time, living through two world wars). The idea that Berlin explores is that any work of a (wo)man is only understood fully with reference to the context of the time that (s)he lived in. Hence, he explores the history of the political ideas of the most turbulent times in recent European history in terms of conflicting views, opinions and philosophies, the 18th and 19th centuries. He does not delve into deep analysis of each and every philosopher (Hobbes, Hume, Locke, Helvetius, Bentham, Adam Smith, Rousseau ……), rather, he tries to capture the spirit of the age, or as is popularly known, the zeitgeist.

For Berlin, the central question of political philosophy is “Why should one man obey another ?” and from here flows the logical successors : “What is more important, obedience to the State or personal liberty ?”; “Can a person be subservient and still claim to be free?” . Taking this as the starting point, the solutions proposed by various stalwarts of the Enlightenment and beyond are explored, will not go into the details, as promised.

The central talking point of the presently read 100-odd pages are two words : does and should. The question is not why does a man obey, but rather, why should a man obey. The first question can be answered by empirical data, the second question is far more difficult to answer. If someone can write 250+ pages showing how people confused does and should, or even took does and should to be identical, it no doubt will not be easy reading :D

On a more earthly level, the questions posed are quite interesting even to the non-professional (and hence more creative) philosophers, which consists of most of the humans on this planet. What does it mean to be free ? Why should we bow down before a King or a Prime Minister ? Can duty toward a State be consistent with the idea of personal freedom ? Does being free necessarily imply that you are happy ? Take the case of Singapore. Quite a wealthy state, but absolutely no freedom. Take the case of some Sub-Saharan nomadic tribe : not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but as much freedom as the breadth of the Sahara (barring visa restrictions ;). What relation exists between money and freedom ? Does one increase proportionally with the other ? Or upto a certain limit ? Can we say Anil Ambani is more free than a naked wandering Jain monk ? If yes, why ? If no, why ? Can there be singular answers to such questions ?

Yup, the spectrum over which we can analyse is huge and very interesting. Most of these will at the end turn out to be subjective issues. But are there objective metrics which we can use, if not to answer all questions, atleast to serve as indicators ? Can social policy be formulated with regard to such parameters ? How easy or difficult will it be to empirically measure these parameters to ascertain the progress of an implemented policy ? What can be considered as a viable endpoint in development programmes which involve such parameters ? Most of the questions in this paragraph were raised in class today by Ashok Rao, and most of this semester will go into trying to answer such things, if possible.

The approach to development lies in these questions, one intuitively feels. One can approach development from the pseudo(or quasi?)-scientific outlook of the social sciences like economics or sociology, or from the (more pseudo?) philosophical/empirical basis delineated above, in a highly nebulous form. This course is turning out to be fun :D