Category Archives: stupidity

Political Fasting – Gandhi’s footsteps ?

There seem to be a huge number of politicians going on fasts nowadays, preferably a fast-unto-death (with glucose being fed intravenously, just to be sure). Keeping in with a new trend in trying to split up states with the ostensible aim of improved governance in backward areas, our political babas are nobly taking up this burden using ‘peaceful, non-violent, Gandhian’ methods, to quote one of them.

Whether such actions are aimed at better governance or creating new political posts for those who have been sidelined for decades is probably apparent to everyone but the most partisan of people. Invoking Gandhi to justify this displays not only a lack of understanding of Gandhi’s views on fasting, but also how Gandhi is now a political expedient rather than a political ideal.

Gandhi fasted very regularly as he considered it a form of self purification and penance. If one looks at the many times that he has fasted, most of them were aimed at performing penance for the violence that was happening elsewhere, perpetrated by someone else, particularly communal violence. His aim was to bring about a moral awakening (he believed in the ‘inherent goodness’ of people). The effect of such fasts was nowhere more dramatic than in Bengal during the Partition, where he single-handedly stopped communal violence simply by refusing to eat, whereas the armies of Mountbatten could not control a similar situation in the Punjab. His most famous fast against the Government was  in opposition to the decision to have separate electorates for the Dalits. Ironically, present day politicians invoke Gandhi and fast for the exact opposite purpose, it seems. Aware of the fact that he had a huge following throughout India, he rarely fasted against the British, but mainly against the atrocities his own people committed (as penance).

One of the first political fasts against the Government in Free India resulted in the death of the person fasting (named Potti Sriramulu) and the formation of a Telugu state (Andhra Pradesh) and paved the way for linguistic division of India. Again, the Andhra region seems to have taken the lead in further divisions based on regional identity. Without doubt, in a country as diverse as India the smaller the unit of administration, the better. Greater autonomy at a smaller scale can atleast give people the chance of a more accountable Government.

A more apt question to ask, however, is what effect will division along regional identities engender, de facto : removal of corruption ? speedier justice ? equitable resource distribution ? Political division merely results in replication of the older State machinery at a smaller scale, and will carry all its deficiencies forward. Like they say, it is easier to take a person out of a slum than taking the slum out of a person. As long as the reliance on a corrupt bureaucracy driven by powermongers in Parliament remains, no amount of division will result in any good, but result in deepening the already huge divides within the country.

Present day politics, from tribal agitations to farcical climate change negotiations, seem to be guided by a single principle : dominate or be dominated, leading to a very unfortunate Hobbesian conception of society and polity. There seems to be very little place for mutual respect, understanding and compromise. As long as life is seen as an endless competition, cooperation and trust can never be important. Without trust there is no understanding, without understanding no empathy nor peace.

Environmentally friendly cows!

Once you start hearing papers say such things, you know something is seriously wrong. The motivation behind such a statement is that apparently cows belch too much, and their burps contain methane and this is a very potent greenhouse gas, and therefore we must breed new cows which burp less, so that they don’t contribute to climate change!

I have been trying to wrap my head around the concept of an environmentally friendly cow for almost a day now, just not happening. Maybe scientists nowadays are too advanced for us mere mortals to understand. But wait, just due to their sheer numbers, termites probably emit more methane than cows overall. Therefore, we must also try and breed new termites, and ban people from keeping termite farms. While we are at it, we should also breed new set of humans who do not eat junk food (especially peanuts!), since that is a huge cause for methane emissions as well. Looking at what junk gets done in the name of science these days, funding should not be too much of a problem.

Why is it that cows, that have peacefully belched their way through a couple of million years without causing too much climate change suddenly the enemy ? Obviously, the problem is not with the cows themselves, but the rate at which beef is being consumed makes their number quite formidable. So what is the answer to this ? according to the previous link, control the number of people, so that they can eat lesser number of cows!! Beef is not the staple food in most countries, and the population increase happens in classes which cannot normally afford too much beef, so wonder who is eating such a large amount of it.

This insane and ludicrous issue brings to the fore the contradictions of a civilization that cannot accept that its way of life is completely off track. It wants to keep thinking that the way it has progressed is viable, and only few minor issues arise that can be solved by ‘scientific innovation’. This blame-the-cow attitude has been with us for a long time: blame the poor, blame the corporation, blame the Muslim – as long as we are not blamed. Wonder when people will grow up!

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.

Systems modelling: how useful is it ?

Modelling complex systems, be they social, economic, terrorist-ic, environmental, ecological, whatever seems to be all the rage nowadays. Everyone (including myself!) seems to be so intrigued with the future that they cannot wait until it arrives.

But what is a model ? and how can/should it be used ? these are questions which are normally unanswered and can lead to disasters like the current financial circus. A systems model is, at its most abstract, a simplification of reality which can help us to answer questions about the future in a computationally tractable way (since everything at the end of the day gets reduced to number crunching, except maybe philosophy). It focusses on internal variables (state), inputs and outputs of a system that are considered important to understand its behavior. The contribution of a model is two-fold: to understand the underlying (simplified) structure, and to use this to answer questions that interest us.

We have to face that we cannot really understand even moderately complex systems properly, and we make certain idealizing assumptions (like there won’t erupt a World War), to make things simple. We then use an intuitive understanding (sometimes called pre-analytic vision) of the system structure to decide how to build the model. For example, economics models are built using the vision that man wants to maximize something (which makes it easy to use calculus of variations or mathematical programming), atmospheric models have to obey the laws of physics, and so on.

Once we identify a structure which can be represented using available mathematical tools, we put them in a computer and start crunching. If they can be represented using nice equations (called deterministic model), you would use differential equations or some cousin or mathematical programming. If it cannot, then you don’t give up, you simply say that it is random but with a structure and use stochastic models, using Monte Carlo methods or time series analysis or some such thing (Read this for a critique of the latter).

Before one gets immersed in fascinating mathematical literature, one must understand that each model comes with an ‘if’ clause: If such-and-such conditions are satisfied, then things might look like what we get here. Which is why I get irritated with both MBAs who talk about ‘market fundamentals being good’ and environmentalists who predict that I’m going to need a boat soon – neither qualifies results which come out a black box. Even worse, there are those who compare results which come out of different black boxes, which need not be comparable at all, just because they, like the modellers, have no idea what is going on. Atleast the modellers admit to this, but those who use these models for political purposes cannot dare to admit shades of gray.

Different models can take the same data and give you radically different answers – this is not due to programming errors, but the pre-analytic vision that the model is based upon. The reason why climate change remained a debate for so long is because of such issues, and vested interests, of course. Therefore, we see that the ‘goodness’ of a model depends critically on the assumed ontology and epistemology, even more than the sobriety of its programmer (well, maybe not).

Thus, as intelligent consumers of data that models spew out everyday, we should make sure that such ‘studies’ do not over-ride our common sense. But in the era of Kyunki Saas bhi, one cannot hope for too much.

Should we be worried about the (your favorite word here) Sene?

One has to stop watching NDTV news. They were among the most vocal in their campaign against the ‘Talibanization’ of Mangalore and almost suddenly went quiet and now are most vocal about Slumdog Millionaire, what with Anil Kapoor being their special correspondent and all. If they complain about ‘rightists’ stoking emotional fires in India for political purposes, they seem to be doing the same for commercial purposes. Now that we have appropriated an English film as our own and celebrating it, however grudgingly, everything else seems to go into the background.

But yes, the Rama Sene has almost completely gone off the TV/media radar for the moment, until they do something else  (someone else seems to have taken over the baton in Bangalore).  The media seems to have given them what they wanted: their two minutes in the limelight to show that they have ‘arrived’. The media showed, in its typical sensationalist form, an India that we are embarrassed of and would like to wish away. Talking to people not from the middle class in buses and trains, one gets a feeling that they are not as opposed to it as we would like them to be.

Social delinquency is not as rare as one might imagine it to be. India has always been deeply divided on the questions of caste, class, gender and religion. Things always seem to be simmering below, and sporadic outbursts are a public manifestation of these issues. It is not as if the Sene members woke up one day and decided to beat up people.

But the million dollar question is : Can this cause widespread social change ? If it is, then all minorities and women in India are in for some trouble. In answering this, we must first realise that all nationalist movements (be they Indian nationalism, Hindu, Kannada, whatever) have always been urban phenomena. The members of the Congress were upper middle class professionals and businessmen, Kannada Rakshana Vedike has most of its rallies in Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities, and Mangalore has been simmering for some time now, on questions of conversion and culture, BJP’s main voter base has always been in the cities. So, nothing in the scale at which the Taliban operated can be achieved, all the more so since violence cannot be made mainstream without a organised militia (which no *-Sene has, but the Sangh Parivar does, but not comparable in scale to the Police or the Army).

This means that making a Nationalist agenda on whatever grounds cannot be widely accepted if it does not have the blessings of mainstream political parties. The Hindu Renaissance that the BJP claims to be spearheading has taken years of organization, building of cadres ( both with legal sanction (RSS) and otherwise (Bajrang Dal, et al) ). Even with such an organized machinery, their coming into power can be blamed on the Congress Party’s incapacity to produce good leaders. No other nationalist organization, neither the Rama Sene or the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike have such firm ideological grounding or discipline. Also, militant actions make it easy for the State to deal with such organizations, and this makes it necessary for them to toe the line and reduce violent actions ( Anyone remember large scale violence by the KRV recently ?).

The BJP itself has had troubles implementing its agenda at a national level due to the fractured results that the Indian polity returns. Coalitions are hardly the ideal ground for pushing hardline policies. Then, it is unlikely that smaller, less organized movements can have much impact. They can capture the public imagination for some time, but the combination of existing rival interests (KRV has already broken into two factions, so has the Shiv Sena) and short term public memory makes it difficult to build on such gains.

Will conflicts based on caste, culture, religion go away anytime soon ? No. Will they be the major talking point of any political party ? Not anytime soon. Should we be worried about *-Sene ? In their present form, No.

Top posts: why I like data!

Was just going through the top posts for the past 4 months in my blog, and they were

  1. One dealing with running out of coal or atmosphere
  2. The one about free software
  3. The one which says ‘what role does money play’
  4. The one about conversions

The one about conversions can be ignored since it was a temporary phenomenon. But what is interesting is that a huge number of people seem to be googling for the phrase ‘What do we do when we run out of coal’! Well, they can rest assured that we will not run out of coal before we invent they warp drive. The economic crisis or something more personal seems to driving people to enquire about the role of money in their life!

One set of people seem to be terrified of something that they will lose, another set seems terrified of something they have or are going to gain!! some world we live in.

Sociable sociopaths – is it the system ?

System Analysis is simply another way of looking at the world, trying to look at the structure and composition of an aggregate of anything from computer code to people to machines.

For those unaware of terminology (which would be anyone who has not taken a systems course), a system is an entity with certain inputs and outputs, and which converts inputs to outputs through a certain mechanism. It can be completely defined by its inputs, outputs, external limits and feedback systems. Limits determine the boundaries within which the system must operate, like the size of our parliament is limited by the number of rich and powerful idiots in the country. Feedback systems determine the response of the system to changes in its output or environment, like the elections are a feedback in a democracy.

Another factor which determines the performance of the system is delay in the feedback systems. Scientists have been telling economists to change developmental objectives to include climate change issues for many decades and yet it has come into focus only very recently. Even today, development does not include many environmental issues like deforestation and toxic dumps and species extinction. This can be called as a large delay between output changes and the attendant change in system performance.

Why is systems thinking important ? From a business perspective, it can help analyse the people and objects that determine how a system (company) behaves, and how certain kinds of behavior of these ‘components’ can affect overall system output. For example, car manufacturers should change the specifications of their car according to general consumer tastes. Therefore, there must be some system feature that links car specification with consumer taste. If the person who is in charge of implementing this feature in this system fails to do her job well, system output (which is cars) will fail to make the desired impact.

Therefore, most social systems – religion, corporation, state – come up with a set of desired behaviors that the components that make up the system should have, and this is inculcated by various mechanisms – schools, corporate orientation, religious instruction and so on.

One can, if one has considerable amount of time to burn, apply systems principles to the present situation in India. First, a look at the state. The state is a glorified watchman of sorts, taking money from us taxpayers and giving political, social and economic protection. The recent spate of terrorist attacks have underlined the fact that it is unable to deal with the phenomenon of terrorism which is structurally very different from the normal antisocial elements that it is used to dealing with. Highly motivated individuals, working in small groups, from varied backgrounds, with no monetary motivation causing mayhem is something no state can cope with: it was simply not designed for such a task. And there goes physical safety that we were supposed to have.

Next thing to go was religious tolerance. Talking to random people on the train shows that the average Hindu looks at his Christian neighbor with suspicion and will be more hesitant than before to attend religious festivals. This is due to the sensationalist feedback systems which have been set in place called the media and no doubt supported by a political party that wants to expel Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals (only those with expired visas, of course, preferably Muslims) since they might be terrorists. Never mind the fact that terrorists will go to great lengths to see that their papers are in order, and are not stupid enough to be in a place where checks are taking place. A system is only as good as the people that make it up, and this is shown well in Karnataka now and Gujarat before.

Before these was, of course, financial security. A global economic system needs global  regulatory agencies, a role which the IMF and World Bank ostensibly play. The present crisis shows that a system designed around rational ordering and behavior of individuals completely fails when greed, fear and panic are the inputs. The subprime crisis surfaced around this time last year and its effects are showing now, a huge delay between input and output. This kind of behavior can only mean worse things in the coming year. IMF and the World Bank probably should stick to bullying third world nations.

All these developments are having interesting effects – terrorism has made grassroot level spying a noble duty in service of the state (Orwellian nightmare!), people belonging to different religious groups are eyeing each other with suspicion, and people with money to lose are running around like headless chickens. If people are taken as a system, and if insecurity is an input, the system moves towards whatever promises stability. Therefore, unfortunately, the State and religious organizations are going to be more powerful than before when the dust settles. The last bastion of reliable information feedback, the internet, is now becoming more prone to State intervention. Wonder what the status of the people will be after this – are we going to be sociable components of sociopathic systems ?

Religious conversions: views

Problems related to conversions seem to be hitting all parts of India, from the poverty-stricken tribal Orissa to the highly literate and affluent Mangalore. Militant Christianity came first, then militant Islam and now militant Hinduism. God alone knows what next, maybe militant scientologists!

Before anything, let us get one thing straight: these are middle and upper class/caste fights in which lower castes/classes get affected the worst. Religion and culture come to the mind resting above a full stomach. It is quite unfortunate that those affected most are the ones who historically are the ones affected most. Therefore, oppression does not really go away by conversions or Bajrang Dal activism, but merely takes a new form.

Christianity has always been an agressive (or as the Church prefers to call it, evangelical) religion. This seems to flow from Christ’s command to ‘spread the Good News’ . Considering the fact that most Christians do not follow Christ’s other words – like ‘remove the splinter in your eye before pointing to the one in your brother’s eye’, which essentially means getting your house in order before anything else – it is puzzling that they are so fond of spreading the Good News. Similarly, Brahmins who never have given a damn about the lot of Dalits for centuries are now trying to ‘reclaim’ them from the proselytizers. Both stink more than a little of hypocrisy.

In India atleast, religion has been an integral part of a person’s identity from time immemorial. Then why is it that people are so easily converted (which amounts to a drastic change in identity), and why are most of the converts from Hinduism to other religions rather than the other way round ? Consider the following issues:

  • Hindu rituals, for the most part are still in Sanskrit
  • Priests are still Brahmin
  • There are still temples which disallow Dalits
  • Reformation movements like the Bhakti movement have been largely suppressed or sidelined or have corrupted into mainstream thinking
  • Dalits in the hinterlands still suffer systematic deprivation and lack access to schools and healthcare

OTOH, consider features of Indian Christianity:

  • Christian rituals are adapted to the local cultural milieu. Attending a mass in English and in Santhali are radically different experiences
  • Anyone can become a priest. Most candidates who join do not become priests but come out after getting free education upto graduation and a good exposure to social service and philosophy
  • Most schools and hospitals run in tribal areas are either secular or Christian

It must be quite easy to see why religious conversions are quite high from Hinduism. New converts to Christianity get rituals highly customised to their culture, access to education (though there is usually no discrimination for admission – most Hindus would like their children to study in a ‘convent’ school). New modes of Christian worship like Praise and Worship are extremely popular among new converts and this is something that contemporary Hindu worship sorely lacks, i.e, they need to jazz it up a bit! ISKCON does a decent job of this, effecting quite a few reverse conversions, but seems like they want more white people than tribals!

It is hardly surprising that Hindus view conversions as a threat, because they are. But they have themselves to blame for the position that they are in. Any social institution that fails to adapt to changing circumstances will eventually die. Hinduism is nowhere close to this, but tensions are a sign that as a social institution (not as a philosophy : the two are very different entities) has not kept up with the times. If you don’t work for the upliftment of the poorest, don’t hold counselling sessions for youth in these fast-changing times, don’t change modes of worship to suit changing tastes and perceptions and then complain about a Christian conspiracy to undermine HInduism, you are basically missing the point. What people need is not a religion, but a means of upliftment – socially and psychologically. It is no surprise that various godmen like Sri Sri Ravishankar, Ganapati Satchidananda and innumerable others in metros like Bangalore are gaining in popularity – they offer a modern solution to contemporary human problems.

Tensions rooted in conversions to Christianity are not going to go away: like I mentioned, Christianity is quite fundamentally a proselytizing religion. What needs to be done is to adapt and stay abreast of the times – tastes, values, predispositions, culture are quite rapidly changing nowadays. It remains to be seen when Hinduism can address these issues, considering its massive inertia and elitism.

What will we run out of, coal or the atmosphere?

Alternatively phrased, will we run out of sources or sinks?

Before answering the question, it is important to understand why we ask such a question in the first place. It has been a long-standing view of a school of natural philosophy that nature has no intrinsic value, and all value ascribed to it is by humans. In other words, what nature can do for us is the important thing to be considered.

Thus, we take things from nature (say, a rock), convert it to something that is valued by society (say, an iPod) and exchange it for something of equivalent value (say, toilet paper). This process of interaction with other people to determine the value of something and exchanging it for something of equivalent value is what is called the market mechanism. Since exchanging stuff is usually cumbersome, we use a common medium to signify value, and we call this money. Money in itself has no value is indicated that you can find it in so many forms, from solid gold to bits in a database maintained by MasterCard.

To increase the amount of money in circulation, one can do two things: print more money, which makes it lose its value, and this we call inflation (which can happen due to other factors as well), or increase the value of stuff we produce, either by value addition (This instead of this) or simply producing more of it. At the end of the day, the value of an economy (what is called the GDP) reflects the value that society places on the stuff we produce.

Producing things essentially means taking things from a natural source, modifying it to a form useful to humans and then sending it to a sink when its utility is over. Therefore, the throughput of resources from source to sink is what (roughly) determines the size of an economy. The rate of change of this throughput is what is rate of change of GDP (8%, in our case).

A source is a stock of some resource, generated by natural processes, like coal. A sink is what breaks down what we dump into a form that is absorbed by natural processes (like decomposition for organic matter, and oceans for CO2). These processes are not usually under our control, and this puts fundamental physical limits to the throughput of material or equivalently, the size of world GDP. We cannot use a stock of material faster than nature can replenish it, for obvious reasons, neither can we dump stuff  ‘somewhere’ faster than natural processes can break it down. These natural processes are known as biogeochemical cycles. If we do change the throughput to greater that what can be sustained, we get effects like eutrophication and global warming.

Many of  the early environmentalists stressed on the finite sizes of the sources like coal, oil, metals which made up our economy and said that we will run out of it soon. Unfortunately, the were proved wrong. Newer and larger stocks were found, and all environmental concerns were brushed off as alarmism. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that what ever the size of the sources may be, we may actually be running out of sinks to dump our garbage in. Over and above this, many artificially manufactured substances (especially from chemistry, and nuclear waste) have no known natural sink, and therefore they persist in our ecosystems for large amounts of time, gradually increasing in size of stock. The problem lies in the fact that not many toxicology studies have been done on such chemicals, and we have absolutely no idea how they work in conjunction with each other.

Sources of raw materials have developed over millenia, and will in all likelihood last us atleast another century (in case of fossil fuels). Sinks, however, are usually biological systems which have slow rates of flow. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link, material throughput is usually limited by sink flows. Thus, we find the classic sign of sink overflow everywhere: pollution.

Can humanity conform with natural processes ? Yes. One way is to find technological advances which make it possible to increase value without increasing throughput, which is happening everywhere. The main problems with this approach is how fast will humanity react to physical limits – will it be too little too late ? Another is to reduce consumption, accepting a smaller GDP with more equitable distribution of wealth so that all may live better. The problem with this is that it is politically impossible (well, almost!). Ignoring limits that are put on us will result in devastation, like what is happening to the fisheries of the world today. Hope we can garner enough moral strength to preserve our physical strength.