Category Archives: stupidity

Life at 8 kmph – A Walker’s Manifesto

Whether on four limbs or two, we and our ancestors have been walking for millenia. It is in our DNA, and we still rely on it from time to time when our cars break down, just like our ancestors relied on it when their donkeys suddenly died. In fact, we have been walking for longer than we have been thinking, which explains why the average human walks far better the she can think – If everybody walked as well as they thought, the world would be a very dizzy place for most of us.

Here, no attempt is made to outline the physical importance of walking – This every IT professional or MBA knows and no farmer or street vendor needs to know – this is an attempt to delineate the cosmology of the walker. Also, it is an attempt to understand how man’s relationship with his walk changed after cataclysms like the invention of the wheel and the iPod. However, technical questions like how much to walk, at what intensity, with whom, how can one associate a real number with a certain kind of walk and other publishable questions are left to future theoreticians from some Institutes of Science.

A walker is a peaceful animal. She knows that she cannot walk faster than some 10 kmph regardless of what happens, therefore is content with her lot. Running is possible, but not for long distances – walking is the only way to ensure that one can transport oneself daily from point A to B without dying at a very early age. A walker is also a very careful animal. He is at his most vulnerable when not protected by his home and family. Thorns, predators, snakes, stones, pretty much everything in his path is potentially fatal. For example, if people only knew how to walk, then people would not have such a problem with night traffic being banned in Bandipur. Instead, they would request that such a ban be enforced in the interest of the walking public. For the walker, time is not composed of discrete intervals determined by some cesium atom. One does not have to reach some place at some time, one reaches a place when one reaches the place (preferably before sunset, when we are even more vulnerable).

A walker is learning and playing all the time, unlike those who need specialized locations for both. Learning about what to eat, where to stop, how much to talk are all part of the curriculum. At the same time, listening to the wind rustling through the leaves, the robin announcing the arrival of spring with interesting lectures from the tree tops, watching the trees burst into bloom and the grass drying out are all part of the small pleasures that come by the walker’s way. A walker can stand and stare for as long as she wants, an ability that is slowly dying out. Staring is a very important part of both the intellectual and aesthetic development of the walker, though nowadays she would be accused of sexual harassment or mental illness for doing the same.

A walker does not go visit point B alone, but an infinite number of places along the way. People coming to Mysore complain that they only have around 10 places to visit, boring place. Maybe a walk around will change their mind. Thus, for a walker space is not composed of finite points connected by finite curves, but a continuum of points from here to everywhere. It is therefore not surprising that walkers know more about a place than anyone else. Nothing is boring because nothing is static, space in a walker’s view is always fluid, just like time, and both are in consonance – more the space in front of you, the more the time you will have.

And then comes the wheel. Nowadays, everybody wants their own wheels, depending on what they can afford. Thus, an American rides a Harley, an Indian rides a Hero Honda and an IIScian rides a cycle. For some strange reasons not well understood, from where they come (point A) and where they go (point B) suddenly are given undue importance. Another strange concept called ‘saving time’ also gets introduced, which justifies riding wheels that rotate faster than ever. Time cannot be stored for a rainy day, nor does it need saving from anything, thus this saving business seems to be mere wordplay rather than a concrete concept. Space and time are now quantities that are opposed to each other – farther means you ‘save less time’. The harmony between space and time is destroyed in this process.

Now everybody has ‘saved’ time, and therefore has plenty of time to ‘spare’. Since it cannot be lent to others, it must be used by its owner in the best manner possible – parties, philosophy, defence policy, business expansion and the like. Unfortunately, as was noted before, man does not think as well as he walks. Thus, it is not surprising that most of the problems in the world today are caused by the ‘savers’ – animals with too much time and too little brains. If they only had less time to plot jihads or search for cheap labor markets, we might have been better off. Simply put, walking naturally leads to world peace!

Earplugs which deliver music right to your eardrum is another invention that is killing the pleasure of walking. Like all good earplugs, they cutoff the walker from his surroundings, surrounding him with badly composed notes which are not even infinite like the ones he is cutoff from. Thus, his concept of space and time are completely dictated by another person (sometimes rightly called the ‘conductor’). Since the walker no longer pays attention to his surroundings, all the dangers that he faces are thus to be paved over by roads, killed or put into National Parks. Thus, not only does he affect himself, but everything around him as well.

These and other pernicious inventions have relegated the walker from being the centre of her universe to a small, sometimes irritating, part of someone else’s universe. It is high time we discover the walker in ourselves, before we evolve to a stage where we do not know what to do when our donkey dies.

The difficulty of being an ‘Indian’ in India.

As a working definition of an ‘Indian’, “A person rooted in tradition, but eager to learn and absorb from other cultures” will do as well as any other. The number of people in this category is quite small, but surveying the present political and economic landscape one can see that this species is being driven toward extinction like many other non-human ones in India.

To begin, one must differentiate this definition from the more schizophrenic prescription that Vivekananda had for Indians to develop, that Indians learn from the West about the material world and they learn from India about the spiritual world. Considering the recurrent crises in economies modelled after the Western ones and the Climate issue that is a direct consequence of such an arrangement, to claim that economics is something that we should learn from the West can defnitely be challenged. Anyone travelling across India will tell you that most Indians are as spiritual as the investment banker on Wall Street. Therefore, whatever else one accepts from Vivekananda, this particular prescription must not be accepted. Rather, a more subtle approach which also recognizes and appreciates local economic arrangements and great thinkers from the West is in order.

The reason I call Vivekananda’s prescription schizophrenic follows from my previous post – material arrangements cannot be divorced from non-material ones. For example, a culture that does not allow cruelty to animals cannot advance anatomical knowledge through dissection of live animals – some other means will have to be found. A culture that treats some people as untouchable cannot provide equal opportunity to all. Thus, whole hearted appreciation of western material arrangements can lead one quite far away from one’s cultural roots, leading to what has been called as ‘anxiety nationalism‘, made famous by bands of thugs known as Shiv Sena or Rama Sene. It can also lead to complete westernization, but these are too busy shopping in malls to be politically active, so they are not very relevant to this discussion.

The intellectual scene here seems to be dominated by what one can call ‘Instant Nirvana’ intellectuals – those that read a couple of (propagandist?) books or blogs and claim to have understood the realities of India today, forming what is known as an epistemic community – their world view, shaped by few leaders of the community, is infallible and any opposition to it can only be due to delusion of the opponent. A good example is of people who seem to suffer from the ‘persecution complex’ – Babur tried to destroy Indian culture, therefore all Muslims are bad, and therefore we need to acquire nuclear weapons. One cannot really follow the logic, but similar arguments will be used against Chinese, Christians, anyone who does not worship at a temple anywhere in the world. Another example is of those who see Indian history as a systematic oppression of everyone by the Brahmins – We know from Marx and other great people that all history is about someone oppressing someone else, bourgeois culture is symbolic of this oppression, India is ‘of the Brahmins, for the Brahmins’.

Like most ideology, both these examples are both true and false – unless one understands that, there is no dialogue, only rhetoric and finger pointing. Here lies the problem for someone who wants to see the whole elephant rather than only some of its parts – say one is true, you are branded a Communalist. Say the same for the other, you are branded a Marxist. There are a couple of reasons that I feel have led to such a sad state of affairs.

The first is the domination of Indian political language by non-Indian terms – Anyone or thing is either Left or Right, Communalist or Marxist, Middle, upper or lower class, neoliberal or Maoist, Libertarian or Statist. One can always appeal to Samuel Huntington, Koenraad Elst, David Frawley or if one has different tastes, Marx, Foucault or Bakunin are always present. All one needs to do is look at the newspapers – the immense epistemic void in our political vocabulary will be immediately evident. There is even a Dalit group called the ‘Dalit Panthers of India’, reminiscent of the Black Panthers of the USA. This, of course, is not to deride people who have made contributions to the understanding of India from their own perspective, but just that understanding India from an Indian’s perspective seem to be contributing very little to the public sphere (another western term, sigh!!).

Not that we have not done anything in understanding ourselves – M. N. Srinivas, Muhammad Yunus, Ela Bhatt, Krishna Kumar are names that immediately come to mind. The problem may just be that of language – almost all of the Indian intellectual sphere is dominated by English speakers who cannot (will not?) read intellectuals who write in the vernacular. As Ramachandra Guha laments in a recent article, the multilingual intellectual is a rare species in India. Unless the language and epistemic barriers are broken, one sees little hope for furthering mutual understanding and respect. Are there political and economic frameworks that have been generated within India, which can by used to analyse a country that always frustrates external analysis ? I don’t know, but neither does anyone else I guess.

The second is the pseudo war-like situation that we find ourselves in nowadays – Opposing intellectual groups are fighting to imprint upon the populace their imagination of India. Thus, if you are not for us, you are against us. There are giants like M. K. Gandhi who are claimed by most groups for their own due to the fact that none really understand him well, but lesser mortals are forced to take sides, else a side will be chosen for them. War always has a homogenizing influence on society – unity, after all, is strength. Thus the preponderance of rhetoric from all groups, rather than meaningful dialogue. We cannot even have sane dialogues within the country, and we want to further dialogue with Pakistan!! Hypocrisy is nowhere are colorful as in India. Easiest way to see this is to see programmes like the ‘Big Fight’, which is the standard intellectual fodder (gulp!) for most Indians. The point of people to get onto such programmes is to abuse and condescend rather than understand.

These are some issues that one can immediately see, without too much analysis or reflection. Maybe there are more. But the fundamental constraint stays – unless you understand yourself from within, and understand yourself from another’s perspective, without getting carried away by either in any field – economics, politics, science etc. etc., there is really no hope for a truly ‘Indian’ identity.

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.