Category Archives: technology

Why do we like to cook?

I could have named this post ‘Why do we like to dance?’, but decided to name it what it is because of my new found hobby, cooking. A more apt name would have been ‘Why do we “zone out” so often?’, but it would have been incomprehensible to those whose lingo is not yet up to the mark.

To begin with, one must differentiate two kinds of cooking — one that is done purely with the motive of fulfilling a goal — ‘eat to live’, ‘pack children’s lunch boxes’, ‘Guests are arriving in an hour!’ and so on; and another whose main motive is not just the above but also something beyond it. What that ‘beyond’ is will be my focus here.

First of all, we must observe one thing about cooking that seems quite strange to people who don’t cook — cooking actually seems relaxing to people who come back tired from work! It involves more than a little mental and physical labour and yet people seem to love doing it. In fact, it is probably the one thing that is as pleasurable (if not more) than eating itself!

To answer this, we must first have a look at what it is that exhausts people nowadays. Leave out those who perform physical labour to earn their bread, who are exhausted by the sheer expenditure of energy: Most of those who will be reading this really don’t fall into that category. What seems to exhaust us is explained by people in two vague-sounding terms — ‘stress’ or ‘strain’.

So, what is it that is being stressed or strained? Surely not our muscles; most of us do not use them outside gyms or jogging tracks. Obviously, it is our senses; more precisely just one or two of them. This is pretty much a modern, white collar phenomenon.

It is remarkable that we can feel exhausted by simply staring at a spreadsheet or computer code for an extended amount of time. It is equally remarkable that the world can run because of people simply staring at spreadsheets or computer code for an extended amount of time. Welcome to the Information Age: all that is need to crank the wheels of civilisation nowadays is a computer.

With the assumption that all that matters is information fed into the thinking part of the brain, the computer and similar technologies like the television and Walkman try to feed in as much information as possible, in as focussed a manner as possible, preferably using only a single sensory system. It seems like there is some problem with this assumption — everyone nowadays complains of stress and strain without moving a muscle!

The problem seems to lie in the fact that humans have evolved to experience the world with all their senses — hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, thinking and feeling (yes, not just the physical senses!), whereas the modern living and work place seems to assume the exact opposite: humans function best when they work free of ‘distractions’, so deprive them of all extraneous sensory inputs and feed all information through one or two sensory systems.

This is the guiding principle behind the construction of most classrooms, laboratories, appliances like the TV, computer, tablet, workplaces (think cubicle!),  supermarkets and pretty much any modern place of production and consumption. People need to be ‘focused’: ensure they are not ‘distracted’ at any cost. Think about it: monochromatic or dichromatic color schemes, ACs to ensure the exact same temperature and humidity, noise absorbing ceilings and carpeting, coffee makers and canteens (no kitchens!) — The modern living and work places resemble the interior of pyramids, fit for the mummified dead, than places where actual living, feeling human beings exist.

Contrast this with a kitchen, and you get the picture why cooking is so much fun. Cooking is probably one of the earliest activities of the non hunter-gatherer human, and has not changed in its basic form for at least 6000 years. What we cook may have changed, but nothing else. It is a feast for the senses unlike any other: A well cooked meal is not just about the taste, it is about how it looks, smells, feels to the touch and feelings of happiness and contentment that it evokes. Here, the human being as a whole, and not just her brain is being stimulated. It is probably the most multi-dimensional of all activities that humans perform (with the performing arts coming in at second).

While cooking, we have to stand, walk, chop, grind, grate, stir, smell, taste, hear, mix, blend, heat, cool, wash and what not. There is simply no other activity that is even remotely close in terms of the sensory palette that offered to us, and we do all this almost unconsciously, so deeply ingrained is the activity of cooking in human civilisation. Living as we do in an artificial environment that has been consicously designed to deprive stimulation to our senses, cooking is our refuge, our hiding place, the one activity that cannot be done any other way if it has to be done right.

Cooking is therefore one of the few activities that makes complete use of all human dimensions, not just the cold, calculating, logical one. It is but a small wonder then that avid cooks find cooking relaxing, meditative and even therapeutic. It is no coincidence that good cooks seem to be ‘bursting with energy’, whereas those who cook because it provides them food are normally weary of cooking and look to eating out whenever possible.

What is more worrying is children growing up in such a sensorially poor world. Children, more than adults even, learn best through the use of all their senses rather than purely by information alone. There is a difference between reading about a sea breeze and experiencing one. There is a difference between learning about electricity and making a bulb glow or experiencing an electric shock. Learning purely by information flowing into the brain is necessarily boring, unidimensional and ‘stressful’. This does not mean we should put up a projector and show ‘educational’ movies. This is more of the same. What it means is that we have to rethink education, learning and living, adapting to the necessities of our age without losing what it means to be human.

Generation ‘W’

Shiva had to find Kailasa, Jesus had to spend 40 days without food or water in the desert, Shankaracharya had to climb Kodachadri without a jeep. The things Gods and men have done to find a peaceful place (and then, find themselves) has been quite remarkable. The basic premise of the ascetic way of life is that reduction of sensory inputs helps us focus on ‘inner reality’,  and help us to ‘realise’ ourselves.

But if any of the above mentioned are looking down at today’s world, they would feel somewhat short-changed at the options they had to isolate themselves from the rest of the universe. Our extremely innovative generation has revolutionised the concept of asceticism by turning its basic premise on its head. The Generation of the Walkman (or Generation ‘W’ in my terminology) has completely rethought the way to isolation by realising that an overload of sensory inputs helps us break away from the world, rather than the other way round.

For most of human existence, sound and light have been media for communication between individuals: language, smoke signals, and so on. It seems that using sound and light to achieve the complete opposite — a breakdown of communication — is quite a recent achievement. If one must attribute this to any one artefact, it must be the Walkman. Leisure and entertainment had until then been largely a non-individual activity: you could not play a tape/radio without everyone else listening, and TV time was also a family affair. The earliest form of personal entertainment was probably the boom box:

not very personal, and not very convenient either. Sound and light still played the role evolution had anointed them to play — bringing like minded people together.

With the advent of the enormously successful Walkman and other portable devices like small TVs and ‘transistors’, all this changed. Leisure and entertainment has now become a highly personalised activity. However, Generation ‘W’ has truly matured only in the past half a decade or so. The near universal penetration of the mobile phone and the near universal conversion of mobile phones into miniature boom boxes of the sort above has created a profusion of sound everywhere you go: those who spoke about cacophony and the Tower of Babel ten years ago had no idea what they were talking about. Travel by a night bus or train or sit in a movie theatre, and you will see what a profusion of light means: the advent of super-bright LCD displays has obviated the need to install lighting in most places Gen W frequents.

The sensory load due to listening to four songs and five heated conversations in six languages and the glare from your neighbour’s gigantic LCD display is simply too much for our primitive minds to bear, and they promptly start blocking everything and trying to focus on something inward. And voila, instant nirvana! Whether you want it or not, you will be as disconnected from the rest of the people as they are from you. Of course, then you have the more refined members of Gen W who keep everyone out by using superbly crafted earphones. It removes the necessity of wearing a ‘Don’t disturb’ sign around your neck (or wearing a stern look on your face) while serving the same purpose and informing you about the latest Bollywood hits. And you still have your fingers and eyes to play Angry Birds! The possibility of any sort of conversation with co-travellers who cannot SMS you is gone, and you are in a world of your own. Take that, ascetics who had to struggle in forests without Lays and popcorn!

The most innovative use of this sensory overload, however, is to use them to create virtual islands within larger public spaces. The idea is simple: In the days before the Walkman, if you wanted to have a discreet conversation, you needed to speak into someone’e ear or signal using a predefined code or use Pig Latin. Now, each boom box creates a radius beyond which you are not heard (or so you think), and there seems to be no need to be discreet anymore. You will see this everywhere: Go into the nearest Coffee Day and people seem to be speaking as freely as they would at their homes and, wonder of wonders, you cannot hear a thing. The back seats in a bus are occupied by students who play loud music (how long do their batteries last, really!) and hold even louder conversations, while whispering sweet nothings via SMS to their girlfriends sitting in the front of the same bus. This creation of private spaces amidst increasingly overcrowded public spaces seems to be a very interesting achievement of today’s technology.

The technology of today not only serves the purpose of ‘Disconnecting People’  from each other, but also from the social and natural environment they are a part of. With generous phone makers deciding to throw in a camera along with a phone (and a music player and a video game console and a …), and cameras which make it possible for complete ignoramuses (like yours truly) to take fantastic pictures, nature is no longer something to be savored and enjoyed but something to be pursued and captured in a JPG file. We seem to be taking every small pleasure in our lives and converting them to neuroses. This, of course, perfectly suits those selling these items of desire, but what does it say about us as a society and a culture?

What to remember, what to forget?

Humans are creatures with a gigantic memory. The evolution of the written word made it possible to store things outside our brains, and hence more safely for very long periods of time. This gradual accumulation has resulted in a memory too large for any single human to remember or grasp. Only collectively do we know a lot.

Sooner or later, the question of what is important and worth passing on, and what can be neglected or lost in the sands of time would have cropped up. This is because even external storage of memory is not costless. Different civilizations came up with different answers to this question. Indians seemed to have thought that lessons from history are more important than history itself, and thus have left us with very little solid historical data, which is why the huge controversies surrounding the ‘construction’ of ancient India. Europeans were more meticulous, and have always had a good tradition of storing away bits of information from life thousands of years ago.

But why is it important to remember? Goethe took a shot at this question, and said

He who cannot draw on 3000 years is living hand to mouth.

which is simply another way of stating what Newton said:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The biggest advantage humans have over other living creatures is our capacity to build cultures, and it is on the basis of this culture that we can ‘move ahead’ without (literally!) reinventing the wheel every generation. This is why we have schools, so that we can remember something, and social institutions, so that something else can do the remembering for us.

But this memory can as easily be a disadvantage in many ways: First, not everyone who draws on 3000 years can rise above it to think for themselves. Knowing too much may kill creativity and the capacity to face a changing world. Second, remembering everything may preclude the possibility of forgiveness and healing. This is what is happening in India and America after 2002 and 2001 respectively. The intention is to ‘never forget what happened’ and the very memory breeds anger and hatred.

Thus, some people try and make a case that forgetfulness is as important to humanity as is remembrance. Thus, even when one is saddened by the news that Muslims in Gujarat are voting for Modi in the name of restoring normalcy,  one understands why it is happening. Shiv Vishwanathan believes that people are forgetting what happened due to Modi simply because all of today’s stories are written in the language of economics, which fails to capture the evil Modi represents. In fact, he is made to look like someone who has made Gujarat great if one only looks at the economy side of things. Same with the Bhopal gas tragedy. ‘Victims’ were converted to ‘patients’ and then to ‘vagrants’, simply by changing the language in which memory was constructed.

While this interpretation is undoubtedly true, one must also understand that even if the language changes, the want for people to restore normalcy to their lives will never go away, and that bearing a burden as heavy as the Gujarat riots maybe too much for most.

This brings us to today’s time. Semiconductor and magnetic memories have become so accessible and cheap that I believe that the 21st century will be a watershed for humanity: It is the time from which we forget practically nothing. Forever. The principle of important vs. unimportant memories simply no longer has any relevance. People are clicking photos using their phones and their cameras; recording voices and songs; recording every small detail of their lives on Facebook and blogs. It is no longer sufficient to experience something beautiful (or trivial for that matter), but to capture/record it from every angle and tweet about it, paste it on your wall and upload to Flickr or Picasa. The 21st century is the veritable historian’s nightmare: with nothing forgotten, he has to sift through immense data to try and make any sense of the world he will inherit from us. Undoubtedly, the day is not far when writing history will need the assistance of machines.

The demons of memory will haunt us now more than ever before in history. The issue is that it is not experience that makes us wise, but what we learn from experience. This requires a certain distance from what we experience, a kind of ‘greying out’ or ‘blurring out’ which is no longer possible as our entire lives are recorded in HD quality video. We have become ‘knowledge brokers’, but to rise above mere knowledge and pass onto posterity real lessons of history might no longer be possible.

Does everything really matter? If yes, does it matter to everyone around us, to the rest of the world? Just like Calvin says:

I’ll bet future civilizations find out more about us than we’d like them to know.

Selco’s Lab, Ujire

Where it happens...

Finally had a chance to make it to the Selco Incubation Lab housed at SDM Institute of Technology, Ujire. It is a small place, with 2 full time employees (one of them a graduate of IISc). It is managed by a person named Anand Narayan, who is now a farmer (his previous profession being in the wireless industry in the US).

Anand (left) and the principal of SDMIT at Anand's farm

The main focus here is to bridge the technology gap at the ‘last mile’, as Anand puts it — Working with farmers, artisans, vendors to find out needs and coordinating with companies/institutions to get the technology part done. They do some in-house work, but have too few people and underfunded to do many things on their own. Since SELCO is a famous name throughout the world, they get numerous interns from places like Cambridge and MIT (Through the Engineers without Borders and such programs) who spend the summer developing interesting technologies, like cookstoves with thermoelectric generators which can be used to charge mobile phones and animal repulsion systems for coconut trees.

They also spend quite some effort field testing equipment like stoves and lighting and giving valuable feedback to the manufacturers. For example, they deployed LED lighting in barber shops, vegetable stores and found out the reasons why they are not preferred. A design student then tried to address the issues and came up with multiple innovative lamp designs to suit their needs.

Another area is water quality testing, and they do such tests for samples submitted from nearby areas (including from Veerendra Hegde’s home!). Some interesting things I spotted there:

Different cook stoves being tested -- no 'one size fits all' policy!
View of the lab...
Some of the people and stuff they worked on here...
Combined Solar/Biomass based dessicator -- used for local food processing, especially bananas
Rice dehusker

The commitment to make a difference in the lives of potentially thousands of people is quite inspiring, and to see people who worked on ‘high’ technology doing things that would be looked down upon as low-tech is a useful exemplar for all.

The good part is the strong focus on immediate deployment rather than to focus as a museum, and attempts to encourage local entrepreneurs to disseminate the products, which is far more sustainable than a donor-based approach.

It was an interesting experience, and hope to see more and more interesting things coming out of this place.

HDR on the Nokia N900

The N900 does not fail to impress me even after fiddling around with it for some time now. One of the best things is of course the camera app BlessN900 which makes the camera superior by orders of magnitude to any to any other mobile camera. It can actually do HDR photography, which is awesomely cool. It can do focus/exposure bracketing, ‘Shallow focus’, and high quality low-light stuff as well. Check the following out…

First, a few HDRs:

Morning HDR

Panorama near home
View from the portico

So what’s the big deal about HDR? check out the above photo taken normally

Uncool!

I tried the shallow focus as well. Obviously, there is no shallow focus on a mobile, so it probably does some processing.

A Softer Sun!

Finally, the best shot of the lot, one can call it the textbook HDR subject.

Doesn't get better, does it ;)

N900 rocks!! It is debian based, so one can add any compatible repository and use any app, write your own. Somewhat rough on the edges, but that is why it is a hacker’s phone!

Moral stories in the age of computers

All of us have been brought up listening of reading some or the other kind of moral stories –  Panchatantra, Aesop’s fables, Bible stories and so on. They are part of our standard training while learning to live in the world. All moral stories are motivated by some ultimate aim of human life, though these are never explicit or overshadowed by talking animals and trees. Our morals do not develop in a vacuum – they are shaped strongly by our socio-cultural and geographical locations, and moral stories are among the more effective means towards our ‘shaping’. Not only that, like everything else in the world, they evolve, though not necessarily in the Darwinian sense of the word. Aristotle and Plato may have condoned slavery, but not Adam Smith and his ilk. Even then, considering that Aesop’s fables and the Bible provide relevant advice even to this day, there seem to be some things that are eternal, like numbers.

From where do we derive our ethical codes? The most abundant source is of course our own history. When viewed from a certain lens (which comes from a certain metaphysical position about man and his relationship with other humans and the rest of the universe), history can give us all the lessons we need. Which is why it is said that people who forget history are condemned to repeat it – not that we have progressed linearly from being barbarians to civilized people, it is just that we are animals with an enormous memory, most of it outside our heads and in books, and preservation or changing of such a legacy necessarily requires engagement with it. Therefore, ethics and epistemology have always gone hand in hand.

Our times are unique from any other in history simply due to the predominance of science in determining what we know – Ancient Greeks or Indians would do physics and metaphysics simultaneously without necessarily putting one or the other on a pedestal. Scientific method and mystical revelation were both valid ways at getting to the truth. Nowadays, of course, the second would hardly be considered a valid method for getting at anything at all, let alone the truth. Hard to say whether this is good or bad – evolution does not seem to have a sense of morality.

The Newtonian and Darwinian revolutions have had important implications for the modes of moral story telling: First, they remove the notion of an ultimate purpose from our vocabulary. Newton’s ideal particles and forces acting on them removed any ideas of the purpose of the universe, and the correspondence between particle<->force of Newton and Darwin’s phenotype<->natural selection is straightforward. Thus, biology or life itself lost any notion of ultimate purpose. Economists extended it to humans, and we get a human<->pain/pleasure kind of model of ourselves (pain/pleasure is now cost/benefit, of course). All in all, there are some kind of ‘particles’ and some ‘forces’ acting on them, and these explain everything from movement of planets to why we fall in love.

Secondly, history is partially or wholly out of the picture – at any given instant, given a ‘particle’ and a ‘force’ acting on it, we can predict what will happen in the next instant, without any appeal to its history (or so is the claim). Biology and Economics use history, but only to the extent to claim that their subject matter consists of random events in history, which therefore cannot be subsumed into physics.

If life has no ultimate purpose, or to put it in Aristotle’s language, no final cause, and is completely driven by the efficient cause of cost/benefit calculations, then why do we need morals? And how can one justify moral stories any longer?

The person of today no longer sees himself as a person whose position in life is set by historical forces or karma, depending on your inclination, but as an active agent who shapes history. Thus, while the past may be important, the future is much more so. He wants to hear stories about the future, not about the past.

This is exactly where computers come in. If we accept a particle<->force model for ourselves, then we can always construct a future scenario based on certain values for both particles and forces. We can take a peek into the future and include that into our cost-benefit calculations (using discount rates and Net Present Value etc etc.,). Be it climate, the economy or the environment, what everyone wants to know are projections, not into the past, but the future. The computation of fairytales about the future may be difficult, but not impossible, what with all the supercomputers everybody seems to be in a race to build.

The notion of a final cause is somewhat peculiar – it is the only one which is explained in terms of its effect. If I have a watch and ask why it is ticking, I can give a straightforward efficient cause saying because of the gear mechanisms. On the other hand, If I ask why are the gear mechanisms working the way they do, I can only answer by saying to make the clock tick – by its own effect. Thus, if we see the future a computer simulates and change our behavior, we have our final cause back again – we can say to increase future benefit, we change our present way of life. The effect determines the cause.

Corporations, Countries, Communities are faced with the inevitable choice of using a computer to dictate their moral stance. However, one can always question the conception of a human being (or other life for that matter) as doing cost benefit calculations as their ultimate goal. If we need a more textured model of a human, writing an algorithm for it remains an impossibility to this day.

For example, one can argue that the ultimate pupose of life is to live in harmony with nature or that we should ‘manage’ nature sustainably. The former does not need (indeed, does not have at present) a computer model, whereas the other does. One is within the reach of every person, the latter is only accessible to a technological high-priesthood. Which should we choose? at a future time, which one will we be forced to choose?

Therefore, in this post-Darwinian world, can we imagine an ultimate purpose for ourselves that will enable us to act on our own, or will we be guided by supercomputers simulating caricatures of ourselves? Time will tell.

The psychology of ‘pp’

Have you noticed how the details of every book go like this: ‘Book title, 246+xix pp.’ ? However, in no place will you ever find ‘pp’ expanded. I have always tried to figure out what it meant – Google does not give satisfying answers (maybe I’m bad at googling). Printed pages? most likely, but how am I to know? Is it such common knowledge that everyone knows about it and I have my own deficient childhood to blame? If it is something simple, why won’t people expand the blessed acronym?

If you will notice this is not peculiar to the book publishing industry. There seems to be an explosion of ‘specialist words’ – things that only those in the hallowed circles of extremely specialised knowledge have access to them. It is not that there are no substitutes that everyone understands: it is just that some words become so ingrained that their usage is unconscious. Speaking to anyone outside your professional circles freely has become completely impossible. In fact, our capacity to communicate our entire experience to another person has almost completely disappeared. We always have a part of our lives (sometimes called ‘work’) that you cannot share with anyone else, even though it occupies most of our time. Most conversations with more than 3 people eventually degenerates into politician-sportsman-actor bashing.

Whoever thought that English would tend to homogenize cultures got it wrong, or atleast underestimated the power of division of labor to recreate a Babel using English itself. Forget about variants like Hinglish or Kanglish, you have Compglish, Mathglish, Bioglish and people speaking a particular dialect find it extremely hard to understand what the other speaks, and realises too late that a particular joke will fall flat simply because the others don’t speak your language. It may not be long before speakers of different language become an endogamous (bet you need to google that up!) group and split into different species simply because they are more comfortable with their own kind.

The rate at which this ‘speciation’ is happening is amazing: a couple of generations ago, father and son could have arguments because they shared a vocabulary. Forget arguments, nowadays it is almost impossible for our parents to have a decent conversation with us. Earlier there was very little need for people to know another language unless they left their country. Nowadays, you need to learn two or three languages just to get out of the 12 standard, and by the time you are done with a PhD, the only person understanding your humor will be you.

Will it be possible for people to empathise more with others? Will there come a day when it will be impossible to share your lived experience with another human being? How will human bonds endure such restrictions in shared experience, possibly limiting shared experiences to common biological functions? You already notice houses are no longer common areas – there is my room, your room and everybody tacitly respects it, probably after a few embarrassments. We are already replacing humaneness with etiquette. Our notions of forward movement seem to ultimately lead us to ultimate loneliness even in the midst of a crowd. Who cares? after all, Facebook is always there.