कुक्कुराणां वनं

Every once in a while, we ask ourselves, “Why the heck did I ever waste my time on that?” Two of the prime candidates for that question for our generation are Calculus and Sanskrit. Two years of Calculus and two years of Sanskrit seem to be too much of a waste to me.

Now, the first, even I understand. I know no one who uses Calculus. I’ve not used it once since I got out of Engineering and even in there, most of the work purported to be done by hand was deftly dealt with by my calculator. But the latter, well, is more of a mystery. There’s a peep every now and then about Sanskrit. It’s in the news either because the German government is doing too much for it or because the Indian government is doing too little. Either because someone discovers some long-lost formula in those dusty tomes that seems to prove that all math and science in the world was first developed by Bharat or because somewhere or another, I find reference of oddities and extremities that I didn’t know about our motherland (I enjoy wikisurfing far too much). Continue reading

“Which way to Svoboda?”

I was reading a BBC news report of how, recently, pro-Russian sites are popping up in the Czech web sphere, which could allude to some serious USSR-style propaganda. The article referenced the 1968 Prague Spring, which was when the then Czechoslovakia government tried to establish reforms which would lead to freedoms to the press and private sector, the division of Czechoslovakia into Czech Republic and Slovakia and a general upliftment of the people who were suffering cruelly under the rule of the Soviet Bloc. Needless to say, Soviet Russia didn’t take kindly to this and, along with their friends of the Warsaw Pact (Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and East Germany) attacked Czechoslovakia to take back control.

Of course, they won. Even with the way things were under the USSR, they had tanks, weaponry and manpower and Czechoslovakia had, well, a leader who told his people not to resist. But resist they did. Without the necessary means to win the war, they resisted in the only other noble way – confound the heck out of the enemy. In the most peaceful way, road and street signs across the country were painted over or removed so as to completely confuse the incoming force.

The result was hilarious. Supposedly, one could see troops stopped in rural areas trying to study maps and making sense of how every village they’d visited was called either Dubček or Svoboda (which means freedom). Road signs were painted over, except those that led to Moscow. The result of that was that an invading force from Poland spent a day roaming around before being routed out of the country, empty-handed.

Now, these reports come from Wikipedia and further from two separate sources, but I’d say you should take them with a grain of salt regarding their veracity. However, the point to understand is that in those days, it was possible to confound an incoming force by the sheer ingenuity of changing your road signs and hiding all the maps. Of course, today’s military will simply whip out their iPhones and tell you where to invade next. But this episode lends importance to the idea that with the accumulation of power so dependent on finding your enemy, it is important to also control the means of finding the enemy in the first place. This is obviously the reason why countries like Russia, China and India as well as the EU are working to create their own version of the GPS system (which, mind you, is owned by the US Government).

Clearly, in tomorrow’s war, one of the first efforts will be to either block the enemy’s signals, thereby preventing them from finding our accurate locations. The other, more radical one, would be to try to shoot down their navigation satellites, a scenario that has given birth to more science fiction movies than we care to admit.

But, going back to that wondrous time when people still had to use maps and ask for directions from locals, I must say that it is remarkable that someone thought of the simple idea that perhaps one way of stalling the enemy is to paint over the signs which will tell them how to get to the capital. That’s your trivia for the day.

Solving the ten thousand year problem

While writing a short story today, I started thinking about an issue that I discovered last year. The story is set in the far future, where the dissemination of knowledge has changed so vastly that the idea of a printed page is absurd. I’ll be publishing it in the coming hours. But, as I was writing it, I started thinking about how much our culture and language will change in the next ten thousand or so years, let alone over the next hundred thousand years. That reminded me of an interesting thing I read last year – “Ten Thousand Years”.

Out in the New Mexico desert, stands a government building with a single task – to permanently store nuclear waste from the US’ various nuclear power plants, for at least the next ten thousand years. The date is so chosen because supposedly, thinking beyond that time frame is too mind-boggling to consider. It has nothing to do with Jeff Bezos’ Long Now Foundation, which is building a ten thousand year clock, thought it might as well, because both ideas are equally interesting and convoluted.

Now, one of the issues that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico is facing is that of language. Since the last ten thousand years, so much has changed in humanity, that the idea that the same language, the same symbols, and the same myths that protect us today will remain even then, is a non-sequitur. English is constantly fighting to be the language of choice while Spanish, French and Chinese are growing their user base. Symbols such as the skull-and-bones are adapted, first by real-life pirates and then by digital pirates to change their meaning completely, transforming something that indicates danger to something indicating excitement and even fun. Even myths change and long-loved black cats are suddenly considered evil and the number 13 bounces around as something lucky, then not.

Thus, assuming that a sign board at the gates of the WIPP, written in English and a battery of other languages, along with ten different types of warning symbols, should be enough to deter people from entering the premises, is foolish. This is one of the smaller issues that the WIPP is facing.

So what’s the solution? While I was pondering on the course of the story, I realized that the answer would have to be a mixture of ingenuity and technology. This is how I believe the problem can be solved –

We need to build a system that’s not just fault-tolerant and self-healing, but also intelligent enough to learn about it’s surroundings. While it may seem enough to place a settlement of scientists nearby who would constantly watch over the plant, recruit future employees and ensure the safety of the rest of the land, humans have a distinct habit of dying, moving away, letting emotions come in the way of logic and duty, and overall being bad protectors of the environment. So, the solution would be to build a system that can be initially supported by humans but must eventually stand on it’s own feet. This Gatekeeper would not just prevent people from walking into the compound, but also learn new languages, understand symbols and changing economics and governmental systems and ensure that no one disturbs the deathly sanctity of the place it protects. It would be able to access the Internet and learn of new technologies to replace it’s old ones. It would learn languages and add them to it’s database, essentially creating a bookmark of human history as it goes about it’s business of preventing nuclear waste from getting out of this burial place. This would have to be a highly fault tolerant system, able to quickly analyse any potential issue such as maintenance, earthquakes, failing parts and changing technologies in order to ensure its continued service. I think only if we are able to build such a powerful system can we promise ourselves that such a dangerous material can be protected over the next ten thousand years.

Or, we could just drop it into a volcano and hope that thing eats it all up.

Word of the Day: illiberalism

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, illiberalism, quite simply, is the lack of liberal values. But that begs the question, what is liberalism? Is it the ability of a community to be forward thinking and self-critical? Is it the incessant forward march of a government without caring for the social, political and emotive values of its peoples? Or is it the protection of the freedom of expression of an author writing about a sensitive topic with the backdrop of a community to which he does not belong? Hindustan Times certainly believes in the last definition.

First, it shows that it is not only the sangh parivar or Islamic organisations that are at the forefront of such illiberalism.

Source: Liberal values are being trampled upon in Tamil Nadu

The issue at hand is that the author Puliyur Murugesan wrote a bookBalachandran Enra Peyarum Enakkundu (I am also known as Balachandran), about the life and troubles of a transgender, who is sexually harassed throughout life and faces an upward battle of identity. The protagonist belongs to the Gounder community and by now, you would have guessed where this is going.

The Gounder community decided to take offence to this ‘insult’ to their people and instead of rationally sitting down with the writer and asking for edits to the story or a total redaction, decided that the better course of action would be to abduct the author and brutally beat him up in the middle of nowhere. To add insult to literal injury, the police has filed a case against the author for provoking a riot, writing and circulating obscene content, selling a book containing defamatory matter, intentional provocation of breach of peace and causing fear or alarm to public. Wonderful, isn’t it?

HT, in their laconic article, asked an interesting question – why is it that only current authors face the brunt of such injustice? Why do authors such as Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, the acclaimed author of Devdas, who “had made uncharitable remarks about some non-Bengali Brahmin clans”, not face such public ridicule and outrage? Perhaps, if it were in fashion, political parties and illiberal communities will also start attacking famous people from India’s history books. Oh wait, they already do!

A response to NYTimes’ OpEd on Religion in India

The New York Times has published a Christmas OpEd piece (yesterday online and today in print) that talks about religious intolerance in India and how ‘hindu militants’ are forcing conversions of Muslims and Christians and has blamed our PM, Narendra Modi for not doing enough to stop this and other attacks.

Initially, I wanted to write a long and deeply researched rebuke of this kind of hypocrisy, but I’d rather let a picture say a thousand words –


Continue reading

Real people don’t fit them

I love Jessica Hagy‘s site Indexed. It’s funny, published weekdays and is almost always spot on.

But, I found a problem with today’s post –

Stereotypes. Yup.

Jessica’s “Real People don’t fit them”


I don’t think you can portray a groups vs individuals analysis on a graph. So, I fixed it in my own way. Hope you like it and hope you check out her website. It’s pretty cool!

My version –

IMG_0233.JPG

 

Of course, Hagy’s Indexed is for fun and not to be taken as seriously as I have. But hey, when you see something wrong on the Internet, you fix it, right?

Word of the Day: Fungible

Fungibility, according to Wikipedia, is an economic term used to describe the property of a commodity whereby it is directly interchangeable with something else. For example, if you don’t care whether the rental car you get is a Mercedes or a BMW, then they are fungible. It was used by journalist Stijn Debrouwere in an awesome article about the future of newspapers and media companies in the age of the Internet, by calling his article –

A treatise on fungibility, or, a framework for understanding the mess the news industry is in and the opportunities that lie ahead.

Source: Fungible

Continue reading

On Fear

I was recently thinking about fear, particularly that fear is a genetic gift. Our forefathers instilled it into us to ensure we stay away from predators, darkness, and other harmful things. But there are two things about the nature of fear that confuse me –

  1. What about fear of our parents? Is that genetic? Is it instinctive for us to be afraid of our parents’ anger? Or is that something that comes to us after we’re born? If the latter, think about the immense sense of abandonment and betrayal a child must feel when their parents scold them for the absolute first time. At first, it may well be a very odd phenomenon for the child – an angry parent. But slowly it would dawn upon the offspring that the progenitor is expressing a negative emotion, a negativity asserted towards them and in context of something they did recently. After that, is it because of our lack of genetic fear that some children do not pick up on fear of parents, even when faced with physical punishment; while others become so afraid that even the idea of an angry parent that their tendency to do the “right” thing supersedes all other emotion.
  2. What about fire? When the flame is big enough that we feel “hot” instead of warm, we instinctively stay away from fire. But every time I see a candle flame, I feel like I must touch it. It is an enigmatic phenomenon which just be explored by touch and that urge overpowers all logic that cautions me to stay away. Is this because fire came into our knowledge a little too late to be a part of our genetic makeup? Had it been with humans longer, maybe it would have gotten stuck into our genes as something to use, but be wary of. If that is true, I wonder what other things came too early? Could a fear of large animals or snakes or cliffs be because of such circumstances and maybe we shouldn’t be afraid of them as much as we are?

I’d love some of my readers to respond with what they think about these fears. If someone has specific knowledge about fear, I’d love to have a conversation, either in the comments below, or you can email me or find me on social media. Thanks for reading.

Word of the day: calumny

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

According to Bing Definitions, calumny means defamation or a defamatory statement. Most certainly applied where the writer wants to depict the vilest of attacks on a person’s character, calumny is used by Sunil Dutta in his piece today, talking about the terrible tragedy currently unfolding in Ferguson, MO. He uses it as follows –

It is also a terrible calumny; cops are not murderers.

Source: I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me. – The Washington Post

Sunil talks about the Ferguson riots and the near-military state situation from a seat of experience. He was with the LAPD for 17 years before he started his teaching career. While some might see the article as a simple Do/Do Not list for when one is approached by a police officer, the underlying tone is that of frustration. Too often, people overreact to a casual situation when a cop is involved, myself included. Sunil explains how the officers themselves are mere humans who are trained well to be calm in all situations, but have legal backing to take action in case they feel that their own life or the lives of others is threatened.

Sunil’s explanation for police violence is that it is never brought forth against people who follow the rules, remain calm and obey orders. He agrees there are exceptions in terms of corrupt or aggressive cops, but the majority of incidents that happen are because of people who act out against cops. This might seem like a very opinionated view, but that’s exactly what’s needed right now. No one is talking from a coherent point of view from the other side. The police are being demonized by media from all over the world and no one from the authorities are talking about the investigation into the incident.

John Gruber, a blogger and Internet personality, has criticized this article by summarizing the suggestions laid out by the article as follows – “Don’t question authority or you might get beaten or shot. Astounding.” Frankly, that’s a fairly negative and populist opinion. What happened that night in Ferguson was a tragedy, but if you look at it from the side of those charged with not just uphold the law but also to enforce it, you’ll realize that there’s more to every such story than mere shades of black and white.