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The Gandhian bridge

Timothy Roemer writes in India Today:

The US, India, and Gandhiji have a long history of influence on each other and Gandhiji’s impact, both past and present, on the US has been immeasurable, invaluable and immense.

Gandhiji was a guiding light for Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and Gandhiji’s teachings on civil disobedience set the tone for the civil rights movement in America.

Just as Gandhiji inspired Dr King, the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau helped shape some of Gandhiji’s strongest beliefs. Gandhiji’s civil disobedience movement was greatly inspired by Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” written in 1849. In fact, Gandhiji titled his 1930-31 movement after Thoreau’s essay.

Thoreau himself was motivated by the ancient Hindu writings, the Upanishads, which had been translated into English in the early 1800s and read by Thoreau while studying at Harvard College. Thus, as former US Ambassador to India Chester Bowles wrote, the political technique of boycott and non-violent protest has already crossed and re-crossed the ocean to strengthen hearts and to influence minds in South Asia, South Africa and in the US.

What a victory!

These are the times the cricket fan in me lives for. India vs. Australia, late at night (for me), and a nail-biting, frantic-cricinfo-refreshing, table-thumping, jinx-fearing victory by 1 wicket on the fifth day.


FBPNN: Routine enquiry yields seminal body of scientific work

In the myth-shrouded history of medieval England, a single apple’s fall moved Isaac Newton to discover the well known theory of gravity. In an understandable, if not excusable, pursuit of this process, the Indian administration decided long ago to on its Controlled Ordering of Vacuous Enquiries to Really Understand Phenomena (COVERUP) policy.

In India, whenever a significant object – a bridge, a canopy, a streetlight – related to the government succumbs to gravity, the COVERUP policy is triggered, under which an official enquiry is ordered. In almost all cases, as befits scientific enquiry, the examination goes far beyond the immediate nature of the incident and focuses on the more fundamental underlying theories. The date of the next election, the popularity of the current administration, and the amounts of little pieces of paper passed under tables, for example.

For something as important to the national image as the CommonWealth Games, however, it is occasionally pointed out that nobody actually listened to the order and an Enquiry Commission is set up to handle the enquiry. In special cases Commissions for Ordering Enquiries have also been set up to set up Commissions of Enquiry that can be ordered to institute said enquires.

Not much scientific progress, however, has been recorded as legions of Indian Civil Service men and women spend weeks, months and years pondering over the root causes of objects transitioning from high to low, up to down. The ever-present ghost of Newton, yelling, ‘It was gravity!’ in their ears goes unheard. That changed today as a bright young recruit turned in his report in response to an enquiry merely two months after it was ordered, beating the previous record by several decades.

The report, titled “Principia Incompetencia”, also has a subtitle, “Don’t Do It”. While the author freely admits deriving the title from Newton’s seminal research, he denied that the subtitle borrows from Nike’s motto. “They stole from us,” he said in a prepared statement. “The Indian Civil Service has been following Don’t Do It for centuries.”

The report, as always, is long and mostly incomprehensible, but in a startling departure from the norm; the prologue summarizes the thesis in nearly understandable language. Bureaucratic efforts, it says, follow three simple laws of stagnation.

The first law, “Work that is not done will continue to not get done even though unreasonable amounts of external force are being applied.”

The second law, “The material progress in any project is inversely proportional to the sum of the number of babus and their close relatives in the sub-contracting business. The financial cost, on the other hand is exponentially related to the same number.”

The third law, “All government action is a rumour.”

As the nation ponders this explanation of its affairs, the author of the report has been accused of circumventing the vetting process for commission reports and an enquiry has been instituted into the same.

The Fake But Possible News Network understands that reading beyond the subtitle of an official report violates journalistic codes of conduct. However, our editor is on leave and couldn’t correct the error before press time. We seek your understanding.

The Gun Seller, by Hugh Laurie

A marvelous story told in (almost) classic British comic style by Hugh Laurie, who played Bertie Wooster in the “Jeeves and Wooster” TV series. A review I read before reading the book spoke of this as a mix of P. G. Wodehouse and Fredrick Forsyth and I didn’t believe it. I won’t say I buy into that description, but I understand what they meant.

The book tells the tale of retired British military serviceman Thomas Lang, who accidentally gets involved with a dangerous crowd involving British politicians, Middle Eastern terrorists and the American military-industrial complex. The plot is actually not too bad, and certainly hangs together; even if there are a few somewhat incredible parts to it. I won’t give it the highest praise for suspense and thrill, but that is more than made up for by the way the yarn is spun — in the first person of T. Lang. The language is dry, self-deprecating, dripping with sarcasm, and outright funny. I’d forgotten how rarely one reads books that have laugh-out-loud moments. Certainly not to be missed.

Down Under Part I: Sydney

The first of what I hope will be a series of posts on my recent trip to Australia.

Sydney Harbour

Any visitor probably first experiences Sydney at its harbour, which gives a million vantage points to view the city from. There’s one secret to the charm — multiple perspectives of the heart of the city; each spectacular.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Maratime Museum

There’s the architecture — a mix of old colonial and modern glass, even leaving aside the Opera House.

And call me stupid, but I couldn’t get over how well Sydney’s signs were written.

Cruise Bar

In my travels so far, I’ve found cities to be variously amusing or drab, zippy or sleepy, grand or quaint; but I never thought I’d ever find a city beautiful. Sydney, however, had a beauty so unexpected it left me in disbelief.

We had just planned to be in Sydney for only a day. It felt like we could stay a lifetime.

Sydney Skyline

International diplomacy in 140 characters or less

Couple of book reviews

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately, but with a new job and tons of other things; writing reviews hasn’t kept up. Here are a couple of quick reviews of recent reads. More later.

Game Change

John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

A great inside look at all aspects of the 2008 US Presidential election. It covers both the Democratic and Republican nominations as well as the general election. The book is fast paced and perfectly embodies the theme of truth being stranger than fiction. In parts thriller, and in parts soap-opera, the book contains quite a few surprises for a political outsider or novice.

The biggest surprise is that the major drivers of the successful candidates were seemingly small “mistakes” by others — a chance misstatement here by a spokesman or spouse, the focus of the press on one particular story instead of another. If you believe the book’s causality chain, this book will leave you feeling quite disturbed about the workings of democracy.

Elsewhere, the book speaks of the various dramas that unfolded over the course of the election — Hilary and Obama’s bitter fight with the surprise ending of Hilary becoming SecState, the unexpected selection of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate, the McCain campaign’s recovery from a near-death spiral into oblivion, Obama’s embarrassment by his preacher Jeremiah Wright and more. Pretty much like the juicy part of the West Wing, with not much emphasis on policy. That’s one thing the book does not deal with… I do know that there were proper policy debates on issues like health care and so on but they’re rarely discussed and if so, only in a political context. Fair enough, I guess, given that the book is meant to be a thriller.

Your Brain at Work

David Rock

I decided to read this book after watching a wonderful presentation by the author at Google (here’s the video). The book and the author’s work is aimed at improving and optimizing mental performance. The central theme of this book is to explain various kinds of ‘blocks’ to clear thinking, insight and mental productivity to the reader, and to provide strategies for avoiding or getting around them.

I found approach in the book to be unique. At the beginning of every chapter, the author describes a scene from the life of a couple at work and sometimes at home — usually a scene where mistakes by the characters lead to them making poor decisions. The author then explains the issue, presents solid research about his point, and ends the chapter with a ‘take two’ — how the story might have unfolded if the characters had followed the right strategies.

A sample of the issues discussed — external distractions, internal mental competition among tasks that we must perform, interactions with emotions, the nature of mental insights. I could pretty much relate to every single chapter. In any book like this, it’s quite easy to get lost in the nitty-gritties of the research material presented as you go through it; so the author very helpfully provides a clear summary of the points discussed and improvement steps at the end of each chapter. I picked up this book from the library, but this is one that I’ll buy and read again and again.

Flying low

Almost eighty-three years ago, Charles Lindbergh took off from New York to attempt what had never been accomplished. Thirty grueling hours and 3,600 miles later, he landed in Paris. It was the first time a man had flown across the Atlantic.

It was a risky venture — six lives had been lost in the previous decade trying to fly across a sea that Brits and Yankees today fondly refer to as ‘the pond’. Whats more, Lindbergh went against conventional wisdom and used a custom-designed plane, hacked together in a couple of months, using only a single engine when all earlier attempts had used at least two.

It was a time of tremendous excitement and anticipation. Over the next thirty years, aviation progressed at a frenzied pace, and in 1957 the venerable Boeing 707 commercial airliner entered service, marking the beginning of the Jet age. What would the next half-century look like?

The sad, no, tragic, answer — exactly the same. Show them a file picture, and 95% of people today wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a Boeing 707 and an Airbus A380, the so-called “latest and greatest” commercial aircraft. And while the rest of may be able to distinguish the two, isn’t it astounding how similar they are?

Yeah, yeah, there have been significant improvements. Carrying capacity, range, comfort, safety, fuel efficiency, blah blah. I’ve read the brochures. Whatever. Significant improvements is polite-speak for no leaps. The cruising speed of the A380 is actually a tad slower than the 707. Meaning it takes the same time for me to get from Point A to Point B while flying today, and don’t even get me started on the airport security lines. What the hell happened?

I don’t know. But this post isn’t about the aviation industry.

It’s about a sinking suspicion that I’ve been having. That the computing world is on the same kind of flight path.

See, when I was a kid, I used to hate having to go out anywhere, except to this family’s home that we knew. Because they had this awesome thing called a Computer. Much later, I would learn that it was the PC XT, the first computer that came standard with a hard drive (a 10 megabyte hard drive). But to me it was just the Computer. It was like a combination of a TV and a robot — it had a screen but the screen responded to what you did. Intelligently. It would produce words that you were typing, or it could show graphics. I played the original Prince of Persia on it.

Then my father bought home our first computer – an AT 286. With a colour monitor. That had VGA resolution. I cannot begin to tell you how much better Prince of Persia looked on it. And it was FAST. It had a small “Turbo” switch and light and when it was on, boy, did the machine race. The only time I turned it off was while playing Pacman because Pacman was so fast at Turbo that it was unplayable.

The next few years of my life were frantic. I grew so attached to the computer that I actually would agree to type pages and pages of work-related documents for my parents just to be allowed to use it. I learned AutoCAD and marveled when we upgraded to a 40 MB hard drive, because then we could keep AutoCAD installed along with the rest of our applications. Then came GW-BASIC, my first language, the first programs. The addition of a multi-media kit, we could actually listen to CDs on a computer!

I remember the two months a friend and I spent running around borrowing audio CDs from family and ripping them. And then filling up a 640 MB hard drive with MP3s and taking it to a guy in a garage who had a CD-burner; praying that the auto-rickshaw ride wouldn’t screw up the drive. And the badass feeling of “do we rock or what!” at possessing a 5-inch disc with 110 songs on it. All the years of painstakingly recording individual songs on cassettes were finally behind us.

Junior college in Singapore, where I discovered e-mail and keeping in touch with family; and finally, 1999, when I bought and assembled my first desktop in undergraduate school; discovered the Internet and that through it, I could get music and movies and news and chat with people half a world away, using these strange but exciting programs called IRC and ICQ. And using a neat little software called Photoshop, I could scan and edit pictures that I took from my little film camera.

It’s more than a decade later, now, and I have much nicer computers. But I’m still listening to movies and music and writing some code and trying to keep in touch with people half a world away. Some of them are using their computers to raise virtual pigs and grow virtual cabbage. I still use Photoshop, and the latest drool-worthy laptops from a company called Apple, I believe, offer a Turbo mode.

When I quote Star Wars it’s usually Yoda or Luke; but Han’s gotta have this one.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

What the hell happened? I think I have a vague clue; but I’ll leave it for next time.

On my Amazon wish list: a web reading app

You’ve heard the old joke right? When mankind first went into space, the only computers available were used to control the spacecraft. And so, humans needed, you know, pen-and-paper. Unfortunately, pens rely on the downward flow on ink, which in turn relies on gravity, which isn’t a given in space. And so the Americans apparently spent millions on research to develop a pen that would work in space. The Russians, who spent their millions on the spacecraft, used pencils.

The story isn’t true (more here). Regardless, the reason it sticks around in anyone’s head is it matches a lot of real life situations. Simple solutions don’t always get implemented first. Which brings me to the topic on my mind today, Amazon’s Kindle. Not the device, but the ecosystem.

Amazon is basically a retailer. While they’ve probably made a lot of money selling Kindle devices, their real interest is in selling books to people through their store, and redefining the publishing market. The proof’s in the pudding – they now have apps to read Kindle content via PCs, Macs, iPhones, iPads, BlackBerries, with “more reading apps on the way”. And you can buy Kindle books and read them on these devices without ever buying a Kindle. Clearly, the Kindle device itself isn’t central to this ecosystem.

I have to applaud the effort. Especially when they have a device as brilliant as the Kindle, opening up the ecosystem to include more devices is a commendable vision and a fascinating idea. It’s the first time a user can have an entire library of books available at the press of a button or the touch of a screen on so many devices. But, to truly transform that vision into reality, they’d need an Android app, a Palm app, a symbian app, a Chrome OS app, a Linux app… the list goes on. Wouldn’t it just be simple to — make a web app that’s accessible for any net-enabled device?

That will go farther, I’d argue, than any other reading-app effort in keeping users with the Kindle platform. Of the phones, you only have so much market penetration; and people just don’t have their computers with them all the time. While it’s probably too much to hope that Amazon or any other retailer will ever convince publishers to remove DRM completely from books, having a web app truly means your Kindle library is as open as possible. Go for it, Amazon.

The life of a photograph, by Sam Abell

One of the most impactful books I’ve read about photography. Very little words, except the thousands in the photographs. Any number of gurus, books, lectures on photography will tell you how important it is that a photograph tell a story; but until I read this book, I really didn’t understand.

I can give no better testimonial to the book than tell you a little story that the book inspired in my own photographic efforts soon after I read it.

We were in Yosemite with friends a couple of weeks ago, on the cusp of winter and spring. It was still snowed in, and the views were breathtakingly beautiful. An hour before sunset, a posse of photographers gathered on Sentinel Bridge to capture the majestic Half Dome bathed in the last rays of the sun. Unfortunately, nature had other ideas; and we waited in vain while a cloud obscured half dome all the way till darkness. If I hadn’t read Abell’s book, I might have gone back disappointed. Instead I made this photo, the pros with their cameras and the amateurs with theirs – there’s even a phone camera in the mix – all restless and, by this time, resigned to not making that ideal sunset photograph. There’s a sense of irony and bemusement that I’ll always remember. Click on the image for a larger version.