Tuesday, February 27, 2007

a tribute

Way to go before Teacher's Day so it might be a little surprising to some that I should want to talk about them this early in the year.

Today, came home a little early (relatively), and as I concocted up my dinner - which was tougher than usual considering that the maid hasn't come in for four days in a row and the plates in the sink have stacked up till they now reach the tap - I started watching a movie called "Dangerous Minds".

It is about a teacher trying to teach in a rough neighborhood. It is a lot more. It reminded me of the teachers that I have had ... all the way from the first standard till I graduated.

Having grown up in a small town, I had the good fortune of having been taught by people who, for the most, were teachers because they chose to be so. People who cared so much about what they taught and about the students that, honestly, back then, it was sometimes painful. It is amazing how they touch our lives and contribute to making us what we are in such a big way.

I cannot really remember my big city school teachers with equal fondness ... my loss ... because they all seemed to have become teachers after they had failed to do all else and they seemed to be perpetual fountains of frustration than learning. Though, to be fair, even there, there were some that cared ... and yes they too are remembered with as much fondness and respect.

Well, anyway, the intent of this post, before I tried to remember my high school and later years, was to be about teachers and a tribute to them. So, I'll leave it that way though things have fizzled down a bit all of a sudden.

This is a tribute to every teacher -every teacher that teaches out of a love of teaching, and out of love for the students. And especially for those teachers that I remember so well ... for everything.

Thank you!

Friday, February 23, 2007

On being an engineer

Today, a colleague and I were discussing whether we know enough. I complete seven years of work this year, and he has completed a little more than me. We were wondering where we want to be a few years down the line and whether we know enough today. thinking back to the time we had just joined the industry, we tried to recall how we felt around someone who had seven years of experience, and evaluated whether we really measured up to the awe that we felt then for such technical pundits.

I’ll leave that conversation there … for a while later, as I was fetching a cup of coffee, and still going over the conversation in my mind, I was trying to evaluate what changes with time.

Things are never really uniform and nothing that we can arrive at will really hold good for everyone. One of the biggest factors that I think changes over time is our confidence in converting abstract specifications into real entities. It may be argued that some people come in with this ability from day one and some never acquire it despite all the experience. The realist or the cynical might say that for two people that are equally brilliant and committed and all that balderdash, the newer person may be more willing to take risks while the senior may be risk averse given that he has a “rep to protect”.

The thing that struck me at this point is the truth of the fact about confidence. Engineers as a rule are optimists I think. Given a problem, I can’t remember a time when anyone around me ever asked whether it can actually be solved. Questions that are relevant and pertinent such are discussed. We do discuss whether it can be done within the allocated budget, with the number of people we have and within the time specified. But can it be done? Hell – NO.

Think of it and you will realize that this is how most engineers tackle problems. If you start with a belief that something cannot be done, it obviously will not be done.

Question: “So … can you send a man to the moon?”

Geeks Answer: “Well, let us see … what we need? We need a man, a vessel that can have air, water and food in it, and we need to be able to make it reach a speed that will cause it to break free of Earths gravitation. We need to aim it right, and if it is too fast then it will overcome Moons gravitation – we don’t want that! We’ll need to make some calculations … yup sure. We’ll do it!”

Question: “And warp drives? You think we can make space ships that will travel faster than light?”

Geeks Answer: “Hmmm. Tricky answer. Well … we have the theory of relativity and the special theory of relativity… we have proved that black holes exist which are like … ummm … singularities in the space time continuum … can we do it? Well, the current state of the art won’t allow it. Will my grandson fly to Saint Bernard’s Star over a weekend? Maybe not. Will his grandson make it? Provided we don’t blow ourselves up before that I am sure he will!”

More than half the things that we see around us would probably not exist had some one stopped to ask – “can this be done?” It may sound like I am exaggerating but everything from the mundane – like bulbs and cell phones – to the exotic – like stem cell research and space travel – it has happened because people have not really ever believed that something cannot be done.

If we can think it, we can do it as well. It may take a while … but it will get done.

It is a little disturbing that our thoughts could easily get constrained by our language. However, that has so far not been a problem. And though, we hit that barrier everyday, so far we have always extended language to encompass all that we have ever imagined (check out all the jargon in each field of you need proof). We have also formalized a way to create new thought structures – though it tends to be slow and tedious – so that a particular thought path does not get lost and need not be re-invented every time.

Nice thought isn’t it J sure makes me happy … hats off to the engineer in each of us … and maybe there is hope yet.

P.S. This is for my girl who will assume that I am being my conceited self (which isn’t always a wrong assumption to make) and just praising engineers because I am one. The word “engineer” as it is used here, is meant as one who creates or builds – which is not the how this word is defined in the dictionary (surprisingly). But then, to repeat myself, we humans have always extended the language to encompass our ideas … and this I guess is my contribution to the process.

Qualified to be a fighter pilot

The other day, someone was talking about a new concept of using gravitation as a medium for carrying signals. This would revolutionize communication apparently … though I almost immediately had the concern that if a circuitry misbehaved, perhaps we would see people floating around because of a weakened gravitation field or glued to the ground because of a strengthened field. I also expressed concern about the integrity of earth itself – which we all know is just a glob of mostly molten lava contained by a thin crust of solid earth with a thin layer of water over it and an even thinner and delicate gaseous atmosphere … all glued together by gravity.

However, since today morning, I am harboring the suspicion that just like cloning humans and various organs in tanks, someone somewhere has started working on this as well. And just my luck – the blithering godless idiot has a lab that is near my house.

Let me tell you why!

This morning when I woke up, it was like being on Jupiter. The G-force had increased at least 10 fold overnight. My eyelids were so heavy that I could hardly get them up … the quilt was impossible to put aside … my limbs refused to move … there I was on the bed … helpless … and I have no clue for how long.

The alarm went off … it lasts 20 seconds … but I could not move my arm to switch it off. Gravity was slowing my thought process too … and somewhere a train of thought … quite overloaded … like the trains during partition (only less bloody), arrived with the news that it was better to let the damn thing ring for 20 seconds than to try and move an arm to switch it off.

This gravitational anomaly would probably have kept me squashed under the quilt for the rest of the day had it not been for the suicidal tendencies of my house maid. At some point, I started hearing a distant, persistent buzz. It took a while to register that someone was at the door down stairs and was pressing the buzzer with the tenacity of a leech stuck to your foot.

There were a couple of options I figured. If the buzzer kept going for long enough, the coil of the electromagnet would probably burn out and it would be quiet again … but then there was also the possibility (and somehow I was convinced that this is what would happen) that the darn switch would melt and the finger pressing the button of the buzzer would come in contact with the circuit there in and start conducting electricity …

I conjured the picture (assuming that the gravitational experiment that was being carried out on me eventually ceased), I’d be able to get up and go down eventually, to see a singed cadaver still smoking on the porch of the house … perhaps even a crowd would have gathered wondering what the smell was all about … !@#@#$%…

Out of the goodness of my heart, I decided to save her soul and undertook the superhuman effort that was required to get out of that 10G zone. Just to go downstairs to open the door and have her remove her confounded finger from the buzzer.

Things got better after that. Apparently, the gravitation aberration was only in a small zone centered around my bed – which makes sense since the signal would need to be focused into a thin beam to interact with a specific cell phone – and the rest of the house was still at 1 G.

Thus, eventually I made it to office. However, it is my firm belief that anyone who has ever had to get out of bed on a Friday morning under the circumstances that I did has really experienced whatever an average fighter pilot or F1 driver does. All such people should be considered to be equally accomplished and qualified to participate in these activities as well!!!

So, I proudly announce that I am now a qualifed fighter pilot - though only by accident!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

a poem

Today I was cleaning out my mails and stuff ... official spring cleaning ... when I came across some stuff in my drafts folder. I use the outlook drafts like a scratch pad ... scribbling things and often forgetting that I'd scribbled them.

I can't seem to remember whether this is something that I wrote out myself or it is copied from somewhere ... what I do remember is that it was about 3 years ago soon after we had maintained two minutes of silence for the accidental death of an employee.

Two minutes of Silence
Five days of Tears
That is all you'll get
For all your wasted years.

This cannot be copied I realize as I transcribe - bad prose of this sort is my signature style.

Can't help wondering whether I will make a mark in this world or whether I will be forgotten before the ashes from the pyre grow cold - as so many are. Not sure whether it makes any difference either ways ... and in the middle of too hectic a day to really ponder any further on this.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

just like that

Of late, I have had very little time to blog. My posts, as a result have grown longer and longer ... there is so much to fit into one post when I do get the time to write. (Though I realize that I have an inherent tendency to write long posts anyway :))

I don't know how many of you have noticed the new soups ads ... If you have noticed, the ads say "no added MSG" or something along those lines.

A positive way of looking at that disclaimer is that they are being scrupulously honest. Most soups contain tomatoes, mushrooms and other things that are known to naturally contain MSG or the G part of it anyway ... and they are accounting for this in the ads. Remarkably honest.

The other way to look at it is that they know that there is MSG in their soup - and enough of it to put a disclaimer ... but why? Do they outsource production and don't they know the ingredients used by the 3rd party? Are they being lazy and not really measuring how much MSG on an average a particular soup will have given their methods of preparation? Do they know what they are selling?

I could even sell a packet of pure MSG and claim that it has "no added MSG".

As far as I am personally concerned, I couldn't care less whether they added MSG in my soup or not. I suspect that I would probably prefer it if they actually did. However, this pointless disclaimer has made me fretful enough to avoid buying these soups, preferring to go in for food items that do not make claims that I do not understand.

Communication skills matter. Between what I say and what the other person hears, is a huge gulf. There is the perception of the speaker, the perception of the listener. Further, not to be ignored are the perception of the speaker about the listener and vice-versa. If my granny told me that she hadn't added MSG to my meal, I wouldn't think about it twice for example :)

In a world where for various reasons, people have less and less time to understand, or come back and check whether they have got it right, it becomes imperative that we take responsibility for making sure that any communication we have is as unambiguous as possible especially when we want it to be that way - in ads for example.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

a paradox ... maybe more

I am, as it were, "going to the mattresses" (an expression made famous by The Godfather). Tomorrow, there is a strike to protest a judgment in a water dispute between two states, and though it is all for a "good and just cause", it is always the commoner that gets hit the worst. So, while we are praying and hoping that things will be fine and there wont be any violence, I have enough food to last me a couple of weeks (maybe more if I ration it out), and unless a mob comes and drags me out and burns me or something, I should live past this day.

As I sat after dinner today, surfing the channels, I was wondering about my next post. I wasn't sure whether to talk about the strike tomorrow or just generally ramble as usual. In general, there is always this dilemma that I have. Should I make this blog a happy place ... or should I make it a sad place. Till date, I have just let it be whatever it becomes without making any conscious efforts to portray a specific facet of my thoughts.

A couple of months ago (perhaps more), I once went searching for some of the most popular blogs in India. Almost invariably, they were extremely disturbing. Many of the authors appeared to have scrounged the news papers only to regurgitate everything back on their blogs, after having added a little additional information and copious amounts of venom.

The reason I have spewed some venom in the last paragraph is probably because they were so disturbing. This isn't just about blogging. It is something about life itself. The other day, after a pretty taxing day at the office, I came home to turn on the TV and switch to a news channel as I prepared dinner. There was the usual death and gore. However, there was something that really sickened me. The gist of it is provided below (It is really disgusting. I didn't eat much that night ... so feel free to skip the paragraph):

A man had stolen a hammer from where he worked (worth about 100 rupees). He had stolen it apparently because his daughter was very sick and he did not have the money to get her treated. The owner of the place where he worked (I don't remember the nature of work) traced the man to his home with a gang of about 6 people and almost beat him to death. When his wife begged and pleaded for his life, they said that they would let him live if she allowed them to rape her (agree to rape??? - this was how the narration went though). She agreed to this, and after they were all done, they killed the husband and left.
The media reported that the latest on the case was that the cops were now calling the lady everyday to the station to ask her horrible questions as a part of the "investigation".

The problem I face is how to deal with things like this. Everyday, the world seems to be getting worse. It isn't really. It was pretty much the same during all ages. It is just that this sort of behavior seems more unpardonable at this juncture in our history when we for all logical purposes are capable of rising above such dastardly acts.

Perhaps for the first time since our fore-fathers walked this earth, we have been able to find cures for most of the diseases. We understand the human body better; we understand the human mind better. We have enough food to eradicate hunger ... there probably was enough food at all times but not the technology to distribute it where it is needed the most. We now have the technology ... but do we have the will?

All of humanity seems to be disintegrating at the seams. All of a sudden, we have new untreatable diseases that are cropping up from only god knows where. We have AIDS, bird flu, mad cow disease ... we have our own version of the crusade going on. Read about the dark ages in history books and such ... I'll be darned if the future generations don't label our times as the darkest of dark ages - a time when humanity doggedly maintained its "animality" despite having the option to rise above it - provided there are any future generations of course.

At a personal level, there are two ways of living life. Be a part of the rat race and worry only about the size of your paycheck, yearly bonus, stock options, size of your car, and the frills in your apartment. Or, try and change things. Believe in a humanity that is less and less visible ... and strive to bring that out in people. Give your life for it if required. Works for the poor, work for the under-privileged ... make a movement out of it.

Life is never about either-or in the country that was the birth-place of the middle-path. So, we can be in the rat race, and send off a monthly check in charity to some organization that might be misusing the money for all we know and be done with it.

Thought works differently from speech. I didn't think this entire trash sitting in front of the TV. The thought that hit me then was a paradox (which perhaps is known to others but I am often stricken by the obvious).

We always take hermits to be the very epitome of self-sacrifice. Those that have given up all worldly stuff and are out seeking higher things. The opposite would be royalty - in the midst of every worldly pleasure possible, inextricably tied to power...
But, really, the sage and the hermit are the selfish ones. All that they care about is themselves. As long as I get moksha, who cares if the rest of humanity is at war or peace or whatever?
An ideal ruler on the other hand, leads a life that is for the people. Making their woes his own, guiding them, helping them ... every action that he takes is for the good of others. His life really never is his own.

What I can't seem to find for myself is a balance between caring about what is going on around me and not caring. Looking at the bright picture and looking at the not so bright side. To misquote Richard Bach in illusions, all that you need to do to remove a dark cloud from your life is to remove it from your thoughts. That can be done easily enough. But is that the right thing to do?

What is right and what is wrong anyway? If we look at the Bhagvad Gita, it seems to teach us that it is never an act that is right or wrong ... it is the intention. This is perfect and logical in a world where morals change on a regular basis. It is a perfect definition because it is not set in any absolutes. It changes with the times, without changing at all.

It is one thing to read, another thing to understand. What you do though for yourself is very far removed from either. I can only hope that there will come a time, when having experienced enough of life, and having thought enough, I will know where I wish to stand with respect to life. And I hope that whatever I find for myself is as fluid and static as the words of the Gita so that I don't have to keep re-inventing the wheel.

In the meanwhile, it is the mattresses for me ... and as us heathen say ... this torment is perhaps all a part of my karma :)

Monday, February 05, 2007

the ubiquitous safety pin

Decided to write on this a few days ago - towards the end of last week.

Tried composing it offline for the past 30 minutes or so before realizing once again that it does not work for me. A horrible waste of time considering that I have so little these days, and had I started here, the post would have been completed by now.

It all started the other day when I was getting ready for office. The strap of my office ID broke, and I was looking for ways to fix it. It was then that I realized that a safety pin could have helped ... needless to say that I did not have one available. The ID therefore went into the rear pocket of my jeans, and there it stayed for pretty much the rest of the day ... except for those blessed moments when it was pulled out in order to open a door or two.

It came back home at the end of the day - remotely representing something that we'd done in computer graphics way back - a Beizier surface. That, however, is not the point of this post and I should not digress so easily.

The point of this post is the safety pin - or the lack thereof in our daily lives today.

Going to office takes me a while. I still haven't worked up the courage to drive or ride on the rabid streets of Bangalore. So, while my almost new, three year old bike gathers dust in the parking lot, I walk out from my home, run across one of the aforementioned rabid roads and stand under a tree waiting for an Auto to take me to office.

The tree in question finally decided for itself that winter has arrived (some time about two weeks ago), and shed all it leaves overnight. Much to my dismay, added to all the other inconveniences that this city has to offer, I now stand waiting for an auto under a tree that provides no shade. Enough reason for me to light up in the interim and smoke while I wait for some auto-wallah to bestow me with a glance and perhaps even condescend to talk to me ... and rasp "tirty rupeees saar" for a distance that is worth just about half as much.
(Breathe : the author suggests that the reader stop for breath at appropriate intervals. Given the length of some of these sentences and the post on the whole, it is possible that a careless reader may swoon for want of air. Be forewarned!)

The only point of the above paragraph being to establish the fact that I get time to think over things on my way to office. That established we shall now return to the topic at hand.

The safety pin.

The safety pin brought with it memories of mom, and most of the women of her generation. They always seemed to have a bunch handy. That reminded me of some of the older girls I knew then. Most of them seemed to carry enough on them to execute a break in or car-theft at any time. Apart from the safety pins, there would be the hair pins - the wavy sorts - perfect for picking the best locks that any locksmith has ever devised.

Up to this point, I was very happy and full of that happy warm feeling that you get every once in a while. However, as I finally sat in the rick to get to office, my thoughts took a slightly more somber turn.

I realized that safety pins had all but disappeared from the arsenal of the women I now saw about me (hairpins too; probably something to do with the advanced anti-theft systems installed in most of the new cars). And, I couldn't help worrying about the kids today - can you imagine a kid's world without safety pins? A hundred buttons always missing, the hanky always lost unless pinned to the lapel ... button fly’s missing buttons (darn embarrassing) ... and to add to the chaos ... no safety pins!

I really felt for the tots of today.

The apprehension was not just about the safety pin. I realized that it had slipped away from my life without my even being aware of it. I shuddered to think what else might be missing already and when I will wake up to the fact.

More than anything else, I wanted to thank all those women who were always there for me as a kid ... mom, aunts, older cousin sisters ... with their hankies, their hair pins ... and yes ... their safety pins. I grew up safe cocooned in all that safety.

I hope and pray that all the women today - the mothers, the aunts, the older sisters - who are all so caught up in their work and hectic schedules never lose their magic for the kids. I hope they never lose their safety pins....

"Tirty rupeees onlee saar ... no change".