How does the Elephant March without Trampling Others?

The quality of good cinema is that its leaves you thinking. If that is the yardstick, documentaries would almost always be classified as good cinema, because the very reason they are made is to leave the viewer pensive. Sometimes, films like An Inconvenient Truth, or Michael Moore’s many movies, become popular, are seen by the multitude, and manage to affect society. However, sadly, in the vast majority of cases, documentaries hardly get to be seen by enough people that they will shape public opinion.

Thanks to Pedestrian Pictures, I saw two such documentaries — In Search of Gandhi and Freedom…!, and I have been pondering over them since I got back.

In Search of Gandhi (2007) is a film not about history, its about the contemporary India which lives on the trail of the Dandi March. The filmmaker visited various cities and villages en route to see how much people think about and remember Gandhi — and he finds that it is awfully little. Ellis Bridge in Ahmedabad, which was where Gandhi gave a famous speech about equity, is home to a slum, and the government threatens to use its muscle to clean up their homes and build a garden. In most places, people have no qualms in saying that Gandhi’s principles will not work in today’s India, because you have to resort to the unscrupulous and the immoral to get your job done. Perhaps the most shocking was the xenophobic diatribe which a 80 year old Gandhi follower unleashes — his opinions of the Muslim community is that they are like a dog’s tail which can not be straightened. Unfortunately, he is a well respected person of the society there. The tale is the same with youngsters and the emotions in both communities run high post-Godhra and Modi’s ascent to power. Statues of Gandhi lie dismembered, disrespected as Modi’s huge hoardings proclaim a period of wealth and development. In fact, in Surat, Gandhi keeps watch with grave determination over a bunch of people who have congregated in the name of ‘Mahatma Gandhi Laughing Club’. Elsewhere, people have shown little respect while cutting trees to clear off forests, livelihoods, societies, in their hurry to build castlesque shopping malls. The economy is booming, and the booming noise threatens to forever dampen the few noises that remain. (I had written an earlier piece about Mahadevbhai, a play I saw on Gandhi’s assistant, and some posts on India)

Freedom…! was a slightly older film (2002) concentrating on how our 9% Y-O-Y growth is affecting people we don’t think about, sometimes even consciously ignore. Floods in the Kosi river, cutting of Mangrove trees in Gujarat, destruction of forests in Orissa, are shown as case studies of how in some cases people rise up, complain, and ask for their rights. In many cases, the leaders were brutally tortured by the police (Colonel Salve in Kutch — I could not find a link, if somebody can, please let me know and I will put it up), in some cases murdered by perhaps the big-pocketed businesses they were fighting against (Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha’s Niyogi murdered in 1991). However their legacies have lived on, and the remaining unheard voices of fishermen and farmers are trying to make themselves heard, justifying the martyrdom of their leaders.

All this after having seen Hazaron Khwahishein Aisi last night. The story of Siddharth, Vikram and Geeta is a must watch. An extremely strong hat-ke story, incredible performances, and an ending that leaves you pinching your conscience. In fact, the ending is available at Youtube:

And where does all this leaves us? The reason for making these documentaries is to make people think. What is the right model for development? Rampant capitalism which most people are now purporting, can do irreparable harm to our country, its natural surroundings, culture, and even unity. At the same time, the juggernaut of growth and development will roll on, it is not something that can be stopped. The people who have tasted success will not stop at anything, and I am not even sure if they should, because this growth and development is giving India its rightful place in the world — with world leaders knocking at our doorstep ever so often. However, how can we channelize this hunger, and ambition, so that the growth does not come at the expense of the many that have not had the good fortune of being able to get the same level of training, education and opportunities. How does the elephant march forward without trampling his own soldiers?

I wonder.

Aqueduct vs Theatre

Read this today in the TOI editorial (something interesting, for once!):

The Greeks, who had been in the area since around 1400 BC, and later the Romans, have left a lasting legacy in the form of magnificent buildings in the southern Anatolian region of Turkey.

The legend goes that in the 2nd century AD, there were two brilliant architects who aspired for the hand of Semiramis, the daughter of the king of Aspendos, a satrap of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. The king laid down the condition that the one who created the most remarkable public monument should marry the princess.

One of the suitors, whose name has unfortunately been lost to history, decided to build an aqueduct, for surely nothing was more important than a good water supply for any city. It turned out to be one of the most outstanding water conveyance systems in the world, and even the ruins impress the modern traveller (sic).

Our knowledgeable guide told us that aqueducts had to have very precise measurements of angle, calculation of flow of water, resting chambers at certain intervals where the speed had to drop, or else the tremendous force of the water could have flooded the entire city.

Zenon, the other architect, decided to build a grand theatre, with 40 tiers of seats, divided in 10 sections. There were 59 massive arches at the top, and 12,000 people could watch the entertainment on the magnificent stage below.

Behind the stage rose a two-storey building, 30 metres high, called the scena, meant for the actors to change and relax in between acts. This was exactly as high as the auditorium, and joined to it on both sides, which was the secret of the amazing acoustics Zenon had achieved.

The king had almost decided that the aqueduct would be the winner. But when he stood on the top-most tier to inspect the theatre, he heard a whisper, “Semiramis must be mine”, and looked around but could see no one.

Finally, he glanced down at the stage, where he saw Zenon, and knew that he had to change his mind; for although the aqueduct was impressive, this monument seemed the embodiment of perfection. The marriage of Zenon and Semiramis was solemnised in the theatre.

The aqueduct was used for over 500 years before it fell into disuse. But the theatre, although somewhat battered after several earthquakes over the centuries, remains intact, and is used to this day because of its still perfect acoustics — on account of which Zenon had won his princess.

Now, that’s an interesting story!

(PS: I think the correct spelling is traveler but not completely sure. If anybody knows for sure, let me know)

Life of a Pawn

एक मोहरे का सफ़र

जब वो कम उम्र ही था
उसने ये जान लिया था की अगर जीना है
बड़ी चालाकी से जीना होगा
आँख की आखि़री हद तक है बिसाते-हस्ती
और वो मामूली सा इक मोहरा है
एक इक खा़ना बहुत सोच के चलना होगा
बाज़ी आसन नहीं थी उसकी
दूर तक चारों तरफ़ फैले थे
निहायत सफ़्फा़क
सख़्त बेरहम
बहुत ही चालाक
अपने क़्ब्ज़े में लिए
पूरी बिसात
उसके हिस्से में फ़क़्त मात लिए

वो जिधर जाता
उसे मिलता था
हर नया खा़ना नई घात लिए
वो मगर बचता रहा
चलता रहा
एक घर
दूसरा घर
तीसरा घर
पास आया कभी औरों के
कभी दूर हुआ
वो मगर बचता रहा
चलता रहा
गो की मामूली सा मोहरा था मगर जीत गया
यूं वो इक रोज़ बड़ा मोहरा बना
अब वो महफूज़ है एक खाने में
इतना महफूज़ कि दुश्मन तो अलग
दोस्त भी पास नहीं आ सकते

उसके इक हाथ में है जीत उसकी
दूसरे हाथ में तनहाई है |

Brilliantly written by Javed Akhtar. Check the original (there’s some help for tougher words as well).

Small Car, Giant Leap

image Ratan Tata really pulled it off. Half a decade back, he had said that he wanted to give India a small car that would be within reach of the millions of Indians who have to make do with two-wheelers, and last week in the Auto Expo, he delivered on his promise. And in what style — the whole world sits up an takes notice! The media’s been abuzz with the grand success that Tata has pulled off, to the dismay of all nay-sayers who believed that the car who found a thousand and one ways to make fun of the whole concept.

Even after the car came out, people have been debating why we need to clog our roads further, how RK Pachauri’s heart would miss a beat, and Sunita Narain would get a shiver down her spine, and Chidambaram due to the oil import bill. While I agree that such a cheap car is such a disruptive thing that the whole way we think about roads, infrastructure, and gas imports needs a rehash. (This really came out of a discussion on the Blogaloreans mailing list:) I would say that in the midst of all the praise and criticism, we miss a few important points.

Firstly, the car is not made just for the cities. The whole problem of parking and traffic vanishes as soon as you move outside the city’s center. The upshot for the rest of the country is far too high to just write off the car. Personally to me, preventing less privileged people from having the luxury of cars when the more affluent income groups easily swift around is a rather elitist point of view. To quote form WorldChanging:

Which leads us to the inescapable fact that a Tata Nano in Chennai is, from the biosphere’s perspective, similar to a Toyota Corolla in Vancouver.

Even within the cities, the traffic argument fails to pass muster when you consider that traffic and other problems would occur anyway — Nano or no nano — and all the new car has done is to accelerate the process. We would have to come up with more innovative means of handling the growing traffic on our roads anyway (taxing vehicles in the Central Business District like in London is one idea) and improve the mass transport system (like in Kolkata and Delhi). The government and the Municipal Corporations need to be more proactive both in legislation and regulation.

I am personally of the view that a car should be used as a means of last mile connectivity and local transport, and I like the concept of driving to the nearest Metro station, park your car there and go to work using the Metro. IMHO, this is the model that can scale in the long run. Obviously, another important use of a car is the drive through the highway, where the safety of a car is far more reassuring than a bike or a scooter.

Autos and cabs would be another thing that would benefit greatly from this development, and if we think about what causes the most madness on the roads (autorickshaws, bikes and the like) we would be better having single-sized four wheel vehicles, which have no option but to stick to the lane discipline.

image There are other fallouts as well, the chest thumping we can now do in a major manufacturing conference is only one of these. The world is sitting up and taking notice of India’s design and engineering prowess, and I am sure the outsourcing companies have already started giving higher revenue projections. The Tata car has almost become a barometer in some circles, and its making its competitors re-think their strategy. It’s already got them new enemies — Bajaj was so worried that he announced his own car! And the ramifications are not limited to the automobile segment alone! The new car revolution might just take the country by a storm just like the mobile revolution, and change our fundamental assumptions about a host of things.

All said and done, to me the biggest advantage of this new development is that Indians will have another thing to boast about — when they promised and delivered. It will add a new spring to their step, and inshallah, help our country forward over the coming years.

Sir Edmund Hillary

While I have never known more than him than his record, the news of his death got splashed across broadsheets everywhere and I must confess I was quite intrigued why he was so great as to command half of the front page in many of our newspapers. I then went on to look at his obituaries at some of the newspapers and I was quite inspired. Sample this (from The Hindu):

Success did not breed arrogance. At a time when hierarchies of race and class defined the relationship between sahib and sherpa — few mountaineering accounts even bothered to name the Nepali porters who were critical to their success — Sir Edmund saw fellow climbers as equals. “I held out my hand,” he recorded famously of the moment he stood at the summit of Everest with Tenzing, “and in silence we shook in good Anglo-Saxon fashion. But this was not enough for Tenzing, and impulsively he threw his arm around my shoulders and we thumped each other on the back in mutual congratulations.” Until his comrade’s death in 1986, Sir Edmund refused to settle the debate on who first set foot on the summit of Everest.

Most successful people we hear about today would hardly ever be humble enough to give the same status and respect to a helper. Apart from that, Sir Hillary spent quite a bit of the latter part of his life working for the welfare of the sherpa community in Nepal. No wonder they look upon him as a “second father” and are mourning his death as much as his homeland (source). In fact, for quite sometime after scaling the tallest peak in the world, he officially mentioned his occupation as a “beekeeper” (his father’s business). Not only was he the first person to scale the Everest as well as both the Poles, he was also the President of the NZ Peace Corps. I also found this story very inspiring (source: NYT):

In 1979, Sir Edmund was to have been commentator on an Air New Zealand sightseeing flight over the Antarctic but had to withdraw because of a schedule conflict. His friend and fellow mountaineer Peter Mulgrew took his place. The plane crashed on Mount Erebus, a volcano on Ross Island in McMurdo Sound, and all 257 aboard were killed. Sir Edmund married June Mulgrew, his friend’s widow, in 1989. Besides Lady June, Sir Edmund is survived by his daughter, Sarah, his son, Peter, and six grandchildren.

Sir Edmund surely was a man who lived life on his own terms, he never held a full job (except serving as NZ’s India Ambassador for sometime), and the best part was that he dreamt, and he made his dreams come true:

“The whole world around us lay spread out like a giant relief map,” he told one interviewer. “I am a lucky man. I have had a dream and it has come true, and that is not a thing that happens often to men.”

Aside: Wanna see some confidence and attitude in action? Check out this video:

Swarm Intelligence

In a previous post on the Honey-bee algorithm for allocating servers, which I found quite fascinating, I had pointed out I had referred to a paper on Swarm Intelligence by Eric Bonabeau and Christopher Meyer published by Harvard Business Review, and finally I got time to go back and read it and I found it quite fascinating! The paper describes case studies where people have used algorithms inspired by nature (ants, bees) which use a decentralized model of computation and optimization.

The paper points out that the main advantages of using algorithms like these are flexibility, robustness and self-organization. The algorithms work in a completely decentralized manner, and work on the principle that the wisdom of all the ants (or the small agents) can be harnessed in such a manner that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Also, the algorithms are invariably robust to failure and adaptive since they don’t make use of a central decision making bodies and there is a lot of experimentation with new sources of food (or results in the case of algorithms).

The paper also points out that there are several cases where these concepts have been used successfully (both in business and academia):

  • Optimally routing telephones calls and Internet data packets seems to be a tough problem because if we use a centralized algorithm, it will neither be robust nor adaptive. Algorithms based on swarm intelligence come to the rescue since they are not based on a central decision making body, but rather work on the principle that the scouts recruit other agents to follow new promising paths.
  • Fleet management and cargo management also suffer from similar problems. The paper points out that Southwest Airlines found out that in some cases, letting cargo go to wrong destinations and recovering is faster and more robust than always making sure that all cargo is handled correctly.
  • Small simple rules that lets people take decisions for themselves usually works best. This has since been shown to work very well for companies such as Google as well.

There are more case studies in the paper, but what’s fascinating is that these techniques become even more popular now-a-days because companies have realized that it is easier to tolerate failure than to eradicate it — more so in the context of the Internet where there is a race to build systems that are self-correcting (such as Map-Reduce, Hadoop and Dryad). Also the new realities of the emerging architectures (multi-core, highly parallel, massive clusters grids) is going to mean that we have more parallel horsepower to run our applications and such self-organizing algorithms are going to become even more popular in the computing community.

However, one concern would be programming models for such computing bedrocks. We still don’t understand how to manage parallel computation very well to ensure that interpreting such algorithms in code is going to remain difficult for the average programmer for quite sometime.

Parallel Programming + Type inference + Scientific notation: A Winner?

I came across this article in Linux Today which describes Project Fortress, an open-source effort from Sun to provide a language based on Fortran to easily write parallel programs. The project seems to be built on top of Java. Some salient features seem to be:

  1. Implicit parallelism: If you want to execute a loop sequentially you have to explicitly write that. The big claim is of course, using this efficiently on multi-core machines.
  2. Support for unicode: As a result, the scientific research community can make use of greek alphabets in their code, and even use things like superscripts, subscripts, and hats and bars! This means that your code is going to look a lot more like your algorithm.
  3. Automated Type inference: The system has extensive type inference (the kind that functional languages and C# 3.0 have) and that means that your code is far more readable.
  4. Extensive library support: In fact, even some parts of the main system are implemented as libraries. They expose the parsed AST to the programmer, and give him extensive control.

These sound quite interesting, and it seems that the scientific computing language of the future is going to look a lot like Fortress, if they are successful with this effort.


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