Friday, July 28, 2006

Tsunami 2004: Divine Retribution

December 26, 2004 AD had the vacationers in the coastal areas of Indonesia adjacent to the Indian Ocean have their breakfast hours interrupted by an amazing sight. The ocean was retreating from existing shores; almost as if someone had pulled the drain-plug deep beneath the ocean. In a sense, it was true... but only for a very short time. Deep beneath the surface of the ocean, the Indo-Australian continental plate had ground against the Burma plate. The movement of the one plate downwards pulled the waters below, deep beneath the seemingly placid waters. The immediate result was a massive seismic tremor registering an almost unbelievable 9.1 on the Richter Scale. The less immediate result, a Tsunami, that totalled over 220,000 fatalities in Indonesia, India & Sri Lanka together. A large figure even without counting the losses in terms of property, and human experience.

Sometime before the quake, a week or so, a famous Seer in South India was arrested and held under the Penal Laws of India. Scores believed him to be innocent, but a great many also believed there was some basis for the charges under which he was held. The Tsunami was linked to the arrest by his supporters as proof of Divine Retribution.

A year later, the December 2005 issue of the Indian Edition of The Reader's Digest commemorated the anniversary of the Tsunami. This by replacing the bonus section with a series of eyewitness accounts of survivors. Among the several photographs in the issue was high altitude photograph of a place named Meulaboh. Meulaboh had a population of 50,000 humans. With the exception of a mosque, the photograph was devoid of any sign of human construction. Bar the mosque, all structures were razed by the Tsunami. A phenomenon which led people to comment upon the Divine Will. A similar phenomenon [Similar in the sense it also relates to the survival of a construction for a theological purpose against high odds] is the fact that St. Paul's Cathedral in the United Kingdom during the entire course of the Battle for Britain received a Direct Hit during the War, but survives intact.

Before I proceed further, I must make a quick detour on theology. The" gist of Pascal's take on theology is simple.There may, or may not be a God. I may, or may not, believe in him. The only way to lose, is if God exists & I do not believe in him ... thereby earning condemnation to Hell. Therefore, I choose to Believe ; merely to be saved from condemnation to Hell. The argument appears to be selfish, and probably won't endear me to anyone ... but ask yourself, and deep down that voice which always has your well-being in mind will answer you. To the best of my knowledge, which admittedly is limited, most forms of belief have some thing to offer by way of afterlife, or in afterlife. It's an understandable tactic ; if some religious beliefs were able to guarantee a man's desires/aspirations fulfilled within a defined time-frame, they might be taken to court for breach of promise if the time-frame lapsed without the desires fulfilled. Therefore, guarantee that a person's desires to be fulfilled in the afterlife. After all we only hear talk of a few persons return, and none of them seem to have sued... Definitely good for the business..

If every single human had believed and had lived according to the virtues prescribed by various theological texts, a great many events would not have appeared in our History textbooks... perhaps our civilization would be a little different from what it appears to be, but I digress. To get back on the subject, the statement 'believe & be saved' may not be widely accepted as it is. But at some subconscious level, it must register. This is especially so in the case where we humans construct monuments to the God/s of our beliefs. An unscrupulous contractor would not hesitate to save on costs [or more apt, increase his gain] by substituting sand for cement, and use less rebars than required according to the design. The same person, however, will almost certainly think twice before doing the same when constructing a structure for a preternatural. The fear of retribution from a preternatural keeps a great many of us from indulging in actions/speech which may be deemed offensive. Structures made as a form of respect for a character from theology therefore are sturdier and more attention paid during the course of construction. The end result is a structure that is able to better withstand furies of nature, and man-made calamities such as armed conflict ... thereby providing 'proof' of the existence of a God.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Practical Programming

The first question that comes to the mind of the inquisitive is – What is a program? Put simply, a program is merely a defined sequence of instructions that must be followed to perform a certain task. The word 'must' makes it obvious there is to be no deviation from the sequence defined; even an automaton with no more intelligence than the ability to follow the sequence may achieve the expected result. Of course, if the sequence may throw some unexpected situations as a result of one or more instruction intelligence may then be required. The may is subject to the degree of customization provided to deal with the unexpected. The simplest way, obviously, is to deal with all unexpected situations with a single yardstick.

Thus if the task is 'clean'; the sequence of instructions may be

a) Start
b) Identify Dusty
c) Remove Dust
d) Repeat from b) until no more surface Dusty
e) Stop

Obviously, this is a rudimentary sequence. As the art of programming evolves, we find it is not necessary to have the instructions repeated ad infinitum. It is enough to define the instructions independently and only provide the necessary input with each call. But this still has a drawback; the step c) may vary depending upon the input provided. For instance – removal of dust from a glass surface is best aided by application of some fluid. But removing dust from, say, a computer motherboard with a fluid is a definite no-no. Therefore we realize while the task 'clean' is a generic description, the actual cleaning is specific and depends upon what is to be cleaned.

Anthropologically, the caste system is not very different. The origins of the Caste system are shrouded by mists of time, and beliefs. What we do know for certain about the Caste system, as identified by the Aryans in India is that there were 4 primary castes –


I wonder whether the term Kshatria may not simply mean kshatra, chattra/umbrella as we use the term in present day hindi. The purpose of an umbrella is to provide shelter/respite from the elements. The Kshatria therefore becomes the caste that holds the umbrella[for the members of the community, where the term community refers to all regardless of caste].


Shudra/Menial Tasks.

Similarly, I wonder whether the term Shudra may not be related to the term 'shudh/shuddh/purify', as we use the term in the present day. The term itself is Sanskrit, and means Purify. While the suffix 'ra' is unknown to me, i wonder whether the term may not then refer to the people who bore the responsibility of keeping the habitat spic-and-span, so to speak... obviously a far cry from the apparently derogatory 'untouchable'.

We therefore have the caste system as being task/function oriented; not a very original idea, but I choose to believe it.

Why did the ancients consider it worthwhile to divide the society so? Did they not realize that such a divided society might not survive? They certainly did, and if we are to believe even the most conservative of estimates the society, as split into castes, has survived for atleast a millenium. The divisions obviously served a purpose which we do not seem to recognize today.

To a programmer, the caste system is a classic example of object oriented programming theory. OOP is built upon the properties

i. Encapsulation/Confinement of knowledge
ii. Generalization and specialization
iii. Inheritance/Propagation of knowledge through heirarchy

In object oriented programming OOP, in short] a program is comprised of a number of objects. Each object is based upon a defined template, with properties and responsibility assigned. Such template is referred to as a 'class'.
Thus, for instance the above sequence of instructions may be represented as a class with the property and responsibility as mentioned below

class Cleaner Responsibility: Identify Dirty, Perform Cleaning Uses: Cleaning instrument
The advantage of such a classification is the knowledge is then encapsulated or confined. Thus the knowledge of cleaning is now the responsibility of Cleaner. The question is – why confine the knowledge? The answer – because encapsulation helps prevent misuse. Imagine what may happen if one intended to dry-clean the control panel in a nuclear submarine!

Jokes apart, a more practical reason to encapsulate knowledge is this - Delegation of a task frees the delegator to undertake other tasks. Thus in a society comprised of various castes, as mentioned earlier, a warrior need not worry himself overly about living in unsanitary surroundings because it would be handled by the section of the society responsible for that task. Similarly, the menial labourer would not need to concern himself with things other than his own task because it would be handled by the sections of society responsible for those tasks. Commerce handled by the Merchants, planning for the future of the society by the intelligentsia, protection of the society by the warriors, and so on.

Moving on to the twin properties of Generalization & Specialization, the task of cleaning itself is a very broad definition. For instance, cleaning a glass plate is quite different from dry cleaning a silk cloth. If the one method is applied to the other, it may not have quite the expected result. The task of cleaning may be further narrowed down, to improve efficiency.

We see similarities applied in everyday life. A bank may be a good example; when one enters a bank the obvious task has something to do with money... a loan, or a payment, or a withdrawal, or a deposit. Again, each of these may have their own hidden subtleties. Ideally, we do not need to know more about what goes on behind the closed doors to be able to use the facilities better.

OOP has another advantage; a property termed as Inheritance. By inheriting from an existing class, the knowledge encapsulated by the original class is made available to the inherited/child class without significant additional effort required. The parallel, as applied to the Caste System is apt.

The more one is exposed to a profession from childhood days, the more one inculcates. There is the argument that the knowledge gained by a generation may be passed on to subsequent generations by means of writing/pictorial representation and so forth. Documentation is useful. The practice of documentation helps to convey some portion of the knowledge to newcombers in the profession ... we see that frequently in the field of programming, perhaps in all professions nowadays. Reading conveys part of an experience. Listening to the person who experienced it, with all the vocal inflections and facial expressions is something different altogether. However one has to live an experience to brand it into memory.

There is, of course, the drawback that such hereditary knowledge may result in stagnation. I concede the point with the example of what the Caste system is, as it exists as we see it today. We do not know, with any degree of certainty, the origin and the rationale, and yet it persists mostly because it 'is traditional'.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Rambling on about ... lifestyle

I was playing trivia on DALNet ( when this question came up - What is the name of the traditional indian form of exercise? Easy question - A: Yogasanas.
As a kid, I was able to perform various yogic positions, or asanas as they are referred to in the vernacular. That question prompted me to attempt the Lotus position, or padmasana. I got the position, with a little effort, and felt pretty pleased with myself ... until I discovered, to my chagrin, I couldn't get out of the position!! I have since been practicing regularly, and expect to be able to get over my ummm fear of the lotus position. Google came up with a number of web-sites, but the one that gets my vote is this one - Anyway, take my advice. Dont' ever practice yogasans when puppy may come in and sniff-tickle you off your balance.

We hear off-and-on about various forms of exercise [martial,and otherwise]- Yogasanas, Tai'chi, Judo, Quigong, and so on. All these forms of exercise, seem to have two things in common.

i. Ensure a supple spine, and good posture
ii. Practice controlled breathing.

As babies, our bodies are naturally supple to an extent that seems almost impossible to most adults. Just try to hold your big toe to your mouth and suck upon it, if you don't believe me!! A baby does it with an ease most of us grown ups cannot.

As we learn to use our mind and settle into the world socially in the 'accepted way of life', our body loses the flexibility it was born with. By and large, the accepted form is increasingly influenced by what is spoken of as 'Western culture'. Lunch and Dinner in the classical European form, i'm unsure of the nation of origin, require a table and a chair. On the other hand, meals [even
traditionally] in India are believed to have been consumed sitting cross-legged on the floor. It is only in the recent past that I heard the cross legged position actually stimulates the abdominal muscles.. compressing the right organs to promote digestion. While the previous statement may, or may not be accurate, i find myself wondering whether there a middle-way that allows us to grow technologically, and yet refrain from a sedentary lifestyle?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Economics? ... or Gaia?

In some distant time, some prehistoric being had a duel with his contemporary. That duel is what economics is all about. We still compete with each other, as nations, as communities for whatever resources Nature may choose to provide us with, as scant as they may be. Instead of One-on-One duels, the conflict is less overt, but the competition is there... The choice to use the word 'competition' instead of 'conflict' is what grants us the right to call ourselves civilized.

Economics has changed much. Instead of having to risk life and limb in the search for bodily sustenance, a walk to the nearest shop is all that is needed. Instead of having to walk to the nearest waterhole for water, the knob on the faucet gives us the water from the city. Modern medicine backed by technological advancements have increased longevity; afflictions such as Tuberculosis which were deemed deadly and seemingly incurable can now be defeated. The dark which gave deadly predators such an advantage is now banished at the flick of a switch. Agriculture and Food go together; as do Transport and Communication. Food comes from Agriculture, and is required when we start to range long distances for purposes of communication ... or simply to move to another place. The ability to tame animals to provide transport, and to subdue nature to make our own food granted to humans an advantage over other predators who were unable to do the same. The ability to manipulate nature has made us the dominant species on land, from where the Human Civilization is even now reaching to the stars.

The desire of possessions, and the fear of losing possessions drives economics. Tenuous as our hold on life is, we subconsciously use our possessions to bolster our belief that we are in control. And yet, deep down we know the truth is to the contrary. We know our economics are based upon utilization of what Earth has garnered over hundreds of millions of years. We know that as our consumption of resources increases, Earth's resources decrease.

Insecurity drives the humans. Insecurity, and a need for what I can only describe as Solace. What our neighbour possesses we first envy, then desire to possess. It is not long before we need to assuage our faith in ourselves that our neighbour shall not outstrip us. In some persons, this manifests in a destructive tendency ... to spoil what our neighbour possesses. To other persons, it is a motivation for less potent action, to succeed in other fields. In either case, the result is Aggression. Aggression, and Insecurity together form a very potent force.

I am convinced what we term as civilization is only a form of metaprogramming (pardon the use of jargon); so to speak. Undirected metaprogramming, but metaprogramming nonetheless. What civilization really does is this -
Instead of competing with our planetary co-habitants for resources provided/available on the planet, we usurp control. After usurping control of a resource, we compete amongst our own species for it's use. That the resource may not be best suited for the use we put it to, or that the resource needs to be utilized sparingly is knowledge that may come to notice too late.

Perhaps if other species had the ability to manipulate nature as we do, they would do just what we have done. Ants, Bees, and Spiders are a case in point ... as are Viruses.

Before it is too late, we as a species, need to set a goal
- to understand ourselves as a species
- to communicate better with our co-habiting species across our limited audio-visual capabilities