Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Organism -> Artifact -> Artificial Organism

Man, they say, is a social animal.

Organism ...
The word "organism" may broadly be defined as an assembly of molecules that influence each other in such a way that they function as a more or less stable whole and have properties of life. Every time I look around, I find organisms galore. Of course, not every organism is created by nature. There are artifacts too. Some of these artifacts interest me; the properties of life are less obvious in them. An artifact may not be an obvious assembly of molecules; it may be an assembly of other artifacts too.

The big thing about an organism is that it is an ideal representation of Synergy; the Whole is greater than the sum of it's constituent parts. When you, or I for that matter, accidentally touch the steam-iron we don't wait a second and think "Oh! This is hot! I ought to move my hand away". The reflexes we exhibit as an organic whole , coupled with our ability to plan actions which rely upon the reflex makes us so effective at survival.

Here, Survival means we -

  • consume food

  • generate energy from the food consumed
  • use the energy either to procure more energy, OR to perform actions that benefit our person

The assignment I am working on now involves lots of such composite assemblies which together form a very impressive whole. This got me to thinking how similar such assemblies are to life... and yet how primitive. The analogy led me further to think seemigly intangible assemblies; for instance - an entity may exist only on paper. A similar example is a company; or to use it's more appropriate synonym - 'Organization'.

As an organic entity is conceived, born, lives... and dies, so too an organization may go from a conception, to birth, through life, and eventually Death. As with an embryo, an organization too must be well-protected in this stage. Similarly too, the protection must be maintained after birth whilst the baby learns [through survivable mistakes] of it's capabilities. Whilst it lives, the baby grows, consumes food, & makes it's existence known by performing some activities apart from consumption.

For an organization food is resources consumed ... brainpower, manpower, & electricity. Growth (+: needs no translation. Existential Activities,in this case, are actions towards translating the energy consumed from resources into revenue, into eventual Growth.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Fast Track to Development

Earlier this week newspapers reported a proposed high-speed link between Mumbai, and Nagpur. At present the two cities are linked by air, rail, and road. Travel-time, by air, is around 45 minutes. By road, and by Rail it varies from 15 hours upwards. Surface transport being the less expensive, despite the recent slew in populist fares by various airlines, most people spend from 15 hours upwards on a one-way trip.. or 2 work days. As such most travel is on the weekends. There are, at present, around 15 odd trains linking the two cities. Even going by a conservative estimate of 100 travellers per train, there are no less than 1500 travellers daily. This translates to a staggering 1500 (times 2 work-days); that is 3000 work-days lost in transit. As a layman, the cost of 3000 work-days on the economy is beyond me; i shall not dwell upon it.

The proposed high-speed train aims to reduce travel time to 3.5 hours. This means each traveller on the new train will save nearly 1.5 work days. The cost involved is to the tune of INR 8000 Crore i.e 80 Billion Rupees. Going by the assumptions that a
  • two-way track will be installed,

  • there are 200 persons on board each train for the entire trip from source to destination, and

  • there are 2 trains plying at any given time

we spend 200 * 2 * 3.5; that is 1400 hours; this works out to 175 work-days. At the same time, regular trains plying along this route will continue to cost the 3000 work-days daily.

Regular trains plying on the surface will continue to be bound to the ...vagaries, of nature, and of man. A tree may fall across the tracks, a tiger may challenge the train, politically motivated flash strikes may hold-up all trains along the route for hours on hend, and so on. Assuming the above do not happen, trains rarely ever travel at better than 120km/hour on the subcontinent, apparently due to poor tracks, and facilities[i wonder what the term means in this context]. The average speed is more like 70km/hour. Could the infusion of 80 Billion INR translate to better facilities that would allow the majority of trains to ply at better than 170km/hour?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

just a verse...

Slept out in the open
Beneath the purple sky
Thought about the stars; wondered where am I?
Thought across the light-years
Traveled as the light of my Star
Through the finite infinity
I reached my Self, where my thought sprang from
But the light of my Star had ceased to Be.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Scripting Learning

Another short quick post.
Someone visited here from Canada recently. The discussion over supper meandered over a multitude of topics. One topic that sticks in mind is that of language scripts, and pronunciations.

There are numerous language scripts on the sub-continent; some similar, some different. The few I know of are from the North Indian languages. Scripts in South India bear little similarity whatsoever. The one exception is Urdu, which uses the Arabic script. One point on which the languages I know of are similar is the grouping of consonants, soft-consonants, and vowels. The letters are grouped in the manner of pronunciation.

The Devanagari Script is organized in groups based upon where the sound originates in the body as -
Velar - Ka, Kha, Ga, Gha
Palatal - Cha, Cha, Ja, Jha
Retroflex - Ta, Tha, Da, Dha [as in Tut]
Dental - Ta, Tha, Da, Dha
Labial - Pa, Pha, Ba, Bha

The pronunciation of the dentals are a softer version of the retroflex. But that's past the point. We learn to speak even before we learn our alphabets. Here, on the subcontinent, english is the medium of instruction in a significant fraction of the nursery/preparatory schools. But without meaning to sound an anglophobe [can't claim to be that, as anybody reading this will realize (+: ] why not start the mother tongue earlier? As the baby/child gains control of his ability to make sounds, teach another set of the sounds. By the time school starts, the child will have a significant advantage. The success of this suggestion also depends upon how well a child responds to learning something new, though. But children tend to be fascinated by whatever appears new. I wonder if this may work ...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Re... tail

For a change, this post is less of my typical spur-of-the-moment spinning-wheels in the rooms upstairs. This post is about reasons I believe responsible for the fact that the local software product market is still in it's infancy. A subject I frequently ponder about; more frequently of late, and is prompted by something I read on here.

Since India started on the path to a free-market economy back in the early 1990s, it's software industry has acquired a name for itself. The population on the subcontinent has frequently been the subject of jokes on topics of family planning; but apart from China and countries in Africa, the subcontinent is probably the world's last underexploited market. In addition, the longitudes also work to the advantage of the sub-continent in providing the facility for a 24/7 work-cycle to industries in the far-east, and in America. Longitudes apart [pun intended!] the rupee is sufficiently weak for an indian workforce to be viable economically, even at the cost of training them.

Indians, outside the subcontinent, have by-and-large done well; contributed to their adoptive country, and gone on to positions of responsibility. But I admit to prejudice on this point. Anyway, the thing is that companies from the sub-continent have an advantage in being able to bid _very_ competitively for projects from firms located outside the subcontinent. Unflattering as it may seem, even a child can learn to throw instructions together and write a program. To write compact, maintainable code, something for an evolving _product_, one needs knowledge of algorithms, design strategies, and knowledge of technologies. Some of these may be learnt from books, the others must be learnt by hard experience.

Similar to the case of an individual, a firm too must earn to survive. In the latter case, the earning is termed 'profit'. A product, until it is established in the markets, remains a red-line on the profit-charts. Few software firms in India cater to a product for the local businesses, and professionals. Businesses in India are, for the most part, still in the small business stage. These are usually owned by a family for generations at a time. This is not to say there are no manufacturer owned outlets; there are, but such outlets are heavily outnumbered by the smaller businesses which cater across brands, and across price segments. Similarly there are small supermarkets, mostly managed by various consumer cooperatives, and some small chains. Business, by and large, is computation intensive but small stores here rarely own a computer, let alone use a computer for inventories/billing. Both are managed on paper, if at all.

Lately, small businesses are beginning to make the switch to a computer but there is an established mindset which must change, before the potential of the market can be realized. A few arguments I believe that need to be factored in by firms aiming to tap this market are -

First, there are few, if any, retail chains; as a result one big selling point in favour of computers - networking/communication - does not carry quite the weight it should.

Second [as a consequence of independent retail stores], the owner of the store down the street _will_ think atleast twice before putting his data into a server he himself does not control; no matter that the advantages of a remote server - daily backups, encrypted data storage [(+; the freedom to sue, if there's a problem ]

Third, Computers require a power-supply. As much as a third of the electricity generated by the Electricity companies in India is lost in the accounting [to what are euphemistically termed as Transmission & Distribution Losses]. There are places [my city of Nagpur with population > 4M] where the power companies shutdown distribution [it's called load-shedding] for as long as 4-hours during the working day. I've heard of places in the interior who experience power-outages upto 8 hours a day. This has improved in recent days, but the point is this - power supply can be ... capricious. The spiraling cost of fuel all but precludes purchase of a Generator. From the point of view of the store-owner - "Invest in a computer, Invest in the software for the computer, invest in a generator, purchase fuel time-and-again, and _then_ pay the auditor? I think not".

Thursday, March 08, 2007


I like to hang around in the c++ forum on the IRC networks. The discussion is not always about the language, it's features, IDE idiosyncrasies and the like; it may be about the mundane too. This post is about a discussion we got into about personal ownership of vehicles. At first, the need for a discussion may appear pointless. After all ever since we were able to, we have attempted to domesticate animals for the purpose of transport. So why, after all these millenia(?), do we have this debate? Not, of-course, that we know whether the debate was there earlier.

Going by what little we know of the past, the concept of governance was pretty much limited to a pack-leader. The concept of society, & societal welfare didn't appear in the picture until much later. On the other hand, the idea of each person looking out for himself is almost hard-wired into us. A private vehicle is an extension of our own self. One which may open up the boundaries beyond the nearest visible horizon. To restrict private ownership is almost akin to putting bounds on how much a person may grow. The word 'almost' appears because the usage of a personal vehicle may vary from the apparently frivolous to deadly serious.

The primary reason for the debate rises apparently because of the frivolous usage of so many vehicles. The use we put our vehicle to results in the obvious consumption of so much fuel. But that's the obvious purpose. In the same manner by which a horse cannot outrun a racing camel in the desert, a man-made vehicle requires a certain terrain too; the roads. Our roads are constructed to be able to transport only so much traffic at a time. If the limited capacity of a road is exceeded, the least that may happen is an apparently interminable delay... the worst may be extreme road-rage.

Public ownership of vehicles may help keep the number of vehicles on roads limited to as many as are necessary. The bottle-necks will move from the road, to queues at the point of embarkation. The priority may be decided at-least partially upon old-fashioned courtesy, rather than upon BHP aka Brute Horsepower. That sounds wonderful ... until we realize it does nothing to actually increase the traffic-bearing capacity of a road. This is only a thought, but if all drivers decide to switch to public-transport, public transport systems - bus, rail-road, ferry, pavements will face the same congestion problems soon enough. Couple this with the fact that the elderly, and infirm need some degree of insulation from the more brisk commuters. Also, factor in the knowledge that a person should typically get to a point within about 10 minutes walking distance of their destination. Remember that all neighbourhoods are not necessarily safe for a stranger. Add also the knowledge that transport is not merely persons, but also material goods; the backbone of economics.
Our transport systems may be chaotic where they are congested. Transport systems - road, railroad, water, and air are not universally equally congested. Beyond the city, beyond the railway junction, out at the fringe of the sea/air lanes, there is still open space.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


A while ago the bank officer put in papa's name as my middle-name, in spite of my efforts to convince him otherwise. It's tradition hereabouts. In some parts of India, a middle name is mandatory. The middle name may be the village of origin of the family, the name of the father/spouse. The thing is, a middle name is not necessary now that a family-name/surname is.

Not too far in the past, there was a time when travelling for a day meant a distance of perhaps 100kilometers at the most. For a long period of time travel by horse-back, cart, and buggy were perhaps the quickest means of travel. In such a time, living in relatively small communities most people would know each other by name. A surname was not necessary. Indeed, in some parts of India it was only after the East India Company, and later HMG were well established that it was made mandatory for a person to have a surname. Hence some persons selected a surname descriptive of their occupation, their city of origin, and so on.

As soon as we started to explore our surroundings, and to travel we discovered we were not alone. One name alone was often enough to identify us. A name, and a surname OTOH was not duplicated quite as frequently. Thus any community which used a name/surname to identify a person was probably governed more ... pragmatically than it's contemporaries. Governance aims at the community, but deals with individuals. Anthropologically, we may even assume that a community which used surnames was more advanced in terms of economy, and probably technology.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Practical Programming II - Community Development

Traditionally, the life of a Hindu is divided into several phases. These are, in order

Brahmacharya is the phase from infancy to childhood. During this period the youngling learns how to live in a community, is educated and probably apprenticed into trade.

The second phase, Grihastacharya, sees the child, now an adult, settle down professionally and in the community. He makes his contribution to the economy, and science of the community. In this phase of life, he also attends to the well-being & education of his children, mentoring them for their roles in the future. The children are now in the Brahmacharya phase. This phase typically closes after the children are themselves ready to move into the Grihast/Householder phase.

Vanprastha is a combination of two words - Vana[= Forest] + Prasthan[=move ]. The word means Move to the Forest. Traditionally, this means that the the Grihast, having fulfilled his active obligation to keep the community alive, and prosperous distance themselves to a remote location, purportedly to meditate. The phase is typically spoken of as meaning Retirement & Exile.

The final phase, Sanyaas, is that of oneness with the elements. I confess the phase is beyond my understanding.

Seen objectively, the 4 phases represent an orderly procession through life; at all times there is a generation in training for the next phase. The most obvious example is the Brahmacharya-Grihastacharya phase where the parents are in the Grihast phase and the children in the Brahmacharya phase.

The rules were obviously defined for the benefit of the community. Therefore to remove the invidual at what may be the peak of their professional life, when they may most contribute to the community seems counter-intuitive. Vanprastha however, is not only about retiring into seclusion. The description, passed down through generations, speaks not about seclusion, but about moving to distant places, and meditating. Seclusion although it may be considered as a passable synonym for moving to a remote place isn't quite the same. This, I believe, is the Key. Meditate means to think/dwell upon in the mind. Change the presently accepted definition from 'go to secluded places' to 'relocate to places remote from the present location' and the picture changes quite a bit. A person is irreplacable, the role fulfilled by a person is not. A person may fulfil a role even in places other than his own. This seems sensible, but it still raises the question about _why_ a person must leave from the place where his roots lie.

To relocate to a remote place is not the same as being alone. A remote place may still be a community but perhaps less evolved, for instance- a tribe. Even today, atleast 5000 years down the line from when the Vedas were composed lifestyle in urban centres is very different from that in hamlets, and villages. In a form of existence where there is little mechanization, the first person to move to a place proves that it is habitable, the others who appear fill requirements to form a community. When a person moves to a remote place, irrelevant of whether a community is already present his lifetime of experience acts as a solid bulwark. If a community/tribe is already in the vicinity, both the newcomer and the community stand to gain from the relationship. The former from the existence of the community and all that a community represents [companionship & help]. The latter from the experience which the newcomer brings with him - knowledge, and technology. Over time, a remote tribe may become a community centre if there are enough persons with experience in the vicinity. It is then on the way to become an urban centre.

The press of tradition, community, and peers can only make a person do so much. Every one of us has a desire to create something memorable. An urban community with all the ready resources it provides, is also an extremely crowded place.. one where time and creative thought are difficult to come by. Vanprastha was the research labs, and Community Development Center of the ancients, not Retirement & Exile.