Saturday, December 04, 2010

My WikiTake on WikiLeaks: Assess Before Assassinating Assange

The big buzz worldwide this last week, more or less a week after the leakage of the Radia tapes in India, was around the WikiLeaks controversy. Even as I write this blog entry, opinion clouds in cyberspace continue to be agog with the good the bad and the ugly about it. Julian Assange's face is now recognizable by more people than Lady Gaga's and people all over the world are learning to spell and pronounce his last name, albeit with some difficulty.

The WikiLeaks phenomenon has not only piqued my curiosity but, being unprecedented in many ways, has also challenged my ability to make quick moral assessments -- I can't readily say if this is a good thing or a bad thing. According to Will Wilkinson, writing in The Economist, this is really not important. However, it is difficult to ignore the urge to develop an opinion on as provocative a phenomenon as WikiLeaks, especially if, as Wilkinson predicts, we are going to see more of the same in the future. Having kept an open mind from the word go, I find that while I don't really support what WikiLeaks stand for (as it appears to me: a kind of information anarchy; I don't eagerly support anarchists of any kind) I am not really against it either. If this suggests that I am being morally ambivalent or noncommittal, then let me clarify: it is just that there are no precedents to WikiLeaks  in terms of the nature, scope and scale of public disclosures of secret information and I don't believe we have adequate information to take a position on whether or not this is a good thing from the point of view of the long-term common good of the whole world at large. I believe we should remain circumspect and patiently await revelations and other emergent data before forming opinions on the subject. It would be interesting to observe the trajectory of Wikileaks over the next few years, assuming they're allowed to function unencumbered and unfettered. Frankly, I suspect we have yet to see WikiLeaks in its full glory. Equally frankly, I also suspect that the global powers that be may not allow that to happen in the first place, going by some of the comments that have started to appear in the media. (Links shared by Shefaly Yogendra on facebook.)

Be that as it may, as the future unfolds and (assuming) more disclosures happen and we learn more about the motives and modus operandi of WikiLeaks, I believe we may be in a better position to make an assessment. My proposed assessment criteria would be: (a) intent (b) method (c) outcome and (d) impact. I would want to test WikiLeaks for each of these criteria against the principles of sustainability. In other words, determine whether Wikileaks: (a) aims at the "right" things (b) goes after them in the "right" manner (c) achieves the "right" results, that (d) bring about the "right" state transitions to the world's political status-quo (where "right" is defined as "aligned with progress and prosperity of all mankind for the present and also for future generations"). OK, that may sound like motherhood and apple pie, but I really have no other way of assessing questions of moral rectitude that are not supported by precedent. The alternative being to rely on the opinions of those whose opinions on such matters tend to be pretty close to mine ("those who bought this also bought ...") but that's simply not my style.

Meanwhile, Assange's "boil the ocean" or "have secrets -- will expose" approach has me a bit confused. There seems to be no selectivity, no filtering, no targeting ... any disclosure of any secrets will do, it seems, as long as some part of it or the other stirs some pot or the other in some part of the world or the other. I am assuming that their long-term mission is not specifically targeted at the US, though the recent leaks seem to point in that direction. Before WikiLeaks became infamous recently, for blowing open the lid of the Pandora's box of US diplomacy, WikiLeaks had already uncovered secrets elsewhere -- notably, Kenya. Exposing US Govt. hypocrisy is to an extent quite fashionable among some political observers and analysts (especially those who are not American), and in that sense Assange is not alone, if that is what he is after. Few can resist biting into the meaty steak of American doublespeak, especially if it is served up on a platter au jus. And there has been so much of it over the last decade or so. What would set Assange up as a truly nation-agnostic information anarchist would be if he repeats this number with any or all of countries like Russia, China, Iran, N Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, Israel, Palestine and so on.

As may be evident from my last post at this blog (in which I severely criticized Arundhati Roy for being an anarchist), I classify anarchists into two categories -- the deontological anarchists, for whom anarchy is the means as well as the end, and the teleological anarchists, for whom anarchy is a means to a "higher" goal. Assange's last comment in the Guardian Q&A:
‎"History will win. The world will be elevated to a better place. Will we survive? That depends on you." 
seems to suggest that he's the latter kind of anarchist. On the other hand his utterance might simply be an appeal to crowd-source support for his cause, a swan song for survival.

Not sure if history will win -- history tends to be written by the victorious. But time will tell, for sure.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Fraud of All Things (or, The Case for the Sedation of the Seductive Seditionist)

I am not against the very idea of discussing Kashmir's secession from the Indian Union. There, I've said it. Not that I am in favour of secession either -- certainly not, all else being equal. But hey, if Kashmir's Aazadi is the only way things can move forward to bring peace and stability to the region, to reduce conflict in general and terrorism in particular, and to allow India and Pakistan to focus on economic growth, social reform and prosperity for their respective peoples, then it has my reluctant vote. My objection to Arundhati Roy's inflammatory speeches that have been fanning secessionist fires among Kashmiris in an atmosphere already charged with anger and hatred for the Indian Government, is not about that. It is about the motives of Ms Roy, as they appear to me.

I've never been a fan of Arundhati Roy. Years ago, I didn't find her book "The God of Small Things" particularly interesting or worthy of the Booker she got. In fact I found it eminently put-down-able and so put it down after a few honest attempts at reading it. Going on from there, I've found her anti-establishmentarian antics over the last few years very shallow, jejune and churlish -- devices to grab attention, revealing her to be a controversial contrarian who delights in intellectual delinquency and basks in the media spotlight that it brings. I seldom discuss Arundhati Roy or her work, because I fear that it might feed the invisible demons who conspire to bring publicity to opinionated twits like her. In a manner of speaking. However, there are times when I am drawn into it and can't help myself.

About a year ago, at the birthday party of a friend, an impressionable young man (who happened to be my friend's husband's nephew) was gushing over Roy and her activism and her bold stand on various issues to a group of people. According to me she doesn't really have a stand that can stand sharp intellectual scrutiny, but she's definitely got a lot of people fooled. Since I entered the conversation late, I had to ask said nephew of said friend's husband who he was talking about, and when told, couldn't help saying, with a dismissive wave of hand -- "Oh! her." Which, of course, immediately led to my being quizzed about such a response. "She's just an attention-mongering contrarian and devoid of any real substance" said I. The nephew, stung by this blasphemous disparagement of his 'goddess of big things', parried back with "And aren't you being a contrarian yourself by taking that stand when all of us here think highly of her?" Realising by now that this whole bunch was on one side, I said, "No. I expressed a considered opinion, which, as it turns out, is different from what you guys think of her. A contrarian would do it in reverse -- wait to hear what the general consensus of the crowd is, or, if there's no time for that then quickly get a sense of the crowd's mood, and then stun them with outright contradiction."

Roy has been in the media a lot in recent times -- specifically apropos her support for the Maoists, but also for generally being the enfant terrible of the world of social causes. Not wanting to waste time on her and her controversies, I've restrained my urge to comment in the social media, though I did air my views a couple of times in private conversations. However, earlier today, I broke my self-imposed oath to never utter her name in public, and at the risk of drawing the ire of her misguided fan following, tweeted:
They say it takes all kinds to make a world. Apply that to Arundhati Roy, the fraud of all things. Does she make a world? Or break one?
and, feeling recklessly brave, followed that with another tweet:
On a different note, what is the verb from 'sedition'? In Roy's case it could be 'to seduce'. She may need to be 'sedated'.
Someone remarked in a back-channel message (on the second tweet) that it smacked of sexism. I replied that it would indeed have been a sexist comment, if it weren't for the fact that Roy's go-to-market strategy freely draws on her own dainty muliebrity, or the fact that she has a knack for foxily leveraging her feminine allure (or what's left of it) in her interviews and her public interactions. Why should she then escape characterization as a seductress? Moreover, sedition is a kind of seduction in itself, isn't it?

Just as I don't have issues with peaceful discussions on secession as a solution to our problems, I also don't have issues with peaceful discussions on using anarchy as a means to achieve a better end-state. (I don't agree that anarchy can or will lead to a better end-state -- I think there are less risky ways to get there, but I am open to discussing anarchy as a possible approach.) There are many ways of getting from A to B, and my moral compass in such matters is more aligned with teleological morality rather than deontological morality. Which means that I don't think that anarchy is a bad thing per se and so, in my opinion, someone trying to create anarchy is not committing a crime ipso facto. Their motives in doing so are important.

In the case of Ms Roy, in her support for Maoist insurgents and Kashmiri separatists (different contexts, same agenda) the anarchy she is trying to create, as far as I can see, is not a means to an end (such as a better India) but an end in itself. Not a solution to a problem but a deepening of the problem itself. I suspect she would go to any part of India where there is strife and suffering and stoke the anti-establishment fires that are burning there: the far east, the central corridor, the north .. wherever trouble is being fomented. But she cleverly stays within the ambit of the law, in each case, never really crossing the line herself. Not the originator but an agent provocateur. Not a reagent that participates in a chemical reaction, but a catalyst who accelerates precipitation but remains untouched. It is almost as if she wants done to India what the Taliban has already begun doing to Pakistan -- to disintegrate the state and destroy its institutions, and to look like an ingénue while it happens. If that's her motive, that is something I will not stand for.

So, whereas I strongly believe in unconditional freedom of expression in an Einsteinian world -- of curved spacetime inhabited by zen monks where the lyrics of John Lennon's "Imagine" ring true, when it comes to the Newtonian world we live in -- of Euclidean spacetime populated by brutes capable of unimaginable and unconscionable violence and full of volatile mobs that can explode within moments of listening to hate speeches, I would draw the line somewhere. Sorry, no unrestrained free speech for those whose sole purpose is to cause total system failure -- it is not on the menu. True, it takes all kinds to make a world (and those who know me will testify to the fact that I am a strident pluralist, an avid celebrator of diversity and a staunch upholder of all kinds of individual freedoms) but it takes just one kind to break a world -- the kind who loves the smell of napalm in the morning.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Relief and Ground

There are times when I sit back and observe my 6 year old at play with his friends -- those simple games, those minor squabbles, those negotiations and reconciliations, those squeals of delight, those shrieks of glee.

Children don't need a reason to be happy: they just are. If there are times when they are not happy, then it is because of some reason -- something that did not go their way. And when that has passed, they are happy again. Happiness is their default natural state. It is what they return to every time, all the time. They don't go around seeking happiness; it is already there. It is where they live. We adults refer to childhood as a time of innocence. The loss of innocence comes with the discovery that that is not how life is.

We adults need reasons to be happy. We are constantly seeking happiness (as though something we do can bring it to us, or someone we know can gift it to us). But not finding it, most of the time. If there are times when we are happy, then that is because of some reason -- something that did indeed go our way! And when that has passed, we're unhappy, again. Unhappiness does not always mean sadness or misery, but includes a variety of different feelings, emotions, moods, and states of mind. However, all of these have one thing in common: they cannot be described as happiness. As adults, our unhappiness is our natural state. It is what we return to every time, all the time. It is already there, always with us. It is where we live. We may indulge ourselves in the pleasures of life, we may eke instant gratification from the things money can buy, we may celebrate momentous or memorable occasions, we may revel in the joy of achievements or victories, and at times we may even derive satisfaction from our overall state of being. But we are seldom happy the way children are -- spontaneously and unconditionally. We look for causation through, or at least correlation with, various externalities: places, activities, things, people ...

Those of us blessed with happy children find it soothing to watch them be happy ... and to sometimes even plunge into their moment, to vicariously splash around in that pool of pure natural happiness, letting their waves of joy wash over us, letting some of that clean, wholesome goodness rub off on us like the mud on their sleeves.

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Migration Migraines: Going Against My Grain

Some time last week an article by Vivek Wadhwa (written, no doubt, in the wake of President Obama's recent speech about immigration reform) caught my attention. As I read through this article and followed the link to a related previous article, also by Vivek Wadhwa, I was intrigued by the author's concerns about reverse brain drain. Numerous thoughts relating to immigration and brain drain started straining my brain (pardon the word play). So I brushed them all aside to the background recesses of my mind where I let them jostle with one another and take coherent shape on their own as I went about my daily routine, and decided to put them all down in a blog post over the weekend in one concentrated burst of effort. After all, that's what blogs are for, aren't they?

First, there's the issue that triggered it all off -- Mr Wadhwa's warning to his President that immigration reforms won't stop the reverse brain drain, and his alarm bells on how reverse brain drain to India and China is a very real threat to the American economy. Why, I wonder, would a Vivek Wadhwa be so concerned about reverse brain drain from the US to India as to write about it so often, when he himself was, in all likelihood, part of the original brain drain from India to the US? Didn't the original brain drain concern him then when he was an Indian, as much as the reverse brain drain concerns him now, as an American?

This is not a personal criticism. I don't know Mr Wadhwa and have nothing against him. I can safely speculate, though, that he is of Indian origin and presently a US citizen. It is possible (though unlikely, I think) that he was born and raised in the US and always was a US citizen. (I did 'google' his name and spend some time researching his past, but all I could come up with was that he graduated from a university in Australia. No information about schooling etc. readily available in the public domain.) But it is also possible (and more likely -- don't ask me why) that he was actually born and raised in India, as an Indian citizen, and went overseas as a student/ young adult. Strange, then, that he should write sentences like -- and I quote from his article:
"The reality is that [..] the poor and unskilled will still be here. But the educated and skilled professionals—who could be creating new jobs and making the U.S. more competitive—won’t be here. They will, instead, be boosting the economies of other countries."
Where was he when that same reality prevailed "here"? (And by "here" I mean India, not the US.) In fact, isn't he one of those (to borrow his phrase) "educated and skilled professionals who could be creating new jobs and making India more competitive" who is, instead, boosting the economy of another country? At a personal level, I have no issues with Indians who've migrated to the US. People will go where opportunities abound, and that is most natural. Nothing wrong with that. Several of my best friends from school and college have migrated to the US and other Western countries. But they don't write articles like these -- expressing concern over reverse brain drain from the US to India. If anything, most of them find themselves on the horns of a dilemma, when it comes to the question of supporting US Govt. policies that affect the Indian economy in one way and the US economy in another.

The question of affiliation with the "old country" tends to come up quite often with my friends who've settled abroad (all first generation immigrants) and some of them are quick with preemptive statements like "Don't ask me whose side I would be on if India and America were at war -- that's too hypothetical and too melodramatic and too cliched a question". When I encounter this dodgy argument (or rather, foil to an anticipated argument) I turn around and ask them which team they would root for if India and America were pitted against each other as finalists in the World Cup -- a relatively less hypothetical and less dramatic question that puts many of the Indian Americans I know in a bit of a quandary. But when the same question is re-cast at the level of government policies -- on matters such as immigration, jobs going offshore etc., it becomes far less hypothetical, far more real, and a dilemma for most of my friends. After all, the two countries collaborate but also compete in the global arena. It's not about questioning their sense of patriotism to the US, it's just that the emotional connect with the country of origin is difficult to ignore completely.

Second, there's this laissez-faire attitude in India towards brain drain from India to the US over the last several decades (whose reversal Mr Wadhwa seems so concerned about). Right through my own childhood, adolescence and youth, I have been witness to the steady migration of some of our best and brightest, year after year, moving out from India and into the US and other lands of opportunity. As a nation, our body of talent has been bleeding 'from a thousand cuts' for several years now. Have we in India recognized this as a problem that needs to be solved? No. Instead we have developed an attitude that, to my mind, is best characterized by a tragic and grotesque blend of: (a) denial (b) rationalization and (c) resignation to fate. There's this standard line of reasoning about Indian talent migrating overseas -- in many cases even after receiving education that has been subsidized by the Indian tax payer (from institutions like the IITs), and this is how the argument unfolds, as more and more evidence of brain drain becomes obvious and undeniable:

Initially: Oh it's nothing much -- there's hardly any brain drain to talk about.
Followed by: Well, yes, quite a few good people do migrate, but look at how many people stay back here.
And then: OK, agreed that the ones who are staying back are doing so because they couldn't migrate; agreed that the good talent does migrate, but some day the trend will reverse and they will come back.
Later: Yes, quite a few of those who have come back to India, have again returned to the US in frustration after a year or two because they couldn't deal with the ground realities here. But the point is that many of them have stayed on.
Lastly (the final justification that to their mind clinches their side of the debate): Well, it's all for the greater good of the whole world, isn't it? Look at the big picture -- India is contributing to global progress, people of Indian origin are leading global businesses, are achieving eminence in academia and research, and are even at the forefront of global politics. We should be proud of that instead of complaining about brain drain!
And as an epilogue: In any case, we keep producing more and more people, so how does it matter that many of the talented people migrate?

You seldom hear anything along the lines of:
- Our systems are broken, we must fix the root causes of brain drain.
- We must have a strong resolve to retain our talent. At the very least, we should stop new outflows, even if we can't reverse old ones.
- We must attract the best minds from abroad, just like America does, and make that our competitive strategy.

Why is it that we hardly, if ever, hear people speak this language? I put this down to the mind-numbing fatalism that is hidden deep inside the Indian psyche when faced with monumental challenges. We find it easier to deny, and if denial doesn't work then our next response is reconciliation -- we accept graciously, for it is so ordained. This is what goes against my grain. And gives me a migraine. Apologies, again, for the play on words. My weak humour is but a poor attempt to mask the pain.

Third, there's the broader issue of talent migration and flow of human capital around the world. This is something that America should learn to deal with, if not actively promote. Up until now it was working in their favour -- they were able to attract the best talent from all over the world. The same thing that drove immigration into that country in the past will drive emigration out of that country in the future, when opportunities abound elsewhere. But even before that future happens, Americans must learn to accept what their President has been saying for quite some time now -- that prosperity does not happen in a vacuum, that steep inequities will only serve to be more divisive, and will disenfranchise large sections of the world population and increase global conflict between peoples and nations. This cannot be good for America, can it? On the other hand, qualified Americans going back to their countries of origin will help in bringing those countries up to a better standard of living and ensure a better quality of life for their former compatriots. This will eventually reduce conflict in different parts of the world and also reduce tensions between those parts of the world and the US.

Moreover, Americans who migrate to other parts of the world will act as cultural and knowledge ambassadors for America. They will draw on the intellectual capital that America has created within them, and will therefore replicate American values, institutions, policies, systems, technologies, management models, regulatory frameworks, etc. thus keeping America in a vanguard position and always ahead of the curve. If these other countries were to develop on their own, who knows -- they may even leapfrog over America some day! Don't you think, Mr Wadhwa, that you should warn your President about that?

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Filling Buckets Or Lighting Fires - Reprise (plus: more Yeats)

Just chanced upon this excellent talk by Sir Ken Robinson on TED that I thought resonated with my earlier post from over a month ago.

Amazingly, Sir Ken ends his talk with another quote from Yeats. I guess you could say that great minds think alike!

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Spirit of Inquiry

My 5 year old asked me about ghosts the other day. He wanted to know if ghosts really existed and whether I believed in them. It was a little after he and his elder brother, my 8 year old, watched the movie Bhoothnath for the n'th time. I guess he was confused by the conflicting responses he got from everyone he asked, every time he saw the movie. (And I bet his elder brother had been feeding him all kinds of stories about ghosts, just to scare him.) So now the younger tyke wanted a definitive answer from Daddy. I told him that ghosts were people who have died but whose memories lived on inside our minds, which sometimes took shape in our imagination as though they were still really alive. Difficult to explain phenomena like hallucination to a five year old, so that's about as close as I got.

That conversation set me thinking about the subject of spirits and ghosts. As a teenager with a strong scientific temper and a keen interest in the physics of the infinite (astrophysics) and the infinitesimal (nuclear physics), I'd already dismissed that kind of talk as mumbo-jumbo. Even so, there were a bunch of questions about ghosts I used to ponder over (when not preoccupied with questions about Schroedinger's cat) just assuming, for the sake of argument, that ghosts were a real phenomenon. For example: Do ghosts age? Is the ghost of Newton older than the ghost of Einstein or are they both "frozen" at the point in time when they died? If one were to "see" Newton's ghost, would he look as he looked at his dying moment or would he look as he would have looked if he were still alive today?

When I was watching the movie Ghost some years ago, I found myself wondering whether the character played by Patrick Swayze, as a ghost, would ever get to change his shirt. It must be rather uncomfortable to have to eternally be clothed in the outfit one died in, I thought. Ditto in the movie The Sixth Sense, which made the line "I see dead people" famous, in which the ghost played by Bruce Willis continues to wear a blood-stained shirt all through but realizes it only at the end. I found that odd. (Such mundane trivia do bother me, even as I watch highly engaging movies.)

Reflecting about it now, after having answered my son's question, I found the idea of a spirit that might exist without a body quite fascinating to investigate (provided one is equipped with the knowledge and tools brought to us by studies in psychology, physiology, anthropology, phenomenology, epistemology and various inter-disciplinary branches of knowledge that draw from these subject domains -- which I don't claim to be). On a related note, there seem to be as many imponderables about the subject of human cloning, along the same lines. The movie Multiplicity played with the idea of cloning, introducing minor changes in capability and personality in the many clones of a single human being, to create amusing situations. But it opened out so many interesting questions, including the question of how each of the clones must have felt -- about themselves and their past(?), the world around them and about one another. But how does one even begin to find answers to such questions?

The common thread running through such questions is the notion of consciousness as we humans experience it. Unfortunately, human consciousness doesn't seem to lend itself to much scientific investigation beyond a point. Clearly, there are obvious limitations to empirical experimentation as a methodology for inquiry into the idea of a spirit without a body. You can't die and then come back and record what you were conscious of when you were dead. Worse, you can't even demonstrate that you can't do that. Or even that you can. Experiments like the ones in the movie Flatliners don't count, because those are near-death situations, not actual death, though they kept pushing the limit in that movie.

But there are no constraints in conducting what scientists like Einstein called 'thought experiments' in the laboratory of our minds. And the reason I have so many references to movies popping up in this post is that the entertainment industry, where having a vivid imagination is just table stakes, is a fertile environment for such thought experiments. The same goes for science fiction movies and their relationship with real-world scientific inquiry, and with real-world technological innovation. Quite often, being bold and going where nobody has ever gone before results in best-sellers and box-office hits, for writers and film-makers who explore extraordinary topics in the spirit of inquiry (not always scientific as it turns out). And that in turn inspires investigations, discoveries and inventions in real life through a process of true scientific inquiry and/ or technological innovation. But that's another story, and another digression.

Let's get back to our own inquiry into the question of consciousness removed from body. As sentient beings our bodies (normally) come equipped with the 5 senses, whose job it is to capture and deliver sensations to us. The dynamism of time ensures that things are never static, as in a photograph -- we are always in real-time, continuously seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching and feeling things. As sapient beings we continuously think about stuff that we see, hear, smell, taste and touch and feel. That's how we learn and grow. Even a computing machine has input / output devices as its peripherals, which connect it to the rest of the world by providing a conduit for data flow. Assuming an advanced computer can be aware of itself (we're not really too far from developing one), could it be aware of itself bereft of its I/O interfaces? Could sapience exist without sentience? That's my big question.

It takes more than intelligence to be human, as we know (though when we interact with some people we begin to doubt that). As different from machines that can think, humans also have a priori impulses: the sexual urge, for one, and the creative urge, for another -- we've all had spontaneous feelings and great ideas that seem to have come out of nowhere. But even these need a vehicle, which the body provides: a medium through which stimulus and response are received and delivered. The experience of a body has a crucial role in shaping what and who we are, what and who we become as our bodies change, and how we think and feel about ourselves and our worlds. If we believe we look good it makes us more confident, even vain, but if we believe we look ugly, it erodes our pride and leads to low self-esteem, even depression.

Our self-image depends a lot on the size, shape and overall appearance of the bodies we wear. The loss of a limb or an organ or a faculty significantly changes us and how we interact with and relate to the world around us. Helen Keller was an amazing human being who lost two of her senses before she was 2 years old, yet rose to become a towering figure in her time. Her determination to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges continues to be a source of strength to many in similar situations, to this day -- one may even say her intrepid spirit lives on in their hearts and minds and inspires them to achieve their goals despite all odds.

Surely, loss of the whole body would have a dramatic impact on what and who we become? How would we feel about losing our body, and in fact, what does 'feel' mean in that context? Can we feel or think without having a body? What interface would we then have with the world around us, to interact and transact with others, to give and to receive, to act and be acted upon? What is growth and learning and how could it possibly come about without interactions and transactions that can only be effected through an I/O interface of our bodies? Can we be creative without our bodies? How would creativity manifest itself in the case of a ghost?

Questions about ghosts haunt me even if ghosts themselves don't. Maybe I should just be satisfied with the explanation I gave my son and enjoy the rest of my weekend.

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

Filling Buckets Or Lighting Fires?

"Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire" -- W. B. Yeats

I was reminded of that quote today as I read a news report in the The Times of India excerpted here below:
The 86th Constitutional amendment making education a fundamental right was passed by Parliament in 2002. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, a law to enable the implementation of the fundamental right, was passed by Parliament last year. Both the Constitutional amendment and the new law came into force from today. 
Future generations of Indians will look upon this as a 'Great Leap Forward' for the Indian education system, notwithstanding the fact that it happened on All Fools' Day. It certainly would be a giant leap when successfully implemented, in terms of enabling 10 million children with access to schooling. Of course, there are several unanswered questions at the implementation level, including the dearth of qualified teachers, lack of suitable facilities, the potential for malpractices, etc., but let's assume that we will find ways and means of overcoming these challenges. But there is a larger issue here, even at the conceptual level, and that deals with  our understanding of, and approach to, education itself. And that's where the quote from Yeats comes into the picture. When it comes to Education Reforms, are we seeking to light fires or are we continuing to fill more buckets (and that too, more efficiently)?

I found myself wishing that they had more accurately called it 'Right to Literacy' because that's what it really is. Yes, it deals with primary education. And yes, it comes under the rubric of "Education Reforms" with a capital E and a capital R. But let's not confuse education with literacy. Or with skills training. While all three are important, each has a specific purpose and each plays a unique and vital role in shaping our children's lives as they grow into adults. Literacy gives them the basic tools they would need to learn more, acquire knowledge, develop skills, etc. and training empowers them with a range of capabilities -- some general, some specialized. But education builds character. Unfortunately, nowhere in our education system do we really focus on the last part. A few exceptional schools make an earnest attempt, but that stems more out of their own independent vision than from a systemic requirement.

IIT Bombay, where I spent my late teens and early 20s, has as its motto "Gyanam Paramam Dhyeyam" -- Sanskrit for "Knowledge is the Supreme Goal." The IITs excel in selecting the brightest (read: most analytical) young Indian minds (of those that have opted for the science stream in high school and chosen to pursue engineering as a career, as opposed to medicine) and then honing their pre-existing analytical skills to near perfection, through years of rigorous training in a highly competitive environment. What the IITs do not do, or even attempt to do, is to provide a well-rounded education to their students -- an education that would help them understand, for example, that the supreme goal is the development of the sensibility to apply knowledge judiciously, and not just the mere acquisition of it, as a literal reading of the IIT Bombay motto might suggest. Only the well-educated mind would be able to interpret this motto wisely, and understand the difference between letter and spirit, between acquisition and application. So this is the feedback loop in which this issue is stuck: the minds that run the IITs are the minds that believe that (acquisition of) knowledge is the supreme goal. And that too when what they mostly do is develop analytical skills and impart technical knowhow.

Our children have a right to a decent education too, not just a right to literacy and a right to training. Now that we've taken the first step today, I wonder when we will take the next one. And what, exactly, that would be.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dictional Differences: Dictates vs. Didactics

I've given up my indignation over the hijacking of the Hindi word avatar (pronounced "uhv - taar") by English-speaking Westerners (who pronounce it as "av - uh - tar"). I used to get bent out of shape about this mispronunciation and fought it passionately till I found the numbers on the other side of that fight overwhelming. So gradually I decided to let it go, as I had many years ago with a similar fight about the Hindi word karma. But there was a whole war I had yet to lose. Having won some ground, the other side started advancing further by dictating terms of use to me. They started correcting my own pronunciation of avatar, trying to highlight the difference between the English neologism and the original Hindi (actually, Sanskrit) word. And this would get me all riled up, especially if the individual doing the dictional dictation was a condescending NRI / PIO with an attitude (who according to me should have fought the battle on the same side as I).

Over time I learned to let that go too. I may not quarrel any more -- at my impassioned best maybe put up a feeble protest. But I will not accept this dictate. Ever. I'd rather face rebirth as a lower avatar in my next life, than say "av - uh - tar". So what if it is now an English word with an English pronunciation? I'm no orthoepist but I'm of the opinion that words can be pronounced as per their original phonetic structure, even after they've been adopted by another language and adapted (mauled might be more accurate) to suit the marauding language's phonemes. Have the French stopped pronouncing words like penchant or accoutrement or bête noire the French way and embraced the American pronunciation for such words? If they have Gallic pride, don't we have Indian pride?

Be that as it may, I've given up fighting the dictional war over avatar. But there's another war that I am still fighting and shall continue to fight for as long as I have to. It is about preserving the spelling and pronunciation of the Indian name "Gandhi", which has been coming under increasingly strong pressure lately to morph into "Ghandy". I have vowed to fight it through dictional didactics -- I shall correct every written or spoken instance of "Ghandy" that I come across, anywhere in the world and anywhere on the world-wide web, by teaching the concerned author or speaker the correct spelling or pronunciation as the case may be. Not so much out of respect for the man we've all been brought up to revere as the Mahatma, but more out of a sense of outrage that my compatriots who may happen to be closer to the source of the error either don't care or don't seem to be pushing back. Or pushing back hard enough.

I'm quite certain that people who've learned to spell and pronounce Javier Perez de Cuellar and Dag Hammarskjold can also learn to spell and pronounce Gandhi correctly, if taught to do so. My anger is not directed against them. My anger is directed against Indians who don't think it is important to educate their friends from other (predominantly first world) cultures about the pronunciation of Indian names or words from Indian languages. These are mostly the same Indians who modify their own names to make them more user-friendly to the English-speaking world, or, worse still, just adopt the nearest American-sounding name. (Side note: in my case, Westerners tend to mistake my first name for Herman, when written, and Eamon or Hammond, when spoken. But I'm usually quick to point it out and to help them with a mnemonic -- getting them to say "hey" and "month" in rapid succession till they get it right.)

These are also the same Indians that disparage other Indians who don't get the pronunciation of names like, say, McMahon or names of places like, say, Worcestershire. I use a rather colourful expression to refer to such sub-species of Indian origin but I'd rather not reproduce here in full. It consists of 3 words: the first two are 'Cocky Caucasian' and the third word is the unprintable one. (Hint: it is a hyphenated word, referring to a person who fellates men, and alliterates wonderfully with the first two words.) And if you've got that right you'd know that's not a racial slur against Caucasians; it's an obloquy aimed at the obsequiousness of Indians who think that cultural acquiescence brings personal acceptance (and who, in the first place, crave such acceptance by the first world). This is the problem: obsequiousness when facing West to interact with first world citizens; superciliousness when facing East to interact with their compatriots back home who haven't had as much exposure to the occident. Even if I could deal with the former, I find it impossible to reconcile to the latter.

Yet another reason for me to be pissed off with these Cocky Caucasian [unprintables] is that their sort of behavior plays so easily into the hands of the hard-core right-wing Hindutva bigots who are looking for every opportunity to oppose what to their eyes might appear to be a new avatar of colonialism or Western imperialism or religious proselytizing. Look at the way they react to St. Valentine's Day celebrations in India, every year. Why does this have to be a case of two extremes? One set of Indians with a zero tolerance policy towards other Indians imbibing Western culture, and the other falling all over themselves to get accepted by the West. We don't seem to be able to embrace diversity without it having to be a struggle to keep our cultural identity. A struggle that some think they win by digging their heels deeper into the quagmire of regressive morality (which they confuse with tradition), and others readily and willingly surrender to at the altar of acceptance by the West.

I'm all for cultural osmosis. When I travel, I love to soak-in the sights and sounds of the place, mingle with locals, speak their language if I can, or try to learn it, enjoy the local cuisine, and sing and dance the local song and dance. I'm not hung-up about where I come from or how different I am from the people I am amidst, nor am I scared of losing my sense of self by opening myself out to another culture (on the contrary, I revel in it, and it adds to my sense of self). When it comes to identity, "They can't take that away from me", to quote the lyric of an old song. And neither do I go to the other extreme by jumping out of my own skin and into one I was not born in. Or born with.

Cultural osmosis is a two-way process -- you learn some, you teach some. I learn the correct pronunciation of Dalziel and I teach the correct pronunciation of Gandhi. There is mutual respect. Everybody goes home enriched.

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Monday, March 08, 2010

Why Does Benevolent Dictatorship Have To Be An Oxymoron?

It all started with a link I shared on my facebook page a few days ago, to an article from The Economist on the US healthcare bill and the challenges before the Obama administration in getting the job done. In the comments that followed, we discussed the inability of democracies in general to take strong decisive action quickly, and how differently something like the healthcare bill might have played out in a place like China. Somewhere along the line the topic turned to dictatorships and I posed the question that forms the title for this post. My question sparked off a debate in the ensuing comments and that's when I thought that an open blog is a better place to have that debate than a restricted facebook page. But before I got into open debate on this subject, I wanted to conduct a small experiment. I wanted to find out if people thought about this question in the same manner as I did.

Could it be that my question is misunderstood to be an assertion that a dictatorship can never be benevolent? That's not what I had meant, but it occurred to me that if I had used the word "did" instead of "does" it might have given than impression. Could it be that the question as it now stands is being confused with another question -- one with "did" in place of "does"? I wasn't sure. So before launching into open discourse through this blog, I decided to test responses of people in general to the way the question might have been phrased. That test was carried out through a 'teaser' which I posted at my mini-blog on Saturday, inviting readers to respond with their interpretations of the two similar sounding questions. As evident from the comments on that post, most people understood the two questions in more or less the same way as I did.

One comment went directly to heart of the matter, undistracted by the main thrust of that post (which was to elicit subjective interpretations of the question) and undeterred by the instructions in bold type. And I agree wholeheartedly with that comment. In my opinion, the idea of a benevolent dictatorship doesn't have to be an oxymoron at all. However, there is no mistaking the fact that it has been one right through our troubled history. Our collective level of maturity (or lack thereof) as a species, up until our current stage of our evolution, has rendered it an oxymoron. This is a generalization, and of course, there will always be exceptions. If we look at the history of the world, dictators who were bad guys (the general rule) stack up way higher than dictators who were good guys (exceptions that prove the rule). And this has made 'fascist dictatorship' a pleonasm and 'benevolent dictatorship' an oxymoron. But does it have to be so? It is not impossible to envisage a future for mankind in which we evolve into more mature beings in this respect. A future in which dictatorships, if any, would generally be of the benevolent kind, and tyrannical despots would be the exceptions. This is my perspective for this debate -- I want to explore what makes us the way we are in the present, and what needs to change to make that future happen. It's really not about whether or not certain specific regimes in certain specific countries are or aren't benevolent dictatorships, and if so, what that proves or disproves (though my facebook debate did tend to go down that path).

To me the crux of this debate lies in understanding the turn in the grain of human nature that makes (most) people behave differently when they acquire power. This is not just about dictators. This is also about people who become hugely successful in a short period of time, and therefore experience a kind of empowerment that they had never experienced earlier (much like dictators when they seize power). Abraham Lincoln once noted: "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power" (to which I'd append "or give him overnight success"). And then we have that old adage: Power corrupts and absolute Power corrupts absolutely. It seems that the tendency for moral standards to drop when intoxicated by the power to realize any desire of one's choosing is a well known and widely accepted attribute of human nature as we know it today. So what makes this happen?

Anyone who has just recently come into a position of authority would remember their experience of the rush -- the heady feeling of wielding power. This is as valid for dictators and political leaders as it is for other individuals in civil society (businessmen, artists, athletes, etc.) who are suddenly successful and who achieve fame and recognition overnight as it were. The knowledge that one enjoys an unprecedented amount of power, which gives one the ability to exercise one's will on a range of issues (each of which has a greater impact on more things) does indeed produce an intoxicating feeling. In my opinion, this state of mind is triggered by two twin driving factors: the removal of constraints and the availability of choices. However, this comes with a price tag. The freedom to do pretty much as one wishes, coupled with the empowerment to make those wishes a reality, brings its own complexity.

I recently came across an interesting article that quoted Clay Shirky (a teacher, consultant and writer focused on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies) who in his keynote address at a conference, said "Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does. Society knows how to react to scarcity." Highly insightful, to say the least, and in the context of studying the psyche of a human who is suddenly empowered, it helps understand the mindset of someone who all of a sudden has before them an abundance of choices around just about anything within their purview and no explicit accountability to any specific authority other than themselves. Coupled with the fact that their sphere of influence and control has also rapidly expanded in a short time, this significantly raises the level of complexity that the mind has to deal with. This creates tremendous anxiety as a talk on TED that I watched some time ago explains.
The ability to deal with that anxiety is predicated by two main pre-requisites: intelligence and maturity. Intelligence enough to recognize the choices, analyze possible responses to situations, understand the implications of each response, and so on, and the maturity to recognize the responsibility implicit in each action, and most importantly, the maturity to be rooted in a value system and to maintain its robustness as the incumbent grows into the position of power. This is where most dictators (and many instantly successful people) have failed. This is what makes them anything but benevolent as they grow more and more powerful. And therefore, this is what has made benevolent dictatorship an oxymoron, generally speaking.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Of Opposites, Continua and Love

Opposites, sometimes, are not really what they purport to be. We take the opposite of X to be Y but in reality X and Y form a continuum. The thing that is really in sharp contrast to that continuum turns out to be Z, which stands orthogonally to the duality of X and Y. If that's too much math for a Saturday night (especially on the eve of Valentine's Day), let me make my point through a simple example: black and white might be understood to be opposites, with shades of gray forming the continuum between one extreme and another, but it is colour that really distinguishes itself from the black-gray-white continuum. We find that this applies in other cases as well.

We take atheism to be the opposite of religiosity / faith (in God), but even atheism involves belief in something -- it is a committed position at one end of a continuum defined around theism. Atheists are not sceptics, they are believers: they're convinced that there is no God. Theirs is an assertion of non-existence, not a challenging of existence. Agnostics on the other hand keep their minds and their options open. They do not take any specific position on the question of existence of God. Some might choose to adopt a 'don't know / don't care' attitude, but others, who do care, know that they will never know for sure, since they forever live in doubt. These are people who can never abandon reason to take the 'leap of faith', and, paradoxical though it may sound, may not even commit to being sceptics or rationalists. Such is the nature of doubt, that in its quintessence it turns on itself ipso facto. The presence of doubt is the absence of faith. It is the asking, challenging, will-not-accept-as-given nature of doubt that causes it to disable belief and faith. Doubters are never sure: they live in a world of uncertainty and will always be suspicious of anyone with strong convictions about anything.

We take hate to be the opposite of love, but both love and hate exist on the same emotional plane. They form a continuum of consummate passion at the extremes, that tends to result in behaviour that is generally viewed as irrational and/or unpredictable. Economics, on the contrary, studies the rational and predictable behaviour of participants in free markets. It deals with needs and wants and demand and supply and, assuming rational actors, predicts the behaviour of markets under various circumstances. It presupposes a clinically dispassionate (if not cold-bloodedly detached) approach to exchanging surpluses for deficits in order to fulfill needs or wants. This is the very antithesis of love. When you love, you don't track levels of demand and supply to arrive at a pricing strategy. You don't try to gauge which one of you needs the other more and then go on to determine where your negotiating leverage might come from. You don't think "What's in it for me?" and you don't expect stuff in return. Whether it is your child, your parent, your sibling, your partner, your lover, your friend, your country, your community, your club, your god, your cause, your car, your pet iguana -- in love, you give out of the sheer joy of giving. Whether your love god is Eros, Philia, Storge or Agape, you so revel in loving a particular person/ place/ animal/ thing, that you are scarcely conscious of your own needs and you don't care how much of your self and your resources you're giving away. Supply is seemingly immeasurable, perhaps infinite, even though Demand may at best be marginal if not altogether non-existent. You don't think of the consequences of that giving. You don't think of where it puts you vis-a-vis the loved one, in the context of the political dynamics of the need for emotional fulfillment and the kind of power-play that it quite often involves. What really stands in stark contrast to love, therefore, is detachment. Not indifference, but detachment of a certain kind: the kind that enables a political assessment of the economics of need. This is something to think about over this Valentine's Day weekend, as we celebrate love.

Just as the continuum of theism-atheism is to doubt, so is the continuum of morality-immorality to amorality. Just as the continuum of love-hate is to dispassion, so is the continuum of charity-cupidity to self-interest. Those who want to save the world must rise above all of these continua -- above the polemics of climate change evangelism versus denial, above the arguments of religious fanatics and materialistic consumerists, above the debates between altruistic social workers and avaricious profiteers. Saving the world needs serious work. It needs an open and questioning mind that remains free from the predilections of moral/ religious beliefs and passionate/ missionary zeal. However, freedom from belief should not mean complacent agnosticism, but the relentless search for knowledge without biases. Similarly, freedom from passion should not lead to apathy or indifference but should foster sensitivity towards the right kind of concern: a concern for ourselves and the world we live in, and the future of our children and our children's children and the world we bequeath to them. Perhaps this needs a fifth kind of love god to symbolize it, that the Greeks didn't think of.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

The Lesson from Seth Godin's Post

I read Seth Godin's blog quite often and over a period of time have come to expect that with each post I would learn something new, or gain fresh insights into stuff I was already aware of. I am usually not disappointed -- at worst, I might find a post or two to be about a business or a market or an industry that is far removed from mine or that I don't understand, and so less engaging. However, his last post (reproduced below in its entirety) was quite disappointing -- not in the sense that it was dull or uninteresting or lacking in gravitas, but in the sense that it was misleading, if not wrong.

The lesson from two lemonade stands

The first stand is run by two kids. They use Countrytime lemonade, paper cups and a bridge table. It's a decent lemonade stand, one in the long tradition of standard lemonade stands. It costs a dollar to buy a cup, which is a pretty good price, considering you get both the lemonade and the satisfaction of knowing you supported two kids.

The other stand is different. The lemonade is free, but there's a big tip jar. When you pull up, the owner of the stand beams as only a proud eleven year old girl can beam. She takes her time and reaches into a pail filled with ice and lemons. She pulls out a lemon. Slices it. Then she squeezes it with a clever little hand juicer.

The whole time that's she's squeezing, she's also talking to you, sharing her insights (and yes, her joy) about the power of lemonade to change your day. It's a beautiful day and she's in no real hurry. Lemonade doesn't hurry, she says. It gets made the right way or not at all. Then she urges you to take a bit less sugar, because it tastes better that way.

While you're talking, a dozen people who might have become customers drive on by because it appears to take too long. You don't mind, though, because you're engaged, almost entranced. A few people pull over and wait in line behind you.

Finally, once she's done, you put $5 in the jar, because your free lemonade was worth at least twice that. Well, maybe the lemonade itself was worth $3, but you'd happily pay again for the transaction. It touched you. In fact, it changed you.

Which entrepreneur do you think has a brighter future?

Like many other famous and popular bloggers, Seth Godin does not provide his readers with a window to comment on his posts, presumably because moderating and responding to a large number of comments can be too tedious and time consuming. Be that as it may, I found I had a couple of things to say with respect to this last post, and since there was no space for comments, I decided to come back to my own space where I am monarch of all that I type, as is my usual wont in such situations.

Let me tell you which entrepreneur I think has a brighter future: I think the kids behind the first stand have a brighter future. Now let me tell you why I think so. For one, they provide a reasonably good product at a reasonably good price, and deliver it fairly quickly through efficient processes -- all good and highly desirable business values in themselves. Secondly, because their entire delivery cycle moves fast, they are able to cater to more customers within a shorter time-frame. This gives them more throughput, higher volumes and a better top-line. The second stand delivers an experience that is described by Seth Godin over 4 paragraphs (as compared to the modest description of the experience at the first stand, within a single paragraph). Is such an elaborate and if I may use the word - enchanting - experience really something that a lemonade consumer is looking for? Well, perhaps 1 in 10 customers is (my guess). Now do the math, and while you're at it remember that a dozen people drove past the second stand because it was taking too long.

Lemonade is not a high-touch / high value-add product. It does not need an elaborate conversation with the consumer to understand their needs or their pain points. The scope for innovation is anywhere between zero to very little, even for a highly ingenious entrepreneur. Expectations are fairly well understood on both sides of the lemonade dispensing table. If the point being made is about user experience and the perception of value and stuff like that, then lemonade is not the best choice to write a customer delight story around. On the contrary, this could almost become the story of how not to hype-up a mass-market commodity product by building fluff around it.

I'm not saying the second stand is doomed to fail. I'm saying that the second stand caters to a niche market, and should locate itself in a neighbourhood where there are abundant target customers -- those 1 in 10 who: (a) have a lot of time on their hands (b) don't mind waiting in a queue to get what they want, rather than settle for something else which could be procured faster (c) prefer hand-made lemonade, which is made at the appropriate pace at which good lemonade should be made (d) attach a lot of importance to the beaming countenance, graceful bearing and joyful spirit of the individual behind the stand making the lemonade, and finally (e) like to pay, of their own volition, an amount of their own choice which is commensurate with their own assessment of the value they got from a transaction. I'm sure such customers exist, and in fact, other than Seth Godin who walked away 'touched' and changed by the experience, I could be one of them myself. But then where are the volumes? Even to generate the volumes needed to make this a viable business proposition, the second stand would have to have enough smarts to locate the right neighbourhoods where such niche markets exist and are as yet untapped. If I were a VC, I'd invest in the first model and not the second, though I may give my business to the second more often than the first, circumstances permitting. Not that I am betting on the failure of the second, but that I am betting on the success of the first. There are more people who are not like me (and Seth Godin), and the people who are like me (and Seth Godin) are in a hurry more often than I am (not sure about Seth Godin). C'mon - this is lemonade we're talking about, not high-end consulting or private banking or haute couture, where exactly the opposite argument would no doubt hold. Different horses for different courses!

There's a phenomenon that I'd like to call the comedian's momentum trap. When you are watching comedy your mind is already set to 'laugh' mode. You feel your mood lifting within the first few seconds, and a feeling of levity seems to come from nowhere and pervade through you. A few really good jokes are all it takes to build the momentum of laughter. Soon you're holding your sides, tears rolling down your cheeks ... all that. The momentum of this is so strong that even a weak joke will get more laughter out of you than it deserves. If someone else cracked the same joke in a stand-alone mode or in some other context, you'd have found it barely risible and it would have just fallen flat. I think Seth Godin's readers arrive at his blog with a similar 'momentum' -- a momentum of expectation, of the momentous. So just about anything that is posted there is seen as great insight and gets retweeted and delicioused and digged, just like all other posts.

I wonder whether Mr Godin would realize at some point that the real lesson from his blog post is a little different from the lesson he hopes readers will take away. Well, it was, for me. Ergo this post.

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