Tuesday, 8 December 2009

"Specialization is for insects"

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects." - Rober A . Heinlein

I first came across this quote three years back in the preface of The Cathedral and the Bazaar (great read by the way if you are into software). I didn't like the sound of it, since I had till then kept the belief that we engineers are supposed to be specialists, sub-sub specialists in our area of work (telecom, java, php, c++, .net, .whatever). I'm guessing now, the guy was probably right. The average human is indeed capable of doing much more than he often gives himself credit for. It's just that he is often too lazy or too afraid to try.

Sunday, 8 November 2009


I've often seen that motivation is mostly what sets apart a good performer from a bad performer at the workplace, and mostly, that's the difference between a happy worker and an unhappy one too. So, what is it that motivates someone to work? Or, what is somebody's incentive to work? because the incentive is essentially what motivates.

I'd classify incentives into two kinds - positive and negative.

Few examples of positive incentives (in no specific order):
-passion in you area of work
-appreciation from peers and superiors
-ambition to accomplish something
-money (money can also be a negative incentive depending on how you look at it)
-urge to make your end customer happy

Examples for negative incentives:
-fear of losing your job
-fear of having to deal with an irate customer
-fear of a bad appraisal
-fear of losing out in competition to your peers
-fear of your superior
-peer pressure
-money again (rather, the fear of not having enough money)
(the common element if you notice is *fear*, hence the term *negative* incentive)

If your incentives lie mostly on the second half, you need to seriously think over your work philosophy and figure out a way of converting your incentive system to a positive one. And trust me, the solution is mostly not in switching your job, workplace or team (though there may be exceptions). The solution mostly is a shift in the way you perceive & react to things.

By the way, if you are a manager and you rely heavily on the second half to get things done, you are sitting on a volcano.

This is an impulse post, will get back and refine once I distill these thoughts further.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

The partial solution

There are many problems in this world. Some of them do not really bother me, while some do, in varying degrees. If I am worried enough about something, I have tried to be part of voluntary groups that are specifically trying to solve these problems. For example, TidyCity is one such group which was formed about half a year back to spread awareness against littering, and to spread civic sense in general. We have been involved in activities like voluntarily cleaning up public spaces, conducting awareness sessions, conducting surveys, etc.

One question though that I often get from people, even very close friends and family, is how do you think this so and so group or activity will produce any positive change - I'm sure anyone involving in voluntary activities would have faced these questions from people around them. We for example get questions like, what effect do you think cleaning up the museum campus on one Sunday will have? What use is it talking to a handful of people about the ill effects of burning plastic?

Tough (not impossible) questions to answer, but I always felt there ought to be a very generic answer. What follows is the generic answer:


Given a problem, social or otherwise, there are some fundamental questions you have to ask yourself.

1. Does this problem bother you enough so that you want to do something about it?


If your answer is (B), then you can live with the problem, you can ignore it. If you have answered (A), then it follows that you have to do something about it, there are two questions here -

2. Do I have a complete solution to offer?

3. Is there a partial solution which I can offer my support to

(The partial solution here is partial because it doesn't solve the problem completely. A solution that introduces another set of problems doesn't qualify as a partial solution for the purpose of this discussion)

If you look are most social problems, you may end up answering (B) for #2 and (A) for #3.
i.e. There may not always be a perfect solution, but there are almost always a few partial solutions.

Now, coming to the point. If you answered (A) to question #1, and (B) to question #2, and (A) for question #3, i.e. if there is a problem that really bothers you, and all you have are partial solutions, then the best option is to strive to find the perfect solution, while at the same time, committing yourself to the partial solutions that are available.

If you do not agree, then probably you have not been totally honest in answering question #1:).

Friday, 2 October 2009

Is your religion better than others?

Do you think your religion is better than all other religions?
Do you think the truest path to self realization, salvation, is your religion and no other religion?

If your answer to both the above are yes, a couple more simple questions -
(a) Were you born into your religion?
(b) Did you make a conscious choice of religion after considering all alternatives?

If the answer to the above is (a), then what really was the basis for the first contention that your religion is the best? Is it not as childish as a kindergarten kid claiming that his shoes are the best?

Saturday, 26 September 2009

How to remember things

For a few months, I've had this chronic problem of lack of hunger. After waiting around and procrastinating for around three months, I finally visited our family physician two weeks back. He diagnosed me for "agnimandyam" (which roughly translates to a slow-down in appetite). He gave me a medicine, which I had to take twice a day, once before breakfast and once after dinner. It went without saying, any miss in the schedule, and the medicine would not have the desired effect.

Now, how is it that I take an instruction like that, and make sure I follow it? How does my brain know automatically from the next day, that I have to have the medicine as soon as I get out of bed? Of course I could write it somewhere where I'm sure to see it, or set a reminder on my mobile - but the point is, the brain is actually capable of remembering without these external aids.

I actually managed to follow the course, without any such device, even without anyone having to remind me. I tried a new technique. The basic idea is, it is possible to condition your brain and make it remember what it needs to remember. Here's what I did, I repeated to myself several times before I went to sleep that night, that I have to remember to take the medicine the next morning. While I did this, I imagined myself actually taking the medicine, tasting it, and feeling it go down my throat. The next morning, to my pleasant surprise, I automatically remembered to have the medicine. The repetitions that I did, and the mental image that i had carefully built the previous day had helped my brain form new neural pathways to remind me of the new thing that I had to remember from the next day. It was a lot easier the next day, I didn’t have to remind myself as hard as I did the first day and gradually, this conscious effort gave way to unconscious habit, and soon I started to remember to take the medicine almost like I remember to brush my teeth.

Well, finally last night, I finished the course of medicine, my appetite is now back, I am eating and sleeping as good as ever. And most importantly, I have finally cracked the mystery of memory - after countless lost umbrellas and locked cars.

Funny thing though, I just remembered, I forgot to have dinner yesterday..

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The earthquake that didn't quite reach Marappalam

It happened yesterday. I was in the middle of a search through my email archives for a rather old email (which I was certain existed). As is usual during email-archive-searches, I was starting to have doubts whether I was imagining things. That's when there was a sudden jolt from somewhere behind the Bhavani building I'm working in. Just a heavy jolt, as if something really heavy had hit the building. "Did a plane just hit the building? or a meteorite? am I imagining this?", I think to myself.

All of a sudden, there is a flurry of activity, I hear frantic calls being made, some are hurrying to run out before the building fell. Tedy instant messages from a few cubes over and theorizes that it was probably a meteor that fell around 50-60 miles north of Lakshadeep. (We later go upstairs to check the horizon for smoke, but don't find any - so we decide to accept the earthquake theory)

I call home to verify if there indeed was anything they noticed. Nobody picks up the phone, I get worried, was there really a bad earth quake? By this time, I hear that this is being shown as flash news on all the news channels (for once, a real flash news I thought)

I try dad's mobile. After a few rings he picks up. "Hey, did you feel the earth quake?", I ask.
"No, what earth quake? the earth seems fine around here " comes the answer.
"Come on it's there in the news channels now, it was felt in almost all places in Trivandrum".
"Ah, actually I don't think I could have felt it, I'm driving through the Kuravankonam - Marappalam road now", he said.

The picture above was taken last month, when the now famous Marappalam bridge was still under construction; The bridge is done now (phew), but the approach roads practically do not exist on either sides for almost a kilometer each.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Austerity - the economics and the politics

A subject that has suddenly become hot and discussed-about in the country today, thanks to some recent news items.

I'll keep it short. What beats me is this - If Shashi Tharoor stays in a 5 star hotel at his own expense, why on earth should that become an issue? How an individual spends his money is entirely his business (provided he obeys the rules of the land).

I'm no economist, but I think I have my fundamentals right when I say that the only way for an economy to survive is by commercial activity. Regardless of whether the money is spent on luxuries or necessities, the activity of spending money in exchange of goods or services is what keeps an economy rolling - and helps the people in it make a living. Austerity-measures on the individual goes directly against this. I don't think there are any examples of economies that have recovered from bad patches by curtailing spending by the individual, it is on the contrary by getting people to spend, that economies have bounced back.

Now, austerity does make sense when tax-payer money is involved. The logic being that the money spent on certain areas (like business class flights for example) can be spent on more important welfare schemes like the NREGS.

But, having said that, to expect the individual to exercise a similar discretion is Utopian and may even backfire. All this noise about austerity has nothing to do with economics, but distressingly, everything to do with politics.

Monday, 14 September 2009

The baldness survival guide

I've been thinking about writing about hair loss for a while, but I kept putting it off; which in fact turned out to be a very good idea; because you know, all this while I’ve been getting better qualified for the job.
The scope and purpose of this document is to list out a few survival tips for my bald and gradually balding fellow beings. Some handy tips and thoughts that will help you cope. So here we go:
  1. Think about bald and successful men, like Rajnikanth , Bruce Willis, Vladmir Putin, Mahatma Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi etc. (some idiots may tell you these men became bald when they were like 50, but see, what really matters is that people know them as bald men).
  2. Observe other bald men, and find out ways in which you are better looking. This might be slightly difficult in the beginning; the trick is to pick the right specimens to compare with.
  3. Never spend too much time reminiscing at old baby pictures, I mean those taken when you were 2-3 years old, and you had as much hair as a hippie bear.
  4. Surround yourself with a support group of bald men (this will also help you with # 2 above)
  5. If you haven't gone completely bald yet, start working on you hairstyle. Never go for the drag-and-drop style (you know what I mean). Keep changing your style gradually exposing the baldness. Try growing a beard and see if the distinguished scholar look suits you. Or shave all your hair (don’t worry, they will grow back…well if they don’t...tough luck dude) and grow a French beard for the intelligent techie look.
  6. This is something I picked up recently from one of my balding friends (see, this is why point#4 is so important). Don’t let your hair grow too much. Counter intuitive as it may seem, the more hair you have, the more it will contrast with the bald areas. So get regular haircuts.
  7. Important: If you stay away from friends and family, send pictures to them often enough, so that they can take the shock when they finally see you in person.
  8. How do you respond to those comments from the smart asses who happen to have more hair than you? This is something that I’ve pondered a lot about. I’ve got to admit, I’m still very much at a loss here. I’ve tried a lot of responses…like oh it’s the water, or that it’s in my family, or, that girls like bald men. No clear winner so far.
  9. Start believing that girls actually like bald men. Given the fact that this is still pretty much a gray area for modern science, who knows, you may actually be right.
  10. Read the Gita. How it helps? Well, read through, you’ll figure it out yourself.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

If you are worried about the piles of waste that rot on our roads, about the corporation that you think doesn't know its job; about corrupt politicians who you think swindle public money, about the whole system that in your opinion, doesn't work, and if you think your job ends there, please skip the rest.

On the other hand, if you want to do something about it, here are a few shockingly simple things you can do, which can go a long way.

Reduce - Reduce the use of materials that can end up as difficult-to-manage waste
  1. Avoid takeaway food as much as you can, if you do, do it from a place where as little plastic is used for packaging as possible.
  2. Buy cotton clothes instead of synthetic/semi-synthetic clothes
  3. While shopping, buy stuff with as less plastic packaging as possible.
  4. Again, while going shopping, take your own shopping bag along.
  5. Never, never waste food.
  6. While arranging parties - go for paper/ceramic cups, plates. Never go for plastic or other synthetic stuff.
  7. When going on a trip, carry your own water bottle (plastic or otherwise). Take a look near our railway tracks and you'll know why I say this.
  8. When buying soft drinks, buy them in cans instead of plastic bottles.
Reuse - Reuse whatever is reusable. You'll be surprised how little we normally do this.
  1. Re-use plastic bags, do not just throw them away after a single use. Wear them out by use.
  2. Reuse one-sided paper for your rough scribblings
  3. Use fountain pens instead of ball-pens. If you do use them, make sure you get them refilled - do not just throw away used pens.
  4. Give away your old usable clothes to charity
  5. Sell away unusable clothes, glass, paper to recycling shops

Recycle - when you can't re-use, make sure you recycle
  1. Disposing plastic should be your last option, and when you do, make sure you dispose it properly, understand where it’s going, make sure it gets recycled if it is recyclable. The fundamental thing here is segregation of plastic.
  2. Segregate the degradable from non-degradable waste at source. Do not just dump all your waste on the people who come to collect them - remember they are also people like us who would not really enjoy digging through someone else's garbage.
  3. If you have the space, dispose organic waste in your own yard in a compost – rather than burdening the corporation/municipality services. Actually it doesn't take that much space;here's a good link on how you can go about composting.
  4. If you live in a flat, talk to your association to get a compost unit built.
(I'll keep adding to this list as I think of more:))

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Ask! and Ye Shall Learn

Here's a theory: The best way to learn anything complex is to ask the right questions and find their answers. It is not by learning the answers first, without understanding the question (which is of course how me mostly try to learn - we pick up a book and read).
The problem has be comprehended before coming to the solution.
The art of learning then, is in fact the art of finding the right questions to ask.

The most correct question to ask at any point of your learning, is probably always the most fundamental one. You need to search out for yourself and attack the most fundamental aspect of the problem that you do not understand, and find the answer. And then, apply the process recursively. Theoretically by the end of it, you would have found answers to all questions that were there to be asked.

I am not venturing to try and prove this logically (I tried and found it too boring to do:)).

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The Power of Now - A book review

This is more of a recommendation than a review. And I haven't read the whole book yet, being the slow and erratic reader that I am:)

The fundamental message of the book is quite simple, and counter intuitive. It's that the root of all worries and sufferings is in the way our mind operates - in that it dwells too much in the past and the future, and very little in the present.

Now, we have heard that before, but what sets this work apart is the solution that it suggests.

It is - to stop thinking (yes literally) and you will see that your focus automatically shifts to the present. In the book, Eckhart Tolle argues that the present is all you have - the past and future being mere illusions. And that to operate in the present, you don't need to think. You just need to "be".

To actually stop thinking, might seem like an extreme thing to do. And I haven't succeeded in doing that, though I've succeeded to see a lot of logic in the theory - if you watch your mind, there is indeed a lot of unnecessary activity that does nothing but wastes your processor cycles:)

Anyway, I suggest you read the book yourself before you judge; so pick up the Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle the next time you visit a book shop, it could change the way you use your mind, in a very positive way.