February 11, 2010

A cuckoo’s egg

Posted in Book review tagged , , , , , , , at 8:33 am by chait83

So what does it take to write a thriller… FBI , CIA , KGB, NSA… High tech research labs of Berkley , MIT and Stanford .. add to it a little bit of innocence and goof ups of a mad ( for the mere mortals) scientist.. and you have a humourous thriller on your platter. But “A cuckoo’s egg” by Cliff Stoll is far more than just being a thriller and humour, it’s about influence of human society or a culture as a whole on technology. Usually viewed from an opposite angle i.e. influence of technology on  humans or the culture or the society as whole.

This blog is not a book review, but rather my learnings from the book.

1. Technology and people : Cliff still is thinking about the motive of the hacker. Most of researchers of his university would be more than happy if the hacker goes on and takes some effort to read their papers residing on the vast network of Berkley..What would the hacker get at the end of the day hacking into their computers. But his colleagues are concerned that this hacker would bring the network on its knees. Cliff still is not able to realise this concern. After all what would the hacker do with worthless data on their system and since he was around for at least a year he could have created havoc long ago if he had to.

Excerpt from the book.

Dennis saw the hacker problem in terms of social morality. “We’ll always find a few dodos poking around our data. I’m worried about how hackers poison the trust that’s built our networks. After years of trying to hook together a bunch of computers, a few morons can spoil  everything.”

I didn’t see how trust had anything to do with it.

Dennis replied. “You’re seeing the crude physical apparatus—the wires and communications.The real work isn’t laying wires, it’s agreeing to link isolated communities.”

Technology is not a mesh of copper wires and silicon heaps, it is the ideology or the culture of the people who define the technology. For a very long time I thought that technology would be defining the course of human culture. But it’s the other way round, technology is just a medium which at times bridges the gap between human realms and their dreams. Technology alone is just a mesh of copper wires or heaps of silicon. The very existence of the technology lies within the ideology and the culture of the contemporary society, good or bad, culture defines the technology. Culture is the soul and technology is the bodily form of the human pursuit.

2. Freedom of thought :  You would find books across the globe and over the entire human History on this topic.. freedom of thought, but to me the most important aspect of this topic that this book discusses is mutual co-operation for the freedom.

3. If you can’t break the brick wall jump over it:

Often we are pursuing things in our lives (Not specifically a scientific pursuit, but a generic pursuit) and then we give up because we come across a brick wall. We try something else and again there is a brick wall and we give up. If probability of success is less than 1%, all it means is that we need to try more than 100 times to succeed. It doesn’t mean that “nobody cares“, or there is no point in it, or you failed in the pursuit, or it’s very difficult. All it means is that is you have to keep exploring different possibilities. You have to traverse untreaded paths, and battle the rough waters to find the shore.
Wow…did that that sounds philosophical !

But here’s what Luis Alvarez has to say on how to tread the untreaded path and find the shore out of rough waters.

This excerpt from the book here which is discussion between the author and a Nobel Laureate Luis Alvarez when they meet casually at the cafeteria.

Luis Alvarez: When you’re doing real research, you never know what it’ll cost, how much time it’ll take, or what you’ll find. You just know there’s unexplored territory and a chance to discover what’s out there.

Author: That’s easy for you to say. But I’ve got to keep three managers off my back.

L A : Don’t be a cop, be a scientist. Research the connections, the techniques, the holes. Apply physical principles. Find new methods to solve problems. Compile statistics, publish your results, and only trust what you can prove. But don’t exclude improbable solutions—keep your mind open.

A : But what do I do when I hit a brick wall ? Like the telephone company withholding a phone trace. Or the FBI refusing a court order. Or our laboratory shutting me down in a couple days?

L A  (People this is the most amazing part.. I would never forget):

Dead ends are illusory. When did you ever let a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign keep you away from anything? Go around the brick walls. When you can’t go around, climb over or dig under. Just don’t give up.

Permission, bah!

Funding, forget it.

Nobody will pay for research; they’re only interested in results,” Luie said. “Sure, you could write a detailed proposal to chase this hacker. In fifty pages, you’ll describe what you knew, what you expected, how much money it would take. Include the names of three qualified referees, cost benefit ratios, and what papers you’ve written before. Oh, and don’t forget the theoretical justification.

Or you could just chase the bastard. Run faster than him. Faster than the lab’s management. Don’t wait for someone else, do it yourself. Keep your boss happy, but don’t let him tie you down. Don’t give them a standing target.

When pioneers run after their pursuits like a mad bull on a rage, they scatter a lot of dust around them often leaving it for others to clean. The most important thing that Luis Alavarez talks about running like a bull, but with sanity of the goal and without scattering the dust around. This is one thing I would be internalizing in a few days.

Well that’s all folks. Read the book, it is awesome.

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February 3, 2010

Our blind education system:

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 7:47 pm by chait83

As I was cleaning up the old newspapers today I saw a photograph of parents sleeping in front of a convent school for admission forms for their kids. So I was wondering what this hype about convent schools is and on the other hand schools teaching Vedanta philosophy are considered as last resort to feeble minds.

Sometime in the eighteenth century the East India Company was figuring out how to overcome the local language barrier for clerical jobs. Lord Macaulay struck with a brilliant idea – teach the locals English. The Christian missionaries were up for the task and bingo; the convents meant for the nuns were turned into temples of English education. Dictionary meaning of convent is “A religious residence especially for nuns.” Hmm! Something what we saw in “The sound of Music” where Julia Andrews tries to be a nun in a convent. It’s been sixty years the Britishers have quit India, but still the mindset persists in Indian mentality.

Long before the Britishers came to India, India and China were considered the learning centers of the world. Probably the roads, water supply and drainage systems back the haddpa and Mohejodaro civilization were better than Pune.

So how’s this possible, these Indian scholars didn’t go to any convent schools. The Britishers hit the Indian shores only in the eighteenth century.

Quest for knowledge

(From perspective of Indian culture):

India had society divided into four sections and later into thousands of castes and subcastes, since very early days. Probably entire generations of trees have sacrificed their lives justifying this division of labour (or caste system) and then criticizing the caste system. Only thing I would say is that early division of labour did specify the four principles of human transcendence to the supreme (moksha). So keeping the division of labour out of

So Brahmans were the ones whose job was to explore the new limits of knowledge, transcend it into wisdom and elevate the stature of the common man.

Kshatriya: The most misunderstood ones. Lots of books mention Kshatriya as warriors and epic Bollywood movies cast them as epitome of violent maniacs whose swords are ever thirsty of human blood. Bhisma pitamah in Mahabharat truly defines the duties of a Kshatriya on his death bed to Yudhisthir. He mentions that the true duty of a Kshatriya is to impart justice to the masses and protect the virtue so that peace prevails in the society. So a Kshatriya should have thorough understanding his own duties. Violence is the last resort for a Kshatriya to impart justice, when all other means to deliver justice have “failed”. When a Kshatriya decides to step into the battlefield he must perform his duty with all his might. Essentially job here is to make sure that peace prevails, at times through violent means as well.

Vaisya: these were the merchants or generally the people who exchanged goods with mutual understanding and in process earning their share of profit. Not much literature is available since these people I guess because these people minded their own business 😉

Shudra: Osho mentions that the duty of a Shudra is to serve, with a purpose. Society for a very long time has treated them as mere servants. So not much learning has happened in the class and literature is filled only with the stories of their exploitation. Much can be attributed to lack of education.

Of these four sections only Brahmans and a handful of Kshatriya (princes and royal families) received formal education.

Apart from this formal education pattern there was a lot of informal education happening around society as well.

A young boy of the age eleven or twelve starts taking up small jobs like an apprentice on ship, or as a farm labour, carpenter, etc. The boy would most likely look upto the best sailor on the board and would be someone like him someday. His education starts with simple things like different techniques of tying knots. In return the captain of the ships would get some cheap labour on the board. By the time the boy is eighteen years old he is a master of the trade. Proactive boys would look upto captain and someday become captain of the ship. Same goes with the other trades as well, like farming, fishing, business, etc.

Learning through discussion:

So coming back to formal education of the vedic period the students had to stay in a monastery / convent 😉 of a wise sage for the complete period of his education. For that period the sage was the student’s family.

The first lesson would always be why to respect the teachers, elders and the society. The very next lesson involved self realization and the wise old sage would start teaching only when the he felt that his student is thorough with the first two lessons. The fables and epics are full of creative ways implemented by the teacher to inculcate these to lessons into their pupils.

The education by this teacher was never a classroom, textbook, grades degree kind of education. It was an open forum where the pupils raised their question and the teacher answered them through open discussion with fellow students.

It is said that Upanishads were outcome of discussion between students and the teacher. Also the veds were split in the four disciplines by Ved Vyaas through discussion with his students.

The education is deemed complete only when the teacher thought so and that would happen only when he is convinced that the student is ready for the challenges of real world.

Both systems have common patterns:

  1. Students learn things which are very relevant to their trade, with a much focused mindset from an expert of the trade.
  2. There are no illusionary carrots of marks and degree, the sole purpose of education is wisdom. Knowledge is gained out of inquisition and not out of compulsion.

History has witnessed that this kind of system had it’s own share of flaws, but certainly this system is less flawed than the current education system.

Sikandar ne Porus se ki thi ladai.. jo ki thi ladia toh mein kya karu?

Lyrics of a famous hindi song, have a special place in my heart. I often wonder what does a farmer in some remote village of India got to do with world war. A person by the age of 21-22 begets a child in most of the villages in India. Now the question is how is the tenth standard history of world war going to help a person feed his family and a newly arrived member in the family. Unless you have cleared tenth standard a person doesn’t get to pursue education in his field of interest. Jawaharlal Nehru in his book “Discovery of India” mentions about the plight of Indian peasants oppressed by moneylenders, taxes, famines, atrocities, etc in the British era. Reading newspapers I see no difference in the situation. May be the only difference is that the farmers are literate in present-day and have mobile phones, but still today most of them were oppressed to same degree. The sole reason for this plight of the farmers is their inability to manage their finances, which is not taught in any of the schools in India.

Government publishes a huge stack of worthless junk explaining increasing dropout rate, when the reasons for that are “but obvious”, nothing has been done. Farmers are committing suicides, there are compensations given out, whereas the real culprit is education system.

Now consider the poor section of the urban society, who don’t have much educational background nor intend to make a dent in the universe with their intellect. Most of the times struggle is to get the next meal for them and send a few pennies back home in some remote village in India. Here the expectations from life are simple. Again education system does nothing for this section as well. No person can learn vocational courses unless that person has completed tenth grade. Climbing the ladder to the tenth grade is full with worthless “sinkandar porus” battlefield stories from their perspective. If a person at the age of 11-12 is taught how to repair two-wheelers, may by the age of eighteen he would be self-sustaining. Once self-sustaining there is good chance that this boy would look around and see the bigger picture and realize importance of higher education. Though the person might or might not pursue higher education, the most important aspect here is the realization.

Coming towards the sophisticated urban class of the cities, the privileged ones who receive higher education there is craze among the students to become engineer, in most of the cases because their friends are getting into engineering. Here students learn how to solve cryptic mathematical problems, but in real life the most important skill for an engineer is to define a set of problems correctly. During my engineering days I had learnt double, triple, vector integration, derivative, all hi-fundu calculus which in real life I never required or I could never comprehend where I could use it.

There are very few people who would justify their choice of higher education. With a handful exception the most common scenarios would be:

  1. People pursuing arts did because they had no where else to go.
  2. People pursing commerce did because they wanted to have fun for three years.
  3. People studying medicine did that because their parents are doctors.
  4. People pursuing non-contemporary skills try to justify by their choice by “scope” offered by their profession.

Once into the inferno, students realize that lucrative jobs are available only in if they do MBA and hence they pursue MBA for job’s sake. Now rest of the time is spent in compromising with the job and life.

Degrees like MBA and engineering can only grind the rough edges and make them smooth, but there should inherent acumen for machines or business in the student itself without which the student is a failure (again explaining the growing dropout and suicide rate).

Focus on things that you love:

Lot of people keep telling you “Focus on things that you love”

Focus: Next time some asks you to focus on something, ask them what focus means? Unless the person is “Wise old sage” you are sure to trigger a humourous exchange of synonyms without deriving much out the discussion and for sake of some common sense you are not focusing on the task you are asked to focus on. In most of the cases people who talk about focus are certainly clueless about what they are talking. Even I don’t know what focus is, when I would understand I would certainly write a blog on it.


Years ago I had written off a movie of Karan Johar “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” (as I always do, that’s why I haven’t seen anymore movies of his), but this dialogue always lingered in my mind “Pyaar dosti hai”, delivered by SRK with a typical UMmUMmM.. I often hear people saying that this is passion of my life. Passion is “Pyaar” in excess quantity. So going by this hypothesis, passion for a particular profession starts with a friendship.

Friendship is not difficult to comprehend for anyone. Friends make our hearts lighter and merrier when they are around. Communication in friendship is always beyond all the barriers, since many of us find friends in animals, plants, books, etc. Friendship levels the playground, which always connect two friends. Most importantly friends give a meaning to life, good or bad but friendship always gives makes life meaningful.

So referring back to our hypothesis “Pyaar dosti hai”, you cannot be passionate about your profession unless you:

  1. Feel lighter and merrier doing the job you are doing
  2. You feel that there is no barrier of communication and you can relate to your profession as easily as you can relate to your friends.
  3. Your profession giving meaning to your life? Now unlike friendship the meaningfulness should always be in good terms. I guess very few people reading this blog want to end up being thief or some form of thief.

If you find these three things (there could be more aspects) then it’s just a matter of time that you become passionate with your profession. Focus would automatically be there once you are in love 😉

Cheers !!!

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