Saturday, December 13, 2008

Seminar on Disaster management and architecture at Navi Mumbai

I and Dr Roy conducted a small seminar at Bharatiya Vidyapeeth College of Architecture at Navi Mumbai. Dr Roy is an expert in disaster management and has been working in that area for the last twenty years. There were around 50 students and 10 faculty members in attendance.

Dr. Roy concentrated on the immediate issues during any terrorism and came up with some points: 
  1. Start with yourself before blaming/looking at others for help/explanations.
  2. Do not turn up at the disaster site blindly. Turn up at the site where the victims are likely to be, if you want to help. For e.g. After an earthquake, the local people often know whether the local resources will sustain them or not. Often landing up the scene at that time is of no use because the people may have already left. One needs to know how people move during such crisis situations
  3. Understand the real requirements of people at a disaster. In a recent earthquake at Gujarat, a lot of clothes were donated. They were of no use to the locals there because they could not adjust to the strange attire of the city dwellers. Instead, they used the clothes as fuel!
  4. Land up at the disaster site if you are sure you can first take care of yourself. You should not become a liability to others who are trying to help.
  5. Local knowledge is very valuable. If you don't have any then stay at home!
  6. Be in a position to understand and distribute the knowledge of all resources available to everyone trying to help.
Dr. Roy was not very convinced about the amount of proactive steps that can be used to actively prevent terrorism and disasters. There is a theory in architecture (called architectural determinism) which proclaim that what architects do determine the end behaviour of people using architecture. Not true at all. Architects are only one tiny part of the society's determination process. At the same time, we cannot go to the other extreme and proclaim that what architect's do will not affect people's behaviour at all. (It is interesting to note that a specialization in architecture close to my heart; environment-behaviour (E-B) that was taught when I was in IIT over thirty years back, is coming back once again hopefully to help us.)

The subject of E-B has turned up often in the past to explain complex contradictions in architectural design. For e.g. In the understanding of the Pruitt-Igoe Fiasco where a large housing complex was dynamited in the seventies. The CSNY song; "Ohio" was written after the dastardly attack by Nixon's soldiers at Ohio State University where some students were shot down. After that event, there were many studies conducted that attempted to understand how certain kind of spaces may unconciously aid rioting.

The following architectural points were touched upon:
  • The concept of defensible spaces and how architects can use defensible spaces to diffuse the effects of terrorism, and other disasters etc.
  • Terroriality, privacy, personalization, way-finding are all to be understood properly if one has to prevent all kinds of behavioural conflicts happening in designed environments.
  • Many aspects of architecture: E.g. Lighting can be used carefully in public spaces to reduce the effects during a terrorist attack.
  • An off-shoot of the subject of environment-behaviour called "Crime Prevention Through Evironment Design" (CPTD) is now considered by many architects/planners. Architects can use many sites on the net e.g.
    (Though I am not sure about the word "prevention". The word "mitigation" may have been better)
  • Technology can never give an answer directly. It can, at best, supplement other measures. So all active form of security devices such as cameras, survellience, etc. are all to be taken in context of a proper understanding of the overal security threat. Just blindly using technology cannot prevent a determined foe. Some examples from Vietnam war were discussed, where the poor and frail managed to defeat really sophisticated systems setup by the Americans
Dr Roy cautioned that there are many psychological and social reasons that are needed to be explored (E.g. The manipulation of the fear psychosis by vested interests such as political parties) He also cautioned against stereotyping while acknowledging that as humans it is understandable that we indulge in stereotypes and other generalizations because those are probably ways a human handles fear when he cannot channelize it in a more productive manner. He did not want to discuss fear psychosis because that is a big and complicated subject and a superfical analysis of it will only result in more misunderstandings of a complicated subject.

As far as archtitecture is concerned; architects simply have to cross their own borders and look beyond traditional architecture. We design in the context of a society in all its dimensions and we architects must understand that deeper context. Dr. Roy gave plenty of examples from other design situations that lead to trauma and death such as traffic accidents. 

The steps to be taken proactively are not really about preventing terrorism directly but how to ensure that the concept of terror does not survive. For e.g. We should foster a sense of well-being and self-respect among all of us. Highlight the good points and just the way the forces behind terrorism is now brainwashing people to do terrible deeds, we should also be able to "brainwash" (if we can use the same term) to do positive things.  In fact, statistically speaking, we have a better chance of positive thinking than the terrorists have in spreading negative thoughts. 

Unfortunately, many vested interests (powerful lobbies, politicians, those who fund the terrorists) working in the background really want people to continue with their fear psychosis. As citizens, we seek help from our whatever sources we get which is usually the media. But then, the media currently in India is very immature and therefore adds further to our problems. Few realize that the media is forced to give only viewpoints that they have been given access to. It is impossible for them to give a complete picture. If only the media gave a more balanced point of view, the horror of the recent mumbai attacks could be put in the right perspective. For e.g. More people die in traffic accidents in a year than in terrorist accidents. Many more people have died in the consequences of improper understanding of terror (For example due to riots) than the terrorist incidents themselves.  It is ironical that we actually end up killing more of each-other in our own country, but our attention is caught on issues such as whether we should bomb places in some other country!

If there are more people spreading unified positive thinking, then the chances of terrorists coming into our lives are much lesser because there is no thought-space available to them to encourage their nefarious activities. Unfortunately, just after a terrorist attack there is so much anger, confusion and fear that we become numb and cannot think clearly. That is when the terrorist has actually won. They return back (or die) and we are left with the continuing hatred, fear and anger. 

If we have to defeat the terrorists, we have to get back to thinking clearly and test out our half-baked ideas democratically with others.  As Vallabh Bhanshali said in an interview "It is okay to have half-baked ideas. But it is very important to acknowledge that those ideas are indeed half-baked" Not to know that we do not know the full story is possibly the one biggest mistake we can ever make during these events. There must be a constant striving to get more and more clarity and that effort must not be stopped.

If each of us retain in us what we thought were the right approaches, we will not be testing them and that will result in a even worse problems. Again the terrorists will win. We must fight the urge to come up with 5 minute solutions and remove the feeling that a complicated explanation is synonymous with an incorrect explanation.

Dr. Roy also stressed on the importance of developing databases and other resource materials and be in a state of readiness. However, he was not in favour of developing a sense of paranoia and constant fear. 

Architects should also be able to sit with other experts and point out the rewards and opportunities that may exist in various locations in our cities for disaster.  If we can identify those spots and the reasons for such rewards and opportunities, then we could take proactive steps to reduce them.  This will give lesser material for the bad guys to do damage in. 

One main issue that came up as the reason for the festering problem of terror is the ghettoising of our cities: That could actually result in both more terrorists being bred, and also during attacks we are likely to suffer more damage. Architects and builders are traditionally trained to think "plot-by-plot" and not really in terms of design in the overall context of society. For e.g. A builder gets a plot for a large residential colony and makes a "gated-community" in that plot with his architect. While doing that, both the architect and builder traditionally do not concentrate on what happens to the rest of the neighbourhood. In fact our building laws don't even have anything to connect to other designs around the one we are doing. This leads to an amorphous ghetto development and that leads to a bigger failure, though initially each of these gated-communities may sound reasonable and secure.

What we need is to promote a more inclusive and responsible society which is constantly highlighting its positive aspects. It is often fashionable to point out where we go wrong and who is corrupt, etc. But if there is one correct thing that each of us can really do in today's complex times is to first point fingers at ourselves and see how each of us can individually contribute and ask ourselves what is right about us which can be brought to the forefront. We all know what is wrong, and that is all hackneyed. It is hightime we know what is right.

Indian culture is actually quite inclusive and we do not really need to take examples from the US or Israel to handle security. Our problems are way different. We are quite heterogeneous and we have both strengths and weakness in the large population.

The talk got stretched way beyond its allotted time and we finally finished at  around 2.00pm The talk did not cover issues such as fear, anger and how to safely channelize those emotions as they are large subjects by themselves. There is a lot of unfocussed anger (Bomb this xyz country, hate that abc community, what causes riots, etc.) and we all agreed that addressing those topics superficially would not be right. A workshop is now being planned in January 2009 where other colleges and more professionals will be involved. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Don't need no Rang-de-basanti!

This is a true story from one of my seniors at IIT Kharagpur. Sometimes we feel that someone who is in a high position wont understand what we are going through. Take for example, the way we represent our anguishes and problems to the authorities. The Rang-De-Basanti movie is much spoken about, but frankly I felt issues could be handled in a much more mature manner. Harimohan Pillai (also architect and a great teacher) encountered something that disturbed him. He did something about it and see what happened.

There are some typical IIT-Kharagpur lingo which some may not understand. Here is a small glossary

KGP: Kharagpur
Diro: Director of the institute
Hall: Hostel
Cheddis: A famous "dhabba" outside the main building of the institute
Nikhils: Another "dhabba"
79-ers: Students who graduated in 1979
Hols: Holidays
RPans : Students staying in the Rajendra Prasad Hall (Hostel)
RKites: Students from the R.K. Hall (Hostel)
Cal: Kolkatta
HOD: Head of the Department
Convo: Convocation ceremony where students get their degrees
TDS: Technology Dramatics Society (A students body promoting theatre)
tempo: Enthusiasm. IIT Kharagpur has a "war cry" which goes like this: "IIT Ka Tempo, high hai!"

Sabu Francis

Harimohan's article

Coming to think of it, 79-ers have an edge, for they were on the edge of the 70s, most happening decade of independent India. When we had joined, most of us in 74 and few like me in 73, we had just got out of the Indo-Pak skirmish, followed by Bangla Desh liberation, the brunt of which was borne largely by West Bengal, with the migrants all over... KGP railway station no exception. I had seen the pathetic sight of scantily clad refugee women crouching in the battery boxes of local train coaches smuggling rice, during occasional week end trips to Cal with my Bengali friends.

Then we had the great emergency period of 75-76-77. We in the campus lived a protected life without much communication with the outside world. Imagine, we had no TV those days! I would like to relate an incident in which I was involved. Some of you may have heard of it.

We had this Nikhil's tea shop just outside RP Hall, on the main road side leading to IIT Gate. Nikhil's was most frequented by RPans and RKites. In some way

In some ways Nikhil had eaten into Chedi's business. One day we found that his shop was razed to ground by the local police as security measure, because PM Madam Indira Gandhi was to come for the Silver Jubilee Convo of IIT KGP. We all were sad and hoped that things would get back to normal after the Convo. But that didn't happen. Nikhil was in tears, when I met him once. Somehow I got furious, and armed with the Hindi TDS spirit of 'Juloos' those days, I wrote a short letter to Madame Gandhi. It went like this:

"Aap Andhi ki tarah aati hain, aur toofan ki tarah chali jaati hain, Aap ko nahin maloom, aap apne peeche sab kuch tahas nahas kar jaati hain."

Followed by few lines in English about Nikhil's shop demolition by police.

Summer hols I went home and totally forgot about this. When I returned in July, I saw from my rickshaw that Nikhil had a brand new shop in the same place and before I could open my room in RP Hall couple of cops came in search of me. I was shit scared, but they were most humble and said the Midnapur range DSP was waiting for me in the police chowki neat IIT gate. I met the DSP who took me most respectfully to Nikhil's shop for a cup of tea, accompanied by other cops. Nikhil was all smiles. The DSP then said over hot tea that he needed an NOC from me stating that I am satisfied with the re- erected shop, to be sent to PM, so that some of the suspended officials could be re-instated! I was flabbergasted, but kept my cool and gave the necessary papers. Finally when I opened my room I found a letter from Madame Gandhi herself, under my door. It said,

"Mujhe fakrh hai ki hamare desh mein aap jaise naujawan hain jo ek sadharan aadmi ke dukh dard ko samajhte hain. Kabhi kabhi kuch afsar satta ke nashe mein apni jimmedaariyan theek tarah se nahin nibhate. Apke hostel ke paas ki chai ki dukan ka mujhe afsos hai. Maine action le liya hai."

A copy of this letter was addressed to Diro - Prof. C.S. Jha ! Next morning my HOD Prof. Muni Chakravarti all smiles and beaming with pride took me to meet Diro who had summoned us. I had a cup of cha with them over small talk about what happened etc.!

We 79-ers jumped into our respective professions into a new decade that brought in computers and information technology. I think we are the most blessed lot of all IIT-ians, living in this age... Let's keep up the tempo high and higher...

regards to all
Harimohan Pillai

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Narasimha Effect

The western world has recently woken up to an old story that India has grown up on. They call it the Medici Effect. I would rather call it the Narasimha Effect.

Here is the Indian version (I've copied the story from some source on the Internet which I cannot seem to locate now):

The king of demons(asuras), Hiranyakasyapa, wanted to become immortal and wanted to remain young forever. To this end, he meditated for Lord Brahma and because of his severe penance, the gods were frightened and asked Brahma to pacify the king. Brahma was impressed by his austerity and granted him a wish. HiranyaKasyapa wished that he be neither killed by a man or beast, nor in daylight or at night and neither inside or outside a building. Having obtained the wish he considered himself the supreme God and frobade all worship of gods by anyone. But his son Prahlada, was an ardent devotee of Vishnu. This enraged Hiranyakasyapa very much. He ordered numerous ways to kill Prahlada including asking his sister Holika to sit with Prahlada in the fire. But everytime Prahlada escaped unhurt. Enraged, once he asked Prahlad to show him the Lord Vishnu. Prahlad said, "He is everywhere". Further enraged, Hiranyakasyapa knocked down a pillar, and asked if Lord was present there.

In the NARASIMHA Avatar, Lord Vishnu can incarnate himself as a semi-man,semi-lion in this world. Possibly Hiranyakasyapa did not know that.

Lord Vishnu then emerged as a half lion, half man from the pillar which was neither inside the house nor outside, and the time was evening, neither night nor day. He then killed Hiranyakasyapa thus saving the life of his devotee Prahlada.

A more detailed version is here:

Traditionally, Indian culture has believed in a more holistic (synthesis based) approach to solving problems than a divide an conquer approach (analysis based) I have seen people from other countries get quite confused when talking to Indians. For e.g. When discussing a particular topic, Indians are often found to perplexingly drift onto something else. That is because Indians tend to establish connections from one area to the other quite easily. (Of course, sometimes those connections are quite suspect...but sometimes it can throw up some interesting possibilities) The story of Narasimha says that by trying to "compartmentalize" things inside clear-cut boundaries will not make you immortal. The real way to solve problems is to find out what happens AT the boundaries.

The recent Western interest in what is called "The Medici Effect" is in a book that is freely available here:

It is called "The Medici Effect" because of the influential Medici family during the renaissance, who promoted the cross-feed of various domains. 

The recent terrorist attack in Mumbai has spun off a large set of people trying to solve it using very clear cut divisions (E.g. "Surgical" strikes into Pakistan, etc.) Probably, Indian culture has the real answer

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Constructive steps for a lasting peace

The things that can be done to stop terror are quite complicated. One needs to fight at it various levels and from various angles. I am accumulating points from various sources on what can be implemented; so expect this list to change and get clarified over time.

Long term and continous things to be done
1. There are deep rooted prejudices that we all carry with us which surface and overtake us when mayhem strikes. This is being amply demonstrated on several Facebook groups and many other sites on the net. When things are calm, we must introspect and see if we can remove all our prejudices ... or as much hatred from within us as we can. This can be done by friendly discussions, sports, cultural exchange, etc. Every culture, religion, region has good points. Learn from each other. 

2. At an economic level, get as much equality as possible, without indulging in hand-outs. This is a huge task and not really in the hands of you and me. The governments should work on it. 

Nobody is looking at this aspect of the Mumbai incident: After the recent financial crisis, two countries are surely expected to rise quickly and shine. One is China and the other is India. But today the citizens are reduced to squabbling about religious issues when probably we should be getting right back to work. When we work, we produce money for the country. That money should trickle down and uplift the quality of life. When people are poor, they can be easily bribed to become a terrorist. 

3. Every religion has two aspects: A theology and an underlying philosophy. They are not the same. Theology concerns itself with beliefs regarding God, various traditions, etc. Philosophy inside the religion concerns itself with how those beliefs come together to help out people in a practical manner. Not many understand the difference. In fact, those who blindly accept God without also understanding the philosophy of the religion is quite likely to make mistakes. This needs to be corrected. So the leaders of each religion has to go about setting this right. Or there is one more choice: Become an atheist (like me) where one deals with human issues directly without first routing it through religion

4. Dont indulge in stereotypes and generalizations. Many people do not seem to understand the fallacies they are inadvertently making on this (and other) sites. So let me quote an example I've written before here: 

Many get confused between attributes of a collective and those of individuals. Some of the attributes can be transferred from the collective to the individual. But some cannot. For e.g. I can say "This crowd of people coming from this mosque are muslims" but I cannot say "This crowd of people are bad" why? Because the entire range of "goodness" (to which the quality "bad" belongs to) can only be applied to individuals and not to the collective to which the individual belongs to. Similarly, some attributes can only be applied to a collective and not to individuals. For e.g. I can say "this crowd can move that large stone". Why? Because of the collective strength of that crowd. That does not mean each of that individual will be able to move that stone.

Now in the above example; I happened to chose "muslims" coming out of a mosque. Don't get distracted by that. I could have very well chosen "hindus" coming out of a temple, "christians" coming out of a church, etc.

What I am trying to establish here is that by making sweeping generalizations, we only get a convenient pattern in our own little minds and nothing more. It really does not solve problems out in the world. It is individuals who do cruel things, like indoctrinating others that generalizations are true and valid everywhere. When things are calm, the well-wisher of each country/religion MUST remove generalization and ask people to recognize and acknowledge individual human being's attributes and not mistake the crowd for the individual (or the other way around)

Immediate things to be done when terror strikes
1. Whenever such events happen, it should not be over-dramatized by the media. There should be strictly no blood or gore shown on TV or anywhere. For the sake of democracy, it should be recorded clearly and nothing is to be missed. But don't make it like a cricket game with commentary. I heard that some stupid channel was even providing dramatic background music!

2. When an event is in progress, we need to support the government in whatever measures that are being taken. That is not really the time to say whether the NSG came late or the Navy was inefficient or whatever. Because we live in a world of "relativity" and not "absolutes" Nobody can stake claim that he knows with absolute certainity that the NSG should have come in 3 hours and because it took 4 hours, it is a big culprit. Hang on! Let people do their job. Everyone is wanting to get the blessed job done. I am an optimist. I believe even the most corrupt of politician surely is a human being and would put aside his corruption and focus on solving the problem when people are dying.

3. Fix blame carefully. Give people a long rope so that when they hang themselves, they will do it well and proper. So don't be hasty in accusing people who caused the event. They will try to get away. Humor them for sometime (if that is what is needed) . Let them believe that they don't have a rope around their neck and only then tighten the noose...then there is simply no way for them to run. Again the media must wait!

4. If by some reason we are in that event, we must fight tooth and nail against anyone who is trying to disrupt peace and cause any kind of loss. If some kind of training can help citizens in this; it would be nice. But I will not recommend that each of us becomes a vigilante which can only lead to paranoia. There are some very nice survival guides available on the net which can help

Terrorism and fallacy of the undistributed middle

There is a simple human fallacy at work here and the way it works is as follows:

The fallacy of the undistributed middle takes the following form:

All Zs are Bs
Y is a B
Therefore, Y is a Z

The above is a fallacy and it is explained in detail here

Instead of using Z, B, Y ... see this for yourself:

All terrorists(Z) are found to be muslims(B)
Mr.Y is a Muslim(B)
Therefore, Mr. Y is a Terrrorist(Z)

To complicate matters further, it is also a sad fact that all terrorists are NOT muslims because there is no consensus on what constitutes muslim ideology which these terrorists seem to follow. Let me explain that: My name is "Sabu Francis" and it seemingly looks as if I am a Christian. But actually I am an atheist.

Add more confusion to this: Many non-muslim terrorist do not make it to the media, because they have more powerful connections. So even the first premise that "all Terrorists happens to be Muslims" is quite likely wrong.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The particle, the heap and the angle of repose

Can societies be modeled as heaps of particles? 

Amorphous dust particles cannot be gathered together to become a gigantic heap: It is bound to collapse. In soil mechanics there is a concept called the angle of repose

From Wikipedia: 

The angle of repose (sometimes incorrectly confused with the 'Angle of Internal Friction') is an engineering property of granular materials. The angle of repose is the maximum angle of a stable slope determined by friction, cohesion and the shapes of the particles.

When bulk granular materials are poured onto a horizontal surface, a conical pile will form. The internal angle between the surface of the pile and the horizontal surface is known as the angle of repose and is related to the density, surface area, and coefficient of friction of the material. Material with a low angle of repose forms flatter piles than material with a high angle of repose. In other words, the angle of repose is the angle a pile forms with the ground.

Well, so much for the analogy. (I often balk against usage of analogy but more often than not I seem not to follow that rule. Well we can discuss why later). I believe people can be "heaped" into a cohesive society only upto a point. Once you hit the angle of repose of society, things start slip-sliding away. See what is happening in the Balkans and many parts of Africa. India does not fit into this analogy too well because it was never cohesive to begin with and was accepted in that form when it came into existence in 1947. People here kind of enjoy being in separate heaps and yet stay together at the same time. It is as if there was some kind of plan at work on how the internal heaps in the country would work. This should be an interesting line of investigation for sociologists. 

Talking of particles and heaps, there is another movement at work: Micronations ; where a very small group of people take over an uninhabited island and proclaim a new nation there.  

And we have not even talked about that "eighth continent" called the Internet where you can see heaps being formed, deformed and diffused. I can make another mental leap and make an anlogy with the expanding and contracting of the universe: Each society is like a universe of its own and it will naturally expand to accommodate as many "particles" that can bring in cohesiveness. Once it hits the angle of repose, it will start contracting and the process will start all over again.

Where is the new philosopher's poker? The poverty of modern philosophies

On October 25, 1946; barely a year or so after the end of World-War II -- when I am sure the horrors of it was fresh on everyone's mind -- two eminent philosophers of the day were at a meeting titled "Are there philosophical problems?". The title probably was prescient because soon enough Sir Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein got into what was initially just a verbal fight. It finally ended up with Wittgenstein waving a poker (or so the story goes) at Sir Popper, before he stormed out of the building. Bertrand Russell was also present at that meeting.

Read more here:'s_Poker I believe a book has emerged based on that 10 minute episode: I plan to read that book sometime, but this blog post is not about that book.

My question is: Who is weilding a poker at today's philosophers? 

There is such an acute poverty of modern philosophies that I sometimes hurriedly (hopefully unfairly) think we are becoming shallower by the day. In many dialectics that I perchance get involved on the net, I am finally accused: "Oh, you are just being philosophical; you are not being constructive" Hmmm....finally, philosophy has become a bad-word. Not many seem to want to agree that philosophy is the bedrock on which intellectuals can build foundations on; for structures that come into our societies via the various sciences and arts.

Take my own field; architecture, for example. Much of the so-called philosophies (e.g. Deconstruction) in architecture are just parts of Buddhism rehashed and re-packaged into Walmart products that students seem to happily pick off the shelves. Even though I am from the East, and possibly take some pride in being part of the Eastern culture and even though I do agree that there is still much to be discovered and used from old philosophies of the East; I am still waiting for some philosophies that is truly becoming of the Internet age.

Where is that philosopher? What philosophy will that be? My poker is ready. But I don't have much to wave it against!

I will explore some options in some future blogs. Generally the sequence of events that generates new philosophies is: Anger and anguish comes first. Then comes thought. Then comes a new philosophy.  We are probably still in the first phase. In the meantime, you could read something on Ludwig hurriedly leaving the building

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Stereotypes, Reifications, Generalizations: The root of evil

I believe corruption starts with the insincerity individuals display. When it is convenient, we choose to ignore and exploit the government. When it comes to a terrorist attack, suddenly there is a fire behind us and we get all worked up.  

Do we do really carry out even simple civic duties, like wait properly at every red-light we encounter in our air-conditioned cars? Do we pay our taxes, the way many people have been claiming ... asking for accountability from the Government? Most of the time, the rich has worked out clever ways to avoid taxes. And that is surely a fact. If we indulged in black money BOTH the giver and receiver are guilty. 

I don't like generalizations and many in the media and elsewhere has made many sweeping generalizations. That is most unfortunate. I don't want to make the same mistake here. I have seen specific individuals who have worked diligently and sincerely and so I will quote some specific examples.

  1. I had gone once to Lucknow municipality and one unknown chap was working away with piles of files under a half-working ceiling fan on a hot day, which also happened to be a holiday. It was regarding some architectural work and he was absolutely to the point, crisp and no-nonsense with no hint of bribery or anything. So much for the stereotype of a 'corrupt' clerk in a municipality.
  2. A person who was working in my office fell off a fast train near Borivili a few years back. His face was completely bashed in and he hung on to his life by a thin thread. He almost did not make it; if it were not for some people at Bhagwati municipal hospital. Once he stabilised he was shifted to Sion Hospital; yet another municipal hospital. A very complicated set of surgeries were performed on him, including plastic surgery... and he survived. So much for the stereotype of a so called "municipal" hospital
  3. I had gone sailing with my friends in the same Mumbai harbour once and the Navy cadets where practising nearby. One of their sailboats was on the path of our boat. The "tandel" (navigator) on our sailboat started blowing his whistle, but possibly the cadet was fresh and his back was to us so he could not hear. Within a split second, a Navy speed boat rushed in from nowhere and came between my sailboat and the cadet's and immediately prevented disaster. It happened so fast. The cadet had a light boat, and it was immediately turned around. I could see the officer in the speed boat giving a dressing down to the cadet. So much for the stereotype of an ineffective navy.
  4. I know of many doctors who have devoted their entire lives giving sincere advice and service without even a murmur. So much for the stereotype of 'careless' doctors.
  5. I know of an architect in Delhi (Pavan Gupta) who goes around the city of Delhi identifying issues and problems where he believes he can contribute as an architect. He works in the reverse way: Most architects wait for a job to be given. Pavan first identifies the problem spot and goes and solves it using his own money. Then he knocks on the doors of the administration and tells them that he has a solution for a problem that they were facing. And by the way, Pavan is an IITian (so am I). So much for the stereotype of what an IITian is (Oh, IITian...they always go abroad! Brain drain!)
I can go on and on with this. But I don't want to generalize anything here. We need to recognize the good things that happen to us and make at least as much a big tamasha about it as much as the so called failures that happens once in a while. If we did, we will have much more time to look back and have faith in ourselves. The Buddhists (a philosophy also developed in India) have a Yin-Yang symbol. It stands for two opposites. Call them good or evil. Call them black or white. Call them action and reaction. Life has a balance of these two. BOTH must be recognized. Not just one. So for every horrible Dawood, one should also recognize the good Pavan. Today, we get affected by corrupt politicians. I do agree that they exist. But we should also get equally affected by those who are not corrupt. Make them stand out, and like the crow who could draw up the water in a vessel by throwing stones into it; we can also make the good surface up. Unfortunately many of us do not do that. We keep talking about this corrupt chap, that corrupt politican etc. If only we were to balance things out, we can me more sure about the judgement that we make regarding our society; and also take corrective actions where it is really needed.

When we point out the corruption in others, many of us never point fingers back at "me".  But we don't realize that we were surely responsible in some way to get the corrupt politicians elected!  Gandhi had once said "Be the change you want to see in the world" and we have forgotten it.

There is an old Indian saying: "We can wake up a person who is sleeping. But we can never wake up a person who is pretending to sleep"  I have seen many individuals who carry stereotypes in their heads and  dance to those stereotypes. They don't dislodge those stereotypes in order to allow the actual reality to come and wake them up. Such individuals are content in their false sleep. So they never really wake up.

How many have ever noticed the individuals I've listed above and woken up?  Let me correct that: I am sure we have all noticed them; but we have probably brushed them aside because we want to hold onto our stereotypes. Lennon once said: "Give peace a chance" and I say "Give people a chance" The nice Indians deserve to be recognized!

Today, many are running scared; plainly venting spleen. Is this because for once the terrorist has specifically attacked the symbols of the rich? Hmmm... let me not fall prey to my own stereotypes. I can understand that this Mumbai incident has cruelly crushed many individuals. Life cannot be discounted either because you are rich or because you are poor. Every individual is valuable and his life is incomparable with every other. We cannot herd ourselves into masses, generalizations and stereotypes. If we do, we are as guilty as the fanatics who even after their death have invaded our thoughts.

Many people have been phoning me, sending messages, emails, etc. saying what a failure that has happened. Hang on!  Don't jump too soon! Failures are what makes us humans. If there is an failure internal to the systems we work in, I can understand the anger and we should take corrective steps immediately. But if a failure is because of external factors, why are we pointing our verbal guns onto ourselves as violently as the fanatics?  No force on earth can stop stupid morons who are determined to carry out terrorist acts. For every system we implement, they will surely find some way to go over that too.  Terrorism is external to the system.

What any govt. has to is do, is to handle failures as and when it happens. To me, (though I am not an expert on terrorism) I believe a lot was already in place and working when the terrorists attacked in Mumbai. I have actually spoken to people who are currently working in disaster response teams in Mumbai and they have told me that was the case. (There were some individual exceptions, like some cowardly cops who were frightened to shoot at the two terrorists at CST station. Those cowardly cops are individual failures. Not generalizations.) 

In India, we have many strengths and I have seen many horribly underestimating those strengths. I've spoken about those in another blog post. Talking about stereotypes about the west: The "famed" homeland security in USA after 9/11 is only recent. Many believe that security became a priority in the US after that event. That is rubbish. A lot of security systems were in place BEFORE 9/11 and yet see what kind of massive failures that country had to face! What about Spain? What about UK? I can go on.  Look at the financial mess that the US set into motion. It screwed up the entire world and nobody has a clue how many years we'll really take to recover. Compared to all that, we are actually quite a good and thriving democracy. In the recent economic disaster, of all countries; India is the one who can really come out strong and leap ahead. And then some stupid terrorists with an axe to grind comes and does this amidst us! And even more stupid, is that we do not realize that maybe the larger game plan was to prevent India from becoming a thriving democracy! The terrorists and whoever is behind them are really grinning at the kind of turmoil this event has caused among the citizens. We are really not getting back to work!

Why on earth do some of us go by the stereotypes we carry with us? My earnest request to each of you who reads this blog to treat each individual as an individual and not part of some kind of generalization. Generalizations are the root cause of evil: That is exactly what the fanatics are doing. They want the world to be understood in simple blacks and whites. 

But that is not what we are: Each of is  an individual: living, breathing "you" and "me". There are only a few attributes that can be given to a generalization (say a community, religion or people from a region) Even the government is an abstract concept. The government becomes real only because of real work by living, breathing individuals. So this should include "you" and "me" doing simple civic duties (to begin with). Do not indulge in reification (i.e. making an abstract concept concrete) 

What could surely be improved is the way the media handled the event and how many of us citizens are just venting spleen about it now. I strongly believe that many of us citizens are giving suggestions when they are really not thought through their recommendations with a calm mind. Such suggestions will provide enough fuel to the same horrible politicians (from any party) who unfortunately are either controlling us or may control us in the future. I can see them grinning away, as they use some of the ideas from the various diatribes all over the net, blogs, media, etc:

"The present government declared to be a failure. People want change! We are the change!" When actually, when they get elected; they will end up doing exactly nothing and the same thing will keep happening. 

People are clamouring and falling over each other to say that "enough is enough" and many quote cute bye-lines. When such people are asked "Okay, now tell me what you recommend" they hesistate and fumble because they have actually not thought through their points. The media is lapping it up as they silently seek their own brownie points. Unfortunately, all this lambasting we are indulging will only serve those interested in generalizations: I am afraid there will be many among us who will be convinced about the negative aspects of India. I've seen far too often people saying "Oh, we Indians; we are just like that only" Sadly that inferiority complex will get reinforced. Or Worse. It can also be replaced by a pseudo-superiority complex.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai mayhem and its repercussions

It was horrific to see all the devastation caused by a few foolish people with wierd, unrealistic ideas that go against all of humanity. What was more horrifying was to hear some of the intellectuals of our country on what should be done. Some of the common refrains heard were "put security systems in place" and that currently there has been an "absolute failure of the system" and that there is "a lot of anger" which needs to be chanelised.

Of course there has been a failure but I am more circumspect on how to deal with a failure. It is something like that old joke about finding something: It will always be in the last place you look and obviously so; after all, it would be really foolish to keep searching even after you find it. Similarly; failure is unknown till you encounter it. Till such time you encounter a failure, everything that was done could look good enough or at least, tolerable.  And when you encounter the failure; you feel that it happened in the last place you were looking at and feel supremely guilty for not having plugged that hole earlier. Just like at the end of a long search, one often gets an impression that it could have always been avoided.

I believe failure is not something to be worried about by itself and neither it is something that can always be prevented. Let me take an example: A building can never be designed to be completely safe. It will not stand rock solid in face of massive earthquakes, for example. What an intelligent architect would do is to anticipate failure and divert it towards consequences than can be tolerated. So when an earthquake does happen, a building is designed to buckle and bend gracefully so that the shakes and rattles that will be caused will cause minimal damages, especially to human lives.

Is there a point I am making, you may wonder... after all, I am also pointing to handling failure even if it means diverting the devastation caused during a failure. Someone not understanding the fine semantics may think that I am also searching for a solution to prevent failures. 

There is a difference which must be understood between what I am saying and what is currently being bandied about:  If one attempts to fight failures head-on, it is foolish and completely unrealistic. Put it more simply: It just cannot be done. Nobody can prevent failures. 

We will be in a state of denial if we think that we can stop failures. We are living in a world where there is bound to be some weird people who want to resort to terrorism. Earthquakes are bound to happen. For whatever systems that may be put into place, there will be that one act of terrorism or an earthquake which can still defeat all the systems that may be cleverly placed by the most intelligent of system designers. And when that happens, there is bound to be devastation.

A more realistic approach is to design for failure and divert energies caused during the failure as it happens. So the system designers for response to terrorist attacks should concentrate on setting up methods to deflect the menace during the incident, rather than attempt prevention.  I am no expert on securty systems, so I can only volunteer some unsubstantiated conjectures.  Maybe: alternate ways of escape, defensive measures such as containment, focused attacks after ascertaining all risks, etc. Probably most important of all would be crisis response training to citizens who could find themselves in crucial locations/positions/responsibilities. Maybe architects can also help crucially; by carefully working on escape routes, designing for crowd control and use proactive environment-behaviour simulations and studies for designing public buildings. We could also proactively attempt to think like terrorists and conduct scenario analysis where the outcomes of possibile situations can be theoretically analysed.

I am afraid much of the intellectuals are not talking in this direction. They are stating things like "not a single drop of blood should be shed" and other similar unrealistic statements. If the decision makers heed such statements then I am afraid we'll go in the direction of many foriegn countries: Paranoid citizens continously on pins and needles.

I was recently at the Pulkovo airport at St. Petersburg, Russia and I could see the palpable tension which was present on what should have been any normal day at an airport. The Russians are so paranoid about attacks from Georgia, Chechnya and other trouble spots of that region; they have systems and systems and systems which have tied them in absurd draconian knots. The Pulkovo airport has just a small sliver of a lobby where one can enter ... and even to enter that one has to first dispose off all water bottles you may be  carrying ... a machine-gun wielding cop ensures that you do.  And of course, you enter through the usual x-rayed doorway manned by another half a dozen officials.

The lobby has a coffee shop at one end and a set of toilets at the other end, and an even smaller sliver of a mezannine overlooking the lobby with another coffee shop and set of toilets there. Now you just cannot enter the rest of the airport till your flight has been announced. Whenever flights are announced, it causes a mad scramble for the doorways to the rest of the airport from that tiny lobby, leading to serpentine queues dividing the length of the lobby.  Your passport is checked by officials peering closely into your eyes and your tickets and what not. You are then immediately pulled into a security check: Remove your shoes and socks please. 

The security officer dealing with me was actually feeling the socks as if I had concealed something there. It made me feel as if I was the culprit and it was just a matter of time before I realized it for myself. Then I had to go to the ticketing counter where the young Finnair lady thought I was using a fake passport, and so she held me up till an official came over to check that out. After that ordeal was over, I had to again go through passport control: It didn't matter whether I was on the way out of Russia. They wanted to see my papers, visa and their absurd immigration cards once again, whether it was stamped by my host who verified that I indeed did visit them and so on. After that, I had to again go through security all over again! Remove your shoes and socks please! 

Then and only then I saw myself in the sanctum-sactorum of the airport: a lobby overlooking the tarmac. It had some threadbare sofas where people were morosely waiting for the transport to the aircraft. By the time I reached that place; I was shaken, stirred and possibly fully "sanitized" (a word that was being bandied about a lot in the media during this mumbai incident). For the life of me, I could not figure out what they could see in a pot-bellied middle-aged Indian with a smiling face. I then realized that they were purely systems driven and they were living in this mechanical, Orwellian world. I felt that it was most unfortunate that the terrorists who they were trying to prevent from coming into their lives, had actually succeeded though the Russians may not be aware of it.

Now landing at Mumbai airport, India:  No major systems to talk home about. Some minor scrap of paper to write the details of where you visited, etc. What a wonderful relief to be back in the chaos of Indians! We are humans once again. The shortfall of 'systems' that were missing was made up by actual human beings who were taking a look at what you did and curious about who you are and not whether you were a statistic in some system of theirs. There were some 29 counters at work to take care of the Airbus load of people who came in. By the time one could sneeze; each of us were out of most of the formalities, save for waiting for the bags to turn up on the baggage carousel. It does not mean that there was laxity. I could see that wise look from someone here, that subtle glance of appraisal from someone there to detect if anything was out of the ordinary. No systems. Real people. 

My friend, Dr. Nobhojit Roy, was agreeing with me the other day. One of the greatest strength of our country is that we can call ourselves truly free: We can stand in the middle of the road and laugh out loud, yawn without putting a polite hand over our mouths, even spit if we want to ... without anyone bothering us much about it. Dr Roy had spent a year doing a sabbatical in the USA and he could detect the difference. When in the US, he was straitjacketed by systems and more systems. He was "sanitized" and systemized.

Yes, of course there are downsides: There are people who would cross a red-light just before it becomes green, there will be loud-mouths with crass taste yelling and screaming outside a bar. Spitting is surely not an endearing trait. But we are also free to laugh here. In hindsight, all those deficiencies in us seem minor compared to the sepulchral world one sees in many foreign countries. Even the so-called "Mainhattan" of Europe, Frankfurt, does not have a soul in sight after sunset. When I was on the famous ICE high-speed train in Germany, I was chastised by a lady for playing my Mp3 player too loud. When I took out the earplugs from my ear, I could hardly hear anything from my player other than a small tingling sound. Maybe just a small buzz but to a systems-driven German, it was extremely out of the ordinary and therefore irritating.

A system that respects individuals is the only one that I believe in. Finally, it is the appeal to the individual inside us that would work. If we are carted into columns inside spreadsheets and other classification systems; we will only get alieniated.  You need subtle and supple systems that will bend and release energies built up during potential stresses. Rigid systems are prone to much more dramatic failures.  This is true of both the architecture of buildings as well as that of societies.

People are calling the Mumbai incident the 9/11 of India. I believe they are completely wrong. The terrorists had enough amount of explosives to cause more damage but they never got a chance to use them. One terrorist was singing like a canary within a few hours of the incident to our officials  -- definitely not a sign of a highly successful operation. The police, navy and the fire-brigade came almost in minutes; to the rescue.  Of course a lot of lives were lost in the incident. No amount of compensation can be made for each of those lives. Each life is a separate, individual story having incomparable value. Even if we want to blame whatever "faulty" systems we have in place, in a macabre way we should be thankful that only around 200 lives were lost here. I strongly suspect that the figures would have been much, much higher anywhere else which does not show the Indian fortitude and resiliance. 

As a simple example: The New York 9/11 saw two towers demolished and over 3000 dead. The potential to demolish two towers was equally present in the Mumbai incident but that did not happen. I don't want to draw up a one-upmanship based on number of people who died in such attacks because even if one person died, it would be an invaluable loss. The numbers are being mentioned only from a systemic point of view on what constitutes a complete failure of a system, as that is the subject here.

After my visits to various countries in Europe and Russia, my respect for our country grew much more. It is amazing that our country works the way it does: The local railways handles more people in two days than the entire population of some countries of Western Europe!  (3 million passengers per day. Denmark's current population is estimated as 5.5 million) Mumbai is one of the top 5 most populated cities in the world, and yet the kind of happiness and freedom quotient (if I can invent such a term) is far greater than any of the rest.  You can be out in the street and do practically whatever you want, whenever you want, without anyone asking you to turn down the volume of your Mp3 player.  

The approach on systems design that I propose reminds me of an interior design my office had made for the Konkan Railway Corporation: They wanted to have acoustic privacy for their officer's cabins and wanted "sound proof" cabins; which to them meant  cabins having only windows to the exterior and no visual access to the rest of the interiors. I told them that there is nothing which can be safely called "sound proof" and if attempted, it would only give a false sense of privacy. I convinced them of an Indian solution: The best sound proofing for privacy can be achieved by a cabin which is visually transparent. For it would be foolish for someone to stand outside such a cabin trying to overhear what is going on inside. The very fact that a potential listener can be seen from inside the cabin would become a deterrent. Such an approach is truly an Indian approach: Where we approach the problem laterally and give a focused, economical and subtle solution.

A danger of putting immature systems is that it can easily be hijacked by politicians for their own interests. I can imagine a political party (why imagine? the blame game has already started!) saying that the current system was not right for us, and something else should be put. Now such a blame can be placed irrespective of whatever system that may have been in place. So before we disturb the status-quo, we should truly understand what our existing strengths are.

I earnestly hope that those decision makers don't go for knee-jerk solutions and put in place so called "security" systems, which in the end will give only a false sense of security or be usurped by various vested interests. There is a saying among architects and structural engineers : A structure is only as strong as its weakest link. Hence more systems we put in place, more would be the chance of massive failures merely because there are more linkages. That is why a good structural engineer has to strike a good balance between minimal use of material and redundancy. Some of the greatest structures that man has made show such characterstics. The four towers surrounding the central mausoleum of the Taj Mahal (not the hotel) lean outwards by 4 degrees. The reason is subtle: In case of an earthquake, the towers will never fall on the mausoleum. The Taj Mahal is designed to handle failure but not stop it.

I agree with one point which surfaced after the Mumbai incident: It can serve as a wake-up call. We can demand for better individuals to enter politics. As citizens, we can go out there and do our bit by putting in our vote. Currently much of the voting is done by the uneducated/under-eduacated masses who are lured by populist and often sectarian interests. It is also easy to detect that politicians can easily divert incidents like this for their own use and we should not fall prey to their schemes. The absurd politics played by politicians who used divisiveness as their central method to garner popular support can now be proved to be hollow: I detected for once that most people were talking about India as one and not based this on this religion or that one, or this region or that one. Another lesson that should be learnt is to let agencies such as the police, the ATS (Anti-Terrorist Squad), NSG (National Security Guard) be given enough freedom to do their duties in a secular manner, without political parties coming in the way to support people of certain religions/regions.

Now to the question of "anger". Of course there should be anger. Anger is like a fire. It can be used for cooking or to burn your finger. We should be careful on how we focus the anger in us. If we allow it to dissipate, like the way it has happened many times in the past; the politicians will happily say that we are "resiliant" and they will go about controlling us in their own nefarious ways. The fire inside us should not be allowed to burn out. Yet, if we use it to burn our fingers; i.e. use it for hateful politics to divide religions, then again the politicians will (mis)use it. 

One crucial aspect of the Indian culture is that we forgive people. Forgiving is often mistaken for forgetting. We must forgive. Lack of forgiveness will lead to even more greater ills, and repetition of the same problems over and over again. But we should never forget the lessons learnt. Much of India emphasized on the much misunderstood concept of peace and non-violence. These times; such virtous qualities are often the stepping stones on which a lot of ill is carried out; especially by political parties. Yes, we need to be angry. Yes, we need to have systems. Yes, we need to handle failures even if we know we cannot prevent them. But we need to do all of that keeping in mind that we have many things going good for us in our culture. Let us carry out all the changes carefully without throwing the baby out with the bathe water.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Please wait as I change (don't look)