Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Braiding: The whole and the hole

The Buddhists tell us to live in the present. What is the "present"? That instance of time which we are caught up in at any ...err... instance. The sharper the definition of that instance; a better buddhist we become. But wont that make our progress disjointed and quite schizophrenic? Of course it will; if we go only by that definition: We may not be able to establish connections to the past and also understand how the future evolves. 

So we need another concept here. I call it "braiding" Here is a WikiHow article on how someone with long tresses braids her hair. The image on the right shows how braiding is done when knitting a scarf. 

Each instance of the "present" is that point in the braid where the hair comes flowing together to meet at a knot. Analogously; we move from one "present" instance to the next one when we braid together what has happened in the past and tie them into the present. What of the past is to brought into the present instance will depend on our skill and knowledge we possess. If we try to bring everything from the past then the hair will get all entangled. If we bring very little; the braiding will get completely disjointed.

And what happens beyond the knot of the present instance? The future opens up into more possibilities... and they are again braided into the next knot. So each instance in our life is a coming together (synthesis) of a previous set of options (analysis) brought ahead and tied. These instances are not at pre-determined spots along the braid (That is where the analogy really breaks) We live through a continuum of instances. So we experience dynamic braiding that is going on continuously.  Or should I say; ideally we ideally would be doing that. Many unfortunately do try to determine what constitutes their present instances they want to recognize. They are the ones who are caught up either in the past or too worried about the future. 

I often explain my students the same concept using another analogy: That of pottery. When we make a pot we have to continuously work on the whole pot. However; at each instance when we work on the whole we are actually analytically braiding the past. You have to have the right mix of both the analysis and the synthesis. Of the two; I believe synthesis is often lost out. 

Some people unfortunately end up digging only holes: They go in a linear direction; continuously analysing. It really does not produce results and it ends up being a bottomless exercise. Fortunately; the Eastern philosophies have taught us a lot more on these matters and I think the time has come to show the world this method of moving ahead in life.

I often notice that people are much more comfortable finding patterns analytically.  Grappling with the whole; especially if it is large and unwieldy; is quite disconcerting. They would rather remain in the analytical hole. 

Here is a very nice paper on Analysis and Synthesis

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Second order and third order patterns

Some patterns and natural phenomena are readily understood by human beings. For example: The position of an object is very easily understood. Say a stone placed on the ground. You can also displace the stone and also understand the next order phenomenon; which is the concept of velocity: It is the displacement of the position of the stone uniformly over a time interval. It is when you get into second and third order or even higher order patterns that human beings have problems. 

For example; if the stone is moved at a greater rate of speed (i.e. non-uniformly) ; you get a phenomenon called acceleration in physics. If the rate of speed  decreases over time then it is called a deceleration. Many cannot intuit such second-order phenomena very easily and they have difficulty in getting a good grip around them. Once you do not understand them; it becomes even more difficult to connect it to other aspects of our reality. It took the genius of Newton to explain how acceleration is connected to force. Force being mass multiplied by acceleration. Mass is a zero-order phenomena (like position) and quite readily understood by most.

It does not stop just there. If one looks for it carefully; one can notice the phenomenon of the rate of acceleration. That phenomenon also has a name. It is called a jerk. If you don't like it for its other social connotation then you can use the UK variant which is a jolt. A jerk is very difficult to understand and come to terms with. (Yes; jerks of all kinds are quite difficult!)  If you want to understand all the various patterns in physics along the lines of position; velocity; acceleration; jerks; etc and how they are connected to other phenomena such as force then look at this page on jerks.

Now you may be wondering about the point I am trying to establish here.

Understanding patterns is intrinsic to a human's effort to come to terms with the world around him/her.  Patterns are not just seen in physical phenomena but also in other spheres of life: economic; social; political; psychological; physiological and whatever branch people have artificially divided life into. 

Some of us are capable of seeing just the zero-th order phenomena. Many can see even the first order ones. A few can dig deeper and notice the working of the second order. So on and so forth. You bring together a bunch of people with different capabilities and you have a rich source of misunderstandings. A conversation between people with different capabilities regarding perception of patterns can quickly degenerate quite fast: "Why don't you just accept the situation as it is? There is nothing more to it!" would be a common refrain by a person who can see the zeroth-order phenomena and nothing much more beyond that. "But can't you see that the situation is actually caused because of this xyz happening?" says the chap who has the ability to digest the next order. A more "deeper" person will then say "You are both wrong. It is important to see the situation as a time-slice of a larger variation that is happening"

I guess that is what makes people interesting. They all seem to be alike but each move in a subtly different direction. Like a babbling brook.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Watch out! The Eagle is flying injured

We are witnessing three seemingly unrelated events: Barack Obama is being enstated as the 44th US president tomorrow (January 20, 2009). The Israelis are bombing the skin off the Palestinians at Gaza. The Sri Lankan army is on the last stages of wiping out the LTTE; the Tamil Tigers.

What connects these three events?

Answer: Money.

A whole chain of events that can be tied to some ill-thought policies of Alan Greenspan and others like him lead to the sub-prime crisis. The US economy started unpacking its house of cards from one corner (the housing market). Fortunately, the US is already an advanced country and so it does not need extra housing. If a housing collapse were to happen in a developing country like India, etc. there would have been a civil war.  Nevertheless, the sub-prime crisis brought down the level of the sea of greed and exposed people who were initially thought to be unaffected by the unfolding crisis. 

Most notable among them was Bernard Madoff who was safeguarding 50 billion dollars which did not exist. But other failures disguised themselves as "institutional" failures (Lehman Brothers, etc.) and tried to escape attention. But they were equally bad failures. Many rich jews were Madoff's clients. Madoff's adventures and other downfalls in the US also rippled into Europe where an erstwhile rich country (Iceland) is literally pan-handling for survival from Russia and other countries. Many have committed suicide. 

The once powerful Eagle is no longer landed, nor is it soaring. It is barely flying with a broken wing.

Terrorism has a nefarious connection with the rich and sometimes famous. The connections cannot be established very immediately and even to explain the connections would require the skills of the likes of Frederick Forsythe or John le CarrĂ©. But the linkages exist all right. The collections from the rich trickle down through possible do-good volunteer organizations and get into hot spots such as the Palestine, Sri Lanka and Israel. (Well,  I suspect some of the money even goes quite directly to Israel without even being hidden because the US government used to be quite blatantly pro-Israel) 

The economic collapse hastened not just the exit of an unworthy president but even the concept of a Republican is considered bad news nowadays. Enter Obama. The Jews have lost much of their money and the prospect of getting the economy to work back in their favour is also not very clear. To them Obama is literally a dark horse: They are not very sure how he may react to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He seems to utter a lot of comforting and do-good words that refer more to Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and their ilk. "Is he a hidden socialist perhaps?" Hmmm... perhaps... bad news for the Israelis. Thus; before Obama came in as a president legally, they decided to bomb the sh*t off the Palestinans at Gaza. They even got a favourable "agreement" signed by Condeleezza Rice just a few days back. So everything is signed, sealed and delivered as per their agenda and their larger motivations.

And now we come to the LTTE. The Sri Lankan army has also got a serendipitous opportunity: (Sri Lanka was once labeled as "serendip" in a book by Horace Walpole. Hence the word "serendipity") The economic collapse has also stripped money from the Tamilian diaspora who collected money for their revolution in the scenic island country at the foot of the Indian sub-continent. With the money disappearing, the LTTE can no longer afford fuel and ammunition required to keep a constant vigil against the Sri Lankan army. 

The LTTE is therefore on the run, with an injured eagle flying overhead. I dread the time when the eagle will land and get its wing fixed. More money will flow back into terrorism and these hot-spots.  What should have been resolved conflicts will again open up for more blood-letting. 

We are living in complex times; indeed!

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Dickensian divide: The physical and social grid in Mumbai

Mumbai in India is a linear city: It was formed by stitching together seven islands into an appendage that hangs off from the main land pointing to the south much like an empty garden hose which is now devoid of water.

This spit of land is one of the most densely populated area in the entire world. Two main highways traverse the length of this land from North to South; roughly parallel to each other: One is the Western Express Highway and the other; the Eastern. In the usual mayhem of a developing country called India; these two highways are punctuated by various traffic intersections serviced using traffic lights that many do not follow, if the cops were not looking. These intersections serve busy collector roads that divert people into the local train stations or other business and residential areas. All the roads, including the highways, are criss-crossed by pedestrians who were never really catered to when the city was planned. It is no surprise that traffic accidents are high. Fortunately; all the obstacles such as the afore mentioned intersections -- however haphazardly managed and followed, do slow down the traffic. Hopefully that reduction in speed should have reduced the severity of at least some of the accidents.

With the rise of the economy in India, one saw the rise of the automobile. Where we once had exactly two kinds of cars to choose from (something akin to Henry Ford's old joke: You could choose any colour as long as it is black) we now have  a large variety to choose from. The lip-smacking auto industry has come into India wanting to occupy suitable positions in the Indians' minds.

Hmmm... so where does this story evolve? 

Somewhere down the line; there was this sudden spurt of flyovers all over Mumbai. Let us not get into the political and economic interests behind the infrastructure changes because those motivations can be quite easily guessed and left at that.  The idea of these flyovers were to simply fly over traffic intersections so that those with the new cars can now get an uninterrupted passage from North to South (or vice-versa) of Mumbai.

When these flyovers were being constructed, I got a funny sensation at the pit of my stomach: Not only because of the obvious effects the automobile would have on the environment; but also other attendant problems they would bring in. I was afraid that now that the pedestrians did not have any "interrupted" points in the traffic flow; the severity of traffic accidents would be much higher. 

Sure enough; after the flyovers were commissioned and the rich started zooming up and down these two highways using a new-found freedom to press on the accelerator, really horrendous accidents started happening at both ends of the the flyovers ...where the speed is usually the highest and the motorist accelerates the most in order to get into or out of the flyover. Obviously there was a hue and cry about these accidents and the "lack of civic sense" by oh-these-terrible-pedestrians. 

And the solution was effective but equally thoughtless: Take these black ribbons of the highways and lift them up a bit at both the ends of each flyover and neatly tuck in a pedestrian subway underneath. The accidents may have got reduced (well, I have no statistics to confirm that but I can assume that they have been reduced because one does not hear of such accidents in the media) but now the society has got nicely stratified and gridded as per the economic class.

The rich zoom up and down the highways and the poor pedestrians scurry around like rats through Dickensenian sub-ways; criss-crossing the rich at ninety degrees. One cannot possibly get a more ironic  and symbolic statement about the class divide than this. 

If any of us were to visit these sub-ways, you will see a whole different life there: Peddlers selling all kinds of goods including rotten potatoes and tomatoes and suchlike. So much for the "evolved" planning of Mumbai. Though I agree in parts on the progress made by India, I often reflect on the social aspect which is neglected because not everyone are equally uplifted or can participate in the economy. Many are pushed under the carpet. Often literally.