Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Happy Birthday Sid

One year and 13,554 miles ago you came into our lives and things haven't been the same ever since.

Getting you was not as impulsive a decision as I tell everyone else that it was, and I couldn't be happier about it.
 

You brought us the independence that rental cars and public transport in the US can never bring.
 

You gave us the freedom to go wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted.
 
 
 
 
 

More importantly, you gave us the chance of stopping wherever we wanted to.

Yes, finding a parking for you can be a hassle at times, but you more than make up for it when you take on the winding roads of the beauty that the Pacific Coast Highway is.

You helped me show my parents the beauty of California and you enabled me to find places that I never would have otherwise. And for all of that, I am thankful. Happy Birthday Sid!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Green Roofs - A Step in the Right Direction

Recently I came across an article on CSGlobe about a law France passed that all new buildings that are built in commercial zones in France must be partially covered in either plants or solar panels.

Global warming presents the gravest threat to life on Earth in all of human history and threatening 1-in-6 species with extinction; it is, therefore, common sense that something needs to be done about reducing the possibility of a grave future. 2016 is predicted to be the hottest year on record, with the previous record holders being 2015 and 2014 respectively. When you have 3 consecutive years being the hottest, each being warmer than the previous, it is obvious that not enough is being done. The world celebrated recent signing of the Paris Climate Accord, but it may be too little too late, especially since it is non-binding.

With all the chaos surrounding the discussion around climate change, the new France law is a step in the right direction. Green roofs is not a new idea, as this National Geographic article points out. My first encounter with green roofs was back in 2001 when I moved to Pune and my father told me about the rooftop garden there. Since then I have seen a few more of those, but instead of green roofs, they were almost always called rooftop gardens. That tells us that the primary purpose was not to achieve ecological balance but more decorative value only. The focus is now shifting to the reduced ecological footprint.

Green roofs not only reduce the carbon footprint, they add much needed aesthetic value to an otherwise ugly roof. It can act as an oasis in an urban desert, create outdoor recreation spaces, retain rainwater and a multitude of other benefits. When you combine those benefits with  the addition of solar panels, you tap into an almost infinite source of renewable energy that reduces your dependence on fossil fuels, while giving back to nature what you took from her. In a place like India, where solar power is now cheaper than coal, there is no reason for not implementing similar steps.

One does need to evaluate other factors too to ensure a widespread implementation of these ideas. New roofing technologies would be required to make the buildings compatible with green roofs. Architects will have to encompass these ideas from the beginning of the design and not as an afterthought. Solar panels and green roofs would offset their costs in the long run but small businesses and homeowners may not be able to afford the additional initial capital expense. Policy decisions like tax breaks, low-interest loans, subsidies etc can come in here to lower the burden on individuals.

There's still a long way to go to combat climate change but a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step and this definitely is a step in the right direction.

The future is not all bleak!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Forgetting what I used to excel at...

Yesterday, out of the blue, I decided to get a jigsaw puzzle. I ended up visiting Toys R Us and bought a 100 piece puzzle of a Paris cityscape
Paris City Scape. Image Source: Toys R Us
The box says the puzzle is 20"x27". Since I hadn't yet opened the box, I tried to work out what the dimensions in terms of pieces will be and I could think of two possibilities, 20x50 and 25x40. Since the ratio of 25:40 (0.625) is closer to 20:27 (0.741) than 20:50 (0.4), I decided to go with that answer since it will allow for an individual piece to be the closest to a square. I'll know if I was right when I go back home today, open the box and try to complete the puzzle.

This little exercise eventually turned into a high school kind problem - find all the possible unique pairs of divisors of 1000 - essentially saying how many 2-dimentional 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles can be made. This being a small set, there, of course, is the brute force method i.e. list out all the individual divisors - 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 20, 25, 40, 50, 100, 125, 200, 250, 500 & 1000 - and then pair them up giving the following 8 combinations:

  • 1x1000
  • 2x500
  • 4x250
  • 5x200
  • 8x125
  • 10x100
  • 20x50
  • 25x40
But I wanted to take a systematic approach. The first step, obviously, was to split it into prime factors, so 1000 = (2^3)*(5^3). And then I forgot what the next step was!

I tried the permutation & combination approach, which was the right way to go, had I thought about the problem a bit more. Instead, here is how my thought process went.

Finding out unique divisors is essentially same as finding out unique combinations of 0 or more of the prime factors of the number 1000 i.e. combinations of 0 or more from the set {2, 2, 2, 5, 5, 5} which is C(6,0) + C(6,1) + C(6,2) + C(6,3) + C(6,4) + C(6,5) + C(6,6), which in turn, if I remember the binomial theorem correctly, is 2^6 i.e. 64. However, that would have been the case had all the numbers in the set been unique. Since we had 2 and 5 repeated thrice each, the set of 64 combinations would have a lot of repetitions. But I forgot how to account for the repetition. Let's just suffice it to say that I spent a better part of the next hour trying out various divisions and subtractions to figure out the correct way of going about it, all amounting to naught!

Ultimately, Google came to rescue. I came across a thread on StackExcahnge which explained the right method of approaching the problem i.e. the number of powers of each prime factor we can choose. Since we have 2 unique prime factors - 2 and 5 - and each of those can have one of 4 possible powers - 0, 1, 2 and 3 - we essentially have 4x4 = 16 unique divisors of the number 1000. And since we are looking for pairs to form a jigsaw puzzle, we get 8 combinations.

The 15-year-old high schooler version of me would have found this obvious and would have solved this in under 30 seconds. Feeling ashamed, I spent the next few minutes exploring a lesson on permutations and combinations on Khan Academy. Though interesting, it was pretty rudimentary so I skipped it and tried to sleep, but the guilt wouldn't let me. Probability and Permutations & Combinations used to be my favourite subjects in school, how could I forget those methods?

As anyone familiar with guilt train would tell you, it didn't stop there. The realizations kept coming. I don't remember the advanced trigonometry or calculus either. Nor do I remember the details of all the different laws of physics. I don't remember how to design an IIR filter, nor do I recall how to download VHDL code onto an FPGA. These are all the things that I used to love and excel at! How could I let so many skills skip by?

Then something else dawned upon me. I, involuntarily, let go of things that I used to be good at but don't use/need anymore but in turn also learnt a whole bunch of things that I'm good at that the 15-year old me couldn't possibly comprehend.

No, I can't solve a differential equation anymore like my college self could, but my college self couldn't be paid for designing processes and solutions for multi-billion dollar enterprises. No, I don't remember the formulae the school me could apply to problems from memory, but the school me couldn't even dream of some of the stuff I've built.

You retain some memories, gain some skills, unconsciously let go of stuff that used to be important at a time, learn stuff that's important now. I guess that's what growing up, maturing and moving on is all about. And then I could sleep...

Sunday, October 28, 2012

I wish there was such a gadget...

There are times when one simply cannot wonder how the body nature has given us is so much better than the best of gadgets that modern engineering can come up with.

I'm in no way denying the utility of gadgets and the wonders of technology that have made our lives more comfortable and people around me are well aware of my love for gadgets. The thought behind this post is that gadgets, however advanced, are incapable of capturing what we experience.

Take cameras for example. We have advanced cameras coming up with more and more features, pushing the boundary of the amount of detail we can capture in a frame but somehow even the best DSLRs seem to fall short when compared to the eye. Today on my way to Pune, I saw the evening moon playing hide and seek with the clouds, the silver moon rays faintly illuminating Khopoli valley and the surrounding ghats just enough that you could make out one layer of hills from the other. On other occasions, in the same region, during my frequent Pune-Mumbai travels, I've observed the valley, with its thousands of lights, imitating the night sky while civilisation moves on at high speed on the expressway above. No camera can capture the inherent beauty of these scenes.

That also brings up the debatable topic of image post processing. The photographer community, both amateur and professional, is heavily divided on the use of editing to enhance the images. I firmly believe that no camera is good enough to capture what my mind interpreted when my eyes registered the scene. Thus some amount of editing is needed to present to the world my viewpoint.

Wouldn't it be great if there was a gadget that could directly pick up what my eyes see? I guess that would take us into the domain of Brain-Computer Interface, which, I believe, is still in nascent stages and what I envision seems decades away, to be optimistic.

If such a device is indeed possible, it must also be possible to create a kind of interface that reads what not just my eyes see but also what my mind imagines. Think of the possible applications of such a technology... one can paint just by thinking, advanced designs could become reality within minutes, people with great ideas can turn movie directors overnight without the need for actors or production crew.

On similar lines, I imagine interfaces can be built for other sensory perceptions too... create music just by thinking, write novels and make changes to the storyline at the speed of thought.

At the other end of spectrum, this technology can be turned on its head and used to provide the joy of sight and sounds to those who are deprived of it and I have reason to believe that great progress has already been made on this front, though not through direct interface between the brain and the physical world.

But like any idea, this one has a flip side too. Wouldn't such kind of disruptive technology eliminate entire industries overnight? More importantly, wouldn't this effectively reduce our bodies to just a transport mechanism for our brains? What prevents us then to become prisoners of a virtual world, somethin akin to The Matrix? But our scriptures tell us that our mind is already a prisoner in a virtual world, Maya.

But I digress, probably too many things going on in the head. Coming back to the original point, and, for conclusion, leaving the readers with an open question: Wouldn't it be great if such a gadget existed?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Goals and Abilities

Random banter here

Most of our lives are not very eventful and have a fixed routine depending on the phase of life we are in. However that does not mean we cannot learn something from our daily lives (refer my previous post on my thoughts on routine). I try to take away something from the daily events in my life, put it into the form of a short thought, many times my original, sometimes borrowed, and send it to people in office, who have subscribed to my mails, in a daily ‘Good Morning’ mail after coming to office the next day.

Yesterday however, was different. I could not extract a single lesson out of my life yesterday. As a result, I had nothing original to share. On these occasions I try to share something I might have read or heard somewhere else. That’s exactly what I did today.

We all come across people who complain about how their jobs are either not challenging enough or too difficult to perform with their current skill set. At some point of time we all have been this person too. Continue this situation long enough and you’ll find your company’s HR department struggling to control attrition rate. That brings us to my today’s mail.

Content related to the topic starts here

During my engineering, in 2004, I attended a workshop on entrepreneurship conducted by MITCON. I shared the thought of one of the instructors in the workshop. It dealt with the topic of a person’s skills & abilities and the kind of goals he sets and the challenges he needs to face. Here’s what he said, if I remember correctly:

The goals you set for you are like a magnet and your abilities are like iron filings. Consider the tension between the goals and abilities like a magnetic force. If you set your goals higher than your abilities, you automatically will lift yourselves up in striving to achieve that goal thereby improving your skills. Set your goals below your abilities to see a steady decay in your abilities. However, just like magnetic force, the pull here decreases with increasing distance. Set your goals too high for your abilities and you’ll give up without even trying since it is too difficult for you.

I feel this is a very nice way of explaining the importance of proper goal setting and keeping yourself engaged in the task at hand avoiding the setting in of frustration or boredom. This reminds me of an image a friend had shared. After a brief googling, I found the image that graphically conveys what our instructor in that workshop was trying to say.

http://agamesdesignblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/flowexpanded2.png

(Original Image Source: http://agamesdesignblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/flowexpanded2.png)

You might want to read the entire post where this image appears, ‘Flow – Stating the Obvious’. Though it talks about game design, I believe the takeaways are generic enough to be applied in day to day motivation. Also, the Wikipedia page on Flow makes for an interesting read. Happy reading.

Cheers
Aalok
--Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered and no one was there.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Routine

A lot of us always complain about routine. How a routine, 9 to 5, job sucks. How we are doing the same thing over and over again without any excitement. I agree that there are times when we need something different. Change, in fact, is a necessity of life as without it, stagnation and lethargy kicks in. However, a routine does have its advantages too.

A few months ago I was having a discussion with a friend who was upset with her routine and was getting bored. I'm sharing a text that I had sent her that day. Would love to hear your views:

"Routine is not boring. Routine is what makes the deviations exciting. Routine is what implies stability in life. Routine tells you that you have a reason to get up at the same time every morning.

Strictly from an operational point of view, routine is actually a desirable thing. Routine is what helps standardization, development of SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) and setting in of learning curve. Routine is what helps in planning and forecasting.

Our routine, how much we deviate from it and how do we react to the exceptions is what defines the kind of person we are. No, routine is not boring."

Do think about this the next time you curse your 'routine' job. :)

Cheers
Aalok
--Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered and no one was there.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Aarakshan: A Review

I generally don’t write movie reviews primarily because I don’t watch a lot of movies and even when I do, I generally don’t feel strongly about them. Aarakshan was different though. A lot of people were not able to see how the movie is related to reservations and feel that the title is misleading and controversial. I feel otherwise and thus, instead of explaining individually to each and every one, I decided to come up with post. Those who haven’t watched the movie can also read on as I’ll point out when the spoilers come in.

It was Saturday evening; a friend and I were killing time on F C Road. We wanted to watch a movie but she had already watched Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and I had watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. The only other option which we felt worth watching was Aarakshan. Coming from Prakash Jha’s stable I knew it will be a good watch, may be not entertaining, but definitely meaningful. So we went to Inox and bought two tickets at 250 bucks each. “At that price, the movie better be good!” we said to each other. Good it was, but not worth 250 bucks I’d say.

The Plot

The movie is set in 2008, the year Supreme Court’s landmark judgment on 27% OBC quota in institutes of higher learning came out thus making the total cast based reservations close to 50%. It tries to explore the need and after effects of reservations from the point of view of both parts of the society, the reserved category and the open competition one. It tries to show how the end result of reservations is actually the opposite of what was envisioned initially. In the end, the movie presents a possible solution to the root cause of the problem of social discrimination.

The Cast

Dr Prabhakar Anand played by Amitabh Bachchan is the protagonist of the movie. He is the principal of STM, a prestigious private institute of higher learning, getting into which is every school kid’s dream. The whole movie, in a sense, revolves around his efforts to bring about social equality, educational reforms and his struggle with the system while defending his ideals.

Prof Mithilesh Singh played by Manoj Bajpai is the nemesis of Dr Anand. If Dr Anand symbolizes the nobility of teaching as a profession, Prof Singh is the epitome of hardcore business that education has become.

Deepak Kumar played by Saif Ali Khan is a brilliant researcher belonging to the backward class who has risen despite his background with the help of Dr Anand. He represents the strata of society that has potential but is backward for lack of opportunity.

Poorbi Anand played by Deepika Padukone is Dr Anand’s daughter and Deepak’s love interest.

Apart from these main characters, there are a host of other supporting characters who play their roles in bringing out the story but their details are not relevant.

The Performances

Manoj Bajpai takes the cake for an action packed performance and doing complete justice to the character of Prof Singh who is cunning and well networked individual serving his personal interests and leaves no stone unturned to bring down Dr Anand. In the end, his arrogance becomes his undoing.

It seems that Amitabh Bachchan is the Sachin Tendulkar of Bollywood. Criticizing his performance is no less than a sin. He has played his part well, but of late, I feel his style is the same irrespective of the character he is playing. If I have to draw a parallel, his role in Mohabbatein would be a good reference.

Saif Ali Khan has only brief bouts of parts in the movie, but an important role nonetheless.

Deepika Padukone is only there for eye candy and has no substantial part to play.

The Verdict

The movie is definitely a one-time watch, if not a collectible. I personally liked it because the solutions presented, which I’ll come to in a while, resonate with my beliefs also.

The Positives: Mature handling of a sensitive topic, the performances and the factual depiction of our society.

The Negatives: Unnecessary complications and dragging the story in the second half.

Rating: 3.5/5

My Take on the Movie [Attention: Contains Spoilers. If you haven’t watched the movie yet and plan to, go watch it first before reading further]

Disclaimer: The views presented here are entirely my personal. I’ll try to be as objective here as I can be but I’m not sure if I’ll be successful as at one point or other in our lives we all have come face to face with the undeniable reality or reservations. Thus, there may be some parts where my personal biases come in and if they do, I apologize upfront.

The opening scene of the movie was not convincing at all. No interview in the world begins and ends with just the questions on the candidate’s family background, read caste, being asked. On the other hand, no interviewee, however harassed, will, in his right mind, not talk to his interviewer with the arrogance that Deepak displayed. Some of Deepak Kumar’s arguments are also not convincing. He talks as if the hundreds of years of oppression, the reason cited for reservations, were personally borne by him.

Some of the dialogues, like, “Aap yahaan kyu apni life kharab kar rahe hain? Kisi govt college main jaiye, sarkaar khiarat main naukriyan baant rahi hai aap logon ko.”, “50% bhi kyu chodte ho? 100% hi rakh lo na tum log.” and “Aarakshan hamara janmsiddha adhikaar hai!”, I have witnessed in real life conversations too.

The movie very well articulates how caste based reservations have actually led to social discord and promoting mediocrity while the original aim was equality, social justice and provide a chance for the backward classes to come at par with others.

I cannot forget an instance in my engineering hostel when we were preparing for GATE, the entrance exam for an M.Tech. from the prestigious IITs. While we were slogging for getting a good score worthy of an admission call, another friend, from the reserved category commented, “Mujhe itna padhne ki zaroorat nahi hai. Mera reservation hai to 70% pe bhi seat mil jayegi mujhe.

There’s another instance from my HSBC days. HSBC, being a private employer, is not legally obliged for affirmative action. We had just joined and one of my colleagues commented on another, who belonged to one of the reserved castes, “Tum log open competition main kyu aate ho. Govt job main jaana tha na, wo to bani hi tumhare liye hain.

This concludes two things:




  1. The objective of social equity is not being met as reservations have ended up promoting animosity between the reserved and open categories. This is portrayed as the hostility between Sushant Seth and Deepak Kumar.


  2. The objective of bringing the backward classes at par as also not being met as people from these classes take reservations as a right and thus do not see the need to compete, thereby promoting mediocrity. As a corollary, a genuinely deserving candidate, who would have risen on his abilities and not reservation is also looked down upon, a situation aptly displayed by the comments hurled at Deepak Kumar.
The movie goes beyond these direct effects and touches the other indirect aspects of reservations too. Some of these are:




  1. The increased competition for the open seats resulting in genuinely deserving candidates losing out on seats. This is depicted at different points in the movie, be it Sushant losing out his seat for Mass Communication, Poorbi not getting a medical seat and the Upadhyay guy (forgot his name) losing out on an engineering seat. This part hits a raw nerve as we all have been there seen that during our admissions. We have all been denied seats of our choice because we were not good enough to make it in the merit list. That does not hurt much. What hurts is that someone else will study on that seat with 20-25% lesser marks than you, just because he happened to be born in a particular caste. And he’s not even serious about it as he didn’t really have to struggle for it.


  2. Not just losing out on seats due to reservations, Mr Upadhyay represents something more. He represents the irony in the system. Here we have a person from an equally economically disadvantaged section of the society. He is deserving too, his marks speak for him. But he is driven to suicide because he loses out his seat when a reserved category candidate competes in the open category even when reserved seats are empty. When he does get an admission, his scholarship application is rejected because he is from a higher caste. No one bothers to see his difficulties.


  3. The vote bank politics is very clear and I don’t even need to elaborate on it.


  4. Though too convoluted, the movie also explores the aspect of how reservations, though indirectly, could be responsible for the commercialization of education, which is considered a noble profession in a country where gurus are given preference over gods!
The first part of the movie brings out all these problems in the backdrop of the 27% OBC quota approved the Supreme Court of India. The second part, which a lot of people feel, is just about the clashes between Dr Anand’s free ‘Tabela Coaching’ and Prof Singh’s elite KK Coaching, to me, presents the solution by addressing the root of the problem: Education.

People who know me well would know how I believe that access to quality basic education is the only way to end our nation’s problems, be it poverty, corruption, skewed sex ratio etc. If you want reservations, implement it in primary schools where the pressure is not so high, though this is changing fast too, and the seeds of discrimination have not yet been ingrained in the children’s minds through social conditioning. Do not reserve seats in institutes of higher learning and jobs. Prepare the so called backward classes for open competition instead.

Hire the best of teachers and pay them well so that teaching becomes a preferred profession and not the last resort for people who could not do anything else in their lives. I don’t mean to denigrate the profession here. I’ve been lucky to have been taught by some very good teachers but they were into the profession not because of the money, but because they love to teach and they have enough money already. On the contrary, I’ve also known people who would have made brilliant teachers but did not pursue it as a profession as it was economically unviable. The suggestion of creating the Indian Teaching Services on the lines of IAS and IPS was one of the best parts of the movie for me.

I’ll not comment on the rest of the melodrama in the movie as that is expected out of a Hindi movie. But I will definitely say that Prakash Jha has done a brilliant job by lucidly bringing out the problems and giving us food for thought for the possible solutions. And this, he has done without any controversial dialogues. As far as the political parties raising a hue and cry on the movie are concerned, well, reservation ensures them permanent vote bank so they will resist anything that comments on the topic. Btw, the movie also points out how it is in the best interests of the so called leaders to ensure that the backward classes remain backward and keep following their orders blindly while they keep making false promises of their social upliftment.

All in all, a good idea well executed. Kudos to Prakash Jha and team for another good movie.