Saturday, 18 August 2018

Natural Factories

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"Nature loves symmetry. I wonder why? Did all asymmetric ones die out?"

We have to consider various aspects while trying to develop a complex system. Take the example of a car. We first start by defining what features and qualities the final car needs to have. Then, we move to divide the car into logical subunits. We think about the design of each of these subunits and how they will interact with one another. The subunits should perform their tasks efficiently but also be economical to produce while looking aesthetically pleasing. We've to think about the energy source or fuel, rate of consumption, rate of recharge, wastes produced and how to eliminate, etc.

Once we're ready with this, we move on to develop a prototype, run various tests, iteratively improve the design till we reach a design that's meeting all the goals sufficiently.

We then proceed to mass produce them. This, of course, requires capital for land, factories, workers, machinery, etc. We should be able to store raw materials, we need processes and managers to ensure effective utilisation of said resources, etc.

As I sit in my garden pondering deep thoughts, I see a few bugs crawling about, flying about, feeding on leaves and other insects... These insects are fully developed units, capable of motion both on land and in the air. They consume energy but refill it as they run out. They're also aesthetically pleasing (debatable? Some of them are gorgeous)

But at the same time, there are no actual factories. Though there's fantastic engineering involved, they're factories by themselves.

I'd a small pot that had a plant in it. After the plant died, I just left it out in the garden. Some days later, I saw tiny mysterious plants of a different kind  sprouting out of it. Nature somehow finds ways of propagating life. Probably these seeds were in the soil already and were dormant, or they arrived through an external agent like an insect, animal or wind. But they did manage to sprout.

And that brings me to the final part of the thought. Is it possible for mankind to create engineering products like drones by making use of concepts that exist in nature? And if they're too complex to understand, can we bend existing "natural technology" to do what we want? I understand that this is not really new thought and that much of genetic engineering revolves around this. But the idea of developing newer kinds of self healing, self repairing, self regenerating units that can perpetuate themselves but also be programmed is amazing.

I'm sure that we will be able to purchase blank bees in the future that will provide API interfaces for custom programming. You will be able to transfer custom code and the bees will perform all the actions. The code can be transferred to the next generation as well. Of course, a mistake in the code will result in bugs containing bugs.

One of the other questions to think about is whether this is ethical. Is it ethical to have living creatures produced for the sole reason of serving mankind in a specific way. I immediately dismissed this thought thinking about the abattoirs in the world.

I hope that the future will be a time where man has developed material science to the extent that natural substances can be mimicked. These are also biodegradable and can work in swarms.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

On Mindfulness

Swami Gulagulaananda quoted Kanakadasa:
"naanu hodare hodenu [I can go if I could go]"

There was a tale that I had heard in my childhood. Kanakadasa, the great poet and saint, was asked who could attain salvation by his master, Vyasatirtha. Kanakadasa replied, "naanu hodare hodenu" in Kannada. The sentence can be translated to: "I might go if I want". Many of the scholars at the convention were offended that Kanakadasa had earlier told that nobody at the convention, including his own master, could attain salvation. However, his master saw wisdom in Kanakadasa's words and asked him to elaborate what he said. Kanakadasa explains his pun, which can also be translated as "If I goes, I could go", meaning that a person who rejects ego can attain salvation.

As I looked around at society in general, I started seeing a pattern. I saw a certain quality lacking in most people, and I wondered what the right word for that quality should be - The answer: Mindfulness.

The term mindfulness has started cropping up in multiple places now. I heard about mindfulness a few years ago when an acquaintance started a blog on mindfulness. Most people associate mindfulness with meditation. In this post, I would like to discuss mindfulness as the word: "The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something."

The next time you see an escalator, pay attention to the steps. You'll notice that every escalator has a yellow stripe along the centre. The yellow stripe is like a lane separator.

People who wish to simply stand and ride up the escalator should stand on the right side of the line. People who wish to walk up the escalator taking advantage of the movement should walk on the left side of the line. You'll see a similar yellow stripe on moving pathways in airports.

Most people are unaware of this fact and stand around simply without adhering to this rule. Not being aware of a fact doesn't qualify as lack of mindfulness. However, not allowing a person whom they see that a person walking up the escalator to pass, is lack of mindfulness. Why do they have to wait till someone comes up to them and says "Excuse Me?" when they have noticed this person walking up to them?

Mindfulness is being aware of what is happening around us - being mindful of people around us, being mindful about the trouble that we put others through due to our actions, or thinking how we can alleviate the pain of others through our actions. One does not necessarily have to go out of their way help others. One simply needs to tune in to their surroundings and go beyond the self to understand what's happening around.

Two days back, I was riding towards my house on my motorcycle when the car in front of me suddenly swerved to the left without warning because he wanted to stop. I applied the brakes immediately, more or less being convinced that I was going to ram into the car. Fortunately, the bike skidded to a halt about a foot behind the car. The sound made by my bike skidding prompted the passengers in the car and the driver to look back at the source. Being rattled, I questioned the man why he hadn't turned on his indicator if he wanted to turn to the left. Rather than apologising, the passenger at the back turned defensive and indignant as if I was not paying attention while driving and started arguing. The driver who knew that he had made a mistake should have simply apologised. But we digress. The main point was that the driver was not being mindful of his surroundings - He simply turned his car to the left because that was what he wanted to do. He was not mindful of what impact his actions could have on others.

I am sure that looking around will give you plenty of other examples of situations where people can be more mindful. People who play songs in the metro or bus or while walking in the parks without using earphones, people who talk and laugh raucously, people who honk incessantly, people who double park, park incorrectly, drive in the opposite direction are examples of people not being mindful in obvious ways... People not cleaning gym equipment after use, leaving toilet seats up, not flushing all the way, not muting phones during meetings or while watching movies in theatres are other (subtler?) examples of not exercising mindfulness.

As a population, we need to start becoming mindful - And most of us can achieve this goal of moving towards mindfulness. However, people who have had a sense of entitlement ingrained in them for a long time or people who are more self centred may find it very hard to acknowledge that they were wrong in the first place. After all, acknowledgement of mistakes is a prerequisite to course correction.

Therefore, it is imperative that we teach children to be mindful and sensitive to others right from their childhood. If we teach children the differences between right and wrong and how their actions have ramifications, they will grow up to be upstanding and outstanding citizens of the country.

Remember to be mindful. Jai Hind.

Monday, 6 August 2018

The Eye Opener

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
We all owe a debt to society… You are significantly more privileged than you think

The soft rays of the morning sun slipped through the blinds and woke up Simi. As she opened her well rested eyes, a smile formed on her face as she looked at the calendar on the wall. Just one more day to go. She looked at the neat array of stuffed dolls adorning a specially created shelf. But this birthday was special and she knew exactly what she wanted. "Maaaa!! Coffee!!" she yelled.

A few moments later, her parents walked into her room, beaming at their daughter. Offering her the cup, her mom asked her, "Just one more day for your birthday, Simi beta. What do you want for your present?" This was the moment that she was waiting for. She held the cup between her palms and interwoven fingers and looked at the brown liquid. Then, gushing a little, she said "Ma, Pa, I want the new iPhone X". At this, her mom turned to look at her dad. Her dad obviously hadn't expected such an expensive request. "iPhone? Beta, isn't that very expensive? Ummm ask for something else", said her dad as he fumbled for words. He didn't want to disappoint his angel daughter.

"No. For this birthday, I want an iPhone." replied Simi. "It's very expensive Simi. Besides, what does it do that your phone doesn't do?" reasoned her mom. "All my friends have one. I also want one" said Simi. "I'll not be able to afford an iPhone Simi, I'm sorry." said her dad as he walked away. A visibly upset Simi turned her head away as her mom tried to mollify her.

With a start, she jumped out of her bed and said, "I'm going for a drive." and ran down the stairs, ignoring her mother's pleas to not go out on an empty stomach.

Having driven for about 30 minutes, Simi felt her throat feeling dry. Her tongue seemed to get heavy. She picked her bottle to drink but found that it contained very little water. She had forgotten to refill it. She looked around and found herself near a slum. She got out of her car and walked up to a small house. She saw an elderly lady sitting outside, chopping some vegetables.  "Aunty, may I've some water?" asked Simi, indicating her bottle. The elderly lady looked up and smiled at her. "Of course, of course, come in, little girl" she said, accepting the bottle. The elderly lady walked into the tiny house followed by Simi who had to bend her head to pass through the low door.

She was surprised by what she saw inside. The house was very plain and had only one room. The flooring was of red oxide. One of the walls had some kind of a battered shelf with a few utensils arranged on it. She saw a trunk with a few clothes in one corner, a small bed with a pillow and a thin blanket along another wall. The lady carefully poured water into the bottle from an earthen pot. Simi continued to observe the tiny house. She saw a tattered wall hanging. It was a makeshift board for children. It said "A for Apple, B for Ball, C for Cat".

Simi was surprised at this. "Aunty, what is this?" she asked. "Ah, I teach some of the local children here. I've studied till seventh and I want these children to be able to read. I hope that education will bring them out of this abject poverty" she said as she returned Simi's bottle. "Why don't you sit for some time? I'll make some tea for you", she said. Simi was very curious about this lady and the slum. She spent half hour drinking tea and listening to the wonderful stories, how excited the children around the locality are to learn new things, how people help one another, how people run up to the nearest STD booth when they get a call from their village, how they fear that the government will tear away their hutments and render them homeless. Simi listened with rapt attention. These people went through a lot. "Aunty, give me the phone number of that booth", said Simi as she left bidding goodbye to the lady.

The next morning, Simi was awakened by her parents. "Happy Birthday, Simi beta!". Simi woke up with a wide smile saying "Thank you" in a sing-song manner. "Beta, I thought a lot, and I've decided to get you that iPhone", said her dad. Simi looked at her dad and smiled with a twinkle in her eye. "I'm coming to the market with you".

Two hours later, a kid ran up to the elderly lady's house. "Aunty, aunty, you've a phone call". The elderly lady wondered who had called her. She slowly walked towards the telephone booth down the street. Picking up the phone, she said, “Hello? Who’s speaking?

Hi aunty! This is Simi, from yesterday! Guess what, aunty? I got a present from my parents and I am calling you from my new iPhone! Isn’t that cool?



How should the story have ended?
My original intent was to give it a funny ending where Simi says that she called up the elderly lady to say “Guess what? I am calling you from my new iPhone! Isn’t that cool?”
Or perhaps, Simi decides to donate a board, books and other materials to the elderly lady to educate the children. Or go a step further to even teach the children herself… (some forward)

Each of us is a Simi and we all have a choice… I read somewhere that we all owe a debt to society and that we should do our part to give back to the society in some way.

I don’t know if charity is the right solution - Perhaps there is a better way. If anyone has any good ideas, please let me know

Saturday, 23 June 2018

The Europe Trip: Part 1 - Preparation


Swami Gulagulaananda quoted Abraham Lincoln:
"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe"


Europe is a dream destination for many travel enthusiasts. Having read about the intricate work of Michaelangelo, the grandeur of the Vatican, the glorious Roman empire as well as of relatively modern periods of the Nazi era, I thought that a visit to Europe may be a great idea.

I am not a travel expert, but I will try to walk through some of the things that I did in order to make my entire trip hassle-free. Spend time to prepare well and the trip will go through smoothly. There are a couple of ways to plan your trip. One, is through package tours with a travel agency like Kesari Travels, Thomas Cook, etc. and the other is to plan your entire trip yourself.

Booking through travel agencies has several advantages. You don't have many headaches. The agency takes care of everything, including stay, food and point to point travel. Personally, I tried travelling through an agency once and I liked the way in which they had taken care of everything. What I didn't like was the schedules. We had to stick to their schedule and we didn't have the choice of spending more time in some areas and less in another. Also, you don't have many customisation options in these package tours.

I prefer planning the entire trip myself. This way, I have complete control over every element of the trip. It is a lot of work but the result is totally worth it. This post is about preparing for your trip if you plan it yourself and while most of the advice is relevant to other places, some points are very specific to Europe.

At this point, I would like to thank Google for the fantastic work that they have been doing. They are truly on their way towards organising the entire world.

Apps

Google Trips

This app has proved to be an invaluable tool and is an absolute must while planning your trip. Google Trips is a trip planning tool that allows you to:
  • maintain all reservations (hotels, travel, etc.) in a single place
  • maintain places that you have planned to visit in a city
  • get recommendations of places to visit in a city
  • get valuable tips about transportation (metro, bus, taxi, etc.) within a city



There are alternatives available, but I stuck with Google Trips.

Google Maps



Google Maps might seem to be a no-brainer. However, apart from showing the route to a particular place, Google Maps also has the public transport option. That shows you exactly which Metro or Bus to take, the boarding stop, the direction, the intermediate stops and where to get off.





Uber

Public transport in Europe is fantastic and very cheap. Sometimes, though, you may choose to travel by Uber. Having Uber installed and ready may prove to be useful.


Bags

Tourist locations in Europe have a reputation of having several pickpockets, especially Rome. Several people have had their passports stolen and apparently even hotel rooms aren't safe. While most hotels and even B&Bs have safes installed in rooms, I decided to keep very important things close to me.


I decided to purchase a bag which proved to be an invaluable companion throughout the trip. The bag is called "God's Ghost Backpack" and you can buy it from Amazon if you would like. 

I would highly recommend buying this backpack. It has several compartments and the bag is theft-proof. It's made of a robust material and the zips are positioned such that one cannot open them without getting it off their backs. I kept everything including passports, laptop, camera and other important paraphernalia inside this bag. It's water resistant and has a rain protection cover add-on if you would like to purchase (I got that as well).

Also, remember that bags sometimes get lost. So, make sure that your essentials are distributed across bags (don't put all your eggs in the same basket)

Food and Water


Tap water is potable and directly consumable in all places that we visited. A simple Google search will help you get this information in case you are unsure. However, bottled water is extremely pricy, with a one litre bottle costing € 5 - That's about ₹ 400 and is totally not worth it. Make sure that you read labels on water bottles in hotel rooms to see if they are complementary or charged.

Surprisingly, most restaurants also charge for water. So, it would be better for you to carry a pre-filled bottle of water to avoid paying a high price for something as basic as water.


There are plenty of restaurants in Europe and there are plenty of Indian restaurants in Europe as well. So food is not much of a problem. If you are a vegetarian, there are plenty of vegan/vegetarian restaurants as well. However, there are very limited Indian vegetarian restaurants (sometimes non-existent). Some cities like Paris offer multiple Indian pure vegetarian restaurants like Saravanaa Bhavan and Sangeetha which are absolutely fantastic (better than most restaurants in Bangalore), in Rome, passable and in Brussels, non-existent.

You can consider carrying ready-to-eat food where you just add hot water and have it available, if you are a stickler. Most hotels and B&Bs have microwave ovens and hot water kettles available. 


Expenses

There are several apps for keeping track of expenses. Personally, I maintained everything on a Google Sheets document.

Not all places accept cards, and sometimes, a little extra is charged if you use a card. So, carry money in a combination of card and cash. You can use International Credit Cards, International Debit Cards of Forex Cards, depending on your preference. A simple Google search will help you choose. Personally, I opted for the prepaid Forex card.

In Europe, there is an additional charge called as Tourism Tax that gets charged while checking into the hotel. The charge is around € 3-4 per person per day.

Stay

You have two major options - Staying in hotels or staying in B&Bs. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

For the uninitiated, B&Bs or Bed and Breakfast places are an alternative to staying in hotels. They are generally entire apartments or apartment rooms rented to you for the few days that you plan to stay in a city. While they are considered to be a cheaper alternative, I didn't find their pricing to be different when compared to hotel rooms.

One advantage of staying in a B&B is that you may get a kitchen and occasionally a washing machine. Kitchens are fully featured with refrigerators, microwave ovens, electric kettles, dishwashers, coffee and tea, sugar, etc. Some B&Bs offer breakfast, some offer croissants, cakes and biscuits while others don't offer anything beyond the plain kitchen. This is something that you will have to read about the one that you are looking at.

These B&Bs are run quite professionally - They provide receipts, sometimes provide maps and other useful information, etc. They even have cleaning people who clean your rooms, just like a hotel. So, you don't have to worry much about that. If the location is really good (close to the places that wish to visit), it is something that you should seriously consider if other parameters are met.

Hotels, on the other hand, are pretty standard. My suggestion is to go for well known chain hotels like Best Western, Crowne, Holiday Express, Ibis etc. Apart from offering budget rooms, they sometimes offer additional services like shuttle services that can save you some money. Most hotels have electric kettles and coffee makers, some like Best Western also have microwave ovens.

Almost every hotel and B&B in Italy has toilets equipped with bidets along with toilet paper. But the rest of Europe only have toilet paper. The bathrooms are equipped with shower gels and the shampoos aren't great. So, you may want to carry your own personal shampoo.

I used Expedia for all my bookings. They even have options of reserving rooms without paying in advance and refundable bookings. This can be particularly useful if your visa is not ready.

NOTE:

Make sure that you avoid using MakeMyTrip. Their customer service is absolutely horrible. Read more about it here.


Transport

Public transport in Europe is absolutely fantastic. Cities like Rome, Venice, Paris and Berlin have the concept of a single pass that can be used any number of times in a single day. The same pass can be used on metro trains, trams and buses and can be a significantly cheaper option compared to taxis. The public transport network is great in Europe. Some other cities like Brussels and Amsterdam have their public transport tickets like in Bangalore, where each trip costs money.

Google Maps has the public transport option that shows the metro train or bus number, direction, intermediate stops etc. It even tells you when to expect the next train/bus. This option is a must-use.

Occasionally, you may want to hail taxis. Hailing taxis on the road is not very easy. Taxis in taxi stands are easier to board. Taxis are well regulated in Europe and the prices are pretty standard across normal taxis and Uber. 

Travelling from one city to another, within the same country or across countries, is possible via train and airplane. The trains are super smooth and are a great way to look at the countryside along the journey. You'll love it if you are a fan of rail journeys. However, some train journeys could take longer and you may want to consider airplanes for those journeys. I opted for trains when the time was under 2 hours and airplanes when train journeys were longer (like around 7-8 hours).

For booking trains, you can consider websites like Rail Europe and Trainline.


Visa

You have to apply for a visa depending on the port of entry or the country where you plan to spend the longest period of time. If you live in a city that doesn't have a consulate (most of us do), then you can opt for working with a company called VFS Global. They have a website that is very straightforward. Book an appointment and make sure that you carry all the required documents in the exact order in which they have requested. You will have very little time inside. Get a photocopy of each document for each person in your group because they process visas independently. Visas take about 15 days to arrive after the submission of documents. It's better to complete the visa process at least a month prior to your trip.


NOTE:
Make sure that you avoid using MakeMyTrip. Their customer service is absolutely horrible. Read more about it here.





The problems of scale

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"There are always problems associated with scale... especially when my weight doesn't seem to reduce"

Scalability has been a popular buzz word for some time and with the increasing use of the internet, social media and machine learning, data collections and performing operations at scale has become very important. But scale isn't something that is necessarily confined to the realm of technology. In this post, let's have a look at how solutions that work for some problems don't work at scale.

A long time ago, I came across a fascinating website called Project Euler. Project Euler presented us with a series of mathematical problems of increasing difficulty and the objective is solve them under a minute using a computer program. The first few could be as simple as sum of the first 100 numbers or sum of first 50 even numbers which were quite easy to solve for even novice programmers. Most engineering students might remember these as practice problems as part of their curriculum. Then you may also remember a problem that asks you if a number, x, is prime or not. How do you check if a number is prime or not? You divide the number by 2 (or take the integer nearest to the square root) and ensure that the number x is not divisible by 2 or any odd number till half (or square root). If even one number can divide x, then x is not a prime number.

There was another problem that asked us to find the, say 100th, prime number. Now, the problem became somewhat interesting. We had to start with an odd number, and keep incrementing by 2 to go to the next odd number. Then, for every odd number, we have to determine if the number is prime or not. If the number is prime, then we increment a counter and proceed. This seems to be a relatively easy solution, and for smaller numbers, the answers pop out quite quickly. However as we proceed to larger numbers, the same operation of dividing larger numbers by halves (or square roots) is repeated several times resulting in a significant delay in the overall solution and you end up taking a really long time. (The solution, in case you are interested, is to use the Sieve of Sundaram or sieve of Eratosthenes)

Thus, the solution of determining if a number is prime or not cannot be used to effectively solve a related problem due to scale. Even our power computers take considerably longer than a minute as you increase it from 100th prime to say 200th prime.

The same is true for restaurants and businesses. If you have visited any restaurant where you place order and collect your food from the counters, like the self service Darshini restaurants, you will notice one of three types:

  • You order along with the rest of the customers. The guy keeps placing plates on the counter. Whoever is closest picks them up and you often feel cheated if someone who came after you got his food first
  • You order along with the rest of the customers. However, there is one guy who keeps collecting the tokens from you and maintaining a mental note of who came first and who came later. He ensures that food gets delivered on a first come first serve basis
  • There is a numbered token system. Food is given based on the token. You show your token and collect your food
The first ones are obviously the worst. However, they are the easiest to implement because there is no additional overhead involved. This system relies on the goodness of people that people are self regulating and will pick up orders in the same order in which they gave the tokens. Let us assume that there are only 3 customers at the counter. Then, this system will work without any issues because it is easier to manage and since people are being watched by other people, they will be at their best behaviour. However, as the number of people increase, like during a rush hour, this system will simply collapse. Customers will be watching like hawks so that they don't get cheated. Some customers might even be motivated to get someone else's food first because they know how long they have to wait.

The second system is relatively better. But it has an additional overhead of a man watching. We have to rely on his memory. Also, since looking at the order isn't his full time job, he is bound to slip up occasionally and thus, it ceases to remain a scalable solution.

The third solution is the most scalable of the lot and you can see the smoothest operators using this solution. Even McDonald's that has improved their processes over the years uses this. Thus, solutions that work at lower scale don't work at higher scales.

I have made similar observations while boarding buses or metro trains. During peak hours, people wait for the doors to open. The moment the door opens, people clamour to get in to try and get a seat (or at least get into the vehicle so that they don't have to wait). However, during non-office hours, people follow the rules and breathe easy, wait till the door opens, get in and stroll to their seats. The resources are more and the competition is low.

And these observations are not limited to Bangalore or India even. I made similar observations in western nations within Europe as well as in the US. It is a myth that cars in the US or Europe don't honk as much as they do in India. It is not really a behavioural problem. They don't honk because they are not presented with the situation. When I was in New York City and in Berlin, cab drivers demonstrated behaviours very similar to those in Bangalore during peak hours where they threaded their cabs across lanes, honked and swore. 


And thus, we have to look at Bangalore and India quite differently when comparing with other countries. A lot of things that work at lower scales don't work at higher scales.