Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Overhyped and still fantastic!

I wanted to write this blog about India. About Linux, or at least about something I know, lest I turn into yet another taking-head blogger. But sometimes I have this need to scream something out loud. This time, it is all the fault of a dead Russian.

I'm talking about Tchaikovsky, the great composer. Not to be confused with Tchebychev, the great Mathematician. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is famous for his compositions, most notably the Nutcracker suite.

As I write this, I'm listening to the Swan Lake, about the tenth time in a row. It is remarkably moving. It starts out with a very pure melody, something you'd recognize immediately. It is absolutely brilliant. Not being a musician, I cannot tell you what makes it so remarkable. But listen to it in solitude, and you'll immediately know that this is a work of pure genius.

It has been overused as the backing soundtrack for many movies and animation. College students have heard of it, even if they haven't heard it.

Despite the hype, it is still pure pleasure. Easy on the ears, and excellent food for imaginative thought.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Small gestures add up

It is interesting how a few small gestures get remembered. I got a root canal recently. A day after the procedure, the endodontist** herself called me to ask if I was doing fine and if I had any concerns. It only took two minutes of her time, but the fact that she did it mattered a lot. I would certainly recommend her to anyone getting a root canal treatment. (Combined with the fact that her clinic was in a beautiful locale, and the costs were very reasonable, there is a lot to recommend about her.)

Just last weekend, we had lunch at a restaurant where the waiter (also the cook!) was very jovial and hearty. It was a lot of small things: his light-hearted humor and cheerfulness, that will ensure that we go there again.

I recall that there was some research done on whether shoppers can tell whether a salesperson's smile is genuine or not. As it happens, shoppers are very good at telling whether the salesperson is genuinely happy, or is just putting on a show to make a sale. I guess the small gestures are just one way we can detect this, though our intuition is surprisingly good at figuring out flaky humans.

Faking compassion is often much worse than being ambivalent. My favorite example is a company my father used to work for. The company canteen provided lunch to all its employees at a very nominal rate. Over time, the quality of their lunch deteriorated to the point that any talk about the company "caring about its employees" was meaningless. At the very least, care for your employees should translate into a functional cafeteria. My father measured how much the company cared about its employees by how much effort it put in preparing the lunch. And he was not wrong. Towards later years, the company was apathetic towards its employees, and trying hard to show that it cared. Many corporate canteens and cafeterias are so bad that their employees wouldn't eat there if they had a choice.

On an interview trip to a large software company, I once visited a friend of mine. I had coupons to eat at his company cafeteria. He laughed as he trashed the coupons, and took me to a good restaurant instead. That was the point when I knew that this was not a company I should join. When your own employees choose to eat out at their own expense, rather than use free coupons to eat in the company cafeteria, you should probably shut the cafeteria down. Just in case you think that the sample size is too small: the cafeteria was nearly empty at lunch time.

Recently a friend of mine joined a large web-based company. He was offered a nice salary, relocation bonus, and all the other perks that this company offered. But what completely caught him off-guard was when they mailed two gift cards to him, one for an electronics store, and one for a furniture store. These landed completely unannounced, with a small note saying Thanks for joining us. Both gift cards were for a sizable amount, though small in comparison to his monthly wage. It is these small gestures that show that the company really values him, and not the endless pamphlets asserting, "your contribution is valuable to us".

** Thanks ameloblast: Corrected orthodontist to endodontist.

The Moon is made of Swiss Cheese

I don't often post about the sadhu (holy man, supposedly) phenomenon in India, but I get a lot of vocal opposition every time that I do. My view, simply, is that the sadhus and babas aren't to be revered, and we are fools to follow them. Every time I have this discussion with someone, I get the very same types of opposition.

The biggest grudge that people have is that I don't know any spirituality. Fair enough, I never claimed I do. But is this really relevant to analyze the sadhu phenomenon? I would argue not, for many reasons.

Primarily, being a sadhu is not a meritocracy itself. When you come across a person wearing saffron or white clothing, and walking around spouting all kinds of "wisdom", do you stop and ask them of their qualifications? I doubt it. Even if you did, what do you expect: a Masters in Spirituality? Let us be clear of it from the start: there is no meritocracy here. I would be thrilled if these sadhus graduated from some well-known ashram, but even that is too much to ask. So if you ask for my credentials when I comment on the sadhus and babas, you should first prove that you yourself are qualified on these grounds. Secondly, you should provide sufficient proof that the sadhus are themselves qualified.

I do know of at least one school that teach Hindu divinity, and I have met a person who studied in such a place. I also know of places that teach either meditation, or yoga, and I know of plenty of people who have attended such places. But not a single one of these claims to be the all-knowing holy man dressed in saffron or white. These people are usually fairly sane, and knowledgeable. Does the satya sai baba have any of these qualifications?

Moreover, if there really is so much wisdom in what the babas say, it should be trivial to refute my arguments. After all, I know so little (and I don't deny it), and they know so much, so it should be fairly easy to educate me with some well-founded arguments. On the other hand, if I can come across with a cogent criticism, with my definite lack of knowledge, then perhaps the sadhus and babas aren't really all that spiritual.

To take an example from one of the comments in the previous blog entry: if you have a criticism of particle Physics, you should make it as public as possible. Two outcomes could emerge from this:
  • Your criticism is valid, and nobody will be able to deny it. So your criticism helps our understanding of particle Physics. You will be a rock star, as cool as Richard Feynman plus Eric Clapton, and irresistible to all young people of the opposite sex.
  • Your criticism is invalid, and somebody will immediately tell you why.
In either case, you are encouraged to criticize and evaluate for yourself. Nobody in particle Physics says that you cannot comment on their field because you don't have a PhD in the topic. If your comments are true, they are valuable regardless of your degrees. And if your comments are worthless, then even a university degree cannot undo it.

In my work, for instance, all the code is online, and I welcome both comments and criticism. But I digress.

Saying that a person is not qualified to criticize something reeks a lot of a system of nobility. Quite a lot like the perennial "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" argument that the western church is fond of having. The only people authorized to comment or discuss the issue are a select group. This has never been a system of achieving any knowledge. It is a system bent on keeping dissent under control. The biggest single factor contributing to the opening of thought was the mass printing of the Bible in English. The copies were of extremely poor quality (compared to the copies sitting in the Vatican), but they allowed people access to the jealously guarded secret. They were now able to question what their priests told them.

Science is full of criticism from outsiders. Our view that the planets go around the Sun was due to Copernicus, who was very much an outsider. His view was also fairly bizarre, and completely against "commonly held belief" at the time. But he was right, and even today, he is remembered. Copernicus was able to furnish proof, and his theory explained a lot of mysteries, which is why his idea was accepted. Another, more recent example, is the Indian mathematician Ramanujan. He didn't have a higher degree in Mathematics, and was able to prove some very deep results about Mathematics. Today, if you said you don't believe in Ramanujan's results because he was a school dropout, people would consider you an idiot. Two schoolgirls recently showed conclusively that a commercially sold beverage had no vitamin C, despite the advertising that claimed it did. The counter-argument is not: "but you are stupid little girls". The counter-argument is, "Damn, we're sorry."

Eventually, this boils down to the time and tested method of winning the argument by attacking your opponent personally. Like children whose arguments quickly degenerate into personal attacks, there is no gain in these arguments either.

The existing belief is that the Moon is made of Swiss cheese. I say that the Moon is not. And the most common defense is, 'You are an idiot. How dare you question our Swiss cheese hypothesis?'