Friday, June 23, 2017

Determinism, Fatalism, and Free Will ... 2017

Richard Dawkins made a reference to the intriguing concept of determinism during his lecture at George Washington University in May. Let me explain determinism using a layman example. Take a ping pong ball that is hit by a paddle and makes its bouncy trajectory across the ping pong table. Given the dynamics (see footnote 1) of this phenomenon, there is one and only one path that the ball can take. There is no "decision point" for the ball; the stimuli for this "system" unambiguously determine the outcome. Now, extrapolate this seemingly simple ping pong ball situation to everyday life - where every cell, neuron, chemical reaction, electrical impulse is, fundamentally, no different from the ping pong ball. Thus, the state of the universe at any point in time, and the laws of "physics" that its elements seem to follow, determine the state of the universe at the next point in time, and so on, without room for variation, decisions, and ..... free will!

Compare this concept with fatalism, which spares its subscribers the "physics" argument, and provides a bypass with the concept of the super-natural power, to say that everything is pre-ordained ("it is written," as some say, without specificity of what, where and by whom) and happens per a master plan of a supernatural power. "Whatever is to happen, happens (and, only that happens)" is a common tautology that one hears from the subscribers, sometimes with a comforting spin, "Whatever happens, happens for the good," with no clear definition of the "good." This is a convenient school of thought to abdicate personal responsibility to "fate" and transfer blame to the fuzzy thing out there.

Both the above concepts have their severe ethical shortcomings. As to determinism, phenomena are not known to the degree of precision and system behaviors are not known to the degree of mathematical abstraction to infer the next state from the current state. This lack of complete knowledge gives room for the uncertainty and offers an opportunity for free will to be exercised, so humans can add an additional stimulus to the situation and see the impact of it. In the simplest of cases, there can be multiple routes to get from one place to another - and the availing of the excitement and empowerment of deciding which one based on an intuitive evaluation of the conditions at that time. With the conditions not fully known, the outcomes are not a priori known. Each outcome contributes to the learning, and learning contributes to better decisions and increased knowledge of the situation, which in turn contributes to more predictable outcomes. Perhaps, a micro-step towards determinism, but safely and sufficiently far from total determinism.

Fatalism is a totally debilitating corruption of the human psyche. Living in surrender may have benefits in ego management and some therapeutic value for the weak minded who need to pass on the accountability of bad situations to the punching bag of fate; it completely takes away creativity, the passion to excel, the craving to extend the frontier of knowledge and experience the excitement of the unknown. It is no surprise that the advancement of critical thinking, science, technology, medicine, ..., has happened in less fatalistic societies, while fatalistic societies have complacently reveled in mythical glories of the past.

I rest my case with an invitation into the exciting realm of science and inquiry, before someone says that this invitation and the blog post were pre-ordained ;-)

Footnote 1. The dynamics of the ping pong situation includes full knowledge of the behavior of the paddle, the bounciness of the ball, the resistance and eddies in the air, the texture of the table, and many other factors.

Footnote 2. The path implies the locus through space as well as the velocity, acceleration, ... and the changes in these characteristics during the period of observation.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

2016 - The Year of Reason (personally, that is)

December is often the month for introspection about the year passed, and 2016 has been an eventful year by the reason metric. (Mind you, I am not talking about the national or world scene, where irrationality saw no bounds, and rational beings still wonder what ever happened to good reason!)

Spring was heralded by the privilege of an invitation by a close friend who had arranged an afternoon with Hamid Dabholkar of http://antisuperstition.org. A delightfully enlightening exchange of ideas about the extent to which superstition, god(wo)men, and irrationality thrive to this day, and the bystander apathy demonstrated by the population at large. Volunteers who run the organization endanger their lives to expose god(wo)men who exploit the vulnerabilities of the populace. The organization lost their founder (and Hamid's father) to an assassination a few years ago. Since then, there have been another couple of assassinations of rational thinkers in India. The audience in NJ offered a compassionate hearing, with no keenness to get involved and further the cause.

The meeting with Hamid inspired me to establish contact with a long-lost (to me) thinker, Prof. Akeel Bilgrami of Columbia University. Akeel had taught me Logic and Ethics during my undergraduate years four decades ago! A few email exchanges and phone calls later, Akeel agreed to speak on "Religion and Rational Thought" to an audience of about 30 at our house in the Summer. In his "stream of consciousness" style, Akeel explained why rationalists cannot be in denial about the relevance of religion to the society at large. He explained how the radical few are perceived as de facto spokespersons for an ideology, and how forces of democracy are an answer to curb such forces. He explained the concept of secularization (as defined by wikipedia: the historical process in which religion loses social and cultural significance. As a result of secularization the role of religion in modern societies becomes restricted. In secularized societies faith lacks cultural authority, and religious organizations have little social power.) and provided several examples from everyday life.

The Bilgrami talk resulted in a distribution list of open-minded folk (which I fondly call "The Philosophy of Reason" distribution list), and this list gradually grew to include several friends and acquaintances. Come Fall, I got into deep conversations with Prem Kamble, who has published an e-book, God in Two Minutes. Contrary to what the title may imply, the book debunks the concept of god in two minutes, and proposes a framework for psychological analysis, hitherto poorly played by religion.

A few more introductions, and an in-person rendezvous with David Silverman, the President of American Atheists! A lunch meeting on a cold, rainy day, David showed the vast collection of atheist writing that the organization has preserved in its library. An activist to the core, David ventures into conservative spaces, bracing death threats. He has authored a book, "Fighting God", which I had bought and started reading on Kindle, and the visit yielded me a hard copy autographed by David! Over lunch we discussed "what next", given the ground that the religious "right" gained in the recent Presidential election in the US.

2017 holds more excitement - a definite agenda item is the annual conference of American Atheists in August, scheduled to coincide with a total solar eclipse!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Right is the new Wrong ... 2016



Over my not-so-short lifespan, I have seen many terms assume completely opposite meanings. When I was in college, it was cool to be “funda”(mentalist). One strived to understand math, physics, chemistry from basic principles, which were called fundamentals. Textbooks and prestigious institutes of science and research bore that word in their titles.



Then, the world started changing. The word “fundamentalist” presupposed the unspoken prefix associated with religions. The term started representing anti-social elements that held the potential to cause destruction and death.



A similar etymological evolution has occurred with the word “right”! Growing up, it was a good thing to be right. The world has, since, been drifting to the “right” – exclusive, irrational, polarizing forces wiping out the possibility of an intelligent discourse. Just like the f-word, I now stay clear of the r-word! Right has become the new Wrong!!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Currency Bills Supply Chain in India – a noble plan and an execution fiasco ... 2016


In this day and age of the plastic surrogate to currency bills and online transactions, I would have never thought that the supply chain of currency bills would be a matter of any interest … until a few days ago.

On November 9, the Government of India demonetized, in a surprise swoop, the two largest currency denominations (INR 500 ~= USD 7.50 and INR 1000 ~= USD 15) with the long-eluded objective of paralyzing the parallel “black” economy – the tax-evaded income stashed away by people and used for undesirable purposes including dowry, drug trafficking and terrorism.

The objective, without doubt, is noble. Its “shock-and-awe” implementation, though, was wrought with poor execution. When a supply chain substitutes one product for another, it is a no-brainer that the substitute product has to be prepositioned in the supply chain in sufficient quantities at the right places to not cause a stock-out with a likelihood greater than an accepted, small threshold.

There can be many reasons why this multi-echelon inventory problem can go awry. First and most importantly, the demand has to be reasonably forecasted. In this example, there was no precedent to go with, that the Government could have extrapolated. However, I am sure the Government knew the magnitude of the problem they were trying to solve – not the magnitude of the ill-gotten money, but the magnitude of hard-earned money in the hands of commoners that existed in the two denominations that were made defunct. It is another no-brainer that it is this amount that will be offered for exchange for other denominations – the lower denominations still in circulation (INR 100 ~= USD 1.50) and new bills of higher denominations being introduced.

Recognizing the challenge of the demand forecasting problem, it can be alleviated by having super-responsive logistics to move currency inventory from higher echelons to the retail “points of service”, that is, the branches of banks. There can be forgiveness for not knowing the unknown, but not for not putting in place dynamic measures and not anticipating the panic and herd behavior under such conditions.

There is no dearth of operations research, inventory optimization, and logistics professions in India and within the diaspora the world over.


In the meanwhile, tens-of-millions including my 87-year-old father are making the rounds at neighborhood banks day after day and standing in long lines to exchange a few old bills for new ones. It was decades ago, that there used to be such lines for the cooking medium kerosene, and groceries such as wheat, rice and sugar under the nightmarish institution called “rationing”. Now it is old wine in a new bottle!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

In god, do I really trust? ... October 23, 2016





The discrepancy between the First Amendment of the US Constitution (The First Amendment (Amendment I) to the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, ensuring that there is no prohibition on the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble, or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. It was adopted on December 15, 1791, as one of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.) and the official motto of the United States, “In God We Trust”, has bothered me for a long time – it is also a bizarre coincidence that the motto has been around for almost as long as I have been around on the face of this earth – which means, it is not an artifact from a couple of hundred years ago, but a product of the modern times! That this motto should have replaced "E pluribus unum" (Out of many, one) is, in my opinion, at odds with the constitutional principles - in letter, and in spirit.


Presidential elections in the US and in other proclaimed, secular democracies highlight the religion issue in each major election cycle, with candidates trying hard to appease different religious constituencies. Parliamentary democracies will attempt to achieve a balance of seats across religious and sub-religious lines, while presidential democracies will nominate government executives (such as Vice Presidents or Heads of Departments) per a balance across religious lines. 

In the US, there is debate about who will keep god in our lives and who will not! In India, I have heard that “people don’t cast their vote, but vote their caste”! Emotions also tend to run high, with religion playing a big role with the sentiments of the candidates and the electorate. 


In the backdrop of all this, I wonder again about the relevance of the motto, which I regularly put away as a minor irritation. I have come to accept that the separation between church and state exists as a constitutional principle, and to a lesser extent in the way the national governments are formed and run. 


While being subject to the rancor between the two US Presidential candidates for the next two weeks, I do see why many wish and pray “God bless America”, but .... in that god, do I really trust?

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The PANdora's Box .. October 1, 2016



 I had a dream .. of having a PAN card, and the dream is finally fulfilled!

For the uninitiated, PAN stands for Permanent Account Number, the Govt. of India equivalent of the US Social Security Number.

As a non-voting, overseas citizen of India, I became privileged to have the card some time ago, and it was earlier this year that I decided to bite the bullet. That I could apply online, fulfill the requirements remotely and get the card delivered by mail was definitely a catalyst.

Having confirmed the website where one can apply and being sure that I have all supporting documents, my wife and I decided to go for it. We now look to the past few months with sheer amusement.

The first challenge was to pick one from many PAN card offices which will process the application - the factors being: the first letter of your last name (which is unambiguous), the location in India of the accounting office (no good decision criterion, could be the place of my birth, or location where I lived 35 years ago, or any other), and your application status (reasonably unambiguous).

My wife applied first. She has the added complication of a "maiden name". The name has to be preceded by a title - Kum(ari) for Ms, Smt (abbreviation of Shrimati) for Mrs. She chose Ms for her maiden name and Mrs for her current name. The form complained about a "title mismatch" and made her enter several fields again. The issue was resolved when she accepted her youth by titling herself Kum (Ms) for her current status. I shudder to imagine what an individual with a gender change would do!

The third challenge was with the online payment of the fees. The form claimed to accept common credit cards, but all my US-based credit cards did not work. One of my India-based friends offered to help out, and processed the payment successfully with his India-based credit card.

Photographs were taken, the printed version of the online application and supporting documents were mailed in. We received prompt email responses about the application having been received, and that the application was under review, and that we would be intimated (common Indian English term for "notified") in three working days. The notifications did not come in exactly three working days, but that is understandable.

My wife received the a notification - that there was a mismatch between her name on her passport and the bank statement (which was provided as a proof of address) - her bank statement did not have her middle name. This was easy to address - she opened a new bank account including her middle name, received a bank statement, and mailed it in. The application was deemed complete, and she received her PAN card!

The notification that I received said that my photograph was not good. The reason provided was: "bent/ not clear/ ..." Not sure what the exact reason was, I took another photograph and mailed it in. A few weeks later, I received the same response for the second photograph. Then, with the third photograph, and again with the fourth! The notification email did have an email address to send inquiries - so, I did. At that time, the office replied that my eye was not visible. I could clearly see both my eyes in the photograph. I showed it to family and friends, and they looked into my eyes (in the photograph) as well and could see them clearly. I sent the same photograph back to the PAN office mentioning that I could clearly see my eyes and that I am at a loss as to how to comply with the issue they found with my photograph.

Within a few days, I received a notification that the photograph was in good order, and the card would be issued. Another few weeks, and the card arrived in the mail!

I am now a proud PAN card holder. It came with some good life lessons that I had previously heard from the Dalai Lama:
  1. It doesn't help to be upset. Separate life issues into two categories - those that you can do something about, and those you cannot. Then do whatever about the ones you can do something about.
  2. Patience is a virtue. "This, too, shall pass" is a good stance to take, without feeling one is a victim of circumstances.
  3. Amuse yourself. To this day, I chuckle at the possibility of a secret admirer in the PAN card office who likes to post my photographs on her office wall and keeps looking into my eyes!

Monday, April 18, 2016

A delightful evening with Dr. Hamid Dabholkar

Maharashtra Foundation (http://www.maharashtrafoundation.org/) facilitated a fascinating event in suburban New Jersey - a mixed audience of people ranging from rationalists to the religious - to meet Dr. Hamid Dabholkar, one of the leaders and State Chief Secretaries of Maharashtra Andhashraddhaa Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) (http://antisuperstition.org), translated loosely as the blind faith eradication society of Maharashtra. 

Dr. Dabholkar explained the mission of MANS as the elimination of the exploitation of a superstitious society by individuals posing as god(wo)men. Additionally, MANS has also undertaken the challenge of social injustices arising out of the decisions of caste-based local governments. The MANS cause is executed by a grass-roots organization that is a few-thousand-strong volunteers, with local chapters spread across the state. MANS has steered clear of political, religious, and NGO forces, and has taken on challenges that few individuals and organizations dare to touch.

The rationalist movement is not new - Dr. Abraham Kovoor (1898-1978) helped expose several godmen and occult practices in the 20th Century. Needless to say, such efforts meet with significant overt and covert resistance from vested interests. MANS has had its more than fair share of this resistance and lost their founder, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, to an assassination in 2013. MANS has succeeded in increasing their momentum since this tragedy and also pressuring the state government to pass an anti-superstition law.

For some of us rationalism purists, it was interesting to note the strategy of co-existence with organized religion that MANS has adopted, and also used the platform of an annual religious festival to further their cause. And, that is where MANS seems to loosely distinguish between faith and blind faith - a distinction that some of us do not understand!

What was also discussed is the misconception that society at large has about MANS, their constitution and motives. Sometimes, MANS is perceived as a leftist political organization, which it is not. It is no coincidence that people who have overcome the baggage of theism from the reasoning paradigm also happen to belong to leftist political organizations. Sometimes, MANS is perceived as anti-religious and also agents of "the other" religion. Despite the media coverage that MANS receives for their godmen-exposing efforts on an almost daily basis, the perceptions continue, and the white-collar living rooms exhibit bystander apathy. The fear of retribution from the dogmatic organizations could also be a factor that precludes active participation from more open-minded people in this initiative.

It was also discussed that bigotry and superstition is not only an issue found among the tribals or the uneducated, but pervades the Indian society as a whole, with polarization having significantly increased in recent decades.

All said, the evening with Dr. Hamid Dabholkar definitely helped increase awareness of this heard-about-but-not-known-closely organization. It also helped many of us debunk the "I am not alone in the universe" myth!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Road Taken ... 2015

The inspiration for this post is my coming across, after many years, the famous century-old poem by Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

There have been many interpretations of this poem, and it is not my intent to provide yet another. Rather, this poem spurred me to introspect on the process of life decisions, and the learning from them.

Two or more roads always diverge at various points of time in ones life - from the simplest decisions of traveling from one place to another, to the more complex ones of choosing a school and line of education, choosing a life partner, deciding on which employment choices to make, and for some of us, which religion, if any, to follow. Add to this the timing factor, recognizing that the rest of the environment does not remain static.

Standing at a fork, Frost refers to the visibility one may have until the next bend in each road. That puts forth the challenge of extrapolation - is the visible part of each road a representative sample of the road thereafter? Nobody will disagree that it is most certainly not. Management scientists call this problem "decision making under uncertainty". Business schools provide several objective criteria to solve this problem. A popular solution approach is the "MinMax" solution - that is, take that road which maximizes the expected value of your objective function in the most adverse of conditions. This approach presupposes that one knows a characterization of the uncertainties (measured in probabilities and standard deviations). Clearly, life decisions do not offer the quantification of uncertainties like the business situation.

Thus, I suggest, that deep analysis is futile, as it mostly plays out scenarios in your mind that will never play out. Instead, it can help to recognize that each road has an upside, and after that short analysis, the focus ought to be on a quick and unhesitating execution. Quick, because you want to start deriving the potential of the decision sooner than later. Unhesitating, because hesitation and doubt play to the down side and not up side, and compromise the enjoyment of the potential of the decision.

Now to the many factors that play into the analysis. A fly-on-the-wall view projecting time forward can show that many seemingly important factors are totally unimportant. The baggage of culture and tradition are examples of those. "What will someone think" is another. There may be other forces using emotional blackmail, intentionally or with good intentions. These are to be cursorily rejected because they are not in the same frame of reference as you are at that fork in the road. "If I were you" points of view are irrelevant, because you will never be me!

What seems to work is extreme awareness of oneself and the environs to see and create forks in the road. Agility to assess the trajectory and take corrective action on the direction. And, relish the choices that come forth - whether created by you or those that get presented to you unexpectedly.

There are also some, like someone close to me, for whom choice is not a choice in a dessert shop. Sampling all delicacies without filling up with any one is her strategy to enjoy the surprises behind the glass of the sweets cabinet - some that are too sweet, some that are just right, and others that are not sweet enough!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

My Tryst with Software Quality ... 2015



Setting 1: 1975, IIT-Bombay


The 3-credit EE001 Computer Programming course. The semester was divided into two parts. The first involved a “high level language” called AKI (AvtoKod "Inzhener") – a Russian language that was poorly translated into its English equivalent ACE (Auto Code for Engineers) – that ran on an antiquated computer called Minsk-2 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minsk_family_of_computers) and whose text-book-cum-user-guide-cum-reference-manual was a pack of cyclostyled (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyclostyle_%28copier%29) pages stapled together.


In the first quarter of the semester, we practiced writing programs on paper, turned in assignments in that way, and were graded (on the bell curve) for accuracy and efficiency. “If” statements only had “then” clauses and not “else” clauses. There was a profusion of “Go to” statements, and every statement had to have a numeric “label”.


In the second quarter, we had access to CPU time. The programs were punched on imported (hence, rationed) paper tape, and there was no concept of a backspace to a punched hole. Handwritten programs had to be turned in at the counter of the punch operator, and the punched tape forms received the following day, along with printouts of the paper tape. We manually proof-read the printouts for punching errors. Depending on the number of punching errors, the manuscript was turned in again for another punched tape, or a “Change” tape was created for the errata in the first one. In the latter case, the “Change” tape had to be read in immediately after the original one.


Another day of anxious wait to see if the program would execute successfully. Most of the times, it would bounce on a syntax error, or a misread punched hole, or a torn tape in the reader. If the program did run successfully, it would go into an infinite loop, and one had to protect yourself from running out of the semester’s 15-minutes of CPU time quota with appropriate protections in the job control statement.


The second half of the semester involved programming in Fortran IV (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fortran) and a paperback textbook by Rajaraman. Punched tape gave way to punched cards – 80 columns on each, the first 6 for the label, the 7th for a continuation symbol, 8th through 72nd for the line(s) of code, 73rd through 80th for comments! The cards were single-sourced from IBM, each student received 250 cards for the semester. As luck would have it, Emergency Rule was clamped on the country by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and IBM and Coca Cola were expelled from the country for not agreeing to dilute their equity with Indian investment. Punched cards went into further short supply! Code reviews became imperative – they took the form of students reviewing each other’s manuscripts and executing the statements manually to ensure that the program would yield the desired result, after it passed the hurdles of cards being successfully punched, punched cards not getting wet in the monsoon torrents, the deck of cards not getting dropped from the carrier of the bicycle onto the dusty road and rearranged successfully.


Setting 2: 1985, Blacksburg, Virginia


The DOS-PC has arrived. You can actually see what you write on a screen! Turbo-Pascal and Basic help with syntactical correctness!!!!


Setting 3: 1988, Bell Labs, New Jersey


Welcome, the world of Unix, get used to user unfriendliness! C and AWK (named after the creators and fellow employees Aho, Weinberger, and Kernighan), and the stream editor, sed! The breakthrough, though, is with the measurement of software quality, and the quality and version management system, SABLIME!


When a program provided unexpected results, an MR (Modification Request) was filed against you! MR was the respectable term that we call a “bug” today. An MR filed against you was a matter of disgrace, and ones salary merit increase and bonus payout was affected by the number of MRs that got filed against you! Real bottom-line impact, and a sureshot way to improve quality.


Then comes the philosophy of “make” – which took the human error element out of a deployment that involved multiple components.


Setting 4: Y2K


The race is against time to change two-digit years to four-digit years. The industry comes to terms with the millions and millions of lines of code that could catastrophically fail because the programmers never saw life beyond 1999. A pure, human neglect of foresight, that cost an immense amount of corrective action and its associated expense. Software quality started getting traded off for speed of implementation. Quality started becoming an after-thought cost, not an inseparable part of the line of code! I remembered the anecdote of the mechanical engineer who built a section of a roller coaster with a factor of safety of 0.75, because he said the ride is so fast that any accident would happen in the next section built by someone else!


Setting 5: Now


There is a reason why I am not putting a date on this setting. This allows this blogpost to remain current forever! It is a recognized fact that software has become so complex, that there will always remain parts of the code that will never get executed. Corner conditions that may never occur. And, if they do, the outcome is not tested. Because they will escape test cases, as well.


Software quality test coverage has become a statistics-based methodology, and automated regression and other forms of quality assurance are here to stay. Manual testing continues to have its place for products that are in rapid evolution mode. Quality assurance has become an industry in itself, and a respectable one, at that!

Alas, the days of the MR stigma are gone. Speed, cost, and quality have become the three-legged balancing act that struggles every day to remain level!

Quality By Design is the new buzz. Back to the future, I say!