Archives for 2009

Immutable One and the Baffling Many

There was a question in an earlier post of mine on Hinduism. Why the many Gods in Hinduism? If God is one why does He(or It?) consent to confound us with many forms. And why do we consent to cast Him into form anyway? This is my attempt at an answer to this important question.

Crowded Heavens!

Of all religions Hinduism is unique in its personifications of the One Divine. A hundred thousand Gods they say. The heavens of the Hindus must be crowded, even suffocating perhaps!

Atomic Scientists

This is perhaps best understood with an analogy. Think about how scientists study an atom. Historically the atoms were considered to be the fundamental unit of matter. Everything was a composition of a cluster of atoms. This view persisted for long. And then came the discovery of the Electron. Read this quote from Wikipedia

The concept of an indivisible amount of electrical charge was theorized to explain the chemical properties of atoms, beginning in 1838 by British natural philosopher Richard Laming;the name electron was introduced for this charge in 1894 by Irish physicist George Johnstone Stoney. The electron was identified as a particle in 1897 by J. J. Thomson and his team of British physicists.

Methods of Modern Knowledge

The idea I want to highlight is this – First is the theoretical conception. A model that explains observed behavior. There is also the naming of the phenomena. And then someone comes along who conclusively provides proof and confirms the theoretical model. Or in some cases disproves the existence of said phenomena, and in doing so refines the conceptual model.

And so it goes. This cycle of unveiling never ends. The Atom has been broken down into as many as hundred sub-atomic particles. Check the Standard Model, as it is called, for the currently favored theoretical framework to consistently explain behaviors in the sub-atomic realm. And this is without accounting for gravitation!

Elect of Science and Soothsayers

And remember that commoners never get to see all these exotic beasts, they are reserved for the physicists and the elect of science. They come with their colliders and accelerators and study the remains of atomic accidents.

Not very different from soothsayers, who in ages long past, studied the entrails of sacrificed animals to divine the intent of the Gods.

Methods of the Rishi

The Rishi of the Vedic tradition too tried to understand and learn of things. Only he did not choose to study one element of reality, like the modern particle physicist does. He views upon the vast of existence as his laboratory, of which even he as an observer is an essential component.

The earliest Rishis, the seekers of the Answer, hunted down the cause and origin of this manifest existence. But the path was not easy, there was no written method. Or body of practice to stand upon and seek.

All he had was himself, the powers of his observation, his ability to think and this manifest existence.

Answer that hunts its Questions

But they had intimations. They had seen glimpses of it. The Powers often left traces of their workings. The flash of intuition, the rush of aspiration, the dawn of understanding. And the dreams, that subversive reality that crept upon him in sleep. Dreams that spoke another language.

The answer sought out the questions. The Rishi it seems was not without help.

And the Rishi named these powers. Named so he could identify it when it came again. And to talk about it to others like him.

Phenomena and Powers were laid bare to his acute observation. Each was seen to have a characteristic, each power had a character. And so the Rishi clothed and crowned these powers within his mind.

Lexicon of the Rishis

From this perceptual factory issued the Gods. Indra as Lord of Mind, Usha as heralder of Dawn, Hiranyagarbha as the Golden Womb that issued creation. These forms were not restricted to the benign aspects. The Rishi saw in destruction too the hand of God. This he called Shiva. Or even Rudra, the only Deity the Rishis were said to be actually afraid of. There was Kali, the mighty Mother. Kartikeya, Lord of the Armies of Light. There was too the wooer of the Soul, Sri Krishna. He who dallied with the human soul by the moonlight. And so it grew, the lexicon of the Rishis and thus of Hinduism.

The tools of this exploration are of the mind and often abstract. The subjects of these experiments are not often seen, just as those of the atomic scientist. But the methods and exactness of these experiments with the mind and soul are not very different from that of the modern scientist with his tools or in anyway less rigorous and serious.

And this is the reason for a hundred thousand Gods within the Hindu religion.

To The Skeptics

Skeptics abound, who view this excess as a waste, as an indication of a primitive and barbarian culture. To them I would say it is a question of acuteness of perception. Some choose to restrain their exploration of reality at the level of atoms. Some choose to dig further until reaching the foundation of creation. Each level of abstraction has its place and utility.

The formula of the scientist and the mantra of the Rishi are counterparts. Each explains an aspect of reality, lays bare a secret of existence.

Feynman in his lectures, Beethoven conducting the Ninth Symphony and Sri Krishna on the battlefield with Arjuna-each an aspect of the Infinite Divine explaining the fabric of reality a little more.

What We All Are

Eventually, all of us are journeymen. Whether we choose to name and pray every milestone on the way or head straight to the destination is a question of method or even a personal and a cultural preference.

The Bogeyman Called Corporate Standards

A corporation exists by virtue of being a logical unit of functioning. However diverse its operations, they all serve a single purpose. The individual and group relegates their distinct ideas to the background to ensure the main purpose is served.

But behind this idea lies a great evil. It is often deemed right to sacrifice the smaller aspirations for the larger good. This instinct to merge and blend in with the overall trend often kills what might turn out to be beneficial to the larger good.

Standards do serve to forge a single identity, a single theme to present a unified face to the external world. But in a time of change the tendency to merge is stifling to perspectives that are different.

Standards of behavior and ethics, equal opportunity, standards of conduct should be adhered to and I have no doubt on that.

But I see standards as a marker for how low a certain function can go. They are not the yardstick with which every superior effort is beaten down lower. Standards for productivity, usability and technological progress exist to be broken by better and superior functions.

The way I have dealt with resistance to what is new, different and unfamiliar to the larger organization is by relentlessly selling the benefits, overlooking the resistances and steam rolling my way through. Until something or someone really high up the chain stops the effort.

Remember that standards are tombstones for dead ideas. That which is living and evolving will have no such markers.

[Note: All mentions of the word standard in this post refer to corporate standard.]

Processing via JavaScript – Rise of the Browsers

Processing is a “open source programming language and environment” initiated by Ben Fry and Casey Reas at the MIT Media Lab.

An extremely powerful environment, it is simple to get started too. In fact I have my 5 year old using it to produce primitive shapes and colors instead of messing about with Microsoft Paint.

In that context it came as a complete surprise to see Processing mentioned in the same sentence with JavaScript. After all one does not associate significant graphics rendering capabilities with the browser. And Processing running on JavaScript on a browser somehow did not reconcile with my assumptions on this area.

This was John Resig, author of JQuery, doing a reverse birthday present to himself by making interpreting and running of Processing code possible in JavaScript.

Now go read that sentence again. Done? Good. I see this as a defining moment in how the JS language is wielded and what it makes possible within the browser.

The benefits of piggybacking on the Processing language are obvious. The rich set of libraries surrounding it can accelerate sophisticated visualizations on the browser.

But the larger implication is around what it does to perceptions of browser as a platform to deploy graphics intensive apps. Check some of the samples to get a taste of what I mean. [Note: There are specific browser version requirements to run the samples. Firefox 3.0 should be okay for most.]

Right now, the only legitimate reason for anyone to use Flash, AIR, Silverlight and the usual RIA suspects is to produce intensive graphics. Of course streaming media is another area but let us ignore that for now.

Might sound premature but if it were me the next generation financial information apps, with all their complex real-time charts and models can be run on the browser. Wonder if the Thomson Reuters and Bloombergs of the world are watching this?!

And as a side note, Silicon Graphics, the once graphics powerhouse had been delisted from NASDAQ last week. Evolution of technology is not without a sense of irony!

There are factors around browser compatibility, the uptake of Canvas element across browsers will be addressed in a matter of time. Applications can always be packaged with a specific version of the browser as a prerequisite.

I am reminded of the quote, “The meek shall inherit the earth”. Here it shall be the browser inheriting the desktop of devices worldwide. The rise of the browsers have begun!

Every Problem Has a Solution, If You Want It Solved

A characteristic trait of dysfunctional organizations is that of problems that are allowed to exist tacitly. As counterintuitive as it sounds it is the norm in most large organizations where competing perspectives collide.

Couple of high-level reasons seem to contribute to the state of messed up affairs : Business Reasons, Political Alignments, Incompetence. Allow me to profile these three villains.

  • Business Reasons : This comes in a couple of flavors. Existing customers make it impossible to change implementations. Or the cost of change exceeds the revenue or business value delivered.
  • Political Alignments: I use this bucket to group the following traits. One group does not want a competing perspective to see the light of day. Or wants the existing process/system to fail. Or just plain self-interest dictates they obey the law of self-sustenance above that of the organization.
  • Incompetence: This one must be obvious. Like a Deer in headlights, these types stand dazed at the oncoming situation. Instead of trying to understand the problem, they take up stock measures that have worked in the past and add another half-dozen nails to their coffins. Or drown themselves in inconsequential tasks, which make them look busy but adds nothing to the bottom line.

It is said that identifying the problem is half solving it. But these sorts of issues, especially the political alignment and power-plays is something that does not obey any logic beyond that of self-interest, so the means to solve these seem fairly limited.

But with the right amount of transparency and some creative noise-making it should be possible to get sensible messages to the right ears.

The current economic climate could be an added incentive for stakeholders to be open to unconventional approaches for long-standing problems.

In that spirit, my message to the people perched on top- The larger interests of the organization’s survival should take priority over concerns on whose perspective wins out.

Drive uncomfortable changes proactively. It is difficult to expose yourself as not being up to the task. But trust me, people will appreciate your willingness to learn and adapt.

The other option is for the markets to highlight your shortcomings in the most unflattering light. And that can never be pretty.

On the iPhone, the Alien Monolith and Descent of an Avatar

Nature proceeds in her seemingly purposeless circles. Until nudged to a higher orbit. Where does the impulse to this nudge come from? As esoteric as this topic may sound, I believe we could better understand evolution by looking at a few parallels in technology, literature/art and Hindu mythology.

Mobile Industry and the iPhone


The mobile industry was a fairly docile world. You had phones with increasing in-built memory, cameras with larger megapixels and larger screens. Forms of clam-shell, flip-phones and the works. In this calm market entered the iPhone. There was nothing in it that was not known earlier-touch interface, accelerometer and the suave graphics.

Yet the tying together, the overarching superiority of the coming together of these elements made it seem almost alien to our common perceptions. Everything, even the usually lumbering telecom providers, yielded to the vision of the iPhone.

Ever since, the mobile industry has not been the same. In trying to emulate and better a competing product, the entire industry is under a evolutionary pressure to up their acts.

2001 Space Odyssey


Moonwatcher, the pre-historic simian protagonist, leads a sedentary life in this unique novel/movie. Hunting for food, defending his pack of simians from another tribe of simians and so on. Until IT arrives, the monolith. Inscrutable and unlike anything Moonwatcher has ever seen. While monkeying around the monolith he touches it.

Nothing outside has changed. He is not hurt or burnt. Yet, imperceptibly, he has changed within.

The docile simian has learned of aggression. And in the next encounter with those of another tribe shows he means business. Until then death was an immutable reality, but now he knew and understood that death could be conferred by the strong.

Here again, the introduction of another principle, rendered artistically as monolith, determines the course of evolution. The presence of danger in the environment alone could not cause Moonwatcher to gather the skills necessary to survive by aggression.

An, as of now, unknown causal agent triggered a change within Moonwatcher.

Descent of an Avatar


The evolution of life proceeds in its Darwinian pace. The dinosaurs and the reptiles all. Some chosen for continuation and some for cessation. And then comes the impulse, that higher order and harmony which lifts life to the next level.

The first fish that peeped out of the water to breathe air. That transmuted suffocation into breathing. The first simian that stood up to gaze upon its environs. The mind that stumbled upon introspection. The first question. The first poetry. The first perception of anguish. Everything. Each was a push of our evolutionary impulse.

After each impulse we did not remain what we were just a moment ago.

The environs supported these but the Hindus believe that the cause for these high changes, these spurts and bursts of evolving life was the Avatar, a manifestation of the Supreme Divine who descends for a purpose.

There have been many Avatars. The popular ones are Narasimha, Sri Rama, Sri Krishna, with the detailed list available here. Follow the history of each and you find the evolutionary impulse working from the level of gross forms towards the subtle forms of Dharma.

A Common Theme

In each of these cases there is the steady progression of normal progress, until impelled by an element that exceeds our current common perceptions.

This impulse is named variously as genius, evolution and even called an Avatar by subtler perceptions.

Each is a facet of the one master impulse. And in that impulse will be the key that answers this manifold becomings of our individual selves and the Universe.

Institutional Hypocrisy

Sometimes, well oftentimes, India, my beloved country, seems to be a nation of hypocrites. If you just nodded in sage understanding, you can stop reading right away.

Imagine, the nation got into a huff about Gandhi’s belongings staying in foreign lands, away from these holy shores. So much planning and expense went into ensuring it was returned back to India. That too for belongings that Gandhi himself did not bother to keep!

If only our people had got themselves into a fit for not following Gandhi’s principles, how much better this country would have been!

Before you think this is a stray incident of oversight, let me assure you it is not. This rot runs deep.

The caste system is one of my favorites. The brahmin, at the top of the social pecking order, the guardian of knowledge chants his mantra and hordes his learning.

The brahmin dwells on the omniscience and omnipotence of his chosen Deity or Principle and yet acts in the real world as if his deity were a holed up only in specific statues and words. Imagine that, confining the Infinite to specific forms!

As if the Absolute would be sullied by dirt and tainted with sin because some time-bound social norm was not followed, or because of the place one was born or color of their skin. What use is knowledge if it does not reflect in ones actions?

To take another case, the monarchy and kingdom states that India had in abundance prior to independence is a another blight on our past. Just see what we have replaced it with, a system of dynastic politics under a democratic mask.

We as a nation and peoples seem to have a inherent weakness and subservience to perceived authority. We grovel, shiver and kneel at the first sign of purple.

Our politicians and family-held corporations seek to bequeath their scepter to their children. Suitability and skill for the task be damned. After all, it must have been ordained somewhere in their karmic past!

The accident of biology is turned into an unquestionable fiat of fates.

One stands baffled at the magnitude of this mess. The heart quakes in helplessness. But hope remains. After all, we have overcome 600 years of foreign rule, at least partially, and have an identity of our own.

What we make of ourselves now will determine the course of what we shall be many hundred years hence.

The Two Indias

Forget the question of how Gandhi’s belongings landed with a private collector and then at an auction house. The real joke was the reactions it evoked from the Indian polity earlier. They discussed and ranted and raved. All to little effect.

After much wrangling, today it emerged that Vijay Mallya, a liquor baron, had paid $1.8 million to win these items.

Am not sure if you can see the irony in this. A liquor baron wins back the personal artifacts of Gandhi “for the country”!

But I am happy for one reason. That there exists a class of people in India who have the street smarts to play the game by a different set of rules.

Not the old sentimental prattling. Not the self-defeating disgust at a culture that puts a price sticker on every relic. Not old bureaucratic forms floating around and petitions to a constitutional authority.

This is action. In the thick of the battle, a game played by the rules of the marketplace. This is the emerging India.

Characteristics of a Semantic Web Application

What are the characteristics of a credible Semantic Web site? That was the question on a semantic web group on LinkedIn. I attempt an answer out here.

Is there anything called a Semantic Web app?

My immediate thought was, does anyone know at all? Is there a minimum set of features that would make an application SemWeb compliant? Of course there is the vision of Tim Berners Lee on the Semantic Web out here. The Wikipedia article here does a good job of laying out the overall idea of it.

But there is no consensus, that I am aware of at least, on the minimum characteristics required for anything to be called a SemWeb app.

Without accepted criteria, anything goes

Without a established threshold it becomes easy for the hype machine to mislead and set wrong expectations. Those of you who followed the startup Twine will know what am talking about. Not everything with the SemWeb label is remotely what the vision of TimBLee implied.

Here is an answer that I proposed.

Criteria 1 – Data Portability

Use common agreed upon standards to markup information, so that they can be mashed up in contexts the original data provider did not anticipate. This is not a trivial exercise. Often data is locked in proprietary data formats and behind antique APIs. An entire industry of data integration tools exists to serve this problem.

The metadata surrounding the data is one aspect. The other is how much of this metadata actually is available at the point of consumption for consumers to leverage. This is more odious than it sounds. This would be topic for another blog post!

Check DataPortability for initiatives in this area.

Criteria 2 – Ubiquity

Make the above marked up data available in the widest possible channels. Though this is a content delivery criteria I feel its critical to derive the benefits of the SemWeb. No point hiding semantically rich data behind proprietary APIs and endpoints. HTTP and the REST route should be the protocol; XMPP is another delivery channel, if your data is time-sensitive.

Criteria 3 – Expose data graph

I use this term for lack of alternatives. Data does not live in a silo. Defining a grammar for your data via an ontology is just one aspect. There is always a reference to some other element that will enhance or clarify its meaning.

Mapping and translating between ontologies is a possibility too. Still the idea of a data graph needs to be present. Make this explicit by providing links from key entities and facts within your data, say by linking to DBPedia if the concepts involved are public. If the information is private to your organization, then allow the data consumption hops possible across applications within your organization.

Criteria 4 – Allow inferences

Too many SW apps stop at searching and aggregation. I feel some basic amount of inferences should be allowed. To make non-obvious connections bare should be the outcome for a data graph that is linked deeply. To make patterns hidden with data apparent.

I remember seeing the term Serendipity Quotient, a measure how much non-apparent connections or insights can be revealed. This could be similar to data mining but I think this is a superficial similarity. The nature of insights from the SW apps would also be on unstructured data unlike data mining which is more attuned to structured data.

Note that we are not trying to be dogmatic about which data formats or inference mechanisms are used.

Infancy of the SemWeb

Going by this criteria I think we are yet to see a proper SemWeb app. These are early days and the apps are our first attempt at building something so ambitious as a globally linked data, allowing machines to be infused with intelligence.

We also have to account for the fact that many of these criteria may be already implemented behind the scenes to pull off the kind of smart behavior we have come to expect from the SemWeb.

Your chance to add meaning!

With that I would like to pose some questions. Do you agree with the criteria above? What would you add/remove/embellish to this list? Are there apps that do all of the above?

Ditching Google Reader and Chrome, Feedly is in the House


I confess. I have an RSS addiction. And I believe I have found my perfect fix in Feedly.

I have used a variety of RSS aggregators. Between the rich and thin client approaches I have tried many. And even wrote some simple aggregators of my own.

As I said, I have an RSS addiction. And I typically let nothing come in the way of my feeds and me. The aggregator has to do its job and get out of the way.

In a space that I had, mistakenly, thought was commoditized, and was largely wrapped up by Google Reader, comes an innovation that blows every competition away. 

Feedly. Integrates with Google Reader seamlessly. From importing the feeds to keeping your shared and starred items in sync. Wiring to FriendFeed, Twitter. 

As if all that were not enough, there is the mini-bar that sits in a corner of the browser. And with minimal intrusion to your browsing experience, can share the current page on Twitter, check the activity levels on FriendFeed and more.

What really awed me was the user experience on the home page. The layout is like a magazine. The entries are grouped, highlighted and quite pretty to view.

All actions like sharing, staring entries can be carried out in line within Feedly. The GReader-ish inline expansion of collapsed entries. It is all there.

This add-in weaned me away from Chrome. I now get my RSS fix from Feedly on Firefox.

If there is anyone out there who still doubts the need for standardized data formats, say like RSS, check out the magic in Feedly. Arbitrary sources publishing content as RSS. Laid out, aggregated, grouped and all decked up for your viewing pleasure by an add-in.

Take it from a freshly minted convert, this is what you have been wanting all your life! 🙂