Archives for January 2010

My Greatest Engineering Challenge

Putting man on the moon, sending a probe to the remote edges of our solar system, instrumenting the planet, reversing global warming, finding a cure for cancer and AIDS and every other scientific endeavor that engages our collective attentions are worthy problems as candidates for the title of Greatest Engineering Challenge Ever.

But all these pale into insignificance before the one true problem, at least according to me. That is the problem of purpose, that has confounded, baffled and defeated all but a handful of us since the first animal pondered cause and effect.

Problem of purpose forks into the following trinity of questions – Who am I, what am I here for and what do I become. Questions that have been mistakenly considered as axioms and resisted honest investigation.

As someone attempting to comprehend and practice the methods prescribed by Buddha, I have come to realize this emphatically – Introspection is a path littered with inner conflict. The notions and ideas that make up the sense of self are all placed in doubt. Self-identity is no longer a given. In the place of a homogeneous entity there is a mass of influences and impulses. It is a time of great confusion.

Contrary to general perceptions this decomposition of the sense of self and the analysis of its constituent parts seems to share an intimate affinity with the scientific method that is characteristic of modern sciences. And the elegance of this endeavor lies in the fact that the experiment and the experimenter are one.

We work on our own selves and help re-make ourselves anew. The methods and techniques of our experiments have an exactitude that is more unforgiving than a programming language compiler that barks a warning at the least deviation from the required syntax.

Of all that life churns out in its fevered imaginations, and of all the trials and tribulations I have had the opportunity to confront, this is my greatest engineering challenge ever.

Design vs Engineer = Apple vs Microsoft

I have always wondered why Apple apps, especially on the iPhone, all had beautiful UI. Boy Genius completely nailed the reason in a recent blog post reviewing the Google Android. The relevant quote is below.

Here’s another issue on why for the foreseeable future Android won’t be anything like what Apple or another company can offer: coders aren’t designers….That’s why Apple’s entire developer ecosystem is different, because believe it or not, Apple’s developers are amazing designers that make beautiful things, and they happen to know how to code. That’s entirely different from someone who’s the best coder in the world and trying to create something that looks, works, and feels great.

And herein lies the tale, as they say.

If you are still not convinced, hear Jonathan Ive, Chief Designer at Apple, talk about the design philosophy he lives by.

To justify the title, this is what distinguishes Apple from Microsoft. The latter builds and caters for engineers, while the former focuses on the intangibles of taste and design, but somehow magically ends up out engineering Microsoft in the process.

All said, the inspiration for folks like us in how we could emulate this rigor in building our products or services.

The attention to detail, the passion for excellence and the honesty in being able to question fundamental assumptions, all are basic traits that will influence what we stand for.

Invictus and Invitation – Two Poems

I saw the movie Invictus recently. It chronicles how a game of Rugby brings together the erstwhile victims and perpetrators of Apartheid in South Africa. The movie is brilliant by itself what struck me was the poem Invictus that plays a significant role in the movie and hence its use as the title.

While reading about the poem on Wikipedia, could not help but notice that it was written by someone who was not exactly dealt the best cards by life.

And I was reminded of another poem, again written by someone not in the best of circumstances, called Invitation.

I reproduce both these below.

Invictus – By William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Invitation – By Sri Aurobindo

With the wind and the weather beating around me

Up to the hill and moorland I go

Who will come with me? Who will climb with me?

Wade through the brook and tramp through the snow?

Not in the petty circle of cities

Cramped by your doors and your walls I dwell;

Over me God is blue in the welkin,

Against me the wind and the storm rebel.

I sport with solitude here in my regions,

Of misadventures have made me a friend.

Who would live largely? Who would live freely?

Here to the wind-swept uplands ascend.

I am the Lord of tempest and mountain,

I am the Spirit of freedom and pride.

Stark must he be and a kinsman to danger

Who shares my kingdom and walks by my side.

I wonder what it is about the human condition, that makes it grow radiant when under the crucible of misfortune. Arrayed against the furies and fates, the piffling human soul grows vast enough to take on the elements, space and time.

Fragments of Aspiration – 1

Repentance, that alchemy of the heart
Transmuting vileness into a luminous submission
Deeper the mire, vaster the heavens
There is a need for evil in the world.
Without it virtue has no reason to exist
In a way every aspiration wakes the shadow of its own ascent.
The tyrant is but a tantrum thrown by the Ishwari
To compel her lord, the Ishwara, to waken from his musings.
I would dissolve one day
Into a burst of rainbow hues
Become one with the pollen on a butterfly’s wings
Or plunge headlong as a blue fisher into a forgotten pond

I shall be a verse one day
A murmur upon every lip
Or throbbing as thought in a remote mind upon a snow-peak

I shall be austerity too
The death knell of desire in a hermit’s breast
Homecoming of the long wandering senses
Back once more at the feet of the Supreme Mother.

Tyrant’s Prayer

Now I see the tyrant’s crude prayer

The reckless hewing and slaying of lives

Offered as sacrifice to the World-Spirit.

Like ripped butterfly wings in a cupped palm

Of a proud toddler offered to a doting parent

Even the excesses of the tyrant have to be allowed their play. Ravana, Hiranyakashipu and Hitler are perhaps demanded by some occult evolutionary needs that we don’t yet understand.

But instead of taking that rocky philosophical route, I wondered what the standpoint of an Omnipotent Godhead would be to the Tyrant.

Since I obviously am not omnipotent imagining this was not feasible. But being a parent I could at least attempt to imagine how I would feel if my child were the tyrant. Now that was tricky but at least within the realm of possibility.

Children can be extremely cruel. It seems the moral sense has to be taught and groomed much like any other acquired skill. I, as a parent, do not rush to condemn but gently teach every transgression by the child. The stone thrown at the stray dog, the impulse to snare a bird and the rush to stamp the ant are the rough edges that will be smoothed out by moral training and example.

Now if a simple parent can willingly tolerate the pain caused to smaller life forms by their child, what about an Omnipotent and Omniscient Divine? One who sees everything. May be He sees the end result playing out in the way he wants it. Greater harmony, honey and wine perhaps? Lots more to be said here but I guess you get the gist.

All said, the Veda while talking about the Transcendent says that words, time and all things manifest or unmanifest fall away from It. And says It(or He) alone knows itself. And also add the statement, or perhaps It knows not. With that disclaimer I end this post.

Origin of Religious Species

The churn of a storm, the lightning that tears open the skies, the wasted colors to beautify a moment’s horizon. Each, in the mind and heart of perceiving man, gives birth to awe. That unique state where, bereft of understanding, there stands a heightened state mingled with fear. And some might argue a state of perception beyond mind. Religion, poetry, piety and more might have their birth here.

I have always been fascinated by the religious instinct in man. Especially the origins of it. What impelled earliest man to conceive a God? Whence the origins of his impulse to obey and surrender?

I believe I have come across a plausible answer on what could have given birth to the religious instinct. And the clue arrived while watching this movie called the Quest for Fire.

The sequence occurs when Naoh, of the Ulam tribe, is being chased by the Kzamm tribe. While fleeing Naoh comes across a herd of Mammoths, more menacing and imposing than any creature he has ever come across.

Keeping in mind the evolutionary stage of this tribe the typical response would be to flee or fight. Neither of which are relevant or feasible in this scenario. Kzamm tribe outnumbers the paltry four from the Ulam tribe, including Naoh. The Mammoths are in a herd, with the testy bull male right upfront. Again, to emphasize the obvious, neither flight nor fight is feasible.

That is when Naoh does the unexpected. With eyes reflecting a mixture of suppressed fear, or is it surprise?, he does the unthinkable. He moves towards the bull male, slowly inching his way forward, contradicting every instinct he has grown to trust. When close to the animal he bows; head down, arms raised with palms facing forward and bows, kneeling and head touching ground. The near-human animal offers its surrender to the Mammoth, acknowledging its superiority.

And the Mammoth acknowledges that surrender. It protects the near-human creature by chasing away the Kzamm tribe when they try to get close. Naoh and his tribe mates don’t fail to observe this response by the Mammoth.

This  amalgam of emotions – shock, fear and being in the presence of something big and unexplainable is how I perceive awe. Awe becomes the origin of our first religious instinct, inspiring our surrender and the giving of ourselves entirely.

In response, the one who surrenders sometimes perceives the answering grace. And in that specific stimuli-response is the origin of all preoccupations that exceed our sense-filled rationality.