Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How do you define ...

Last year on 15th August, in a sudden bout of irrational exuberance (maybe it was the freedom in the air) I bought a book called "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstadter. One look at the name and you know it's way out of your league (at least my league). Heck, even the author's name is hard to pronounce. And it's big. I mean BIG. Bigger than Tannenbaum's Computer Networks!!

Wait, it's not over yet. The name of the book comes from mathematician Kurt Gödel (and his various works, mainly the Incompleteness Theorems), artist M. C. Escher (and his various surreal and bizarre artwork), and composer J. S. Bach (aaand his music, what else!).

So mathematics. Set theory, number theory, logic and etc and etc and etc. Rejected.

Western. Classical. Music. Scale, key, sonata, fugue (!), point, counterpoint... phew... Rejected.

Art. Hmmmm... Drawings and paintings of figures and buildings and structures. Albeit not your usual drawing, but still drawings. I can live with that.

So that's how my journey in that big and scary world of GEB started. Selective reading. When its skimming the surface it is OK. Certain parts makes sense. And you are delighted with the occasional insight when you happen to catch them. When it goes too deep into theorems or fugues (whatever that is), just jump to the next chapter.

Now you will wonder why on earth somebody will write a book on a mathematician, a musician and an artist. Well, GEB actually a book on logic and intelligence. and it touches the subject of A.I. at the end. To do that he takes help of various devices, namely those works which I mentioned. But also, other mind-bogglingly diverse things. Zen Koans, and poems and puzzles (of course), ancient Greek paradoxes and what not are used to show what a weird thing our mind is. The basic idea is to analyze our thought process, and recognize the very very complex things goes inside our thinking, which is just ordinary and taken-for-ranted when we do not notice. But if you want to define it, or formalize it, make a rule/formula/theory out of it... all hell breaks lose.

Does our mind have to have a theory? Yes, if you think of us as rational beings taking intelligent decisions based on the problems given to us. At least most of the time (emotions and other 'irrational' things like love etc is kept out of picture). It has to follow a logic. A pattern. And if there is a logic, it should be representable. By means of equations, matrices, algorithm, C/C++... whatever. 

But, how our mind works, how we perceive and communicate even simple and ordinary events and objects, is complex to the core. Something which is seemingly organised and structured like language, becomes a huge task to feed into a machine.

GEB shows these things with little stories and ongoing dialogues between a few 'odd' characters. For example, the tale of a dog and a bone separated by a fence is used to describe problem solving and a related topic of problem reduction. Tommy can see the bone but can't cross the fence. So he runs to the fence and start barking, maybe jumping around a bit. Jimmy is a more intelligent dog, who runs along the fence, finds an opening few meters away and bingo, gets the prize.

You see in physical sense, path taken by Jimmy is a longer path, but in an abstract so-called 'problem-space' it is the shortest (maybe only) path. If we represent the locations by nodes, the direct path between starting node and 'bone-node' is infinite, and the path Jimmy takes, start-node to opening-in-fence-node to bone-node is of a finite value say x+y. The key is to imagine this abstract space and then calculate the paths (there can be two openings in the fence and then you need to see which opening is near, x+y or w+z). 

We do this every time. To go from 2nd floor to ground floor, we don't go the nearest window and jump (unless you are Rajnikant). We find the nearest staircase, walk down, again walk little bit left or right and reach the target. Our mind creates a complicated graph of nodes and paths and corresponding distances immediately. Things become more complex when you need to go from Jayanagar to Hebbal at 6 pm on a Thursday. Lots of paths and nodes and variables, including everchanging one-ways and road-blocks for Namma Metro!

So, how do you 'define' a problem is the first and toughest step. Computers (i.e. programs) are good at calculating inside a given problem-space. But to break down a given real-life problem into abstract (and mathematical) notations is difficult. And of course many at times the first break-down may not be correct. We go along the way and realize this is going nowhere. We sit back and look at the whole thing from top and find a new approach (remember trigonometry problems in +2?). Sometimes that requires going a few steps back and starting once again.

GEB describes this birds-eye-view state as I-mode ('I' for intelligent), where you take stop what you were doing, have a look at the path taken so far and try to see where you will end up in this way. Whereas solving the problem step-by-step in a predetermined way is M-mode ('M' for mechanical). We constantly switch between these modes.

In general, we human beings are good at looking at things/events from a distance, finding a pattern and realities there is something wrong or right (or just simply strange) with it. Maybe we are reaching the same place again and again. Maybe there is a shortcut. Recognizing there is a 'sameness' in apparently dissimilar events which we haven't notice before. Is there a better approach hidden nearby... The whole history of invention and discoveries are based on these basic methods. The key point here is to see the pattern, to realize the sameness.  Can you teach that to a computer. To find the pattern...

But then, how do you define 'sameness'?

It is an ever growing list of "How do you define ...". Big brains at big places are breaking their big heads on these things. Just to get grasp of nothing but ourselves. We know 'it', we do 'it', but how... exactly how do we do it!! GEB does not give an answer but describes the problems and complexities related to the job.

So far I have read around 20% of the book (in a whole year). Don't ask about understanding (5%?). As I told, it's way out of my league. But you find gems here and there which makes you wonder about what is going inside this thick skull of ours. My arduous journey continues and will go on for very long time.

In any case, what's the use of spending 500/- plus for a book and finishing it in two weeks! GEB will stay for long in the currently-reading list. Really long. And that's not a bad thing in my book... :)

[Pics courtesy Wikipedia]

Monday, August 24, 2009

Quizas Quizas Quizas

I wanted to write something on the films for some times. I am downloading and watching films left-right-and-center, taking full advantage of a real broadband connection. But the eternal question looms, write on what and what to write...

And then I came across Baradwaj Rangan's latest in-between-review piece. I just saw the accompanying picture and the name of the director given at the end, I knew I had to see this. Afraid it might spoil the fun, i skipped the article altogether (which is BTW, great as always, I read it later). One necessary announcement here: Baradwaj Rangan is the bestest film-critic in our country right now. Period.

Now, where was I... Yes, the film. It is "In the Mood for Love" by Wong Kar Wai. I have heard a lot about Wong Kar Wai and saw his very famous "Chungking Express" a month before. Misfit, quirky characters, old music, love and loneliness and of course Wai's signature frames with stylistic light and color. Me likes. One look at the scene and you know it has to be Wai. You'll know what I mean when you see his films.

Music plays a very significant part in Wai's films. I can not imagine Chungking Express without "California Dreamin" playing in loud volume in the background and whenever I hear the song I can see Faye playing with aeroplane inside the aquarium.

Anyway, I was going in a tangent about something else, whereas I wanted to talk about "In the Mood for Love". Now what to say about that? Will it suffice to say that this is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen?

Frankly speaking it is very difficult to describe this film. It is a story set in sixties Hong Kong, where Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, along with their respective spouses, rent rooms in opposite flats (Wai likes tiny apartments and narrow staircases... maybe in confined spaces, we feel closer to his characters). Their paths cross time and again as they deal with their lonely lives, suspicious of their partner's infidelity. But they can't fall in love with each other. As Chow tells, "We are not like them", and in short that's what the film is. Of not falling in love. Or is it the opposite...

What makes more difficult to describe this film, is its beauty... almost like poetry on camera, which is, as the cliche goes 'seen to be believed'. How can a simple walk down the steps can become magical with use of slow motion and music? How do you describe the sadness captured in the slow patterns of white cigarette smoke? How on earth background score can elevate a simple sequence into masterpiece?

"In the Mood for Love" is nothing if you remove the music. Be it the melancholic theme music (youtube link) or earnest but sad Quizas Quizas Quizas (which means "Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps"), it seems the script is written for the music, not the other way around.

The film never hurries around. Small small incidents, snippets of conversation and the languid pace. As if the time is stopped and the viewer is not much aware of the real time line, unless we are shown explicitly like "Hong Kong 1963". It's a film which never rushes even in its 90 min of length. It takes it time, makes you feel what they are feeling, the desperation, the sadness, the loneliness. It reminded me of Murakami's novels, the feeling of longing and slowing down the flow of time (although Murakami is totally surreal, almost in a parallel universe).

"In the Mood for Love" leaves you sad and silent for a long time after it ends, with the songs remaining inside your head. And believe me, it will go on for a long time.

A small film, with a small story, perfect for keeping inside your heart, maybe to revisit some time later.

Quizas quizas quizas...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Giant at the Gate

No this is not about the giant installed at Tokyo-bay. Rather it is about the the friendly neighborhood giant, entering the hallowed gardens, where the Gnu roams and FOSS grows...
Err... Sorry for the rather long and cheesy intro (sometimes I feel like those Aaj Tak reporters). I am talking about giants like Google entering the open source domains and what it means for open source.
First a disclaimer. I am not an expert in SW industry, not an activist fighting for open source, neither one of those extremely talented volunteers by whose code the juggernaut runs... My perspective is purely from an interested user point of view. You know, neither novice ("will it explode if I press enter?"), nor geek ("let's hack the kernel"), somewhere in-between ("registry edit to re-enable pen-drive in office computer") kinda user.

Let's talk about the open source software first. For a long time the open source community has raged a war against the big money corporations (read Microsoft), criticizing their monopolistic and unethical (read greedy and evil) practices. They have argued how software should be free (free as in free speech, not free beer).

Along the way, they have managed to create some really great products. Projects like Linux and Firefox are two most well known examples out of numerous ones. It is now possible to do almost anything (personal use or business use) using only free/open-source SW.

They have changed the mindset of lots and lots people. Being open source has become cool, something like going green. Heck, even MS has announced release of an online version of Office 2010 for free. Free! From Microsoft!! The community may not have been able to change the world as much as they wanted, but they have a made a big and tangible difference. And we are the beneficiaries of that change.

It would be wrong to assume these people as like-minded members some club of geeks coding for the progress of mankind. They have their differences. Disagreements and sometimes heated arguments are common. The topics can be anything: naming (Linux vs GNU/Linux), proposed feature (remove the menu bar in Firefox or not), implementations (move xyz from security framework and put it in memory management), exact licensing policy (GPL vs Creative Commons), and above everything the actual philosophy of the project (powerful and flexible vs lean and simple). You might have seen and/or experienced the problems in projects tightly managed by PMs and leads etc. Imagine the chaos in a project run by hundreds of volunteers across the globe with a handful of administrators. But amazingly still targets are achieved, products are released, bugs are fixed.

One of the major philosophy here is "where's the patch?". Which means if you think something is not to your liking then change it. Do it yourself and show how it should be done. But along with the obvious benefits, it causes indirect problems. Fragmentation. Nobody knows exactly how many flavors of UNIX (or Unix?) are available right now... BSD, HP-UX, AIX, Solaris and of course Linux with its children.

Well, Linux was a boon actually. Despite of its various distributions and packages, it slowly emerged as the flag-bearer of UNIX. Red Hat became the dominant player in the server side. For desktop we had to wait a bit longer. And then came Ubuntu, which is taking over the Linux-PC market. Maybe, just maybe, the time has come, when at least the home desktop market will embrace Linux, slowly but steadily.

Things are almost same in the browser market. Netscape may have been killed by IE. But its offspring Firefox started growing. Now Firefox commands some 20-25% market share, which was once 100% IE.

So good so far good.

The garden is blossoming. People are taking notice of it. More gardeners and also more visitors.

And then Google happened. And kept happening. Now we have a new giant in the field other than MS. But a different one. This once is friendly. The smiling kind. Kids like it. It even watered some of the trees (see Mozilla-Google partnership).
But enough of supporting and cheering. "Let's play" it said. So within a very short time we have the Chrome browser and Chrome OS (will be released next year). Both open source. Chrome OS is Linux-based and targeted to the desktop market.

Is it good? Now that Google is a competitor of Mozilla how long will it continue the funding? Do we really need another browser and another OS, when strong alternatives are already available. Of course they can be made stronger. And Google could help in that. Open source community will do a lot well with the full strength (financial and technical) of the giant behind it.

The criticism is louder for the OS. Many feel the best thing Google could have done is embracing Ubuntu wholeheartedly. Lots of people who never heard of UNIX or bothered about Linux will readily accept a Google promoted Ubuntu (Gubuntu anyone?).

There is also one more thought. How much mainstream (mass-market) you want to become? Let's face it. An Anurag Kashyap movie will never be as big as Karan Johar, so why try. Let's keep the niche market, get the film festival awards and imdb rating, along with a small amount of profit to keep everybody happy. But becoming big has its rewards. Everybody likes fame. Like Bollywood stars 'number one' is a medal all of us craves, irrespective of how many times you say "I don't believe in the number game".

Firefox is facing these choices. The original thought was FF will be lean, fast and secure browser. You want bells and whistles and the blinking lights? Install an extension (add-on in FF lingo). But the average user does not want to search for add-on. They don't know what an add-on is and they are not bothered. For them if the feature is there... good. Otherwise it sucks. You have to maintain a balance. And it's difficult. I have been crawling the Mozilla forums and threads for sometime, and you will be amazed to see the intense debate and conflicting opinions for almost every single topic ("If you do this, I will never use Firefox again" is very common).

What about Ubuntu? I have started using it. Just one week or so. It's good. Really good. And it's legally free. But it has usability issues (some of them just because we are too used to Windows). But installing new SW sometimes caues problems where you have enter some string in repository, update packege list, type some commands in terminal or worse you will get tar file which you need to unzip and compile and then install. I am still getting used to it.

And usability is one area where Google can really contribute. There is the fear that, in the long run Google will not adhere to the open source guidelines, they will try to favor their own products and services. In one word they will become the Big Brother where your life starts and ends with Google.

Nobody knows what the future will be. But I think if Google becomes too big to be comfortable we will see some new start up to come and dislodge the incumbent. That's how it has happened and that's the way the industry (I think others industries too) work. Today you buy any laptop and it will be with Vista, which means you are paying 3.5-5K (maybe more) for the price of OS. Getting one with free DOS is rare and while you do get pirated XP/Vista easily, using them in long run will cause more and more problems (updating, getting security patches, installing SW is becoming difficult). If five years down the line we see more and more computers with easy-to-use nominally-priced/free OS, where most of the SW works in open standards, where the user can pick and choose SW from a bunch of free and premium offerings it will be great.

I know it sounds too Utopian or idealistic. But definitely the Web has changed our lives. And it will continue to do so. At the end it is us who are building it, who are participating and who are getting the benefit. Who would have thought about it five years back? And this can happen everywhere.

I will wait and see if things get better. And till that time i have Firefox and Ubuntu. :) Anyway, I think this post is already too long. Thanks a lot if you have come so far reading this junk. Comments are welcome. I am sure you have something to say about browsers or OS or Google or anything you feel like. Just type it here.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Whose Song is This?

A few months back, one Sunday morning, I was channel-surfing, and caught this documentary showing in NDTV (they have this Documentary@24X7 program aired every Sunday around 11 or so). The original name of the film was "Cia e tazi pesen ?" which means "Whose is this song ?" made by one Bulgarian lady named Adela Peeva. The documentary was in Bulgarian, subtitle was on.

Adela once heard one song being sung in some restaurant in Sophia, and her friends, who were all from different but neighboring countries, claimed the original song is from their country. Original song here means the original tune, because, in different versions the song has completely different lyrics, ranging from romantic to patriotic, of course in the language of that country. So our director became very interested and started her journey across the region to find out what is the actual origin of this song.

Now the region we are talking about is known as the Balkans, comprising countries like Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, parts of Turkey, some not-so-known names like Macedonia, Albania and some known-for-wrong-reasons names like Bosnia and Kosovo. All these countries have shared histories, ethnic groups like Serbs, Slavs and Turks spread around the region, dominated by religions like Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholic Christianity and Islam. At some point of time or other all were ruled by Greeks and some other point they were part of the Turkish empire.

Unfortunately, people do not see this as some kind of beautiful cultural harmony among themselves. The recent history is full of wars, ethnic violence, genocide and border tensions. All of us heard about Bosnia and Kosovo.

All this made the documentary rather interesting. Which was just a song, became some kind of national pride especially when confronted with the claim that the neighbors say it is their song.

How can they!! We have heard this song in our childhood.

My great-great-grandmother knew this song.

Don't listen to those people. They are nothing but thieves. After looting our country, now they want to steal our culture too!!!

These were some of the reactions which Adela heard when she went to people with her tape-recorder. At times, the situation became really heated as you can imagine.

I found this trailer in youtube which gives you an idea what I am talking about. Have a look (or click here to view in youtube).

You can also see the full movie in Google Video (here).

In the end, the search remained inconclusive. There is no definite answer. But as you can guess, that was not the point. The point is people are much more closer to each other than they would like to believe.

As much as we hate some people or denounce their contribution, the fact remains, our culture, tradition, art, all are product of a collective effort and that makes it so rich. We fight endlessly on who created this and that, overlooking the beauty of the creation in the first place and how can we share it better among ourselves.

Now, the most interesting part (at least from my point of view). What really got me hooked to film, is that I have heard this tune before. In a Bengali song!! A very well-known at that. So now... it is my chance to claim this song...

If you are a bong and seen the trailer above, you must have guessed which song I'm talking about. It is "Shukno Patar Nupur Paye" by Kazi Nazrul Islam. Check out the song at youtube in this link. I had an mp3 from but the site is not opening anymore.

Although for bengalis, the name Nazrul does not need any introduction, others will do well to click the link. Nazrul can be termed as the most popular Bengali poet/song-writer after Tagore. Having a very large body of work (poetry, song, essay, novels), it is mainly his songs (known as Nazrul-Geeti) which have endured the test of time. Nazrul is known for introducing Arabic and Persian influence in his poetry and music. He is considered the pioneer in this regard.

We can guess, he picked up the tune for this particular song, during his posting in Karachi for the British-Indian Army, where he studied Persian (Farsi), met people from various countries, especially middle-east. Maybe some Turkish soldier sang this song one night at the camp-fire and Nazrul was hooked to the beautiful rhythm. We can only imagine.

So, along with Adela Peeva, I had my tiny part in this journey, which started in the mountains of Balkans and via Karachi, ended up in my doorstep. Who would've thought!! "Yeh duniya badi gol hai", that's what I can say at the end... :)

As usual, comments are welcome. And there is a new five-star-rating system below. So, if you are lazy to type a few words at least click some stars!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Crisis of credit

Recession, recession, recession...Yes, we all know the world economy has gone belly up. MBA-types are calling up kirana stores and dhabas for "Work-for-food" schemes (Walmarts and Pizza Huts if you are in the 'Land of Opportunities'... boy, talk about misnomer!). And even that is not available. Sigh.

We also know the full story. How it happened. You know, all those Wall Street guys (MBA-type again!) lending money to people who should not get money and playing diwali-bumber-super-lotto with your and my money. And related crap. Lots and lots of jargons. Sub-prime, CDO, hedge fund, treasury bills, global-warming... wait not global-warming. Let's not bring Al Gore's into this now. Anyway, you get the idea.

Errr... Hmmm... Do we really know what those words mean? Nah. No chance. We can just throw them at regular intervals when appropriate opportunities arise. Something like company-goals-meetings and project-status-meetings! Effort variance and productivity curves and defect-density-in-sub-critical-tasks done in weekend late-nights. Nobody knows what those means (except the last one, which is suppsed to be very low, compared to normal tasks). But who cares. (Note to self: Too many jokes on MBA/managements).

Well, today I found a really wonderful video/infographics explaining the whole phenomena of how it started. Very cool animations. Great commentry. Makes you wonder at the grand complexity and at the same time the underlying simplicity of root cause. (Link courtsey the O'Reilly blog)

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

Try this link in case the video doesn't show up.

So enjoy the video and crack some more jokes on Wall Street.

Will come back soon. Lots of things to write about but no time.

Till then, ciao.