Thursday, October 26, 2006

Non-Linear Thinking and Structures

The Design and the Designer – Part 5

In the last post, I made a brief mention of Nasruddin, Heuristics and Non-Linear Thinking. I shall continue in this post on the same theme and establish the role of semantics in Design and Non-Linear Thinking, and explore some techniques of practicing non-linear thinking.

First, here is a very brief synthesis of the previous posts on this subject: In the previous posts, I applied law of 2 and tried to demonstrate the underlying unity of the theme in various disciplines – which is referred to as Plausible and Demonstrative, Creative and Logical, Synthesis and Analysis, Right Brain and Left Brain, Linear and Non-Linear, Heuristic and Rational and so forth. Largely, the conclusion that one can reach is that there are two distinctive types of thinking – which are interdependent on each other, but at the same time have very different functions and applications. We termed the functions of these two types as – recognition of problems and finding solutions to problems. We also presented a few laws of synthesis – from various fields – particularly societies, management, computing science and consciousness.

Before we get into Semantics, let’s examine linear thinking and non-linear thinking in some detail – with some examples and techniques of how to switch from one to another.

Logic – at least the way Socrates and his disciples developed it – is largely linear. This is carried over into mathematics as well. Logic mostly depends on reasoning from evidence. The early Artificial Intelligence (which is neither artificial nor intelligence) applications ran into some problems with the linear reasoning and there are now several attempts to develop non-linear reasoning systems. Such logics in AI are called “non-classical” reasoning systems. Here is a classic example of linear and non-linear reasoning – it involves a very well known logic puzzle.

Three monks and three cannibals were traveling together because of some strange circumstances – even though naturally there cannot be any friendship and trust among such a diametrically opposite groups. If at any time, the cannibals outnumber the monks – they will eat them. Now, they came to a river bank and they had to cross the river. There was only one boat. The boat can only carry two people at a time. Now, your problem is to devise a strategy to transport the monks and the cannibals safely across the river.

The usual linear reasoning system will start with River Bank-1: 3M, 3C, River Bank2: 0M, 0C as the initial state of the system, and will try to devise a series of moves that will establish the desired final state - River Bank1:- 0M, 0C, River Bank2: 3M, 3C. It is a simple puzzle – you start with something like first two cannibals will travel, one will come back, two monks will then go etc., and you can easily arrive at the final state.

Suppose you give the problem to Nasruddin, what do you think he will do? He will listen to your descriptions, and even before you have completed your narration, he will jump from his chair and shout with the excitement of a child “I know, I know - the monks will take the bridge, and the cannibals will take the boat”.

It is a perfectly valid solution to the problem – isn’t it? Then you tell him “look Nasruddin, I did not say that there was a bridge”. Nasruddin will reply, “Well – you did not say that there was no bridge either”. Now, you modify the problem description, and you will add another constraint to the problem – there are no bridges. “Well, in that case, the monks take the helicopter” will be Nasruddin’s answer. By this time, you get very frustrated and shout back at him – “I want you to solve the problem – not avoid it”. But, for Nasruddin, there was no problem there to be solved. Can you see how he eliminates the problem instead of trying to solve it?

No matter, how hard you try, you cannot contain Nasruddin. He will always think of exploiting some constraint that is not included in the problem definition and use that as a means to eliminate the problem.

The AI community in the last thirty years tried and discovered several techniques for “programming Nasruddin type behavior” into the computer programmers – with some reasonable success. I have no intention of boring you with the Non-Monotonic Reasoning systems here. But what is the technique of Nasruddin?

One, Nasruddin does not depend on “evidence” as the only way of establishing the existence of something. All formal logical systems depend on evidence as the only means of establishing “truth”. For example, if I tell you that all visitors from Canopus are fools, and you know that Mr. X is a visitor from Canopus, you can confidently establish the truth that this particular Mr. X is a fool. But, there is a catch. Suppose, if this particular Mr. X is not a visitor from Canopus, then what are you going to do? You cannot establish anything. He may or may not be a fool. You can conclude Mr. X’s foolishness, only if you know that he is a visitor from Canopus.

We need facts to recognize truth, but Nasruddin does not rely on such petty things like facts to recognize truth. According to Nasruddin, some thing does not have to be a fact for it to be true. Kurt Gödel proved this mathematically – it is known as Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. The incompleteness theorem states that in any formal system, there always exists a statement which is “known” to be true, but cannot be proved.

Rabindranath Tagore – with the brevity that a poet alone can command – says it beautifully.

“If I say that the earth is flat – you inform me that my near sight is false.
If say that the stars are the fireflies attracted to the moon, the candle of the sky – you inform me that my far sight is false. My dear logician – in your presence, I prefer to be blind”.


The second principle that Nasruddin mastered is the System’s Principle – understand the problem by studying its relationship to the larger environment in which it is only but a part. I wrote about this principle in part 2 of this series of articles.

In the specific case of monks and cannibals – all Nasruddin does is to bring his knowledge of the larger environment to solve the problem. The minute you tell him about the river and the boat, he can think of a bridge. He can bring his knowledge of traveling in the air, or swim in the water. Or, he will say that the monks – using their magical techniques – will vanish and reappear on the other side. Or, he will say that the monks will use their secret herbs and put the cannibals to sleep. His possibilities to come up a solution are infinite.

The study of system level relationships requires knowledge of semantics – or the “meaning” of things. There are basically two types of relationships – structural and semantic. It is important to distinguish between these two types of relationships. Though, in logic and other sciences, we are mostly taught how to study the structural relationships, in fact, our mind works naturally very well with semantic relationships.

A few examples from various fields may be in order here.

In language, grammar defines the structural relationships. In English, a valid sentence must have a subject, a verb, an orbject/predicate. And, there are various rules that define the relationships between various parts of speech. These relationships are basically structural – they govern the structure of the sentence. We can say that water is triangular – it is a grammatically valid sentence, but completely meaningless.

In information systems there are basically four types of structural relationships. By information systems I do not mean just software applications. Any system that organizes knowledge and depends on that organization is an information system. By this definition, societies, cultures, various disciplines of study are all information systems.

The first – and simplest structural relationship is hierarchy. This relationship in information systems is called “IS-A” relationship. A “IS-A” B. This could be interpreted in several different ways:

• B is the parent of A
• B is the boss of A
• B is part of A
• B is subsumed by A
• B is the root of A

Entire systems, organizations, societies are modeled based on this one particular relationship. Most hierarchical structures use this relationship as the primary relationship. The different sections in this blog-page have a parent-child relationship with the master page. There are basically five sub-sections – header, footer, posts, author information, archives – each of them is a “child” of the main blog page. Similarly, many corporations have a hierarchical structure – with the owner of the corporation at the top. The “semantics” of this relationship connotes ownership and protection.

The second structural relationship is network relationship. In such a structure, elements, or objects at the same level can be connected. This is called “sibling” relationship. A “IS-A brother of” B. The relationship basically means that two things are at the same level. It connotes competition and/or collobaration.

There are two other types of structural relationships in information systems hyper-text and groups. Both these relationships are somewhat non-linear relationships, but nonetheless, they are structural relationships.

The Set, and Hyper-Text are more complex structural relationships than a simple hierarchy and a Network. A set uses a function to create a structure. For example, you can say that all integers belong to a set. You can then define a function that determines an integer and therefore, the membership to the set. The members in the set may not have any particular relationship – they have something in common – that’s all. This is how most social groups are formed. The function gives an identity to the set and therefore to all its members. All people “born” in US are “Americans”. “Being born” in the US determines the identity of the set called Americans.

A Hyper-Text relationship is much more interesting relationships. It does not relate two nodes, but instead it relates content from one node to another node. All web pages use this structure extensively. For example, I can provide a link to an article in wikipedia in one of my articles in this blog. This does not mean that this blog as a whole and wikipedia share any relationship; it also does not mean that this article and the wikipedia share any relationship, and it also does not mean that this article as a whole has any relationship to that article in wikipedia. This relationship connotes friendship. There is no function, there is no responsibility, and there is no ownership in this relationship.

Using these four relationships, we can explain almost all “order” in our world. We defined the basic family relationships (parent-child, sibling), groups and friendships.

So, where is the place for Semantic Relationships?

We conveniently left out the most important, most complex, wonderful, problematic and the most beautiful relationship of all– that of the lover and the beloved. None of the above relationships explain that relationship – do they? What is the relationship of a husband and wife? What is the relationship of a teacher and a student? Friendship comes closest, but these relationships transcend friendship.

This is the realm of semantics – which is the topic of next post.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Non-Linear Thinking, Nasruddin and Polya

The Design and the Designer – Part 4

In these series of articles on Creativity and Design, my intention is to explore if there is a “formal” model of creativity. I am not interested in the psychological aspects of creativity, how it works and so on. The Psychology of discovery and invention is wonderfully described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his classic book called Creativity.

My interest is to discover a method of consciously practicing it. In the last few posts, I tried to provide a basic framework that I am working on. Basically I am trying to bring together all my experience under one unified theme. Design is the name I gave it.

I studied mathematics and more importantly I studied how to ‘do’ mathematics. I studied computer science and information systems – I designed some very large and complex software systems. I studied design theory – product design, appliance design, communication design, aesthetics, user interfaces, ergonomics etc. I studied philosophy – Western Philosophy, Indian Philosophy and Sufi Philosophy. I studied systems thinking. Basically I am a problem-solver. Given any problem, I can come up with some kind of a solution. I met many people who are fantastic problem solvers. Many of these people can almost instantaneously identify a line of attack and can come up with a solution almost immediately.

In my experience, problem-solving can be taught and can be learned – even though we generally think some people are gifted with this ability. But, teaching problem-solving has been one of the toughest problems for the teaching community. There does not seem to be a discipline for teaching problem-solving. Even the most beautiful subject – mathematics – has not addressed this problem.

How are we taught mathematics? The mathematics teacher presents the proof of a theorem in a step by step manner. First, he defines the theorem, and he has the proof in front of him, and all the teacher does is to explain the ‘logical flow’ of the proof. In the course of several years, various problems and solutions are demonstrated as examples, and somehow the student is expected to ‘understand’ problem-solving from these examples. There is no conscious attempt at teaching problem-solving.

The ‘doing’ of mathematics is not taught. This is what makes Mathematics difficult to learn for many people. The best reference works ever written about this are Polya’s books on mathematical method: How to Solve It and Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning. For some strange reason – these books are not part of the mathematics curriculum.

Polya makes a very useful observation. According to him – rightly so – the process of problem solving is a heuristic process. The difficult part of problem solving is to ‘recognize the problem’ correctly. This recognition is not a “rational”, “logical” process. It is very irrational – if you are good at it – you can immediately recognize what the problem really is in an instant, and you decide on the line of attack. How do we normally recognize the problem? We generally use a set of heuristics. For example, you may recognize that the problem is “similar” to another problem you solved before, or you may recognize that the problem belongs to a class of problems that are already solved and so on. These are all heuristics.

Here is an illustration of how heuristics are applied. Archimedes first discovered the formula for calculating the area of the circle. The area of the circle is PI*r2. In Mathematics texts, the proof is presented using some complex coordinate geometric equations. Archimedes proof is rather very simple and can be explained in one line. He drew several lines from the center of the circle to its circumference. Now, the area enclosed by two such lines and the arc of the circle looks like a triangle. The area of the triangle is (base*height)/2. Now, the height in this case is r. And, the base of all the triangles put together is the circumference of the circle – which is 2*PI*r. Therefore, the area of the circle is PI*r2. Beautiful – isn’t it?

A mathematician will not agree to a proof like this – because, the way Archimedes divided the circle into different regions are not exact triangles – they only look like a triangle. Archimedes used a heuristic.

Now, let’s look at the process that Archimedes used to solve this problem. First, for Archimedes, the problem of calculating the area of a circle is a real problem; it is not a theoretical problem. He had to calculate the area of agricultural land for calculating taxes. Second, given a particular circle, he knew how to come up with answer. So, he has some data in hand. He has the areas of different circles in front of him and he was looking for a common “pattern” that explains all the answers. Third, he knew that the two fundamental properties of the circle are its radius and its circumference. The last step is the important one. He asked himself a question – can I formulate this problem in terms of problems that I already know how to solve? In other words, he knew how to calculate the area of a square, a rectangle and a triangle. Now, he is trying to “reduce” this problem to the problem of a square, a rectangle or a triangle. He also knew another important fact about areas – they are always expressed as a product of the two different lengths. He used four different heuristic techniques – generalization, analogy, reduction and induction.

Polya calls this type of reasoning “plausible” reasoning as opposed to “demonstrative reasoning”. Different disciplines may have different names for this. Psychologists call it right brain thinking, designers call it creativity at work, scientist call it intuition at work, systems people call it “systems thinking”. In popular literature, this is called “non-linear thinking”, “out of box thinking” and by many other similar names.

No matter what name you give it – the process of recognizing the problem, and the process of actually solving it involve two different kinds of thinking altogether.

Polya’s books are the best reference works on this subject. He tried to formulate a systematic method of “problem-recognition”. Unfortunately – thanks largely due to the American experiments with modern mathematics – the world today suffers from cultural isolation of mathematics. Polya’s achievement is remarkable. With the precision of a mathematician, he formulated a “dictionary of heuristic”. This means – if you have some patience – you can learn the heuristic thinking like learning the vocabulary from a dictionary.

Another dictionary of heuristic that is particularly enjoyable to read is the collection of Nasruddin Stories. These stories help us to break our usual linear and cause-effect thinking. Even just remembering the stories has the remarkable effect of constructing a different kind of associative memory. The stories ‘just’ pop up by themselves when we need them most.

More than 700 tales of Nasruddin are collected by Idries Shah and are published by Octagon Press. Here is one story of how Nasruddin describes the “two modes of thinking” that we have been talking about:

One day Nasruddin stormed into the tea house and announced with lot of excitement that he discovered a very important truth.

People asked him what it is.

Nasruddin said – “The moon is more useful than the Sun”

Everyone was taken aback, and asked him why he thinks so.

“Because we have more need for light in the night”

Nasruddin Stories make sense at many levels, and it is said that there are at least seven interpretations for each story. Here is one interpretation that is relevant in our context. Moon is the agent of synthesis. He synthesizes the sun light and reflects it back to earth. Sun is the source of light – when he is there – we have no need for light because it there everywhere. Your need is more when something is not available – right?

There are people who are experts at synthesis. Polya synthesized mathematical method, Will Durant synthesized history, Ackoff synthesized management, and Christopher Alexander synthesized Architecture. I am trying to synthesize Design. In order to synthesize a domain, you need to be a super-specialist in that domain and you need to be able to absorb the entire domain completely.

Both modes of thinking co-exist and compliment each other. I am not indicating that synthesis is more “important” or “superior” to analysis. Like the Sun and Moon, they are interdependent on each other. The linear and the non-linear, the creative and the logical, the plausible and the demonstrative co-exist together.

In order to synthesize Design – we need an understanding of Semantics. We have to understand the meaning of things, and how different things relate to each other.

This will be the topic of the next post in this series of articles.

Nasruddin on cause and effect:

One day Nasruddin was waling along a street with his students. As Nasruddin was walking past a two story building, a man fell down from the first floor – and he fell on Nasruddin. Nasruddin’s neck was badly hurt.

His students asked him what lesson they can draw from this incident.

Nasruddin was in pain and he was now angry at such stupid questions. He shouted – “fools – can’t you see? He falls from the building, and it is my neck that is broken”.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Joys of Freelancing

Many people ask me how to become a successful freelancer and how and why I became one. Most often I had to repeat the same story with some variations every time. So, I thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to write a small note on "Joys of Freelancing". Later, it struck me that it is an ideal opportunity to experiment with Fiction.

This is my first attempt at writing fiction. Let me know what you think.

Chapter One

In the summer of 1999, we moved from California to India. The reasons for relocation seemed quite obvious - at least and strangely - only to us. My wife Padma and I work in the technology industry – we were in the land of opportunities for more than three years by that time, and both of us fared reasonably well. That was the time of the dotcom era – everyone was really mad - bordering on the insane. The whole of Silicon Valley was buzzing with activity. We used to work sixteen hours every day, at least six days and almost seven days a week. The family life was non-existent at the least, every one would talk about stock options, career jumps, number of patents filed, products that they developed, hundred percent salary hikes, the newest swanky cars that they bought etcetera, etcetera. The only break from this routine is when some friends call you for lunch and they would invariably throw in their wedding video for free, and gently insist that you watch it.

In short, we were a bunch of boring people. We were ashamed to look at ourselves in the mirror each day morning – we looked like zombies. Once in a while life gets boring and that can be managed, but the worst thing to happen to a human being is when he becomes a boring person. There is no story to tell – imagine what a nightmare you have come to become if the only thing that you can show your friends is your wedding video!!

But the Wedding Videos had a concealed message for us. The people in India seemed interesting, happy, boisterous, cunning, good looking and even charming. I wanted to be in the video – not watching it. I wanted a part of that action. So, one fine day, just like that I snapped my fingers and decided that it is time to go back home.

I had to communicate and then convince my wife. It is easy for captain Picard to say their mission is to “boldly go where no one has gone before”, but how do you tell your wife that you are about to “do boldly what no one had done before”? I knew instinctively that it was not going to be easy. She has an inherent mistrust when it comes to my radical ideas that disturb the already well established family rhythm. She can touch my ideas like a spoon dipped in honey. She will then take it out, drip it off the honey patiently, throw it into the dish washer and set the washing temperature to one hundred degrees Celsius. So, if one reason is sufficient to convince my friends, I need a million reasons to convince her and plus one more.

I thought about it carefully for a couple of hours, rehearsed it many times in my mind. Padma was busy in the kitchen. I slowly got up from the sofa in the living room, went to the kitchen walking like the ET. I cleared my throat a couple of times. “I have been thinking about this for quite some time now. I am now convinced. We are going home” I said as sweetly and as resolutely as I can.

She didn’t pay any attention. I repeated again. She seemed to consider it and I saw a flicker of pleasant thoughts shine in her eyes – I was hopeful. “I also want to go home, but it is impossible to get a vacation now” was her first response. Then I had to break the bad news. “No, not for vacation!! I mean we are going back for ever, for good, permanently, never to come back again”. She dismissed me with a simple “Okaeey. We will think about it. What is the hurry?”

For the next couple of months, we had many arguments, discussions, different points of view, and counter points of view. Padma’s logic is very simple and straight forward. Her point is we made such an enormous effort in coming to US, we were there just for about three years, just settling down to that life style, we just bought a car, both of us had very good jobs – both from a work content, and salary perspective, and we just started to see some real savings. She never wanted to settle in the US, but she wanted some more time. On my part, I had no logic at all – only a very deep, inner need to get out of that mad place, and an instinct that it is the right thing to do. May be she was right – but, I didn’t want to find out. More and more reasons only strengthened my determination. For once, I was the instinctive wife and she was the logical husband. Finally she relented and even convinced of it herself.

To be continued ... though I don't know when I will get around to write the second chapter.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Innovation and The Principle of Inversion

The Design and the Designer - Part 3

In the last post, I made an observation that the design of complex products has a higher probability of success than the design of really simple applications. I believe it is an important principle from the context of creativity and the modern professional design.

If you are a professional designer – you may not get a contract to design a Stethoscope. Most certainly you will not get a contract to ‘design’ a new mathematical concept. Such things are innovations by the experts in the same domain. So, there is a well defined line between ‘revolutionary concept’ and ‘improvisation through innovation’. Most professional design today is more or less improvisation. It all begins with some one being able to specify what the need is and there already exists the product in some form or the other.

Most designers may take offense with a statement like this one. But, let me explain.

Something like a Fountain Pen, Printing Press, and Stethoscope are not simply products, but they are very fundamental concepts. Coming up with a new concept is a much harder task. Let’s call this creativity of the highest order. Or, let’s simply say that it requires genius. I really do not know how this works.

Next comes Innovation. What is innovation really? A Russian scientist (I forgot his name) studied this subject in great depth. He analyzed more than 20,000 patents to understand what innovation really is. And, he came up with a very beautiful definition:

“Innovation is eliminating an inherent contradiction”.

Suppose you were living in the late 19th century and you were working for an automobile company. You are asked to design a car with two contradictory parameters – performance and fuel efficiency. This means that the engine should be powerful enough, but at the same time it must also consume relatively less fuel. Common Sense dictates that as you increase the speed of the car, you have to give it more fuel to keep it running faster. You break your head for some years, and finally you come up with the design of a gear-box as a solution. As the speed increases, the engine has to do less work there by reducing the fuel consumption. This eliminates the ‘contradiction’ that existed between two design variables. From here, you can do many improvisations – like use light-weight materials for the body of the car and so on. (My understanding of the internal workings of an automobile is close to zero. Therefore, my explanation of the gear-box may be technically wrong. But, I am just making a point that everyone can relate to.)

Many of the famous algorithms in computing science work on the same basis – a really good algorithm is the one that ‘maximizes performance’ on two counts – speed and storage requirements. In general, in computing science, speed and storage can be mutually traded for each other. This means that if you want more speed, you consume more memory, and if you want to optimize on memory, you consume more CPU cycles. But, the really great algorithms maximize speed and minimize the storage requirements.

Innovation therefore works something like this: there are two or more variables that influence each other in some way – either proportionately or inversely. Innovation is nothing but somehow eliminating that relationship – meaning control both the variables independently, or in some cases, invert the relationship – this means that if the variables influence each other proportionately – then make them influence each other inversely and vice versa.

This requires counter intuitive thinking. The best example of counter intuitive thinking is the binary search algorithm. The binary search algorithm is a very simple algorithm – the algorithm finds whether a search key is present in a sorted input or not. Suppose you are given a set of integers sorted in ascending order – let’s say integers starting from 1 to 10. And, you are also given a ‘particular’ number – let’s say the number 8. What you have to do is to find out whether 8 is present in the input set or not.

The common sense solution goes somewhat like this: you compare 8 with 1, then with 2, then with 3 and so on, until either you find a match, or until you run through the entire input set. This is very expensive – because technically if there are billion numbers, then you may have to a billion comparisons before you terminate your search.

The binary search is a brilliant innovation. In binary search – you divide the input set into two halves – say numbers starting from 1 to 5 in set one, and from 6-10 in set two. And then you compare the ‘search key’ – in this case 8 with the last element in the set one. In this case, you compare 5 and 8. Since 8 is greater than 5, you ‘eliminate’ set-one entirely – because all numbers in set-one are less than 5, and therefore they are all less than 8. Now, you take set two and again divide into half – say 6-7 in set one, and 8-10 in set two. And you repeat this process.

You can search through a billion numbers with in 15 lookups. Because, with each lookup, you are eliminating half the input set. So, if you have a billion numbers – in the first lookup, you throw away half a billion numbers. And, that is a tremendous increase in performance. As the size of the input set increases, the benefit of the algorithm increases.

It is very difficult to think of solutions like this. In fact, there is no other algorithm that comes anywhere close to binary search in computing science. It is because, it is a very counter intuitive way of problem solving. The designer of the binary search is not interested in searching at all. His interest is to find out all those numbers that he does not have to search and ‘eliminate’ them as quickly as possible. Because you don’t have to retain the entire input set until the termination of the algorithm, as the algorithm proceeds with each lookup, you can in fact free up memory as well!! It is in fact an elimination algorithm, not a search algorithm. It is a search algorithm that does not search.

So, here is another systems principle. I call it the principle of inversion. According to this principle – our common sense understanding of the world is inverted. We live in an inverted reality. If you are looking for a best solution, therefore what you have to do is to “invert” your common sense understanding and this conscious inversion almost always leads to a better solution. All of us at first come up with a common sense solution. What you have to do is to then invert the common sense solution to get the right solution. Instead of looking from left to right, look from right to left (The Boyer-Moor sub-string search algorithm does precisely this). Instead of dividing from top to bottom, aggregate from bottom to top – or what ever else. Basically invert your initial solution. Instead of trying to ‘solve’ a problem, ask yourself the question: what can I do to not solve the problem? How can I eliminate the problem totally instead of looking for a solution? If you can eliminate the problem – what need is there for a solution?

If you want a very good application of this principle – refer to my earlier post called ‘Throw the Clock and Save the Humanity’.

If you are a first time visitor to this blog, you have to actually read it from bottom. This means that you actually have to ‘invert’ the page. The design of the blog is such that the part-3 of an article is followed by part-2 followed by part-1. Do you see how inverted the world is?!

Donald Knuth – one of the greatest computing scientists - made a very interesting comment about this inversion principle. He remarked that in computing science everything is inverted – even the trees have their roots at the top and leaves at the bottom!!


As stated earlier, my primary interest is in applying the design principles to design one’s own consciousness. How can we apply the principle of inversion to obtain a better solution of the self?

Here is one application I found – and my life totally changed after this discovery. Most of us are taught that we reason with the intellect and feel with the heart. This is rubbish, it is totally inverted. In reality, we actually reason with heart and feel with the mind. Sounds intriguing? I am sure it does, and it begs some explanation.

The mind and intellect only react – they don’t respond. It is the heart that responds to a situation. Suppose you get into some fight with your wife on some usually very trivial issue. You get angry and both of you fight. After some time, it is your love that comes to your rescue; you realize that you were only reacting to something that is very silly. Which part of you is reacting and which part of you is doing the real thinking?

Suppose you are ‘by nature’ a ‘gentle’ person, or a ‘friendly’ person, or a ‘generous’ person, or a ‘humble’ person. It is this ‘gentleness’, ‘friendliness’, ‘generosity’ or ‘humility’ that decide how you relate to the world and situations – right? These are qualities that normally you do not associate with your intellect and mind. The heart does the real thinking for us – does it not?

The core values that one holds very dear – like goodness, love, friendship – are retained in the heart. And, it is these core values that drive our ultimate responses – not the fickle mind. The intellect is only an instrument of memory – its function is to retain and store experiences and information. The algorithms are resident in the heart. There are temporary algorithms (reactions) that may be initiated by the mind – only to ‘flush out’ the unimportant areas of memory. So, think and respond with your heart and store and retain with your intellect. This is what we normally do, but a realization of this can improve the quality of our lives tremendously.

For a beautiful illustration of this subject, refer to Chogyam Thrungpa’s “Path of the Sacred Warrior”


In the next post – I shall write about Non-Linear thinking and some techniques for practicing non-linear thinking.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Getting a Handle on Creativity

The Design and the Designer - Part 2

I made a brief mention about systems thinking and associative thinking in the last post. In this post, I shall describe them in some detail, and explain their relationship to creativity.

There are basically two methods of formal thinking – one is analytical thinking and the second one is synthesis.

If you are asked to design a product – and if you are applying analytical mode of thinking, then you start to decompose the product into its parts, sub-systems, the relationships between the parts and so on.

If you apply systems thinking – you don’t start by decomposing the product or system into its sub-systems. First you place the system into the larger environment or the larger system of which it is only a part.

Sounds very abstract? I don’t blame you. Here are some examples:

Suppose you are asked to design a washing machine. An analyst engineer will probably apply law of 3, and divide it into three sub-systems – the control unit, the electrical unit, and the main rotary unit.

But, a designer will approach it differently. The designer starts by asking questions about the environment in which the washing machine will be used. She will ask who will use it. Where will it be used – in a usual apartment house hold, or in a hotel, or in a rural area and so on. Basically, what you are doing is to first study its relationship to the larger environment in which it is a part. These relationships give you very useful design parameters. A large part of the design is the study and understanding of the products’ place in the larger scheme of things. In a technical language, you may call it “usability”. But, philosophically, what you are doing is to apply systems thinking. If you understand this very well, then you can start to apply it as a mode of thinking, instead of usability study, functionality, ergonomics etc..

Some examples of how it is applied in modeling societies may be in order here, just to drive the point I am making. Russell Ackoff made systems thinking into a formal management subject. He is the first one who understood the need for studying the relationship to the larger system of which any system is but a part.

Once, Ford Foundation did a project in India to educate people about the need for family planning. The Ford people would visit many rural parts of India, gather all the villagers, tell them about the need for family planning, give them condoms and a transistor as a gift. All the Indians would attend the seminar dutifully, fully agree with everything that the Ford Foundation people said, nod their heads, smile gently in agreement and collect the condoms and the transistor.

They would then go home, put on the music and make babies.

The Ford Foundation project manager met Ackoff one day and complained that Indians are irrational. He said that they all understood the need for family planning, but they wouldn’t practice it. Ackoff said that may be he was solving the wrong problem.

The project manager was very agitated, and asked – “what do you mean – solving wrong problem??!!”

Then Ackoff showed him a news paper cutting about a Brazilian women who gave birth to her 42nd child. The Ford Foundation project manager gave up – he said “if this is not irrational, then I do not understand what is rational”.

Ackoff’s point was simple – if a woman can give birth to 42 children in a life time, why are Indians stopping at 4.2? This means that they know how to practice control and they do. And, then he explained the reason for the Indian’s approach to life. In a society that has no retirement benefits, no social security – the only security is to have three sons. And, statistically, you need to produce 4.2 children to have an average of three sons.

So, Ackoff asked the Ford Foundation Project Manager – “do you think you can rob them of their retirement planning by giving them a transistor? Who is irrational – you or them?”

Do you see the point? What Ackoff was doing is to study the problem in the context of the much larger social issues, not isolate it and study it as sub-systems – for example - what is going wrong in the project, whether the transistors should be changed to tape recorders, or whether the presentation should have more stories etc..

The results vindicated themselves eventually. As the middle class grew in India – with assured incomes and pension benefits – there was no need to educate people about family planning. They would automatically do it. The issue is not about female discrimination or anything like that, it is simply securing our own lives. This is perhaps the reason why salaried class practices family planning more than the self employed and business people.

Another example, again from Ackoff’s writings. This one deals with the model of the society to explain corruption.

There were a group of Mexican farmers. As it happens with many poor farming communities, they are always at the mercy of the middlemen who buy the produce from them. The prices are in general fixed by the middlemen, who will pay very little to the farmers. The farmers complained to the government. The government duly appointed one official supervisor who is charged with buying the farm produce directly from the farmers at the government decided “reasonable rates”. But, like any government initiative, the farm produce is accepted only if it meets government specified quality standards.

Things went on well for about a week. After that the supervisor started to reject all the produce on the quality grounds. And, the farmers had no other recourse, but to sell it to the old, wily middleman. This time, he had a good reason to pay them even less – because their produce does not meet “government specified quality standards”.

Basically, what happened was the middleman started to bribe the government supervisor.

Now, if you are given this as a design problem, what do you do?

Ackoff provides a beautiful solution. According to him, in a democratic model of the society, the individuals pursue their own goals that may not necessarily be in alignment with the larger society’s goals. Basically, this means that the supervisor is interested in the future of his own family and his children’s education. And, he needs money for that. In essence, he is not a match to the middleman. His social status is that of the farmers. By making a person from the same community in charge, you are not helping that community. It would have been different, if he was chosen by the community itself, but in this case, he was appointed by the government – probably he lives in the nearby city, and not in the same village. The Americans solved such problems very effectively – they encourage more middlemen to compete with each other. Competition is the solution, not control.

Ackoff applies the same principle again – study the larger environment and its dynamics. The solution is not to change the supervisor, or appoint another senior manager who will investigate corruption charges and so on.

Can you see that much of what we call as creativity is nothing but application of this principle. If I had explained these problems without the principle, they would come across as very “out of box” solutions. But, they are produced by a systematic application of a simple principle.

The beauty of the solution depends on how well you understood the larger environment, but that doesn’t take away the importance of the systems principle.

There are some very good references on Systems Thinking. Here are a few:

Russell Ackoff: Re-designing the corporation for the 21st century. This is a fantastic book on the core systems principles. This is not the kind of design book you will read in your design course. It is not about “form follows function”, or about color theory, or about creative thinking. I think the time has come for designers to junk such very old concepts – they only mystify the subject, instead of demystifying it. If you want to understand how to think – then you should read this book. It is about management, but, the underlying concepts are applicable in the design field.

There is another great advantage of this book – you will acquire the necessary terminology to describe your work more successfully to your managers and clients. They understand very well the management terminology of this book. And, if they understand what you do better, you can get better commissions.

Another great book on Systems Thinking is Gerald Weinberg’s General Systems Thinking. This is a must read for any problem solver.


This is a rather long article. There are still another three posts in this series. In the next posts, I shall write about General Systems Thinking, Associative Thinking and try and define the differences between creativity, originality and innovation. I hope to complete it by this weekend.


In the meanwhile, here is some food for thought. This is one of the system’s laws (my own discovery):

The more complex the product is, the more the probability of the success of its design.

It may sound contradictory, but it is true. The really simple things are very hard to design. A stethoscope kind of invention takes place probably once a century. But, X-ray machines, better X-ray machines, CT-Scan machines, MRI machines, Positron-Emission Tomography machines etc – they happen every year.

Fountain Pens were used for some hundreds of years before a ball point pen was discovered. Can you think of the next shift in the writing instruments? Can you invent another writing instrument that can fundamentally change the way we write? These are inventions that happen once a century.

There are some inventions that happen only once a millennium – like the invention of Zero. The Indian Sage who gave the world Zero – basically invented “nothing”, or the concept of nothing and how to make use of it. It changed the destiny of humanity for ever. The only other mathematical concept that comes close to Zero is perhaps “e” – the natural logarithm. But, these two inventions had a gap of some thousands of years.

If you are an accomplished designer – you may have one “jackpot” in your entire life. The rest is basically improvisation on the existing themes.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Design and the Designer

It is good to be back in touch with old friends and students who are all fired up about Design with a capital D. I have been reading the blogs of some of my young friends who are starting their careers as Designers. Recently I have been reading Manjiri Joglekar’s blog. She posted many interesting thoughts and observations. This series of posts are prompted by what I read in her blog.

It took me twenty years to understand what is Design and finally I now have the arrogance to call myself a Designer. In the next few posts, I plan to write something about what I understood, and may be give some advice to young and upcoming designers.

As a designer one has to deal with the Law of 2 all the time. Law of 2 is one of the most fundamental laws of the universe. Using this law, you can divide the entire creation into two different things which together make up the ‘universe’. For example, you can use Law of 2 and divide the universe into Creator and the Creation, Male and Female, Potential and Probability, Siva and Sakti, System fo Enequiry and Object of Enquiry, Plants and Animals, Humanity and the rest, Mass and Energy, Stars and Planets, Subject and Object, Form and Function, Usability and Functionality, Interface and Implementation, Boss and Subordinate, Rich and Poor, Believers and Agnostics, Republicans and Democrats, Democracy and Dictatorship, Intellect and Emotion, Cost and Performance – and what ever else is your fancy.

This law is a designer’s power and it is also the designer’s curse. Mastery over it is mandatory for success. It is your power because it is the most fundamental instrument you use to produce an appliance. It is your curse, because you have to understand the ‘unity’ that existed in the universe until you applied this unforgiving knife and mercilessly cut up the creation into two parts. If you don’t understand that unity, you will put your knife at the wrong place – and all the King’s men and his army cannot put Humpty-Dumpty together again. Law of 2 produces an interface.

Law of 2 also produces Law of 3, Law of 4, Law of 5 and Law of 8. A very brief description of the other laws is probably not out of place here.

Law of 3 deals with Functional Completeness. The concept of trinity is very old in religious, philosophical, and esoteric literature and systems of thought. In Hindu philosophy – there is a concept of Creation, Maintenance and Destruction, there is a concept of Tri-Gunas – Satvic, Rajasic and Tamasic and so on. Similarly, Christianity has a concept of Trinity. Most governments today are organized as a form of trinity – the President, Parliament and the Judiciary. In computing systems – there are architectures called Model, View and Controllers which are the most popular way of constructing large, complex systems. Most of the human endeavour is divided into art, craft and engineering. This law is used when ever you want to do “functional division”. Law of 3 produces structure.

Law of 4 deals with “spatial completeness” and “knowledge representation”. There are four Vedas, four sciences – physics, chemistry, biology and social sciences, there are four major directions – North, South, East and West. There are four major relationships – Spouse, Parents, Children and In-Laws. Basically, you use Law of 4 to organize the world. Law of 4 produces Organization.

By now, I am sure you get the drift. Law of 5 deals with materials and how those materials interact with each other to produce new materials and functions. For example, application of this law produces the five fundamental elements, the five primary organs of perception, the five primary functions of a human being and so on. Law of 5 produces Processes

It is a bit complex to explain Law of 8. Very briefly, Law of 8 is the law of integration. You put together all your divisions back together using Law of 8 to produce unified whole. Law of 8 thus produces integration. But, this is right now out of syllabus. This is not easy to explain, you have to internalize it on your own.

As a designer – your most fundamental concepts that you manipulate all the time are therefore – Interface, Structure, Organization and Process. Do you see an application of Law of 4 already working here?

Suppose you are asked to design a corporation – what you produce is an interface, a structure, an organization scheme and the related processes.

Suppose you are asked to produce a household electronics product – what you produce is its interface, its structure, its organization and the basic processes.

Suppose you have to design your own family and make it work as a harmonious unit – you have to think of its interface, its structure, its organization and the processes in built in it. Any problem in the family could be explained in terms of one of these four ‘elements of design’.

All laws of design apply equally well to ourselves. As a designer – you must first design the structure of your own consciousness. How do you do that?

You must learn how to interface with the rest of the world. If you attend an interview, and you tell them that your work is essentially a creative process – it will make people very nervous. Most design students that I interacted with place a lot of unnecessary emphasis on creativity. They somehow think that because their work is very creative, they are somehow “a special brand of people” and they expect the world to give them some special respect.

The world doesn’t care – your employer wants results. They don’t care whether the process you use is creative process or whether you have some sort of “manual” from which you cut and paste. Creativity is totally your problem.

Creativity and out of box thinking are very unreliable as far as the rest of the world is concerned. We are all conditioned to associate creativity with poets, artists and the like. And, we also think that there is no way such a function can be called on demand reliably every time. So your employer thinks that there is no way they can ask you to work to a dead line, there is no way to assess your performance, and that your quality of work will be very inconsistent.

They are right. Until you can master your own “creative process” and have the ability to summon its services when ever you want – you are standing on a very slippery ground. If our discipline lacks a mathematical underpinning, the rest of the world cannot be held responsible for that.

Instead of getting high on creativity bit, instead you should tell the rest of the world that your work involves synthesis and systems thinking. Tell them that instead of using the usual analysis and deductive modes of problem solving – you depend on synthesis, integration and problem identification. Tell them instead of thinking in terms of causes and effects, you approach the problem in terms of associations and relationships. You may stand a better chance of getting that job.

To be continued….
There are a total of about more than 30 articles I planned in this series. Eventually, I will complete this series. But , be patient. I am very greatful for any comments, feedback, suggestions. All your contributions will be duely acknowledged.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Bhagavad-Gita or Budda-Gita?

I know this post will generate a lot of controversy. I hope the Hindu fundamentalists will not come after me.

I want to establish that the Bhagavad-Gita as we know today is not what Krishna taught Arjuna, and to try and provide some convincing arguments that it is in fact a Buddhist teaching.


I was first introduced to the Gita some time in the early 90s. Right from the beginning I had some discomfort with Gita – it always seemed to me that there is some inconsistency in it. If I put myself in the shoes of Arjuna, the Gita does not answer Arjuna’s question.

At a very practical level, Arjuna’s question is quite simple. He was standing in the middle of the battle ground – he sees his friends, fathers, relatives, teachers lined up in the opposition, and it disturbs him greatly. He drops all his armor, and decides to exit. His contention is there is absolutely no justification for war – no matter how serious the injustice caused, no matter how important the need might be for a new social order – war is not a means to accomplish that end. This is the gist of the first chapter of the Gita (called Arjuna Vishada Yoga).

Now what does Krishna do? He starts of in a very metaphysical manner. His point is that you don’t kill anything. The birth and death are the natural cycles of the cosmos. Everything that is born must die at some time. The ‘Atman’ has no birth and no death, and the reality is that in every being we see, there is a hidden ‘Atman’ that is indestructible.

From there he goes on to establish the theory of Karma. The birth and death, and in between the cycle of life is in accordance with the law of Karma. We must all enjoy the fruits of our Karma, but we have no right to put any expectations about the returns and so on. Basically his point is that you have a right to do your duty, but no right to demand anything.

Does this really answer Arjuna’s question? Mind you - Arjuna was not an idiot – he was one of the most learned men of his time. And, he was a man of action. One cannot easily distract him, however dejected he might be. He was one of the very few in his time who learned ‘Brahmastram’. This meant that he knew the technique of ‘Brahman’ – in other words, he knew how to direct the divine energy for a specific purpose. He knew and understood the unity that pervades all of creation. This would mean that he knew and understood – and even practiced – the law of Karma, and the birth & death cycle of living beings.

Even such a man of real knowledge contends that war is not an acceptable means. So, what is point of repeating what he already knew as an answer?

Let’s assume for the time being that Arjuna is like any one of us. Suppose you are in a room full of mosquitoes, and they are having a real feast of your blood, and you are in tremendous discomfort. Suppose at that time, some great philosopher tells you that the mosquitoes cannot really bother your ‘Atman’ – which is your true self, what would you do? No matter how ‘gentle’ you are – I think that philosopher would be in some trouble.

This was the first inconsistency that troubled me about Gita. Alright – I have to clarify what I mean by inconsistency. The Gita is a great text of philosophy – I have no contention about that. The Gita can be split into two parts – the first chapter is part one, and the rest of the seventeen chapters form the part two. The first chapter is the question, and the rest of it is the answer to that question. The second part – is completely consistent in itself. But, the two parts are not consistent with each other. In simple terms, the answer provided does not satisfy the question that is put across.

There are other inconsistencies as well.

Krishna goes on to explain the virtues of non violence. This is a bit strange in the context of the great battle for which he was preparing Arjuna. And, then he goes on to explain different systems of ‘sadhana’ or ‘practice’ for self realization. He discusses about the benefits of vegetarianism, about ‘trigunas’ and so on.

What was the need for Self Realization in the context of a war?

Vegetarianism was not practiced in the Vedic times and what was its place in the story of Maha Bharata war?

The concept of ‘trigunas’ and the associated ‘value judgment’ is not a Vedic concept. We don’t find any such reference in any of the Upanishads. The Upanishads do not make value judgments. On the other hand, the Isopanishad goes to the extent that we should practice both – what ever those ‘both’ may be. There was never any concept of good and bad, divine and evil, spiritual and non-spiritual in the Vedic literature. The value judgment is an introduction of Buddhism.

One could argue that my ‘doubts’ indicate only my limited comprehension. I agree that I have very limited capacity. However, a prophetic text like Gita should make sense at any level of understanding? I mean, what ever might be my understanding of Arjuna’s question, the answer must also make sense in accordance with that understanding.

Anyway, this was what bothered about Gita for a long time. I found the answer recently, which was a greatly relieving experience.

Before, I provide all the evidence in support of my claim; first allow me to paint a simple scenario.

Let’s replace Arjuna with Emperor Asoka, and let’s shift the scene of the battle from Maha Bharata war to Kalinga War. Let’s also shift the time of preaching from ‘before war’ to ‘post war’.

Let’s for a moment imagine the state of Emperor Asoka after the great Kalinga War. Millions of people were killed. An entire culture was completely decimated. Many cities and towns were raged to ground. The emperor was standing in the middle of the battle ground – which was an immense graveyard. The pungent and revolting stench of blood was every where in the air. There were thousands of dead bodies lying around all over the battle ground. Vultures and other scavengers were fighting fiercely with each other, and enjoying their deadly feast. Women and children – who ever survived – were crying horribly searching for their dear ones.

At that moment, the emperor realizes what great price humanity had to pay in order to fulfill his ambitions. The realization of the gravity of his heinous act must have struck him like a lightening. His sorrow must have been immense. The only course of action that he contemplated was suicide.

If at that time, suppose he met a great spiritual teacher, and that teacher taught him the seventeen chapters of Gita to him – would that make sense? Would that teaching had the innate capability to establish a golden period of peace, prosperity and democracy? Would that teaching had the power to transform a power hungry dictator into one of the greatest statesman the history has ever known? And, would that remove the inconsistency between the first chapter of the Gita and the rest of it?

I think so.


I am fully aware that I cannot put forward such a controversial theme about a sacred text and offer only a simple conjecture as proof. I shall defend my theory with scholastic evidence, and provide all the necessary references.

To be continued….

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Throw the Clock and Save the Planet

Peak Oil and Future of Humanity - Part 3

In this last and final installment, I shall propose a model of our future development that ensures sustainable environment.

Following are the links to the first two posts:

Peak Oil and Future of Humanity - Part 1
Peak Oil and Future of Humanity - Part 2

First, let me summarize the previous two posts.

1. We stated that there is an impending oil crisis that has very huge implications on our existence as a species. We postulated that our dependence on oil may lead to our extinction as a species.

2. We looked at the progress of the humanity as a species – its real achievements, and areas of weakness.

3. We examined the current economic model, and made a sweeping conclusion that from an evolutionary point of view – humanity produces only garbage and toxins. We confuse consumption with productivity.

4. Our real progress can be summarized in a very short statement: - we learned how to preserve our experiences and knowledge and pass it on to our future generations. We learned how to coexist together as a species.

In the last post, I made a very brief comment about the current economic model and the gross domestic consumption and gross domestic production.

Our current productivity definitions are based on how fast and how much natural resources we consume. From a planetary ecology perspective, consumption is not productivity at all. What do we give in return for what we take from the environment? Except for humanity, all other species keep the harmony and balance. The plant species, consume very little resources, but they give back a lot in return – oxygen, food for other species, shelter and they provide the basic framework for other species to survive and develop themselves. This is true of all other species. Only human beings corrupt the environment – we give back only garbage and toxic waste in return, and we grow at the expense of other species. Jared Diamond in his seminal book Guns, Germs and Steel argued beautifully how many species are eradicated by man kind. This book is an excellent source for anyone who wants to understand our history from an evolutionary biology perspective. Not only do we produce anything of real value, but also we disturb the ecological balance.

This tendency in human beings is very counter intuitive. We are just like any other species. And, the biological and genetic makeup of any species must be to preserve the balance and harmony of the larger environment in which it is only but a small part. Preserving the balance of the environment must be one of the primary motivational drivers of any species, primarily because every species wants to preserve itself and for its own sake, the harmony and balance of the environment are mandatory. Why did human beings choose to pursue a contradictory, self destructive course of action?

I am not an anthropologist, nor am I an evolutionary biologist – therefore, I cannot provide a scientific answer to this question. I can only provide some philosophical arguments supported by empirical evidence.

Most of us have a memory of only a couple of generations. We assume that the way we are is the way we have always been. This is not true. The self destructive, consumption driven tendency in human beings is very recent – the way humans lived even until a few hundred years ago (before the industrial revolution) was by and large very harmonious and in balance with the Nature. There are exceptions of course – the entire Fertile Crescent area (the middle east of today) was once a dense cedar forest. It was completed eroded and converted into a desert by humanity. The story of Gilgamesh is an allegorical reference to this incident.

The driver behind the Industrial revolution is largely an evolutionary goal that we pursued – which is more or less is fulfilled by the end of 20th century. The evolutionary goal that was pursued by humanity in the last few hundred years is basically the question of how do we as a species live together as a very large community and how do we increase our own life span.

Humans tried many different large scale organization schemes – starting from small groups of families, villages, small cities supported by a local economy, religions, nations and finally group of nations by and large working together. The industrial revolution helped human beings to come together as a much diversified community.

The second accomplishment of the industrial revolution is the tremendous increase in the average life time of a human being. In the last century, the average life time of humans more than doubled.

But, we did not make the necessary changes that are required of the accomplishments of these two goals. We still live as if our life time is still 40 years – which is where the real trouble is.

It is probably not a coincidence that Peak Oil date is some where in the beginning of the 21st century – it will herald the end of Consumption and will bring in the beginning of real productivity.

Let me provide empirical evidence in support of these observations. Today, the whole of humanity has one prayer. Every one – all around the globe – is tired of the rate race that we are all caught up in. Every one is asking the question – what the hell am I doing? Why do we live in a stressful, meaningless environment, is there a way for us to get out of the mad rush that all us are in.

All genuine prayers will be answered. Peak Oil may be the answer. Some doomsday theorists claim that third world war is around the corner. But, another world war seems highly unlikely. On what basis the world will split itself into two groups? The world today is interconnected and every country is interdependent on each other in so many complex ways, there is no way to cleanly divide the world into two groups.

With the globalization, we all know each other so well – and we realize we are all so alike, and there is no widespread, deep rooted hatred in the humanity any more. Many people may disagree with me on this claim, but compare ourselves with our ancestors– there was so much hatred, cultural, racial superiority even in the last century that does not exist any more. There is always some amount of insanity in any community – that is not an indication of the entire community.

So, what is the solution?

Extraordinary problems have extraordinarily simple solutions. We need a new design of the world. The new design must keep the advancements we made as a species, and eliminate the unnecessary processes.

Russell Aukcoff – the father of modern systems thinking, once stated that once a design is successful, and all slack in the design is removed, we cannot optimize the design any more. It is time to re-design.

Christopher Alexander in his celebrated series of books – Nature of Order – explored the question of harmony, beauty and came up with a model of creating harmonious surroundings.

Dijkstra – the master computing designer – once gave a beautiful design principle. He said that we should never design programs in isolation, but always think of a program as a collection of programs, including the one that will replace it.

Putting all this together, let’s restate what we want to keep, what we want to throw away, and what new parameters we should take into account in the new design:

• We have to keep the democracy. We cannot take away the individual freedom of people. This means that the new world cannot be a communistic model. There cannot be rations, controls and gun-point dictatorships. No society can ration how much people should eat, what they should do, how much travel can they do, what thoughts they can think, and what goals they should pursue. We worked really hard to create a global, interdependent culture – this is our real treasure, and we must protect it for our own sake.

• The current industrial model of economy served its purpose – nobody wants the life style that comes with it any more. We are all tired of working in a complex, automated, mechanistic model of the world.

• We must include the new service oriented economy – where knowledge and information are freely and equally accessible to everyone, and an average corporation can be a small team – not thousands of people, in a complex, greedy model that serves the interests of a few individuals.

• We have double the life time compared to our ancestors – there is no need for us to be in a rush. We have to make the best of our increased life span.

Putting all this together, I propose that a solution is no more complex than just to slow down the clock.

Instead of working five days a week, if everyone in the world works for two days a week that will solve our current problem. First it will bring down our consumption by half, and therefore it will bring down the amount of pollution and garbage we generate by half, it will bring down our dependency on Oil by half.

In other words, if we ‘do’ in two years what we currently do in one year – that should solve all our problems and herald a new economic model.

I am not a futurologist like Alvin Toffler, but I can guess some of the fundamental shifts that may take place:

If colleges, schools and universities work for 2 days a week – then it will take double the time to complete the education. This would mean that the average graduation age will be probably around 30 years instead of present 20 years. This will probably enable some real learning and education to take place. More importantly, we will have more matured people. It may also slow down the population growth rates significantly across the world

Since everyone will have double the free time – they have more leisure, but the current consumerist avenues to spend the leisure will not be available at the same rate as they are today (because the entire world has slowed down – you will have half the number of flights, half the movie halls, half the TV channels, half the junk food, half the shopping malls) – they have to use the leisure time ‘productively’ – they may pick up some crafts, hobbies, develop friendships, work in the community, or tend to their back yard gardens. If the society also provides some avenues of ‘non-consumption work’ – like cleaning up the environment, train the young people, learn new crafts, help the forests grow etc., this may lead to real productivity.

National Geographic Magazine recently published an article about what makes people of certain communities live for a very long, healthy lives. They studied three communities – one in Japan, one in Italy and another in US – where the average life time was close to 100 years, and all members live a healthy life till they die. The characteristics of all these three communities are very similar – all the people in these communities have very harmonious and integrated families, long lasting friendships, they all practice their religion and most of them are farmers and work hard in their fields. More importantly, since all of them know that they will live for a long time – they are never in a hurry, they are not impatient. And, that allows them to be contented, happy people. They help the nature around them survive and they derive the benefit of doing this – long, contended lives.

All we have to learn is to be patient, rest for a while, take care of our families and friends, and that rose plant in our garden.

The solution is simple, and effective.

Acknowledgements: The idea of slowing down the clock was originally provided by Prof T V Prabhakar of IIT-Kanpur. Like many of Prof Prabhakar’s ideas – it appeared initially as ludicrously simple, but very enchanting. It took me more than three years to discover its real potential.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Why do we produce only Garbage?

Peak Oil and Future of Humantiy - Part2
This is a continuation from the previous post.

In this post, I examine a possible solution to the Peak Oil question, and use this as a basis to evaluate the current economic models.

In order to investigate the current predicament of mankind, we have to first examine – what is the real progress we achieved from an evolutionary stand point, and what are some of the areas where we became a burden on the environment.

From an evolutionary standpoint, any species’ evolution has to be evaluated from very simple bases:

1. How does the species live together? Are member of the community live isolated, individualistic lives, or is there team work, social organization etc?
2. How does the species live with respect to the larger environment, and its relationships to the overall ecology, other species and so on
3. How does the species store and transmit its knowledge and awareness to its subsequent generations?

The greatest evolution of humans in the last several hundred years (starting from say 9th Century up till now) could be best summarized as follows:

1. The mankind’s discovery of democracy as a primary social organization scheme. There are several theories about why democratic form of government is the best form of government from a political perspective – I have no intention of recapturing those arguments, but from a modeling perspective, the greatest advantage of a democratic model is that it allows the individual member of the society to pursue his/her own purpose, even though such a purpose may not be directly in alignment with the purpose of the larger society in general. This is the most flexible form of organization – it retains the freedom, experimentation, pursuing individual goals by members, without sacrificing the larger interests of the society.

2. Today, there is a definite shift from the age of the hero to the age of the humble. Heroes like Genghis Khan, Caesar, and Hitler do not exist anymore. An average human being today is a humble human being. Finally, human beings have learnt the technique of achieving synergy from team work. Today, a set of ordinary people can come together to achieve extraordinary results. There are tons of examples of this – wikipedia is perhaps the best example. If you notice the great sports personalities today – Roger Federer, Agassi, Sachin Tendulkar – they endeared themselves to the public because of their humility and humbleness, and they readily acknowledge the strengths of their peers and opponents.

3. The Internet and the Web shifted the awareness and sharing between the members of the community to unprecedented levels. They are not inventions of any single individuals, or even group of individuals, and they are not owned by any one in particular. And, contribution to the Web does not give any immediate ‘material reward’ – even then, it is the single largest effort currently in development.

4. There is a subtle shift in our economic model – we seem to be moving away from the industrial economy into service oriented economy. The major difference between these two economic models is very important for our future survival and development. The basis of the industrial economy is centered around controlling of access to information, and ownership and possession of resources where as the basis of the service oriented economy centers around decentralization of access to information, and using of resources without really possessing or owning them.

The above is a very short summary of our achievements as a species. However, our major weakness is how we live in relationship to our environment. Global Warming, our ever increasing thirst to consume all natural resources, the amount of garbage and toxins we release into our environment, our sense of superiority as a species are our weak links. There is a heavy price that we have to pay for the persistent apathy to our environment.

Consider how a plant lives in relationship to its environment. Let’s take the example of a rose plant. In its entire life time, all it needs from the environment is a handful of dirt, a few mugs of water each day, and sunlight that exists everywhere – and from these simple resources that it consumes, it produces a beautiful flower every day. Its function lies in the ‘complexity’ of transformation it performs to the resources it consumes, not in how much and how many of such resources it consumes. And, it does not release toxic hydro carbons in this process, it releases life sustaining oxygen.

Humans on the other hand – specialized in how fast we consume the natural resources provided to us by our environment and give nothing in return. We lack gratitude.

The problem lies in our current economic model. Economists should measure Gross Domestic Consumption instead of Gross Domestic Production – because, we do not really produce anything at all, except garbage – from the point of view of the larger ecology and environment. The current definition of performance and efficiency as measured by corporations, individuals, governments, societies and cultures is centered on how fast we can consume the given resources. There is really no definition of efficiency that measures our productivity by means of how little we consumed in relation to what we produce!!

I believe our future survival and development lies in changing this GDC to real GDP.

In the next post, I shall provide a solution to this problem.

Peak Oil and the Future of the Humanity

In this article, I examine some of the implications of humanity's dependence on Oil as its primary resource, and propose some counter intuitive theory of how to survive in a world where Oil would become increasingly precious.

If you search Google for "Peak Oil" - you get about 28 Million Hits. The Peak Oil is supposed to be the important event that will shape the Humanity’s future.

It is the job of news papers and journalists to report and analyze events. As a philosopher, I am not interested in the event as such. My interest is basically what is a possible future for all of us and investigate some of the implications of different courses of action. Therefore, I will use the Peak Oil event as a basis to examine certain questions related to how we should live.

For a good reference on Peak Oil, refer to the following websites. Both the websites have many links to lots of other interesting material.

Life After the Oil Crash
Hubbert Peak Theory

According to Wikipedia:

“The Hubbert Peak theory posits that for any given geographical area, from an individual oil field to the planet as a whole, the rate of oil production tends to follow a bell-shaped curve. Early in the curve (pre-peak), production increases due to the addition of infrastructure. Late in the curve (post-peak), production declines due to resource depletion. “Peak Oil” as a proper noun, also known as Hubbert’s peak, refers to a singular event in history: the peak of the entire planet’s oil production. After Peak Oil, according to the Hubbert Peak Theory, the rate of oil production on Earth will enter a terminal decline.”

Even though there appears to be a general agreement about the Peak Oil theory, various experts have different dates for the Peak Oil. Most estimates predict that the Oil production will reach its peak somewhere between 2005-2012.

The indications that we are close to the Peak Oil are already here:

  • The Oil Prices continue to rise in the recent years. In fact, the price of oil more than doubled in the last 6 years. This trend seems to continue, and does not seem to have anything to do with temporary and transient geo political environment.
  • Many advanced countries are making a concerted effort to reduce their dependency on Oil. Sweden has a stated goal of reducing their oil dependency by more than 70% by 2020. In a recent address to the US Congress and Senate, President Bush spoke at length about US dependency on Middle Eastern oil and the urgent need to address this dependency.
  • US and UK’s recent Iraq adventures – even though there was evidence to suggest that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – may have something to do with controlling Iraqi Oil reserves.
  • Reputed journals like National Geographic carry articles about Oil Crisis regularly
  • Many big oil companies are exploring for ‘expensive oil’ – companies like Chevron and Shell are drilling for oil at 20,000 feel below the sea level. Chevron is developing an oil field in the pacific ocean at a cost of 3.5 Billion Dollars – the estimated reserves of that oil field are half a billion barrels.
  • There is an increased thrust across the globe on non-conventional energy sources.
What are the impacts of such an event? And what are the alternatives?

At a practical level – we only have one alternative. We have to quickly find an alternative to our dependency on oil. But, this is much simpler said than done. Our dependency on oil is far reaching – from petrol chemicals to transportation – we are completely dependent on oil. Even other non-conventional energy sources are directly or indirectly oil derivates.

In US, food has to travel on an average 2000 Miles from the place where it is produced to the mouth that finally consumes the food.

Agricultural production is heavily dependent on oil – fertilizers, power, heavy equipment like ground water pumping, large scale irrigation, farming equipment are all dependent on oil and energy.

Many life saving drugs – like anti-biotics etc., are oil derivates.

Each country and society has a responsibility to feed its population – and the population feeds on oil. This may lead to resource wars between countries.

At some time, Nature may step in – in ways that we cannot even imagine – and the population of the Earth may come down drastically.

At present, these are the only three alternatives that seem to be available – 1. We quickly find an alternative energy source that is a replacement to oil. 2. We fight with each other or 3. We don’t do anything and let Mother Nature take care of the situation. In reality, all three alternatives may work simultaneously.

However, I think the issue is much deeper than finding alternatives to ‘oil’.

Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have discovered that any species that super specializes on one particular type of resource will become extinct eventually. The case of the Red Panda is an example. The Red Pandas eat a very specific leaf, and when that resource becomes unavailable – the species will also become extinct. On the other hand, insects like cockroaches survived for the longest time because they are dependent on resources that are always guaranteed to be available – in the case of a cockroach, the resource is garbage created by other living creatures.

Man is now a super spiciest – not just in terms of his knowledge and special abilities, but from the nature’s point of view, Man is completely dependent on oil. So, does it mean humanity is reaching its end?

However, man is neither a cockroach nor a red panda. We are equipped with an awareness of our situation and the ability to do something about it. Nature worked really hard for billions of years perfecting its own techniques of invention and finally produced its best product – an intelligent, sentient human being who could acquire the capacity to understand the process of creation and the cosmos. So, instead of Mother Nature being our enemy, it may actually aid us in our survival and even development. But, for this to occur, we have to act as one species, not as people from different cultures, nations, geographies, religions and races. Are we capable of such a harmonious, unified action?

I believe so.

To be continued....