Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Wishing your way to success

Yet another season of greetings have passed us by. I have been bombarded with new year wishes by SMS, orkut scraps and email messages. With the availability of simple and fast systems such as these the effort required to send a greeting has been brought down to almost nothing. But have you for a moment stopped and thought about the objective (if any) behind wishing somebody else and actual results (if any) of such wishes?

If wishes were to directly influence the possibility of whatever is being wished for, then the laws of probabilities would have to be redefined to handle these external biases. Events would happen or not happen based on the number of people wishing for that event. So it is quite rational to conclude that wishing does not directly influence the possibility of the outcome wished for. Otherwise I could have just stopped doing any work sit back and just start wishing for things I need or just ask a lot of people to wish me those things that I desire.

If that is not the case then what is the effect of wishing? When somebody wishes another person luck or wishes him good, the recipient gets a positive boost to his state of mind and this should in turn motivate him to work harder to get what was wished for or to stop worrying about not getting what was wished for. These factors should effectively increase the probability of him/her getting what was being wished for.

A corollary would be when the person does not get any good wishes or when he gets cursed upon by others he would loose his morale and thereby decrease his chance of achieving the objective under consideration. A simple example would be where you have a higher probability of making a mistake about which you have been warned, which in turn had your mind thinking about the probability of your failure in the given task.

However there is a small catch here. Suppose the recipient is not really affected psychologically by the wishes then the dependency of the probability of success or failure on the wishes is removed. This might look as a negative impact but in fact this gives the person more control over the probability of success or failure in the task at hand. The moment the person identifies that it does not matter what others say and, that what matters is only how he/she performs, he/she can focus his/her energies and efforts on the task and in turn should be able to have a higher average control over the probabilities than otherwise.

So wishes and curses do matter if you allow them to do so and if otherwise they would not matter. In addition, you should not let them do so, to have a more predictable outcome for your tasks/events in your life or in other words to have a higher control over the probabilities of successes for your tasks.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Does it matter how I dress?

I had an interesting debate with a friend of mine recently about why we need to take care in dressing up the way we do and whether it is essential at all to take that much care in our attire. The whole conversation started when I jokingly said that I am going to go the RMS way and grow a mustache and a beard.

In today's society people give a lot of importance to appearances. It is no longer about how neat we dress, but how costly we dress. This depressing tendency has pervaded even developing countries like India. Probably a consequence of the growth of a set of extremely rich trend setters or probably because of the increase in affordability of riches and luxuries.

People not only want to dress rich but also rate others on how they dress. Sometimes this results in funny ironies in the way people dress. In India, known for its high temperatures and humidities, senior IT professionals try to imitate their European and American counterparts and dress in formal suits. They do this because they do not want to be placed on a different tier when they interact with their counterparts previously mentioned. This happens only because there is a prevalent notion, most probably true, that people rate other people based on how they dress.

It is fun to notice how people treat you (on an average) when you walk into an office unshaved and when you walk in clean shaved. When you walk in clean shaved and well dressed people normally will treat you with more respect and more attention than when you walk in dishevelled. Of course this does not apply to cases where the people in the office know you well.

The above deduction will stand true when you meet people randomly in a social gathering or in a professional gathering. So it is as if there is a social mind set prevalent among most people that rate people high or low accordingly as their attire and appearances. There is a rational explanation of this mind set. On an average there is a good probability for a person taking care of his appearances take good care in grooming his capabilities as well.

There is another small theory that has to be considered alongside the above one. A man has only certain amount of time to dedicate for all his different tasks. Most people run at less than 100% efficiencies and they would be able to do justice to all of their tasks. However those who are running at close to their 100% efficiencies will have a problem. Any increase in time allocated for any of their activities will eat into the time available for other activities. Now all of the tasks performed by such people will not be contributing to their efficiencies. So theoretically he can cut down on the time on unproductive tasks to give more time on the productive tasks. This can be explained with a simple example as given below.

Suppose a person has a simple set of 4 tasks - Sleeping - 8 hrs, Dressing Up - 1 hr, Travelling - 2 hrs, Working - 13 hrs. Work is where he actually produces something of value. Now if his work is not affected by the way he dresses (sometimes it does as in the case of a marketing executive) the 1 hr he spends on dressing up is a total waste as far is productivity is concerned. Same is the case with traveling. If however he reduces the time he spends on sleeping and instead use that for working he will slowly start seeing a reduction in the actual productivity because of a lack of rest. Similarly for marketing executives, spending time on dressing might actually increase their productivities.

Again there is another scenario that is worth looking at. Suppose you are an IT professional who has an idea that you would like to present to a group of investors. Even if the only thing that the investors are going to look at is your idea, if you think that there is a slightly better chance of you landing a deal if you go in formal attire, you should.

Psychologists give another reason why one should dress well. This might not apply to those people who don't give a damn to the way they dress and totally unaffected by the way they dress irrespective of the group of people they are in the midst of. Dressing well usually gives a more confident feel to those people who are aware of the notion that other people will look at the way you dress (read it as most people - at least in Kerala). It is interesting in this context to note that the notion is less strong in developed countries like US and UK and more strong in countries like India.

It is basically a decision that you have to make regarding the way you dress. Ultimately what matters is how you feel and not how others feel. If you think you should, you should; if not, you shouldn't.

There are a couple of seemingly contradicting sayings that relate to appearances - "Do not judge a book by its cover" and "First impression is the best impression". The first one is the general rule for all people to follow and the second one is a conclusion given the fact that most people do not follow the first rule.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Why should you save water?

You must have heard it umpteen times through your newspapers, tv channels, conservationist friends - Save Water. Have you ever thought why you should save water? I used to ask this question myself. If you put some thought into it you will understand the reasons why you should save water and this understanding will make you save water more effectively than the barrage of "Save Water" messages you see.

Water is one of the most abundant natural resources that we have. More than three quarters of the earth's surface is covered with water. Besides you can't just destroy water like that normally. You change it from one form to another and also cycles through different physical processes and biological processes. On an average the total available water content on planet earth remains almost constant.

However most of the water that we have on earth is not directly in potable form. Seawater is not, neither is water locked in marshes, swamps, salty lakes. So that leaves rivers, fresh-water lakes, ponds, wells and ground water table. Now for clarity of reasoning we can divide people into those who depend on public water supply systems (city and town dwellers) and those who depend on natural water sources directly.

Public water supply systems become necessary when people cannot practically get all the water they need on their own from nearby natural water sources. This happens when population densities rises and the local natural water bodies cannot sustain year long the water requirements of the people. So naturally this process happens in towns and cities where water is pumped from faraway and larger natural water bodies. Additionally this centralized distributions also opens the possibility of filtering and purifying the water at source and reduces the possibilities of water borne diseases. So, off late, this facility is being extended to rural areas as well.

Of the natural sources of water mentioned above, public distribution of water has to come from reasonably perennial sources and from where water can be drawn in volumes without causing too much of an imbalance in the ecosystem. So that leaves only large lakes and perennial rivers available as public water supply sources. More often than not these water bodies end up being reasonably far away from the city and it costs energy to pump the water to the city and to bring it to the homes of the inhabitants.

In a rural area where there is no public water supply, people normally depends on wells, ponds and to some extend rivers for their water supply needs. Wherever electricity is available it will be used to power pumps to draw and supply water to the homes. Also, both ponds and wells depend on ground water tables. So using water from these sources puts a pressure on the ground water table.

So we have seen two distinct reasons why we should save water
1) In both cases, where we use water from public water supply systems or directly from natural bodies, saving water will save the energy required to filter, purify and bring the water to the end user.
2) Saving water will reduce the pressure on the natural water bodies and will help in ensuring year round supply of water and also availability of water for agricultural purposes.
3) There is again a third and not so evident reason as to why we should save water. This applies only to towns and cities that depend on public water supply systems. All these systems depend on an underground network of pipes for distributing the water. The pipes only can supply a certain maximum quantity of water. If there are n users in that town/city and this maximum capacity is W liters per year, then a person using more than W/n liters of water per year will reduce the ability of other people in the same town/city to enjoy an equal amount of water as him. So saving water will help in equitable distribution of water in towns and cities. This is especially relevant in places where the topography of the land leads to unequal availability even under sub-maximal usage limits.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Richard Stallman (RMS) talk at UC College Alwaye, Kerala

Richard Mathew Stallman aka RMS gave yet another of his brilliant lectures at UC College, Alwaye, Kerala. I was fortunate enough to be able attend the meeting. The last time he visited Kerala, I missed his talk and I did not want to miss it this time. As is usual with his talks, he talked about what is "Free", why should software be "Free", what is wrong if otherwise, about GNU and Linux and FSF and Linus Torvarlds. I am sure that somebody will post a transcript of the talk and a video of the talk online soon. I would however like to discuss more about my take on some of the points he addressed.

Before I proceed further I must confess that I subscribe fully to the philosophy behind FSF, GNU and GPL(all versions). I must do this first, lest I accidentally irritate and turn away a cursory reader who could also be a FSF fan(atic). I will list some of the points where I have slightly different opinions as compared with RMS and I am sure he would agree to my freedom to voice these opinions.

1. The freedom behind the software is more important than the software itself

Freedom is definitely important; but when it comes to matters of practicality and when there is no other alternative you have to be able to accept non-Free solutions to get your work done. Take, for example, the simple case of CAD software. I have been having this discussion with a few of my engineer friends, to make them to try out Free Software alternatives to the proprietary solutions that they already use. The sad truth of the matter is that, some of them had tried and all of them have failed. The specialized need of some of the tasks that they do, does not really help in the probability of one of the users of the task actually writing a Free Software version of the same software. In such cases, what can one do other than to use the proprietary system, and at the same time contribute efforts in building a Free Software that can do the same set of tasks.

2. Free Software should not include proprietary components at all

The issue raised particularly dealt with proprietary firmware and binary drivers that certain distributions of GNU/Linux use. It is true that all proprietary code and binaries have to be ultimately thrown out but if it comes to be the only way in which you can get a working system you should go ahead and use it, and at the same time push for opening up the proprietary systems, or creating free systems that can replace the proprietary systems. The only thing that a novice home user would have between him and his using GNU/Linux would probably be the non-availability of Open Source drivers for his hardware.

The freedom behind an open source driver would be the last thing he would have on his mind. If using a proprietary driver would help him switch to GNU/Linux why not? We can always make him switch to the Free version the moment it is available. One point that needs to be noted is that, the community should not give up on its efforts to create a Free version of the driver even if the proprietary version is made available for GNU/Linux. So the strategy here is simple - let the GNU/Linux market explode and then leverage on its size to call for opening up of proprietary drivers and for providing of GNU/Linux variants where they did not exist in the first place.

RMS uses an interesting reference to market forces in this scenario. Once people start using proprietary drivers in GNU/Linux systems it is possible that the demand for open drivers would wane and would not be as effective as it otherwise would have been. My counter argument would be that this lowering of demand would be negated by the much higher increase of the GNU/Linux market as a whole and consequently for the higher demand for the open drivers from the larger market.

3. RMS' opinion on non-GPL licenses and the "Open Source" Camp

RMS has been strongly voicing his opinion against non-GPL licenses and the "Open Source" initiative. In his opinion both play against the Freedom that the concept of Free Software highlights either directly or indirectly by helping those who are totally against the concept of Free Software. It is interesting to note here that the actual causal agent behind this is the same market force which he had used in the previous argument. Market forces and the demand for maximizing profit by business owners and share holders results very often in scenarios that do not strictly align with the concept of freedom as outlined at FSF's definition of free software.

More often than not, these forces work against the concept of freedom, and where money speaks market listens. Now that is not a good proposition. You have a philosophy which goes against (or looks to most people as something which goes against) the principles of profit maximization and you have the whole set of owners of capital (with very few exceptions) against such a philosophy. So how do you fight in such a situation. Simple. Use the old concept of divide and rule. When the enemy camp is strong, try to divide the camp and see if you can get some allies. This is exactly what the non-GPL and the Open Source camp is doing.

Bringing in more owners of capital to accept the less tougher option of Open Source first and more tougher of GPL later is much easier than getting them to accept GPL in the first place. So with increased numbers market will see the real value behind Free Software and slowly tilt in favor of Free Software as opposed to proprietary software. However the totally antagonistic approach that RMS is taking is not going to get a lot of supporters from the business owner set. Unless you penetrate that community there is no real hope of making significant impact in the user community.


Having said all this I hope that the highly honorably efforts of RMS and the FSF succeeds to their fullest possible expectations.

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