Thursday, May 26, 2011

Eureka? Please???

This has been an interesting week for a news junkie.

First, Pakistan almost lost an air base to a bunch of suicidal maniacs who crawled in through the sewer pipes, proving the point I have always made -- the Pakistanis should eat more fiber and less meat. It keeps the sewage pipes busy, and keeps the terrorists out of air bases. I am pretty sure that our news industry, given its deep infatuation with things that exit the gastrointestinal tract, was going to spend more time on this story.

But suddenly, there was talk. All over the ether. About a critical comment made by Mr. Jairam Ramesh, India's environment minister, about the sorry state of research conducted at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs).

In case you want to know the specifics, read on. Mr. Ramesh was speaking to a bunch of journalists, on why the government institutions in India have a very bad track record of succeeding at anything they do. And, why the IITs and IIMs are miserably ranked, compared to many other institutions elsewhere, as far as research goes. Mr. Ramesh, being a graduate of one such IIT, is apparently better suited to make such a remark. But, if you look at the graph below, you will see that you don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out where India's top institutes are, in terms of research. (You can read more of this story, published in The Telegraph, here)

I found something even stranger. The erudite faculty members of the IITs, suddenly started shouting from the rooftops on why Mr. Ramesh should mind his own business. But, most people, who have studied at these institutions, have actually come out and supported Mr. Ramesh for calling a spade a spade.  Mr. Ramesh and I share a common bond. We both have been forever scarred by the IIT system as undergraduates. We both expected much more of our professors, when we studied there.  And we both got very little, specially, in terms of the motivation one needs, to be a researcher, in a country such as ours. It goes without saying, that we both decided to pursue our graduate studies elsewhere.

Many years have passed since I wore that diploma-hat, but I don't think the educational standards in the IITs have changed much. Indian scientists and academics have debated a lot on why the IITs have not ended up as world class research institutes. I have heard various reasons, such as, the low pay that the faculty members make compared to what they can make in the private sector, the lack of independence, and plain old-fashioned lethargy, that kicks in around the first week of May, and continues till the last week of April. Every year. A famous Indian scientist, Dr. Mashelkar, even attributed the poor quality of research to Indian scientists being too reverential -- supposedly, it is a cultural thing we Indians have!

I have always wondered if it is possible to take one technical institution in India, and make it "world class".  Just one would be fine. You don't need to call it an IIT, call it anything you wish. For example, you could call it the "Desi Babu Institute of Advanced Technical Research".  Give it the freedom to choose its research agenda, do not impose the "quota system" in admissions, hire the best academics from all over the world -- and pay them market wages, comparable to what they would make elsewhere. In short, give this institute all the ingredients of success, and watch what happens.

Is the government willing to do such a thing? Maybe! Is the government able to do such a thing? No! 
Any popularly elected government in any democracy has certain constraints it has to work with. In India, these constraints are --  reservation quotas for student admissions, low pay for professors decided by bureaucrats and  hiring unionized workers with terrible work culture as administrative staff. Plus, most IITs have now become political tools for politicians. In the old days, the emperor in Delhi used to hand out bushels of grain and herds of cows as reward for loyalty. Unfortunately, nowadays, a local politician gets rewarded with an IIT in his state. And hence, new IITs end up being located between the mustard fields of Sukhwinder and the wheat fields of Rajwinder. "Out in the sticks" is really a superlative expression for such choice locations for the new IITs. 

So, Mr. Ramesh made a very simple statement. He said that excellence cannot be achieved in a government setup. So, perhaps, it is time that we established world-class institutes, outside the sphere of influence of the government.

And, all hell broke loose.  He was called a self serving loudmouth. He was called a loony libertarian. And, many academics at the IITs called him extremely unreasonable.

The famous Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw is known to have made many a witty remark. One, that has always appealed to me as a scientist and an engineer goes like this -- "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

I think we just need a few more unreasonable men like Mr. Ramesh. And, we will do just fine.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Confessional - Final Part

Galileo 1, 2470.

Tribunal Decision - Interplanetary High Crimes

Based on the confession of Mr. Deshprem Babu, and the circumstantial evidence, the tribunal concludes that Mr. Babu was not responsible for the death or disappearance of Mr. Swami. Just like a weapon maker cannot be held responsible for the deaths caused by the weapons created by him, Mr. Babu cannot be held responsible for the misuse of his machine, without his permission.  

This tribunal hereby acquits him of all charges brought before it.

Alicia Wang-Kumar


Galileo 21, 2470.

Tribunal Decision - Chief Interplanetary Authority

In review of the tribunal decision dated Galileo 1, 2470, in the case of Mr. Deshprem Babu, this tribunal upholds the earlier decision with express command to perform the following acts, that are hereby authorized:

1. That, all the evidence used in this trial be destroyed and expunged from legal records.
2. That, there is no official change in the stance of the interplanetary council that time travel is impossible.
3. That, Mr. Babu be advised to seek psychological counselling.

Ali Robson Zhang
Chief Judge


(Although Mr. Deshprem Babu was not known to keep a personal log, a single entry was found in his journal, for the last day of the year 2470. This is the last document found in his possessions, which makes a reference to his experiments with time travel.)

 Galileo 31, 2470.

This was a very eventful year. The acquittal took a load off my chest. 

In the last few years, I have reviewed the  logs of my time machine many times, since I was able to recover some data from it after it got damaged in the power surge. My calculations confirm that Mr. Ghosh's fountain pen indeed made its way to the medieval times. I have no way of confirming this as I have stopped all my experiments with time. But, I am completely baffled to note that Mr. Ghosh's writing career was not affected by the arrival of his pen in a time, a few centuries before his own. 
With much thinking, I can arrive at only one conclusion -- that the lost pen, did not belong to Mr. Ghosh. In spite of the tremendous respect I have for the curatorial abilities of the Kolkata museum, I think that they wrongly classified someone Else's pen as his. And that, also allows me to close up this rather unfortunate chapter of my life, on the last day of this year.

My work with time has always made me aware of the strange things it can do. I wonder, if there is something more to this, that I am not aware of.

Kolkata. March 15, 2011

He didn't expect his entry to be so easy. It was about 3 AM, and all the guards seemed to be fast asleep. He had scaled the back wall of the mission with relative ease, and it took him about five minutes to pick the lock and get into the exhibit room. He was really good at this stuff, and time had made him only better. At some level, he felt guilty about stealing from the catholic mission, but he had really fallen on hard times.

He had read in the newspaper about the traveling exhibition of the personal possessions of medieval popes from the Vatican. These exhibits were always interesting, since there was always something he could sell to a collector. As he walked into the hall, an ornate old chest immediately drew his attention. He opened it, and found bundles of paper and a few wooden artifacts inside it. Suddenly, he heard a loud bang. He had startled a cat inside the exhibit room, and it had tipped over a metal statuette. Suddenly, he heard a whistle, and some hurried footsteps. He had to grab whatever he could, and get out. In the box he had opened, he saw a cylindrical container, of the size of a large candle. Perhaps, it had something valuable in it! He grabbed it, and ran out, just in time to avoid the guards and jump over the wall that he had so easily scaled.

He was very curious to see what was inside the cylindrical container, which looked really old. As he opened it, he found something, that was wrapped in many layers of cloth and paper. Finally, after much careful unwrapping, he was very surprised to find a fountain pen inside it. As he held up the pen to the first light of the day, he shook his head.  

This was no antique from the medieval times!

He was holding a shining Sheaffer fountain pen in his hand. This would still fetch him a good price. There was a shop he knew, where he could sell it. He would tell them that it was a gift from his father. And, that he had fallen on hard times.


Mr. Saha was quite surprised to find the famous writer, Biswanath Ghosh, walking into his shop again. This would be for the second time. In two days.

"Mr. Ghosh, what a pleasure! Would you like to buy another pen from us, Sir?"

Mr. Ghosh looked a little unhappy. "Mr. Saha, I have bought many expensive fountain pens from you in the past, and I have never had the reason to complain, have I?. You know that I am very picky about my fountain pens, but given my past experience with you, I could just buy the Sheaffer yesterday without even checking it. And, when I tried it out at night, I found that it had terrible flow. I just don't know what to tell you." 

"Oh! I am so sorry. Please accept my sincere apologies, Sir. I will get you a replacement immediately."

In a few minutes, Mr. Saha came back, a little red-faced from the back of the store. "Sir, I am terribly sorry, but it seems that we have run out of our supply of  Sheaffers. But, I do have a slightly used Sheaffer that someone sold me this morning. Would you like to try it Sir? I will give you a substantial discount on it. And of course, you get to keep the free Sheaffer watch that came with the pen. With our compliments!"

Mr. Ghosh was hesitant, but as soon as he saw the pen, he had a strange sense of Deja-vu. As he held the pen in his hand, he felt that he had held it before. Somewhere. Or may be, sometime. As he started writing with the pen, he felt that the tip had worn just the right way, as if, he had been using the pen for ages. This was the pen he needed! Mr. Ghosh had a smile on his face.
As he got into a taxi, Mr. Ghosh looked at his newly acquired pen again. He had expected to spend at least an hour at Mr. Saha's shop, trying out the various pens he had in stock. But, he was done in a few minutes, and he had a pen that he couldn't complain about. He had expected to be late for his next appointment at Park Street, but now, it seemed that he would be early. It seemed that although he had expected to lose time, he had actually gained time this morning.

As he looked at his gleaming new watch, Mr. Ghosh smiled again. Time had never ceased to amaze him -- he wondered, what surprise it had in store for him -- the next time.

(The End)

The Confessional - Part III

Confucius 21, 2463.

Dear Holy Father,

Often, I wonder why after being an ideal civilization for two hundred years or so, we humans still fall prey to greed. And, I have wondered if the greed in a man can result in his destruction, even if the rest of the world leaves him alone. The last few weeks have made me wonder a lot about the seven deadly sins and I am ready to make another confession. About not listening to advice given to me by my superiors, and doing things that greatly interfere with nature.

After the rather bitter experience that Swamy had with woof-woof, I have a feeling that he has become unusually suspicious of my activities. And rightly so, since I have violated every single instruction given to me by the academy, when I was banished to the space-station. Holy father, I was asked to stop experimenting with time. The academy thought that being so far away from my laboratory, I would not have the right resources to. What they forgot was that a space station has some of the most advanced technologies available in our civilization. And, with a few modifications, one can experiment with whatever one wishes to.

I have greatly refined my theories on time travel in the last few months. I have not only been able to move photons across time, but I have also been able to connect them to my hologram generator. As a result, my phantoms of light, have now become the phantoms of time. I have been able to witness many historical events that have shaped human civilization. And, I have witnessed them like a person standing in the room or the street it happened in. Except, that I was not physically there. Yesterday, I watched the Crucifixion of our lord, with tears in my eyes. And today, I attended a meeting of yours in the Holy See, with powerful men of God, who would like to see stricter punishment for heresy. I must say holy father, that I am greatly impressed with your desire to protect people for their independent thoughts, as it was quite evident that you didn't want to punish people like Galileo beyond what was absolutely necessary. I was quite proud of myself, that across the ocean of time, I picked a kindred soul to confess to.  Holy father, I won't disappoint you.

For the last few weeks, I have been experimenting with the next logical step to time travel -- that of  transporting a physical object across time. And yesterday, I was finally successful. I had foreseen this event for quite some time, which is why, I was actually writing these letters to you on paper. Holy father, I am extremely fortunate that yesterday, as my experiment succeeded, I was able to transport my first confessional letter to you. Right to your desk, across the ocean of time. I made sure that no one was present in your chamber at that time, since I was viewing the holographic image of your room, as if I was standing there. Unfortunately, this time-travel by a piece of paper, required a large amount of energy, and the lights in our space-station dimmed. I think, Swamy immediately suspected that I was responsible.

As our captain, he has the access codes to all of our living quarters, and he barged into mine before I could shut down my hologram. As he walked around my room, he asked me questions about the strange room I was viewing, with medieval collections of paintings on the wall. I told him that it was an artificial hologram I had created, of a Roman palace from the past, but I think he suspected that there was something beyond it. And, as he walked close to your desk, I think he saw the letter that I had sent to you. He tried to reach out and touch it, but like a phantom's hand, his hand went through the letter, and I hoped that he would be convinced by my explanation. Then, he walked over to a small collection of statuettes kept in the corner of your chamber. As he looked at these objects made of gold, I noticed that his eyes had turned glassy, as if, he was in a trance. Holy father, completely forgetting that he was viewing a hologram, Swami reached out and tried to grab one of the statuettes. And when realized that he couldn't, he got extremely angry. As he walked out of my room, he had a strange expression on his face as he told me, "Babu, watch your back. Since I will be watching you."

I just assumed that the times ahead would be quite interesting for me.
And now, I have been wondering about the consequences of transporting objects across time, and how that interferes with nature. Since you have received a letter from someone, who is from about a thousand years in your future, I wonder how that knowledge changes you, and, our human civilization.

Since the papers my letters are written on, will eventually disintegrate with time, I request you to hide them from the public eye. And holy father, may I request you to not discuss these letters with anyone, since that could have grave consequences on my own times, which happen to be your future. Till I reach a definitive conclusion on whether I should keep experimenting with time, I have decided to voluntarily stop my research. Who knows, what damage I might have already done with my experiments so far!

Holy father, I hope this to be my last confessional letter. Please forgive me for my transgressions -- with time.

Your servant in God
Deshprem Babu


In addition to these Facsimiles of the letters to the Pope, assumed to be personal copies made by Mr. Deshprem Babu, several other documents were found amongst his possessions, by a curious descendant of the Babu family. These letters shed some more light on what happened to Mr. Babu after his experiments with time suddenly stopped due to the voluntary abandonment of his research.


Tathagata 25, 2470.

The Chief Prosecutor
Interplanetary High Crimes Division
Harare, African Continental Authority.


With this letter, I , Deshprem Babu would like to confess to the involuntary manslaughter of Mr. Swamy, the captain of the "Above India Space Station (AISS) ", in the month of Confucius, 2463. If you would like to convene a trial, I will be able to supply the details of the circumstances that led to his death. I am enclosing a bunch of letters that I wrote to the Pope of the Holy See, which will prove that I was experimenting with time travel, against the wishes of the Terran academy.  

In addition to the facsimiles of the letters as evidence, I would like to state the following for the record:

A. My experiments with time travel were successful.

B. After my final letter to the Pope, I realized that Mr. Swami, using the powers entrusted to the captain, had looked at the station's video logs, and possibly learned all about my experiments, including the operation of the time travel machinery. On Confucius 30, 2463, while the crew was celebrating the ancient earth festival of Halloween, Mr. Swamy was seen walking towards my quarters, rather surreptitiously. He was dressed as the devil, as many people do, during Halloween, complete with realistic horns and wings of leather. He was last monitored entering my quarters, without my permission, or presence. After a few minutes, a massive power glitch happened, which turned off the station's power supply for a week. Mr. Swamy was not found anywhere on the station.

C. After this incident, I extensively researched the historical records of the Holy See, during my vacations on earth. In one of the medieval Papal records, I found a short, but strange note by the holy father, to himself. The text, appropriately translated, is reproduced below:

" First the letters arrived, and now the Devil, who appears not to be Lucifer himself. He was captured by the guards, trying to steal the statuettes of Gold. I always thought that Lucifer had more than enough gold, why would he need ours?! I can hide objects, but how can I hide this agent of Lucifer! Against my wishes, I had to recommend death."

This leads me to believe that Mr. Swamy had somehow transported himself through time using my equipment and was captured by the Pope's guards. I hold myself responsible for the punishment meted out to him, and request to be punished accordingly.

D. I made the strange discovery that a fountain pen, originally belonging to the famous Bengali writer Biswanath Ghosh,  had disappeared with Mr. Swami. I had borrowed the pen from the Kolkata museum to write the letters. I am very concerned that if a strange writing instrument appeared during the medieval times,  it would have terrible consequences on our own times. After the incident, I went back to the online biography of Mr. Ghosh and found that his writing career was not affected at all -- by the transportation of his favorite pen to a time, that was a few centuries before his own. I am assuming that the pen was somehow lost in our own century, and so, had no consequence on history. This has however, been a source of worry for me, since I cannot explain the disappearance of Mr. Ghosh's pen.

E. I have discontinued all experiments with time travel.

I will await your reply, and act accordingly.

Yours sincerely
Deshprem Babu

(To be Concluded)

Final Part

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Confessional - Part II

Confucius 1, 2463.

Dear Holy Father,

I bring you the choicest greetings of the season, as we celebrate the holy month of Confucius, which allows us to introspect and rediscover our inner selves every year. Just like the great Chinese philosopher encouraged people to do. I started writing to you in the month of Zoroaster, which too has a great spiritual significance for us. You might be intrigued by the strange choice of names for the months we have. In our century.

In the twenty-first century, mankind had almost invented the things it needed, to become an ideal civilization. However, we had very little regard for the environment, and in the process, we did certain things which raised the temperature of the earth by several degrees and the entire global climate was severely impacted. The four seasons ceased to exist, and there was complete chaos on the planet. It took us almost a hundred years to figure out that we had done irreparable damage to the planet; our only solution was artificial weather generation and control. Today, we can create any weather we wish to, anywhere in the world. But, we have reverted back to the old four seasons that you are so used to. And since we had to start over, we renamed all our months. This time, after the greatest thinkers and innovators that human civilization has ever seen. So, we begin our years in  the month of Aristotle and end them in the month of Galileo. Named after the same Galileo of Galilee, who was so ruthlessly persecuted by your church.

Holy father, I consider myself a student of nature. About two years ago, I was selected to work at the Terran academy of sciences, which chooses the sharpest minds in science and technology on the planet, to do research. My interest was in photons. You perhaps know that matter can be broken down into atoms, as Democritus had so famously proposed, five centuries before the birth of our lord. Just like that, light can be broken down into photons. In the last few centuries, we have played great games with photons -- to the extent, that today, we can create images called holograms. Of people and things, that walk and talk around us, like real creatures. However, no one was able to impart the characteristics of matter to light. The hologram of a man could talk to you like a real man, but if you tried to shake hands with it, the hand would go right through yours. As if, you were trying to touch a phantom.

This had bothered me for a long time. And while I was a student at the academy, I came up with a solution to the problem, that could now provide the characteristics of matter to light. Now, you couldn't tell the difference between a hologram and a real object, except that imparting mass to light required large amounts of energy, which some people were willing to spend. To get more realistic holograms -- perhaps, those of relatives long gone, or things that they valued too much to let go of. My invention was hailed as a path-breaking one, and I was honored by every known institution working with science. Around the same time, as I went through the complicated mathematics of photon-mass, I accidentally found that it was possible to transport photons through a window in time, which meant that you could now look at events that occurred in the past. Just like they occurred in reality. This was more revolutionary than my other discovery, and so, I submitted a paper to the Terran academy. And suddenly, all hell broke loose.

It seems that as a civilization, we like our history to be the way it was written into the books we read. Heroes have to be heroes, and villains must be villains.  Looking at things as they really happened, has grave consequences. And my discovery was ridiculed as a figment of imagination. Charges of academic dishonesty were brought against me, for no fault of my own. And, I was banished to the space station above India, to use my knowledge of photons, to decorate its drab interior with holograms. Holy father, I am now entrusted with recreating the garden of Eden inside a monster made of glass and steel. Using particles of light, that I can use for so much more.

Within a few months of my banishment, I had actually adjusted very well to my new position. I had altered the interior of our space station, to give it a character. Our kitchen area, known as the cafeteria, now looks like a beautiful forest in Africa, with the lions and zebras roaming around us. These images, are still like phantoms however, since imparting mass to them would consume excessive amounts of energy, way beyond what we can ever produce in our space station. There was however, one little exception. Since pets were not allowed, and I was getting very lonely, I decided to create a small puppy for myself, with all the characteristics of a lovable pet. Woof-woof, as I named him, soon became very popular amongst our crew, and I decided to spend a little energy, to impart it some mass, with the warm and fluffy characteristics of a real puppy. And our crew loved it.

Last month, however, a rather undesirable change occurred. We now have a new captain, a gentleman called Swamy, who has a rather chequered past. Swamy is a very strange person, and the more I see of him, the more I realize that perhaps, he would have made a good candidate for the Spanish inquisition, to burn at the stake. There is a rumor that Swamy had recently ordered a scientific craft to land on an asteroid because he suspected that there might be gold on that unstable rock. By the decision of the interplanetary council, we had decided to destroy all the gold in our solar system in the last century, since it was considered the source of all evil. But Swamy, apparently, belongs to a secret society, which is hoarding gold for a reason unknown to the rest of us. That asteroid landing, ended in a disaster, and several lives were lost. I hold Swamy personally responsible for that accident, and I think that he is a person, who would not think twice, before committing murder, if there was something in it for him.

Recently, Swamy has taken a liking to performing a strange act, and the rest of our crew hates him for it. Whenever, he walks into our cafeteria, if he chances upon woof-woof, he likes to kick the poor pup with all his strength. As if, woof-woof was a football of some sort. Since I have added the sense of touch to woof-woof, the poor pup, however photonic he might be, flies off in the the air with a yelp, every time Swamy kicks him. And Swamy always derives extra pleasure out of the act by raising his hands innocently and saying, "C'mon, it's only an image that I kicked, isn't it?".

Yesterday, when I couldn't take it any more, I made a small adjustment to woof-woof's subroutines. If an object was about to hit him with a certain speed, woof-woof's material characteristics would suddenly change from that of warm fluffy wool, to that of tempered steel. Just for a few seconds. And as usual, when Swamy walked in, he gave the poor pup a kick. And then, two strange things happened. The lights in the entire space-station suddenly dimmed as a large amount of energy was drawn, to impart woof-woof, the characteristics of steel. And Swamy, having hit a puppy made of steel, was soon rolling on the floor, writhing in pain. He had two broken toes, and a broken ankle. Thanks to our medicine men, he was fixed in a few hours. Although I tried to explain to him, that this had something to do with the power glitch, he rightly believes that I was somehow behind this strange occurrence. And, I have a very bad feeling about what this holds in the near future for me.

Forgive me holy father, for I have sinned. I have caused pain to a fellow human being for causing "hurt" to an image. And, I somehow feel that I was justified in my act, which makes me a bad human being. I am quite afraid when I realize that I actually enjoyed this entire act, of Swamy hurting himself, badly. Perhaps, it is drawing out the devil, resident in me, in a strange way that I don't quite comprehend.

Your servant in God
Deshprem Babu

-----To be continued----

(Part III)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Confessional - Part I

These are a series of letters written by Mr. Deshprem Babu, a twenty-fifth century descendant of the famous Babu family of north India, which has bred many a sturdy buffalo, in the last few centuries of its pastoral engagements.

Preserved facsimiles of these letters were used as evidence in a trial in the interplanetary tribunal of the year 2470, upon Mr. Babu's confession to involuntary manslaughter. The original letters were never recovered for unknown reasons. Mr. Babu was quickly declared innocent and acquitted.

The facsimiles were destroyed. No explanations were given by the tribunal for this rather strange act of evidence destruction, though it is widely believed that a grave matter of interplanetary security was involved.


Zoroaster 12, 2463

Dear Holy father,

Forgive me for I have sinned. As I write this letter to you, various thoughts cross my mind, and I need
to make sense of these.

From the small window of my cabin in this space station, I am looking at the vast emptiness of the universe, that is dark, deep and cold. It is, however, littered by bright specks of white and a few dazzling dots of red, blue and pink, which happen to be the planets of our solar system.  On the other side of my space station, is the planet earth, where my family lives. And yes, about nine centuries ago, that is where you lived and ruled as the Pope of the Holy See. In the famous city-state of Rome.

I would like to surmise that you may have already branded me a heretic for speaking a strange tongue.  Since many centuries of separation in time ensures that I cannot be punished in the usual way, I suggest that we continue with the confessional. On the bright side, you might be able to save me from Lucifer, or his various assistants on the prowl.

I understand that your church recently questioned Galileo of Galilee, for his beliefs that the earth might go around the sun, and might not be the center of the universe after all. Let me assure you holy father, that Galileo was right, and he has gone down in history as a person, who enabled us to think beyond the earth, about the vastness of space.

The world in which we live, is very different from the world that was yours, and you would be amazed at the things we can do a thousand years after Galileo's trial. We have solved the problems of hunger, poverty and disease. We can go anywhere we wish to go and we can access all the knowledge that was ever created. There is no need for wealth. And the seven deadly sins do not exist any more. Mankind is free to pursue any interests that it wants to pursue.

And yet, new ideas are not encouraged any more, since everything that was to be discovered has already been. There are people like me, called scientists, who are restless. And I have been experimenting with something of great value to mankind. But, in great secrecy.

Holy father, I am trying to solve the mysteries of time. I am trying to ride the horse of time in any direction I wish, so that I can go anywhere in time. And to the inquisition of my century, set up by scientists like me, that is quite impossible. So, I guess you could call me a heretic in this century as well.

I have been reading a book about the inquisition of your church. Recently, I was undergoing a routine psychiatric evaluation, in which the doctor, a medicine man of the human mind, suggested that a good way of controlling my restlessness would be to write letters to a person that I would like to meet, but cannot. And to that person, I should tell all that I am anxious about. Since I have been reading this book about you, I thought that I might as well confess to you, since confession is a part of your holy duties. So, over the next  few weeks and months, please do expect many confessionals from me.

And of course, I am writing these letters on paper and pen, things we do not have access to, any more. We do read and write, but they are in what we call the electronic format, without making use of paper. So, I had to tap a contact at the Kolkata museum, who has access to a Sheaffer fountain pen from the twenty-first century. I am told that it once belonged to the famous Bengali writer, Biswanath Ghosh. I hope that my mere scribblings can do justice to the name of its illustrious previous owner.

Please do read my letters. Who knows, we might discover that I am not such a big sinner after all.

Your servant in God
Deshprem Babu

P.S: Most of our society is atheistic -- we do not believe in God any more. But, I thought that the sign-off in my confessional should look authentic. So, please forgive the faith. Or, the lack thereof. 

-----------To be continued----------

(Part II)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Indentured Innovation ?

Once upon a time, I was a cog in the wheel of the great corporate American juggernaut. I had been working on a new idea for a couple of years, and my colleagues loved it. We showed that the idea could save the company at least a few million dollars, and since we had filed a bunch of patents already, it could also be a cash cow for the company in the long run, in terms of licensing fees. But the vice president of my division shot it down, citing the need to focus on immediate problems at hand so he could meet his quarterly goals. I had seen the needs of the short term replacing the needs of the long, many times in the past. But, I felt that this decision, given all the facts on the table, was absolutely asinine. I was about to raise hell about it in the next meeting with the guy, but he beat me to it. With a lecture to innovators. On innovation.

"Many of you think that I sit in an ivory tower and count beans. You think that I don't encourage innovation. But, you have to remember that every time you are saving a penny, that is also an innovation. Every time you write down a mistake, so another person does not repeat it, that is also an innovation. And every time, you don't take a coffee break, so you can put in a few extra minutes worth of work, that is innovation too."

It goes without saying that I did not agree with his definition of "innovation". And, that I quit a couple of months after that, when, I quite innovatively figured out where I could be more innovative. And a little happier.

A few days ago, I was watching a news story about the Chinese. Apparently, having become the greatest manufacturing power in the history of the modern world, the Chinese are now ready to bet the farm on innovation. And creativity. The story included a really nice video about a work of art by  Cai Guo-Qiang, who uses, amongst other things, gunpowder -- the original Chinese innovation, in his works of art. This one, features a robot, pulling a rickshaw. No really! You have to see it to believe it.

Things like this, usually start an immediate debate in our usually peaceful household. Like a great seer predicting pestilence, I told my wife that as long as the Chinese lived in a police state, they would never succeed at innovation. To be innovative, one needs freedom. And, before I could retract and recant, she threw the entire Third Reich at me. I had totally forgotten that some of the greatest scientific and technological marvels of the last century, actually came from Nazi Germany. Or, sometimes, the Nazis drew others into a technological race to the finish, resulting in inventions such as the atomic bomb and the radar. And the results usually changed the course of human history.

So, it brought me to a question that I have been pondering over for quite some time. What makes great innovators? Can we transform ourselves into a culture of great innovators? Do we need monetary incentives for it, or do we need to instill the fear of God (or Chairman Mao) into potential innovators? As always, is it a matter of providing the carrot, or using the stick?

The last time I checked, we were still the world's most populous democracy. And we seem to have plenty of freedom, to do anything we wish. But, has that fostered a culture of innovation in India? I have asked this question to many of my friends in India's scientific and academic research community. And the answer seems to be a resounding no. I still don't have an answer to why that is the case. I don't think our projects are cash-strapped, or we have poorly paid people working on them. Some time ago, someone told me that India's rocket launch to the moon was evolutionary for any space program. Sooner or later, a space-faring nation will figure out how to get to the moon. But, the idea to crash-land a probe on the lunar surface, gather all the data that could be gathered, in a fraction of a second, and radio it back in the dying moments of the probe, was revolutionary. We didn't send astronauts to the moon, but we discovered lots of water for them to drink, should we ever send them there!  I don't know who actually came up  with the crash-bang-bang-radio-back idea (excuse my poor imagination), but I think that's one heck of an innovation. Anywhere you are willing to look for it.

Some time ago, I was one of the participants in a closed door meeting with one of the top scientific decision makers in India. I would like to tell you more, but it's classified. We talked about usual housekeeping stuff for a while, and  mundanity was in the air. And suddenly, when the discussion moved in a specific direction, he opened up, and started talking about past research, present projects (classified) and future research plans (classified). Of course, I am not allowed to talk about those projects, but  I can definitely tell you about a magical glow on this gentleman's face and the twinkle in his eyes as he spoke, quite passionately, about the innovative research projects in his organization.

And, that is when it came to me. The answer to what innovation really is. It is not about the carrot or the stick. It is not about being in a police state or a democracy. And it certainly is not about bosses who reject your long-term ideas for their short-term goals. Innovation is about passion.

To a scientist or an engineer, innovation is all about risking life, limb and career, in no particular order, so that he can have his ideas see the light of day. Usually, a great innovation outlives the greatest innovator -- and the passion lives on.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

No small change !!!

I had an uncle, who had a very expensive Swiss watch. And one day, while he was taking his afternoon nap, his watch slipped off his wrist, and fell on the floor. Then, while me and my cousins were fighting over who would look cool wearing it, we dropped it on the floor. Again. When we picked it up, we found that the watch was not working any more. Terrified, we hid it in a place where our uncle would have never looked. Behind a tall and fiery looking idol of Lord Hanuman, the monkey-god, in the family's shrine room.  My uncle would worship Hanuman-ji every single morning, rather devoutly. And, he would never think of looking for his watch there, as the gods, were definitely above suspicion.

However, my uncle paid me and my cousins a hefty amount of  pocket-money. Every week. Our job, was to look for my uncle's lost watch. No, this was not like putting the fox in charge of the hen-house. This was like asking the fox to look for the hen it killed and buried, and rewarding it with many more hens, for just looking.  Of course, one day, my uncle found his watch while cleaning up the shrine room. Luckily for us, he looked at this discovery as the divine intervention of Lord Hanuman himself.  The hard part was, that our weekly allowance suddenly stopped, since the watch, that we hid, was finally found. No thanks to us.

Oh, that reminds me. Osama bin Laden was finally discovered by the Americans and killed this week. Deep inside Pakistan. To be precise, about a hundred meters from the principle military academy of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which, like my uncle's shrine room, and Cesar's wife, was above suspicion. And, just like my uncle, Uncle Sam, was paying Pakistan, a nice and hefty allowance during the last decade to look for Osama bin Laden. Since September 11, 2001, which is when Pakistan found out that it broke its uncle's watch by hobnobbing with Osama bin Laden, it has received about eighteen billion dollars as pocket-money. That is their entire military's budget for three whole years. And, something tells me that all that money is about to disappear. Now that the watch has been found by the uncle!

"Aw, come on. Do you think Pakistan was hiding Osama behind its military school deliberately? Just to get the big money from the Americans, whose economy is bleeding due to two wars and a domestic financial crisis? Is that the way a trusted friend treats another? I don't think Pakistan can ever do that."

I knew it. I just knew that that was precisely what you were going to say. And that is why, I told you the story of my uncle and his favorite Swiss watch.

What did we do with the money that our uncle gave us, for breaking and hiding his watch, and, pretending to look for it -- for weeks? Well, we had Jalebis for starters. Delicious and mouthwatering hot Jalebis, with steaming glasses of milk. When you chew on them a little and wash them down with the warm, thick and sugary milk, the guilt is automatically washed down. To your guts.

It is pretty enjoyable. You should try it some time.