Ravi Mohan's Blog

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Why Hackers Should Read History

It all started very innocently . A manager at one of the many software companies in Bangalore announces a scheme to "tax" Indians travelling abroad on the company's business .

The basic (at best naive, at worst foolish) idea was that Indians who go to the USA would "contribute" a percentage of their (dollar) earnings into a "common pool" and this "tax" would be distributed amongst all the poor unfortunate Indians who couldn't travel to the Land Of The Golden Mountain.

The net buzzed with mails about "American arrogance" (the Manager is American) and "whoever heard of a communist company? "(the CEO of the company is supposed to have socialist leanings).

On a parallel thread , a couple of naive Canadians who came to India for a short visit were interviewed by a Canadian reporter about their Indian experience and the result was a fairly funny (to me anyway) article in the Canadian Press about how their luggage almost got stolen and a few comments about the first-world-and-third-world-existing-side-by-side aspect of Indian life (at least in Bangalore) .Mixed in with all the naivety were a couple of nasty comments about how Canada (unlike India) was "a place where you were not measured by your class stature" (perhaps they meant "caste" instead of "class" ?)

In yet another encounter , a couple of scientists at the Indian Defence Department were very scathing about "barbaric" Americans and their "decadent" life styles and I found myself in the position of having to point out the many *good* things about America and Americans and the things that need improvement in India .

The funny thing was that,unlike me, the speakers themselves had never actually visited America .But they were certain that Indian "civilization" was way ahead of a rich but decaying America.

I generally don't blog too much about politics or other "sensitive" areas but i figure it is time to take a stand.

Here are the principles I follow when dealing with people .

  1. The intrinsic worth of a person has nothing to do with race or nationality . It is all about how you think and what you can do and how well or badly you do it.
  2. Some Americans are arrogant . This is a problem of belonging to the dominant culture at a given point of time . The Romans had this arrogance. So did the Persians , the Assyrians , the Mongols, and later ,the Spanish, the Venetians and the British . And if you go back to a time when the Indians had a flourishing civilization when Europeans lived like animals , I dare say some of those Indians were arrogant too.

    All this has nothing to do with the world as it is today . In the end if you are good at something other people need , you will be given due respect .

    And if you still don't like the way the world works you have the freedom to try to change it . The only guaranteed freedom is the freedom to try.

    The thing to do when you face arrogance based on the latitude and longitude of your birth (or skin color) directed at you is to ignore it (or smash it flat depending on how combative you feel) .

    Which brings me to
  3. A large number of Indians are subservient to those in Authority , especially if that Authority Figure has a white skin . This comes of a combination of lack of self confidence , an excess of greed (to grab dollars, green cards , whatever ) and suffering from a simultaneous lack of guts and liquidity of the spine .

    When someone dreams up a totally foolish idea (a great defect in many people who end up as managers , not because they are any good at management,but because they are useless for anything else) the thing to do is to point out the absurdity in a rational manner ,irrespective of whether the proposer came from Madras, Manhattan or Mars.

    And pour scorn on it if you think it is appropriate to do so (though there are often more subtle ways ofgetting what you want).Often just a polite refusal to play along will do the trick . It also helps if you have the courage of your convictions and a feeling of self worth independent of what those "higher up the ladder" think of you.
  4. All cultures have good points and defects . The "Superior Man" (as the I Ching would say ) recognizes and promotes the virtues of all cultures and opposes and suppresses their vices both within himself and his society .
  5. All cultures have great men and despicable ones .

    Those who think Americans are "decadent" should learn about(confining ourselves to Politics) Abraham Lincoln (there is a lot more to his greatness than "freeing the slaves" which is about all most Indians know of this incredible man. Read Bruce Catton's three  part  history of the American Civil Warto understand Lincoln in his context ) , Roosevelt, and Jefferson.

    To see how fools constantly try to ruin the powerful nation these great men built ,read up on ( for eg, again confining ourselves to the political sphere),Clement Vallandigham,Gerald Nye,Edgar J Hoover and the inimitable Dubya.

    Dilbert's PHB lives on in history and politics just as much as in cubicle land .

    Westerners who pride themselves on their scientific prowess should meditate on the fact that even multiplication was hard before zero (and thus the decimal system) was invented in "primitive" India . And that the theory of Evolution is still anathema in major chunks of the "scientifically advanced" USA .

    Those who take pride in their dominant economic status should look to European Kosovo to see how easily civilization crumbles when Time's judgement rolls around. Some believed till the end , "That can't happen here . we are Europeans".

    If you look a bit deeper into the shakiness of the American Trade Deficit and potential Dollar crash ,you'll see how feeble such assumptions are and how fast the shoe could be on the other foot.
  6. Indians who believe in America's "decadence" should try to actually get to know some of the History of India rather than prattle on about "five thousand years of civilization".

    The "Golden Age" preached by Hindu Fundamentalists is largely a myth(barely half a century old) created to counter feelings of inferiority vis a vis the West. Historically the "morality" and social structures of the periods in which India came close to being a dominating culture have significant similairities with the mores of the West . A good book to start with is The Gem In the Lotus,followed by The Emperors of the Peacock Throne .

    To figure out how to "defeat" the west , read Victor Hanson's(Hanson is a slightly over the top ,but nontheless brilliant ,writer),How The West Has Won (don't worry about the alternate title.It is the same book). Indian editions of most of these books are available , a situation in which the "cheap Indian" tag actually works in your favor!
  7. To shift the context a bit, There are Indians ,some of them in the highest strata of society,who judge other Indians on the basis of caste, especially when it comes to things like marriage . There are Americans ,some of them in the highest strata of society, who judge other Americans on the basis of race , especially when it comes to things like marriage . Caste Based Discrimination is illegal in India except for government sanctioned Reservations . Race Based Discrimination is illegal in America except for government sanctioned Affirmative Action . All of which shows that both societies are not perfect and contain substantial chunks of deluded people and a comparitively fewer number of intelligent ones .
  8. and finally understand that one of the great powers that moves the world is Stupidity . "Never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity." .So said Napoleon , a European who shook his continent and a good chunk of the world, a man who while symbolising the quintessential westerner , was secretly most comfortable with the mores of the Orient .
Stupidity And Brilliance have nothing to do with culture. And yes , the "company enforced travel tax" is a tremendously stupid idea which tries to fix a deep and complex problem with spit and duct tape. But it could, in theory, be used a creative provocation to evolve a better one . Pretty unlikely . But who knows? If everthing fails , this will provide some consolation to the oppressed masses . Arise ! awake ! You have nothing to lose but your money and self respect!

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Goodbye to Java

Dear Java,

These days I program mostly in Lisp and Ruby (with a smidgen of Erlang and a dollop of C ). Coming back to you from such incredibly powerful languages is painful at the best of times , but after an attempt to invoke your new generics feature to do something conceptually simple resulted in almost unreadable code , I decided to throw in the towel . (I won't go into the messy details here . A google search for 'java generics suck ' should turn up enough arguments (and counter arguments ) . Tim Bray , Bruce Eckel and others do a good job of debunking the "new java" . ) .I'll still be in touch with you to complete the AIMA code (the forthcoming release is in Java 5 btw ) but I'll be damned if I ever use you for any other project .

I stayed well away from your newest competitior C# so that's quite all right too .

And so dear Java , it's been nice knowing you . While you were never a stunning beauty like Lisp or smalltalk or C, your massive libraries endowed you with a certain charm for a while . But alas today you are fat and shapeless and you desperately need a deodorant .

Not to worry though . The millions of lines of atrocious "enterprise" code that belong to you will ensure that you won't lack for suitors for the next 10 years . And the fast depleting billions in Father Sun's coffers will prop up your bulk for a while .So be of good cheer. Even the undead Cobol manages to drag herself through the years .So you have nothing to fear.You'll probably outlast me.

Meanwhile this is one programmer who is now rediscovering the sheer joy of programming writing some meaningful code that actually exercises some grey cells .

Hasta La Vista, Baby and Take Care .