Tasting Gods’ food

The norm during festivals and other “happy occasions” when food is “offered to the Gods” is that the food is not tasted during preparation. For tasting thus would contaminate it, and make it impure for the God. Thus, the first time a human will taste such food is when it is offered as “God’s offering” after the rituals are over.

While there might be good reason for doing so (food thus prepared is distributed to a lot of people and you don’t want to contaminate it and so on), the problem is that if the food is not accurately prepared, it cannot be corrected. By the time someone figures out something is not right, “the God would have tasted it”, and if the food hasn’t been accurately prepared, you would have ended up serving the Gods bad food! Which can only bring ruin upon you.

Let me draw an analogy. Instead of food, let’s assume that you’re offering God a computer program that you’ve prepared. You’ve got the best team of programmers in the world and written a kickass algorithm and got these programmers to code it, and you offer the program to God. And what happens when he tries to “consume” it by running it? Most likely, a stack overflow or some such error.

Would you let that happen? Even when you’ve got a kickass algorithm and a kickass team of coders to code it in, it’s not guaranteed that the code will perform as it should on its first running. Irrespective of how good the code is, it needs to be tested, to make sure it is doing what it’s doing before the user sees it. Especially if it’s an “all-important” user such as a God.

If you were to do that for code, why should food be different? Why would you want to “cook blindfold” by not ta(/e)sting it adequately, and making sure that it’s as perfect as you want it to be? After all, you’re offering it to a God!

Bah, these silly rituals!

Ants and God

Two days back I had polished off a plateful of pancakes (made by the wife, of course) with maple syrup and left the plate in the sink. Unlike usual, I had not bothered to run water over the plate before I put it in the sink. I happened to return to the sink half an hour later (to deposit my coffee cup) and noticed a swarm of ants over my pancake plate, trying to feed on whatever maple syrup was still stuck to the plate.

The more compassionate among you might argue that I should have left them alone. After all, they were eating what I had not eaten, and who was I to grudge that? But I’m not one who tolerates arthropodes of any kind in my house, and I decided to wreak havoc on the ants. It is not often that you find so many ants in one place that you can destroy. So I (belatedly) ran water over the plate. Historically, this event might go down among one section of the ants as “the great flood”. Yes, a few ants managed to scurry away to tell the tale.

Now, these ants had no clue about my existence. All they knew was that there was the plate with maple syrup stuck to it, which they could feed on. And they were going about their business when an external entity who they were not aware of created a flood, drowning most of them. As far as the ants were concerned, I was like an external “greater power”. Someone who had the ability to destroy. And destroy I did.

Note for a moment that this was not a predator-prey relationship. If I were their predator (a spider perhaps) they would have been aware of me. However, here I was, of a species that doesn’t normally interact with ants, much much bigger than the world they know, destroying so many of them.

Like me to the ants, some people like to argue, there is a “greater unknown being” who controls all our lives. This greater unknown being (commonly nicknamed “God”) is in control of our lives, they say. And so, we need to pay obeisance to him and do things that keep him happy. We are all at the mercy of this greater being, they say, and hence we must pray. Pray that this greater being is kind to us. Pray that in the flood that he unleashes from time to time we are among the lucky few that manage to scurry away and live to tell the tale. Pray that he doesn’t cause the flood at all.

While the Ant:Man::Man:God analogy might make sense in terms of the larger creature being significantly superior than the smaller one who is not aware of him, it still does not explain why one needs to pray or do any rituals or even make any attempts to make the larger creature take pity on you.

Ants have no way of communicating with me. Maybe they think there exist creatures such as humans, who should be prayed to so that they are now flooded. I’m sure they might have tried, as they saw me stand over their plate of maple syrup with my hand on the tap. It didn’t make a difference to me. I opened the tap anyway, and unleashed the flood. By a similar analogy, that the “greater creature” will even bother to take cognizance of you and try and understand you and do as you please is a massive leap of faith.

The Ticket

My grandfather claims to have invented this concept, though there is some evidence that it belongs to much older vintage. The “ticket” in question here is short for “ticket to heaven”. It refers to the practice of visiting ailing relatives and friends who you know are not going to last too long. However, you believe that they would want to see you once before they die, and then believe that they may not die unless you go visit them. So, you decide to put them out of their misery, and go “give them the ticket”, or in other words, you play God by giving them permission to die.

That’s all there is to this. It’s quite a simple concept. Unfortunately, it lacks wider appeal, hence this appeal to you to increase its appeal. Be careful, though, sometimes if you say “I’m going to give XXX a ticket”, there is a good chance that people might think it’s insulting, or disrespectful, or that you’re being too arrogant. But yes, otherwise, I think the ticket is a rocking concept.

PS: I’m beginning to see some sketches of a movie script in here. If you want to further develop it, contact me.

Death Ceremonies

Considering the number of times I’ve been through the death/post-death/death-anniversary ceremonies over the last three odd years it’s quite surprising that I haven’t really blogged about it. Maybe I considered the topic to be way to personal to blog about. Maybe I was so busy fighting relatives that I didn’t have the opportunity to observe things.

So most of the time during the death ceremony was spent with me shifting my sacred thread from left to right, and back, and back. The  basic idea is that for all death-related stuff, one is supposed to wear the thread from right shoulder to left waist (it’s normally worn from left shoulder to right waist). But then, considering that it’s a religious ceremony, large portions are also spent praying, and when you are praying to the gods, you are supposed to wear the thread the right way.

And then these two kinds keep alternating, so you spend a lot of time just doing that! To aid this and to save time, the upper cloth is tied around the tummy (like an auxiliary dhoti) rather than over the shoulders. And by the end of every such ceremony, you would have figured out when you’ll have to switch the orientation of the thread.

Then during the annual death ceremonies, there are two brahmins who help in officiating. Apparently there’s something special about these brahmins. Once, a couple of years back, one of these guys failed to turn up on time because of which the entire ceremony was getting delayed, and I hinted to an uncle that since he too is a brahmin he should deputise. And then this uncle (a rather religious character) gave me a long lecture about the processes and sacrifices that these “special” brahmins (who are paid a pittance – their daily rate is about half of what an average junior skilled worker (carpenter, painter, etc) makes) have to go through to allow them to perform their duty.

Now, it is as if one of these brahmins plays god and the other plays the devil (something of the sort). The “god” is always addressed with the thread in the normal position while the “devil” is addressed with the thread from right shoulder to left waist. The “god” is worshipped with rice, while the “devil” is worshipped with black sesame seeds. It seems as if the devil is somehow supposed to represent some kind of companion of the people in the afterlife – in whose memory the ceremonies are being performed.

This time we had struck a package deal (inclusive of all ceremonies, offerings, gifts, lunch, consumables, etc.) but on earlier occasions we were plagued by the priests trying to blackmail us by demanding that we give them expensive gifts, over and above the fees that we had agreed upon. And then once, by drawing upon a clever analogy, I managed to convince one of them that the gifts that I’d given earlier were like advance payment for services and that I’d pay only the balance. Unfortunately some relatives ridiculed me for fighting with the priest and made me pay him the full amount (yeah it was my money. none of these relatives coughed up a naya paisa)

The ceremonies are in general disgusting affairs and the only way to go through them is to just go through the processes. Sometimes, thinking about what kind of a blog post to write on the process can help take your mind away from random wanderings.

The Swarovski Earrings

On Friday evening I tweeted:

Louis philippe best white shirt – rs X1
Swarovski crystal earrings – rs X2
Dinner at taj west end – rs X3
Proposal accepted – priceless

Now I must confess that there was a lie. Which I tried to mask by using variables for the various values. Of course, at the time of tweeting this, I didn’t know the value of X3; though I figured it out an hour later. The value of X1 is well known. The lie was in the X2 bit. The thing is I don’t know. Because the Swarovski crystal earrings weren’t bought; they were won.

Back in 2000 when I entered IIT Madras, I started doing extremely bad in quizzes there. It took me a long while to get adjusted to the format there (long questions, all-night quizzes… ) and a lot of stuff that got asked there was about stuff that I didn’t care much about so I didn’t really bother doing well. There’s this old joke that every IITM quiz should start and end with a Lord of the Rings (LOTR) question with two more LOTR questions in the middle, and all this is only in one half of the quiz.

In my first year there, there was also the additional problem of finding good people to quiz with. You invariably ended up going with someone either from your hostel or your class who might have attended their school trials for the Bournvita Quiz Contest, or sometimes quizzers you know from Bangalore. Still, the lack of a settled team meant that there was a cap on how well one could do. All through first year, I didn’t qualify in a single quiz, neither in Madras nor when I came home to Bangalore.

Second year was marginally different. There was still no settled team but the format wasn’t strange any more. And quizzes had started to get a little more general and less esoteric. I had started to qualify, or just miss qualification, in some quizzes. And around this time, while struggling with VLSI circuits and being accused by the Prof of being potential WTC Bombers (this was a few days after 9/11) I heard God and Ranga talk about some Dakshinachitra where they had qualified for the finals.

So Dakshinachitra is this heritage center on East Coast Road and they had been conducting an India Quiz. It was a strange format – three rounds of prelims with two teams (of two people) qualifying from each round. God and Ranga had gone for the first round of prelims and had sailed through. They had told me the competition hadn’t been too tough and so the following week Droopy and I headed out, taking some random local bus to the place.

We too made it peacefully to the finals and then found that it had turned out to be an all-IIT finals. However, they refused to shift the venue of the finals to the IIT campus and so all of us had to brave the Saturday afternoonMadras sun and head out again to the place. Thankfully this time they’d organized a bus from somewhere close to IIT.

I don’t remember too much of the finals apart from the fact that there was a buzzer round with extremely high stakes, in which Droopy and I did rather well. I remember one question in the buzzer round being cancelled because an audience member shouted out the answer. I remember there was this fraud-max specialist round where we were quizzed on a topic we’d picked beforehand. Thankfully the stakes there weren’t too high. It wasn’t a great quiz by general quizzing standards but what mattered was we won, marginally ahead of God and Ranga in a close finish.

The next morning Droopy and I appeard in the supplement pages of the New Indian Express, holding this huge winner’s certificate with Air India’s name on it (they took back that certificate as soon as the photo was taken). We were promised one return ticket each by Air India to any destination in some really limited list, but somehow they frauded on it and we could never fly. God and Ranga got a holiday each in some resort, and I don’t think they took that, too.

There were a lot of random things as prizes. There were some random old music CDs. Maybe some movie CDs too. I remember God and Ranga getting saris (god (not God, maybe God also) knows what they did with it). Droopy and I got coupons from VLCC. I put NED to encash them. Droopy went and was given a free haircut. And then there were these earrings.

Not knowing what to do with them, I just gave them to my mother. She, however, refused to wear them saying that since I’d won them, it was only appropriate that they go to my wife. So she put them away in the locker in my Jayanagar house and told me to take them out only when I had decided who I wanted to marry. And I, then a geeky 18-year old IITian, had decided to use these earrings while proposing marriage.

So early in the evening on Friday I went to the Jayanagar house and took the earrings out of the locker. What followed can be seen in the tweet. Oh, and now you might want to start following this blog.

PS: apologies for the extra-long post, but given the nature of the subject I suppose you can’t blame me for getting carried away

Happy Birthday

This blog celebrates its first birthday today. It was on the 22nd of July 2008 that I wrote my first ever post on this site (prior to that I’d  been blogging on livejournal). Exactly a year back, I wrote:

The concept of NED has existed as long as mankind. Maybe even longer. If you have read Christian Theology you would have read that God took six days to create the world, and then took rest on the seventh day (Sunday). The truth is that God wanted to create even more and wonderful creatures, and give them even more wonderful features. He just happened to put NED. Since at the time that the Bible was written no one had quantified the concept of NED, the writers decided to take the easy way out by saying that God took rest on Sunday.

NED, for the uninitiated, stands for No Enthu Da. I don’t know how to explain it. In fact, no accurate explanation exists for this in English, for if it did, I wouldn’t have bothered inventing this phrase. By sacrificing some bit of accuracy I can say that NED is a state of mind where you don’t feel like doing anything. You just want to do nothing, and you don’t even have the enthusiasm to do nothing. Yes, if that confused you, you need to remember that there is no perfect explanation for NED in English.

I really don’t know how to celebrate the blog’s first birthday. I seem to be tending towards the trivial solution that Sanjeev suggested to me on facebook yesterday – to just put NED. If you have any bright ideas as to how to celebrate this, please let me know.

One blog fan has suggested that I get the blog a “new set of clothes”. That sounds like a good idea. If you can suggest any good 3-column wordpress theme (widget enabled, with sidebars on both sides), I’d be grateful.

Stud and Fighter Instructions

My apologies for the third S&F post in four days. However, this blog represents an impression of the flow of thought through my head, and if I try to time my thoughts to suit readers’ interests and variety, I’m afraid I may not be doing a very good job.

I came across this funda in one of the “sub-plots” of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, which I finished reading two days back. Actually, there is another post about the main plot of that book that I want to write, but I suppose I’ll write that some other day, maybe over this weekend. So Dawkins, in some part of the book talks about two different ways of giving instructions. And thinking about it, I think it can be fit into the stud and fighter theory.

I must admit I’ve forgotten what Dawkins used this argument for, but he talks about how a carpenter teaches his apprentice. According to Dawkins, the carpenter gives instructions such as “drive the nail into the wood until the head is firmly embedded” and contrasts it to instructions which say “hold the nail in your left hand and hit it on the head with a hammer held in the right hand exactly ten times”. By giving instructions in the former way, Dawkins argues, there is less chance of the apprentice making a mistake. However, in case the apprentice does err, it is likely to be a significantly large error. On the other hand, with the latter kind of instructions, chance of error is higher but errors are likely to be smaller.

A set of “stud instructions” typically tell the recipient “what to do”. It is typically not too specific, and lists out a series of fairly unambiguous steps. The way in which each of these smaller steps is to be accomplished is left to the recipient of the instructions. Hence, given that each instruction is fairly clear and unambiguous, it is unlikely that the recipient of the instructions will implement any of these instructions imperfectly. What is more likely is that he goes completely wrong on one step, maybe completely missing it or horribly misunderstanding it.

“Fighter instructions”, on the other hand, go deep into the details and tell the recipient not only what to do but also how to do what to do. These instructions will go down to much finer detail than stud instructions, and leave nothing to the reasoning of the recipient. Obviously the number of steps detailed here to do a particular piece of work will be significantly larger than the number of steps that a set of stud instructions. Now, the probability that the recipient of these instructions is likely to make a mistake is much larger, though the damage done will be much smaller, since the error would only be in a small part of the process.

Dawkins went on to give a better example than the carpenter one – consider an origami model of a boat on one hand, and a drawing of a boat on the other. Origami gives a set of precise and discrete instructions. Drawing is as good as a set of “continuous instructions”. Dawkins talks about experiments where kids are made to play a version of “chinese whispers” using the origami and the drawing. I won’t go into the details here but the argument is that the stud instructions are much easier to pass on, and the probability of the tenth kid in line producing a correct model is really high – while in case of a drawing, there is a small distortion at each and every step, so each final model is flawed.

Stud and fighter instructions have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Fighter instructions require much more supervision than do stud instructions. Stud instructions enable the recipient to bring in his own studness into the process and possibly optimize one or more of the sub-processes. Fighter instruction sets are so-finegrained that it is impossible for the recipient to innovate or optimize in every way. To receive a set of stud instructions, the recipient may need to have certain prior domain knowledge, or a certain level of intelligence. This is much more relaxed in case of fighter instructions.

I personally don’t like supervising people and hence prefer to give out stud instructions whenever I need to get some work done. However, there was one recent case where I was forced to do the opposite. There was this IT guy at my company on contract and I was supposed to get a piece of code written from him before his contract expired. Given the short time lines in question, and given that he didn’t have too much of a clue of the big picture, I was forced to act micro and give him a set of fighter instructions. He has ended up doing precisely what I asked him to do, the only problem being that he has  written code in an extremely inflexible and non-scalable manner and I might have to duplicate his effort since this bit now needs generalization.

I have noticed that a large majority of people, when they have to give out instructions spell it out in the fighter manner. With a large number of micro steps rather than a small number of bigger steps. And until the recipient of the instructions has got enough fundaes to consolidate the set of micro-instructions he has received into a natural set of bigger chunks, it is unlikely that he will either be very efficient or that he will produce stuff that will be flexible. It might also be the case that a large number of people don’t want to let go of “control” and are hence loathe to give out stud instructions.

In the general case, however, my recommendation would be to give stud instructions, but have a set of fighter instructions ready in case the recipient of the instructionss wants things to be more specific.

Preliminary reading on studs and fighters theory:

Studs and Fighters

Extending the studs and fighters theory