Monday, May 30, 2005

Comedy Central

'Tis been a good year for the funny bone (apart from a horrible first job, where, I did, in the end, have the last laugh, so that counts as tickling my bone as well). My well-read aunt introduced me to Tom Sharpe's writings last year, and I was hooked on his stuff.

After Sharpe, it seems, there's been no turning back. In rapid succession, friends, acquaintances and miscellaneous readings have led me into the hilarious worlds of Nick Hornby, Carl Hiaasen and David Lodge. I highly recommend each of these writers. Sometimes laughter really is the best medicine.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Games in the Theories of Life

What interests me more in my chosen field (for the moment) is not so much the intricacies of the algorithms and constructs that go into making good software, as observing (and trying to influence) the effects of organization-wide software on the people who actually use it. This is hardly a new interest, as I can testify after having spent a significant chunk of my last year as an undergraduate in dissecting the nuances of Structuration Theory, and the applicability of such a theory in social situations involving interactions with information technology (specifically, enterprise systems, my pet subject).

Structuration Theory (and the occasional excursions into other social theories like Actor Network Theory) went a long way in (temporarily) sating my appetite for the social consequences of situated action. Thesis done, I took a leave of absence from theory and, by way of my current job, had the immense pleasure (and an equal amount of frustration) in the rather pragmatic concerns of real-life situated action.

But these are qualitative theories, and I've always felt that there was a chunk of understanding missing somewhere. Like a piece of a jigzaw puzzle that needed completing. (Roshan and I have repeatedly talked about (and slammed) people who deal purely in quantitative worlds, relying on fancy spreadsheets, time series, data mining and forecasting models to inform their decision making). Going by the same logic, there must be something equally wrong if I ignored quantitative contributions to the theory of human interaction situtations altogether. With that nagging thought, I decided to take the leap into the world of elementary Game Theory.

And, it seems, there are few better ways to foray into Game Theory than through a gem of a book entitled 'The Compleat Strategyst' by one J.D. Williams. Apart from a very lucid (and eminently understandable) treatment of the theory of games, Mr Williams makes no bones about the limitations of Game Theory as he understood it (at the time of writing), at the same time arguing for more research in and acceptance of the field, as the excerpt below shows (which I've taken the liberty of copying from an aptly named section titled 'Sectarian Remarks on Method'):

"It is sometimes felt that when phenomena include men, it is tremendously more difficult to theorize successfully; and our relative backwardness in these matters seems to confirm this. .. These (amateurs who lead the impetus towards simple theory) are often viewed by professional students of man as precocious children who, not appreciating the true complexity of man and his works, wander in wide-eyed innocence, expecting that their toy weapons will slay live dragons as well as they did inanimate ones..."

"The motive force that propels the game theorist isn't necessarily his ignorance of the true complexity of man-involved conflict situations; for he would almost surely try to theorize if he were not so ignorant. We believe, rather, that his confidence - better, his temerity - stems from the knowledge that he and his methods were completely outclassed by the problems of the inanimate world...since he has had some success in that field, he suspects that sheer quantity and complexity cannot completely vitiate his theories..."

"He (the game theorist) is also aware that his successes occur spottily so that his knowledge is much less complete that the uninitiated suspect - the uninitiated including of course those who believe that the animate field must be vastly harder than the inanimate because the latter has done so well(!) For example, modern physicists have only the foggiest notions about some atomic constituents - though they designed successful A-bombs. Their favourite particle, the electron, is shrouded in ignorance...they have decided that this information is in a strict sense forever unknowable. The mathematicians are likewise a puny breed. Item: after centuries of effort, they still don't know the minimum number of colours needed to paint a map (so that adjacent countries will not have the same color); it's fair to add that they suspect that number is four, but they haven't proved it."

He goes on to ask, "So what are the reasonable expectations for us to hold regarding Game Theory? It is certainly much too simple a theory to blanket all aspects of interest in any military, economic, or social situation. On the other hand, it is sufficiently general to justify the expectation that it will illumine certain aspects of many interesting conflict situations."

So there it is, then. Game Theory as a theory to illumine, to inform. That seems about right. This world needs more integrative thinking. And there has been some progress in this direction. Psychosociologists, biochemists, biotechnologists, international political economists and technopreneurs form but a small chunk of individuals who've looked beyond the boundaries of one field to illuminate their understanding of a facet of life.

Geopolitical-socio-cognitive-engineering, anyone?

Caveat: Integrative thinking should, of course, have its limits, and not result in the kind of rubbish described so aptly in this article entitled Postmodernism Disrobed.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Upside of Higher Gas Prices

Higher gas prices are typically considered bad news. Economists know that higher crude oil prices can not only cause inflation, but also stagflation, which is decidedly bad for the economy, leaving policy makers in a Catch-22 situation. With the steady oil price increases over the past year, there is thus plenty of reason to be wary of this trend and its potentially significant negative effects.

But a few people I know will be happier. For all the bad publicity that higher oil prices are associated with, there seems to be a silver lining to this issue. Higher gas prices are proving to be a significant deterrent for people looking to buy SUV's, as those gas guzzlers take no time to cut gaping holes in one's pocket (ask me, driving a pickup from South Carolina to New England and back on a student budget wasnt one of my brighter ideas). The New York Times has an interesting piece on it here (available to those with a subscription, which is free).

If gas prices continue to rise indiscriminately, Americans (especially) will assume driving positions that are closer to the road surface. Soccer moms may have to revert to driving station wagons again. Which means that car drivers wont have their scenery (ahead) obscured by vehicles that are 8 feet high. Now that can't be all that bad, can it?

There's usually an upside for every downside.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Missing the Bus, and the Boat not Taken

Thinking back over my high school days, I fondly remember one of the most oft-repeated and well-worn statements of our (in)famous math teacher, who used to bellow with some feeling, "Boy! You've missed the bus to ICSE!" - in reference to a student who was, well, not living up to his expectations (or more accurately, and often, someone who was playing the fool). Over the course of my two years of being taught by him, no less than three quarters of our class was the recipient of this legendary decree, delivered whilst pointing a 1 meter stick at the snickering transgressor. It was the stuff of legend, a statement that was passed on religiously from one graduating batch to another. A student's missing the bus, in this teacher's view, quickly degenerated into his 'driving the cab', a not-so-thinly disguised prophecy of a life to be spent in a lower strata of society.

Well, forget about missing buses, or driving cabs, if you can't find the boat! At least that is what a colleague of mine at work says, in an equally undisguised attempt to enlighten me on what I'm missing out by not being a Christian. In a rather heated debate about what Christianity promises the believer, my colleague used this rather interesting example to illustrate his point:

He said, "Shreyan, imagine there is a tsunami coming your way. You're stuck on an island which is right in the path of a tsunami, and your only hope of escape lies in escape from the island. There is a boat ready to take you away, but to even see the boat, one has to be a Christian. If you don't believe in Christianity, you won't be able to see the boat, and hence, you will die." Continuing on this rather implausible line of reasoning/belief, he continued, "Shreyan, let me help you see the boat!", at which point alarm bells started going off in my head and i politely declined to continue discussing the topic further.

I have no fundamental opposition to any religion per say. Growing up, I had close friends who were Christian, Hindu, Muslim, agnostic and atheist (and I can hardly call myself religious). But, I do have rather strong objections about the conversion mania that drives religious evangelists. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that such evangelists denounce other religions in favour of their adopted one (which undermines their own credibility, but no one's listening, it seems), or maybe it just makes me sick to see people espousing that their particular choice of religion is the pathway to the 'best' (or only) God.

Religion is a social construct, and evangelists know that better than anyone else. Chosing a religion is about choosing a set of beliefs, customs and a way of thinking about a God. It is not about being privileged or not on account of religious choice. Choosing a religion to abide by is not about the boat not taken. It is about taking a different boat.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Walk On...

Last Friday I saw Anakin Skywalker transform into Darth Vader, closing the loop after almost 3 decades of the Star Wars experience. While I was impressed with the quality of the movie (it was good, no doubt, atleast compared to the previous two), I was more moved than anything else. Moved by the knowledge that Obi Wan and Yoda, Luke and Leia, Darths Vader and Sidious had had their swan song, their last hurrah. Some substandard movie making aside, Star Wars Episode 3 signified the end of a whole cultural experience. The circle is complete, and now it's time to walk on. But will anything light up entire generations the way Star Wars did?

For a while beginning in the mid-90s, the TV serial Friends could stake a claim on holding one generation (mine) in rapt attention. Though nowhere close to the Star Wars in reach or glamour, the six actors in Friends managed to build cult followings for themselves (my favourite being Matthew Perry). For 10 years, a lot of us looked to an apartment in the Big Apple for nourishment; humour and a healthy scepticism were truly the need of the hour as many of us sought respites from demanding work/study schedules (being in University when we saw most of Friends, repeatedly).

And then it ended. (The quality of the show had been dipping for a while, and there was talk during the last few seasons of closure) Watching the last ever episode of Friends, we felt the same sense of sadness, emptiness rather, as the curtain came down, accompanied by Bono's evergreen voice:

"You're packing a suitcase
For a place none of us has been
A place that has to be believed
To be seen
You could have flown away
A singing bird in an open cage
Who will only fly
Only fly for freedom

Walk on, walk on
What you've got they can't deny it
Can't sell it, or buy it
Walk on, walk on
Stay safe tonight..."

I saw tears in people's eyes that night, not so much because of the series, but because of the glut of associated memories that the ending of the show evoked. For many of us, leaving high school, entering college, finding and losing significant others, getting our first jobs (losing our first jobs, even) were all accompanied by the friendly "I'll be there for you...". That night the curtain came down on 10 years of our lives.

And last Friday? I couldnt quite comprehend 20 years of memories. Overwhelmed would be an understatement...