December 27, 2009

On abstraction

Because Physics, you see, deals with forces, and matter, and motion. And for many kinds of system, the classical model of Physics provides us a clear, consistent picture and throws in reliable tools to predict future behaviour. The literature that defines the classical model is an imposing body of work, prepared by some of the greatest minds in history.

Yet, when we study complex interactions between exceedingly small particles, this model proves cumbersome. We find it difficult to cope with the sheer number of variables involved, with the errors in the measurement of each variable, and with the myriad parameters that remain entirely unaccounted for and yet interfere with the results that Physics predicts.

So, without entirely forsaking Physics, we try a new model to help us understand these interactions. This time we abstract a step higher. We consider collections of similar particles - substances - instead of their elementary constituents. We experiment, as the scientific method demands, and we develop this new model to explain the interaction between these substances. Soon enough, we find an entire discipline in front of us - this we call Chemistry.

When we apply Chemistry to intricate hydrocarbon molecules, however, we find it unequal to the task and decide that we must move to a newer model. We abstract a step higher and train ourselves to think in terms of organic structures, to which we give names in our new vocabulary, and whose behaviour we determine through observation, and soon enough we are in the realm of Biology.

Yet, when we try to analyse the neural system, notable for its heavily interconnected, highly convolved architecture, even Biology comes up short and we shift to the empirically-derived model of Psychology, abstracting away those fiddlesome neurons and dealing only with the consciousness that they engender.

But when a number of organisms interact, each consciousness distinct and yet influenced by others in unimaginably warped ways, Psychology too proves insufficient. We must now think in terms of the community and the choices it makes, and cease to consider the all-too-often irrational individual - we approach the social sciences, and the domain we call Economics.

Of course, it's still essentially about forces, and matter, and motion. We realize that it is only the inadequacy of our models that, along with the feebleness of our computation and our inability to account for every single variable, prevents us from deriving economic laws from the first principles of physics. And each model, a venerable Science in its own right, is but a rough draft, constructed only to place our observations within a context, to create repositories of if-this-then-that axioms that prove valuable in some situations, repositories that we call Knowledge.

But Physics is a Science too, and a model - perhaps, then, reality is not fundamentally about forces and matter and motion at all. Perhaps these, too, are merely abstractions. Perhaps a model, whatever its level of granularity, is but a caricature of a deeper reality, and this reality a caricature of another, and so on ad infinitum, the interminably-cocooned Truth safe from prying eyes.

November 16, 2009


Zero. He trudged back to his scooter, his office clothes a mess, his ears ringing from the insults that had been hurled at him like so many rotten tomatoes at a poor performer. It was pitch dark; the streetlights had stopped working a couple of months ago.

No hits today. Zero. He consoled himself: the insults weren't personal, were they? They weren't directed at him, only at his company, and at their marketing tactics perhaps. Only a few people had actually been rude, in any case. But the polite ones were worse: I'm sorry, I'm not interested. He knew that they, too, wanted to be rude, he just knew. Their courtesy was condescension, their sophistication mere sophistry. They mocked him, laughed at him; he heard their chuckles as they bragged to their associates and their families about how many telemarketers called them every day. He wanted people to be blunt, dismissive, offensive; he liked it when people shouted at him, abused him, because he could then claim vengeance by crossing their name out on the List. If they'd been especially nasty he would make the cross thick, grotesque, and disfigure the name beyond recognition, and efface their very identity, and sometimes press so hard on the pen that the paper would tear.

But the politest ones wouldn't say no at all: that meant he had to place their name back at the bottom of the List, and steel himself to suffer the same noncommittal, monosyllabic replies at some indeterminate point in the future. Yes, the politest ones were truly cruel - they kept that precious flicker of anticipation alive in his heart, and let it burn him from within, before extinguishing it with a 'sorry, not interested' a few months down the line.

It was difficult to leave with zero hits on his List – he had persevered well into the night. This Hope was a diabolical creature; it refused to die even when heart and nerve and sinew were long gone. Maybe, he'd been telling himself all day, maybe the next number would turn out lucky. People tend to be cheerful after dinner, he had reminded himself late in the evening. But some had started shouting at him for calling up so late, and he really didn’t want to disturb anyone's sleep or anything.

Almost as hopeless, and yet as hopeful, as asking someone if they love you.

October 30, 2009

Brown, wooden and angular

One takes this opportunity to speak
Of somebody one met last week.
She's an air-hostess (named Mary Jain)
One met within an aeroplane.

With a trolley full of things to eat
At thirty seven thousand feet
She asked One a question most bizarre:
"Wedge or Non-Wedge, sir you are?"

Now Wedge was a good option, sure
One is brown, wooden and angular.
To confirm that this hunch was true
One plainly asked the in-flight crew
Who looked at One in the strangest way
When there spoke up, to save the day
A chap you haven't heard from in a while
(He was seated right across the aisle.)

This maestro raised his compound head
Quickly interviewed the One, and said,
"Okay - you're a standard-issue software cynic,
Name and surname so Brahminic,
I shall proclaim, if I so may:
You're a Wedge, sir, plain as day!"

But he had not the faintest clue
That One had no intention to
Heed his words; in actual fact,
One had predetermined that
Whatever this worm might say,
One would go the other way
And choose the other thing instead;
The opposite of what he said.

(See, one was wary of this guy,
This adolescent butterfly.
For One once followed his advice
And paid, let's say, a heavy price.)

"So, Wedge or Non-Wedge?" Mary sighed.
"Non-Wedge," One suavely replied.
(Our worm heard, and would've fought
But lost himself in abstract thought.)

After the plane had safely landed
And Mary, worm and One disbanded
One made a silent, heartfelt pledge
To always remain a staunch Non-Wedge.
One now has a Reason To Be,
A real Group Identity.

We Non-Wedges are awesome folks,
We tell each other Non-Wedge jokes.
You might find the odd Wedge who's mildly cool
But, overall, Non-Wedges rule!

April 24, 2009

Stream of consciousness

He is standing, quite still. It's not a river, really, just a muddy trickle, a silted creek that's probably more sewage than alluvium. The bridge is just a few feet above the water. It shall submerge if the rains are good this year, and then we will have to cross by boat.

The air is buzzing with insects. No, wait, they aren't insects at all. They are words, each in a different colour, each with a matching pair of wings. The ins and the withs dart merrily about, maneuver expertly around the ponderous bulk of 'maneuver', bump into 'merrily' without noticeable damage, and continue along their way, heading towards the source of the water, perhaps unaware that it is many miles away. 'It' and 'is', meanwhile, race each other, thrilled by their own velocity. 'Maneuver' and the equally ungainly 'ponderous' move slowly but noisily, like articulate bumblebees. 'Ungainly', despite his name, is a most nimble fellow, and navigates slickly through the aerial crowd, the tail of the 'y' acting as rudder.

He must capture these words, and string them together, and make them behave, but they seem to delight in eluding him; they remain just out of reach, the bulkier ones maintaining their height, the quicker ones (notably 'it' and 'is') occasionally taunting him by flying within reach, then flitting away. But capture them he must, even if it takes a lifetime of patience, for that is his destiny.

January 16, 2009


Despite much interaction with the Metropolis over the past decade or so, certain Facts about the city had escaped the One's keen eye. And these very Facts, gentle reader, were brought to one's notice on a curious winter evening, during one's annual pilgrimage to the Homeland.

In a minor miracle wrought by the lateness of the hour and the nefariousness of the times, the compartment was nearly empty. A young couple boarded at Mumbai Central with luggage in tow. Out-of-towners, their part-excited, part-bewildered expressions said, or would have said if their VIP suitcases hadn't said it first. Naturally they approached the One (who happened at that point to be leaning out of the door and making full Gujju use of the free breeze) for information, and perhaps for small talk or banter.

"Churchgate jayegi na?" asked the gentleman.

Easy question. One retracted self into train and replied, with some panache, "Bilkul jayegi, bhaiyaji. Samjho Churchgate aa hi gaya."

Following this succinct reassurance, one chose to enlighten bhaiyaji further.

"Yeh Fast Local hai. Fast Locals stop only at Fast Stations – Bandra, Dadar, Mumbai Central, Churchgate. So the next station is Churchgate," elucidated the One, your friendly neighbourhood mass-transit mastermind. "Next station, Churchgate", one then somewhat repetitively declared, for emphasis.

Four minutes later, the train came to an abrupt halt outside Grant Road Station.

"Woh signal ka problem hai, bhaiyaji", one observed, with an appropriately beseeching glance towards bhabhiji for support. "Apne ko, na, red signal diyela hai. Warna Churchgate aa gaya hota," one continued. Bhaiyaji seemed to buy neither one's wisdom nor one's Bambaiyya, for he was, in his own way, an astute individual.

Three minutes, and we were grinding to a stop outside Charni Road Station.

"Woh Saurashtra Express ko pehle jaaneko mangta na," hazarded the One, Walking Encyclopedia of the Western Railways. "Boley toh," one added for effect, at which point the train lurched into motion, with no Express, Saurashtra or otherwise, in sight.

South of Charni Road, the railway line follows the curve of Marine Drive in a most sensuous manner. ("And each individual track does slowly bend, like quills on the fretful porpentine," one murmured, much to bhaiyaji's consternation.)

Three minutes later we were standing, quite still, at Marine Lines.

Bhaiyaji, an admirable man on many counts, did not lose his patience and blow his top, if 'blow his top' is the correct expression. He instead chose to glare silently at the One. And one, having been subjected to such glares with regularity, took it all in one’s stride.

Such was the atmosphere in our little compartment for a few minutes, and then Churchgate actually did arrive. But, as anyone who has ever arrived at Churchgate in the last bogie of a 12-coach train will testify, said bogie stops so far from the roofed area that one could be forgiven for thinking that Churchgate had not arrived at all.

"Waise toh Churchgate almost aa gaya hai, bhaiyaji, lekin abhi train aur thodi aage jayegi. Let's get off when we're under the roof, suitcases bhi to hain," remarked the One in all thoughtfulness. Five minutes passed. The train began to travel, once again. Backwards.

A hasty disembarkation did then ensue, and VIP luggage was thrown down in true filmi style, and one was subjected to further cold glares, stares and suchlike perusals.

Thus, gentle reader, one bequeaths to you two Facts this frabjous day. Firstly: when a southbound train stops three minutes after leaving Marine Lines, you are at Churchgate and should alight without unduly worrying about where the roof begins. And secondly: the line (conceptual, not railway) separating Fast Locals and Slow Locals is not nearly as well-defined as we may think. The Fast Local, after screaming through the suburbs like a banshee on steroids, is tamed by Mumbai Central and becomes a Slow Local, after which it chugs along in the meekest possible manner, and stops at the smallest stations and at several signals besides. And sometimes, they say, it has to wait for the Saurashtra Express too.