The Choice to be Made – to Cherish or to Self-Destruct

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Modern man, arguably perhaps the most intelligent of all beings on this fragile planet Earth, arrived here not so long ago; about 200,000 years back…a tiny speck of dust in the vastness of cosmic time-scales. But in spite of that fleeting presence, he has made his impact felt. He has risen up the evolutionary ranks, facing some of the fiercest battles with other species, and countless other ordeals with nature’s occasional fury. But he has least so far. Nature in her series of great experiments, in a succession of trials and errors, was finally able to create that super-species. Little did she know that he’ll one day come to be her own nemesis.

Antaeus emerging from the Earth, which was his mother and the source of all his strength Antaeus emerging from the Earth (Gaia), who was his mother and the source of all his strength
Antaeus emerging from the Earth (Gaia), who was his mother and the source of all his strength


It was all there, even when we weren't

Let’s rewind a little, and go back to the time when intelligent modern man had not yet evolved and life was much simpler. Hmm…let’s see. OK, all the land was still there, with its majestic mountain ranges and snow-capped peaks, the exquisite plateaus that run miles, the flourishing plains and the incredible variety of flora & fauna that they support. So the land as we know it today, was more or less already there. The water was there too, within the gigantic glacial rivers that are the sources of almost all of the freshwater in the world, powerful streams that carve hard rock to create beautiful canyons, wondrous waterfalls that multiply any place’s beauty, the shallow seas that harbour some of the most exotic and diverse life on Earth, and the mysterious ocean deep. So, essentially, water was there too. The land was there, the water was there, and all the other organisms were there too already, created by that skilled artist called nature. Everything perfect to the last detail, and a system that maintained its own equilibrium over millennia.

Then one fine day (well, not exactly a day, but probably more like a few thousands of years) nature decided to push her limits and create a new model of perfection. And man evolved. At first, while he was still mostly at her mercy, man used to worship nature. But later, as he started to get more sense of his place, he slowly but surely lost touch with his creator. His knowledge grew, but his wisdom nonetheless decreased over time. But with that knowledge, something else grew too, which was soon to tilt the scales more profoundly in man’s favour than perhaps any other species, ever…

Man - worshipping even nature gods in HIS own form
Man - worshipping even nature gods in HIS own form

...and then it happened

With knowledge came power, and it exposed that one flaw that nature had been reckless enough to overlook while creating man…the greed for even more power. So much so that one day, not too long ago, man with his new-found obsession with power, decided to control nature herself, grossly overestimating his own power and underestimating that of his creator. He modified, disturbed and destroyed life on this planet as he pleased…he violated that sacred covenant that binds all natural beings. He tried to dominate, not co-exist, with all life forms on all the few places on this Earth where he’s been able to set his feet. Till today that thought of co-existence seldom crosses his power-inebriated mind, and he continues to wreak havoc on ecosystems and destroy prehistoric equilibria, the world over. And the balance that nature was so carefully able to maintain for over millions of years, has now been tampered with. Nature, in her turn, will now come back with her full vengeful force and would restore that natural order. Maybe not tomorrow, but maybe in a decade or so, quite soon anyway.

Nature has seen and had enough of this
Nature has seen and had enough of this


So what now? Is this it for us?

It’s going to be soon, even amongst the most enlightened and yet the most deluded species of all time, some folks do realise that (see here and here).  And it’s their responsibility that their kind gets this crucial message and acts on it, responsibly, as befitting for a creature with so much power, and not as a mindless idiot he behaves like today. Probably then sense would prevail, and perhaps we could still make it right, perhaps there’s still some time and hope left for the human race.

We’ve been too proud for too long, and it’s time we realise that it was all there before we came to this Earth, and in all likelihood, most of it would still be there long after we’re gone. The choice is right in front of us – do we choose to be grateful for all that there is and cherish it, or do we choose to destroy it and with it, eventually, self-destruct.

© Jayant Rana, 2014
Image credit: / mandymama / CC BY-NC-ND; srgpicker / CC BY; Malinda Rathnayake / CC BY

True Descendant of the Survivors

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Humans are everywhere. There are over 7 billion of them on this planet we call our home. And that number is still growing. But the stories of the origins of our species are the stuff of legend and are intriguing and exciting.

Modern man has his roots in the place we know today as Africa. Evidence from archaeology, anthropology and genetics all points to the fact that it was this great continent where human life took its first steps around 200,000 years ago. And they stayed put in that magnificent cradle for a while…in fact for about a good 100,000 years. That’s an important number, and to put it in perspective, just consider that of all the time humanity has spent on this planet, almost half of it was spent exclusively in Africa! But then some folks did try to venture out. In fact, many tried…

Cave paintings - impressions from history

Geographically, Africa is a vast continent with even vaster oceans surrounding it from all sides, some sides more than others. So even though many explorers would have made attempts to venture out and go on epic voyages, it’d have been really difficult, to the point of being all but impossible at that time. It’s only in the north that a few plausible routes can be identified, but those wouldn’t have been a cakewalk either, because of the blazing and brazen Sahara, and still plenty of sea to cross beyond that.

Researchers have now unearthed that the first and perhaps the only group among those early explorers that was finally able to manage to cross over their home continent did so from a very narrow region in north-east Africa into the deserts of Arabia. And all of that epic adventure was made possible due to certain rare and favourable environmental variations that existed during that time and only briefly so. And due to that lucky happenstance, a small group (estimates of a few hundred only) was finally able to venture outside their home.

Solid evidence through robust DNA analyses has proved beyond question that every single one of us humans, who isn’t an African, is a descendant of that small group of pioneers…and that is simply mind-boggling!

Haplogroups - showing our common ancestry

It takes a while for the full impact of that fact to sink in, but eventually you know that your ancestors (who evolved into somewhat varied races later on) actually descended from just a handful of audacious and courageous adventurers, who dared to go into the unknown, who challenged the status quo, and who really were the true survivors. And that’s inspirational, and enough to lift your spirits whenever you come to think of the fact that whatever challenges you’re facing these days or have faced in your entire lives (whether at work, or at home, or elsewhere), wouldn’t even come close to what your ancestors have faced and already conquered. They survived…and if you’re a true descendant of those survivors, then so can you.

© Jayant Rana, 2014
Image credit: / Ryan Somma / CC BY-SA; midwestnerd / CC BY

Blindsided by Inspiration? How to never lose that million dollar idea...again!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Did I just say a million? Um, well please forget that. I actually meant a billion. Er, wait...maybe I meant thousands. Well, the point is that the idea may not be worth a million dollars all the time, besides it might be really difficult to arrive at an appropriate methodology for instant valuation of ideas, but that’s again beside the point. The actual objective of this post is to talk about how to generate ideas and to keep them securely, so that given appropriate motivation and resources you could pursue them in future (and hopefully even realize that coveted valuation). Essentially, we’ll ideate on ideas.

Never lose an idea again - Never get blindsided by Inspiration

Hmm...interesting. But what about those million dollars you were talking about?

Oh! You’re still hung on that? We’ll come to that, worry not. Let’s first attempt to understand how ideas work. I always think (and sometimes say) that what is but man, if not a collection of ideas. One may contend that a man has identity and personality and is much more than just a notion. And I say that if you observe carefully, right down at the biochemical level we’re all so similar that it’d be hard to distinguish one from the other, and at that level the concept of identity is almost reduced to cipher (unless of course in DNA fingerprinting).

Moving up the biochemical level, however, we find that man, unlike most other living beings, has developed higher cognitive functions that enable him to generate ideas, and those ideas in turn confer upon him his identity, personality and other related concepts. Most animals don’t seem to have a very pronounced personality, and that's because of their limited ideation capabilities. Humans, however, have a very characteristic personality that is defined by their ideas. Even the word ‘personality’ derives itself from Latin personalis meaning ‘of a person’. So there you have it.

The human brain, with its immensely unique cognitive capabilities, is evolved for generating ideas and critical thinking. There is so much more to it than the basal reptilian component (or lizard brain), which we tend to express so often in the form of fear, territoriality, aggression, etc. To generate ideas, one needs to rise above these basic instincts and focus on higher cognitive functions (more about basic instincts in an upcoming post).

Well said, but how do we really generate ideas, I mean like for real?

Idea Toaster - Crisp ideas, served freshIdea generation is an extremely complex multivariate process, and the subject matter of high science. However, our brains make it appear so simple and instinctive that we hardly even give a thought to how ideas are really generated. You could take one of those multiple variables that govern this process as being the amount of exposure you get to different kinds of information. Another important variable would be how you (and more importantly, your brain) classify and catalog that information. Yet another crucial variable would be the time you allow for the processing of that information. The time is of essence as it allows the formation of those neuronal connections that then enable a cross-fertilization of those seemingly random bits of information and churn out fascinating ideas. And then your brain churns some more, iterating those smaller ideas some more, and you have bigger ideas. And so on.

So, in order to simplify a really complex neurological phenomenon, one can generate ideas by exposing oneself to as much of world literature and different kinds of media as possible, preferably in an organized/structured fashion,  and then allow some time for all that information to assimilate and cross-fertilize, et voilà! Your idea is ready. now that I have my idea, how do I know if it’s worth a million dollars?

For goodness’ sake get over the dollars already! The next logical step after generating an idea would be to identify if you actually want to keep it. So yes, it does matter if you know it’s a million dollar opportunity, but we’re talking about still bigger things here.

Keeping an idea costs time and effort, so you want to be almost sure that that’s what you want to do. How do you decide on that? Well, it could differ for different people, but generally if your idea has any of the below characteristics you may want to keep it (thanks to Farnoosh Brock for such an exhaustive list):
    Is your idea worth capturing
  • hear the idea in your head frequently
  • feel the urge to immediately write it down
  • find that you keep telling it to yourself
  • think about it – a lot
  • feel butterflies in your stomach from thinking about it
  • imagine what if you turned the idea into action
  • love hearing it said
  • love the idea itself, period
  • delight in saying it just to hear it to dissolve on your tongue
  • daydream about it
  • dream about it
  • lose sleep over it
  • wake up to it after a sweet slumber
  • stare out in space and visualize the idea materializing before you
  • obsess with the very thought of it
  • believe in it
  • want to keep it entirely to yourself until you are ready to reveal it
  • want to reveal it with passion, zest, enthusiasm and energy
  • defend it against naysayers or “the realists” after you do reveal it
  • know that the only way you can stop thinking about the idea is if you did something – anything – about it.

Yay! My idea qualifies. But why do I need to capture it? I mean it’s such a chore doing it every time I have a brainwave!

A chore, is it? Well, I understand where you’re coming from, because ideas, particularly the great ones, strike us at the least convenient of times - during a shower, for example. And let’s settle on it that inspiration really does have this nasty habit of blindsiding you, striking when you least expect. Furthermore, I wish I could tell you there is a magical wand to foster and enable creativity, but let’s face it that in our workaholic lives we spend most of our time trying to force productivity. No wonder then that in such a ‘forced set-up’ our brains don’t always have the luxury of mixing up the right blend of those aforementioned variables to brew the greatest of ideas. Let’s just accept it, and move on. Move on to accepting that we can’t afford to lose an idea just because it strikes us at an inopportune moment. No can’t do, sir.

Blindsided by Inspiration - Ideas strike when you least expect
If you’re already convinced enough that you should capture your ideas as and when they come, move on to the next paragraph, else allow me to strengthen my case further. Ideas don’t just happen when you’re sitting there with a notepad...they happen all the flippin’ time! And great ideas that have a high probability of success, develop from smaller ideas. Literature is replete with stories that some of the most brilliant ideas of our civilization have occurred by serendipity and in the least likely of situations - bathtubs, bus commute, sitting underneath apple trees, you get the idea. Same goes for the ideas that have spawned some of the most successful businesses of today. It pays to capture and organize your ideas, because - it keeps you from losing them, gives you peace of mind, saves you time looking for those ideas, and finally gives you a sense of clarity and purpose. Evidently, you just can’t afford to not capture these ideas, and I don’t mean just memorize them, because memory is fallible (though it does work brilliantly for a gifted few).

To sum it up, the human mind is not bound by the same physical limitations as us mortal beings. So when your eureka moment finally arrives, it would help if you’re mindful and ready to capture it. You can’t just leave ideas to chance, it’s too risky!

OK, OK! Got it. But that cross-fertilization thing sounds so chaotic. Is there an actual system to capture ideas?

It is true that ideas do thrive in a seemingly chaotic environment. Whereas, we humans are naturally inclined, even more so in the artificially ‘forced set-ups’ of today, to organize and structure anything we see, hear, smell, taste or touch. Therefore, in order to reconcile and bridge these apparently opposing concepts, we do need a system to structure the chaotic mess that our ideas may appear otherwise. That system would then enable us to develop them further. 

Allow me to share the system that I personally use and find quite useful for capturing and organizing my ideas. It’s fairly straightforward. Once I have an idea, I capture it ASAP. This first bit is largely influenced by willpower. Then comes the more crucial part of classifying and organizing the ideas into various categories, using very specific and robust tools. Listed below are the categories I use, and the corresponding tool recommendations:

To-do Ideas

Capture you ToDo ideas with
These are ideas that lead to clear, definite actions, for which the timeframe may or may not be defined.
Examples: Take the Statistics 101 course, try out a T'ai chi session, learn to make cupcakes at home, update résumé, write an email to uncle, medication reminders, etc.
Tools of the Trade

Draft To-be-developed Ideas

Capture everything with Evernote
These are ideas that come as fragments, are vague, and need to be developed further to see what actions you want to take based on them. Often quite big and exciting, they typically require additional research to develop further, and may turn into multiple actions or even transform into full projects.
Examples: Computer Programming (learn/not learn? worth while/not useful? career/fun? which language? etc.), Trip to China (when to travel? requirements? what to see? best deals? etc.), Essay on global warming (what’s causing it? can it be mitigated? who are affected? impact...numbers, species? etc.), Relocate to a new city (pros/cons? is it really necessary? packing and moving? new service providers? etc.). 
Tools of the Trade
  • Evernote - collect snippets/stuff from all over the place, and bring it all in one single organised dashboard
  • Google Keep - simplified, neat, Google, need I say more!
  • MindMup - smoothest and most “frictionless” mind-mapping app, visualize your ideas, see the dots connect, super clean UI.

Calendar Appointment/Event Ideas

These are ideas that do not require much deliberation, and enter straight into your schedule. Nevertheless, they may be quite important and missing them could negatively impact you.
Examples: Birthdays, anniversaries, appointments, sporting events, deadlines, upcoming conference, etc.
Tools of the Trade
  • Google Calendar - simple, straightforward, delivers on what it promises
  • Cal - gorgeous, functional, syncs with
  • Sunrise Calendar - for iOS users who don’t like iCal and use Google Calendar anyway!

Ideas/Inspiration from the Interesting Randomness of the Web

Capture all the visual inspiration you find on the Web with Pinterest
Ideas you stumble upon while surfing the web and find interesting. You may want to read further on them, or actually implement them in your life, or you might just be short on time and save them to read/view/share later.
Examples: DIY ideas on redecorating your living room, interesting links and resources from your Twitter/Facebook/G+ news feed, a really long but interesting The Economist article, a step-by-step tutorial video of how to assemble your mountain bike, etc.
Tools of the Trade

Whoa! Some system that! Don’t you think our good ol’ paper notepad and sticky notes be the best?

Ideas on sticky too many to manage!
Most of us naturally tend towards actual physical notes, and for all the right reasons. It’s just preferable most of the time to have a concrete list at hand to review and quickly make changes. Some like it as a back-up to the digital versions. While some of us just enjoy the feel of putting pen to paper. All valid and good reasons. The point here is don’t throw away your existing idea-capture system, just for the sake of change. If it works, and works the way you want, stick to it by all means. And you might’ve heard/experienced that thing about too much of automation. Take calculators for example - use them too much and you forget how to add in your head (unless you’re an Indian, in which case you’ve been hardwired by the system to cram and crunch numbers even in your sleep!).

But if you have doubts about your system, or your system doesn’t work at all, it’s time for change. Let technology help you get organised and productive. If you must use a physical notebook for capturing ideas, and many of us do need to, get a special, aesthetically appealing notebook for the purpose. It keeps the task of jotting down interesting and you do want to look at it every now and then. DON’T note your idea on some flimsy piece of paper that just blows with the wind, and you discover it months (or years) later only to regret that there’s the idea I so wanted to pursue months (or years!) ago. Damn, that would be frustrating!

Yo! I prepared this massive list in Excel and when I actually needed it, realized it’s at home, on my PC!

We live in a world of multiple screens and multiple platforms. There’s a fine line between having just the right number of gadgets that peak your productivity, and getting overwhelmed by the sheer number of devices you own! Worry not, friend. Help is at hand to make you truly independent of these device and platform dependencies.
Sync your data across all of your devices for accessing it anywhere

Device-dependency is the first thing to tackle, and to that end the #1 lifehacking tip anyone can give you, is to SYNC. Build an idea-capture system that enables you to - one, capture ideas as soon as you get them, and two, store them in a location which you can revisit whenever you want. If your present system doesn’t allow you to perform either of these tasks, you need to reconsider it. Most of the tools recommended in the list above are offered as suites of cloud and desktop/mobile applications, and can be installed/accessed on almost any device that you own (desktops, laptops, mobile, tablet, etc.). Browser extensions and bookmarklets, available for most of them, make your experience even more smooth.

The next thing to tackle is platform-dependency. Your idea-capture tools might work just fine on Windows, but what about your iOS device, or Android, or Kindle even! Relax. It doesn’t have to work across all of those, but at least find something that works across the devices and platforms that you use regularly. Even though most of the tools these days work across multiple platforms, you might want to check if your idea-capture system is working fine across all the platforms that you’re using.
What, you own a BlackBerry 10 device? Don’t you worry mate, have faith that the free markets will sort it out eventually, until then they’ve allowed Android apps to sneak in! So there you have it.

But what if I get those million dollar ideas ONLY during a shower? What if I really have to have to write down while I’m in shower? What if...I were Aquaman?!!

Aquaman needs special apparatus to write underwater
There, there. Let’s clear the air. You don’t want to be Aquaman. Nobody does! Duh. But just in case, and an extreme one at that, there is actually “apparatus” available for writing underwater, and I’m not even kidding. See here, an entire category of stationery! I can still understand if you’d want to use the gadget when you get that million dollar idea during a shower, but I’m really skeptical people would take additional gadgets with them during a SCUBA diving session just in the hope that the idea might hit them 100 ft under water. You would never need that gear, unless you’re one of those who want to maintain a dive-log (yeah, that’s a real thing too), note down marine biology stuff, or maybe you’re someone who takes notes of the whale songs! Anyway, maybe there are people who actually take notes of whale songs, what do I know.

Assuming you’re not that much into water (see what I did there?), for all general purposes, just use some memory technique to keep that idea in your mind so long as you’re in the shower and then transfer it to your idea-capture tool, as soon as you get out of it.

Sounds like a plan...and then again, it sounds like a chore still! Besides why haven’t you disclosed much about those million dollars?

Boy! You’re a persistent one, aren’t you? Not letting go of those million dollars, are we? Anyway, your resistance to build/adopt a new idea-capture system is understandable. It’s easy to say that it’s a chore, but understand that it doesn’t take a lot of effort to actually build your system and get it up and running. It takes a little willpower though, I’ll give you that.

The hardest part of this system is to get your ideas out of your head and put them into a format where you can review them and create action items based on them. You need to start doing it consciously. You don’t need to write entire paragraphs; trust your brain, it can create full-length stories out of brief snippets. Use reminders, they take only seconds to set-up, and the app would ensure the idea reaches execution stage.

It’s like developing a habit. It takes time. Try to make it fun, and it might get easier. Find the right tools that work for you. You need to like/love your idea-capture tools. It doesn’t come naturally to most of us, relax! But the good thing is we all are capable of developing those habits. The rest is plain old automation, doesn’t take much doing from your end.

I have like ten pages full of earth-shattering ideas jotted down in my notepad, and I still don’t see myself getting a million dollars. Why?

Well alright, let’s talk about your million dollars now. See, there’s one last step that I haven’t told you about so far. Once you’ve generated that awesome idea, and have taken efforts to properly capture it as well, the last thing you need to do is to ACT on that idea. Yeah, apparently this last step is quite critical to unlock the value of your idea. So, just a word of caution, don’t get too enamored by some or the other part of the process and forget that the end objective is to ACT on those captured ideas! That’s not to say that the previous two steps are a way to distract and get you away from the final step. In fact, they actually preserve, sharpen, and bring your idea to this stage where it can finally be acted upon. To act on those ideas however you would require a lot of tolerance, which we would discuss in an upcoming post.
Just do it...ACT on your ideas...Execute your plans.

Not every idea would be in your priority list at a time, and hence only capturing ideas is not enough. It is pertinent to review your ideas from time to time. You must do it, there is no option. Keep them in a place you’d like to or at least have to revisit frequently. This way no idea will ever pass you by. Keep them fresh and in front of you all the time – eyeshot, earshot, and complete-senses-shot so that they don’t get shot down to pieces before you’ve had the time to act upon them. Reflect on them and allow your brain to form those neuronal connections, and given the right environment the thoughts would surely cross-fertilize and bloom into even more beautiful and creative ideas.

Review is the key. Heard that ol’ saying “out of sight, out of mind?” It is very easy to forget what we do not see.

Ideas never run out...always be ready to capture them.

So what you’re saying is?

In the words of Alexander Pope -
“Order is Heaven’s first law.”
Ideas could spring upon us any time from apparent chaos, and inspiration has an old tendency to blindside. Hence, it is important to be mindful of this fact, and be ready with an effective system to capture and organize those ideas. There’s no ideal system for this purpose, and each of us needs to build our own individual systems. Only once we capture ideas in the right format can our brains process them and enable us to act upon them, which ultimately unlocks the idea’s true value.

Hope you found this post useful. I’m sure you too maintain you own personalized idea capture system. Do share it with us so we could learn from each other.

© Jayant Rana, 2014
Image credit: / csm_web / CC BY; James Nash (aka Cirrus) / CC BY-SA; MGoBlog / CC BY-NC; Leif (Bryne) / CC BY-NC-ND; dbwilldo / CC BY-NC-SA; Bunches and Bits {Karina} / CC BY-NC-ND; Inha Leex Hale / CC BY; eugeniot / CC BY-NC-SA; Pete Labrozzi / CC BY-NC-ND; Sean MacEntee / CC BY; adihrespati / CC BY; ecstaticist / CC BY-NC-SA

Religion and Science - Origins and Ends

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Most of the natural systems, most of which concern humans anyway, are inherently chaotic. What that means, in the words of Edward Lorenz, is that although the present does determine the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future. Simply put, this means that even minute variations in the initial conditions may yield incredibly diverging outcomes; this is also known as the butterfly effect. This presents an interesting problem for the human mind. It knows that the future can be predicted, given that the present (with all its zillions of variables) is perfectly known, but achieving perfect knowledge is an unending pursuit, mythical even.

Science and Religion - Origins and Ends

Okay, I lost you at butterfly! What are we discussing here again?

Chaos and Conformity
Since the beginning of time, randomness has presented humans with great discomfort. Be it the sudden changes in weather, the migration of birds & animals, the seasonality of crops, sudden outbreak of disease, and many other such equally baffling natural phenomena, which have a direct bearing on our survival. And for the same length of time, humans have made consistent efforts to reduce that randomness by actively seeking to know more about their world and its inhabitants. This need to know is one of the most basic human needs. Humans seek knowledge to identify patterns in nature, to find conformity in apparent chaos. Conformity is comforting, knowledge of the future is comforting. Uncertainty is distressing, not knowing is uncomfortable. It has a psychological cost.

That sounds fair. So what about Religion and Science?

The Power of FaithWe’ve established that the need to know, the curiosity about not only our future, but also our past, is a basic human need. This need can only be satisfied by faith, i.e. by a belief in a body of ideas addressing those questions of past, present and future. That's why faith is such a powerful thing. It gives you assurance, a sense of comfort in this otherwise seemingly random world. Faith, therefore, is something that the human mind naturally strives for. The essence of every belief system is a pattern which predicts not only the future based on our present,  but also tells what was our past, which has led us to this present condition. Science and Religion, in that sense, have the same common origins. Both arise from that singular all pervasive need to know. Also, the ultimate objective of both is to attain knowledge of all that there is...that state of spiritual nirvana. The means of both may be different but the ends are quite the same.

You keep saying Religion and Science, but hasn't it always been Religion versus Science?

The Pseudoscience of Astronomy
The human civilization of today has been shaped by countless battles of seemingly conflicting ideas. It all starts with a belief in anything that gives us some ability to predict the future. Take for instance, the belief in astrology. Astrology is so popular because we humans have always liked to think of ourselves connected with the universe. We like to believe that the universe, and more specifically the positions of stars and planets at the exact moment of our birth have an almost direct bearing on our lives. You only need to take a look around, be it newspapers, TV or the internet, to see how popular astrology is. Our belief in astrology in early times was so strong that anything untoward was blamed on an unfavorable position of a planet or a star, explaining the origins of the word disaster, derived from Greek dus- + astron, meaning "bad star". Thus, astrology is/was a great system, all based on careful observations, record-keeping and memorization on the part of astrologers, and it did seem to explain the past and predict the future, partly at least.

Observations alone led to the belief that the Earth is at the centre of the universe. And why not? The Earth was a stable, solid surface and apparently all other “heavenly” bodies seemed to revolve around it each day. It seemed only natural to assume that. This Ptolemy's model seemed to explain most of the natural phenomena and worked well for that time. Copernicus, at long last tried to change that view in light of his new set of observations, but people had grown comfortable with the Earth being at the centre of everything. It seemed quite convenient too. People had faith in it. Copernicus was called a heretic and was ostracised. It was only much later that his observations gained credence in light of new evidence from later scientists like Johannes Kepler. But Kepler too was initially looking to find God's great plan for himself and his world, which led him to an obsessive pursuit of geometric patterns and the motions of "heavenly" bodies. The difference was that he was using the scientific method and hypotheses testing and gathered immense amounts of his own observations and other previously recorded data. And even though a lot of his hypotheses would explain a natural phenomenon almost entirely, but at times failed to explain some exceptions. It would have been convenient for him to ignore those observations as irrelevant, but he did not. It took him a lot of heart to discard his original views and hypothesis in light of new observations. But he persisted. It would have been tremendously frustrating. To test again and again his ideas and theories would have taken not only patience, but also a lot of courage. That's the scientific method. That's just the way it is. At the heart of science is the acceptance of uncomfortable facts, a preference for hard truths over your dearest illusions.

Scietific Space Exploration, Andromeda Galaxy
It all begins with a burning desire to know. Science, the word itself is derived from Latin sciens, the present participle stem of scire (meaning “to know”). Following up that desire with a curious heart and a rational brain is the next most important ingredient. Science is at the intersection of observation AND theory. One completes the other. Neither can alone explain or predict countless natural phenomena that we humans attempt to understand. It is by rigorous pursuit of hard facts combined with imaginative thinking that leads to scientific discoveries and inventions. Serendipity too only happens to the ones who are looking for it, and are ready to take notes when it happens! Curiosity is one of the most basic of human qualities. That alone has led to the dominance of the human species on this planet.

New ideas, in most societies, have always been resisted (with the exception of perhaps during the Renaissance). Science is about keeping that desire to know even in the face of that resistance. If one has a closed mind then every new scientific discovery is always a choice between either an uncomfortable truth or a convenient lie. And blind, unquestioning faith doesn't allow for reevaluation of conventional wisdom, and in that sense is closed minded. That's one of the major reasons why Religion and Science always seem to be in conflict.

Religion - Nataraj performing the Cosmic Dance
Religion on the other hand, and to be fair, is the most instinctive and perfect source of faith, which completely satisfies that human need to know. According to some estimates, there are approximately 4200 religions in the world. One of the common themes which run across most of the religions or belief systems is the legend of some individuals or a single individual who stumbled upon great truths in their inspiring quest for knowledge. As varied and difficult a task it may then seem to define the word religion, it is popularly defined as an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and worldviews that relate humanity to an order of existence. Essentially, religions are great collections of ancient human wisdom which prescribe adherence to a particular set of beliefs and practices, the rationales for which are embedded deep into the immutable laws of that religion.

There are so many questions we humans relentlessly seek answers to. We wish to know about not only the future, but also the past. We want to know where we came from, how did we come to inhabit this planet, how did such an incredible diversity of plants and animals arise, and how did we happen to be the dominant species among them all. Moreover, we want to know what we are going through in the present too, what impact are we having on the world around us and vice versa. How are we one with the universe? We always have wanted to be aware of our cosmic connection. Both Science and Religion do a great job of telling their believers consistent and coherent stories that answer all of those existential questions of their minds, and give them psychological comfort and peace.

Finally, when we've made our peace with our past and our future, we think about the present. There too Religion and Science lay out a clear step-by-step protocol as to what we need to do to lead healthy, happy and satisfied lives. Also, they lay out the knowledge of what consequences we might have to face if we deviate from the scientific or the divine path. Again the ends are the same, the means maybe not so much. 

The Best of Both Worlds

Science and Religion - Need to be Accommodating and Open to each other
The passion to explore is at the heart of being human. You have to understand that our passion for learning is really a tool for our very survival. Science and Religion both aim to fulfil that same pristine need to know. The scientific method as well as the multiple religions of this world provide a structured belief system, which forms the foundation for faith in that system. If you take away a man's faith, what do you have left except for randomness? That’s a notion which is psychologically distressing and discomforting. Therefore, a mutual respect for all the belief systems and all the religions is really the true form of respect for that primitive and basic human need to know.

The scientific method has come into being relatively recently, while Religion has been around for millennia. As a result Science is still very young on that timescale and although science is a fast learner and inherently a self-correcting process, there are perhaps some things that both Science and Religion can learn from each other. Obviously, that would need an open mind and a desire to know. And I guess we don't need to worry too much about the latter.

Exploration is in our nature. In the words of the great astronomer Carl Sagan, “We began as wanderers and we are wanderers still. We make our world significant only by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers.”

Do share with us your thoughts on Religion and Science here in comments.

© Jayant Rana, 2013
Image credit: / h.koppdelaney /  CC BY-ND; kennymatic / CC BY; jessleecuizon / CC BY; Remko van Dokkum / CC BY; Mr. T in DC / CC BY-ND; write_adam / CC BY-NC; Eddi van W. / CC BY-SA; The Flying Trilobite / CC BY-NC-ND

You Are Here – How to Never Lose Your Way in a New City

Sunday, 22 September 2013

"Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen." I wish it was my original quote, but Benjamin Disraeli wouldn't let me have that honour; still I completely agree with his words. Okay, so first of all I know the post is titled “how to never lose your way in a new city”, but that's kind of inevitable, even impossible. I mean you could lose your way in your own sweet city. So in that sense this post essentially tries to share some tips with you on how to minimise the probability of getting/ feeling lost in a new city and have a great experience while you're at it! Does that sound fair to you? Okay then, let's start sticking pins on a map and threading our way through the city of your choosing.
Places to go - Pushpins on a Map

Know thy city

Every city in this world follows a pattern, from the most planned to the most chaotic, every city in this world still follows a pattern – be it its layout, its architecture, its public transportation, its health services, its culture and customs, including even the general attitude of its people. And city exploration, in that sense, is a glorified pattern recognition exercise. You might need to pay a little more attention sometimes, but you’ll find it eventually. If not, then keep looking, the time you invest in recognising these patterns, would save you a lot of time later during the remainder of your stay there.

Make no mistake, cities are living entities, with memories, personalities and everything, and hence you can glean a lot of insights by finding about their past. Check out the history of the city, and the more you begin to do so, the more sense everything starts to make.
Know your City - layout, architecture, history, people

It’s great to be spirited like Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus, but you don't have to be as adventurous to just go out there and make your own maps on the go. Today you have far more advanced navigation technology available in the palm of your hand than the greatest of explorers in the past. So use it. Download maps, apps, reviews and use GPS to find your way to your destination.

If you like tangible maps, then by all means do get a paper map, and then get another one, and then another – yeah from three different sources. Never rely entirely on a single one, especially if it’s a sponsored tourist map. There's only so much space on a map, so the sponsored one would only contain key things of interest from the point of view of the sponsor/publisher and their partners. And it would almost never be comprehensive (and it’s not supposed to), but what would happen is that you’d miss out on critical pieces of information if you rely only on a single map. The true map (if at all there is such a thing) is the mean of all these three maps that you have (obviously with an associated confidence interval).

But if you're more the believer in 'the journey' than ‘the destination’, and I think all of us should be like that every once in a while (depending on the time you have), then don't fuss too much about the tech or the maps, you'll get there eventually like many others have before you.  Just enjoy the ride.

Know thy neighbour

Reviews from people you know - droids to sandtrooper
There's a reason why testimonials are such a powerful tool in marketing, because we're programmed to believe more in what “real people” say than what's written on a website. So an endorsement by a third person helps in alleviating our scepticism, and provides us with trust and comfort. It's just an instinct.

So, don’t always take the tourism and other marketing literature on “must-see” and “must-do” things as word of the gospel. Read the reviews of real travellers from reliable unbiased sources, or better still from the people you know who’ve already been there, to get some practical and “real-world” information.

Most important...know thyself

What is it that you want to see or do
As with almost everything in life, planning your travel starts with your objective for the trip. Depending on what you want to achieve, your itinerary might change dramatically. Many things in many cities are seasonal, so check out if it’s a good time of the year for the activity of your choosing and plan ahead for it (although off-season has its own benefits). For example if you’re the cultural explorer type like me, and want to see the city’s popular concerts and museums, then check out when does the cultural season start in the city, or if that museum you want to visit isn’t shut down for renovation.

Also dependent on that season are the prices and availability of tickets and accommodation, among others. Knowing about the seasonality can save you a considerable amount of money, and more importantly make sure that you get timely reservations for things you actually desire to see/ do. Some days you might need to pay a fortune, while on select few you might actually be lucky enough to be treated to a free performance. Well, I guess that’s definitely something worth planning for!

Know thy locals

Never go with the idea that the local language would be same as/ similar to your mother tongue or even English for that matter. Have a plan in place to deal with the local language at your destination; learn some common greetings and phrases essential for survival. Some locals appreciate the fact that you respect them enough to have at least tried to learn their language, and in turn they might be more forthcoming in helping you out in whatever ways they can. I can’t stress enough that it might work with most people but sometimes you might just get unlucky and encounter a grumpy one, who'll spoil your first impression of the city forever!

When dealing with the locals two is better than one
The best way to get information out from the locals is by, well you know, talking to them. More often than not, they’d be quite willing to talk to you, especially after they’ve had a business transaction with you – like that waiter at the restaurant, or that cab driver, and obviously the hotel concierge.

Two's better than one. Although I have no reservations in travelling solo, but if you have company, at times it can help you in getting some leverage in terms of bargaining with the locals (you can even try the ‘good-cop bad-cop’ tactic in negotiating deals in your favour!) as well as being better from a security point of view.

Know thy plans and thine contingencies

Choose a base camp! Preferable would be in the heart of the city, or more importantly near a major transport hub from where you can get direct connections to everywhere in the city. That makes getting around easier, and you don’t waste precious time in commuting. 

Secure your belongings. Once that’s done, you’d feel more comfortable and can focus on your exploration rather than wondering who might be rummaging through your luggage, while you’re out there taking selfies with unabashed confidence.

Bear in mind that your luggage might get misplaced on arrival (yeah, the one in which you packed your favourite polka-dot garments and jumpsuits!), and you might not have access to it for about the next 24 hours. Plan for that contingency.

Also, don’t just sit in the base camp and keep planning, get onto the city transport – tram, metro, bus, etc. This way you can see around while you plan, and more importantly you can also get quick and valuable tips from the locals while on your way, which you may not find that easy on the internet!

Buy a single ticket/ city pass to save some costs and the inconvenience of standing in queues, but absolutely make sure that the places you want to explore are covered by that.

Do not lose data – be it your photos (yep those same selfies taken with unabashed confidence), your maps with all those detailed annotations, or any other critical information and documents. Plan for backup...always. It’s easier than you think.

Discovering local flavours
Food is something you’re going to have probably not more than three times a day, so there are only so many places you can explore, and assuming your hotel charges already include breakfast, that leaves you with only two opportunities. Don’t rely entirely on the locals for recommendations. Do check out sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp, Zomato, etc. for a taste of local flavour. You can find reviews, prices, menus, even ideas on what to order with what accompaniments! Again don’t overdo it, relax, talk to restaurant folks, don’t be afraid of trying the chef’s speciality (there’s a reason they call it that) and let them impress you by creating some magic of their own.

If you’re on a budget, don’t let that discourage you from going out and exploring, as there are ALWAYS (in caps) plenty of things to see/ do in a city that would cost you zilch but can give you that top-class local experience of the city, without any significant compromise.

Not all those who wander are lost

Travel is the best way to explore, discover and experience realms unknown, through which many a time we discover self. Finding your way in a new city isn’t that much of a science, as it is common sense. Planning in advance, using all the resources at your disposal, is a great way to make sure your upcoming trip would be an amazing, and even life-changing experience. But don’t overdo it, otherwise what’s the fun in exploration. Leave a little to imagination as well; it’s an amusing little thing!

Did you find some of these tips useful? I'm sure you have plenty of travel experiences of your own, both great and not-so-great. Please do share them with all of us fellow travellers in comments below.

© Jayant Rana, 2013
Image credit: / practicalowl / CC BY-NC; TaylorMiles / CC BY-NC-SA; Kalexanderson / CC BY-NC-SA; Don Sullivan / CC BY-NC-ND; JD Hancock / CC BY; ShironekoEuro / CC BY-ND

Dude, where’s my Patent?

Sunday, 25 August 2013

You think the title’s a little cheesy, eh? Well tell it to the guy whose patent just got infringed; he doesn’t agree with you. Or for that matter neither do any of those other innovators and artists, who don’t feel motivated enough to do great work, because what good is it anyway if others steal it, or pass it off as their own! Yes we’re going to talk about intellectual property rights (IPRs) in this post, and how they are driving the growth of our society. People can choose to ignore them if they please, but it's a choice we make as a society, and its implications are far and wide.

TL;DR version: IPRs are good for the society as they incentivize creativity and innovation. Protecting them by way of legal frameworks is hence critical for the growth of our civilization. 

Intellectual Property Infringement - Trademark

Ok, calm down…intellectual what?

Assuming that’s an honest question let me tell you what we’re dealing with here and set
Intellectual Property Rights - Patent
some context. Ideas have shaped the human civilization over the ages. Had it not been for innovative ideas, the human society would have been much different and inchoate than we know it today. But, as with everything else, humans need incentives to ideate and innovate. This primitive need gave birth to the concept of Intellectual Property Rights (copyrights, trademarks, patents, industrial designs, trade secrets, geographical indications, etc.), which grant the authors, inventors and innovators ownership rights to the creations of their intellect whereby they can choose to share those freely or to control their use in certain ways.

What good are these IPRs for?

IPRs - incentive to innovate
Let’s take it from the top, shall we? The omnipresence of Intellectual Property can’t be underrated. We see IP almost everywhere – books, records, films, computers, cars, drugs, varieties of plants, the designs that help us identify one product from another, and even places of origin of products, like Champagne in France. So, the benefits of IPRs are manifold. They provide an incentive to create, which motivates people to invest time and resources to foster innovation and enhance knowledge. This leads to various ground-breaking inventions and creative masterpieces which we see around us. They also help in encouraging a competitive marketplace by way of promoting disclosure of innovation through grant of full economic and moral rights to the innovator for a limited period of time. This disclosure is of great essence as it allows other members of the society to learn from that idea to further improve and build upon it to broaden the knowledge horizon of our civilization, while also helping to prevent repetitive work or reinventing that proverbial wheel. Hence for the effective and efficient functioning of a market, IPRs are vital. In other creative areas like literature and audio-visual arts, IPRs are incentive for creation of a rich and diverse cultural wealth for a society. This also translates into the enrichment of public knowledge and culture.

So what’s the deal with IPR infringement?

The theft of IPR protection by way of infringement and piracy of cultural works can be
Apple vs Samsung patent battle
potentially disastrous from the point of view of the society. The threat has only increased with technological advancements and the emergence of internet in today’s super-modern and inter-connected society. Because of this, around the world many new works of art never actually emerge because there exists simply no incentive for the artists to take any risk. Reports of movie industries worldwide suffering losses worth millions of dollars every year because of piracy are not new, nor have been reports of artists raising demands for better anti-piracy legislations from the governments. Also, the issue of counterfeiting is very serious from the health and safety point of view of the society. Most international organizations like the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and UNESCO recognize these threats and hence work sincerely for providing a legal framework for IPR protection through cooperation among various countries.

So what you’re saying is…

IPRs drive the growth of our society by incentivizing creativity and innovation. Infringement of IPRs is a serious matter and a global legal framework is critical for their protection. It’s hard to imagine that the human society today can achieve its long-term objectives of social, cultural and economic development without recognizing sufficiently the importance of IPRs.

© Jayant Rana, 2013
Images courtesy: Foter / JD Hancock / CC BY ; Jian Awe / CC BY; / Stuart Miles; nongpimmy

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