March 21, 2009

Astrology : Correlation, not Causality

A widely held perception about astrology states that astronomical bodies influence events in human life and this influence can be benefic or malefic. This CAUSALITY is extremely difficult to justify in scientific or rational terms and has led to vague and vacuous explanations in terms of mysterious "rays" that emanate from planets -- and can be focused by gems and jewels -- or in terms of as yet unexplained gravitational and electromagnetic "action-at-a-distance" mechanisms.

But strangely enough, even though astrology does not lend itself to a rational explanation we find that some of the most rational and scientific people on the planet, many of them renowned mathematicians, have a strong belief in this phenomenon. How is it that very rational people subscribe to this apparently irrational body of knowledge ?

The answer is very simple if we replace CAUSALITY, as the operating principle of astrology, with the concept of CORRELATION.

What does this mean ? Suppose I find your car parked outside a shop then it is very likely that you are inside the shop. But it would be stupid to believe that the presence of the car outside the shop has CAUSED you to be present inside the shop. But you would have no difficulty in accepting the fact that the presence of the car outside the shop is strongly CO-RELATED to your presence inside the shop. The relation between the two events (a) presence of car outside shop and (b) your presence inside the shop : is not causal but co-relational. So in sense, I can "predict" your presence inside the shop by scanning for the presence of the car outside the shop.

So is the ability to "predict" certain events in a human life based on the presence of certain other events : in this case the presence of certain astronomical bodies at certain points of the zodiac. Why are these events CORRELATED ? I do not know, nor do I care. But if I can spot a pattern of correlations then I am in a position to "predict".

The difficulty lies in the fact that the number of possible patterns is very high. With nine bodies and twelve position the number of patterns defined in terms of positions, aspects and conjuncts is very, very high. It needs a person of almost super-human mental ability to figure out which of these astronomical patterns are correlated to corresponding human events. Quasi mythical sages like Parashar were known to have this super-human mental ability.

Fortunately, normal people like us who have the benefit of living in the 21st century can use computer technology to enhance our mental ability and "computer" astrology is now very widely used. But in all these cases, the role of the computer program is limited to the calculation of planetary positions -- which is a good starting point but is of very limited use when we need to process patterns.

The real usage of computers would lie in the ability to store and retrieve these patterns in a manner that can be used to validate what Statisticians refer to as a NULL Hypothesis :
  • If [ patterns x ] exists then [ event Y ] is very likely to happen
The current technology of computer astrology is clearly inadequate to even formulate let alone address this challenge. Having spent over two decades with computer programs and having a strong interest in this subject, I have tried to create a scheme through which this challenge can be addressed. Based on the mathematical concept of sparse matrices, this scheme uses Excel spreadsheets and a mySQL database to capture patterns in a way that can be subsequently analysed through an inference engine.

I still have a long way to go but if anyone is interested in the mathematics, the algorithms or the software you are welcome to take a look at the Parashar21 website and give your comments.

Jai Parashar and have a very happy Vernal Equinox !

March 14, 2009

Maya, Matrix & MMORPG

Massively multi-user on-line role playing games (MMORPGs) may, in India today, be restricted to teenagers who have access to broadband but there are two powerful reasons why this is about to change : first – broadband is becoming ubiquitous, more so with 3G and WiMAX on the horizon and second – the teenagers themselves are becoming adults and hence significant ! But the advent of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and EverQuest are harbingers of a far more subtle but significant shift in the way we humans perceive ourselves and the world around us.

If you think that social networks like Orkut, Facebook, MySpace and professional networks like LinkedIN have changed the way people know and keep in touch with each other then 3D virtual worlds like Second Life represent the next generation ( or the third generation !) in relationship management. Based on the technology that is responsible for the intense and immersive 3D experience of MMORPG, and offering the flexibility and personalisation possibilities of social networks, Second Life – and similar 3D virtual worlds – offer unimaginable possibilities to create a “virtual” digital world where humans – on their own, or in collaboration with others – can live, entertain, form relationships and even profit from artefacts and activities that can be as similar to, or consciously different from, their counterparts in the “real” world.

Words are inadequate for describing 3D virtual worlds; a re-look at Matrix, the movie, may be a smarter idea. With the advent of direct brain-machine interfaces, like the bionic eye and thought controlled wheelchairs, the gap between the real and the virtual is getting blurred. Maya as articulated in Sankara's Advaita Vedanta – that veils reality and makes us believe in a world of errors and illusions – is perhaps the closest description of the situation into which we are being led by MMORPGs and 3D Virtual Worlds.

This article is a summary of the presentation that I had delivered at Infocomm0809 and appeared in the Infocomm Supplement of The Telegraph, Calcutta on Friday the 13th March 2009.

March 10, 2009

Cerebral Security Regime

With Pakistan succumbing to the Taliban and the US blindly stumbling around in an economic graveyard, we in India must start looking out for ways to defend our way of life from the misery that is engulfing the neighbourhood -- but the question is what and how ? No political activist in any party -- whether the Congress, the BJP or any of the satraps now jostling for an opportunity to loot the country after the elections -- has any clear idea on how to ensure the security of life and limb and so it is up us to try to figure out a way forward.

When India was threatened by food security in the sixties and seventies, we used technology to pull us out of the mire. Despite the adverse impact on the environment, the massive use of fertilisers and irrigation techniques -- the Green Revolution -- helped us evade the immediate crisis of mass starvation and allowed us to live and fight another day ! Today it is physical security from terrorism that is emerging as a threat as big as the food security issue in the sixties and seventies and we have no option but to fall back once again on technology.

In the sixties we realised that small incremental increases in food output would be of little use and were forced to throw in massive amounts of technology : the situation today is very similar. Putting in an extra battalion of policemen or buying a thousand pieces of night-vision binoculars is not enough to stop the imminent threat of being run over by Terrorist Express. It is time to call in the heavy artillery of high technology.

But what technology and how ? Let me try to explain ...

The Calcutta police has now mandated that all parking attendants must note down the registration numbers of all parked cars along with the licence number of the drivers and you will find that these poor fellows are now running around the streets with little notebooks. But does anybody know what happens to the data that is so collected ? Of course if a bomb goes off, I am sure that these note books will be called for to determine who was in the neighbourhood but can we not use this data to see if we can predict and perhaps prevent the crime ?

The volume of data is large, data entry is a challenge and analysing it is even more so but this is where we can throw in large dollops of technology -- scanning, pattern recognition, geo-tagging to Google Maps -- and try to make sense of what is going on.

Actually this approach is neither new, nor unique. Data Mining as a mathematical tool has been in vogue to seek unusual and interesting patterns in mountains of data : who is making phone calls to whom ? who is making financial transactions ? with whom ? for what amount of money ? who is booking a seat or berth on a train ? or an aircraft ? who is actually flying ? who is checking into a hotel ? when ? where is his next destination ? which car is crossing which toll-booth on which highway ? all this data is already available. If we wish to compromise on privacy issues we can even track the contents of all emails, all blogs, all internet discussion forums and even all telephone conversations.

So it is possible to track -- as is evident from the charge sheet filed against Ajmal Kasab -- all this information but the tracking that is happening now is post-facto or after the event.

We need to put in place a new security regime that will track all this -- and perhaps more, on a systematic basis. Prima-facie, the sheer volume of data is enormous ! But this is where technology should be used creatively. Both storage space and processing power is now dirt cheap -- and can be deployed in a ' brute force' mode, but they must be used in conjunction with sophisticated algorithms to pin-point deviations from the norm and then the regular police can move in and do the needful.

Security agencies in the US, Europe and elsewhere have been using Data Mining technologies to combat crime and while there have been criticism of racial profiling, where people with Muslim names and Semitic backgrounds have been investigated or even "harassed", the fact remains that the number of terrorism related fatalities in those countries are a fraction when compared to the hundreds who have died in bomb blasts in India ! So even though there have been many "false positives" : where perfect harmless people or situations have been deemed to dangerous, it would be stupid to deny the positive contribution made by these tools and techniques.

Without belittling the "muscular security" provided by our men-in-khaki, it is time for India's business leadership to come forward and propose a new public-private partnership in the area of "cerebral security". We have enough intellectual firepower in the mathematics departments of our universities and in our software companies to take on this challenge but there is no way that they can be fitted into the current administrative setup without corroding them to the point of being reduced to worthless sarkari clerks ! What we need is a new structure managed with the freedom and flexibility of the private sector but attached to and working closely with the public security apparatus in a way that is serves as a force-multiplier for the latter.

India's response to the Mumbai terrorism was the creation of another acronym : FIA? but is it qualitatively any different from IB, CID, CBI, RAW ? Not really. It is the same IPS officers, with the same mindset that are being shuffled around with new posts, new titles, new offices, new perks but no new ideas ! This will not work.

Instead, CII and NASSCOM must work together to propose a new agency which will serve as a nucleus of a cerebral security regime that will complement and supplement the muscular security regime that is currently in existence. Such an agency should be run as a commercial organisation with a business model that involves collecting information and selling intelligence services to government and non-government organisations. The government as the initial and primary consumer of such services, can aid and assist this concept by allowing it float tax-free bonds and guaranteeing a certain level of assured business but going forward such a security service should be able to stand on its own.

Private security agencies are dime a dozen and most of them are doing pretty well selling muscular security services. It is time for us to look beyond the obvious and plan for similar agencies that offer cerebral security services.

Privatisation is not the panacea to all evils and Yechury and party will gleefully point to the nationalisation of banks in the UK and in the US as a vindication of their stance, but in India, private sector managers have -- when allowed to operate honestly -- consistently provided better goods and services than the neta-babu nexus that throttles the country today.

Massive technology in the hands of a private intelligence agency may prove to be a more effective solution to the threats facing us today.

March 07, 2009

Liquor Money for Prohibition Relics

The use of Mr Vijay Mallya's wealth -- that has been generated by selling liquor in India -- to recover the relics belonging to MK Gandhi -- one of India's most ardent anti-liquor prohibitionists -- reveals the hypocrisy that is endemic to the Indian psyche.

But first let us thank Mr Mallya who has made us proud for (a) being rich enough to have told the NRI crowd that we in India do not need them to fund our petty desires and (b) being generous enough to have the magnanimity to donate these relics to the government.

Now for the hypocrisy :

First, let me state up front that I am no blind idolatrous fan of MK Gandhi. He was a shrewd and cunning politician and many people have raised serious doubts about (a) his real contribution to the cause of India's independence and (b) the real depth and substance of his moral postures and (c) the efficacy of his much vaunted philosophy of Ahimsa and Non-Violence. No real debate on this issues is possible because his supporters have a Talibanisque attitude of being impervious to logic and reason. They practice blind idolatry and they will not allow anyone to be anything otherwise.

Second, it is claimed that these relics were never sold but gifted and hence it is immoral to sell these in an auction and make profits. We may never really know the circumstances under which these relics left the family but I would be hard put to believe that the family members derived no benefits from the transactions. It may not have been a cash transaction -- and hence technically not a sale -- but we in India are no stranger to non-cash transactions ! Favours, influence, positions and posts might -- or must -- have been used as the currency which was exchanged when these relics changed hands but only when Otis -- who happened to be the last owner -- was frank enough to monetise the process, the Gandhi clan woke with this uproar !

Finally do we need these pitiable relics at all ? Even if you regard and revere MK Gandhi -- which I do not -- go ahead, build a school and teach people about his life, his work and his ideas. Why pay Rs 10 crores to a shady dealer for these trivia ? Does anybody benefit at all from this ?

But no, we are nation led by hypocrites who believe in tokenism. Led by people who would throw a tantrum about paying for Gandhi's spectacles but would not like to see the world through the same .... and unfortunately, to humour such people, Mr Mallya has to pull out the small change from his back pocket ....

Enough of rancour, let me end with three cheers for Mr Mallya and his liquor that keeps some of us in good humour.

March 05, 2009

Terrorism, IPL and a new security strategy

Trust the Government of India to come out with the most ham-handed response to the Islamist attack on Cricket : the youngest and most widespread religion in South Asia. The stupidity of the proposal to defer the IPL is on par with thoughts of asking Tata Steel to shut down the blast furnaces for a week at Jamshedpur, or ONGC to stop pumping oil from Bombay High for some time because of the preoccupation of the security forces with the elections !

IPL is not a 'game' anymore, something that can be deferred till the next weekend ! It is a big business which generates income, results in taxes, creates jobs and provides fun. Just because it provides fun does not mean that its economic impact is any less compared to any other business activity. If we defer or cancel the IPL it means that the Islamists have managed to shut down an important business activity and the Government of India should hang its head in shame for being brow beaten into submission by the combined might of LeT-JeM-AlQuaida !

But given the stupidity and the arrogance of the petty bureaucrat in India, it is difficult to believe that they can think differently. However the business community in India -- which has a long history of dealing with the incompetence and obstructionism of the governement -- should come out with a plan that will hopefully allow the IPL to go forward.

What could be the contours of such a plan ? The obvious answer is a private security organisation that can take over a part of the job of the beleagured state security apparatus. We already have global private security companies -- some of them even operating on behalf of the US goverment in Iraq -- who can be roped in. Security companies in India should also view this as a huge business opportunity to upgrade their capability and provide additional value added services.

The state security agencies have, of course, one massive advantage over their private counterparts -- they have the constitutional right to bear lethal weapons and the authority to use them -- and be immune to the consequences thereof -- against the civilian population. No private organisation should be given that liberty as otherwise we would end up creating another monster of Frankenstein proportions ! We need to remember that the Taliban was created by the US Government and the Americans lived in denial of this stupidity until 9/11. But then what good is a private security agency in the face of terrorists who are armed and dangerous ? Despite all the tokenism about MK Gandhi's spectacles we all know that Gandhigiri is fun to watch only in Munnabhai ! In reality, throwing roses at bearded mullahs is about as effective as using a hand fan to blow away a cyclone.

So our business leaders are caught on the horns of a dilemma : We need guns for our guards but it is dangerous to give it to them. What to do ?

Think different !

Do we really need guns ? Do a thousand pot bellied policemen with 303 Enfield rifles really provide any kind of security ?

Not really. Real security can come only through intelligence and this is where the private security agencies must excel. Intelligence gathering is a skill that is deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Indian police -- they have been at it since British times -- but it is the administrative setup and political interference that has ruined them completely. Our state investigative agencies are full of political appointees who work at cross purposes that result in colossal failures like 26/11. However a private security agency, staffed with the best investigators and detectives poached from the dysfunctional police with corporate level salaries, and using the latest tools and techniques of electronic and satellite technology should be able to rip into the terrorist network with the same level of efficiency as the police networks in America and Europe. Armed with this kind of precise information, our policemen -- though fewer in number -- should be adequate to protect the IPL

In terms of ability, Indians are no less competent than the best and brightest in the world -- it is only that the government must get out of the way ( Remember Dewang Mehta's comment on why Indian IT and Indian Beauty is so successful ... he was referring to Miss World's and Miss Universe's that India suddenly produced in the 1990s, along with the software services story )

So my suggestion would be for the IPL to contract with a top end security agency to provide real intelligence and then convince the men-in-khaki and the men-in-khadi that it is OK to go ahead with the IPL.

And then of course if there is a bomb burst and a few people die -- what to do ? Part of the hazards of living in a dangerous neighbourhood. If you dont like it, please go and live in New Zealand and allow us to enjoy the cheerleaders of the IPL !
This blog post was picked up by the BBC World Service and I was invited to participate in a discussion on the "World Have Your Say" program that was broadcast on 24th March 2009.
This program is available in this podcast available at

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