Saturday, April 28, 2007


The famous anthropologist Gregory Bateson liked to tell a story about New College, in Oxford, England. The main hall there was built in the mid-seventeenth century with oak beams forty feet long and two feet thick. Recently they began to suffer from dry rot, and administrators couldn’t find English oaks large enough to replace them. A young faculty member said, “Why don’t we ask the college forester if some of the lands given to Oxford might have enough trees to call upon?” They brought in the forester, who said, “We’ve been wondering when you would ask this question. When the present building was constructed 350 years ago, the architects specified that a grove of trees be planted and maintained to replace the beams in the ceiling when they suffered from dry rot.” Bateson’s conclusion was “That’s the way to run a culture.” ( Source)

While googling for more on this subject, I came across this transcript of a lovely speech by an architect. An extract :

“We must realize that the things we make must not only rise from the ground but return to it, soil to soil, water to water, so everything that is received from the earth can be freely given back without causing harm to any living system. This is ecology. This is good design .

Unfortunately, our culture has adopted a design strategem that essentially says that if brute force or massive amounts of energy don't work, you're not using enough of it.

Instead if we looked around, we will find that there are certain fundamental laws that are inherent to the natural world that we can use as models and mentors for human design.

There are three defining characteristics that we can learn from natural design.

The first characteristic is that everything we have to work with is already here -- the stones, the clay, the woods, the water, the air. All materials given to us by nature are constantly returned to the earth, without even the concept of waste as we understand it. Everything is cycled constantly with all waste equaling food for other living systems.

The second characteristic is that one thing allowing nature to continually cycle itself through life is energy, and this energy comes from outside the system in the form of perpetual solar income. Not only does nature operate on "current income," it does not mine or extract energy from the past, it does not use its capital reserves and it does not borrow from the future. It is an extraordinarily complex and efficient system for creating and cycling nutrients, so economical that modern methods of manufacturing pale in comparison to the elegance of natural systems of production.

Finally, the characteristic that sustains this complex and efficient system of metabolism and creation is biodiversity. What prevents living systems from running down and veering into chaos is a miraculously intricate and symbiotic relationship between millions of organisms, no two of which are alike.”

If nature takes millions of years to produce coal or oil, and we manage to wipe them off in a matter of two hundred years......

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Be good, live well.

I have just finished reading a book called “Everyday Greatness” that is packed with wisdom from the pages of Reader’s Digest and filled with inspiring, moving and timeless stories of lives lived to the fullest, often through adversity and challenge. It has an insightful commentary by Stephen Covey, (he of the 7-habits).

I am overflowing with this sense of goodness. From every pore of my body, there now oozes this feeling of benevolence towards my fellow human beings. I am convinced that I can take on the world and scale heights never imagined before by man or beast. That’s what Reader’s Digest does to a person.

I would urge all of you to abandon the decadent lives that you have chosen to lead and strive to clarify what you stand for and what purposes you choose to pursue. In other words, you must want to make a difference. Contribute. As Abraham Lincoln put it seven scores and five years ago, "a man who does not make a difference is indifferent".

Next, realize that it is in giving of ourselves, to others, that we find our greatest sense of being. And the best way to do this is by using the principle of charity. As Ralph Waldo Emerson described it in his inimitable manner, “A man who doesn’t practice charity is being completely uncharitable.”

And, don’t think, charity involves huge donations. The best acts of charity are those that occur in small, one-to-one ways, when you take time out of your busy schedule to focus your attention on a solitary individual, if only for a moment. As Mother Teresa preached to her congregation, “He who bestows attention on others alone will have attention bestowed on himself. He who doesn’t will be cursed with tension”.

And, be courageous. Courage can help you overcome everything. even the curses of Mother Teresa. As Norman Vincent Peale mentioned in his autobiography that he wrote posthumously, “A man without courage is like curd rice without mango pickle. And how meaningless life can be without mango pickle?"

Taking charge of your life requires discipline. Yes, tons of it. Discipline demands the mental stamina to overcome empty passions and faulty habits. It requires a relentless focus. Remember the story of Dale Carnegie? Once he realized the importance of discipline, there was no stopping him. “A woman with discipline is” he said, restoring gender equality to this blog post, “is like Popeye after a meal of spinach”, ending up with a mix-up of the genders.

In all these principles, integrity is the common denominator. People with integrity can be trusted. They are committed. A shining example was Martin Luther King, Jr, who in that memorable speech of his just before his birth, said, “I would much rather trust an honest man than a dishonest woman”.

Mahatma Gandhi said that one of the greatest challenges of our times was to stay united, in the face of adversity. So, stick together, in difficult times. Remember the words of Winston Churchill after the Battle of Britain, “Never has so much been owed by so many united people to a few people who thankfully broke away from the losing group and decimated the enemy”

Finally, don’t complicate life. Keep it uncluttered and simple. As Cdr Gopinath of Air Deccan is never tired of saying, “Simplifly”.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

No Logo

( via) The International Herald Tribune had reported in Dec 2006,

Imagine a modern metropolis with no outdoor advertising: no billboards, no flashing neon signs, no electronic panels with messages crawling along the bottom.

Sao Paulo, a city of 11 million, overwhelmed by what the authorities call visual pollution, has planned to press the "delete all" button and offer its residents unimpeded views of their surroundings.”

Now, the city has put the rule into effect as this photo illustrates

More such photos on Flickr

I really wish we could implement this idea in our cities here. I am not saying that the hoardings should be banned. After all, the wheel of commerce needs to keep spinning and advertising is an integral part of this activity. Thousands of people are gainfully employed and all that. But, it would be nice if we could start all over again after introducing some basic rules on the dimensions and the overall aesthetics.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

How the blinkered directors harass the directionally-challenged

Notice how when you ask for directions to reach a particular place, different people refer to different landmarks to guide you? Might make perfect sense to them, but leaves you clueless.

For auto-rickshaw drivers in Chennai, theatres and residences of actors provide the frame of reference. I once tried to convince a driver to take me to SIET College, believing that it was a well-known landmark. “Isn’t that near Koundamani’s house?” he asked me, referring to a veteran comedian in Tamil movies, before demanding twice the meter rate from me presumably for the privilege of being driven close to Koundamani’s house..

For some, the city is just a series of temples strung together and all other structures mere aberrations or blots in the landscape. A friend invited me to his daughter’s wedding in Kamakshi Kalyana Mandapam, near Ayodhya temple. I asked him where Ayodhya temple was. He scratched his head for a few seconds and enquired, “Do you know the Murugan temple in Arya Road?” When I said, “No”, he had no idea how to guide me further. His worldview held no other landmarks for him. As if he had put on special filters over his eyes, designed to cut off everything that wasn’t a temple.

And those cashier-types with bank-blinkers on. After I had given elaborate instructions to a colleague on how to reach my house, he asked me if it was close to the Canara Bank branch there. I swear that I have not noticed that Bank at all, although it is located less than 100 metres from my house. But, imagine what dreary lives these guys live. They see banks, banks and only banks all around them.

But, do you want to know where I live? Let me guide you. It’s very simple really. It is very close to Carnival Restaurant. You don’t know where that is? Do you, at least. know Cream Centre, the new vegetarian place that opened recently? Or, the Pizza Corner on C.P.R. Road? What about Casablanca, the multi-cuisine restaurant?

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Nature- the master designer

In his book, “Pulse : How Nature is inspiring Technology of the 21st century”, Robert Freaney provides a fascinating glimpse into advances in - inter alia- material science, made possible by adopting some astonishing designs and features that Nature has used in the creation of so many living organisms.

Take elastin. That’s the stuff that forms the big ligament on the back of a grazing animal’s neck- as in a cow- connecting the base of the skull to the joint of its shoulders. The ligament is a strong elastic band which counterbalances the weight of the head and the neck more than or less in the manner of the spring balancing an overhead garage door. Elastin functions by storing energy when mechanically stretched and providing the recoil. And the primary ligament in the cattle is a beautiful example. As are the aortic arch and the walls of the descending aorta which are made of elastin.

Inspired by these, synthetic elastin sheets that respond to temperature have been developed. If the temperature is lowered slightly, the sheet will expand and if the temperature rises slightly it will contract. You can add a weight on it, and when it contracts it will pick up the weight. Some can lift more than a thousand times their dry weight.

Hedgehogs fall out of trees all the time without getting hurt. What scientists have found is that the sharp hollow spines protecting it from attack are also exceptionally good shock absorbers. The core of its spines are filled with a natural honeycomb that prevents the tubes from collapsing like crimped drinking straws when they are bent by an attacking predator or when hitting the ground. So much so that a puncture-proof tire has been designed by ringing a wheel with a bristling fringe of hedgehog spines.

When looking to Nature for lessons, dandelions provide a good illustration. Their flowering stems are only 7 percent solids and yet grow nearly a foot tall and withstand all kinds of weather. A good example for lightweight buildings and aerospace design.

Or consider how a spider handles one of the toughest problems in engineering- attaching one kind of material to another at a right angle. When a spider glues the main support for its web to a leaf, it does so with one hundred tiny threads that it generates, by dropping its bottom on the ground twice for about half a second. In that brief moment it achieves a near-perfect adhesive joint, of a quality equal to what you may find at the terminus of a well-designed bridge.

Then there’s the a project looking at pinecones and transpiration methods in leaves in order to design military clothing that adapts to different weather conditions by changing its ‘breathability’. A study of the cockroach’s excellent sensing mechanisms, for use in fighter aircraft is paralleled by a scheme to use beetle carapaces as models for light, superstrong body armour. Another looks at how insect wings unfold as clue to designing deployable arrays for space missions. NASA engineers imagine a plane with wings that change their shapes in reaction to changing flight conditions just as those of birds do,

This aping of nature has to be tempered with the skeptical realism of a good engineer. Many of the materials used by nature are effective only within the fairly small temperature ranges inhabited by the plants and animals that create them. Spider silk is a case in point; synthetic versions are avidly being sought due to its tremendous strength, but it degrades above 80 degree centigrade. Also when nature makes materials, it takes its time. There are trees a century old. Simple creatures like mollusks may need years to form their shells.

A major difference between human creations and the way nature does things lies in our overall approach to design. Taking a linear, machine age approach, we are normally concerned with finding a specific answer to some specific questions. But a living thing is a complex answer drawn from nature’s response to a multitude of questions- and from a need to answer them all at once. The humble swallow can fly and has a very good visioning system and coordination for capturing prey and it reproduces. Then this very small creature can travel thousands of miles, migrating to the south and back north again. That’s quite an extraordinary thing when you think of it .It’s that integration of many different systems, the optimization of all those systems that is the real impressive thing about nature.

Another extraordinary thing about Nature is the surprisingly few components from which natural materials are made. For their ceramics, most organisms use only two calcium salts. Organic fibres in animals are largely collagen, a protein. In plants they are mostly cellulose, a sugar polymer. Chitin, a strong fiber related to cellulose, turns up in anthropods- insects, spiders, crabs, prawns, and fungi. And then there are keratins, another protein family, which figure in various guises as nails, horns, hair and feathers, not to mention hedgehog spines.

Broadly speaking, Nature has no more than two main types of ceramics, two fibrous sugar polymers, four fibrous proteins and some globular structural protein. Compare these with the surfeit of artificial material we’ve come up with; ten main types of ceramics, fifteen plastics, ten fibres all of which require vast amount of energy during production.

Given the subtlety economy and infinite variety of nature’s designs and how simple and clean her methods are, we still have a lot to learn.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

We have the same one here. Dont' worry.

Yesterday’s edition of The Hindu has this story filed from Colombo :

The serial strike by the Tamil Tigers on the main base of the Sri Lankan Air force has led to disagreement between New Delhi and Colombo on the efficacy of the radars gifted by India to guard Sri Lankan skies.

Suggestions from the Sri Lankan side that deficiencies in the air defence system installed by India helped the Tigers sneak through the aerial route has been met with a curt 'no’ from India.

New Delhi’s response was that it was an operational problem not a system problem. It was made known to Colombo that the Air Defence System made available to it is the same that is operational in India.

That last line is interesting, to put it mildly. Isn’t it reassuring to know that the air defence systems in India are the same as the one installed in Sri Lanka which did not work when it mattered most, for whatever reason?