The United States of Mass Delusion

CBS News has published another survey on American attitudes towards evolution: “Most Americans do not accept the theory of evolution. Instead, 51 percent of Americans say God created humans in their present form, and another three in 10 say that while humans evolved, God guided the process.”

Personally I’m going to ignore the second number, since “guided” is such a wishy-washy term (almost as ill-defined as “God”). But when over half the population is willing to deny that humans are connected with the rest of the animal world, things have come to a pretty pass. I’d love it if CBS would ask the following question: “The efficacy of many drugs is based on the theory that tests of these drugs on animals are reliable predictors of their effects on humans, because humans and animals share a well-understood biological and genetic relationship. Is it hypocritical for someone who does not believe in this relationship to use these drugs?”

(Via BoingBoing.)

UPDATE: I feel much better after reading The Abstract Factory on ID. Thanks, Susan!

Day 8 – welcome to Sun for the SeeBeyond team in Hyderabad

Today was the first of two days of meetings with the staff of the former SeeBeyond operation in Hyderabad. On this occasion I was tagging along with Dale Ferrario, VP of Sun’s business integration software group. (Dale and I go way back: he’s been at Sun 18 years – almost as long as I have – and he’s taken on an even more diverse collection of jobs than I have.) After we’d met with the site manager, Sunil Bajpai (pictured below with Dale), and had a tour of the facility, the entire crew drove over to the Sheraton where we had an all-hands meeting followed by a party.

The party started with some wild fun and games outside in the dusk. (Trust me: that MC in the middle of the circle is about to get things really fired up. Unfortunately it was too dark to capture the action photographically. Imagine a combination of “Simon says”, a rugby scrum, tag, and Twister!)

Sunil and Dale.

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A sudden cloudburst drove everybody inside. Here’s the whole gang, in two shots because I couldn’t persuade them to move back enough to fit into one.

And finally here is a 2.4MB QuickTime video clip of everybody saying “Hello!!!” to their colleagues in Sun.

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Looking for M. N. Roy's "After Bath"

Among the most interesting galleries at the Salar Jung Museum was the one devoted to contemporary Indian art (i.e. since 1900). The works therein betray a real struggle to work out the relationship between Indian artistic traditions and the wide range of (mostly European) influences, from impressionism to cubism to minimalism. My favourite piece (which won’t surprise those who know my tastes) was a stunning figure of a woman’s back, caught in the moment after stepping from her bath and putting on a loose shift. The interplay of water, skin, hair, and fabric is exquisite. The title was “After Bath”, and the artist was given as M. N. Roy. I’ve searched the web, and apart from various references to M. N. Roy as a political activist and occasional artist, I can find nothing. Does anyone know of an on-line image of this work?

Touring Hyderabad

I spent six hours today seeing some of the sights of Hyderabad. I have to say that I was blown away: it’s a fabulous city. (This will seem unfair to my colleagues in Pune; after all, I never had an opportunity to get a similar tour of their city. Next time, I hope.) Everywhere you turn are broad avenues, elegant domes, and statuary.

The highlights follow; unfortunately in some places photography was not permitted:

  • Sri Venkateshwara Temple. A symphony in white marble, providing a wonderful view over the city as well as a moment of peaceful – albeit alien – ritual.
    Sri Venkateshwara Temple

  • A drive through the Bergum Bazaar and the old city to see the Chaminar, an exquisitely-proportioned four-square tower.

  • The Salar Jung Museum. This is a huge, rambling, eclectic, confusing, and ultimately wonderful museum, based on the private collector of a former Prime Minister who devoted himself to art during the first half of the 20th century. There’s something for everyone there. Obviously there’s Indian art: painting, carvings, ivory, jade, manuscripts, fabrics, metalwork, pottery, bronze sculpture, furniture, weapons, toys, and even wildlife (stuffed). But there are also collections of art from around the world. There’s a French room, with one of the nicest Bouguereau’s I’ve ever seen, entitled Biblis. There’s a wonderful collection of (mostly French) clocks. There are excellent collections of Japanese and Chinese art and artefacts. It’s fantastic, it’s overwhelming – after 75 minutes my head was full, so I bought a VCD (video CD) film about the collection, and fled.

  • Golconda. The name itself sounds magical. As soon as I knew I was visiting Hyderabad, I was determined to see the ruins of this legendary fortress and palace. Here’s my guide, showing the map of the complex.
    We went up the main path to the pavilion at the top of the fortress, then descended the steep King’s Path into the palace complex. We spent about an hour altogether, stopping to hydrate and take in the details. I took lots of pictures; eventually I’ll put together a decent gallery. For now, here’s a view from the top looking down on the palace.
    Golconda palace

  • From Golconda we drove 3 kilometres to the Grand Qutub Shaha Tombs complex, where the kings and queens that ruled Hyderabad and Golconda in the 16th and 17th centuries are buried. I was starting to feel the heat a little (around 90F), so rather than exploring the whole site I asked my guide to show me around the tomb of Hayat Bakshi Begum (that’s me in front of it),
    Grand Qutub Shaha Tomb
    and then we just sat and talked for half an hour, about the tombs around us, and about each other. He was a nice guy, a college student, aspiring to be a Chartered Accountant.

And at that point I was ready for a shower and a long cold drink, so we returned to the hotel. Of course as soon as I entered my room, the power went off, so rather than showering in the dark I started work on this blog entry. Since the power is now restored, I shall post it and head off to get clean.

Day 6

Travel day. My original itinerary would have meant that I spent all day at Mumbai Airport, but thanks to colleagues in Pune I found myself booked on a direct flight to Hyderabad. This represented yet another “first”: my first flight on Air Sahara. The equipment was a Canadair CRJ, ex-Midway and now VT-SAO. Security at Pune was tight: my checked bag was X-rayed and then sealed; I was “wanded” twice, and my carry-on was X-rayed and then inspected.

Pune is actually a huge Indian Air Force base; the civilian terminal is just a tiny part of the whole. We walked out to the CRJ following a Jet Airways 737-800 that was taxiing out, and we were close enough to the departing aircraft for the jet blast to make some passengers cringe. As we taxiied out, following a very circuitous route, I could see at least a dozen Sukhoi Flankers and SEPECAT Jaguars on the military ramp.

I was in seat 4A, but of course the low-mounted windows of the CRJ meant that I didn’t have a very good view. Never mind, I was busy: even though it was only a one-hour flight, we were served a hot “snack” (vegetarian or non-veg) that any US airline would have called a full lunch.

After an on-time arrival, I met the hotel’s representative at Hyderabad airport. I had phoned that morning to alert the hotel of my change of plan, but somehow the message hadn’t got through: he was still expecting me at 7:30pm. Never mind: he rustled up a car, and we crawled through the traffic to the Begumpet district.

So now I’m ensconced in the ITC Kakatiya Sheraton in Hyderabad, where I’ll be until Wednesday. Tomorrow I’m planning to get an all-day guided tour of the city, including Golconda. Then if all goes according to plan I’ll be rendezvousing with a colleague for dinner tomorrow night. (Right now he should be at Heathrow, enjoying a 9 hour layover!)

My thoughts on Indian traffic

Suppose that you’re driving down a four lane, non-divided suburban street in the USA, with a sidewalk on each side. In decreasing order of frequency, you’d expect to encounter:
– cars
– trucks
– buses
– pedestrians
– motorcycles
– bicycles

In India, the corresponding list would be something like:
– bicycles
– pedestrians (with or without pushcarts)
– motor scooters
– motorcycles (with up to four people on board)
– ultrasmall cars
– auto-rickshaws (passenger and goods versions)
– trucks (huge slab-sided things)
– regular cars
– buses
– cows
– luxury/sports cars
– ox-carts
– goats (in herds)

In the USA, the different types of traffic would be logically segregated: pedestrians on the sidewalk, slower vehicles in the right-most lane, and so forth. Furthermore traffic tends to keep to the right, only crossing the centre line for occasional overtaking.

In India, approaching vehicles keep left when passing each other. That’s pretty much the only rule. Any of the types of traffic listed above may be encountered anywhere on the road, including the sidewalk. “Lanes” are a polite fiction, an occasional decoration on the tarmac; road signs are everywhere; traffic lights are so rare that they actually seem to command respect, possibly because they’re such exotic creatures. Traffic may be moving at any speed from zero to 50 MPH – and occasionally in reverse! – in any “lane”. The sidewalk is simply another space to be occupied by any vehicle, and pedestrians may be encountered anywhere – even in the fast lane of a divided intercity highway. Overtaking takes place on either side; if space is limited, the horn is used incessantly until the gap opens up. At an intersection, nobody stops: they just proceed straight into the flow and somehow they’re absorbed (usually with more horn blasts).

[Amusing touch: Trucks and auto-rickshaws have crudely painted signs on the back, saying “HORN PLEASE”.]

And it all works. Dammit, the traffic in Pune works better than the traffic in Boston, or San Francisco. Even though it looks chaotic, it keeps flowing almost all the time. (On those rare moments when it doesn’t, volunteers step up to direct traffic and sort out the mess.)

Why does it work? There seem to be two related reasons. First, there is no prescribed “right of way”. You can’t assume, or insist on your right of way where none exists. All interactions – overtaking, merging, giving way to crossing traffic – seem to be based on instantaneous negotiations between the various parties, with the “body language” of the vehicles conveying the necessary cues.

The second reason is that nobody pushes 100%. Everybody seems to drive at about 60% intensity. That may seem odd, when you see vehicles packing into a space with scant inches between them, but I think it’s true. When in doubt, yield – if it’s the wrong decision, you’ll be able to make it up later. If you lose a merge, don’t fight it, relax – even if that opens space for someone else. And there’s a rhythm to it, a kind of balancing that reminds me of the women walking by with bundles of goods on their heads. When a car comes up to pass a bicycle, the rider sways out of the way, just enough to allow the car to pass. It’s not a manoeuvre, it’s a dance step. It’s what the AI guys call “swarm intelligence” of a very high order: self-organization rather than rules-based.

And of course at night it gets even crazier, because half the vehicles have no, or defective, lights. But it still works.

[Another amusing touch. High-end cars have door mirrors that fold out of the way at the touch of a button. When the spacing between vehicles is measured in a few inches, this is more than a luxury.]

What does it feel like? This morning as I was being driven to Pune airport, there was one perfect moment when the car I was in was overtaking an auto-rickshaw, which was overtaking a bicycle, which was swerving round a cow. As we did this, a large SUV overtook all of us. Between us, we occupied the entire width of the street, and not far ahead there were two or three “lanes” of traffic approaching us at speed. Somehow it all just flowed together and past.

I can’t imagine driving here myself. I think you’d have to grow up here to learn the music of the street. If you can’t sing it, if you’re not note-perfect, it must be miserable. But watching the performance is totally absorbing – initially frightening, then exhilarating. I guess it could become almost mundane over time, which would be a shame.

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Day 5

My last full day in Pune. The highlights were:

  • Beating the traffic! I asked for the driver to come at 8am: he arrived at 7:50, and we made it out to the office in 20 minutes. (Yesterday it took over an hour.) I arrived ahead of most of the regulars; fortunately I had a badge that worked. (To maximise the overlap with the rest of the team in Massachusetts, the Pune group tend to start work late and end very late.)

  • Speaking at an all-hands meeting for the engineering team here in Pune. My subject was engineering culture and practices in Sun. The group seemed pretty enthusiastic, so I wasn’t too worried about running over by a few minutes.

  • Having my travel rearranged, so that instead of having a 6 hour layover at Mumbai airport I shall now be flying direct to Hyderabad tomorrow. Thanks, Monish and Ulka for arranging this.

  • And finally, giving an invited talk to the Pune chapter* of the Computer Society of India. The subject was “The Future of Distributed Computing” – and no, you can’t have my slides! They only make sense when I’m talking – maybe not even then. Anyway, there was a good sized audience, and they seemed to enjoy it. (I know that I did.)

So tomorrow I leave Pune and head for Hyderabad. I’ve enjoyed myself here: the ex-Storability team are a really great bunch of engineers. I’m looking forward to returning.

* Memo to the CSI Pune chapter organizers: lots of pages link to you as, but that URL seems to be parked.

On standing up against those who oppose reason

More and more ordinary people – not pundits, columnists or politicians – are speaking up in defence of the values of the Enlightenment. This time it’s Adam Bosworth: “It is time to say that facts are what matter, not faith, that human progress is accomplished through unfettered use of reason and inquiry and tolerance and discussion and debate, not through intolerant and irrational acts of terror or edicts.”

(Via Loosely Coupled.)

Day 3+4

Just a brief note, as it’s late and I have to be up early tomorrow for a series of meetings. Setting aside the work… and the driving… what’s left? Oh, yes: food. Last night, after checkin in to my second hotel in Pune (The Pride), I ate in the Golden Arch. No, not Golden Arches – the Arch [singular] is one of the restaurants in the hotel. Very pleasant, Kingfisher beer tastes much better in India than whatever they ship to the USA. It has a nice touch of bitterness that most lagers lack.

And yes, the connectivity in the hotel is pretty good: desktop 10Base-T, with only occasionally glitches.
UPDATE (10/22/05): Well, not so good. I finally ran some bandwidth tests, and got figures in the range of 80kbps (that’s kbits, not Kbytes). Surely some mistake….

Today I started late due to traffic – the recent rains have washed out even major roads, and things are a mess. After a meeting with the site director, I went out to lunch with a group of managers. We drove (on the Mumbai-Pune toll highway, and at a really impressive speed) to a hilltop resort in Khandala called The Duke’s Retreat. The Duke in question was Wellington, whose famous nasal profile can be seen in a nearby ridge. After returning to the office for more meetings running in to the evening, a few of us braved potholes and traffic to reach another noted area restaurant, the Ambrosia, which lies about 20 kms. west of the city centre. [Forget the negative reviews on the website: the food was excellent, and service was very prompt and attentive.]

Enough. I must hit the sack. Big day tomorrow.