Sanjay Negi's thoughts on Current Affairs and Information Technology Directions.


Friday, September 29, 2006

Origins of The Origin

When Isaac Newton observed the apple falling to the ground and concluded that the earth must be attracting it downwards, it laid the foundations for classical physics where all interactions between material objects could be explained in terms of simple laws of force and motion. For the next few centuries, the theories evolved and expanded to include electro-mechanical behavior followed by an earnest peak into particle physics and space-time mysteries.

Nobody however seemed to pause and enquire why two otherwise sensible heavenly bodies almost infinitely apart acknowledge each other’s presence by exerting an attractive tug at each other. It is surely not enough to be satisfied by saying that they attract each other but to question why they should attract each other at all unless they have something common in their creation. As an analogy, if we pull two ends of a spring away from each other, they continue to remember that they were close together once and would want to get back to the initial status quo as soon as the external force holding them apart is released.

Albert Einstein surmised that space itself is in a sense curved and therefore has this property of making masses fall towards each other and they are prevented from actually doing so by the state of relative motion they find themselves in.

But why should the massive bodies in the universe find themselves in their present state of motion. Simple enough actually say the wise physicists and astronomers…the universe must have started with a big bang which provided the galaxies or their ancestry with the initial momentum which we can see to this day in the shape and form of a continually expanding universe. They even put a precise time to the grand event of creation…15 billion years ago…

If the beginning did indeed start with a big bang, where did the force for the explosion come from? Why should the original singularity of infinite mass suddenly want to explode? Maybe some proportion of the mass for some reason got converted to energy to provide the fuel for the big bang and from thereon, rest of the universe’s behavior is logically explainable.

What is energy anyway? We know that when the electrons in an atom fall to a lower orbit some radiation is emitted. This looks logical as at the minimum, the rotational inertia of the of the atom’s system gets reduced and therefore this changed state could manifest itself in the release of some energy to save us from the embarrassment of having to create radiation from nothing. Actually most of the energy may be coming from the analogous electro-magnetic energy state changes.

Similarly when atomic nuclei release ultra high energy waves such as X-rays, it may perhaps be in response to some adjustment of the relative electro-kinetics within the nucleus.

Therefore the initial explosion would have been a result of a huge release of energy which in turn would have come from reduction in the starting inertia of the universe. But how can a singularity with no dimensions have any inertia? There is nothing to move relative to. Is it then possible that the starting inertia being zero, gravity represents the negative energy in the universe and the grand sum of the gravitational energy, mass and all kinds of radiation is actually zero.

So may be we did get created out of nothing…and the semi-naked Indian fakirs of yore may have actually got it right in calling everything Maya or myth.

We know that opposite electric charges attract and extinguish each when they coalesce. Gravitational objects also attract but do not extinguish each other when they combine. On the other hand the mass of the combined entity is a sum of the two.

We know that black holes are extremely dense objects which do not permit even light to escape, though the common place ones do seem to leave alone higher energy radiation like X-Rays which get released when matter spirals into the black hole. This perhaps happens partly because the black hole and its prospective victim matter keeps losing inertia as the matter rotates around the black hole in ever tighter orbits and partly because as matter draws closer to the black hole, the kinetics internal to its nuclei may be changing to expel high energy radiation. As tighter and tighter packed matter falls into a black hole, one would expect higher and higher frequency radiation to get emitted. If one black hole were to fall into another any ultra high frequency radiation emitted would prove that black holes have a structure. If on the other hand the event goes unnoticed, then we could quickly work out a cap to the highest theoretical radiation frequency achievable. This would be another way of saying that the universe is fully collapsible and indeed may rule out the possibility of a big bang to start with.

We also know that black holes of lower mass have to be denser in order to be able to pass muster. As the mass of the black hole increases it can relax its density requirements and as we approach infinite mass, the density of the black hole can approach zero.

In a sense the universe as we know it has all the attributes of a super black hole. Nothing can escape it…not even powerful X-Rays and Gamma Rays. Therefore we cannot observe anything outside of our familiar surroundings and the Events within the Universe are unknown on the outside whatever that means.

From an outsider’s perspective, time also stands still in a black hole. So if the almighty is observing his creation from an external vantage point, he would be hard put to see any progress at all and may in frustration some day just call it all off…gravity, mass, radiation, space and time.

What is time anyway…when Michelson and Morley discovered that the speed of light in vacuum is constant and is not affected by the relative motion of the observer and the object, Newtonian physics could not explain this seeming paradox. Einstein came to the rescue and introduced the idea that this could have happened if the time or distance changed to compensate for the lack of change in the observed speed of light.

Therefore unlike the speed of light, time is not absolute but is only a measure of how long it takes for light to travel a given length of space and in a sense is a measure of the space itself. In a similar way, Space is the measure of time it takes light to traverse from one object to another. Space however is not uniform and is in fact severely influenced by gravity making light travel in curved lines resulting in increasingly longer times to an observer sitting far away in normal space.

So it is okay to say that light which is a vibration of energy produced by changes in the kinetics of matter and is essential to make any time and space observations, moves at a constant speed because it seems to have been solely created to accurately measure the goings on in time space. Light being a neutral measuring medium does not seem to participate in material kinetics as it is oblivious of the behavior of the source and objects. All it seems to be doing is looking at two points in space and saying how far apart they are.

In the same way, force is a measure of acceleration which is change in speed over time. When we say that two masses are attracting each other with some force, it is the same thing as saying that the masses would move towards each other and cover the separating space at an increasingly fast pace. So force is just an expression of motion in a unique way. If all forces on a material object were balanced and there was no motion, the presence or absence of force would be of little relevance. Therefore Time and Space are two sides of the same coin and Force is a higher level construct using the two as ingredients. Gravity which is a force and is assumed to be an inherent property of mass and indeed gives mass a way of manifesting itself is hence a simple construct of Time and Space.

If our universe is indeed a super black hole, light can never cross its boundaries or would take an infinite time to do so. On the other hand, if the material universe were finite, light would continuously escape and the universe would evaporate as it were. If the universe is infinite, it could not have started 15 billion years ago anyways. And then we are back to the issue about the universe not collapsing under the force of gravity because the objects are moving away at great speed from each other starting with some big bang.

All that remains now is to somehow reconcile the moving apart of galaxies with an infinite universe. If for a moment we agree that the sum total of all matter, energy and negative gravitational energy is zero and we are all created out of nothing, the nothingness does not cease to exist just because the infinite universe was created out of it. It should be possible for God Almighty to keep creating more tangible stuff out of the unlimited supply of nothingness in a randomly continuous process. Arguably, the nothingness would have to be outside of our infinite universe, untouched by it as it would cease to exist if even one particle of matter or quantum of energy were to adulterate it. However, having created an infinite universe, what difference would it make to add more infinity to it and we would continuously have the peaceful coexistence of an infinite universe and nothingness. The expanding empty spaces between galaxies may just be ephemeral phenomenon created by the limitations of our observatory gear and imagination of our impressionable astronomers. This is to some extent corroborated by actual physical observations through the more powerful modern telescopes that the material density of the universe is constant in all directions and across billions of years of time horizons. This could not be so if we were indeed flying apart from a common center where the big bang took place.

So the universe is not collapsing because it is infinite and in a state of balance. There is no common center and gravitational forces on all objects like galaxies and their clusters are from all directions and therefore cancel out each other. Some local imbalances may be there and these may translate into some regions of the universe appearing to be expanding.

Within the universe there would be any number of conventional black holes, which are not observable by bouncing light off them, but they do possess mass and interact gravitationally with the rest of the system. According to Stephen Hawking, these local black holes keep evaporating at their event horizons because they have to follow the certainties of the uncertainty principle. Thus local black holes do help in changing the mass energy equilibrium but not the sum total and are therefore quite different from the singularity which supposedly created the universe.

It is thought that most galaxies have massive conventional black holes at their centers and keep all the billions of stars rotating in formation around the galactic centers. May be there are even more massive black holes at the centers of galactic clusters which keep the innumerable galaxies rotating on a tight leash.

Everything in the universe seems to be rotating, held tightly together by gravity or other attractive forces which prevent pieces flying irrevocably apart. We can see the patterns in the solar system, our own satellites, and even tiny atoms and massive galaxies. The universe seems to be one big whirl of rotating masses.

If energy is just an expression of changes in kinetics of tangible bodies and is in turn essential to measure or observe these changes, then we can say that energy exists because of relative movements of physical matter which can only claim to move because energy approves of their movement. If there is no energy, there is no movement and if there is no movement, there is no energy.

But what of gravity? It seems to exist in an all pervasive way just because matter exists. In fact matter makes its existence apparent by communicating through the force of gravity. Only problem is that we need at least two pieces of them. A single piece of matter is useless by itself. It may or may not exist, as the manifestation of its existence through gravity cannot happen without the presence of another body. This also implies space as two bodies can only be distinguished from each other only if they are separated from each other by emptiness called space.

Just as movement and energy need each other to get recognition of existence, gravity, space and plural masses are conjoint triplets from birth. Plural masses can only maintain their individual existence if they are prevented from falling into each other by relative motion, which would then lead to creation of energy which is in turn essential for measuring their relative movement in the first place.

So to the triplets of gravity, space and mass, we need to add kinetics and energy to create conjoint pantalets at birth. Remove any one and the other four would die.

One question that remains is that of the critical quantum of these five that is required to get the whole chain reaction process started. For example, can we start the creation process with two masses of one kilo each or we need some different quantity. Well, the answer to this question will unlock the mysteries of creation. The starting mass should be high enough that when it collapses into a singularity, it can go through the stages of absorbing all the mass, energy, space, gravity and movement. We know that as matter draws closer and closer to the so called universe’s center, it would lose inertia and release radiation of ever increasing energy. Theoretically, a single quantum of sufficiently high frequency and correspondingly infinitesimal low wavelength can contain an infinite amount of energy and there is so far no derived upper limit for radiation frequency as there is for the speed of light. The universe is already infested with radiation of ultra high frequency like Gamma rays and would start producing even more destructive frequencies as it contracts. It is likely that the mass required to capture and absorb such kind of high energy will have to be infinite as well.

There is no way that we can have infinite dispersed mass in a finite space and therefore, the universe could not have started 15 billion years ago through a big bang as 15 billion years would be too short a time to expand to infinity.

If as all logic seems to point to, the universe is infinite, can the density remain constant with all the relative movements of galaxies and clusters happening at such astonishing speeds? Actually density seems to be an artificial concept. As more matter is packed in lesser space, it should become more difficult for light to travel from one point to another and therefore space would continue to look as spacious as ever. Therefore the very concept of an expanding and contracting or waxing and waning universe if you like looks self contradicting.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Nursery School Admissions in Delhi

A lively debate has been going on in Delhi whether kids and their wards need to be subjected to screening tests and interviews during the admissions rituals that take place every year. Schools say that the number of kids seeking admissions far outnumbers the available number of seats and therefore some method of screening would have to be adopted in any case. Parents, conscience keepers and social organizations maintain that interviews and screening tests for such young aspirants cannot really test anything and may indeed leave rejection scars on the psyche of kids at any early age.

Both sides are convinced about the objective fairness of their respective stands and have therefore together landed up to face the wise men of the judiciary to help them find a solution. As is usually the case, the legal system is good at issueing "fatwas" without taking the pain of analyzing the basics. So the courts have banned all screening and testing processes for the forthcoming admissions season and nobody is the wiser as to how the admissions would be conducted with the limited seats for a flood of applications which are sure to ensue.

Public memory may be short but there was a time in the not too distant past when there were no screening tests and admissions would be decided on a first come first serve basis. This resulted in long queues in front of school gates on the first day of admissions and for some covetted schools people would even start forming the queues from the night before with family members and even retainers splitting up on days where opening dates clashed for more than one school. Often nerves frayed and scuffles broke out under the stressful environment and in some cases the police had to resort to lathi charge to settle the arguments. Screening tests and interviews were supposed to provide a relief as people could collect the application forms at their convenience and would then be scheduled systematically for the entire sophisticated multi-tiered selection processes which no doubt were designed with great care to bring as much objectivity and fairplay as possible into the system.

As the city grew, the admission seekers to the well regarded institutions also multiplied even though the number of schools kept getting added with the horizontal expansion of the metropolis. Existing schools also tried to chip in by building more infrastructure, having more students per section and even adding sections to their classes. The admissions season sees hectic activity with parents buying admission forms which are by no means inexpensive, for dozens of schools and then going through the screening drill from school to school in a monotonous parade. The better schools no doubt spend a lot of their energy during this rigmarole, but perhaps many of them see this as an annual revenue raising exercise as well through the sale of forms and other means.

It is not that all schools in the city get full and there are kids left behind who have to be packed of to other towns or have to be left unlettered. In fact there are many more seats than admission seekers. It is just that most parents would like to see their children getting into the better branded schools even if it means more commuting time and other hassles. It is not that the academics of these so called better schools are superior to the lesser known ones and in fact some of them may be at a disadvantage here as volumes do affect quality in most cases. It is just fashionable for the parents to have their children carry a known lable.

As parents are not sure of the results for a long period of time, some of them do ensure certainty by precipitating matters by offering donations to the institutions with or without prompting or coercion. No doubt with the demand supply equation shifting so much in favour of the schools several managements have found this a good opportunity to fill up the institutional coffers for addition of facilities, infrastructure and even expansion to other locations.

It must be stressed that the demand supply mismatch is more imagined than real. If anything, the supply of reasonable education objectively outstrips demand in most localities. In some pockets supply may marginally fall short but this is easily addressed by adding capacity though multi shift working as they do in Japan for example or several other strategems like adding a storey to existing school buildings, working on weekends, introduction of co-ed to unisex schools etc. This would however have to be resorted to only in very rare cases and by and large the city being well provisioned would manage with existing infrastructure.

What then is the problem? As we all know all markets work best when information about demand and supply is widely known. The more the opacity in information flow the more the distortion in the markets and more often than not is the suppliers who benefit from the lack of knowledge of the demand and supply status in real time. This it seems is exactly happening with the school admissions.

Exploiting the latest Internet technologies, let us attempt to design a hypothetical system and see if can be made workable. The aim is to make the system transparent with a view to giving full play to the laws of demand and supply. Let there be a common admissions system administered by an independent body and accessible by all over the net. All schools in the city would update their available seats information into the system at the start of the admissions season. This would be visible to anyone visiting the admissions site and hyperlinks would connect people to the school websites in case they wish to look at more information about the school such as staff, facilities, infrastructure, academic results, exact location and so on. The admissions site would also give basic information on fee structure to help people make quick choices based on their budget slabs.

Once the parents decide to apply for admission to a particular school, they would be able to fill up an applications form giving the necessary details including unique identifiers and proof of residence like PAN card number, driving license number, ration card number or election I-Card number. A verification process would follow to establish the eligibility for admission. A small fee could be collected to keep out the non-serious cases as well as cover the costs of verification and other processing. Once the verification is completed, the final lists would be collated for each applicant. There are bound to be people who would apply for several schools and hence the applications would have to provide for indicating ranked choices for each school right in the beginning.

At this stage we have a complete list of all aspirants with their ranked choices of schools as well as their duly verified places of residences. With this information it is possible to frame simple algorithms to start offering seats in schools to each case which would be clearly visible over the net. The offers would valid till a given date subject to commercial transactions being completed and a real time status update would keep the whole process fully transparent.

All the above is not rocket science and even the payments can be made over the net through designated payment gateways. Therefore there are no technical showstoppers for this uncomplicated process to get executed in quick time at negligible costs while saving enormously on the time, energy, effort and costs for the parents as well as the institutions.

But it is not likely to happen because of a few reasons. Almost all the so called better schools collect a significant part of their revenues during the admissions process and are therefore critically dependent upon maintaining the opacity in the admissions process. As often happens with any opaque process, accounting by definition is difficult to administer and most transactions are done in cash. This creates opportunities for the institution staff to divert some of the collections for their private gains and therefore senior school staff would stoutly resist and even not hesitate to sabotage any attempt at such reforms.

Therefore the starting point has to be the school managements who must be brought on board by devising ways to protect or better still enhance their revenues under the older opaque systems. Once again robust market principles of supply and demand can come to the rescue. Assuming that some schools are more in demand than others, albeit for frivolous reasons, there would be many affluent parents willing and capable of paying large sums to see their wards in these schools. Some patterns would emerge immediately after the collation of all eligible applications. A certain healthy percentage of seats could be auctioned to the highest bidder over the net and the whole process could be transparently and objectively administered by a common body. The remaining seats could then be allocated based on algorithms which give weights to factors like parents’ choice ranks and distance of home from school. The fees could be fixed such that there is no net revenue loss to the school compared to the present hush-hush model.

It is important to recognize schools’ need for ample revenue streams as long as they are accounted for transparently and move away from hypocrisy where we publicly condemn the use of money power to buy better education but privately queue up to exercise whatever advantages we can gain by fair or foul means.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Compensation for Agricultural Land Acquired for Development Projects

The former Prime Minister of India V P Singh has raised a fundmental question. The government does not adequately compensate farmers when it acquires land in public interest. The practice is to value the land at the prevailing circle rate which normally is much below the prevailing market rate and in case of litigation grudgingly agree to raise the compensation to the average transaction rate in the recent past for those handful recalcitrant villagers. In a bid to prevent speculation, the government broadcasts its intentions well in advance by notifying general areas several years before the actual acquisition and restricts sale or purchase of land across large swathes of rural India.

There are several issues of natural justice which arise and need to be addressed here. The village folks who own the land exist in an eco system which has evolved over the ages. The low value of the land even considering the market rate and not the confiscatory government circle rate presumes the existence of this eco system. When an occassional villager sells his land, he has an alternate theme of life worked out. He may be migrating to the city and may have prepared for this for years or he may be continuing to live in the village deriving his existence and livelihood from the supporting eco system.

When the Government dispossesses the village folks of their land it is uprooting them from the very foundation on which their financial and social fabric is woven. Their is no running away from this cold truth. What the villagers need is full support in striking roots in an alien environment, not some laughable compensation money for land and property.

In an vast majority of projects, this issue can be easily resolved with a little imagination. Most Villages are clusters of houses surrounded by sprawling open fields. In case of residential colonalization, it is a practice to leave the inhabited areas in the possession of the existing owners and build houses, schools, hospitals and markets afresh. Indeed in the capital city of Delhi the concept of Lal Dora or Red Line surrounding the village inhabited properties is built in the statute itself. The developers then proceed with their grand plans surrounding the village and attempt to segregate the project from the village as much as feasible.

What is perhaps far more workable is just the oppposite approach. Full integration of the village into the project. This can be achieved easily by surrounding the village by a very broad master road which is met at different points by the existing narrow lanes of the village. The master road must provide for ample parking spaces on the village side. Next the village lanes need to be clearly marked out and where feasible streamlined and broadened by removing obvious encroachments. Titles to all village properties need to be transparently established before the larger project activity starts. This can be done with the help of the existing panchayats along with modern townplanners who can help demarcate and document property which has got built and accumulated organically over a very long period of time. The objective should be to clearly create titles based on which transparent property transactions can take place in future. All disputes would have to be resolved with the help of the existing Panchayats and the legally formal conveyance instruments executed before work on the project can start.

The next step is crucial. The village within its boundaries marked by the broad master road and with clean property titles can be declared a commercial zone with very liberal FAR limits. The objective should be to help escalate the market value of the village property to a level which makes the village residents key stakeholders in the development effort. This would necessarily mean that development of commercial spaces outside of the village would have to be severely restricted initially for a period of say ten to fifteen years. It is expected that by that time the villagers would have gotten rich by disposing of their properties at very high market rates or some of the younger generations amongst them may even be exploiting the commercial nature of their holdings thus contributing to the successful migration of the village populations to a new way of life.

With the country embarking on a rapid urbanization in the next half century, the need is for imaginative co-option of all members of society. Urban villages need not degenerate into ugly festering slums harbouring boorish, resentful, semi literate folks clamouring for ever more government support, who burn buses and othe public property at the slightest provocation. The urban villages can transform into thriving centers of commerce where the city hearts beat and around which the social life of the new colonizers revolves while blending the spice of some of the old rustic charms and the scent of traditional cultures which is sure to permeate the air for a long long time.

If the intensions are well meaning and everyone recognises the need for giving a soft landing to the dispossessed, similar designs can be evolved for other kinds of projects too. It is nobody's case that status quo needs to be maintained. Tribal life was replaced often violently by the cultivators of the soil. Similarly idyllic rural life has to make way for the more hurried modern version and it needs to be done in a way which looks like a win win to all.

There will be skeptics. How would we design a solution for a massive road project for instance, or a large hydro-electric project which submerges scores of villages and towns. The solutions will need even more imagination. There is no easy way new tracts of land can be created and indeed should not be created in the interests of the environment. The central idea should be to transplant the uprooted peoples into a broadly familiar setting with a guaranteed softlanding and the solutions will start suggesting themselves.

As usual there are easy practical solutions to the most vexed of issues. On closer examination most problems are of our own creation. Only natural disasters like seismic activities, category five hurricanes or pandemic pestilence can be assumed to be challenging enough. It seems indeed true that in this technological age all other disasters are man made and therefore have simple solutions. It is important to understand the motivations underlying the making of these man made disasters and therein lies salvation.

It is indeed shameful that in this date and age seventy percent of India still lives in its villages. It is distressing that this seventy percent is also the vast deprived majority who has scarce access to modern day basics like running water, electricity, sanitation, road connectivity, health and education. It is also true that it is vastly uneconomical to build and maintain all these amenities for the six hundred thousand villages of India. Populations who are also consumers need to be geographically concentrated for these services to be provided through economically sustained models. At least that is the state of service creation technology models today. It is concievable that in the foreseeable future with pervasive computerization and automation the cycle may reverse and providing some of these services like electricy, water, education and health to dispersed populations may become fiancially viable and transport may not remain a critical basic service with virtual reality video making face to face interaction redundant.

It is unlikely though that we would be able to leapfrog to that eventual state of bliss where delivery of services can happen efficiently to a consumer segment of one and would most probably have to follow the same cycle which is playing itself out in the more developed parts of the planet. Therefore we would still need to build our cities more imaginatively and sensitively.