Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Getting Out of a Problem

I left office a little early today, and took one of the two main routes I can take to reach home - the one that had to cross an intersection of 5 roads into a small circle. As happens at times, I got caught in a traffic tangle at this junction and had to put my luck and cunning to good use to free myself from it. While I was at this task, I felt that traffic management at that junction was a problem. Or, rather, the intersection, which was not a result of poor design but that of an absolute lack of any design, was itself a problem that would inevitably lead to such situations. Or perhaps the attitude of the drivers who make it difficult for all by thinking only of themselves and ending up in a "dominant strategy equilibrium" that is unfavourable to all is the real problem. The fact that there were so many cars, because nobody cared to use public transport, also added to the problem, I thought.

Having thus compounded the web of traffic with a more intricate web of thoughts in my own mind, when I finally got out of that situation, I realized something. The narrow roads and the intersection remained; the junction still did not have a signal or a policeman to guide the high traffic that was still pouring in. The attitude of the drivers, the number of cars, or the disposition of people towards public transport had hardly changed. But the problem ceased to exist (for me), because I was no longer in it. So the real problem was not any of the facts that I had enumerated, but the single fact that I was a part of the situation. And when I am not a part of it any more, the problem is solved. 

Now, you could say I am just being selfish because I don't care about others who are stuck in traffic, but only want to save myself. What's more, you might think that it is this attitude of people that causes most problems in this world. But believe me, this attitude is not something that I invented - it is there in each of us (perhaps to varying degrees depending on what we identify with/as our self). After all, none of us care about the traffic problems of a far away city that we'll never have to visit. We worry about the traffic problems of our own city because it affects our lives. We're saddened by the plight of others because deep within we have a fear that we may ourselves be similarly affected. All that we see in this world affects us through the medium of our identification with it - and the things that we identify less with affect us to a lesser extent. 

Understanding this makes it simple for us to make all the problems in this world vanish - simply by realizing that they we are in no way involved with any of them. This body might be involved - but the real I, has no real connection with this body or this mind. So anything that affects this body does not affect me. I don't have to solve all the problems in this world - I just have to understand that they I am beyond all of them, and they have no way to get to me - just as in the case of a traffic problem in a distant city. This realization, hard as it is to attain, is the panacea for all the problems in this world!

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Hacking By Social Engineering - A Target's Dilemma

Yesterday night marked the beginning of a series of interesting events that gives us an opportunity for reflection (or avalokanam, as we call it). My wife received a few text messages on her phone number that has been her for only a couple of weeks. These messages were from Facebook, and had a code and a link which could be used to reset her password. At first she ignored these messages, and then we began to suspect that it was the result of an attempt to hack her Facebook account. She was a bit worried, but more surprised that somebody would actually go through the trouble of doing this. After all, of what use would her account be to them? Partly out of what I have heard and read, and in part due to my own crooked thinking, I tried to explain the different ways in which they could use her account to get access to more useful personal information of those in her friends circle. Nevertheless, I was pretty confident of the security systems Facebook will have in place, and told her there was nothing to worry as long as she didn't do anything reckless. 

Today morning, at about 11:00 AM, when I would usually have been out at work but was incidentally at home owing to a persistent bout of cold, my wife received a call and I listened to her side of the conversation: "Hello?". "What?". "Ok". "Facebook?". "I see". "Got it". "No problem". "All right". As I came to know from her soon after, it was exactly what I suspected it to be. There was a lady on the line who addressed my wife by her name and claimed to have been using her new number till some time back, had forgotten the password to her Facebook account which she could reclaim only by sending a verification SMS to this number, and thus requested that the text messages received yesterday be forwarded to her. My wife, with her trusting and helpful disposition, had gladly agreed to oblige. Myself, being more suspicious and incredulous by nature, was not happy with that. 

The first question that came to my mind was how the caller got to know my wife's name. Looks like she claimed it was from customer care, but I found that even more ridiculous. Why would customer care folks ever divulge confidential customer information to some curious caller? That would be a clear violation of their user data privacy requirements. And even assuming that she somehow managed to get that information, was this the only way to recover her account? Wouldn't there be an email recovery option? It would take roughly 6 months for an operator to recycle a phone number (well, that's what I believe) - why did she not care about reclaiming her account till now? Or did she suddenly lose her password within 2 weeks of a new user claiming her old number? That would require a greater degree of coincidence than we usually see in the world around us. I was convinced that this phone call was also part of a plan to hack my wife's Facebook account, and advised her not to share the password reset code as the caller had requested. At first, she wasn't happy about not sending the code after having initially agreed to, but on explaining the risks she appreciated the basis of this recommendation. 

In about an hour, the mysterious lady called again, and was complaining about not having received the code yet. I asked to put the phone on speaker and began to listen to the conversation as some fundamental questions were being posed to the caller. The way she answered those questions showed that she was either genuine, or highly trained. The number was being used by her sister who went to Kuwait about a year back and the SIM had gone inactive, as per her account. She had important photos and contact information in her account and the only way to recover it was for us to help her. At some point, I decided to join the conversation. We had no way of telling whether the reset code was for her account or for my wife's account, we explained. And even if this reset code was for the previous user of this phone number, we had no way to ascertain that this caller was the rightful owner. By sharing the code, we could be compromising my wife's account or that of somebody else who isn't even aware of this attempt. We took a lot of effort to clarify that we were not implying that the caller was trying to cheat us, but were only explaining our inability to tell a genuine case from a hacker. Firmly, but politely, we refused her request and she agreed to call Facebook customer care to find an alternate solution. 

After disconnecting the call, we discussed and thought about the episode. We were not sure if we just refused help to someone who had sincerely approached us, or if we had successfully thwarted a clever social engineering attempt. We may never know an answer to this question but, looking back, I think we did the most appropriate thing we could at the moment. If she was genuine and happens to be reading this post, my apologies to her for not being able to help and hope that by now she has managed to reclaim her account and also fully understands our situation.   

There are three lessons which we perhaps knew already, but can appreciate more in the light of this incident. First and foremost we must have at least two recovery options for our account (say, an email and a phone number), and always keep them updated lest we land in a difficult situation like the caller claimed to be in. Second, if you suspect an attack on your account (as you must, if you get password reset options without requesting for it), it is always better to play safe and never share your account information or secret codes with any unverified (or even verified) caller under any circumstance whatsoever. (This might seem obvious, but that is where social engineering is really effective - in gaining your trust posing as someone you know or by downplaying the actual impact of sharing that information). Finally, these types of attacks are common and any of us may fall for these at times - not because we are not intelligent enough, but because there is good in each one of us and it is this good that is often exploited. So, if we find any suspicious behavior in our friends' accounts (like a friend asking you via Facebook to send a few dollars to his bank account because he is stranded in a strange place with is belongings stolen), we must urgently advise our friend rather than ignore the hint. If any one of our accounts is compromised, it undermines the security of all connected accounts as well. It is on each one of us to exercise due caution so that we all stay secure. This, perhaps, is one of those rare cases where it is okay to be a little paranoid! 

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Gender, Values and Crime

A more controversial one among the many uncommon views that I hold has to do with gender, gender-difference, gender-specific values and roles, and the so called "gender equality". Having realized that my take on the subject has the potential to hurt the sentiments of many who hold this subject close to their heart (as opposed to their brain, let's say) I usually try to avoid discussions on this subject with all except a few who I know can appreciate the worth of an idea and the reason in a line of thought even when they do not necessarily agree with it. But something I saw recently made me want to write about this today. Also I count my readers among the select few who are adept at handling ideas that are radically different from their own without burning their feelings.  So this is perhaps the right place to vent my thoughts. 

In the last two or three days I found a video that was shared by many of my friends and endorsed by many others (by their valuable likes, of course) which talked, in a characteristically unabashed manner, on how many crimes against women these days are rooted in (and promoted by) what they called "gender-policing". An example that they gave was telling a man who is crying that men don't cry. Another illustration was from a movie in which the hero does not fall in love with a "boyish" girl, but later "rewards" her with his love when she begins to dress and behave like a woman. The creators of the video particularly took offense at the hero telling the heroine (I wonder till when it will be politically correct to use these two words that are indicative of the gender) that she has finally become a girl. They go on to note that the mindset which rewards a girl for behaving like one is also the mindset which would punish her for being otherwise. And then they crown it with their "finding" that many of the sexual crimes against women are an attempt by those having the said mindset to teach the women who don't meet their acceptance criteria a lesson. To prove this theory, they claim that the accused in one of the most heinous among the recently reported such crimes said, that their motivation was to teach their victim a lesson for hanging out with her male friend when it was too late in the evening. The conclusion drawn is that to stop crimes against women, gender-policing must be checked. 

(The video that triggered this discussion - for those who are not happy with the summary!)

What surprised me was not that there are people who can come up with such unfounded theories, but that there are many sensible, educated folks subscribing to it without much of an independent validation. I don't expect my readers to agree to everything I say, but only to consider the arguments I put forth and make up their mind based on their own analysis. 

Let me start with what they call gender-policing. When my daughter grows up I will tell her that it is not good for a girl to go out skimpily clad or to be alone with a boy (In fact, if I have a boy I'd tell him even more emphatically that he shouldn't be alone with a girl, since it's more dangerous for a boy these days; with a passing allegation, any woman can bring down even the most powerful of men), that as a girl she should try to be at least reasonably good at cooking, and so on. This is among the many expectations I have from her, like being honest, to be loving and caring, and several others. As every parent does (and must do), I will reward her when she lives up to this standard, and correct her if she falters. The reason I do this is that these are the traditional values that I am brought up in, which I consider to be the wisdom of ages that can keep her happy. And I want her to be happy. 

Values are what we value. They are diverse, varying from person to person, time to time, and land to land. I do not believe that they (or at least all of them) are rigid and universal. They are often subjective but they are close to our heart (yes, I agree). When we bring up our children we try to bring them up in the values we believe in. It could be traditional values for some, or ideals like socialism or feminism for some others. I would tell my daughter to behave like a woman just as a feminist would try to inject her ideas of equality into her son. The hero of that movie (referred to in the video) has as much right to chose a woman who is to his liking (because she fits his concept of an ideal woman) as a feminist has to reject a life partner who is not compatible with her values. I don't see how one case is different from the other, and why one needs to be classified as gender-policing and branded evil. 

This rewarding and punishing is natural and okay as long as the intention behind it is sincere (like someone sincerely wants their boy to grow up into a man or the hero who has sincere expectations of the woman in his life) and the means to dispense this reward and punishment are acceptable.  It should not depend on what the specific values are. For example, if a man who wants his wife to be a homemaker and a woman who wants her husband to support her in her career reward each other by way of mutual rejection, why should the former be blamed of gender-policing and the latter be complemented for having the guts to stick to her stand? So, do we agree that gender-policing (not a very positive term, but I'll stick with what the creators of that video used because we know better than to be misled by names) and the system of reward and punishment that accompanies it are not different from any of the other values that different people follow? (If not, leave a comment and let me know why, so that we can discuss further)

Just as we agree that having a gender-aware value system is not bad in itself, we can also agree that committing a crime against somebody for any reason including their not following the values that you abide by is totally unacceptable. However, the only thread in that video that seeks to establish a connection between gender-policing and the crime is the supposed statement of an accused in one of the crimes. Yes, for the sake of convenience, let me accept their claim that the accused in one of the numerous crimes being committed did say that their motivation was to punish a girl who was doing something (they felt) she shouldn't be (which is, being out with a male friend in late hours). Firstly, should we trust them when they cite this as the reason behind their crime? Could they not be hiding a deeper motive which they are unwilling to reveal or do not even realize? Can the motive of someone under the influence of alcohol be even traced to his notions of right and wrong when they're sober? Now, if the accused had claimed that their motive was to punish a woman for strangling her baby, does that mean it is bad to have a values system that does not approve of a woman strangling her child, or does it mean that the crime is justified in this case? 

To recap and rephrase the two arguments from above against the connection drawn in the video, first of all we do not know if the crime is actually motivated by a gender-specific values system as claimed. Further, even if it is, the authority of the values system does not decide the acceptability of a crime, nor does the heinousness of the crime determine the merit of the values system that was used to justify the crime or even triggered it. So the line of reason (or lack of it) proposed in the video is unsustainable and misleading. In fact, the heinousness of the crime and the public rage against it is being used by the creators of the video (quite cunningly) to manipulate general acceptance of a traditional value system that they are personally against (for no better reason than it being incompatible with their own value system - were we discussing punishment for non-conformance?) 

While it is understandable for people to oppose and attack what they do not agree with (just as I am writing this critical response to a video I do not approve of), using a crime and another's tragedy as a tool for this hurts the prospects of preventing or reducing such tragedies in future. It leads us to fight a wrong battle, wasting our resources and letting the actual problem survive. For example, alcohol is one of the most decisive influences in many such crimes - by clouding reason and making it difficult to distinguish right from wrong, as well as by hiding the consequences of the crime from the view of the perpetrators. Restricting sale and use of alcohol can help much more in reducing such crimes than can gaining social acceptability for a woman to go into a pub and drink! 

Our core traditional values are the pillar that is holding our society from collapsing even after its walls have crumbled. The crimes are not because of the values we still hold on to, but the ones that we have let go of. To put an end to these crimes, what we need to do is not scrap the remaining values, but to reclaim the lost ones. The same shortsighted selfishness which makes people pursue their own happiness even at the cost of breaking families or hurting others is the motivation behind crimes in which the perpetrator is willing to destroy the victim's (and his own) happiness for the sake of ephemeral pleasure. Love, compassion, service, selflessness, and non-violence are the values that we need to inculcate in the young to build a world that will be free from crime and suffering. It might be an impossible goal to reach; nevertheless, it is a dream worth following. 

Friday, 1 August 2014

Traits Children Acquire - A Parenting Lesson Learnt

Many parents often wonder how their children acquire certain habits and traits, and hold on to them in spite of repeated efforts at correction. I recently attended a management training in which the trainer narrated an interesting story that throws some light on this subject, which I paraphrase below. 
There was once a boy who used to steal pencils and erasers from his classmates and take them home. For some time it went unnoticed but as students started to complain, the class teacher found out about this. She admonished the boy about his conduct and explained to him how it was wrong to take what belonged to someone else. However, this did not have any effect on the boy's actions and, after many more incidents were reported, the teacher had no option but to call the boy's parents for a discussion. Even after his parents scolded and chastised the boy, he did not mend his ways, and the teacher had to summon his parents again. Overwhelmed by frustration at their helplessness in reforming the character of their son, the father remarked, "I don't understand why he does this. If he needs a pencil or a pen, he just has to tell me and I'll bring him as many as he wants from my office". A deep silence followed, and the teacher had found the roots of the boy's habit. 
While the example in this story may be an extreme moral scenario, it nevertheless provides insight into how a child subconsciously develops a notion of what is acceptable and what isn't. Our children may not listen to what we say or obey us, but they're constantly watching us and following the examples we set. If we find that a child doesn't treat others nicely, that's perhaps how he is used to being treated. In most cases, people are bad or evil because they do not know any better; with children, this is almost always the case.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Time - the Agent of Change

One of the most intuitive and (thus) inexplicable concepts that we have got too used to to wonder about, is time. We ask for the time, ask for more time, manage time, and even kill time! But to define time in all its complexity and depth is much more challenging, if not impossible. 

Two related aspects of time come up in everyday life. The first is the concept of duration, which is conveyed by questions like "how much time does it take to complete this activity?" or "how long have you been living here?", and definitions such as "a day is the time taken by earth to rotate once on its own axis". The the other aspect - as implicit in questions like "what time is it?" or "when did that happen?" - is obtained by applying the first one in combination with an arbitrary reference point. While we understand these aspects and use them freely, these are actually points or intervals in the continuum that we know as time. The question of what time is remains as elusive. 

According to Srimad Bhagavatam, time is the potency of God that brings about change. It is without beginning or end, undifferentiated, and can only be inferred from its effect, which is change. Not surprising then, that all measures of time are actually measures of change. For example, a day is the measure of change in the angular position of a point on Earth's surface by 360 degrees. However, it looks like we can't use just any change for measuring time. For example, time taken for me to count from 1 to 100 is seldom accepted as a unit. This is because we somehow decide that this time cannot be guaranteed to be the same each time I count. So, in this age, measures of time are defined pretty elaborately, with a second being the duration for a certain number of radiations corresponding to a specified transition of Cesium 133 atom. But how do we know that this time is constant? 

If you ask me, it is just defined so as to be made a constant. But at least, it is defined in a way that does not conflict with our inherent, intuitive notion of passage of time; in a way that is consistent with measures based on many other phenomena which we accept as periodic. For example, the time taken for moon to go through a cycle of waxing and waning has a more or less constant relation with the time taken by earth to complete a rotation, or with that for earth to revolve around the Sun. These, again, are in sync with our biological notion of time - heart beat, cycles of sleep or hunger, growth and ageing. 

Time, as we generally agree, is uni-dimensional - there is only past, future and an intervening present. Furthermore, our experience of time is unidirectional - it keeps flowing forward, from past to future, and never in the reverse direction. According to thermodynamics, this directionality is a result of the natural tendency of all systems to progress in the direction of increasing randomness (entropy) as laid down in the second law of thermodynamics, famously referred to by Eddington as the Arrow of Time, and follows from the premise that randomness cannot be undone. Take the example of two rooms separated by a closed window, one with hydrogen and the other with oxygen. If the window were to be opened, the gases each diffuse into the other room and gradually reach a state of uniform distribution across the two rooms. The reverse of this change has not been observed, and hence its direction is aligned with the intuitive direction of time which we all accept. 

For a moment, let us consider the fascinating possibility that time can, and it actually does, flow backward. Since the forward direction of the time is the direction in which our memory builds up, the backward direction would be the one in which it gets undone. So even if we were shuttling back and forth in time, we would remember only one direction of it since all trace of the other would be erased in our memory! In case we actually do manage to remember, then we would remember it as our past and direction of progression will appear to us as from past to future. Not sure if this is very convincing to others, but I believe that our consciousness of something having happened, or us having undergone an experience is what makes it the past, and gives direction to time. The thermodynamic arrow of time just seems to be aligned to it so far as we have observed in this universe. 

My thoughts on time travel, its implications and applicability are based, chiefly, on the consciousness or memory arrow of time. Say, a person experiences a grave tragedy, then goes into the past and undoes its cause (assuming he could do that), will that tragedy remain in his memory even as a dream? If it will, that means one cannot completely remove an experience even by going into the past, because a memory remains of that experience and memory is all that remains of many other past experiences. If not a trace of it remains in his memory, then he wouldn't remember going into the past and applying a correction either - so any learning from that experience is totally lost and he is likely to commit the same mistake again - until he is prepared to accept the tragedy along with the learning that comes with it. It is the ability to undo the results without undoing the learning that makes checkpoints so valuable in video games. This is possible because in a game, memory is held by the player and results are reversed or lost only for the character. In real life, if memory is associated with our undying consciousness (the player) while the consequences for body and mind are reversible through time travel, we may have a similar advantage! 

The real paradox of changing the past that led to the present (from the present) is that it would undo the change you made to the past as well, nullifying the course of events that led to the present action of changing the past, bringing everything back to square one. I understand that there are some people who believe this paradox can be circumvent by considering numerous parallel universes, with each decision in present giving rise to a new branch of reality, and a change to the past switching you form one branch to another. That is, having read this article, if you go into the past and kill me before I write this article, you'd actually be killing a me in some other universe, inhabitants of which would be spared the ordeal of reading this article by a miraculous savior who appears out of nowhere (well, a parallel universe, to be precise - but they might not realize it because they didn't get a chance to read this article!). On the other hand, if you had killed the author from your own past, you wouldn't have got a chance to read the article and seek out its author, which means the author will be spared, giving you an opportunity to read this article and seek out the author, and so on, indefinitely (hence the paradox!). The reason I believe the parallel universes hypothesis does not really solve the paradox I mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph is because in this case you're not altering the past that led to this present, but entering an alternate past that leads to some other present. 

Considering the uni-directional flow of time in a single universe, changing the past seems to be a very difficult opiton - at least to explain within the confines our our logic (Personally, I don't believe that the infinite truth has to fit into finite human logic! But due to the limitation of my intellect, I'll stick with a logical analysis for now). Even in a multiverse setting, with a universe for each possible different quantum state, there doesn't seem to be any real option of "changing" the past. The best you can do is end up in another past where the choice you made has already been decided. What is interesting is that in this case you even don't have any control over the future because all futures already exist, and you are simply part of one or the other - a fatalism that many would find scary. Even if we consider the evolution of a single universe with time, if the laws of nature could be applied on the current state of the universe with absolute accuracy to predict a future state, we would end up with a similar degree of fatalism. All that is to happen will already be pre-determined, and would happen as dictated by the flow of time. Is the entire universe subject to this tyranny of time? This will be the subject of our next discussion.

Watch this space for the next part in this series on time. Or, better still, subscribe to Avalokanam by email so as to never miss a post!