Category Archives: Opinion

A Few Thoughts On Tesla Versus Edison

Last year, on this very day, I wrote about Nikola Tesla. 10th of July is always special to me as it is his birth anniversary and he remains one of my idols for profoundly changing the course of human history through brilliant inventions in electrical engineering.

A few months ago, Matthew Inman aka The Oatmeal published a comic proclaiming his love for Tesla and listing the reasons why just about every invention was invented by none other than him. While I initially liked it, it portrayed Thomas Edison as a evil schemer in the vein of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.

Alex Knapp from Forbes quickly wrote a response to the comic and Mr. Inman quickly followed up with a response of his own. And just when it looked like there was the chance of this debate assuming the proportions of the war of the currents, the discussion stopped. Most people I know read The Oatmeal more than they read Forbes (and tend to support Mr. Inman), I get the impression that most people still believe Tesla to be the nice genius who always had the better solutions and Edison was the evil Corporate CEO who destroyed everything Tesla stood for.

The fact is, situations are never quite so black or white. Science makes progress when the focus falls on the shades of grey in the middle. One of the key aspects of this whole debate is that neither Edison nor Tesla could have predicted how the world of electricity would be towards the end of the 20th century.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the main use of electricity was for industries and for lighting. Edison’s DC system was impractical because required power plants to be located close to where the power was utilized i.e. the generation had to be located close to the load because the longer the distance, the greater the loss of power over the wires. AC had the advantage of low losses while transmitting power over long distances which meant that generation could be located far away from loads which meant power generation could be centralized at locations where it was easier to use natural resources like coal and transmitted to cities several miles away. AC won the bout handsomely.

But times have changed. We depend less and less on Edison’s flagship invention – the incandescent light bulb. We use compact fluorescent lights and LED lights. Our loads are no longer just heavy machinery but we use computers and other devices which all work on DC. While Mr. Inman makes an important point that to get power to our sockets we still need AC, he misses an important fact (excusable because I don’t think he is an electrical engineer).

The development of power electronics has made it cheaper to transmit electricity over long distances using DC. This High Voltage DC transmission system is now in use throughout the world and is fairly mature technology. Though it has it’s challenges, above a  certain distance, it is undeniably cheaper to transmit power using DC rather than AC.

My entire Master’s thesis was based on the determining feasibility of using DC power over AC and where it is particularly advantageous to use one over the other and I can speak with some authority on this. It gets worse for Mr. Inman’s arguments because there is a paradigm shift in power generation. The centralized power plants of decades past are becoming less and less feasible with dwindling resources like natural gas and coal. The world is slowly starting to move towards decentralized power generation using renewable technologies like Solar energy and fuel cells which already produce DC power.

Without going into the technicalities, I put forth the argument that neither Tesla nor Edison was wrong. Each had his own ideals and Edison was undeniably more aggressive in defending his. Whatever his faults, to deny Edison’s  own accomplishments as an inventor is just giving in to personal bias without understanding the ground realities.

There is no denying Tesla’s genius and Edison’s “douchebaggery” but the complexities of today’s electricity system have ensured that both technologies must coexist. Arguments today about who was “better” is doing a disservice to both men because in his own way, each would have been proud of what he had accomplished in his life.

So here’s to a genius on his 156th birth anniversary. Thank you once again, Mr. Tesla.

 

 

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Visionaries

After a recent comic on The Oatmeal, everyone seems to be talking about one of my heroes Nikola Tesla. Visionaries like him are hard to come by but I am disturbed by the ire thrown at Thomas Edison.

Of course “The war of the Currents” is well documented and Nikola Tesla did win it; but dismissing Edison because he was an “enormous douchebag” is a mistake. Tesla’s genius aside, Edison himself was a prolific inventor. He is fourth on the list of individuals who hold the largest number of patents. He invented the first device that could play recorded sound! He can’t just be good at “douchebaggery”!

What is surprising is that the same people who are now shouting out about what an evil cunt-nugget Edison was and how he was just good at selling things waste no time in fawning over Steve Jobs. Like Edison, Jobs saw opportunity where others couldn’t and created a market space for products that people didn’t know they wanted. Essentially, Edison was a geekier version of Steve Jobs.

While we can go on arguing about who was greater, Nikola Tesla or Thomas Edison, the fact remains that both men changed the world in their own way much like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak did decades later. While selling “Edison is a douchebag” t-shirts is taken in good humour, it is important to remind ourselves that at the end of the day, these men are visionaries without whom we would still be lighting candles at night and generally have a very poor quality of life.

 

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Of Rights And Responsibilities

I have several conversations with friends where we discuss various issues concerning India. One theme I usually find myself constantly returning to is the question of rights and responsibilities.

I have often bemoaned the lack of acceptance of personal responsibility in our country. We all desire freedoms of various kinds but in a democracy, rights always come with responsibilities. And what saddens me the most, is when we complain about law-breakers and corruption in India, we often indulge in it without realizing the inherent hypocrisy of it.

To give an example, we can recall Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption of 2011. Waves of people rose up in support of what was at the core of it, a group’s struggle to bring some accountability to the system. Now leaving aside all arguments of whether his plan was well thought out or not, he had support.

But support is not limited to sharing a photo on facebook or retweeting something. This activism of convenience is what we have become used to. We give ourselves a pat on the back and convince ourselves that we have done all we could. But when it comes to translating words into action, most of us fall well short. I personally know people who would pay 100 Rs. to a policeman as a bribe when they are caught driving without a seatbelt. And the same individuals are vociferous in their support for all anti-corruption movements.

And we have a habit of bending the rules and outright breaking them when it is convenient to do so and where there is a reasonable certainty that we won’t be caught. If we want to really to take a stand against corruption, why don’t we start by doing simple things like obeying simple traffic rules and not using our cities like garbage dumps? Surely this doesn’t call for anyone to risk life and limb.

The only way to bring accountability to the system is to bring accountability to ourselves. A friend is fond of pointing out that the times are changing and people are improving slowly but surely. The fact remains that people improve because individuals go out of their way to improve things. If things are to be changed, it is necessary that we become agents of change and not rest in the comfort of knowing that someone somewhere is exercising his responsibility. We have to do it ourselves.

 

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Cheers To The Queers

For the homosexual community in the US, this week has been significant for two conflicting reasons. One, the ridiculous vote in North Carolina to amend the state constitution to make gay marriage unconstitutional. This, in a state where gay marriage was already illegal.

Whether marriage itself is a necessity or not is a discussion for another time but what is undeniable is that when two people are so deeply committed to each other, it is entirely up to them whether they would want to get married or not. While I believe that religious organizations have a right to decide whether their bronze age myths permit same sex weddings or not, the state has no business in regulating marriage.

The religious right wing in America and many conservatives reveal their hypocrisy when the issue of gay marriage is raised. While they want little or no government interference in their personal lives, they themselves have no qualms about invading the personal lives ofpeople whom they do not even know. And it is even more shocking when the likes of Newt Gingrich, he who left his first wife when she had cancer and who asked his second wife for an open marriage, says that gay marriage will destroy family values. Bristol Palin, the unwed single mother talks about the sanctity of marriage while never bothering to take the steps herself.

An undeniable fact of marriage is that there are several state subsidized benefits that go along with it. Married couples are eligible for certain tax breaks, they pay less insurance and a person can have his spouse on his or her health plan, which reduces overall healthcare costs for the family. But monetary benefits aside, this is a deeply private matter for two individuals. When you love somebody enough to make a commitment to one another, why should any outsider decide whether you are allowed to make that commitment or not? And even more flabbergasting is the argument that social conservatives use while preaching their moralistic nonsense. “What’s next?” they ask. “Would we see a man wedding a dog now?” The obvious point that a dog cannot give consent is overlooked by all.

And consent here is the key word. A child cannot give consent, hence pedophilia is a crime. A woman who is raped has not given consent, hence rape is a crime. But when two consenting adults express their love for one another, why should anybody be anything but happy for them?

Then comes the argument that homosexuality is unnatural. It is a well known fact that several animals display homosexual behavior. It is even more shameful that in India, a legal battle is still raging following a court order that decriminalized homosexuality. I am happy that I reside in a state where gay marriage was legalized and intend to do my best to defend this personal freedom when the religious right tries to put this on the ballot.

The second reason is much more cheerful in nature. After Vice President Joe Biden affirmed his support for gay marriage last week, President Obama gave it his support as well. It was probably the worst kept secret in Washington but it is hugely significant for several reasons.

No president of the United States have ever voiced his support for equal rights for homosexuals. And it is even more significant that President Obama chose to do so this year. To anyone who thinks this was unplanned or a gaffe, think again. Facing a tough re-election, no president would make such a statement unless his campaign team sensed which way the tide was turning.

More than half of Americans approve of gay marriage according to recent polls and endorsement from the President himself will give a major fillip to the gay rights movement across the country. And it might help the re-election campaign as well. It is clearly an appeal to independents and younger voters and following revelations about rival Mitt Romney’s homophobia, it seems a little too well planned. But what I am confident of is that a generation from now, people will look as strangely at the ones who opposed gay marriage as we do on those who opposed marriages between black and white people a few decades ago.

Whatever the reasons, to my gay brothers and sisters, here’s some love and good wishes. I hope that you also, in time, come to realize the happiness and general misery that marriage alone can bring. Live long, and prosper.

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Learn. Forget. Relearn The Hard Way.

History is probably the most underrated subject taught in school. In a country like India (and increasingly worldwide), ground realities have ensured that there is a high probability that unless you have a degree in a science related field, you will not have any measure of financial security.

The focus during schooling naturally shifts towards math and science and a subject like history tends to take the back seat. A soft field for those who can’t cut it in the world of technology. Future liberal arts majors who will eventually make a living at Starbucks, as the stereotype goes. But I will always count History among my favourite subjects.

This is not because I hate math and science or I was bad at them. It is because History strikes a chord within me and makes me think about life in a way even astronomy never can. Because it tells us the story of humanity. If we could compress all of history to a year with midnight on January 1st being the Big Bang, all of human history would be contained in the last few seconds of December 31st. Yet, it is a significant that we learn from it because our ability to survive and prosper depends on avoiding the mistakes we have made in the past.

When we learn history in school, the syllabus tends to focus on our nation’s history.  And in India, politics often determines the content of our textbooks. Critical inquiry is often discouraged, especially when there is a chance that the veneer of respectability and even divinity that we coat our nation’s leaders with is peeled away to reveal the monsters underneath.

I remember one entire school year we read about the Marathi King Shivaji. We learnt about how heroic he was, how just, how tolerant, how brave he was. We learnt what a master tactician he was and were reminded time and again about the aura of perfection that surrounded him. However, not once was there any criticism leveled against him. In Maharashtra, questioning Shivaji is taboo. One cannot something negative about him and go unpunished. Entire elections are decided on the basis of which political outfit invokes his name more often. And we treat his enemies, the Mughals and later the British like our own enemies.

Indian students learn exhaustively about the Indian freedom struggle, Americans, presumably about the American Revolution and the French learn lessons about the storming of Bastille and the execution of Louie XVI. But in this compartmentalization of history, while we glorify our heroes, we pay lip service to others. But in reality, each historical event profoundly influences others.

The French Revolution, for instance, is perhaps the single most important historical event of the 19th century. Republics, growth of liberal democracies and the rise of secularism in the modern age has it’s roots in it. Many ideas that shaped the Indian Republic were borrowed from the French Revolution and The American War of Independence.

The American Constitution is surely the most important document from the 18th century and shaped the constitutions of several other nations well into the 20th century. The American Civil Rights movement was extraordinarily important and in fact drew it’s inspirations from the civil disobedience movements pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi. Yet, only lip service is paid to these events.

We forget that nations are human constructs. Yesterday’s nations can dissolve and merge because what is a nation other than an arbitrary and ever changing division of land? We mustn’t let those who need these divisions to retain control make us forget that not too long ago, we were all merely tribes separated by distance, distances that are now just a minor inconvenience. And we share a common origin.

Forgetting our lessons causes us to make the same mistakes made in the past. Great civilizations fall because of indulgent populations that grow complacent and forget the ideals their nations were founded on. Greece, Persia, Mesopotamia and Rome all fell because of the rot that had set in and even America, a modern empire, is on the brink because in many ways, its citizens have repeated the errors made by empires past.

Giving History it’s due and making it accessible and important is the key to progressing as a species and moving beyond our petty squabbles. Many years ago, my father delighted me with stories of the great empires that sprang up, prospered and collapsed over the ages. It’s time everyone took a second look at their tales and listened closely to the lessons they teach.

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The Greatest Revolutionary?

The best measure of your belief in any cause is not how much you are willing to kill for it, but how much you are willing to die for it. Those who kill indiscriminately for a cause, are not as impressive as those who seek to reason with their oppressors. For this very reason, one of my greatest heroes, and perhaps the greatest revolutionary in modern history is Mahatma Gandhi.

At the time I was in school, several movies were released within a few months of each other dealing with Bhagat Singh. What distressed me about these movies was that they portrayed Gandhi as a schemer and seemed to make it appear that he had a superficial role in securing India’s independence. Some of my friends became very anti-Gandhi at the time and I could not completely understand the reason.

Gandhi’s path of non-violence may come across as meek to many people but it was far more effective than violent acts. Consider an oppressive regime like the British government at the time. They employed brutal force, harsh punishments and imposed an iron rule across India. What retaliatory violence served to do was harden British hearts against the cries of a nation longing for freedom. This was observed in the revolution of 1857 where even the most sympathetic of British observers would have been inclined to acts of violence when stories of rape and pillaging by Indian soldiers on British citizens reached them.

But Gandhi revolutionized the approach to struggle for rights and freedom. Responding to violence with violence leaves no difference between the oppressor and the oppressed. It brings them both down to the level of beasts who cannot reason. If there was a way to make the British realize what brutalities were being visited on the Indian masses, it might turn public opinion in favour of independence. The approach relied on the assumption that the average human being had enough empathy to relate to the victim’s cause. An armed struggle on the other hand would have been far more harmful to the Indian freedom struggle, as is seen with so many other revolutions. The recently concluded war in Libya has left the nation in tatters and a stable government looks unlikely to be formed there any time soon.

What Gandhi’s struggle left was a legacy of nonviolence and tolerance. It gave millions of people hope that their cause was just and the best way to prove it was to respond with kindness and mercy where none existed. This non-violent struggle did not end with India’s independence. Much of the civil rights movement in the USA drew it’s inspiration from the Civil Disobedience and non co-operation movements successfully started by Gandhi. And they have had resounding successes.

Perhaps the enduring legacy of this method was demonstrated by the Prime Minister of Norway when the perpetrator of the Norway Massacres of 2011, Christian terrorist Anders Breivik, was apprehended. When calls were made to reinstate the death penalty, the Prime Minister said, “We will respond to attacks on our democracy with even more democracy.” This statement encapsulates all that is great about what Gandhi championed. When you sink to the level of your foe, then your struggle is meaningless. An eye for an eye, indeed makes the whole world blind.

 

 

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Evolution

It is a matter of grave concern when a nation such as America, whose constitution is one of the greatest historical documents ever written and which has, for so long, embraced the principle of separation of Church and State, is in danger of being held hostage by religious extremists.

If you shout long enough and loud enough, any reasonable person will suspend his arguments to let you finish. When it comes to evolution, the Christian establishment in America is shouting ever louder. When your beliefs are questioned, and they are in danger of being proved incorrect, it is natural that you will seek to defend it using whatever means you can.

Evolution has provided an elegant and simple explanation for the development of life on our planet and it has given scientifically valid reasons to reject creationism, which is the bedrock of the Christian faith. But there are many who still fervently believe that the Earth was created 6000 years ago in 7 days by God and if that is not regressive thinking, I don’t know what is.

Considering that the Bible was written two millennia ago, it is natural that it would contain wrong explanations for several phenomenon. We tend to invoke the supernatural when we fail to find an explanation for something and the men of that time were ignorant about many things. We have always wanted an explanation for our origins and the idea that a supreme being created us and appointed us masters of the world is appealing. It would have been even more so in centuries past. Evolution though, was a game-changer.

When I was in school in Mumbai, science was not a particularly well taught subject. Not many subjects are because teachers tend to stick to textbooks and few of mine made the effort to teach above and beyond what the books contained. Evolution was not very well elaborated and beyond the fact that Charles Darwin came up with it and some short explanation, nothing more was conveyed. As a result, I never gave it much thought. Questions about human origins never played a part in my day to day life and as a result, evolution went unnoticed.

But years later, as I journeyed to America, I was struck by how many pitched battles were being fought between men of science and people of religious faith who came up with an innocuous term to describe creationism. Intelligent Design tends to give creationism an advantage because it sounds a lot more like a scientific theory. This is what it is being claimed as – an alternative hypothesis to explain human origins. But it is not. It is merely a ploy by Christian Fundamentalists to impose their religious beliefs on children.

Considering how desperate they sound, with the screams getting louder and more hysterical, it seems like the ultra religious are playing their last big hand. It seems like the final throw of the dice. But it is time to counter this. An attack on a basic scientific principle, which is the basis of all biology, will not stop at that. There will be attacks on all aspects of science that contradict religion and humanity might be in the danger of being pushed back to the dark ages.

People of reason need to make a stand and rise against this. We need to educate ourselves and educate others about basic science. Will reason triumph or will regressive thinking win? Only time will tell. But we better make a good fight of it.

 

 

 

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