Updated: January 13, 2011 19:37 IST

On Samurai swords, computer chips, and maya

D. Murali
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Title: An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People India. Author: Patrick French
The Hindu
Title: An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People India. Author: Patrick French

Meet Srikanth Nadhamuni, who is ‘in his mid-forties, with a strong, pointed face and a sense of direction,’ as Patrick French describes in ‘India: A portrait’ (Penguin). “I had originally come to talk to him about the eGovernments Foundation, a ‘social startup’ which aimed to improve governance through new technology, but we diverted to a more arcane subject,” reports French, about the discussion in a Bangalore Barista coffee shop.

He informs that one of Srikanth’s projects was to use volunteers on the ground and satellite maps of Bangalore supplied by the Indian Space Research Organisation to change the way local government across India collected tax. An example of its impact is that in Whitefield, the increase in property tax collection was eight-fold since identifying who owned which building!

A short while after the meeting, Srikanth took on what may be the most challenging job in the world, heading the technology team at the national Unique Identification Authority, creating a biometric when ID system for every Indian, the author reminisces…

Packing more power

To Srikanth, who went on to study at Louisiana State University after a degree at Mysore University, it was a cake-walk when he did calculus at Baton Rouge, because his Indian education had prepared him well, one learns. “By the early 1990s he was working in computer engineering in Silicon Valley. He spent a year at Intel, designing the Pentium II chip. His ambition was to pack more computing power into a smaller space,” reads a snatch in the ‘Only in India’ chapter of the book.

Tracing the history of computing in India, the author notes how when P. C. Mahalanobis brought the first computers to the country, each machine took up the space of a room, even an entire floor of a building. In contrast, today’s computers are exponentially smaller and powerful. Interestingly, as the author’s observes, thinking your view inside a new chip can be more than just a technical challenge – like working out which metal to use or how to design the micro-architecture to generate less heat – it could also be philosophical.

NP-complete problem

The problem is how to pack the chip, how to get everything into the smallest possible space, explains Srikanth. “Let’s say you’re packing eight suitcases into the trunk of a car. There’s no perfect way to do it, right? So you work out the best way possible,” he analogises for the benefit of the author.

In the chip, what is required is the lowest acceptable cost-function, with everything as close as can be, continues Srikanth. But this is an NP-complete problem, which means there is no algorithm to solve it in a deterministic amount of time, he adds. For starters, what nondeterministic polynomial (NP) complete means is that even if you had infinite time and computing power, you would never reach the best solution.

“Normal math won’t play. So you devise a probabilistic algorithm as an alternative, so as to think your way inside the problem and reach a low cost-function. That was my job at Intel, working out how to pack everything as close together as possible inside the Pentium II chip,” is Srikanth-speak, cited in the book.

Simulated annealing

How did the team devise the probabilistic algorithm? To answer this poser of the author, Srikanth delves into the process of annealing, and the technique used by the makers of Samurai swords. After the steel has been forged and beaten, the blade is plunged into a bath of hot oil; by allowing it to cool slowly, the crystals in the metal stick closer together and the structure of the Samurai’s blade is stronger, he instructs.

But if you wonder how sword-making relates to chip-making, French elaborates on the connection that in designing a chip, Srikanth was using ‘simulated annealing,’ where the ‘temperature’ rose, the peaks were higher and the troughs were lower; and that he was searching for the lowest possible trough, where everything fitted into a smaller space.

“He took my notebook and drew two wavy lines, and marked a trough on the first wave. ‘This is a local minima. It looks like the best solution, but it isn’t. If you algorithm has the flexibility to make wrong moves – higher cost-functions – once in a while, it does not get stuck in a local minima, and it has a better chance of finding the global minima.

Which is here.’ Srikanth marked a deeper trough on the second wave.”

All in your imagination

If that is already making you brace up and look for a coffee, the discussion is not over yet, because French has a query: Why not put the temperature higher still, and get more variations? The reasoning he gets from Srikanth is that it becomes so unstable. “This is the world of maya – illusion. It’s simulated annealing, so it’s all going on in your head. There’s no actual chip at this stage. You can simulate a chip, the fluctuations, the hot and cold, but none of it is real. It’s all in your imagination…”

He urges the author to look out of the coffee shop window and see the hotel building. ‘You can think it is real, but in Hindu philosophy the reality is in the ultimate concept: the Brahman,’ is just the beginning of a mini discourse on Vedanta. “In the Advaita system, which comes from the teachings of Adi Shankara, you are taught there is no duality between you and the Brahman, and that what you believe is physical and hence ‘real’ is really all maya. So designing a chip can be a bit like maya.”

French mentions in the chapter about his interaction with another techie who told him it was impossible to design or build pages on the Internet if you thought in a linear way, since it changed constantly and was of infinite size; and a web page might look like a page, but really held a complex web of links. “The Internet seemed to be a Hindu concept, a deity with many arms. A text like the Rig Veda, rather than coming up with definitive answers, asks plenty of questions about creation and suggests we cannot know what made the universe. It also implies that time has no origin and no conclusion.”

Remembering Ramanujan

In earlier times, the times when the opportunities to flower and flourish were limited to very few, those with a similar aptitude to Srikanth might have perished, the author postulates. As example, he refers to S. Ramanujan, born in 1887 in Erode, and now regarded as one of history’s finest ever known mathematicians.

The book jogs your memory with the anecdote about Ramanujan’s observation of a cab’s licence number 1729 – which G. H. Hardy had thought was rather dull – as a very interesting number, indeed, because it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways (12 cubed plus 1 cubed, and 10 cubed plus 9 cubed). The mathematical leaps he made continue to be studied, the author finds. “In 2007, two number theorists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison solved or expanded Ramanujan’s ‘final problem,’ which concerned intangible numerical expressions known as mock theta functions.”

The book wraps up with a quote of Nehru, who was one of many affected by the pathos of Ramanujan’s death at the age of only thirty-two from tuberculosis. Seeing it as symbolic of the conditions facing the many Indians who were restricted by their lack of education, lack of opportunity and lack of good employment, Nehru wrote from his prison cell during the Second World War: “If life opened its gates to them and offered them food and healthy conditions of living and education and opportunities of growth, how many among these millions would be eminent scientists, educationists, technicians, industrialists, writers and artists, helping to build a new India and a new world?”

Captivating capture of the many vignettes offering a different perspective to what may seem otherwise routine to most of us.



“The onion-pricing software model that we developed for the ministry was so complex…”

“That it reduced them to tears?”

“Yes, and us, too!”


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