How are seemingly impressive achivements NOT a big deal?

I am fairly conversant in reading more than a dozen alphabets – Indic, Abjad and Alphabets and can try my hand at Hangul – all put together.  Except for Abjad and Hangul, I reverse-engineered most of them these when I was 13 year old – and there was no Internet.

VERY impressive, right? Not at all! It sounds big but it is not. Here is how it happened.

First of all, I was brought up in India, where being multi-lingual is the order of the day. So anyway I knew three alphabets before I started with.

I had access to some multilingual leaflets and some spare time at hand. I just went behind each language and started guessing that jargon words and trade names would not change. I wrote (rather, drew) them on a paper. Then I went behind their recurrence. Largely, languages in India have some common words – so it helped me triangulate my guess and eliminate wrong assumptions.

Within 3 months of part time hobby and before I knew which alphabet belongs to which language, I could decipher all of them – except Urdu and Sindhi, which are written in Abjad system.

Then whenever I could find an opportunity, I continued practicing my guess and even became very fast in reading some of them. I can drive across India and except for a couple of states, I can read road signs without having to slow down. As a matter of fact, one of my Tamil drivers depended on me reading signs to take his decisions while driving in Kerala.

Look again, the process was very simple. Even an average, unguided, curious 13 year old could do it.

What makes it impressive is,

  • People assume it can’t be done and someone does it
  • When the task is over, it looks daunting  [14 alphabets? My goodness! – None sees it was reverse engineered one character at a time :-)]
  • Once such a thing happens, people tend to assume a lot more [like I might be able to understand 20 languages! This makes me laugh like anything 🙂 :-)]

***

Yet another example is about how I ended up “inventing” the rswitch control structure.

I was writing device drivers for alphanumeric LCD screens. I needed to compare the existing position and desired position of the cursor. Programming this will be very cumbersome in C.

So I thought why can’t a control structure emerge that can help me write:

rswich (a, b) {

case >: printf(“a is greater than b”); break;

case <: printf(“b is greater than a”); break;

case ==: printf(“a and b are equal”); break;

}

[You’d agree there is nothing unusual above.]

Nothing happened literally for years. Then I came across Tcl and Expect and worked on it for years. Nothing happened still. [You will still agree that there is nothing unusual here.]

Then one nice day I was preparing for an interview and forcing me through the “Exploring Expect” book, which stated that one can write his/her own control structure using Tcl. [This is a pretty clear fact.]

Then it dawned on me that both expect and rswitch are control structures. If one could be written in Tcl, the other must be! [This is also no stroke of genius.]

So I started thinking about how it could be done. And the answer was right in front of my eyes! I had known the answer before hand – it was the uplevel utility of Tcl. [This for sure is no genius at all.]

Then I sat down and tried to code and it worked. [It was bound to be! That is the purpose of uplevel!]

Then I wrote a mail to Dennis Ritchie asking him if anything could be wrong from language design point of view to have such a structure. He replied that such a structure is perfectly fine – just a bit weird. [The only surprise that I find that someone as celebrated as Dr. Ritchie cared to respond. Later I learned that that was his trait. So no surprise at all here also.]

Then I took it up with Tcl Improvement Process and floated the idea. People in the charge of Tcl were extremely welcoming. [Nothing surprising here.]

Sadly, the idea never become a part of Tcl or any other language. [Nothing surprising here.]

Now look at the first three principles I talked about:

  • The idea must have crossed many a minds but none might have actually taken it up. I noted it down, remembered it and tinkered with the idea
  • The end result is a control structure – formidable looking, simple thought – just in the hindsight
  • And you must be thinking this guy must be able to think five more control structures, whereas I can’t really think of more than a couple

***

Coming with the list of 54,000 odd possible Hindustani Classical Music ragas was similar. I just sat down and coded Bhatkhande rules in C and ran it.

  • Musicians kept telling me the number is “infinite”. Knowing mathematics, I knew it couldn’t be – so I tried it out
  • The coding was simpler than writing this article but the generated list was impressive
  • Now people think I am Tamburu reincarnated – which is flat wrong. I can’t even distinguish Bhupali from Malkauns!

***

Worse happened in the case of the “homogenous discrete finite game boards”.

Initially I could think only of a cylindrical board. I was finishing my masters and was playing chess against the computer. Computer mouses were rare those days – so I was using keys. By mistake I pressed the right arrow key one time too many and the cursor rolled over to the other side – but it did not let me move the piece that way. So I wished the board were cylindrical.

After finishing the degree, I wanted to gift my loving guide something. I did not have money. So I decided to make a prototype the cylindrical board and gift him. [He doesn’t play chess.] Guess what? I did not even have a cylinder!  So I made it on a paper. It looked like a high school project. [I am still ashamed of that.]

Very interestingly, my guide pointed out that there was a mistake in the board. If it were a presentation of a cylinder, it should have two concentric circles, with nothing near the center of the disk. Instead, I had made just a circle – somewhat like a top view of the globe.

I felt VERY embarrassed. Not only I could not gift that gentle soul something worthy, whatever I could, was wrong!

As you can see, so far, there was NO genius needed whatsoever. Rather, genius was needed to avoid that embarrassment!

Once I overcome my embarrassment, I realized that he was right. There was a possibility of having a hemispherical board. Why not? [See, I just revisited his view. Not a stroke of my genius.]

Then came the idea, why not a sphere? Why not a torus? Why not a Mobius’ strip? Why not a Klein’s bottle? [Easy to extrapolate, right?]

Then someone showed me a basketball and asked whether that could be a chess board. I realized that the longitudinal cuts were different than basketball kind of cuts – and I realized that there could be multiple types of spheres and hemispheres possible in the discrete domain. [No, I didn’t see basketball that way. Someone else had. I just took a note.]

My brother was teasing me that there could be infinite types of such boards – for example, he pointed at a spiral stairs – and it was a different type. [He showed, I didn’t discover.] And the same could be applied to tori also.

One of my friends forced me to sit down and write down some equations covering all these. I wrote them down. Nothing involved even a multiplication. [Obviously, this doesn’t need high IQ.]

Then for years nothing happened. [See, I told you. This is the easiest part.]

Then I learned some Object Oriented Programming. Very little. I implemented everything as a library. Some 15,000 lines of C++ code – but most classes looked very same, from the same base class. In doing so, I realized that the only one possible shape I missed was a Real Projective Plane. [Any C++ programmer could do better than me.]

With dozens of types of surfaces, it suddenly looks very impressive. Why? Again the same principles:

  • A lot of people did feel annoyed by moving cursor on the other side of the screen – and might even have thought about a cylinder board. Actually cylindrical board is very well known. I just noted it and remembered it and when opportunity arose, made a prototype
  • In the hind-sight, it looks like a topological genius’ work
  • People think I must be able to think in hyperspace. I never studied topology. As a matter of fact, I am scared to even pick up a book on topology

***

This pattern is very clear in my life.

“Wrote the first science fiction novel in my mother-tongue” – Wow! – No!

  • People in my language didn’t write a Science Fiction and I just wrote *a* science-fiction novel, that became the first one 😉
  • In the hind-sight, I look like Jules Verne of my language – but I have not written another science fiction novel
  • People assume I must be some sort of a sensation in the literary world of my language. Perfectly wrong!

“Formalized a new poem type called ‘Ghazal in Haiku body’” – Wow! – No! Both the types were already known. I just put them together.

  • Most people don’t get this because they don’t read poetry and seldom worry about the definitions of structure of poem; I happened to be in knowledge of those structures (and Wikipedia is a great source)
  • In the hind-sight, it looks like a pan-Asia literary fusion but these two are the most written types in my mother-tongue 🙂
  • People assume I know how to blend Sonnet and Tanka too. Flatly wrong!

What is your experience of the undue aura around you?

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3 comments on “How are seemingly impressive achivements NOT a big deal?

  1. Yash says:

    Someone once asked Winston Churchill. How can you do things that ordinary mortal finds near impossible. What is the secret to your climbing the insurmountable obstacles. His reply was if you were Churchill, it would come easy to you too.

    Tell an infant, walking is no big deal. Tell a toddler, talking fluent grammar is a daba haath no khel. Tell a spectator at US open, Federer has an undue aura surrounding him. To the great, the greatness comes easy. To those not at the same level, their feats appear magical.

    You’re versatile. Fuldrup. This comes easy to you. For others, it by no means is [Nothing surprising]. Take a bow.

    • bhushit says:

      First time I am seeing incoherence in your comments here 🙂
      1. Churchill indeed did bigger things than I mention here
      2. Churchill was a (dying) prime minister of a (dying) empire in a (very bad) war time. Keeping an aura of genius was a necessity!
      3. Politicians need power. Awe from other gives power

    • bhushit says:

      If you are right, most people must not be feeling genuinely frustrated.

      Frustrations always give a sentimental glue to the memory.

      The rest is pure mechanism of this world and a stroke of good luck.

      And tell me the truth, Yash. Don’t frustrations cross our minds?
      “This darned chess board behaves like a cylinder!” or
      “Why do I need to worry so much about meters while writing a ghazal?” or
      “Which idiot is blocking the road? Why don’t they install a periscope in the car?” or
      “Why can’t I just have a sail on my bicycle?” or
      “Why am I not a body builder?”

      Just sufficiently frustrated guy would note it down and probably go behind them whenever opportunity arises.

      If the secret of versatility is being truly frustrated, I believe we two have cracked it.

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