19 March 2008

Pardon me, monsieur.

This one is my first article for http://www.mangalorean.com/. You can read it here. It didn’t receive much attention compared to my earlier articles, even though it had some interesting material. I guess it lacked a central theme. I leave that to my readers. – RL

“Pardon me, monsieur” – last words of Marie Antoinette, said to the executioner after she accidentally stepping upon his foot.

I was once working for a financial organization which had a mid-level bomb threat. I sure someone had triggered a false alarm. Because of which there was a bomb training; kind of top 10 things to do or not to do if there ever was a bomb detonation. I was bit skeptic about this training.

“In case of a bomb, you can’t do anything” the trainer said. “If you are lucky enough you will be dead before you know; this training is for the unlucky ones who survive.” This moron wanted to make a grand opening, which he did and impressed other morons like himself.

I had a feeling that all this hoopla was worthless. I didn’t learn anything new in the training except for – “Social Engineering”. It is a concept, where you use your social etiquettes to gain access secure unauthorized zones.

Social engineering is where you meet a neatly combed nice guy with a suite and laptop in the parking lot. “Can I disturb you for a lighter?” he would politely request. You look at the guy; he looks like an executive with his suit, neatly combed hair and a laptop bag. Only there is no laptop in the bag! Instead there will be a bomb.

You just remember that you didn’t have your morning smoke either. You start smoking along with the stranger - talk this and that, stock market, weather etc. After finishing the smoke you head towards the office entrance, the guy follows you. At the door he politely says – “after you sir”. You appreciate his demeanor, swipe the card and enter the office. Before the door closes even the guy enters, once inside he will leave the bag in a remote place and vanishes. After half hour – boom!

This is what the trainer told us about social engineering. I strongly doubt, these things happen in real life.

The closest I ever came to a bomb is in Bollywood movies; a small box like device with running decreasing numbers. This is not a bomb but a 555 timer, I know because I have designed few of them during my engineering labs. In some other movies though I had seen multi colored wires - need to be cut in a particular sequence in order to defuse the bomb!

“Do you think all that thing happens in real life?” my friend asked me.
“I doubt. It is so filmy” I said.
“I think it is possible!” the whole thing fascinated him.
“Why would someone bomb our bank when world’s top bank is just across the street?” I reasoned.
“Exactly for the same reason! Think like a terrorist, if you are the bomber would you try to trespass a highly secured number one bank?”
Before I could say anything he only answered for me. “No! Of course not! You would bomb the least expected second best, which is of course our bank!” This line of thought really freaked me out.

After this, for a few days I always carried a hard copy of emergency exit plan for our building. I also mugged the fire extinguishing procedures.

Then a really interesting thing happened. My friend, one morning while about to enter the office building found a stranger wearing a suite, neatly combed hair, and a laptop bag!
He even said "After you sir!" before my friend said anything.
My friend who was kind of expecting this said “Do you really think I will fall for that? Why don’t you swipe first?”
“I don’t have a swipe card!” stranger said.
“Wow! And probably you don’t have a laptop in the bag either!”
"What?! What do you mean? Do you know who I am?"
"I don't know who you are" and to give a dramatic effect he added- "I don't care, who you are!"
This continued for sometime; till security guards interfered to sort the issue. It turned out the stranger was - Country Head. Management got in a Catch-22 situation, they didn’t do anything to my friend, although they would have loved to do something nasty. They could not fire the guy for doing the right thing!

All this mania has started after the 9/11- WTC affair, the distructions we used to see in video games and Hollywood are now possible in real life.

Talking about WTC – author Tom Clancy gave the idea of crashing a plane into a building in his book DEBT OF HONOUR. This was 1994, much before Osama actually implemented it. Earlier in another book - SOME OF ALL FEARS Clancy gave a detailed description of creating a hydrogen bomb, for which FBI gave him a real tough time. Clancy fought back saying the information is easily available for general public – if one really interested to find it.

Some times simple mistakes are harmless. They will make you chuckle when you remember them later on.

Moral of the story
Most of you have heard this story, in which four sons of an old man fight all the time. They don’t like each other. To teach them a lesson, old man calls all the four boys to his death bed, gives each one a stick and asks them to break it. They do it without much effort. Next, the old man gives four sticks tied with a thread to one son and asks him to break; this time the son is not able to break the sticks. Finally the sons realize strength in unity!

When I was in school, some students were enacting this fable. 5 guys on the stage, old man (he is an actor, not really old) in the corner on a bed; 4 sons fight on the center stage.

“My sons – come here, I have something important for you “old man calls his sons.

He gave each one a stick. “Please break them” Now I don’t know who had the onus of fetching the sticks, who ever it was, the sticks were real strong ones. None of them could break the individual sticks. The old man stood up from the death bed, tried himself to break the sticks and failed.

All along the audience was dull. They knew the story. They were kind of waiting this dull play to end and something more interesting to start. But the unexpected events on the stage really charged the audience. There were wild cheers, claps, whistles and uproar from the audience.

In desperation 4 sons along with the old man, tried to break a single stick and failed; thus ruining the moral of the story!

Age of innocence
This happened long time back; I was probably in 6th or 7th standard. There was a children’s festival. Children from various schools all over Karnataka were to be there. I was nominated from my class.

In those days I was crazy about cricket. I had a book with posters of great players and statistics. (Later these so called great players, paper tigers, disappointed me so many times, I stopped watching the game. I don’t watch cricket any more. Instead I spend my valuable time with the young kids steering them away from cricket mania.)

The carnival was huge. It was there for more than a week. One time, I entered an exhibition hall. It was so big that one whole floor was dedicated for sports!

I entered a room dedicated for football, saw the sporting equipments with dull curiosity, followed by hockey, and passed one sport after other. And then in front of me there was a room dedicated solely for Cricket! It was like entering heaven. First time I saw the cork ball, it was heavier than the rubber ball I used to play. First time I saw the real bat (Till then, I used to play with the one made of coconut tree branches). I played some imaginary shots with the real bat.

Then I saw a thing which I had never seen before in cricket. The object is misplaced, I thought. Still I wondered, may be there is really something exists in cricket which I don’t know. This ignorance about my favorite game made me sad.

There was a volunteer, I took the object to her and asked – “Where do you use this in Cricket?”

She gave me a startling look. She didn’t say anything for a while, just measured me from top to bottom. Later, I guess she either recognized my innocence or the passion for the game. Which ever it is, “This is an abdominal guard” she said and gracefully explained the use of guard in cricket. I blushed, whispered a greatful “Thank you” vacated the room immediately.

Later when I was playing serious cricket - abdominal guard saved my life one time!

Not all the simple mistakes are innocent and harmless. Some kept us in darkness for years, like the one in the case of Popeye.

Spinach and the wrongly placed dot
I have grown up watching Popeye beating the hell out of Bluto-the-terrible after having a dash of spinach. Like me, kids all over the world have consumed more spinach than they actually need. But like me they have failed miserably to build muscles anywhere near Popeye.

This may be because spinach is not especially high in iron! Probably it has less iron than many of the easily available day to day vegetables. In 1870, a Dr. E. von Wolf made a decimal transposition error and reported spinach's iron content as being ten times the actual content. The error was popularized by Popeye, starting in 1929, widely cementing this "fact."

The popularity of the Popeye helped boost sales of the leafy vegetable and the spinach-growing community of Crystal City, Texas erected a statue of the character in gratitude.

Popeye successfully fooled me along with millions of kids all over the world; subsequently I stopped watching Popeye and switched to more entertaining and sophisticated – Tom and Jerry.

What is the magnitude of these simple mistakes? How strongly they can affect us? Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?

Butterfly effect
The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly's wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that ultimately cause a tornado to appear. The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale phenomena. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different.

The theory says that even the smallest inconsequential actions of the past gain momentum over the period and have radical effects on the present.

This is a fascinating theory; but I wonder how far it is practical. There are rumors of whether conditions changing drastically because of small initial changes. The best example would be a ball placed at the crest of a hill. It might roll into any of several valleys depending on slight differences in initial position.

There are two interesting movies on this concept - Run Lola Run and Butterfly effect. They either convince or confuse you about the concept. I have seen both. I am equally convinced and confused.

Rarely foolishness of an act can cause a life, but then one can bag a Darwin award if he is sufficiently foolish!

Darwin awards
Darwin awards - are named after the same guy who gave us the concept of: survival of the fittest. And the idea of Humans are from monkeys; although I don't buy the latter. I feel there are still a large number of monkeys in the world. Why they don't become humans? – I ask myself and this has made me skeptic.

This is a tongue-in-cheek honor, "Awards" have been given for people who "do a service to Humanity by removing themselves from the Gene pool". It is for people who kill, or in rare cases, sterilize themselves accidentally by attempting to do stupid feats.

The winner of Darwin award in year 2001 is a Croatian college student, who tried to demonstrate juggling with hand grenades at a party. He got the award by dropping one of the grenades!!

In another interesting turn of events a local crook was summoned in front of the judge for the procession of hand grenades. The crook denied the charges saying that the grenades are not real, instead toys.

“Please, sir” he pleaded “If you don’t believe me check it out yourself.”

Judge decided to test the thing himself; ordered the custodian to present the evidence. Hand grenades were presented to the judge. He took one, observed carefully and removed the pin. Soon he won the Darwin Award.

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