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© Rakhesh Sasidharan

East meets West – a great documentary

Saw the first part of an amazing eye opening documentary today – East meets West. Learnt a bit about Islam and its spread in the process. Like I said, it was an eye opener!

I didn’t know, for instance, that in its initial years (centuries?) Islam was quite an “open” religion. In the sense that when it took over Christian countries like Damascus, Jerusalem, etc it didn’t convert all the citizens to Muslims nor did it demolish/ convert all the churches to mosques. Instead both religions flourished side by side. That’s just amazing!

Moreover Islam encouraged science and didn’t view scientific pursuit as being against religion. This was particularly poignant considering I had recently read a book about science and religion in India (Ganesha in the dashboard) which talks a lot about how religion views science in opposition to it. I don’t know how Islam views this now but it was good to know back then science was encouraged. Islam considers the world a work of God and science the way mankind can appreciate the beauty of God’s handiwork. So you are not really going against God by trying to understand how things work, you are merely appreciating it. That makes sense when you think about it, doesn’t it?

I also loved the fact that Islam promoted “madrasas” (open schools?) where anyone from the street could just walk into lectures being held by professors on various topics. If you liked it, stay on, else you are free to leave or attend one from a different professor. Islam was big on learning and asking questions. They translated all the Greek and similar works to Arabic. And places Baghdad (which when I hear of now I think war and unrest and Saddam) were the centres of learning and progress. There were plenty of madrasas and libraries all throughout the various Islamic cities. In a way all these reminded me of the Internet of nowadays where there’s a lot of democratization of knowledge – open lectures and freedom to choose what you want, a place where it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor or what your background is, as long as you like to learn and want to make a difference you can! Good stuff…

It’s a four part documentary. Go check it out if you are interested in such stuff.

Down the rabbit hole

Ever had this feeling that when you want to do one particular thing, a whole lot of other things keep coming into the picture leading you to other distracting paths?

For about a week now I’ve been meaning to write some posts about my Active Directory workshop. In a typical me fashion, I thought I’d set up some VMs and stuff on my laptop. This being a different laptop to my usual one, I thought of using Hyper-V. And then I thought why not use differencing VHDs to save space. And then I thought why not use a Gen 2 VM. Which doesn’t work so I went on a tangent reading about UEFI’s boot process and writing a blog post on that. Then I went into making an answer file to use while installing, went into refreshing myself on the PowerShell cmdlets I can use to do the initial configuring of Server Core 2012, made a little script to take care of that for multiple servers, and so on …

Finally I got around to installing a member server yesterday. Thought this would be easy – I know all the steps from before, just that I have to use a Server 2012 GUI WIM instead of a Core WIM. But nope! Now the ReAgentC.exe command on my computer doesn’t work! It worked till about 3 days ago but has now suddenly stopped working – so irriting! Of course, I could skip the WinRE partition – not that I use it anyways! – or just use a Gen 1 VM, but that just isn’t me. I don’t like to give up or backtrack from a problem. Every one of these is a learning opportunity, because now I am reading about Component Based Servicing, the Windows Recovery Environment, and learning about new DISM cleanup options that I wasn’t even aware of. But the problem is one of balance. I can’t afford to lose myself too much in learning new things because I’ll soon lose sight of the original goal of making Active Directory related posts.

It’s exciting though! And this is what I like and dislike about embarking on a project like this (writing Active Directory related posts). I like stumbling upon new issues and learning new things and working through them; but I dislike having to be on guard so I don’t go too deep down the hole and lose sight of what I had set out to do.

Here’s a snapshot of where I am now:

workflowy

It’s from WorkFlowy, a tool that I use to keep track of such stuff. I could write a blog post raving about it but I’ll just point you to this excellent review by Farhad Manjoo instead.

On comparative advantage and doing things yourself

Today I got the answer to a question that had bothered me many times.

The question was this: I work as a System Administrator and encounter plenty of users who are clueless about computers and don’t seem to want to learn anything about it. I understand the cluelessness but I don’t understand their disinterest in learning. Because the way I see it computers are a tool aiding them in their tasks and isn’t it better they know their tools and at least a basic understanding of how it works, it’s problems, quick fixes and workarounds? Of course the fact that they are not bothered to pick this up is what gives me a livelihood and so I shouldn’t complain, but still…

The logical answer I used to give myself was the economic theory of comparative advantage. In a given amount of time these users are more productive doing their actual work rather than fixing or learning computers, and so it makes sense for them to be illiterate about these tools. They are better off using that time to learn their field and leave it to engineers like myself to understand and fix computers. Somehow that answer didn’t feel right though.

Today, at my in-laws home, I volunteered to fix a broken door. Houses in Kerala often have a door frame with a mosquito net on it. This allows residents to keep the main door open and this door frame closed – letting air etc flow from out to into the house, but keep mosquitoes out. In my in-laws case, however, the net had come out and they were waiting for the net people to come and fix it. I too never bothered with it until a few minutes ago, when perhaps due to having just finished the excellent “Superman Earth One” and so feeling intellectually stimulated and hence enthusiastic to try things out, I had a look at the frame to see what was wrong. Turns out it was simple. The net is held into the frame by a rubber padding and that had come out due to the dog thrashing against the net; all I needed to do was put the net in place and push the rubber back in. Not an easy task – due to the heat and the blood sucking mosquitoes outside! – but not too difficult either. So I spent about 15-20 mins fixing it and now I am pleased about a job well done.

Doing this however made me realise why the comparative advantage explanation wasn’t satisfactory for me. Yes, in the time I fixed this net I could have learnt some PowerShell or read the latest features of Windows Server 2012 R2 – and that would probably be a better use of my time as well – but the thing is doing something else (like fixing this net) too helps me in a different, unmeasured way. I know more about the door now, I have a sense of accomplishment, and I think more importantly doing a physical activity switched my brain from a bookish mode to a physical mode and so gives me a different perspective on other things too. Probably it won’t in this case, but maybe if I had some problem in my head such a change of context could have spurred my brain to take a break from it and tackle it differently. And that’s why I didn’t like the comparative advantage theory. It doesn’t take into account all the unmeasured factors and so the explanation wasn’t satisfactory for me.

In the case of my office, if the users took some time to learn their computers better perhaps that would lead to a better understanding of the system and its limitations for them. Perhaps this might lead to them being able to better explain to IT what they need. Perhaps they will appreciate computers more and in turn be more productive. And perhaps they will stop treating computers (and by extension technology) as some new fangled thing that they don’t understand and which only alienates them from work and others. Perhaps…

I am reminded at this point by the Chautauqua in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. The author mentions similar points though much more eloquently. We need to expand our reasoning systems to include technology. We don’t, and that’s why it feels alien to us. Replace technology with whatever one is doing. It applies to work such as fixing doors, motorcycle maintenance, computers, cooking, cleaning, and so on.