Friday, December 26, 2008

the Normal Distribution Theory

For a while I’ve been brooding over a fantastic hypothesis, which I like to call the Normal Distribution Theory. This theory is truly a theory of everything, at least for the living world. And it’s remarkably simple- no complex equations and no counter-intuitive physical formulations. It just says that any reasonably sized population will show a normal distribution when any reasonable attribute is considered. Take for example, the population of moose in, say, Saskatchewan (a province in Canada). Consider some reasonable attribute of moose, like the height of their antlers for instance. (It could even be the diameter of their left forelegs, or simply their height, it really doesn’t matter.) Now, this theory says that if you plot a graph of this attribute against frequency, you are going to get a normal distribution curve. And for those who missed their yearly dose of ProbStat, a normal distribution curve is simply one that looks like this, and which says that most moose will have average sized antlers, with the number of moose with antler size X decreasing as X deviates more and more from the average. This conclusion seems intuitively obvious, and if you don’t require the curve to be symmetric, it is obvious. Another thing about taking animal populations and animal attributes is that you cannot seem to come up with an attribute that is not reasonable; everything from the length of tongue to hunting success percentage seems perfectly OK. This universality of reasonableness of attributes is actually quite reasonable – after all, none of these attributes can be changed by the animals themselves. They are simply a result of a random process called mutation, and random processes give normal distributions, right? You’ve probably understood what I’m really hinting at. Are human traits reasonable attributes? If we take the population of human beings in Saskatchewan, and the relevant attribute as the number of times each person has stolen something in his/her life, will the corresponding graph show a normal distribution? I argue that it will, and that for a sufficiently large population of human beings, any attribute is reasonable, in that it will produce a normal distribution. OK, let us for a moment accept that this statement is indeed true (trust yer intuition!). The implications are awesome. Does this mean that the concept of destiny is true and that no one can escape it? After all this seems to be an obvious corollary of the Normal Distribution Theory, given that the theory suggests that there will always be some people who will steal a hell of a lot, and some who won’t steal at all. That means no legislation, no religious doctrines, or no personal ethics can change fate, right? Actually, no. Suppose stringent legislation is introduced to counter the rising number of thefts in the province. Then the graph changes in such a way that the average number of thefts per person reduces, but the normal distribution remains. Ergo, people who use the Normal Distribution Theory as a seemingly scientific way of proving that destiny is true and immutable are probably wrong. A bigger and scarier implication of this theory is the distortion of personal ethics it can cause. Person X says “Hey, isn’t everything supposed to follow a normal distribution? So the world needs rapists like me. Everybody can’t be good right? I’m only doing the world a favour.” And so Y turns to arson, Z robbery and W vandalizes for kicks. If people like these become significant in number, they can change the nature of the graph. It’s true that the structure remains unaltered, but the graph shifts in the coordinate space. And this can be very, very dangerous. Suppose we know, through some advanced statistical studies, how much the average crime rate in a population can increase and still prevent self-destruction. Then we know that shifting of the corresponding attribute graph can catapult it right into the unsafe zone, where self-destruction is not impossible. Personal choices do matter. If you decide to not use that plastic shopping bag today, you might actually have shifted the plastic use graph into a zone where it’s environmentally sustainable. A heady thought. But one that won’t surprise a true reductionist – “The whole is merely the sum of the constituents and their interactions.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

It's all in the mind!

Every once in a while, strange things happen. Things that try to dislodge a particularly firmly entrenched idea in your firmly entrenched belief system. First it was the the previously abhorrent concept of theism; while i have personally oscillated between the two ideologies many times (and been in limbo even longer), it somehow wasn't so obvious to people who know me. What was obvious to them was the fact that i was a staunch atheist (maybe it's the liberal amounts of atheist pheromones i disperse freely). Of course i can never ever be a blind (or otherwise challenged) follower of any received wisdom or holy text, but the concept of a creator is looking more and more an inevitability. (On the other hand, frontal lobe damage is still the best candidate for all those holy visions we keep hearing about.)

The Editor who resides in the head (he's quite meddlesome) recently decided that another of those antiquated beliefs needed an update. I have always been skeptical about the whole concept of mind-body medicine. All that mystical hocus-pocus that surrounded the practice and its practicians (the reason for its popularity?) screamed 'QUACK' loud enough to drown out any other voice. The concept also seemed to suggest an implicit acceptance of the mind-separate-from-the-physical-realm hypothesis, and that was something else that jarred. But, of course nosy Mr Editor brings up another question - doesn't mind-body medicine actually support the much more acceptable mind-arising-from-matter point of view? To look at it this way, we have to expand the generally used definition of mind-body medicine ('Use of the mind to cure any ailments'), to make it sound less dubious. Look at emotions: i think they can be safely filed under the category 'Mind' (in contrast to 'Body'). Emotions can be explained neurologically as nothing more than elevated production of certain chemicals in response to specific stimuli. If this much is easy to swallow, a simple extrapolation will lead us to the conclusion that the mind can elevate the production of certain chemicals (antibodies etc) to fight disease. Put this way, it sounds OK. But what if i said something like 'Prayer makes headaches go away' or 'Music can cure cancer'? We shirk away, so quick that it might be mistaken for an epileptic (or apoplectic?) fit. And rightly so too. While mind-body medicine cannot be discarded outright as deluded quackery, it must be taken with a pinch of salt; because it's often sold on its mystical nature, rather than hard evidence based on medical trials. Ayurveda, for example, is a comprehensive science based on generations of study of ailments, symptoms and cures. Today, every other shady organization that desires easy money simply packages a product as an Ayurvedic remedy and puts it on the shelves of Ayurvedic drugstores. The reason for this is simple: no more rigorous medical trials like 'Western' medicines are subjected to, with the added bonus that that Ayurveda's mysticism means that people will actually buy such medication blindly. Ayurveda has a lot to offer to modern science - but it is in danger of being lost in the ubiquitous quackery.

Once you swallow your pride and listen to the Editor (you can't beat him- he's like The Hulk, the more you throw at him, the harder it becomes to subdue him), you begin to appreciate the world of possibilities mind-body medicine opens up. Imagine if you could get rid of any pesky sniffles by concentrating for a few minutes or heal injuries by just thinking about it. There's also the well documented phenomenon of the placebo effect - your perception of the effectiveness of medication directly affects the impact it will have on your ailment. Many doctors prescribe 'vitamins' to appease people who are convinced they are sick despite all indications to the contrary. And it actually helps. The placebo effect works the other way round too - if you are convinced the doctor you are consulting is incompetent, your belief may be borne out by the failure of the medication. Of course, mind-body medicine is not all encompassing and can never be- after all it is limited to the body's natural defence mechanisms. Modern medicine will never be superseded by mind-body medicine; perhaps it has to end the high-handed condemnation of all forms of alternative medicine though. Live and let live.

PS The title has been adapted from a quote by the venerable Roshan Priyadarshi

Monday, August 18, 2008

Why Arsene Wenger's like me...

DISCLAIMER - the opinions in this post may be retracted without any warning, on account of suddenly improved performances by Arsenal.

It is time to address THE question that confounds all Arsenal fans and draws snide sniggers from everyone else - why is Arsene Wenger so darned stingy? For a long time i fell for all that hogwash about Arsenal being financially challenged (the new stadium and all), but looking at the seemingly bottomless pockets of (wait, did i hear debt ridden?) Real Madrid I started to wonder. Perhaps the only other twist on the matter usually revolves around the financial background of the classy Mr Wenger - isn't it absolutely remarkable how he manages to pick up precocious youngsters for practically nothing at all? (Sidenote: I wonder how long it will be before a warrant for cradle snatching is issued against Mr Wenger. After all perversion is nothing new to him - remember how Jose 'The Mouth' Mourinho anointed him as the king of all voyeurs?) The story about the talented teens is like a happy beginning to a tragic tale. Yes it is remarkable, but what is even more remarkable is the fact that the same players who make all the right noises about Arsenal being the right club for them, pack their bags the moment a Big Club comes along. (This is more of a recent phenomenon actually, but then my memory has always been notoriously poor.) So Mr Wenger ends up making a net profit according to the equation:

(O) = n(I) where n>2 and usually directly proportional to the duration of Arsenal's title drought
O = money collected from player sales
I = money spent on player signings

I am sure the economist in me absolutely adores the implications of that simple equation, but a more forceful voice in the head says-'Where are the titles?' And it was at that precise moment that i had a revelation - Arsene Wenger's like me! He refuses to buy players not because he cannot; he is an incurable romantic who wants to see how well he can do without any! Now how is that like me? Hasn't everyone experienced that absolutely delightful sensation of trying to answer an examination paper without having a clue what the subject is about? Arsene Wenger The Incurable Romantic? It's rather hard to reconcile with the professorial facade but as good an explanation as any, i suppose.

PS Arsenal still rocks, and Arsene Wenger IS the best talent spotter around!

Monday, July 28, 2008

The new look..

The All New Look is here. Comments are welcome...


The Scrawl Board - this was probably my first original idea for the long shelved and ignored Blog Revampment Drive; and it has very little to do with HTML/JavaScript/CSS! The obdurate being that i am, i didn't want it to be a text message board (like one of those 'shout boxes'), it had to be a freehand scrawl board. After two weeks of poring over flash and actionscript tutorials, i finally had a working version ready to upload (yes, the codes are all mine). There are a couple of things i would like to add though- a board refreshing mechanism to wipe the board say, every two days, and a magnification tool for scrawling. Everyone is welcome to scrawl on my board (in fact i insist that you do!) - i don't think i tested it thoroughly enough.

Background images - my first steps into the not quite untested waters of Photoshop. For anyone interested, the background texture is black sandstone scaled to a high value (a nice effect, i felt). The image originally was that of a supernova (supposedly), although for some obscure reason the pinks and the purples were the most prominent colours. A yellow to black gradient fill layer over it and it started looking more like the cosmic explosion it was supposed to be...

The header image is probably my favourite item among the lot(erm, maybe after the scrawl board!). A collage of things-i-love pictures with a movie clip theme, blended with the 'performance stage' background in Photoshop and Voila! A nicely personalized blog header.

The Label Cloud - the original cloud codes are by phydeaux3, i added a piece of JavaScript code to fix a bug which made the widget fail if no label had more than one entry. And, the original codes printed out the labels in alphabetical order; i added some JavaScript code that randomizes the label order and refreshes the cloud box every once in a while. Watch the cloud!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Intelligent Life?!?!?! Part 2

If intelligence is directly proportional to rationality, then homo sapiens has to be the dumbest species on Earth( refer part 1)! What about language? Many people believe that our supposedly highly complex and rich languages are evidence for our superior intelligence. But is human language really effective communication? Yes, there are about ten thousand times as many words in any human language as compared to most other animals'( dolphins excepted: their notes-based language is believed to be even more complicated!). But firstly barely anyone knows what exactly each word is supposed to mean. Additional layers variously called context, sarcasm, humour, anger only attempt to hide our obvious ignorance. Add to that other things like grammar and dialect, whose purpose I can't even begin to discern and we have human language! On top of all the extravagant garnishing, it might be that despite the perfectly delivered message, the mood( let's call it the Capricity Factor) of the listener might mean it's garbled into nonsense! Anyone still believes language is a sign of greater intelligence?

Then there is music and art! Need i say anything here? I haven't seen any form of music( or art) that some group of people or the other find tympanic murder( or ophthalmic torture)! I wonder if bees refuse to carry food saying that the signalling buzz isn't heavy(or brutal ;-) ) enough, or doesn't have the right beat...

Some people( or all?) may say that the irrefutable sign of human intelligence is having sex for pleasure. Sorry folks, but dolphins and pigs( I think) beat us there!

A little more on human rationality- What about something like smoking? People know it multiplies your lung cancer risk manifold, but they still do it. Some people may point out that we inhale about a billion poisonous substances every day, why can't we add another to the list? The argument is weak, to put it mildly. You might as well commit suicide at birth because you will die in a handful of decades anyway! Pollution is another enigma- being rational we should be able to consider viable alternatives and arrange the best future for posterity, right? But myopia comes free with rationality i suspect.

I'm not even sure if entertainment is uniquely human. I recall reading somewhere that quite a few species have games, which seem to serve no higher need than relieving boredom. I can vouch for this statement's veracity, at least in the case of dogs!

On the other hand, there are many uniquely human traits which seem to exist just to counter arguments like this one. Humans are intelligent? No way- look at any talk show, or ES1, or ES2, or American Football, or celebrity journalism( maybe the journalism is redundant here?), or Times of India, or hip-hop, or Chelsea FC, or sitcoms ! That was exhausting.. Wait, i forgot to mention saas-bahu soaps, the fashion industry( a mystery to me!), the atom bomb, every war beginning from when some cursed soul whetted the first stone-knife and every person killed in conflicts over a movie's cultural appropriateness(!!!).. That list was quite convincing, I suspect!

Similarities abound, however, between humans and malicious viruses( ask all the species wiped out in our unstoppable march to progress). For further information google Holocene Extinction Event.

Intelligent Life?!?!?! - Part 1

Reading the report on Stephen Hawking's speech at a NASA convention was an eye-(re)opener. Although his speech was mainly about extra terrestrial life( one of my pet obsessions!), he briefly touched upon the topic of human intelligence. He said '... some people might say it hasn't happened on Earth yet.'

I am sure many people have wondered about the distinction, that unique anatomical detail( or anomaly), that differentiates the human race from the rest of the biosphere. Sidenote 1 Let's not get drawn into an argument on the sheer arrogance of that statement. I actually sympathise with all those upset, but if only for the sake of argument let's accept that such a differentiating factor exists. And quite a lot of people say that the little evolutionary step we are looking for is intelligence. When I did AI last semester, there was this paragraph about experiments done on the dung beetle. The dung beetle picks up a ball of dung to cover the entrance to a newly built nest. If the ball of dung is removed en route, then the beetle simply continues on and mimes the act of covering the nest's opening! This was a good example to illustrate the rather algorithmic nature of many forms of life. Can we have a program that perfectly mimics the behaviour of a dung beetle? Definitely, and it's not even that tough. We can even build a physical casing resembling a dung beetle, infuse it with the program and voila, we have a dung beetloid( i suspect it would be a rather primitive robot though!). Before we can contemplate extrapolating this to human beings, let us consider something else intermediate to humans and dung beetles: dogs. What differentiates dogs from dung beetles? ( ouch! My apologies to all caninophiles, yours truly included!). It's called learning( brain structure-wise only). I am sure all of you have heard of Pavlov and his bells( refer to the footnote if you haven't). Dogs can learn, and while they may not be the quickest or the most receptive ones around, they do it. Humans learn too, and quite often produce algorithmic behaviour( refer to 'ghots' by Binit) as well, but what we can really do that others can't is be irrational! Yes, you might say that the dung beetle, with its pantomime act, is irrational, but i argue that it is being rational within the limited domain of its knowledge. Humans, on the other hand have the unique distinction of being able to take the wrong decisions despite fully well knowing what the right one is! Let me illustrate with the quite topical example of class attendance- we know it will ease our pre-compre tortures if we just attend a couple of classes a day( and yes we can come back and play cs!) but we dont! Now, the brain receives sensory input and processes it just like in other animals. But an intermediate entity called consciousness interrupts and decides whether to accept the reasoning or not. (I think i spoke about consciousness in some earlier post). Irrationality, therefore, is the little bit of magic that us homo sapiens possess. It is easy to see how irrationality can be an evolutionary force: If you are a predator who loves to snack on tasty dung beetles, and you have slightly better reasoning ability than the average donkey, you can easily work out the beetle's routine; all you have to do is lay in wait at some point in the dung trail!

On the other hand, does this translate to some higher form of intelligence that we all possess? Stubbornness is another uniquely human trait( you cant quite call the dung beetle stubborn, it doesnt know what else to do!). Maybe that is necessary to retain some semblance of sanity( or consciousness). Or maybe we haven't evolved enough yet? Whatever the case may be, if intelligence hasn't evolved on Earth yet, Peter knows how we can be so presumptuous as to believe we can look for it elsewhere( at least that's better than believing that we are the only ones, however !).

FOOTNOTE Pavlov apparently rang bells before giving dogs their meals. After a few weeks( I think), he noticed that the dogs started salivating to the sound of the bells, even if no food actually accompanied them!

Monday, April 14, 2008

The enigma called Fifa 08

To celebrate my induction into the prestigious group called fifa 08 frustratees, i hereby lay down the ten commandments that guide you to karmic frustration :-

1. Thou shall never take the ball away from the opposition player. Only he may see fit to bestow the ball on rare occasions to deserving mortals.

2. Thy keeper is dumb.

3. Thou shall ne'er even come close to tackling a player; he will always turn towards the guy you are not controlling.

4.Thy tricks and intrigues shall only be implemented when the ball is a tackle and four passes away.

5.Thou shall not score until you have had 233 shots on target( the number is holy 'tis must not be questioned...)

6.Thy keeper is dumb.

7. Thou shall see God( in the face of the supreme omnipotence of the opposition players) at least twice every match.

8.Thy opposition will certainly score from a free kick within 0.113 seconds of thy scoring.

9.Thou shall break at least one object in the vicinity before the end of the match.

10. Thy induction into f0f is now complete.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Good and Evil

I have often wondered about the depiction of good and evil in fiction. In older literature, good and evil were often clearly defined: Person X is good and Person Y is evil.( Grey Shades? What are you talking about?!) There were a few traits that came to symbolise evil - greed, for instance, is right up there with the best. Many cultures hold lust, or sometimes even any evidence of open sexuality as evil. Having too much money was another( ask the Catholics- new decrees say that you go to hell if you have too much money).. Having too much fun, for some inexplicable reason, is also occasionally frowned upon. So what must a good person be like? Unselfish, austere, self-sacrificing, self-torturing, chaste, noble, heroic and basically completely impossible. On the other hand, i've realised that modern literature tends to veer towards the other end of the spectrum. Everyone ( with the possible exception of the novel's protagonist) is evil. Everyone is greedy, selfish, cowardly and consumed by lust. It has become a cool new writing technique to describe in detail the protagonist's thoughts after every conversation- say polite things outwardly and curse to hell inwardly. But I wonder, is that really true? Does everyone need to do some internal bitching, so to speak, after every trivial conversation? It's certainly not true for me. Critics rave about the sensitive, grim and realistic(?) depiction of human emotions in such books, but for me they are pure torture. And I know black and white depictions of good and evil are not really realistic, but give me fantasy any day, if the only other option is the realism dished out in modern literature.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

a defence of heavy metal

If you were to ask me what question it is that i'm asked the most( no, this one does not qualify) - it would be something along the lines of 'how do you listen to that stuff?' with incredulity dripping from every syllable. And in celebration of the four billionth instance of that question, I hereby launch into a vigorous defence of that misunderstood art called heavy metal music.

What is the most common argument against metal? Usually it goes like It has no melody or it has no tune or something similar. What I find interesting here is that many of the people(not all, just to protect myself from the libelliously inclined) who take this stand are fans of that doubtful form of music called rap. Honestly, i see nothing more to rap than a collection of *&@!@! @!*!@ @!*#$)^%$ (for a complete translation, consult 50 cent) and half dressed women( rap videos ooze directorial genius, don't they?) and certainly no melody. What about those people who claim to detest both rap and metal?Sidenote 1: I know for a fact that there are people like that. I think what they are looking for is melody in vocals; maybe it's just the culture here but vocal melody is given much more appreciation than instrumental skill of any kind. Even this doesn't tell the whole story- the voice has to be in a certain frequency range( somewhere near 20000 hz will be just fine thank you). If somehow the voice is deeper, or louder, or growlier it just won't do, even if the same intricate inflections of tone that drew applause in the first place, are still there. Only yesterday I had been listening to Amon Amarth and was busy in the process of appreciating the sheer vocal prowess of the lead singer when a friend walks in and says, 'How do you listen to that stuff?'. I wish the same kind of narrow minded appreciation could be extended to other kinds of music. Sidenote 2: I do not have anything against sopranos. I love this Japanese band called Seraphim which can be best described as operatic metal.

Even language is to blame for the spread of this prejudice- Soft, slow songs evoke that mystical sense of musical ecstasy, which is sadly missing in heavy,loud,noisy rock music. Really? Dude, I sleep to heavy metal music. Sidenote 3 If you think I am disturbed, you are not the first. Sidenote 4 No,I am not deaf!

Then there are those people who listen to Bollywood music and Bollywood music only. Actually film music didn't use to be as bad as it is now- there were days when the odd song could actually be called melodic. But, then you can always blame rap music for that...

Last Word: Listen to Symphony X, or Dragonforce. If that is noise, well you are the latest victim of the terminal neurological disorder called cerebellus hiphopophilitis

Saturday, March 29, 2008


What is the most Earth like environment in the Solar System outside of Earth itself? That is the million dollar(or trillion dollar if space probe building costs are what you are looking at) question for many ETI researchers. The answer is probably Titan, Saturn's largest satellite and the second largest satellite in the Solar System after Ganymede. Now why is Titan so interesting? One thing known for sure about the satellite is that surface temperatures are around -180 degrees celsius, cold even for that distance from the sun; surely not Earth-like right? Something that is also known about Titan and is interesting is the fact that it has an atmosphere. Titan is the only known satellite in the Solar System that has one. Now, an atmosphere is not a cosmic trinket which every heavenly body worth its salt must possess. Mercury, for instance has no atmosphere to speak of; Mars has an atmosphere that is looking for a quick planetary divorce; Pluto has a tenuous atmosphere that freezes and falls to the ground every time it approaches aphelion. What is even more fascinating about Titan's atmosphere is its sheer density; it's so dense that surface pressures are nearly one and a half times Earth-pressure. The second thing about Titan's atmosphere is that it is predominantly nitrogen- again the only object in the solar system besides Earth to have such a feature. People who have seen pictures of Titan would have observed its orange-brown colour; it is believed that complex organic molecules called tholins are responsible for this colouring. Tholins are immensely large and complicated carbon based molecules that, you may argue, rival DNA for pure complexity! It is likely that Titan's atmosphere, together with Saturn's gravitational influence( and the sun's of course)
will produce seasons similar to Earth; it may have a rainy season too- only it'll rain liquid methane! Hydrocarbon lakes have been observed on Titan by the Cassini probe, again the only other evidence of stable liquid bodies in the Solar System, outside of the Earth. Titan also has extensive hill systems, probably made of water ice( just to compare, Earth's hills can be said to be made up of silicates). Pictures taken both by the Cassini orbiter and the Huygens lander probes have shown that Titan has vast plains that look something like Earthly deserts, with regular dunes a prominant feature. The dunes are caused by mild and directed winds.

Earth dunes and Titan dunes

The picture above shows the surface of Titan as viewed from the Huygens probe which landed on Titan in 2004. Notice the striking similarity to a beach on Earth; a sandy surface(believed to be hydrocarbon ash rained down) with many rounded liquid-eroded pebbles. However for all its similarities to Earth, its temperature is too low to sustain Earth-like life. Also, absence of oxygen means that any life that evolves there must be methanogenic( methane-breathing). However the temperature issue may be resolved, if only at a distant point in the future. About four-five billion years from now, the sun's nuclear fuel will get exhausted and the sun will expand into a red giant. It is possible that then, Titan's temperature will rise enough to sustain liquid water seas( Titan has plenty of water trapped as ice). Even oxygen may be produced as a by-product of a reaction catalysed by the climbing temperatures. Then Titan will become truly homo sapiens habitable. And if humans can indeed survive till then, it will be necessary to shift base, because the Earth will have been roasted dry by the bloating sun. It is unfortunate however that Titan's habitability will last only for a few million years; a cosmic blink of an eye.

On the other hand, even the question of present day life on Titan isn't a closed chapter yet. Cryogenic methanogenic bacteria,for instance are quite a good possibility. The Huygens probe did not carry powerful bio-analytical equipment; so our speculation cannot be disproved( or proved) just yet. Methane based organisms are not too much of an imaginative leap too; sulphur eating bacteria, for example, abound on good old planet Earth! Further probes have been planned to answer these very questions. So for now, we can safely stick with Titan as ETI possibility number 1.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

the importance of being earnest

One thing i have wondered about, at least fifty times everyday for the last nineteen years( for everyone perplexed by the numbers read my previous post) is how everyone in the world is so fake . I mean i have lost track of the number of times i have scoffed at my parents for being cloyingly polite with (supposed) family friends, then coming backing home and doing a verbal autopsy of their shortcomings. I told them, it's an adult thing - i will never ever, not even on my dying breath stoop to such levels. I faithfully believed in my pristine perfection till Soumyadeep pointed out one day, 'hey we are bitching aren't we?', during a confidential discussion. Sidenote 1: bitching is a common, if unfortunate, vulgarism to refer to this phenomenon. Then my carefully constructed image of myself came crashing down( i think it would have challenged WTC for sheer collapse velocity). My justification is- white lies are essential for civilization. Imagine if everyone told everyone else how bad they smelt, or how poor they actually were at cartooning, or how egregious their dress sense really was. Sidenote 2: This might actually be an effective solution to the problem of uncontrolled population growth. Think about it: its cost effective( techspeak for free) and is easy to implement. Sidenote 3: I watched fight club yesterday- and its interesting premise regarding latent human violence is an important step in implementing the plan in sidenote 2 Sidenote 4: Does anyone know the WHO's correspondence number? Returning to the point of earnesty, why is it actually not employed? Is it because people are afraid of offending their friends? Which brings us to other major talking point( yes you are right, i watch the EPL), why do people get offended in the first place? My Freudian sidey(refer footnote for further information) would talk about the indomitable entity called ego, but that doesnt explain why people take offence to women wearing trousers, for instance. Whatever the reason might be, it is not all-powerful ,thank the higher power for that. Then we would have no women in trousers( imagine the sacrilege). Maybe it's just that we are evolutionarily programmed to be stubborn. Maybe if we changed our world-view everytime something seemed not to fit it, there would be no world-view, and that's the basis of sentience right? On the other hand, pure white-lying is also a biological fact. I know from experience that it is possible to not have an unchangeably pessimistic world-view. It is actually not hard SF to think well of other people. Earnesty or pure white-lying? Both seem like a brilliant algorithm for worldwide stability( even if the equilibria are on opposite ends of the peace/war spectrum)- only time and evolution( if my abundant theories on human speciation are correct; again if perplexed, refer to my previous post) will tell.

Footnote 2006a7ps060

A tribute to hyperbole ( and homo humorensis)

Considering the fact that it's been years since i last posted on my blog, it's time i think, to publish a eulogy to the greatness of hyperbole. Now, exaggeration is not merely a childish whim of the little-minded( obviously I wouldn't say that)- it has several profound and far-reaching applications. Consider for instance, its entertainment value. Before i embark on a pathbreaking defence to this argument, let us spare a moment to analyse the inexplicable enigma called humour( human humour that is, not dogs for instance, my dogs only laugh when they smell a tasty snippet or when i fall down the stairs). Why does someone laugh if, when he asks you how far you have come with your studying, your acerbic riposte goes something like- i am into my fifth backward revision, didn't you know? Or when waxing lyrically about your long and arduous journey to the library to fetch a book for your friend, you accidentally mix up your orders of magnitude, and speak of the thousands of kilometres you voyage to help needy friends. Sidenote number 1: If you have never done such a thing, or if you are wondering if i need medical help, you have either not met me( my inherent good nature glossing over your weaknesses here), or you are a part of the greatest coverup in history- the existence of another species of humans. I have imaginatively coined the name homo dehumorensis to describe that species. This species definition actually holds up to strong biological scrutiny- have you heard of a successful relationship where one partner has a sense of humour but the other doesnt? Returning to hyperbole- it is actually a major cryptographical phenomenon- imagine an entire race of humans that speaks in light years to refer to the distance between your bed and the computer table; or millions of years to refer to the time you spent in your MT2 labs. Hyperbole is the reason why astronomy arose in the first place; maybe some frustrated king, in some obscure kingdom told his court scientists, who despite his desperate pleas against it would refuse to study anything beyond the motes of dust in the royal chamber, something like 'You are light years off the mark, you fools! Why don't you get it? You've spent thousands of years analysing the finer points of regal dust spectrometry; isn't it time to do something else?' Now the poor scientists, afraid to face the royal guillotine ( or maybe they were just homo dehumorensis ) probably took his words at face value and tried to look light years away. Byproduct- astronomy! Now the same king, lets respectfully call him hi-puh boll, could have used hyperbole for state security too. Just imagine that hyperbolism can spread through the air( looking at the number of acquaintances who are catching it- it might just be able to) and all of the people of exaggeron are infected. Now a neighbouring king, who's a slightly more ambitious homo dehumorensis, decides to invade exaggeron. This king, for all his faults, is not dumb- he decides to send spies into the nearby land to gather information about the true military power of the kingdom first. The spy asks an exaggerite, in a carefully casual tone- 'so how strong do you think the army is?' The chronic hyperbolic replies in a sickly and equally casual tone- 'oh we have millions of foot soldiers, and hundreds of times that many archers; and don't forget the billions of horse riders. Nothing to worry don't you think?' 'Oh yes' the spy splutters. Now the ambitious king is not dismayed; he has immense reserves of devious cunning to fall back upon after all. His next ingenious plan is to ascertain the true geographical extent of exaggeron.. this time he asks the spy to ask a scientist- surely they will be more sensible, wont they? The spy, after much calculated obsequiousness becomes friendly with a court scientist. One day he casually asks- 'So how big do you think exaggeron really is?'The court scientist adopts a suitably pedantic tone and begins, 'Well, we are not that big really. At its narrowest end, the land is only about thousands of kilometres across. It is another matter, that in the north, it can be light years wide but...' His carefully articulated sermon is rudely interrupted when he notices that the questioner is lying on the floor in a dead faint.

For all those who have not yet been convinced about the virtues of hyperbole, i have medicinal facts to back me up. It is a firmly established biological fact that people who exaggerate casually at least twice daily, live upto 1.5 times longer than non-hyperbolics. There is plenty of literature to suggest that hyperbolism can reduce your blood pressure, risk of heart disease and even your cancer risk. Sidenote 2: This is not as crazy as you think. Haven't you all read about the medicinal virtues of laughter? Sidenote 3: If you are still reading you are probably a victim already- happy exaggeration!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


I often say, only half humorously, that the only thing that differentiates human beings from other species is not rationality, not sentience, not language, not art, but wonder. I usually follow up this enlightening revelation with another statement which goes something like, what's life without wonder?

Now i am sure, my (non-existent?) readers are now experiencing an elevated state of wonder( i like intriguing buildups, you know). So, i'll get to the point- astronomy. Astronomy has been a fascination since, well, as far back as i can recall. Maybe it's the thought that we are all actually starstuff- the uplifting idea that all the rich variety of life seen on Earth has its origins in a distant supernova. Or maybe it's the thought of extraterrestrial life populating all of known space- yeah i know, thinking of alien civilizations which in all likelihood, will not be discovered in the next few eons does not help the millions of starving, dying, killing people of the world but you can't repress wonder can you? I often wonder, why scientists try to find earth-like conditions for life in the universe. OK, i'll concede that DNA may be necessary, but the DNA may not be carbon based, it may be silicon based, for instance. On an interesting sidenote, silicon-based lifeforms are probably the second most dominant species on the planet right now( no points for identification). Even if the DNA is carbon based( not as farfetched as all you anthroponarcissists may believe, amino acids have been discovered in nebulae), the life form may not be an oxygen based organism. Recently, i discovered celestia panoramas(found them on TB- check footnote for further information) of the atmospheres of the gas giants- jupiter, uranus, neptune and saturn. While all of these are predominantly hydrogen-helium gas giants, uranus and neptune have traces of methane. Now, i strongly believe that methane is as good as oxygen as an energy source: it's easily oxidized and simple to assemble too. Any moderately hawk-eyed reader must have noticed the word trace with reference to methane; firstly a trace of methane on a planet the size of uranus would still be enough to satisfy all the bovine flatulence on planet Earth. And secondly, oxygen was a trace element in the early earth's atmosphere. Oxygen-excreting algae actually dominated early earth. And yes there is strength in numbers- oxygen levels rose quickly( in a few million years, to be precise) and reached the present 21 percent. Is it that hard to imagine an organism that feeds on methane and lives in the atmosphere of uranus? Yes, it can have wings to stay afloat and may live closer to the core to avoid the extreme cold. What kind of mechanism can it have for processing methane? Perhaps such organisms will have huge mouths, like scoops, kilometres wide to ingest the required quantities of methane and oxygen. The oxygen can be used to counter the reducing effects of hydrogen. I'll call this hypothetical organism a uranid.

Yes, i have plenty more fascinating titbits to offer on this topic, but considering the number of readers who fell asleep reading my first post, i've decided to defer my ramblings to a later time.

Footnote: TB refers to the Techie Bible, also called the Digit Magazine by the technologically uninitiated

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Qualia and Consciousness

Philosophers have called it the greatest unsolved mystery in science; Divine intervention cannot be done away with here, they told scientists triumphantly. Most scientists scoffed at the notion, others called it the question that really wasn't and the more mundane ones actually sat down to get an empirical hold on the concept.

The concept is called qualia, at least by puritan philosophers; others call it subjective sensation. The concept is quite simple in truth and can be illustrated by simle questions like 'What do i mean when i say i see red?', or taking another example, 'what exactly do i mean when i say i am happy, or in love, or feeling amorous?'. Perhaps a dour-faced neurologist would rudely interrupt your flights of fancy and say - 'happiness? It is just x hormone released in response to an instruction from the brain region y, which in turn is a response to an external stimulus z' . But philosophers cannot be repressed by merely obfuscated biological jargon. 'Yes, that is quite fine, thank you. But it begs the question- what is the phenomenon that causes me to perceive happiness, the intangible concept that is understood by everyone but resistant to definition even with the most arcane of words?'

Now there are three possible responses to this question, at least the way i see it. One candidate would be a blustering rant to the tune of -'Yes all faithless ones, it is the hand of god'. This solution is one that does not quite appeal to my blasphemous self, keeping in mind the staggering rate of atrophy, the previously all encompassing hand of god has seen in the age of science and questioning. The second would be the well known translation argument, which blames the inherent incompatibility of the two languages in question- the rigid chemical synaptic language of the neurons of the brain and a capricious verbal language used for communication, like english for the seeming inexplicability of subjective sensations. For instance, if you say that the apple is red, you are seeing reflected light of wavelength 700 nm, that stimulates higher visual processing centres of the brain which in turn identify the apple as a red one and prompt your language processing centres to say something equivalent in english. This technique also addresses another philosophers' conundrum, concerning a hypothetical blind man who recovers his sight miraculously. Will he, if he sees the same red apple, feel the same sensations that sighted people normally feel? Now suppose neurology has advanced to such a stage that you can directly implant equipment in the brain that stimulates the higher visual centres, bypassing the faulty optic system in the eye. Will the blind man feel the sensation of seeing a red apple, just as we do? Definitely, say neurologists propagating this school of thought.

Present day neurology suggests that while the older question of subjective sensations concerning replicability may have been answered, others concerning consciousness and choice remain. Dr Ramachandran, a world renowned neurologist hypothesizes that the nature of conscious behaviour that differentiates us from other seemingly premeditated behaviour observed throughout the animal world, like the dance of the bees and the mating rituals of the quetzal is the notion of choice. Choice is not universally applicable. We do not any choice as to the nature of our sensory inputs, for instance we cannot change our mind about out subjective sensations as this would vastly simplify the amount of computing that the sensory processing centres of the brain need to do. If we were allowed to change our mind about the perceived sensations(qualia) every time, the inherently fickle and uncontrollable nature of imagination would ensure that we hardly take any decisions at all and go into mental stasis, resulting in a evolutionarily untenable model. On the other hand, we do have a choice, as to what we classify the perception as, or in taking responsive actions. For example, if we see the tap open and water spilling out, we see what we see; we cannot claim that we did not see the water spilling out ( children excepted). On the other hand, we can ( and we usually do ) choose to ignore it and continue watching TV.

Many people find it incredibly hard to believe that a mass of cells, even if a staggeringly complicated bunch of them, cannot come together to provide the assortment of sensations that comprise consciousness. A famous thought experiment goes like this, 'if you have the technology to compile atoms and molecules the same way as they are organized in the human body, would you produce a living, breathing and conscious human. Definitely not, announce the propounders indignantly and proclaim this as an obvious failure of science. But if you look at the same experiment more carefully, you realize that you do not need to reproduce a human body exactly, a good degree of accuracy would suffice, or we would all have been communists. The second thing is, thought experiments are highly dubious and limited; i personally believe that despite their endearing simplicity, they can be explained away as the result of years of culture training and experience. Today's human can easily imagine an object moving faster than the speed of light, and the same human fails miserably when asked to grasp the elusive concept of quantum uncertainty. But will it be the same a few generations down the line? If a neanderthal of ten thousand years ago, understood to have as big a cranial case as the modern day homo sapiens, is somehow ( or perhaps with the assistance of Dr Who) transported into modern day India, would he intuitively grasp concepts like gravity and optics? I personally find the idea ridiculous.

The other thing about consciousness, is that it isn't all that it is touted to be. Not only is it incomplete and quite rigid, it does not even encompass the workings of the human body. Most of the processes that drive the immensely complicated machine called the human body are carried on by unconscious sections of the human brain ( the zombie brain if you will). Consciousness is merely the surface view of a bottomless ocean with the occasional pits of incomprehension. Perhaps that is why, neurology has not hit upon a definitive mechanism to explain this phenomenon- it cannot see the bigger picture. Study of a single neuron, the dominant paradigm in neurology cannot explain massively multiplayer[:-)] phenomena like consciousness.

Or perhaps, as many people will have it, i am an incorrigible materialist who simply cannot feel the divine force permeating all of spacetime. But then, why religiously (no pun intended) avoid explaining something, when you can actually set out to empirically study it? 'If it ain't broke then don't fix it?'. Nah.. 'If it ain't known (this includes information regarding the state of breakage of the various objects in the world) then try to answer it'