Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Critique of Criticism - Part I

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From around the age of two, I have always wondered why critics hate the movies I love. While my views have tempered a bit with age, there are still several points on which I feel I can criticize the critics. For starters, why do critics hate CGI? There are a couple of reasons I can think of. First, almost all critics are conservative. There are a number of movies which weren’t particularly liked by the critics of their era; but time and a pair of history-tinted spectacles have ensured that today’s critic has an entirely different view. Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’, which received average reviews when it was first released, is hailed as a science fiction classic today. I wonder if critics hated the first colour movies, or even the first ‘talkies’. CGI and animation are relatively new to the party, and despite any artistic bonuses they might offer, will inevitably take some time to be digested.

You might hear some critics argue that special effects detract from the emotional experience of a movie by taking time away from the actual actors. The part about taking time away from the actors is true (only if the movie has any live actors), but the argument about emotions is debatable. I would argue that most critics are looking for ‘personal’ human emotions over something generic like awe or wonder. The reason I say this is that most of the time, special effects convey awe in a way nothing else can. Imagine there's an apocalyptic movie in which you have an asteroid crashing into the Earth. There are two ways you can show something like this. The ‘personal’ way would be to show the lead actor/actress with his/her hands over his/her mouth watching as the big, yellow fireball in the sky gets steadily larger. The ‘impersonal’ way would be to use heavy special effects to convey the sense of worldwide destruction that such a catastrophic impact can produce. It’s inarguable which one the critics will like. My point is simply that there are people out there who prefer the second option; people who don’t mind feeling awed and humbled by sheer scale; people who don’t mind impersonal views of disasters that are, by definition, impersonal. The average movie-goer can of course pick a side and stick to it, but critics can’t and shouldn’t.

(continued in part II)

A Critique of Criticism - Part II

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Here’s what Roger Ebert has to say about the noble art of criticism.

'When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you're not asking if it's any good compared to Mystic River, you're asking if it's any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then The United States of Leland clocks in at about two.'

That’s absolutely perfect. That’s exactly what you expect critics to do. Is it hard? Very, very much so. People have entire genres of films they despise, and critics are people too (I think). However, it is their job to be objective, and if they cannot do it, genre-based reviews (like in music) may be the best option. You might often hear a critic call a movie ‘brainless’. Invariably, such a statement will be followed by a disparaging remark about popcorn. This kind of criticism is so clichéd that it makes my head spin; and the ironic thing is that it’s usually directed against (supposedly) clichéd movies. What is a brainless movie? If you make a thorough study of all the films that have been called brainless by critics, you will most likely come to the following conclusions.

  1. Most action movies are brainless.
  2. Most big budget movies are brainless.
  3. Most horror movies are brainless.
  4. Most romantic comedies are brainless.
  5. Most commercially successful movies are brainless.

The obvious conclusion you can draw from these observations is that audiences are brainless. Let’s ignore the veracity of that statement itself, and concentrate on the observations that led to it. Why do critics dislike action movies? That’s an easy one. Critics want ‘real’ cinema while most audiences are escapist. I’ve often heard my mother wonder why she should go to the theatre to watch movies like ‘Jail’ (the Hindi film) when she only wants a break from her problems in real life. I think most critics do understand this point. It is just the fact that they are incorrigibly elitist that prevents them from ever praising a ‘properly’ escapist film without qualifying the praise with the ‘popcorn’ jibe. Most of the vitriol poured on popular movies (by the later critics of course) smacks of elitism. Here I cannot help but be reminded of Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’. One of my school friends, on a whim, had picked up this ordinary looking book, when it was still a relative unknown. I borrowed it from him soon enough, and the first thing that hit me when I opened the book was a deluge of rave reviews. Most books manage to dig up one or two positive reviews and plaster it prominently on the front page, but any experienced bibliophile can tell the difference between a critically acclaimed book and a not so critically acclaimed one (the ubiquitous ‘bestseller’ tag notwithstanding). This belonged to the first category; the fact that the first few pages were adorned with dozens of glowing reviews was an excellent hint. A good number of years later, when the movie adaptation was being made, I was surprised to see that many critics had gone back to review the book and suddenly found it very poor. Among the usual criticism of the ‘plot’, the ‘dialogue’ and the ‘characterization’, I found some rare gems about the egregious grammar and Dan Brown’s simple mind.

(continued in part III)

A Critique of Criticism - Part III

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At the risk of contradicting myself, I have to concede that there is truth to the ‘brainless’ argument, even if the actual wording itself smacks of elitism. There are many people who go to the movies and make a conscious effort not to think. However, I think that such people are being more escapist than ‘brainless’. On the other hand there exist a vast number of what I like to call ‘thoughtless sceptics’. These are the sort of people who see our hero climbing a mountain and ask, ‘That’s so not possible. I so hate this fake, brainless movie’. They might go on to wonder why a passing thunderstorm or a bored eagle doesn’t simply knock him off his precarious perch. I find this sort of criticism more stupid than anything else; most such people are not thinking it through. It’s much more exhilarating, at least for me, to try and construct a plausible scientific foundation to support such events.If everything we once thought was impossible stayed impossible, I think we’d still in our deerskin clothing wondering if using iron for making tools might be a good idea. There are people who can walk on walls, and there are people who can jump from the second floor of a building and walk away.

‘Why does the underdog always win?’ Another similar question and if possible, one asked in even more incredulous tones goes something like, ‘How does the hero always survive?’. I think it’s time to talk about that oldest of cinematic themes, the story of the survival against all odds. Is it that hard to conceive that in any natural disaster, there will be at least one survivor whose fortuitous escape may reveal a compelling tale? I have to admit that the ‘survivor’ trick is used more to thrill than convey anything ‘real’, but the argument still holds.

More often than not, thinking a film through is a personal choice. There are many ‘artsy’ films that provoke absolutely no mental debate in my head; and there are many ‘popcorn’ movies which actually do. Does this say something about the film? Not really. Let’s talk about the movie 2012, for example. I found some things in the movie very thought provoking. or example there is the plot driven ethical dilemma of ‘Who to save?’, a question which continues to remain relevant no matter how many times it is asked. Then there is Roland Emmerich (the director)’s personal favourite, the philosophy I have dubbed ‘The Great Equalizer’ - a global catastrophe that levels all differences between ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ countries, the economic egalitarian’s utopia. If you've watched 'The Day After Tomorrow' you'll recall how the U.S. government is forced to request the Mexican government for help; and in 2012 itself, the tiny contingent of mostly 'First World' survivors, sets sail for Africa.

(continued in part IV)

A Critique of Criticism - Part IV

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‘What do you mean critics are irrelevant? They definitely aren’t. I read every single review and do the exact opposite of what the critic suggests.’

It was quite surprising to read views like this on the Internet, considering I held such views in the not so ancient past. I do realize now that it’s just a knee-jerk reaction to reading negative reviews of movies I like, because I really do like films in general. I love science fiction and enjoy action and horror movies. If I’m feeling unusually poignant I wouldn’t mind watching an Oscar drama. At the other end of the emotional spectrum are the romantic comedies, and no I don’t hate them. I can even stand spoofs when I’m feeling really miserable. I suspect that others who profess to hold such views have similar opinions. The real issue here is the legion of critics who pride themselves on the level of acrimony they can achieve with a pen (or a keyboard). It only makes people wonder (often justifiably) if all these critics are just failed film makers themselves.

In a few situations, critics positively labour to make themselves look silly. If a movie stretches beyond the magic figure of 120 minutes; many a critic’s mind will turn to sludge. Dazed and battered, the critic will reach for his laptop and rant about the ‘complicated’ plot and the ‘excessive’ length of the film. OK, two hours being on the shorter side for the average Indian film, we might be better acclimatized, but when even the great LOTR movies cannot escape this criticism, surely something is wrong? I suspect, once again, that this is more to do with the conservative nature of the profession than anything else.

The issue of derivative works is another critical chestnut, and can be summed up as follows,

  1. All science fiction movies are Star Wars/Star Trek rip-offs.
  2. All fantasy movies are LOTR/Harry Potter rip-offs.

Accusing Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series of being derivative makes a smidgeon of sense. It is greatly influenced by the LOTR universe, but I would still argue that the world it creates is sufficiently unique to discount that argument. But calling a film like ‘The Dark is Rising’ a LOTR rip off is hilarious. There is absolutely nothing in common between the two except for the fact that they are both fantasies. Imagine calling every romantic drama ever made a ‘Gone With The Wind’ rip off. I would also argue that the imagination required to construct a detailed and internally consistent alternate universe, be it in fantasy or science fiction, constitutes a greater achievement than writing a moving tale of your own experiences. Don’t get me wrong here. Most critically acclaimed novels are excellent. They are acclaimed for a good reason: they tell great tales of human emotion. What about great tales of human imagination?

To be fair, the really good critics know their stuff, and to a large extent, have achieved a sense of objectivity. The real problem is that criticism is so easy; any twelve year old with a keyboard and a cynical worldview can do it. The hallmark of a good critic, in my opinion, is greater tolerance, and not the inverse. Before I end this rant, here’s an absolutely delightful conversation snippet that I overheard in the theatre where I watched 2012. It’s between a little girl and her little brother, with a late cameo appearance from their father, and is one reason why I did not immediately discard the ‘brainless audience’ hypothesis earlier.

Girl: What if it really happens?
(She is referring to the idea that the world will end in 2012, of course.)
Boy: Then we will all be dead.
(At this point, the boy says something surprisingly profound.)
Boy: We live together, and die together.
(OK, fascinating, but they are kids, remember? Nothing surprising there.)
Dad (in the next seat): It MAY happen, you know. It may happen.

There you go, it’s already got people thinking.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Kill in the name of ...?

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We all agree that racism is wrong. It makes no sense to say that black people are inferior just because they don’t get freckles in summers. The commonly espoused argument against racism goes something along the lines of, ‘We are all human, and all humans are equal’. Admirably egalitarian, and something I wholeheartedly agree with. Then there’s sexism. It’s another blight that’s being slowly drained out of mainstream culture. There’s a long way to go before we can say we are completely free of these evils, but they have at least one thing in their favour. They have been recognized as social evils.

The funny thing is that there are a host of ‘attitudes’ in the world today that should be, using the same definition of discrimination that drives concern about sexism and racism, marked for eradication. Instead, many of them have no pejorative connotations at all and are often viewed synonymously with positive intangibles like ‘virtue’. The ones that are viewed unfavourably, have legions of apologists working tirelessly to change precisely that fact. Take for instance, that entity called patriotism. Yes, we have terms like ‘jingoism’ that are supposed to represent patriotism gone bad, but I wonder – Does patriotism inevitably lead to jingoism? Patriotism seems to be even more discriminatory than racism. At least racism has a certain amount of biological basis for differentiation. How can you justify wars between India and Pakistan, or the skirmishes between Pakistan and Afghanistan? Often, cyclically, patriotism ends up being both the cause and the consequence of large scale conflicts.

Arbitrary geographical boundaries that exist nowhere but in the minds of parochial men and women, partition the planet into countries, and fuel patriotism. And patriotism justifies military conflict. Military conflict has developed a culture of its own which, interestingly, revolves around the noble ideals of virtue and honour. I find this ironic, because stripped of all the obfuscation, military conflict and war are just people killing other people. Military conflict actually legitimizes murder – something which racism and sexism, at their worst, never dared to do. In fact war crimes have a strong element of racism and sexism, but cloaked in a veneer of ‘honour’ are often glossed over.

Then you have things like the caste system. It is racism, plain and simple. You don’t even have to construct allegorical arguments to reduce one to the other, like in the case of patriotism. The caste system does not quite have an aura of pure virtue like nationalistic pride, but does not have too much going against it otherwise. Here, once again, India proves itself to be a nation of apologists. Any attempts at change are viewed as an unpardonable attack on our ancient culture.

All the forms of discrimination I’ve talked about (and the countless ones I haven’t) can be reduced to the biological human need for herding. Human beings are social animals, as is often mindlessly repeated, but the implications of this simple statement are staggering. Moving one step up the herding pyramid from the caste system, you have the idea of religion itself. Isn’t that herding too? In recent times, there have been several outspoken opponents of religion, but on the whole, the worst thing that it’s believed to be is a personal quirk. However, even in today’s enlightened times, religion’s capacity to discriminate has not diminished appreciably. It has definitely become a lot more subtle, however. Christians criticize the intolerance of Islam, and point to their own religion as the solution to this. Muslims point to the Christians’ criticism and call upon fellow Muslims to band together against the ‘outsiders’. Hindus point to the bickering of both Christians and Muslims, throw in a few snippets about science in the Vedas and the Big Bang and advocate Hinduism as the most sensible of the lot.

Unless we evolve a hive mind or swarm intelligence, we probably can’t do away with herding. Religion, you have to admit, has probably been the best herding algorithm so far. It has many things going for it – it teaches many people all they know about morality and it fights existential thoughts of purposelessness through rhetoric on the Afterlife. But it’s still herding, and with the associated baggage. The only way to do away with herding, or at least push it to a higher level in the pyramid, would be to instil in all human beings a sense of global identity. This is not as impossible as it seems. Just notice how patriotism, and the need for a sense of identity in the aftermath of globalization, has brought together a collection of ideologically and linguistically disparate, fiercely independent states called India. Unfortunately, this argument requires the existence of a multi-planetary* universe, one in which the population of Earth is striving as one for attention and resources. We don’t have one at the moment. Even if we did, the same principles of jingoistic pride would push conflict to inter-planetary arenas.

Sometimes I wonder if Facebook is the only hope we have.

*- I am referring to planets where sentient civilizations have arisen, like on Earth.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Blow to Pride

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Have you ever wondered about the number of ‘intelligent’ people you see in the world around you? There are the stratospheric achievers everyone's heard of – world changing scientists, canny politicians, mega rich CEOs. Then you have the smart ones in the classroom you see everyday. There are the inevitable people by the roadside stalls that offer scientific opinion on everything from cricket to extramarital affairs. After a tiring day, you decide to relax with a cup of coffee and a pinch of Youtube, only to run into more of humanity’s finest on the comment pages. If you give a thought to the stunning number of apparently knowledgeable, smart and witty people you e-meet on forums/discussion boards/anonymous chats, you will inevitably ask - How many of these people are there?

As a true computer enthusiast, I decided to go number crunching. There are 6.7 billion people in the world today. Suppose, for the sake of mathematical argument, we pick IQ as the measuring standard for intelligence. Mensa International, widely acknowledged as the finest collection of bigheads on the planet, sets a cut-off percentile of 98 for membership. You may be a member, and you may feel proud that you are a unique and gifted person, being among the top two percent of the human race. You may even have resorted to the odd instance of snobbery.

But what is two percent of the world population in cold, hard numerals? About 135 million. That’s a whole lot of ‘intelligent’ people running around! If the numbers don’t impress you, here’s a comparison. The population of Karnataka is about 53 million. If you add to that the population of Andhra, which is about 76 million, you get near about 130. That means that if you packed all the intelligent people you could find into Karnataka and Andhra, you could give Pride (and his first cousin Ego) a hell of a blow.

In such a world, you wouldn’t even have to look beyond your next door neighbours to find someone smarter than you. You could of course pass this off as a statistical anomaly. A walk down the road to the grocer’s, and the sight of the assistant using cubic equations to track finances would soon remedy that little blip. Your likely next step would be to pick up a scruffy looking passerby and challenge him/her to a verbal duel on the ethical implications of the Iraq invasion. I suspect that a rebuttal replete with references to all the popular war forums on the Internet would be a bit of a dampener. With your unique intellectual perspective on politics suddenly worthless, you might attempt to turn to sport (an analysis of the physics behind Roger Federer’s success, perhaps?), computers (twenty reasons why you think Twitter will end up becoming a part of Facebook) or women (sigh, they just don’t deserve you). The results won’t be significantly different. Changing tack, you might then try,

‘Have you heard of xkcd?’

The other person might enthusiastically engage you on the topic of Stallman jokes and the Number 42, at which point, Pride would choose to hibernate for the rest of the summer. This wouldn’t work for too long, as Pride is well known for being, well, proud, and would wake up to ask,

‘Surely there can’t be two statesful?’

A long hike from the West Coast to the East Coast would ensue. Despite repeated repudiation (about every two miles perhaps) of your conviction, you would march on, your thoughts going back to the unaccounted five million (oh yes, you are too smart to miss out on the fact 135 minus 130 is indeed equal to 5). You would reach the East Coast, swim off it and exult in joy on seeing a young woman calmly drowning on a leaky boat. It just cannot be possible that that woman is doing something smart, right? Then you’d realize that the young lady was merely exploring the exciting blogging possibilities offered by a sinking boat. Pride would go into a self-inflicted coma, taking Ego along for the ride.

There is a point to all that humorizing. The overrated nature of ‘raw’ intelligence, and all the associated yardsticks cannot be emphasized enough. But they are merely overrated, not wrong by themselves. The same, however, cannot be said about the people who hold these results to be gospel and use them to judge people. I think such people would find this article on working memory, and its implications for the concept of ‘raw’ intelligence eye opening. The second point to all this is, 'It's never bad to make fun of yourself, right?'

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Heightitis

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If there’s one thing that afflicts humans universally, transcending petty boundaries of religion, skin colour and deodorant choice, what would be it to be? Before someone points out that it could be ‘music’, and before I bash that person’s skull in, I would like to point out that music is not likely to be an affliction. It is of course that vexing question of height. As someone who isn’t particularly tall, but also not particularly short either, I have not been too concerned about my height. But this isn’t true for most people. I’ve noticed that people who consider themselves short adopt several strategies to fight this conclusion. One trick that is rather popular among the celebritocracy employs creative use of footwear. A careful examination of the likes of Tom Cruise will reveal that they are rather under rated stilt walkers. Platform shoes are somewhat exotic however, and I think that most normal people will settle for really big sports shoes.

Another popular trick is the stare-into-infinity-at-about-three-feet-above-your-normal-eye-level trick. The strange thing about this trick is that most people who use this do not seem to be aware of it, with the funny end result that they believe themselves to be speaking eye-to-eye with six footers. If you consider this little charade the ‘active’ version of height combat, the passive version is just as funny – there are people who shrink themselves in the company of taller people, leaning against the wall ever so slightly, just enough to give the impression that if they deign to straighten up they would tower over you. In reality however they would barely have dropped a couple of inches. Some people shun the physical aspects of height combat, and embrace the psychological. A sample conversation would go something like this –

Short Guy:
‘How tall are you?’
Tall Guy: (a bit too honestly)
‘Dunno. Maybe about 5’ 9’’?’
Short Guy: (an expression of complete shock on his face)
‘No way, man. You might not have measured yourself since third grade or something. Because I’m 5’9’’, and you’re a bit taller than me.'

Tall people play a similar game with slightly different rules. They just cannot get the issue of height out of their heads, and believe that looking gawky is the ultimate sign of superiority. How many times have we all been in superb form in debates, a word or two away from the piece de resistance, only to be interrupted by an inconsequential comment about height? You don’t need to go as far as debates to experience this. Even an ordinary conversation about a just finished exam can be rudely interrupted by a statement like,

‘Dude, I can look over your head!’

There is a good side to all that worrying about height. Good posture. As someone who, by the time he started worrying about posture, was biologically too deformed to do anything about it, I can vouch for its importance. While I cannot be sure of this, I think the fretting over height is a bit less pronounced for girls. Weight, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wikipedia

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The only possible conclusion I can draw after scanning through hundreds thousands of pages on Wikipedia is this:

Any article that has been edited enough to satisfy all the experts will, by definition, be completely incomprehensible to everyone else who's not one.


Post Script :-
Of course there are several other conclusions that can be drawn from the same act, but as they go along the lines of 'Dude, you can't possibly be that jobless!', have been discounted as being too injurious to self-esteem.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

In the Eye of the Storm

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I’ve loved astronomy for as long as I can remember. And for nearly the same amount of time, I’ve wondered about people’s fascination for astrology. The truth is that anyone who revels in the cosmic ballet of planets and stars, stars and galaxies, galaxies and supermassive blackholes – the vast, cold, beauty of the Universe, will find astrology petty and inconsequential. Unfortunately, by that very definition, such people are hard to find. If you are seeking an explanation, look no further than good old anthropocentric ego (I’ve discussed this phenomenon here), and a human centric view of the Universe that no amount of astronomy can dispel.

What is Jupiter? Many people might say that it is the planet (or the thing, for the less knowledgeable) that will make me have a fight with a loved one today. Or, if you and I read different horoscopes, it is the reason I will get new clothes today. For me, Jupiter is a planet, a gas giant so large that it can encompass all other planets, and a gas giant so beautiful, with its multihued bands of clouds. For astrology, such things as gas giants cannot exist without a human-specific reason. It harks back to the days when everyone believed that all heavenly bodies were distant lights revolving around the Earth. Perhaps, they were divine lights expressing the mood of the tenants upstairs, and had to be interpreted thus. Today, we know otherwise; we have seen a Universe 10 billion light years in size – yet we cannot let go of anthropocentrism. In almost all religions, human-like figures are Gods, responsible for the whole of creation. Doesn’t that just smack of conceit? We cannot even claim to be a microscopic speck in the universal flotsam. I sincerely hope that alien civilizations will be discovered in my time: that should throw a rather large spanner into the works. Or maybe not. The aliens may then be a) considered the scions the (human) Devil, to be loathed and avoided; b) considered the scions of the (human) God, to be feared and worshipped; c) completely ignored.

There’s another way of putting the idea of human centrism. Think of a story, and the characters in that story. How would you view it? Is the story secondary, purely a property of the characters it contains? Or is the story paramount, with the characters simply parts of a rich tapestry? Obviously, the first is anthropocentrism, and you will immediately see its pervasiveness. Is there a critically acclaimed film, for instance, which falls entirely in the second category? I think many people simply take themselves too seriously. The breadth of cosmic vision that delights, fascinates and ultimately motivates astronomers, makes most people withdraw into a shell. The more of the Universe we see, the stronger the shell grows, and more constricting. There’s another thing about anthropocentrism that is interesting, and almost paradoxical. It implies an external locus of control. If personal destiny is impacted by a supernova 10000 light years away, then how do we know that every time we decide to take a shower, a black hole somewhere isn’t quietly gobbling up its partner? Put this way, it sounds ridiculous, but modern astrology isn’t too dissimilar.

The whole idea reminds me of a sequence in that astoundingly good novel series ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, where people are tortured and driven to insanity by an instrument that reveals to them the sheer depth of their cosmic insignificance. Perhaps such an instrument is exactly what the world needs.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On conservatism, environmentalism and all things green

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Environmentalism is rather hard to justify, one would think, for someone who calls himself liberal. After all, there’s always the word ‘conservation’ lurking somewhere in all the green, just out of sight. But is it really? The issue here is the inadequacy of language, rather than something philosophically contradictory. Conservatism is not conservation; it is more of a refusal to roll with the times, a mindset that views any change in existing structure as an impending catastrophe. (Or if you want me to put a more positive spin on the definition, conservatism is being traditional.) This definition can easily put conservatism at odds with conservation. Let me give an example. Traditionally in the US, people keep firearms, ostensibly for personal safety. Today, as crime levels spiral, gun control activists seek to impose restrictions on gun procurements; one might think that such activists are being rather conservative. Politically speaking, however, they are liberal, because they are suggesting something that goes against the norm. Environmentalism is similarly liberal in a conservative way. Remember, there was no environmental movement fifty years ago.

Why bother? This is the obvious question asked of environmental conservation’s proponents. Things went along jolly well for four billion years; why start worrying now? The late George Carlin was a well known environmental sceptic. He wondered, in his charmingly cynical way, how human beings could be so conceited as to believe they were capable of destroying planet Earth. He was referring to the commonly cited ideal of the stereotypical environmentalist – ‘Save Planet Earth!’ The Earth didn’t need any saving, he claimed, it was only self-preservation that drove environmentalism. It’s perfectly true that the Earth doesn’t need saving; good old Gaia has survived ice ages, asteroid impacts and nuclear explosions. (On a sidenote, what exactly comprises the destruction of the planet? Will boiling off all water into space do OK? Or do you require it to break apart into a thousand chunks?) Again, the seeming contradiction here is due to language. When an environmentalist wants to save the planet, he is, more specifically, talking about life on the planet. Humans are life, and consequently are part of an environmentalist’s agenda, but that’s not all. I fail to see how concern for rainforests and endangered species can be driven by self-preservation. And therein lurks another argument, which can again be paraphrased as: Why bother? Let endangered species rot, we’re smart and we’ll inherit the planet, scorch the Earth and let all twenty billion of us live happy lives. Some people even compare human-caused extinctions to carnivorous animals’ kills. No one complains when lions hunt deer, right? We’re just doing the same.

We can’t do that precisely because we are smart. Everyone knows humans have superbly evolved brains. These remarkable instruments have helped us produce generations of delightful music. They have enabled us look so far into the past as to the see the birth of the Universe. They have produced reams of literature, and helped us build structures that dwarf us in size. It’s superbly hypocritical to seek to emulate less evolved animals whenever we want to evade responsibility for our actions. Humans have to be responsible, because humans can be responsible. We have the capacity to destroy life; that is inarguable. Extinction rates are nearly hundred times the pre-human era average. Environmentalists are not technophobes, they are not asking us to shun modern life and revert to dwelling in the forest as hunter-gatherers. All they are saying is that we should exercise some caution. If environmental ethics is so important, why doesn’t my religious text say so? More importantly, why wasn’t it there fifty years ago? Er, I think there were slightly fewer people back then.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Great Evener called Society

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Some time back, I found myself wondering about the self-regulatory nature of markets. Many free market advocates have applied this concept to weight their arguments. Today, of course, in light of the global recession, this argument will sway fewer people; but it remains correct, I think. A self-regulated entity will inevitably oscillate between good and bad states, precisely because it is self-regulated. Anyway, this got me thinking about something else, something far more primeval than market forces and something that is similarly well regulated. Human society.

Why aren’t smart people good at everything they do? OK, before I continue, let me clarify my usage of ‘smart’ here: A smart person is one who has better processing skills (or understanding potential or grasping power) than average. This definition is neither complete nor completely accurate but I merely intend to use it in this sense, not generalize. Returning to the question, if a person has superior grasping skills, then won’t he be able to use this to become better at say, socializing? Can he not use his superior understanding to realize that women are attracted to strong men, and use this knowledge to gym his way to romantic success? A smart person should be able to play sports better because he can analyze situations better, right? Yet the stereotypical image of the college geek, of a rail thin person with fat spectacles, whose brain temporarily vacates premises in the presence of a pretty girl, and someone who can play enough football to trip over one, remains accurate more often than not.

The levelling process begins with school. Notice how the smart guy in school is battered into accepting his complete uselessness in any matters approaching romance. He withdraws into himself, with the unfortunate side effect that his socializing skills only become poorer. The levelling isn’t limited to the ‘smart’ person: the school bully is universally assumed to be a dunce with the emotional depth of a lamppost. The likely end result of an ensuing social evolution would be that the school bully indeed turns out that way. A similar view is held of pretty women. All they can do is coo and compare nail polish colours, right? I have a rather controversial observation to make here. Sometimes smart women do dumb themselves down to conform to the stereotype. Again, we see the great evener at work. The levelling works the other way too. People absorb confidence from things like personal appearance or wealth, and this confidence frees their mind. A confident person can be much more effective at what he does than someone doubtful, hesitant and conventionally ‘smart’. The levelling never stops, and strives ceaselessly to maintain equilibrium in a chaotic world.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells

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Once upon a time, in a place far, far away, there lived a man. Superficially, there was nothing special about him. He went to work in a big shot software firm just like everyone else, he paid his taxes just like everyone else and he went to the temple on alternate weekends just like anyone else. But he suffered from a peculiar ailment. Everything in the wide, wide world either disgusted him, or offended his delicate sensibilities. He would see the long haired young man, with his low slung jeans and moan loudly at the deplorable decadence that had crept into human culture. He would see the billboard advertisement showing a couple in close embrace ostensibly selling jeans (again!), and moan loudly at the deplorable decadence that had barrelled into human culture. He would see the young woman chattering away on her cell phone, oblivious to the fact that that day was the Holy Religious Day of Silence (as ordained by Book X, Chapter 9, Sentence 666), and moan loudly at the deplorable decadence that now seemed to have nuked its way into human culture. Once done moaning, he would start wondering, with rising apoplexy, why those dunderheads in government didn’t moan along with him. They would have done something about this shocking state of affairs. Just when he would get down to calming down, he would hear someone on the street describe the latest punk rock sensation in lurid f-word filled terms, and his fury would swell again. He would open the window to remonstrate with him, only to be hit by a cloud of smoke from the aforementioned punk rock fan. It wasn’t the fact that smoking was a recognized killer that would offend him. Oh no! He was a card-carrying member of the neighbourhood cigar club himself. That honour would be reserved for the observation that the smoker was a woman. His face would turn the colour of overheated beetroot, and he would close the window before he scorched the entire neighbourhood with the force of his righteous indignation. Work would occupy him temporarily, but his sensibilities won’t be kept down for long. On the way home, he would shout at a stationary driver for having the temerity to park his car in a nondescript corner of the street to replace a punctured tyre. He certainly wouldn’t notice this of course, he would assume that the guy was simply texting his morally deplorable live-in girlfriend. At home, he would switch on TV to watch something sensible (like Fox News) only to be offended thoroughly by the latest reality show on offer. He would alternately fume at the ungodly clothing and speech of these people, and smile at the knowledge that an especially painful section of Hell awaited them. A thought would occur to him. What sort of monstrous influence can such TV shows have on the unspoiled mind of a hypothetical child? Finally he would decide that matters would have to be taken into his own morally pristine hands. He would compose a letter to the Editor lamenting the falling standards of morality and the rise of ungodliness, and explaining how beating up women in pubs was actually the only solution to this menace. He would fall into a reasonably restful sleep. The barking of dogs would wake him at dawn, and he would moan loudly at the deplorable decadence that made human society adopt these mangy, flea-ridden creatures as pets…

P.S. These are the people I'm talking about. Why do I think these people only increase in number everyday? I hope to hell they aren't evolutionarily favoured.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Defence

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Atheists are arrogant.
This oft repeated dictum epitomizes the concept of atheism for most people. Why so? The simplest explanation is the most general one: people don’t like people who are different. If the rabble decently believes that a (benevolent/vengeful/indifferent) God exists, then why do those people have to go out of the way to be different? They are atheists (and deliberately different); ergo they are arrogant (to think they are better than the rest). I consign this argument to the same wastebasket of Nonsensical Generalizations that includes rubbish like ‘Long haired guys do drugs’ and ‘Austrian women like steamed cabbage’. These generalizations are simply a mechanism for people who are insecure about their incapacity to be different, to prop up their egos by crushing those who actually are different. Maybe we are all Communists at heart? Incidentally, the celebrated philosopher Ayn Rand is an atheist. In an interview where she espoused this view, the interviewer asked her if she ever wondered about the possibility that humans may not be smart enough to understand God. The unspoken corollary, of course, is that atheists are arrogant enough to preclude this possibility. This argument is incredibly self-defeating. In any scenario where God is beyond human comprehension, logically, atheism is the best world view you can get. If you cannot understand God, how can you embrace any theistic religion that purports to reveal the word of God? On the other hand, a theistic religion-free world view would do just fine too. I am still waiting for one though.

Atheists are hypocrites.
For me, any accusation about anyone’s hypocrisy regarding anything at all is meaningless. In a world of ones and zeroes, everyone is a hypocrite. Some people are merely less hypocritical than others. Cynics say that no atheist survives a life threatening situation: the atheist will inevitably go down on his knees praying for God to save his worthless life. Well it’s possible. I wonder how many devout God-fearing folk denounce an indifferent God when an offering of coconuts does not turn a profit. Non-hypocritical people aren’t the ones who are perfectly non-hypocritical: they are those who fight hypocrisy the hardest. Hypocrisy is an easy allegation to make against people who are trying to do some good. The people who make these allegations, the ones who rot inevitably in the anonymity of inaction, know that these barbs actually sting. Atheists can be hypocrites, but no more or less than any theist.

Atheists have no morals.
This argument is founded in the belief that religion is essential for morality. Many religions base their code of ethics on the judgment of a wrathful God. While this is motivation enough for someone to stick faithfully to the idea of morality advocated by such a religion, I think such superficial morality does more harm than good. Many things held moral by ancient religions are simply abhorrent today; the status of women in society and racism are examples. Similarly, some other things that religious texts consider immoral, like homosexuality and premarital sex are far less taboo today (as they should be). Religious texts have no code of ethics governing the environmental movement or animal welfare. These two ideals are close to my heart, and their absence is quite glaring. From this perspective, it seems that atheism offers one a chance to embrace a broader, more modern and less dogmatic code of ethics. Again, the whole argument would work just as well with a theistic religion-free philosophy. Benjamin Franklin was a practising Christian, but did not believe that morality and ethics are inextricably linked to religion. While some tenets of religious morality might be outdated, it cannot be denied that there still exist several that are and will continue to be relevant. Won’t atheists be deprived of these and turn to immorality? Fortunately today, an atheist is the embodiment of the rejection of dogma. It is unlikely that such a person will not evolve a personal code of ethics through constant introspection. The only lasting solution, however, is to bring ethics to the classroom. The study of ethics and morality as a science should make people open to the idea of constantly evolving notions of good and evil, and right and wrong.

First Cause

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I think that if any war drags on for long enough, no side can claim victory. A ceasefire has just been declared in the mother of all wars – the question of the existence of God. I have vacillated more on this topic than a politician before the polls, so it’s a welcome break. So who wins... Theism or atheism? Neither, as it should be in any self-respecting tie. In an earlier post I argued that the necessity for a First Cause implies the existence of a Creator. First Cause is born out of inductively applying the question ‘why’ on the observed universe. Why do we have seasons on Earth? It’s because the Earth's tilted on its axis and presents itself at varying angles to sunlight as it revolves around the Sun. And why does it do that? It does so because the force of gravity compels it. And why does the force of gravity compel it to do that? Is it because the divine Creator has ordained it so? Unless you are hopelessly closed minded, you can see the problem with this explanation. Why does the divine Creator do what He/She/It does? If the answer is that the divine Creator has to obey different laws of a different universe, again the reason for the existence of those laws can be questioned. The theory of the First Cause has been proposed for only one reason – to put a halt to this infinite recursion. There must be some occurrence which happened just so– it did not have a reason to do that, or, with a nod to mysticism, the reason is beyond our comprehension. All other events ensued. With a simple sleight of nomenclature we can label the First Cause, God. There’s a problem with this theistic idea that did not strike me immediately. If the First Cause is being chosen arbitrarily (the First Cause could be the creator of God or the creator of the creator of God), then why don’t we stop before we even get started? We can say that the existence of the universe (and the associated laws of physics) is the First Cause. Again everything else ensues, but without God. Simply by removing one level from the recursion of whys, we have moved from theism to atheism.

I might have led you to believe that allusion to a First Cause is inevitable with the current understanding of our universe. That’s not entirely true. If the Big Bang occurred, and the universe began with it, then you need a First Cause. But what if the universe did not have a beginning? Many scientists, alarmed by the ‘creation event’ implied by the Big Bang, sought other explanations for the existence of the universe. A quantum theory of gravity could offer a potential escape clause: it can remove all singularities, meaning that the universe could have existed forever, making a ‘creation event’ a bit redundant. A question still remains. Even if the universe could be completely described in terms of a small set of physical laws, why does a universe that enforces these laws exist? Are the laws, as Stephen Hawking puts it, so compelling that they bring about the creation of the universe?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Life, the Universe and the Everything

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Paul Davies’ ‘The Fifth Miracle’ threw a spanner into Carl Sagan’s (and my) magnificent cosmic vision of a universe teeming with life. He simply asks one question- Doesn’t this vision mean that physical laws are rigged in favour of life? Is it possible that the physical laws themselves or some other ‘life’ laws that operate at a higher level are designed to make the spontaneous origin of life an inevitability? If your answer is yes, then you are a biological determinist, and you are only step away from that unutterable blasphemy called religion, and a supernaturally ordained universe. Davies espouses a school of thought I haven’t been exposed to previously. He believes that everything in the biosphere can be explained by natural selection and Darwinian evolution; but this implies that there must be a first living creature from which everything else evolved. For some scientists, the leap of reasoning required to visualize the painfully slow workings of evolution is not too different from one required to visualize the spontaneous origin of life from inorganic chemicals. Davies doesn’t agree. He claims that the probability of a primordial soup of chemicals (self) organizing themselves into something that can even satisfy the most lax definitions of life is too low. If indeed the most miniscule of miniscule probabilities was hit here on Earth, then we won some kind of once-only cosmic lottery. It won’t happen again. Time, which is conveniently used to explain the many counter-intuitive machinations of evolution, is far less useful here. Current models predict that life originated almost immediately on planet Earth, in an astronomically insignificant few hundreds of millions of years. On the other hand, evolution was given the best of four billion years to weave its magic. The point to be taken away from this argument is that life being so unlikely couldn’t have occurred more than a handful of times (or only once); if you believe otherwise, you believe that the laws of the universe are somehow rigged to favour life, and you are a biological determinist. Carl Sagan (and others), who worked so hard to eliminate any traces of supernatural trimmings from our understanding of the universe, actually implicitly champions a theistic world view!

My chief grouse with this approach concerns the conclusion that biological determinism is the only way to explain a universe full of life. I’ll illustrate with the example of galaxies. We can see the beautifully ordered structure in a spiral galaxy, and ask – Are the laws of the universe rigged to produce this? The answer is yes, simply because we can see a spiral galaxy. We know that life exists because we do, and because we know that, in some sense, the laws of the universe are rigged in favour of life. I have a solution to the problem of rarity of life. It uses a theory called panspermia which claims that terrestrial life is of extra-terrestrial origin. If panspermia is possible, (Davies believes that it is, and explains it in an engaging chapter on life shuttling back and forth between early Earth and early Mars on the back of meteorites) then life may have originated in an exceedingly small number of places in the Universe, but may have been carried to many other planets and stellar systems. Since we don’t have a fix yet on mathematical estimates for the likelihood of spontaneous chemical generation of life, the frequency could be something like once in each galaxy. Occam’s Razor lends itself to a simpler explanation, of course, if we are determined to hold on to the view that the universe is flourishing with life. The origin of life isn’t as rare an occurrence as we believe, and if the figures suggest otherwise, the figures must be wrong. There’s another caveat here. Is it possible that there is any phenomenon in the universe that is so astronomically improbable that it will occur only once? Yes, if the Universe is finitely large and has a finite life span. Then life can be one of these Special Ones. Interestingly this is an argument against biological determinism; life is just rare, not cosmically determined. There could other such phenomena, like a star system where 135 stars are held together in mutual gravitational attraction. As it is beyond our current capacity to test this uniqueness hypothesis, any differences are purely ideological.

Reading John Gribbin’s ‘Stardust’ is much more palatable for my stubbornly romantic idea of universal life. And for a while, I was actually reading both at the same time! John Gribbin fleshes out the astronomically prevalent view that we are the stuff of stars (rather obese and short lived ones, but hell), and just as surely some stars cook themselves into supernovae, life must arise. If anything, Paul Davies has ensured that I cannot satisfy myself with this cozy outlook, in the face of contrary (probabilistic) evidence. It’s possible that we are alone in the universe, and if we aren’t the others are so far away that it is improbable that we’ll meet before either of us self-destruct. Nothing, however, in the long and mostly satisfactory history of scientific endeavour suggests that we are barking up the wrong tree, and that we might need a fundamentally novel metaphysical law to explain away the existence of life. Here’s where I make a leap of faith. I predict that we will discover independent (not through pesky panspermia) extra-terrestrial life in the near future, probably in the Solar System itself. That will of course mean that the universe is full to bursting point with life, simply because we have seen so, with our ridiculously tiny observing powers. If we don’t conform to that, then we have to update our counter-theory to a much more inane one: it’s not the Earth which is unique, but the entire Solar System.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Crash Course in Amateur Astronomy - Lesson I

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Do you know which direction is north? Anyone who wishes to become an amateur astronomer must have a good idea of compass directions. As this post is very BITS specific, it’s easy to the four directions using known landmarks. If you look in the direction of the Clock Tower, you are facing north; correspondingly if you look towards the temple it’s south. East is the direction you’d be walking, if you take the Institute road towards the IPC/Workshop. Now that we’ve established which direction is which, let’s talk about planets. In February, two planets will be very prominent on opposite sides in the sky. If you look towards the west any time before 8 PM, you’ll see (what seems to be) a star so bright that it’s been mistaken for a distant street lamp (by me). That’s good old Venus. I couldn’t help but notice that Venus sat high in the sky on the night of the 14th of February (I reserve any thoughts on implications for blossoming love). As Venus sets in the west, Saturn rises in the east. For an appreciably large duration of time you can see both Venus and Saturn in the sky. To find Saturn, face east and slowly turn your head upwards (still facing east). One bright star near the horizon (which doesn’t flicker and seems faintly yellowish) will immediately capture your attention. That’s Saturn. Continue looking higher. Further up in the Eastern sky, you’ll find two bright stars relatively close to each other in the sky. One of them is Pollux (the star with the reddish tinge) and the other is Castor (looks white, but it’s actually a six star system, incredibly), the two main stars in the constellation Gemini.


You might see another bright star in the east (again, with a distinct southward bias) that lies higher in the sky than Saturn, but not as far up as Pollux and Castor. That would be Regulus, the crown jewel in the constellation Leo. Regulus is a very interesting star. It spins so fast that its equatorial radius is 32% (or something like that) more than its polar radius.

Before moving to another celestial direction, I'll talk a bit about what the eastern sky would like later in the night, say around midnight. Obviously it is only the eastern sky that changes with time, and if you are up at midnight, you will notice an extremely bright star sitting near the horizon (but not too close). That’s Arcturus of the constellation Bootes. At the same time, if you look towards the southeastern sky you will see another reasonably bright star, again quite close to the horizon. That’s Spica, the crown jewel in the constellation Virgo. A word of warning here – the bunch of visually close stars that you see near, and a little higher in the sky than Spica, is actually another constellation called Corvus.

Now look south. Very close to the horizon lies Canopus (look for a bright star which seems to be flickering and changing colours quickly). Canopus is hard to spot because the horizon’s obscured by buildings and it never rises high in the sky. Let me take a short detour to explain why that’s the case. Everyone knows that the Earth spins from west- east, as everyone can see that the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But every star in the sky too rises in the east and sets in the west; more specifically, every star in the sky revolves around the North-South axis. Canopus being very close to the South Pole makes small revolutions around the N-S axis, while Polaris (the pole star) barely moves at all. One way to catch a glimpse of Canopus is to walk along the institute road (or the parallel road with the Gandhi statue) while looking South in the direction of the temple. Through gaps in the shrubbery, you can spot Canopus. Although Canopus is technically the second brightest star in the night sky, its true brightness cannot be seen in northern latitudes (Pilani’s around 28 degrees above the equator) as it’s affected strongly by the 'horizon haze'. Basically this means that stars near the horizon appear dimmer and flicker more, simply because they're closer to the lights of populated areas, and the associated wash of light population. Also, in the South lies the brightest star in the sky, Sirius. It’s easy to spot as it outshines every other object in the sky apart from Venus and the Moon. Sirius looks brilliantly white, and its parent constellation Canis Major can also be identified quite easily. Sirius seems to form one vertex in an approximately quadrilateral structure (the body of the dog); and there’s one lone star outside the quadrilateral which forms the tail of the dog.


A little higher in the Southern sky lies a very well known constellation, Orion the hunter. Orion has a host of bright stars, and the three stars which comprise the belt of the hunter are bright, visually close to each other and particularly easy to pick out.


To identify Orion, look south in the direction of the horizon and slowly turn your gaze upwards, still looking south. You’ll soon spot the belt. Now use the belt to form a trapezoid structure (of four bright stars excluding the belt) with the belt-stars in the centre. The bright reddish star on one vertex is Betelgeuse and the other bright white star on the diagonally opposite vertex is Rigel (the other two vertex stars too are bright but these two are noticeably brighter). The vertex star on the same side as Betelgeuse is Bellatrix (remember Harry Potter?) You’ve just picked out the body of the hunter.


Actually the constellation is much bigger, and includes fainter stars that form the arms of the hunter and the bow, but this will do for all those people without a 20/20 vision. Follow the line formed by the belt and a little distance away from Orion, you’ll spot another reddish, bright star. No it’s not Mars (as it’s been often mistaken to be). It’s Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the bull. Follow the line formed by Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, in the direction of Betelgeuse and you’ll spot yet another bright star. This star looks white and is called Procyon; it’s a part of the constellation Canis Minor (the little dog). It’s time for some constellation trivia. Orion the Hunter is supposed to be fighting Taurus the bull, and is accompanied by two hunting dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor.


I haven’t yet figured out a line pointer for this star, but since we have eliminated most other conspicuously bright stars in the area it should be easy to identify. It’s Capella and it usually lies high in the sky (all references to position are with respect to an assumed base time of 8 PM) near Orion but towards the north. Sirius, Procyon, Pollux/Castor, Capella, Aldebaran and Rigel form the Winter Hexagon. Sirius, Procyon and Betelgeuse form an approximately equilateral triangle called the Winter Triangle. Here’s some interesting information about Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse was like the bogeyman of astronomy when I was younger. Its size intimidated me. Betelgeuse is so large that its radius is something like 1000 times the radius of the Sun. If that doesn’t invoke any horror, here’s some imagery. If Betelgeuse were to be placed in the middle of the Solar System, its body would extend to cover the orbit of Mars!

To the north now… In the north lies the most famous constellation of all time, the Big Dipper (or Saptarshi, or Ursa Major, or the Great Bear, or the Great Question Mark). Unfortunately, its distinctive shape becomes prominent only when it rises high into the sky late in the night (again due to its brighter stars being obscured by horizon haze).


Then we can use the famous line pointer formed by its top two vertex stars to pick out Polaris. But at 8 PM, you can pick out another favourite constellation of mine, Cassiopeia. If you stand facing the Clock Tower from the Institute Road, Polaris will lie to its right in a relatively uncluttered portion of the sky, while Cassiopeia will lie to the left. Cassiopeia has the distinct shape of a W (inverted actually, from here in Pilani) and resembles the line structure of pentane (as it’s usually drawn).


Capella lies high in the northern sky. When Ursa Major rises, it will be in the North East, or, using our earlier notation, to the right of the clock tower.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Evolution - I "The Problem Is.....?"

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It’s the good old question, isn’t it? Evolution or Creation… In its January issue, the Scientific American published its own (200 page) take on the question. It’s evolution, SciAm concluded, in no uncertain and rather lengthy terms. Before embarking on an (endless) voyage into the actual topic, let me address another question that bothers me. Why is this debated at all?

If I were to pick a topical scientific theory to debunk, purely on the basis of its understandability, my choice would certainly not be evolution. Perhaps it would be quantum physics. Evolution would have to undergo plenty of evolution before it can even compare on the counter-intuitiveness scale to quantum physics. Or it might be cosmology. It’s one thing telling people that stars are born, belch fire for millions (or billions) of years and die, but quite another showing them the process in action. It’s highly unlikely that you, me or our great-great grandchildren will see anything different from the bright yellow star we see every day. Do the good intentioned scientific-theory-bashers stand up, raise their hands and say – ‘But I can’t see it happen! It can’t be true…’ No, there isn’t even a whimper. And like quantum physics and cosmology, evolution is strongly supported by empirical evidence. Why, then, is evolution scornfully rejected?

Despite my many protestations to the contrary, I already know the answer to that (rhetorical) question. Evolution concerns you, me, God and the human race. Science can chug away, filling in holes in our understanding of the universe. It’s a good deal; everyone gets TVs (and televangelists), refrigerators and Playstations. But when impudent little Science steps on the toes of religion (and anthropoid ego- see footnote), things change. Evolution reduces human beings from the Chosen ones to just another species. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Evolution proclaims that we are all descended from hairy, filthy apes. (Anyone smell racism here?) Evolution has the cheek to imply that the world may be millions of times older than what some religions claim. Evolution even suggests that the biological diversity around us may have arisen without a supernatural controlling power.

One of the most common arguments made against the validity of evolution concerns its ‘intuitiveness’. ‘Can you possibly imagine fish on land flopping their way to getting a pair of legs?’ they ask with tones of pure indignation. Human intuition is precisely that. It’s Human. It’s a mixture of knowledge about the environment shared by all humans and an individual’s personal experiences. It would be stupid to expect us to possess intuition that can grasp timescales of hundreds of millions of years when our life spans measure a measly hundred . Evolution is not all that counter intuitive when you look at it from the point of view of natural selection. A mutation that favours your chance of survival will have a greater probability of being selected. ‘Survival of the fittest’ (a phrase that has filtered down to colloquial usage) is often used to paraphrase the concept of natural selection.

Anthropoid Ego - my pet term for the notion of human supremacy; the tendency of human beings to think that they are the rightful inheritors of the planet. Anthropoid ego can be held accountable for a major part of the environmental degradation we see around us; it shows its hand in everything from global warming to animal extinctions.

Part two continues here, don't go anywhere!

Evolution - II "The Scientific Arguments"

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Another argument raised against evolution concerns emergent complexity. ‘Is it conceivable that purely random changes lead to greater complexity all the time?’ One point to be noted here is that natural selection often reduces complexity; natural selection can eliminate a part for you if it doesn’t necessarily improve reproductive fitness. ‘Ha!’ Creationists exult, ‘Then a guiding hand that directs life towards complexity must exist!’

Actually, complex organisms are by no means the most numerous. Single celled organisms comprise ninety percent (or something like that) of the biosphere numerically. Insects are far more numerous than mammals, and so on. As organisms become more and more physically complex, their numbers seem to decrease. Perhaps, a conservation of the population-complexity product exists for all species (which still begs the question of how to quantify complexity).

Also, (unbeknownst to many people) natural selection is not the only causative agent driving evolution. There’s another phenomenon called genetic drift where purely random mutations accumulate in populations over time. Obviously if the populations under consideration are smaller, the effect of genetic drift is greater. In many cases genetic drift becomes just as important as natural selection in directing evolution. Other scientists have argued that complexity arises randomly when there is no selective pressure. A copying error may cause an organism to duplicate large parts of its genome, and natural selection might choose for new, beneficial functions to these genes. Also, despite their debatable meaningfulness, many complex evolution simulating algorithms have actually reported observations of increased complexity in the system.

‘Irreducible complexity’ is yet another concept propounded to debunk evolution. It’s a top down approach which starts off with a complex organism and proceeds to progressively chop off parts of the organism. The moment you obtain an organism that doesn’t ‘work’ anymore, you have reached irreducible complexity. Life around us, the argument goes, exhibits irreducible complexity; so evolution, which claims to build up a complex whole from simple constituents must be wrong. This argument is less inane than it sounds; it is, in fact, the core principle behind the theory called ‘Intelligent Design’. To counter this argument one has to see that DNA base pairs don’t always code something (the so called ‘junk DNA’); sometimes useless base pairs accumulate in a species, until through another mutation they join with existing genes to encode a new and complex feature of the organism. This combining of functions to produce a new one can happen with non-junk DNA as well; then the old genes are like scaffolding that is only retained till the construction is completed.

A fourth argument against evolution asks why we can still see apes around us, when we are supposed to have evolved from them. This question really doesn’t make sense to me. Evolution, by definition is a random process. It favours mutations that help an organism’s chance of survival. If some apes mutate slowly and produce a ‘stable’ species called human beings, then we merely have a new species. Evolution doesn’t go back and scrub off apes from the face of the planet simply because they are higher up in the evolutionary tree than homo sapiens. Had that been the case, we certainly wouldn’t have any bacteria around us.

Part three's here.

Evolution - III "The Not So Scientific Arguments"

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However, people who try to debunk it aren’t evolution’s only opponents. A far more dangerous category of people don’t try to debunk evolution; instead they try to portray it as a theory under threat (I call them ‘doubt farmers’- they sow the seeds of doubt). They would have us believe that evolution is, in reality, one of many scientific theories that can explain the diversity of life, and that it does not represent the dominant view among biological scientists. ‘Evolution is only a theory, it’s not a fact’ they thunder.

Anyone who has done anything primary school science upwards can see through that claim. If you really want to split hairs, you’ll have to agree that nothing in science is a fact. More evidence supporting a theory will only increase its acceptability, but no amount of evidence is enough to truly make it a fact. On a more practical note, theories with far less supporting empirical evidence than evolution have been accepted as facts (anything in a primary school textbook would support that claim). The more articulate of these doubt farmers try to compress two centuries of research in evolution into an umbrella term called ‘Darwinism’. If they can portray ‘evolutionism’ as a cult, rather than a science, creationism can be presented as a valid alternative to it.

Scientists are guilty of this too, usually unintentionally. Darwin’s book on natural selection ‘On the Origin of Species’ is often recommended to readers, not because they want to spread Darwinism; but simply because the content is fleshed out in a non technical, intuitive way. Contrast this with something like Newton’s Principia, the pioneering work on mechanics. Why is it not recommended to physics students? The Principia is not only a highly arcane book, but it’s written in Latin.

Finally, when all else fails, anti-evolutionists turn to character assassination. ‘If you’d known Darwin, you would have despised him.’ I have no idea what Darwin the man was like, but several aspects of his personality have been documented, like his opposition to slavery and his insistence on acknowledging Alfred Wallace as the co-postulator of the theory of natural selection. Anyway, if people try to counter criticisms of Darwin’s character by showing counter-evidence of his good nature, they only risk playing into the hands of the creationists (SciAm is particularly guilty of this). The temptation to idealize Charles Darwin as an iconic scientist and an impeccable human being must be resisted. February 12, 2009 marked the bicentennial anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. It is a historic occasion, not to celebrate Charles Darwin the man, but to celebrate the remarkable theory that changed the face of biology.

The final section in my evolution discussion: part 4 is here.

Evolution - IV "What About Us?"

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Many people who are otherwise comfortable with the theory of evolution balk at the thought of human descent from primates. It might seem naïve to assume that defining human characteristics like music, humour and culture have evolved in tandem with a rapidly growing brain. For me though, the intuitive ‘stretch’ needed to imagine this evolution wasn’t too much different from the sort that produced primates from bacteria. The point of contention for me, concerns abstract human perceptions like ethics and morality, which often vary across even small time periods. Are these ideas modified through some sort of cultural evolution? We can view the entire human race as one giant information processing machine, with ‘culture’ the data model in use at any instant in time. The theory of memes argues, in fact, that concepts of biological evolution can be extrapolated to a similar theory of cultural evolution. Or, on the other hand, are cultural concepts hard coded biologically? I came to the conclusion that cultural (and not biological) evolution is responsible for variations in cultural ideas. Immediately I came to another tangential conclusion that biological evolution of human beings had all but ceased. Our bodies (and brains) are, physically, no different than those of the Stone Age humans. Globalization was my favourite explanation for the end of human evolution; if the entire human race is always connected, how can some humans evolve away so much that they no longer retain reproductive compatibility with the rest of the human race? The human notion of the dignity of life seemed to me, to actively counteract evolution. Evolution selects against people with brain disorders; but human ethical tenets demand that we provide extra medical care to such people. I was surprised (and pleased) to find out that this idea was the dominant view among evolutionary biologists (including Stephen Jay Gould) until recently. However, recent studies on human skulls (by John Hawks and his team) show that human evolution rates have actually risen to up to a hundred times over the historical average. The reason for this is actually quite intuitive once you get past the mandatory mental gymnastics. Large populations favour quicker spread of evolutionary changes forced by natural selection, simply because larger populations can produce more offspring that inherit this evolutionary bias. Early human beings did not have the capacity to break down milk beyond a certain age, as the production of the enzyme lactase stopped during adolescence. However a mutation in the human genome switched off the gene that controlled lactase production, with the result that people with that mutation could drink milk throughout their lives. Today that mutation is no longer the anomaly but the standard. Accepting the fact that human evolution is alive and well brings up inevitable questions about the future of the human race. Will the future human world look like an X-men comic strip? I think that humans will evolve away from specialized physical machinery, rather than towards (so much for the X-men idea). It’s unlikely that human evolution will force us to grow a pair of wings; what is more likely is that our limbs will become vestigial, or completely disappear. The reasoning is obvious: a pair of wings do not improve our evolutionary fitness when we already have aeroplanes and helicopters. Similarly, hands and legs may be selected against if we build machines that perform the same function, better. On the other hand, if some catastrophic event happens to destroy a majority of the human race and break the world’s landmasses into separate islands, evolution will work differently. Maybe in that scenario, we might even evolve the long sought for pair of wings.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Existentialism!

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A very surprising thing happened today. I found a name for a particular set of beliefs I faithfully subscribe to (and vigorously sermonize for anyone who cares to listen…). It concerns the notion of hypocrisy; and the term is Existentialism. OK I’m not sure if I think that we are like ants wading through a meaningless universe (a fundamental Existentialist worry), but the concept of existence over essence (a basic tenet of this philosophy) makes a lot of sense to me. Simply put, is a person’s character is pre-ordained? Strangely enough, this might be one of those rare questions where religion and science can actually give the same answer. A yes. ’Genetics is the key’ says the deterministic scientist, while naturally, religions will claim that the person’s past deeds or the Entity Above are the only factors. Say there’s a person X who’s been pre-programmed (‘his essence’) to have unspeakably violent thoughts all the time. This person X tries really, really hard to change the person that he is, maybe even to the extent that he never raises his hand in anger. Now the non-existentialists (and some of you) might argue that the person is being a hypocrite. He’s having all those raunchy thoughts, after all, and he can’t really change what he essentially is. Let’s make the argument even more forceful. Person X becomes a preacher now, devoting his life to spreading the message about the fundamental goodness of humankind. ’Hypocrite!’ All the former fence-sitters join the screaming throng quickly enough. I find this idea extremely disturbing. To me, it seems to be a genuine attempt to block the efforts of the only people in the world who are trying to change for the better. Of course, there’s no way I can repudiate evolutionary psychology completely (I’m not trying to); it seems obvious that certain people are genetically programmed to be a bit more violent/ funny/ impatient/lustful than the rest. The point here is that the concerned variables are not set in stone. They are strongly stochastic, and strongly influenced by culture. It’s even possible that one strong willed individual can eliminate the concerned (dangerous) trait through ‘cultural evolution’. Another fascinating aspect of Existentialism is how humanistic it really is. The whole idea that a person is defined only by his actions, nothing more and nothing less, screams ‘Humanism’. Is this concept that disgusting? Come on. Give the ants a chance…

Friday, January 9, 2009

Supernatural

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I don’t think it’s simplistic to assume that humanity’s love for religion comes from a more fundamental fascination with the supernatural. Humans abhor harmonious understanding, yet strive for it relentlessly. Science drives us closer and closer to a universe where everything, at least theoretically, can be built up from a few basic laws (the perfect order!). Slowly, yet surely, objects that were once firmly entrenched in the domain of the supernatural are slipping away into the obscurity of the scientifically understood universe. It’s like sand in an hourglass; there’s something distinctly inexorable about its progress. I’m sure the ubiquitous blade of grass was once a mystical and revered object. But as Jackie Tyler (of BBC’s Doctor Who) once said (to the aforementioned Doctor), ‘Why do you have to come and explain everything? Isn’t there anything Science can’t touch?’ Is that sort of sentiment the true nature of humanity often obscured by zealous scientific adventurism, or is that just superficial conservatism? I don’t know. But I am certainly not exempt from it. I’m anything but religious; I just can’t see how chanting a few hundred lines of something, or the movements of the planets in the sky can ever control your destiny. In fact, I think all we pray to is the Goddess of Chance; and what is chance but something that is too complex to be computed? Of course, something too complex to be computed even by the most powerful supercomputer today, may be solved by every twelve year old with a PDA a couple of hundred years down the line. Anyway, discussion about Chance and her many caprices should be reserved for a future post. My point is that my religious affiliations have nothing to with my desire for a glimpse for the supernatural. I distinctly recall the numerous occasions when I’ve caught myself staring into mirrors hoping to catch an inexplicable movement out of the corner of my eye; and the even more frequent rehearsed conversations with the ghost that’s going to appear any moment. Silly? Maybe. My sister seemed to have pointed out, with her usual skill for hitting the nail on the head, the source of this malaise (as my sceptical half called it). It’s all those episodes of Supernatural (a brilliant TV show concerning the … er… supernatural!) I’d been watching that are to blame. As my head dropped with the disappointment of all that frenzied philosophizing coming to nothing, something occurred to me. Didn’t I start watching the TV show because of this kind of sentiment and not the other way round? Ah, peace again. There’s nothing wrong with seeking a peephole into the Ether (or whatever). What is wrong is forming a closed minded cult over an entity that may or may not be a citizen of the Ether, and ostracizing other people who won’t join or screaming murder against members of another such cult. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world really had a couple of hundred demons, a few score vengeful spirits and the odd zombie? (Oh yes, the numbers are anything but random. They are carefully chosen to just about ensure human survival…) I can have a zombie for a girlfriend, a best friend possessed by a demon and attend séances in my spare time. Of course, if I get bored, I can start hunting vengeful spirits. Imagination never did anyone too much harm, did it? Look at James Thurber and where he’d be without his hallucinations. Imagination, it has been passionately argued, is what the conflict driven world of today, and not just Ekta Kapoor’s soaps or the people who oppose this argument, needs. Go ahead, indulge in the Supernatural.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Perennial Conflict-1

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It seems obvious and straightforward that we term the Mumbai attacks an act of terrorism. After all, the perpetrators made no effort to avoid civilian casualties; bars and five star hotels don’t quite give off a ‘military installation’ vibe. Also, there aren’t really any governments you could point to and say, “They sponsored this!”, or “It was self-defence!” Therefore, it’s terrorism. Case closed. Or so I thought, till I happened to read an interesting column analyzing Western media coverage of the event. Apparently newspaper editors were reluctant to use the T-word for fear that... I don’t know why actually. ‘Militants’ carried out the attacks and the ‘aggressors’ and the ‘extremist’ organisations responsible must be swiftly punished. OK, they are being diplomatic. There is no need to stoke unnecessary tensions through irresponsible reporting, right? But these are the same editors who don’t break a sweat in condemning ‘terrorist’ attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah. This brings me to the topic I wanted to write about: the Israel-Palestine conflict. There’s no doubt that Hamas and Hezbollah have committed terrorist acts; shooting unguided rockets into crowded cities isn’t exactly civilian friendly. And they repeatedly refuse to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist. I’ll come back to this ludicrous belief in a moment. My first question is how, in the name of Canopus the Bright, is it so easy to choose the good side and the bad side in this conflict? For most Western commentators, it’s Palestine (or at least its government) that’s the bad side, with perennial bogeyman Iran hovering menacingly somewhere in the background. Period. For Arab nations, however toothless their actual actions may seem, it’s still Israel that’s the villain. It’s interesting to note that it’s always the US that backs Israel’s right to self-defence whenever they decide to go on the offensive. Every time Israel attacks Palestine, it’s Hamas’s fault- they brought it on themselves by being silly. Every time Hamas attacks Israel, it’s Hamas’s fault – they were the ones doing the shooting, right? Israel ravages Lebanon, displaces a million people, kills hundreds and destroys their infrastructure looking for members of Hezbollah. Western nations immediately go on record defending Israel’s right to self-defence, as Hezbollah had earlier kidnapped three Israeli soldiers. It’s more like Arnold Schwarzeneggar beating the pulp out of a 10 year old kid because he threw a paper plane at him.

The Perennial Conflict-2

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Coming back to the point of Hamas denying Israel’s right to exist, I find the concept amusing. It’s certainly a self-defeating ideal to cling to, but does it mean anything at all? Does it affect Israel in any way if some petty war mongers deny their existence? Israel has a very large and efficient army; a powerful friend in the US, and of course the nukes. It’s again something like the 10 year old kid telling Arnold Schwarzeneggar, ‘I deny that you are strong.’ Of course if Arnie decides to bash the living daylights out of the kid for daring to say such inane things, it ceases to be funny. You can see what I am getting at. On the other hand, does Israel recognize Palestine’s right to exist? I thought the whole conflict arose because of this simple denial. And in this case, such recognition (and consequent acknowledgement of its sovereignty) is important: Palestine is desperately poverty-stricken, led by a stubbornly extremist religious group and without the benefit of a mighty army. If shooting rockets into cities is terrorism (we agreed that it is), isn’t torturing an entire population towards a slow, inexorable death by denying essential commodities and humanitarian care terrorism? Israel does this, and more. There are some things that have to change, at a fundamental level, for any chance of a lasting solution to the problem. Israel’s big bully attitude towards Palestine, firstly. It’s true that some Palestinian factions are involved in carrying out terrorist acts against Israel. But Israel must limit its response to defensive defence (not the aggressive brand they usually practise) if they don’t want to be responsible for the extinction of a nation. They must not punish the entire population in retaliation to isolated attacks; I’m sure they have the military prowess to take out the precise sources of these attacks. Israel has to show that it’s actually willing to see a sovereign Palestinian state up and running. And the (Western) media has to be more unbiased in their reporting. It has to be – ‘Use the T-word for both sides or don’t use it at all!’ Another thing that must change is the Palestinian government’s response to terrorist attacks originating on their soil. They have to make at a least a little effort to root out these hate mongers, it’ll take away Israel’s right to self-defence. It may even change the Western media’s perception of their standing on the good-evil scale, although it’s highly unlikely. There’s also the minimal requirement that both sides honour ceasefires; this is really, really hard judging by historical evidence but unless this is done, we can never move from the war phase to a rebuilding phase. Finally, religious extremism must be done away with somehow, for any kind of lasting peace, if the rebuilding phase is ultimately reached. And I honestly cannot see how this can be done without reverting to killer aliens and deadly comets as solutions. Sigh. One problem at a time.

Profane Musings

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I wonder if swearing can be added to the select list of traits that can be called uniquely human. Considering that the number of species that can actually communicate using a vocabulary larger than ten words is very, very small (or zero if you believe all those specists (OED 2021/footnote) out there), the question seems rather silly. Or maybe we haven’t quite understood what all the leaping dolphins, Moby Dick’s disappearing siblings or Douglas Adams’ white mice are actually doing. Anyway, profanity belongs to the exclusive group that I like to call the teeny stoppers- things that are forbidden during childhood (probably by pesky parental rules), that bloom with almost unbearable intensity during adolescence (and college emancipation, whee!) and fade away to obscurity during adulthood (of jobs, wives and life insurances fame). Love, sex and pornography also probably fall in the same category. An interesting point about most of these teeny stoppers is that people straightaway assume that they are merely techniques to relieve some of the pent up Frustration (better known as Adolescence’s twin brother). We hear many well intentioned metaphorical allusions to pressure cookers. If you don’t have a steam valve the cooker explodes, right? How untrue. The true reason, I suspect is the good old S-word again. Society (or Social Status or Social Standing or Something). The S-word has been implicated as the reason why we do 99.3% of the things we do, right from defaulting on phone bills to choice of underwear. Let’s turn to metaphors again- submarines. Think of the submarine as your social standing and profanity as the ballast. The more you let out, the higher you rise. All right, but something’s clogging the periscope here. OK, OK, /*end of metaphor*/, what I meant was that something about this conclusion doesn’t quite ring true. Well… erm… swearing is supposed to offend people! (The ballast analogy finally flops over, stone dead. It’s not like the ocean minds the ballast being dumped in it.) So, how is it that we can offend people and still reach the social stratosphere? The logical conclusion is that we offend people, and hence reach the social stratosphere. The other possible conclusion, that nobody gets offended at all, is immediately discarded, for extremely obvious reasons. (Think Danish cartoons or Evolution in the US or Ram Sethu or the few million wars fought over a piece of paper.) Evidently if we are to achieve societal aristocracy by offending lesser people, then we mustn’t get offended the slightest bit when the insolent boot decides to shift to the other foot. So, that’s good right? People don’t get offended, nobody fights. Again, how untrue. When the unoffendables really, really get offended, they don’t just shoot their mouths off like commoners, they blow heads off. The bright side is that this doesn’t happen all that often. Usually they stay coolly cynical and unconcerned, moving on with their all-consuming lives. @#$%!!!!

Specist- A person who unfairly discriminates based on the creature’s species; structurally derived from racist.