Category Archives: :O

Environmentally friendly cows!

Once you start hearing papers say such things, you know something is seriously wrong. The motivation behind such a statement is that apparently cows belch too much, and their burps contain methane and this is a very potent greenhouse gas, and therefore we must breed new cows which burp less, so that they don’t contribute to climate change!

I have been trying to wrap my head around the concept of an environmentally friendly cow for almost a day now, just not happening. Maybe scientists nowadays are too advanced for us mere mortals to understand. But wait, just due to their sheer numbers, termites probably emit more methane than cows overall. Therefore, we must also try and breed new termites, and ban people from keeping termite farms. While we are at it, we should also breed new set of humans who do not eat junk food (especially peanuts!), since that is a huge cause for methane emissions as well. Looking at what junk gets done in the name of science these days, funding should not be too much of a problem.

Why is it that cows, that have peacefully belched their way through a couple of million years without causing too much climate change suddenly the enemy ? Obviously, the problem is not with the cows themselves, but the rate at which beef is being consumed makes their number quite formidable. So what is the answer to this ? according to the previous link, control the number of people, so that they can eat lesser number of cows!! Beef is not the staple food in most countries, and the population increase happens in classes which cannot normally afford too much beef, so wonder who is eating such a large amount of it.

This insane and ludicrous issue brings to the fore the contradictions of a civilization that cannot accept that its way of life is completely off track. It wants to keep thinking that the way it has progressed is viable, and only few minor issues arise that can be solved by ‘scientific innovation’. This blame-the-cow attitude has been with us for a long time: blame the poor, blame the corporation, blame the Muslim – as long as we are not blamed. Wonder when people will grow up!

Review: Debates in Indian Philosophy

yes, yes, I had promised not to do much philosophy in these pages, but this book deserves an exception. With an agenda as good as the exposition itself, it is worth recollecting.

I will not try to explicate  the arguments (which require atleast a couple of readings to understand properly), instead will try and give an overview so that anyone interested can pick it up themselves. The book concerns itself with the question of the lack of debates in contemporary Indian philosophy, which were a regular feature in classical times (Upanishads are a good exmaple), and also of Western philosophy at all times.

The author tries to understand the conflation of philosophers who differed in important aspects like Vivekananda and Gandhi as something that was required in the colonial scenario, since a show of unity was important to the nationalist agenda. He tries to set the record straight by bringing out the differences in their thought which he hopes will provide fresh material for debates to continue.

He also tries to understand the socio-cultural milieu in which they existed, wherein classical Indian philosophy was not the only factor to consider, but Western ideas needed to be imbibed and used to make their voices heard and understood by their colonial masters. He argues that contemporary Indian philosophy does not have a direct continuity with either classical Indian but has lost a major structural feature which is the dialogic tradition.

This being said, he embarks upon a journey to read from these philosophers and show differences which were never expressed directly even though they were from the same time. He chooses three hot spots : Vivekananda and Gandhi, Savarkar and Gandhi, and Sri Aurobindo and Krishnachandra Bhattacharya.

In the first, he shows how Vivekananda supported a ‘barter’ between the East and the West, gaining material progress from the West in exchange for our spiritual knowledge, and how Gandhi rejected Modernity and tried to define progress in a manner different from the Enlightenment’s notion of increasing rationality and material affluence. He argues that Modernity is a completed task in the West, whereas in India the modern and the pre-modern coexist, often on the same street. He argues that Modernity is anthithetical to pluralism due to its focus solely on the individual and not on the community and rejection of differences between people of different communities (This is something I have personally noticed when in conversation with Indian friends in the US). Something like a Brave New World scenario. You can call it the Melting pot scenario as well. The difference in the cosmopolitanism of a New York and a Mumbai or Bangalore make this distinction all the more stark. Communal identities are still strong in Indian megacities unlike in the Western European or US ones. The author tells us that Gandhi’s was a more realistic ideology since it was based in the realities of the Indian social structure.

Addendum: some parts of the argument above was taken from the Savarkar-Gandhi chapter, but can be justified since both deal with the same issue: nation/state building vis-a-vis society building.

I will not go into the other two debates, between Savarkar and Gandhi (one politicizes religion, the other spiritualizes politics) and Aurobindo and KCB (one says science and metaphysics complement each other, the other that science denies metaphysics), but if the one above sounds interesting, then this book is for you.

Review: Godel’s Proof

KISS at its best
KISS at its best

This was something that I had to stop reading because of the exam season, and finally finished within 24 hrs of the exam getting over.

It is a rightly acknowledged classic in the field of popular mathematics (Stuff which makes abstruse mathematical ideas accessible to the (almost) general public).

Like the title says, it deals with a set of proofs that Godel published which demolished one of the most ambitious projects of modern times, to axiomatize all of mathematics.

It was believed that given a finite set of axioms and a set of rules to operate on them, one can mindlessly manipulate symbols to generate every known theorem. A simple example would be translating geometry into algebra (x^2 + y^2 = c^2 is how a circle would look in algebraic terms ). So, we can say that if  algebra is consistent, then geometry is consistent.

Hilbert developed a method to provide proofs of consistency, which was then taken over by the logicians of the time to try and provide similar proofs to certain parts and eventually all of  mathematics.

That is, until Godel came along. How he did it is explained beautifully in the book and is unecessary to reproduce here. Godel proved that any system for number theory that is consistent is incomplete, i.e,  you can produce a true theorem which cannot be proved within the system. Thus, we cannot have a formal system describing all of mathematics. We can have formal systems with finite set of axioms, but not for something like number theory, where Godel proved it was impossible to generate a finite set of axioms.

The book also has a section on the philosophical implications of this proof, which essentially says that present day A.I is a far cry from imitating the human brain, and unless we can actually describe the human brain as a logical system with a finite set of axioms.

There are many approaches to imitate human intelligence, like neural networks, but they run on a system with a very limited set of axioms and rules of inference commonly known as a digital computer. Maybe we need some new kind of ‘computer’. Researchers have a lot of work to do!!

Simply, a must read.

Sociable sociopaths – is it the system ?

System Analysis is simply another way of looking at the world, trying to look at the structure and composition of an aggregate of anything from computer code to people to machines.

For those unaware of terminology (which would be anyone who has not taken a systems course), a system is an entity with certain inputs and outputs, and which converts inputs to outputs through a certain mechanism. It can be completely defined by its inputs, outputs, external limits and feedback systems. Limits determine the boundaries within which the system must operate, like the size of our parliament is limited by the number of rich and powerful idiots in the country. Feedback systems determine the response of the system to changes in its output or environment, like the elections are a feedback in a democracy.

Another factor which determines the performance of the system is delay in the feedback systems. Scientists have been telling economists to change developmental objectives to include climate change issues for many decades and yet it has come into focus only very recently. Even today, development does not include many environmental issues like deforestation and toxic dumps and species extinction. This can be called as a large delay between output changes and the attendant change in system performance.

Why is systems thinking important ? From a business perspective, it can help analyse the people and objects that determine how a system (company) behaves, and how certain kinds of behavior of these ‘components’ can affect overall system output. For example, car manufacturers should change the specifications of their car according to general consumer tastes. Therefore, there must be some system feature that links car specification with consumer taste. If the person who is in charge of implementing this feature in this system fails to do her job well, system output (which is cars) will fail to make the desired impact.

Therefore, most social systems – religion, corporation, state – come up with a set of desired behaviors that the components that make up the system should have, and this is inculcated by various mechanisms – schools, corporate orientation, religious instruction and so on.

One can, if one has considerable amount of time to burn, apply systems principles to the present situation in India. First, a look at the state. The state is a glorified watchman of sorts, taking money from us taxpayers and giving political, social and economic protection. The recent spate of terrorist attacks have underlined the fact that it is unable to deal with the phenomenon of terrorism which is structurally very different from the normal antisocial elements that it is used to dealing with. Highly motivated individuals, working in small groups, from varied backgrounds, with no monetary motivation causing mayhem is something no state can cope with: it was simply not designed for such a task. And there goes physical safety that we were supposed to have.

Next thing to go was religious tolerance. Talking to random people on the train shows that the average Hindu looks at his Christian neighbor with suspicion and will be more hesitant than before to attend religious festivals. This is due to the sensationalist feedback systems which have been set in place called the media and no doubt supported by a political party that wants to expel Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals (only those with expired visas, of course, preferably Muslims) since they might be terrorists. Never mind the fact that terrorists will go to great lengths to see that their papers are in order, and are not stupid enough to be in a place where checks are taking place. A system is only as good as the people that make it up, and this is shown well in Karnataka now and Gujarat before.

Before these was, of course, financial security. A global economic system needs global  regulatory agencies, a role which the IMF and World Bank ostensibly play. The present crisis shows that a system designed around rational ordering and behavior of individuals completely fails when greed, fear and panic are the inputs. The subprime crisis surfaced around this time last year and its effects are showing now, a huge delay between input and output. This kind of behavior can only mean worse things in the coming year. IMF and the World Bank probably should stick to bullying third world nations.

All these developments are having interesting effects – terrorism has made grassroot level spying a noble duty in service of the state (Orwellian nightmare!), people belonging to different religious groups are eyeing each other with suspicion, and people with money to lose are running around like headless chickens. If people are taken as a system, and if insecurity is an input, the system moves towards whatever promises stability. Therefore, unfortunately, the State and religious organizations are going to be more powerful than before when the dust settles. The last bastion of reliable information feedback, the internet, is now becoming more prone to State intervention. Wonder what the status of the people will be after this – are we going to be sociable components of sociopathic systems ?

Information and Energy, and Entropy!

What follows is quite incomprehensible if you do not have some idea of maths/physics, but read on anyways :)The question that I have been asking for quite some time is : “What is information?”, from an abstract point of view. Would have hardly expected a physicist to answer this, but they did. Looks like there is a connection between the energy of a system and the information it contains. More precisely, the number of states that a system can take is directly proportional to the information it contains. This was put forward by Boltzmann, who is rightly well known for his huge contributions to physics. Take for example two people, A who sits on a chair the whole day and B who keeps running around the whole day. If someone tells you A is sitting on the chair, you would already know it, so it is nothing new to you. However, news about B’s whereabouts will always be new information to you. Therefore, an energetic system tends to contain more information than a static one.

One could also understand this by looking at a storage cell, which can contain n bits. As n increases, amount of information stored increases, so does amount of energy it contains (Not to be confused with present day memories like RAM, where most power is consumed by resistance and (silicon) crystal imperfections.) Boltzmann stated that if a system can have M mutually distinguishable states, then the amount of entropy is given by \log{M} . Entropy can be called a measure of the randomness in a system, that part of the system’s energy that is unavailable for useful work.

Claude Shannon, founder of practically everything we know (if we exaggerate a bit), generalized Boltzmann’s hypothesis to a case where we have some idea of the probability of a state of the system occuring, i.e, we have a probability distribution of the states of the system. In Boltzmann’s view, the distribution was uniform, and hence there was the \log{M} result. In a probabilistic system, one can only talk of the expected information, and that is what we get: Information entropy is given by I = -\Sigma_x p_x \log{p_x} . Note that this reduces to the previous form if p_x = \frac{1}{x} . Here, since the system behaves in ways we understand, the total entropy has been reduced by a factor I . If the base of the logarithm being taken is 2, the unit of the value is called bit. If natural logarithms are used, it is called a nat. Nat, interestingly,  corresponds to the Boltzmann constant when used to in an entropy context. Thus, we see the beginning of a link between entropy and information. We reduce the entropy of a system by gaining more information about the states in which it can be present. If we know exactly what state it is in, the amount of entropy is effectively zero.

How do we find the distribution of states ? we have to measure. Therefore, what is being implied is that measurement reduces the entropy of a system, or that measurement reduces the uncertainty we have about a system, which seems intuitively correct. If system A measures system B, B’s entropy reduces, whereas the entropy of the system consisting of both A and B does not (from the viewpoint of a system C which has not measured either A or B). The information got via measurement must be stored (and/or erased) somewhere, and this requires energy. This could be seen as the solution for the famous Maxwell’s Demon paradox, which claimed to violate the second law of thermodynamics.

These views have importance in the theory of computation, especially in the lower limits of energy required for computation. Say, I have a system that takes in 2 bits and gives out 1 bit (like an OR gate), then the amount of energy expended must be atleast equal to the difference in information entropy, which is 1 bit. Similarly, if information entropy increases, the system must take in energy. You can read all this and more (especially qualifications) in this paper.