Monday, July 26, 2010

Birds of the same feather....

In the corporate world, psychometric studies are regularly done to assess personality traits of individuals and to (ostensibly) ensure complementarities and a reasonable degree of heterogeneity at the decision-making levels. You don’t want a meeting room where every participant is strongly extroverted and highly judgemental. You also need someone like me.

The world of politics is littered with dead bodies of leaders who paid the price for cutting off honest, negative feedback and choosing to remain in the comfort zone filled with their sycophants. A good leader must listen to divergent views, even if from little boys who tells him that he is not wearing any clothes.

Alas, we bloggers and tweeters too have this tendency to form homogenous groups and to subcribe to feeds of others who hold views similar to ours. We want to listen only to those people who say what we want to hear.

Jonah Lehrer argues ( or rather, adds to the argument) that adding random strangers to your twitter feed can greatly enhance your creative potential – even when the tweets are nonsensical or just plain silly.

We naturally lead manicured lives, so that our favorite blogs and writers and friends all look and think and sound a lot like us…While this strategy might make life a bit more comfortable - strangers can say such strange things - it also means that our cliches of free-association get reinforced. We start thinking in ever more constricted ways.

And this is why following someone unexpected on Twitter can be a small step towards a more open mind. Because not everybody reacts to the same thing in the same way.

….And this is why we should all follow strangers on Twitter. ..Sometimes, all it takes is a stranger on the internet, exposing us to a new way of thinking…..

So, go through your "I follow' list and shake it up a bit. I strongly recommend that you retain your subscription to my blog  as I am known to offer contrarian views that will add to the diversity of inputs reaching you, but you may want to scratch  those other sycophants off the list.......

Saturday, July 24, 2010

"This horse does not eat cucumber salad"

The Telegraphic Journal” published in April, 1864 provides an idea of the ‘state-of-the-art’ in that period.

Telegraph lines had been laid for a considerable distance in India. In that respect it was even better than the situation  in England.

A brief report in the journal talks about the inverse correlation between increased telegraph lines and the number of railway accidents/casualties.

The Electric Telegraph And The Railway System.—It was stated that 27 per cent, of the accidents in England were due to the want of the telegraph. As all the Indian railways had telegraphs, this percentage might be assumed to be erased from their quota of casualties. It would appear from the parliamentary returns, that out of 4,225,240 passengers carried in lndia during the year 1860, none had been killed from causes beyond their own control, while 94 per million only were injured. On comparing this with the English returns, it appeared that out of an annual average of 139,000,000 passengers carried, 15 per million were killed, while 319 were injured. According to the returns for 1862 the passengers carried were 173,721,238, while the number killed, were 36 per million, and 450 per million received injury. It also appears that one-half of the accidents on the English lines arose from collisions, while on the Indian railroads one-seventh only emanated from the same cause. This .proved that collisions which might be looked upon as preventable accidents, to a certain extent, were less frequent in India, and necessarily so owing to the aid afforded by the electric telegraph in regulating the traffic.

Sir W.O.S.Brooke who had introduced the telegraph in India had said:

There is a great future before the Telegraph in India. By perseverance and determination it should be made the best in the world, inasmuch as it possesses an unity of organization unattainable elsewhere, with all the resources of the empire to promote its extension and improvement. In two, or at most three years from this time, the lines should yield a clear profit, and an uniform minimum charge for messages may then be adopted for all India. This, with the general use of some simple cypher by habitual correspondents, will enable the Telegraph to perform much of the present business of the post-office. Meanwhile, we have at our disposal, at a moderate cost, an instrument of such miraculous power that, by a single message, it has already saved our Indian Empire; while day by day, and hour by hour, it is busy in the promotion of commerce and the furtherance of private interest of every kind. In my extended tours over all parts of India I have seldom met a family who had not some anecdote to tell of the services the Telegraph had done them. There are few Europeans in India who have not experienced a thrill of pleasure when they meet our masts and wires on the margin of every road, and know that these true tokens of science, and civilization, and power, traverse our Indian Empire to its utmost limit. Should I see them no more, I can truly say that I shall ever continue to take the most heartfelt interest in the prosperity and improvement of the department, and feel proud and happy that it has been my lot to bring it even to its present imperfect state."

Incidentally, in the same journal, a small snippet appears about the telephone. This was a good 10-15 years before Alexander Bell came up with his device.

Mr. Reis' Acoustic Telephone.—It has long been known that a magnetic current will produce a sound in wires of iron and other metal. Mr. Reis takes up this fact, and has constructed an acoustic telegraph or telephone, an instrument which delivers a message by sounds of different pitch. As yet it is far from perfect, and to many ears there is no perceptible difference in the tones, but as the possibility of communicating between different places by sounds has been demonstrated, we may expect to hear again of the subject.

I checked up on Reis.. Apparently, he was a German who was the first to transmit signals across the telephone as early as 1860. As Edison explained later, he transmitted musical notes, whereas it was Bell who demonstrated two-way verbal communication in 1875. (source)

Crying foul, BBC published this article in 2003, claiming that archives that had been recently unearthed showed that “successful tests on a German device manufactured in 1863 were covered up to maintain the Scot's reputation. They show the "Telephon", developed by German research scientist Philipp Reis, could transmit and receive speech.

The first spoken words on Reis’ phone were, “ This horse does not eat cucumber salad”. (source)

Vacuous and Verbose-19

In a series of tweets, Prannoy Roy of NDTV writes:

The reason why 50% of our coastline has turned to rock? 1) our beaches are like rivers of sand. Sand flows from south to north.

Whenever a PORT is built the flow of sand is interrupted and sand piles up on the south side of the port & the north side turns to rock.

Port owners should dredge the sand from the south and place it in the north - nobody does this :(. It's a disgrace.

Sand is a filter. When the sandy coastline turns to rock, salty water seeps inland & the village wells become saline & crops can't grow

The result of 180 !!!! ports: 50% of our beaches are now rocks and 50% of our coastal villages are suffering from salty subsoil water

The good news: this is REVERSIBLE.. We can get our beaches back. If we are determined. Watch Pondicherry change their rock back to sand

Yes, since the NDTV campaign the proposed 180 ports are stopped & Pondicherry is getting funds to get it's beach back. A start.

On reading these tweets, I was awestruck. Wow ! Defying commonsense, logic, science, principles of geology, etc, Indian engineers have actually managed to convert sand to rocks in a few months. Nature might take millions of years and many more elements to produce sedimentary rocks out of mud and sand, but we – the modern equivalent of alchemists- have converted sand into rocks in a jiffy a la P.C.Sorcar. Or perhaps a la Medusa.

Now, if Indian engineers are allowed to continue with their sinister designs, they will simply go around with their wand and Medusa gaze and convert all the sand in the land into rocks. Only NDTV can save the country from these madmen. Only they can orchestrate a campaign to change the rocks back into sand. They did it in Pondicherry. They can do it elsewhere too.

All hail Prannoy, the sandman and our saviour.  You rock, man!

Note: A less sensational account of the side-effect of port construction at Pondicherry, due to erosion and disruption in the natural littoral drift is provided in this blog. Yes, natural replenishment of sand was not happening. Yes, tons and tons of rocks were used to construct groynes to prevent the erosion. But sand, per se, was not converted into rocks. Change that mental image.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Conversation with daughter-34

Me: You know something? Muralitharan is close to his 800th wicket, while I am about to write my 700th blogpost. Isn’t that an amazing coincidence? Two great achievers in two different fields about to cross important milestones at the same time?

Daughter: Great! How are you going to celebrate the event?

Me: Just like Murali, in a humble, unassuming manner. The world will marvel at the sight of two modest souls quietly reaching their respective milestone without any fuss whatsoever.

Daughter: How boring!

Me: Or do you suggest that I should issue a statement like how Sugary Sachin does when he crosses some landmark? “I don’t keep track of records and personal achievements What is important is that my blogposts must contribute to the prosperity of my fellow-bloggers and the honour of my countrymen”

Daughter: Ugghh!

Me: How about you and I having a bloggable conversation in which you ask remarkably stupid questions and I tick you off sharply thereby emerging astoundingly brilliant?

Daughter: Trying a role reversal? Unlikely to work. Won’t sound convincing to both your readers.

Me: Then how do I commemorate my 700th post?

Daughter: Humbly, like Murali. And, retire from the game, as Murali is about to do..

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

On shaving and copying.

In a letter to the Times of India, Dilip D’Souza brings to their attention that an article that had appeared in their Crest edition had borrowed some passages from a book of his and adds:

"Believe me, like every writer out there, I am delighted when I find that other writers have found my work good enough to use in their own writing.

Only, it would be nice if they acknowledge what they use."

I had a very similar experience last Sunday. I was reading an article in the 'Open Page' of The Hindu and found several portions very familiar. Then it struck me that the 'familiar paras' had been lifted from a blogpost  that I had published 3 years back.

I now have clear evidence that my writing is good enough for publication in The Hindu.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Mind our own language.

At the recently concluded World Tamil Conference, various steps were initiated with a view to popularising the use of Tamil in the state. Sign boards must not merely carry the name of the shop or establishment in Tamil, it must provide a literal translation into Tamil. The Madras University VC has issued an order that requires members of the faculty to sign only in the Tamil script. And many more.

How practical are these measures? Will it lead to increased usage of the language in communication, documents, research papers, etc? How can you shove something down people’s throats. Isn’t it one’s fundamental right to speak or write in a language of his choice? What happens if every state in the country mandates that its language alone can be used in any correspondence, name boards, etc. Won’t our national structure collapse?

By now, those who have such questions in their minds or hold views that are contrary to the ruling party’s in TN have stopped expressing them. Hence there is no debate any more. The argument is closed.

With this cynical attitude, I happened to read Pawan Varma’s, “Becoming Indian”. He is extremely proficient with the English language but argues passionately for the use of one’s own language.

All Indians need to seriously introspect where we are in relation to own language. We need to do this in our own interest because citizens of a great nation cannot afford to appear like linguistic photocopies or caricatures. Photocopies are a convenience for the benefit of others. To win respect we need to be rooted in our own cultural milieu and language is an indispensable element in that effort. At present, we are fast becoming a nation of linguistic half-castes, who can never speak English as their first language, but who are adrift from their mother tongue and unsure in the official language.

..The brilliant Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o who begins his book Decolonising the Mind with the statement that this will be his last book in English, and henceforth he will write only in Giyuku and Kishwahili, makes the basic point that every language has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture. Take English. It is spoken in Britain and in Sweden and in Denmark. But for Swedish and Danish people, English is only a means of communication with non-Scandinavians. It is not a carrier of their culture. For the British, it is additionally and inseparably from its use as a tool of communication, a carrier of their culture and history. We need to urgently understand this difference.

I am not convinced on the validity of this argument, but I am thinking…..

Old brain in new body

Says Russian investment banker Innokenty Osadchy: “I don’t ever want to die... It wouldn’t suit me”. He is ready to pay a small fortune to freeze his brain until future technology allows him to continue his life — after being transplanted into a new body and resuscitated. After all, brain is what shapes our personality, the body is immaterial, he reasons.

He signs up with Russian cryonics company KrioRus which offers to keep any human being’s brain in liquid nitrogen freeze for 10,000 dollars..(source).

But other scientists are full of disdain for the idea. “If you freeze a body today — even one alive and healthy — after it is defrosted, it won’t be alive and whole. We can’t even freeze and preserve organs today — only cells.

But, even assuming technology makes it possible to freeze the brain, will transporting it to a new body help retain the same characteristics of the brain and impart the same personality to the new brain-body combination?

No, points out Alun Anderson, Senior Consultant, New Scientist, in an article in Edge, responding to the question, "What is your dangerous idea?"

Brains cannot become minds without bodies as two-way interactions between mind and body are crucial to thought and health. The brain may partly think in terms of the motor actions it encodes for the body's muscles to carry out.

We've probable fallen for disembodied brains because of the academic tendency to worship abstract thought. If we take a more democratic view of the whole brain we'd find far more of it being used for planning and controlling movement than for cogitation. Sports writers get it right when they describe stars of football or baseball as "geniuses"! Their genius requires massive brain power and a superb body, which is perhaps one better than Einstein.

The brain and body must therefore interact constantly. It is this cooperation that makes you what you are. Inserting your brain into a different body may work one day, but what emerges will not be you.