Learning to be Terse

Your consciousness differentiates into boundless belonging

Posted in Skepticism, This and That, Weblogs by Croor Singh on April 23, 2014

Nothing is impossible. This life is nothing short of an ennobling uprising of spiritual empathy. We must develop ourselves and enlighten others.

It can be difficult to know where to begin. Although you may not realize it, you are dynamic. Being, look within and unify yourself.

We are at a crossroads of chi and ego. Our conversations with other beings have led to a summoning of ultra-sublime consciousness. Humankind has nothing to lose.

As you grow, you will enter into infinite growth that transcends understanding. The akashic record may be the solution to what’s holding you back from an unimaginable oasis of serenity. You will soon be aligned by a power deep within yourself —a power that is Vedic, powerful.

Greed is the antithesis of growth.

Without grace, one cannot believe. Yes, it is possible to disrupt the things that can exterminate us, but not without chi on our side. We can no longer afford to live with yearning.

It is a sign of things to come. The transmission of potential is now happening worldwide. Soon there will be a deepening of power the likes of which the planet has never seen.


This blogpost was generated by reionising its electrons. See also the random Deepak Chopra quote generator.

HT: Pharyngula.

Modi is India’s Reagan. Apparently.

Posted in Politics by Croor Singh on April 22, 2014

I haven’t written about the elections. They’re happening, and we’re polarised enough as a polity that nothing I have to say will change anybody’s mind about anything. But yesterday’s The Hindu op-ed page contains an article that I thought I’d say something about. I don’t think the article itself is insightful or original, but what it represents perhaps is.

First, about the article’s thesis that Modi is India’s Reagan, and (implicitly) that this is somehow reason for people to vote for Modi (or Modi’s model of development).

Reagan was a B-film actor who became governor of California and then the US president. Modi was an organiser for the RSS before he became the chief minister of Gujarat. Reagan was considered sunny and optimistic, even by his opponents (it’s morning in America, and all that). Modi is sullen and diffident at times, and a rabble-rousing demagogue at others. Very little similarity there, I think.

Where there does seem to be similarity is in the size of the respective personas in relation to what these men actually achieved. And, more importantly, in their policies. Reagan enjoys de facto sainthood, despite being the president whose tenure saw the enactment of game-changing financial legislation that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008. Reagan was also the president who cut taxes on the rich while the middle class barely made any gains and poverty rose.  He started the restriction of the social welfare programmes that is now entrenched in US politics (think ‘no tax increase, ever’, or ‘Obamacare means death panels’).

And yet the hagiography surrounding Reagan–e.g. David Cohen’s article which prompted this whole blogpost–would suggest a very different picture.

Modi’s rise to stardom, if not sainthood, has been similar. Modi’s Gujarat has made great concessions to large businesses, and fared poorly in social indicators. And, just like Reagan, the hype about Gujarat is larger than life.

Reagan was opposed to the civil rights and voting rights laws protecting black Americans from discrimination. He was anti-abortion, and insisted on prayer in schools. Modi’s BJP wants to permanently criminalise homosexuality, and return India to its Hindu roots (we’ll say nothing right now about whether those things are in fact the same thing).

Like I said above, the David Cohen’s article isn’t very interesting; it’s the same ‘Reagan was called racist by elitists’ tripe. What is interesting is that such and article is now possible in mainstream news. Marx and Engels called for a global order of the proletariat; what we seem to have here is a global order of the rich and their minions.

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Sexual abuse, then and now

Posted in Ethics, Society by Croor Singh on April 18, 2014

I wrote the last time about sexual abuse and how what people in the public eye say about these things is only reflective of the society they are part of; that vilifying them without attempting to reform society is likely to do nothing. I have a couple of for-instances to show about what I mean.

The first video below is a movie review of what seems like a horrendously bad movie called Jaani Dushman. I’d call this the Gunda of the noughties, but I probably don’t know enough. The bit of interest to me is from 0:43 to 2:30. (But go ahead and watch the rest of the video too. They’re good, the reviewers.)

The last thing the reviewers say about the  attempted rape is significant: “this was in 2002.” And here we are, a decade later. Should we be pleased that at least some people find what is said in the movie about rape obviously idiotic? Should we be distressed that a decade later, leading politicians seem to be saying the same thing that the movie did?

The second video below is a short film called Bol, by a filmmaker called Pooja Batura Pathak. The short film portrays graphically what I suggest above about how we don’t, as a society, seem to have changed at all in how we deal with sexual abuse. (fn1)

One in three women will experience sexual abuse or rape in her lifetime, statistics say. A large fraction of this will be abuse by somebody known to the victim. And the woman will be blamed for it. We can do better. We must do better.

HT: Sharmila pointed me to the review of Jaani Dushman. I can’t remember where I found the short film.


fn1: I do have some quibbles about the short film. Is it important to show the girl in the short shorts doing a silent prayer as she passes a temple? What does religious belief have to do with what the girl goes through later? But, like I said, these are quibbles.

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Bloody red tape (Rant)

Posted in Campus, Personal by Croor Singh on April 18, 2014

The centre is holding interviews today and we’re short-staffed since today’s officially a holiday. I was asked to help out with office work. Shouldn’t be hard, should it?

One part of the office work I was assigned was to look at train tickets for reimbursement. Interview candidates are given sleeper class fares for train/bus journeys from wherever they currently study/reside to Hyderabad and back. In order to make sure that this provision isn’t misused, the rules say the journey has to be made by the shortest route. You’d think that the “shortest” would be interpreted liberally. After all, train journeys between the same two locations can be shorter in one direction than the other.

For instance, a sleeper class ticket from Bombay to Hyderabad is Rs. 345. A sleeper class ticket from Hyderabad to Mumbai is Rs. 350. There seems to be a small difference in the distance travelled (8km or so) and an even smaller difference in the fare. What would you say is the reasonable response to this?

One response is to say nobody is trying to cheat anybody, and the difference of five bucks hardly matters. The time it would take to check whether the train the candidate took was indeed the shortest journey (there are 15 trains between Hyderabad and Bombay) is worth more than the five bucks that the centre would save by skimping on the reimbursement.

The other response… well, you can probably guess what the other response is. We’ve all been to government offices at some point. Unsurprisingly, I got told to go away for arguing this point. Typical.

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Boys will be boys

Posted in Ethics, Society by Croor Singh on April 12, 2014

Mulayam Singh Yadav, once a possible candidate for the Prime Minister’s post, has basically said of rape what you or I might say of the pulling of pigtails on a playground. He wants to abolish the death penalty for rape–but not because he thinks the death penalty is unconscionable. He also wants to, and this is more important, punish women who ‘falsely’ claim rape (footnote 1). If it comes to pass, what this might do to the prevention and punishment of crimes that are rarely reported, and even more rarely prosecuted successfully is anybody’s guess.

Mulayam Singh Yadav is a patriarchal insensitive ignorant asshole. Unsurprisingly, lots of people have said this in the two days since his statement (footnote 2). To stop there, however, is to vilify one man while letting the rest of us off the hook. The culture of abetting rape does not begin and end with one clueless politician.

We live in a culture that normalises the objectification of women but shames them if they revel in their sexuality; a culture that  will call a woman a prude for not accepting the objectification of women in public, but will call the same woman a slut  for being in charge of her own sex life; so much so that victims of rape are told they “brought it upon themselves.” Mulayam Yadav’s is only the latest (and not necessarily the worst) restatement of this sentiment. And the culture of rape is only the worst symptom of the underlying misogyny that women endure every day. (footnote 3)

This misogyny is also inherent in the way we legally define rape. Indian law defines sexual violence in terms of whether the “modesty” of a woman has been “outraged”. Why every woman must be “modest” is something nobody writing the law seems to have bothered to ask. The worst manifestation of this lunacy was the two-finger test to determine whether a woman reporting that she’s been raped is ‘habituated to sex’. I say was; it was standard procedure until about a month ago; I have no doubt that there are doctors who haven’t got the memo.

All this may have something to do with the fact that the laws we’re talking about were written in 1861. The IPC criminalises adultery (and treats women as if they were their husbands’ property), but–and this is still true, in 2014–has no punishment for marital rape. (footnote 4)

Is it surprising that men who’ve grown up in such a culture treat women like crap? Or talk flippantly about rape in political speeches?


fn1: I am not saying here that “he promised to marry me” should make somebody guilty of rape. The ‘reneging on a promise to marry is tantamount to rape’ doctrine comes from the law’s attempt to define sexual abuse in terms of the damage to the ‘modesty’ of the woman. The sooner we do away with this the better.

fn2: Mulayam Singh Yadav is by no means the only ignorant asshole. His partyman Abu Azmi wants to hang women who get raped. I would point out that he wants us to become one step worse than Saudi Arabia where rape victims are lashed publicly. A parliamentarian from the BJP has called for women to not be allowed to use mobile phones or wear jeans.

fn3: This paragraph is an excerpt from something I wrote with a friend about Steven Pinker’s AMA on reddit. Pinker’s position, we thought, was short-sighted. We didn’t get it published anywhere, but some of you may have seen it.

fn4: If a married man sleeps with an unmarried woman, it isn’t punishable; but it is punishable for a single man to sleep with a married woman, because he would be infringing on another man’s property rights.

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The deterministic equations of life, the universe, and everything

Posted in Science by Croor Singh on April 4, 2014

UPDATED BELOW

In principle, the equations of classical (or quantum**) mechanics completely determine the future of every particle in the universe given the present state of every particle. This has two implications: one, that the universe is deterministic (with attendant restrictions on what “free will” can mean); and two, that the physical law that entropy in the universe always increases requires serious explanation. I recently attended an interesting talk on the second of these by a philosopher of science. Even more recently, a chat with a friend turned to the determinism of the physical laws.

If you accept that the basic laws governing the motion (and therefore the time-evolution) are deterministic, does that mean, given that there was a definite beginning, that every one of us is unique? Can there be somebody else who is exactly like you? If that question seems leading, that’s because it probably was. In order to answer that question, however, you’d have to define what “exact” means. Now, it may seem like I’m splitting hairs here, but bear with me.

What’s a good definition of “exact”? Clearly, I know the universe exactly if I know where every molecule of the universe is and how fast it is moving. You might think this is an extreme demand and you’d be right. You would need a computer larger than the universe to keep track of all the data. (Why? The simplest “computer” that can do this is the universe itself. Any device with a more complicated process for tracking every molecule will have to have many times the number of molecules the universe has. And universes are hard to come by.) If this is your definition of “exact”, then, it is meaningless (and perhaps trivial) to ask if somebody else can be “exactly like” you.

Luckily, this level of detailed knowledge is not only impossible, but also unnecessary. I don’t need to know what every molecule on Earth is doing in order to predict that the Earth will go around the Sun in a slightly eccentric circle. This is the salvation of the scientific enterprise. Emergent phenomena can be studied without needing to know every detail of the underlying physics*.

Phrased slightly differently, it is indeed true that you are “unique”; both in the sense that there’s nobody else whose molecules are exactly like yours (i.e. we’re all snowflakes), but also in the more important sense that the arrangement of molecules that makes you could be no other way.

But even this more correct interpretation is meaningless for the reasons I’ve given above: what matters are some aggregate properties of the molecules that make up you and me. In general, whether or not these macroscopic properties are uniquely determined by initial conditions is not a question that has an answer. You might think the answer is what you choose it to be, the answer that lets you sleep at night.

UPDATES: When I say above that you can choose the answer you want, I mean you can’t get to the answer by pure rationalism. We don’t, of course, have to answer this question “rationally”; we can find the answer empirically.

*I say underlying physics, not in support of the sentiment that “it is all physics underneath.” In fact, this is not only wrongheaded, but also counterproductive. The wrongheaded bit is illustrated (as only Randall Munroe can do it) here.  I know of at least two prominent examples of people taking “everything is numbers” to idiotic heights: Steven Levitt of Freakonomics, and now Nate Silver of Five Thirty-Eight.

** Srikanth points out that since quantum mechanics is inherently probabilistic, what I say here may not hold. I think it still might, but I realise that it’ll take more than one blogpost to sort this out.

HT: Aanveeksha, who brought this topic up.

Breaking all stereotypes. No really.

Posted in Ethics, Society by Croor Singh on April 2, 2014

What makes for a rebel? Does Malala Yousafzai qualify as a rebel? She has had to do more things that could, and indeed have, put her life in danger than anybody should have to. She went to school, got an education, wrote a blog, angered a whole bunch of zealots, got shot in the head, survived against all odds, and continues to speak out for education and freedom for girls. And she’s all of seventeen. She’s a rebel in my book; and I’d bet she’s one in yours.

Malala Yousafzai was born to a relatively progressive (Sunni) Muslim family; her father is described as an anti-Taliban activist. She is religious, but her religiousness takes away nothing from her feminism or her being a rebel. If anything, it makes what she’s achieved that much more impressive.

But, because she comes from a certain culture, she covers her head in public. I haven’t seen a picture of hers in which her head isn’t covered. I can’t find her having said anything to the effect that her covering her head is anything more than a cultural thing.

“No, I’m not becoming western, I am still following my Pashtun culture and I’m wearing a shalvar kamiz, a dupatta on my head. And I believe Islam is a true religion and it teaches us how to be patient and how to tolerate other religions and it teaches us about peace. Islam means peace.”

Malala Yousafzai’s wearing a scarf in public is cultural and she has betrayed no signs of not understanding this. Which is more than I can say for Masarat Daud.

Masarat Daud is a rural education activist and founder of the 8 Day Academy that provides (I think) vocational training for people in Rajasthan’s villages. She was also the organiser, at her ancestral village of Shekhawati, of the largest rural TEDx event. She is by all accounts doing good work helping people make better lives for themselves.

Masarat Daud is also the (self-)described ambassador for the burqa. Why does she wear it? By her own account (the one in the Tehelka article, not the TED talk; I can’t possibly sit through that), she was made to wear it as a teenager, told that she wouldn’t be allowed to go to school without it. She fought against it, but eventually made her peace with it.

“If you wear a gown, you cannot act like a crazy teenager on skates,” she explains. “Similarly, you carry a burqa with grace. I think, culturally the garment symbolises a girl growing up and acting ‘decent’ and perhaps conforming to a society’s view of what a cultured, sanskari girl should be like.” Initially, she hated the garment and told her parents that she would take off the burqa when she was in college. But a week later, she walked into a packed cafeteria during lunchtime, clad in her burqa. “It was social suicide,” she recalls.

The attitude of people around her changed and she was no longer expected “to be cool or to do cool things”. But Masarat took it as a challenge and eventually, she fell in love with the garment.

Now, she isn’t, I don’t think, saying that Muslim women who don’t wear burqas are childish, indecent, and uncultured. But what she is doing (or the Tehelka article is doing) is fetishising the wearing of this culturally imposed full-body tent.

Of the 750 million Muslim women in the world, a significant fraction, if not a majority, are forced to wear the burqa and stay within the four walls of their homes on pain of ostracism or physical abuse, or worse. Malala Yousafzai was shot through the head for daring to go to school. Is the symbol of this oppression really something to celebrate?

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Should we let the Supreme Court decide?

Posted in Ethics, Society by Croor Singh on April 1, 2014

I don’t watch too much cricket these days, but this bit of cricket-related news was unavoidable. The Hindu ran it on its front page more than once. The Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, is deciding who should manage a sports tournament. The Court has also suggested that maybe two teams whose owners were found to be involved in betting and/or spot fixing not be allowed to play in the tournament.

I must ask why. Is the question of who runs the stupid tournament of national importance, do we think? Even if you think it is, surely the branch of the government deciding whether the son-in-law of the person running the tournament can also own a team playing in the tournament is not the judiciary but the executive — the Income Tax and Revenue departments, say, or an anti-trust regulatory body.

There are two reasons I think decisions like this should left out of the purview of the judiciary. First, surely the Court has better things to do with its time. We know this because the case backlog in the Court runs into months if not years, and even if some fraction of these cases is frivolous or, as above, shouldn’t really be on the Court’s plate, that still leaves a lot of work to be done.

The Supreme Court is the defender of the constitution against excesses of the legislature and the executive. It is up to the Court to strike down laws that are unconstitutional. And yet, in the case of section 377, not only did the Court not do this, they even undid what the Delhi High Court had done, in effect saying it isn’t the Court’s job to rewrite laws, but only to interpret and apply the laws given to it.

I disagree that section 377 should remain on the books because the legislature is too farting busy to rescind it. The Court failed to strike down a law that violates the fundamental right to freedom of a large number of people. But just as worrying is the fact that this apparent strict separation of powers that the Court wants to practice somehow doesn’t apply to whether the court can pick names out of a hat for who should manage a cricket tournament. Should we be worried that the Court is apparently okay with judicial activism and stepping on the executive’s toes for a cricket tournament, but isn’t willing to do the same thing for gay rights?

The second reason is this. What does it say about the system of governance in this country if everything has to be decided by the Supreme Court? Should government officers have red beacons on their cars? Let’s ask the Supreme Court. Should people be allowed to have tinted car windows? Let’s ask the Supreme Court. Should children eat their vegetables? Let’s ask the Supreme Court.

We seem to have a system of governance that continually moves every decision up one rung until the Supreme Court has to pass judgement on matters that a) its judges may have no expertise in, and b) should have been dealt with at the level of a municipal office. This is abdication of responsibility masquerading as deference to the Supreme Court.

Douglas Adams observes, in the masterful Last Chance to See, that this is characteristic of a nation that hasn’t extricated itself from the mindset of being a colony. Officials in such countries, he says, “rarely have the power to do things, only to prevent them being done until bribed.” He couldn’t have been more right.

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2048

Posted in This and That by Croor Singh on March 29, 2014

UPDATED BELOW

Most people I know have played this game. It’s a simple game. It is also addictive. (It’s been clinically proven to be second only to crystal meth… Now that isn’t true of course; my friends from the humanities gave it up quite easily*. I kid, I kid.) Go ahead, give it a go. There are also 3D, 4D, and tetris versions of the game if you care to look for them. The 3D version will be decidedly easier to win than the 2D version, of course. Just harder (and more fun) to visualise. I daren’t start with any of these; I’ve wasted enough time as it is.

The object of the game is to get to the 2048 tile and the “You Win” banner. But I thought I’d put down some perhaps interesting things I worked out about the game.

For instance, you must, if you’ve actually finished the game, know that you can play on past 2048. What do you think is the highest tile you could get to on the 4×4 board?

If you said 65536, like so:

2pow16

You would be almost correct, unfortunately. You see the game is so designed that both 2s and 4s can be spawned. Which of course means that this can happen:

2pow17

giving a maximum tile of 2^17, or 131072.

Now, getting your tiles to arrange themselves this way would take more than insane concentration and forethought. It would take the computer conspiring with you to give you tiles in just the right order and at just the right place and so on. The maximum of 2^17 is only a theoretical maximum, then. What the maximum is, when the computer isn’t working to help you, is a much harder thing to calculate. I’ve myself never managed to get a tile higher than 2048, even when things looked promising.

2048_4 2048_3 2048_2 2048

 

You may have noticed that the game also scores you. The scoring is again relatively simple. For every “merger”, you get as many points as the face value of the tile you just created by merger. Spawned tiles don’t add points. Your score is a measure of how inefficiently you’ve played the game; the ideally played game would leave just one tile of value 2048 and one newly spawned tile on the board.

What then, do you think, is the best (read lowest) score you can theoretically get on your way to a winning game? And what’s the maximum score you can theoretically get as you win the game? This isn’t exactly hard to do, but requires some explanation. The score accumulated as you get to a tile of a certain power of 2 is proportional to both the value of the tile and the exponent. The answer also, of course, depends on whether 2s or 4s are spawned.

Assuming it’s all 2s, for instance, the score will be 8*(3-1) = 16 for a tile of 8. For a tile of 16, the score should be 16*(4-1) = 48. If it’s all 4s that are spawned, the score will be 8 and 32 respectively.

The answers to the maximum question I get are 92164 and 83976 depending on whether exclusively 2s or 4s are spawned. The minimum is either 20480 or 18432 respectively.

My average score for winning games hovers around 23000-25000.  CORRECTION: 23000-25000 is my average score at the end of the game. My average score as I win the game is about 20500. What’s yours?

The one question I would really like to answer but can’t is what happens when a monkey plays the game. This question has proven itself beyond me. Maybe somebody reading can help me out.

UPDATE

*It was pointed out to me that this dig at the humanities is uncalled for. The joke isn’t funny or clever. As stereotypes go, the science-vs-humanities divide is a silly and pernicious one. The innumeracy of people from the humanities is no more a fact than that scientists can’t be good writers or speakers, or any other such similar nonsense. I’ve left in the offending sentence; this may, however, be considered a retraction.

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Sydney Brenner on science

Posted in Campus, Ethics, Science by Croor Singh on March 23, 2014

Sriram sent a bunch of us an interview with Sydney Brenner,one of the discoverers of mRNA. In the broad-ranging interview, Brenner talks about the thrill of making a scientific discovery and the joy of seeing your predictions come true. He talks about how institutions of science are run today and how they might be made better. The entire interview is well worth the read, whether or not you in the end agree with what is being said.

Of interest to me, since this is relevant to what I said about graduate school the last time, is Brenner’s take on taking risks in academic research. In fact, his idea of institutionalising risk, and I’ll say more of why I call it this, reminds me of something that’s said of/to drivers in formula one–somebody who doesn’t once in a while walk back to the pits with the steering wheel in his hands simply isn’t trying hard enough.

Batting for unconventional thinking in science isn’t new. In as much as economics is a science, Paul Krugman’s views on how to do economics better are in the same vein. Brenner says we must stop scientific research from becoming the gigantic machine that makes cogs of graduate students, both by protecting them from financial hardship, and by encouraging independent thought. I wrote the last time about how the Indian research establishment is willy-nilly doing this.

The interviewer also mentions something else that is now disturbingly common: the increasing use of adjunct faculty members, who, even after teaching courses for decades at the same college, are paid little money and have no job security.Several Indian universities do the same thing with adjunct members of teaching faculty as American universities. Government-aided colleges in Karnataka that teach basic science and arts undergraduate colleges haven’t hired permanent members of faculty for something like 25 years. And privately run colleges find it easier to just hire temporary teachers and pay them a pittance.

Brenner also talks fondly of the college system of Oxford and Cambridge and how it allows not only people from different scientific disciplines, but people from different disciplines to sit at the same table. This again is sadly something we haven’t got right. The best institutions in the country focus more and more on smaller and smaller scientific disciplines; science isn’t for us, it seems, to be polluted by mixture with the social sciences or, god forbid, the humanities.

Brenner’s idea of a “Casino Fund” in science — i.e. money that the institutions funding science should allocate for long-shot ideas and basically write it off — is a way of making risk a part of the firmware of science and its institutions. We should allocate a small fraction of all funding and give it to people with a proven record of gambling successfully, he says; this is the only way to ensure that the big risky ideas that might revolutionise science see the light of day. But not everybody agrees. Were the 1950s a golden age for science? A lot of good work was done. But we also know that the 1950s weren’t at all a good time for women in science.

Entirely aware that the extent of my expertise at running an institution of science is to have managed somehow to keep my PhD work afloat, may I venture that perhaps a better implementation of Brenner’s idea of institutionalising risk is to make sure that institutions of science are inclusive? I put it to you that it’s a greater, to say nothing of nobler, risk to take to ensure that science is inclusive. Scientists, being human beings, are products of their time. Could there be anything more limiting than excluding entire categories of people from the humanist endeavour that is science?

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