Freshies and their Parents

This is freshie season at most colleges in the country. Being a residential institution, it’s also open hunting season on freshies at IITM. Sure, seniors here will wait till the parents of these freshies are gone before they begin having ‘interactions’ with them, but hunting season it is, and I kinda think it should be.

Something I saw today makes me even surer that these entrants into an adult world need to be jolted out of their ensconced existences. I saw not one but three idiot-freshies at Saras getting their mothers to do their cleaning for them; sometimes the father joined in, which meant the idiot-freshie joined in too, making it a joyous family event.

What the heck are these morons doing getting their mothers to clean their crap for them? Surely they’re old enough to do this themselves. Or old enough to realise that paying somebody 50 bucks will get this done. I felt like slapping one or two of them and asking them if they planned to hold their mother’s hand when they crossed the big-bad road.

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I have, since writing this, been told that the fellows I saw weren’t freshies. They were second-years. I gave up.

The 47th Convocation of IIT Madras

So yeah, I’m here at IIT Madras, the alma mater, the mothership, for my convocation. Unlike a large bunch of my friends, I’m NOT graduating at the Golden Jubilee Convocation; I’m graduating at the one just after the Golden Jubilee Convocation.

Five years, I’ve spent at this place. I’m going to my room at Saras right now, actually. I’ll also be getting a gown made of what I think is nylon… you know, because standing in a group of 1000 graduands, in front of every relative imaginable of the said 1000 graduands, and every prof you’ve ever studied under, and a thousand other people who’re just watching for fun, especially when all this is happening in Chennai, isn’t stuffy, dehydrating, or terrible enough.

Come say Hey!

Dear Tata Docomo,

I bought a SIM (#abcdefgh) from a retailer at IISc, Bangalore – I believe there’s only one on campus – on 25 July, which is three days ago now. I paid the retailer the money for the SIM and money for the first recharge. I also gave him a copy of my passport and a current photo.

My number hasn’t been activated yet. The retailer tells me he hasn’t received the SMS telling him that my number’s been activated. He also tells me that someone from Tata Docomo complained that the photo on my passport doesn’t match my current photo, and that this is a problem.

I got my passport more than five years ago, and the photo on the passport is obviously from before that. Does Tata Docomo expect people to retain their faces for decades together so that they may have the pleasure of using a Tata Docomo phone? Do you expect me to get a new passport with a new photo because I want a SIM from Docomo? Or is it perhaps that my passport isn’t enough proof of identity for you? Does the Indian Government know about this? You should tell them, and get back to me with what they say.

Oh, and your customer care number is a joke. You have people who can’t string the simplest of sentences together working as your public liaisons. I’ve called your customer care number four times already. The only suggestion I get is to talk to my retailer. Because I couldn’t have thought of that idea from particle physics by myself, I guess.

Yours,

A pissed off customer who is going to tell everybody he knows never to buy a Tata Docomo phone.

PS: I wrote this on 28th July. I’ve since returned the SIM to the retailer, who’ll probably return it to you; bought a SIM from another provider, and had the number activated within 20 minutes of paying for it.

Darwin v. Lamarck

I’m attending this workshop conference on nonlinear dynamics at IISc right now. Being a workshop conference on a topic as broad as nonlinear dynamics, the workshop has people from various fields. There have been, in the first two days of the workshop  conference, talks by people from neuroscience, quantum physics, evolutionary biology and one by an electrochemist.

The quantum physics talks were mostly, and without exception, bouncers, but I heard something at one of the biology talks that I found very interesting. It also gives me an opportunity and a reason to write about something that bugs me about what people think ‘evolution’ is.

The talk was by Somdatta Sinha from CCMB, Hyderabad, who, in explaining a (nonlinear) dynamical systems approach to modelling biological systems, and especially genotypes and phenotypes, said that her simulations show that external factors affect the phenotype. This, I thought, has interesting implications.

This, in fact, brings me to what bugs me about what people think of evolution. An organism doesn’t change its genotype because it finds that a certain genotype is better than its own, in its present environment. The environment of an organism cannot affect the genotype at all, in fact. (When this does happen, it is almost universally fatal. Think cancer). This is actually the central dogma of biology. Evolution is Darwinian, not Lamarckian.

What this means, if one were to resort to parable, is that the genotype of the giraffe didn’t change to make its neck longer because there were leaves high up in the trees. Lamarck put forth the now invalidated theory that organisms change in order to adapt to their environment. Darwin’s idea was simpler; also more brutal. It goes like this: the giraffes that survived because their necks were slightly longer reproduced that much more often than giraffes with shorter necks. The gene (or bunch of genes) that led to this slight elongation of the neck survive more often than the genes that do the opposite, and eventually, only the genes that lead to ultra long necks survive. See what I mean about Darwin’s paradigm being more brutal?

Anyway, back to the talk on nonlinear dynamics and its implications. It is easy enough to think of situations where external factors influence the phenotype. Don’t give a child enough food, and the growth will be stunted, no matter how many miles the parents can run a day. People adapt to changes in climate all the time. (I’ve done it. I know. Bangalore’s cooold, compared to Chennai.) The thing to remember, here, is that these changes are phenotypic, not genotypic. The parents may have been athletes, but the physical development does not carry into the next generation. The only way the genotype can change is by the selection of some genes over others.

What the fact that external factors influence phenotypes does is to provide what seems to me to be a basis for the process of selection. Because external factors affect the phenotype, they affect the survival of the organisms; in the sense that organisms that have a change in phenotype that a) counters the external factors, or b) uses the external factors in some way beneficial to the organism will survive to reproduce more often than organisms whose phenotype doesn’t change in response to external factors, or changes in some way that’s harmful.

The conclusion of the above argument is this, and this is to me quite interesting: there can be situations in which the ability to adapt to the environment is more valuable than any particular phenotypic strength. Genes that confer on the organism an ability to adapt to its surroundings will survive more than genes that confer some particular strength but make the organism immutable. I cannot think of a better example for this phenomenon than the case of the Homo sapien.

We cannot fly, breathe underwater, climb trees, or even run fast. Our necks aren’t long, our legs aren’t strong, and our senses of sight, smell and hearing aren’t very good. What we have in lieu of all these abilities are our brains. In about 200000 years of evolution, human beings have colonised every part of the planet, beaten every organism on its own turf, and may have already changed the planet’s atmosphere irreparably. Our abilities to adapt to our ever-changing surroundings are what make us human, and make us, arguably, the most successful species this planet has ever seen.

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Conference, not workshop. It’s officially called the International Conference, Perspectives on Nonlinear Dynamics, 2010.

Ticketless travel

I’ve been travelling a lot after leaving IITM and coming to Bangalore. Travelling inside the city, I mean, using Bangalore’s well run bus service, the BMTC. The bus service is regular, the fares are reasonable, the buses are well-maintained (especially compared to Chennai’s buses), and the employees helpful. They even have a functioning webpage that gives out bus routes and route numbers. There’s something that bothers me, though.

On every bus run by the BMTC is a message asking passengers to buy tickets for their travel. Except, it says ‘Buy ticket to avoid penalty’. I’ve been bothered by this since the first time I saw one of these stickers, and here’s why:

Passengers buy tickets to travel on these buses, and that’s how the bus service generates the revenue necessary to keep buses running. Passengers can, if they want to be dicks, and with only a little effort, not buy tickets and travel on the buses. This behaviour can be deterred to some extent by occasional checks and penalties for ticketless travel, but can never be eliminated. The maximum punishment imposed on a ticketless traveller, especially one who can feign contrition, is 10 times the travel fare. This isn’t nearly enough punishment to stop the crime.

This reminds me of people advocating the death penalty as a deterrent against crime. It isn’t. Not nearly enough people get caught, tried, convicted and executed for it to be. Also, the solution clearly isn’t to (‘legally’) bump off more people. If anything, the solution, for example against the rape of women, is to educate men about gender-equality and ensure that society’s views and opinions change over time.

I think the messages asking people to buy tickets to avoid being penalised are misinformed and ultimately futile, if not also regressive, for the same reason. People should buy tickets. But this shouldn’t be because they’ll get penalised if they don’t. People should buy tickets because the service they use, run by the government they’ve elected, using funds paid from their taxes, will collapse without the revenue generated by the tickets. The solution isn’t to threaten people with punishment, or to increase the quantum of punishment. The solution is to educate the citizenry about their civic responsibility. Somewhat like this, if you will.

The Earth, the Sun, and one more revolution.

Thursday was my birthday; whatever that means. If you didn’t know this, it’s probably because my Facebook page no longer displays the date. I wrote this down on Thursday, but decided against posting it then, to avoid seeming like I was asking for hugs and pats on my blog, instead of on Facebook. Three days is enough grace-period, right? I mean, Christ died and came back in three days, didn’t he? Didn’t he?! His thing was in fact Friday-to-Sunday. I’m doing you one better than Christ*.

House asks Cameron, in an episode, if he should be celebrating the fact that the Earth, the little planet that could, beat all odds and circled the Sun one more time. House may be a misanthropist, but he has a point.

Which is this: I don’t care for special days. I don’t have a problem with it if my friends do, and I will, insofar as I can, wish friends on the days they think are important to them. I do this because I care about the people, and they care about their birthdays. I’ve been known to even buy presents for people on their birthdays. Again, I would’ve been perfectly happy buying them presents on a randomly generated date from the calendar (I don’t mean like this), but apparently that’s not done, or not expected, or some combination thereof.

My judgement of somebody isn’t coloured by whether or not they happened to remember a date from the calendar, and I mean this both ways. I don’t think any worse of someone for not having greeted me; Nor do I think better of someone just because they did. The only reason I can think of to celebrate one’s birthday (or any other special day) is that it gives people a reason to talk to each other.

Which means one or two things: a) I don’t beat myself up too much if I forget somebody’s birthday. I forgot the birthdays of my brother, and two friends, and all of them were the same day (I did manage to talk to all of them within the day). b) If you didn’t happen to wish me on Thursday, and don’t bring it up when I next talk to you, neither will I. Mostly because I won’t remember. c) If you think these things are important, and did wish me, I was glad for you talking to me, and I thank you.

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* With any sort of rational search, of course, the whole Christ myth comes crashing down. Go here for a wonderful exposition of this matter. Brian Flemming used to offer free DVDs to anyone who would blaspheme against the holy spirit on YouTube. I don’t know if he still does. Do watch the documentary if you can.