The colour-perception wars

Blue and black or white and gold? Maybe this will explain it.


No, I don’t mean race. Although that does bring to mind Woody Allen’s quip that people will always find something to fight about (HT Meenakshi for this line).

There’s this picture of a woman in a dress doing the rounds, and apparently starting huge arguments. People are freaking out, and what not.


Here’s something I haven’t seen suggested anywhere else: try a pinhole camera. Take a piece of paper (it works best if the piece of paper is thick and opaque). Punch a small hole–an actual pinhole is likely too small; try a paper-punch.

I see black and blue. Which I assumed was because of the lighting. So as I figure, using a pinhole should take away effects of the lighting and show up the ‘true’ colours in the picture. So what I expected when I tried this was that I would see hints of gold and white. Which happened.

But wait! There’s a twist. If my explanation above is right, people who see white and gold unaided should continue to see white and gold through a pinhole. This is NOT what happens, apparently (admittedly I only have an anecdote to go by). Why don’t you try it and tell me?

What language does a deaf person think in? Redux

“Thinking in a language” is a convenient shorthand for letting the structure of the language guide your thinking; but we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of confusion if we take the idea literally.

As background, read this blogpost from more than four years ago on which got an indignant comment recently. What I want to say in response is long enough that I thought I’d make it a post.

First–and only first because I want to leave the mea culpas for the end–I meant inconvenient to the speaker, not to the listener (who is really secondary to this discussion). And convenience isn’t simply a matter of convention: I can speak and brush my hair, say, at the same time, which somebody who has to sign with their hands can’t do. That’s all I meant.

Second, I don’t dispute that speakers of English, say, can sometimes “think in English”, where “think in English” is shorthand for “use some of the conventions of the language as a shortcut tool for thinking” (more about this in the “what I got wrong” section below). I’ve seen musicians talk to each other “in music”, so I can easily believe they’re capable of “thinking” in music. In my own experience, as I get more familiar with programming, it is sometimes easier to just “think in C++” instead of trying to translate some idea into C++. But, if this isn’t exclusively the only way to think (see below about the “if”), we still have to ask what happens when this isn’t the way the thinking happened. Answer: mentalese.

Now, on to what I got wrong:

a) I said “different versions” of sign language, instead of different sign languages. (Having never used a signed language,) I got this wrong.

b) My thoughts on whether language can affect thought have changed after I read Guy Deutscher‘s incredibly good books on language: both The Unfolding of Language and Through the Language Glass are masterpieces of persuasive writing and I highly recommend them. My favourite example from Through the…  is where Deutscher talks of a tribe in Australia whose language, Guugu Yimithirr, only contains the cardinal directions (North, South, East, West). Native speakers of this language, it seems, are able to keep track of which way is North far better than speakers of a language that also uses user-fixed directions – left, right, forwards, backwards(*footnote1).

This is not at all to say that speakers of this language don’t–much less can’t–understand what ‘left’ or ‘right’ are. They just have a point on the rest of us when it comes to keeping track of which way is North.

This is also not proof that the speakers of Guugu Yimithirr “think in” Guugu Yimithirr. The speaker of the language is forced to keep track of the cardinal directions in order to be able to talk coherently. If people “thought in” a certain language–if we could only “think in” a certain language–then we would be arguing that speakers of a language such as Guugu Yimithirr don’t understand the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’.

My point is this: “thinking in a language” is a convenient shorthand for letting the structure of the language guide your thinking; but we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of confusion if we take the idea literally.


1) “Native” speakers are people who were raised from infancy speaking the language. Also, there’s a proper word for “user-fixed” directions


Net neutrality in India, or what Airtel will do next

Internet access is a public utility (like electricity or water) and should be to be regulated as such. Would you be OK with having to pay more for using electricity to power your computer rather than a TV? If not, you shouldn’t be OK with somebody forcing variably-priced internet upon you.

At 10% 20% (footnote 1), the fraction of the population of India that has (regular) access to the Internet may not be as high as in the developed world, but 20% of 1.2 billion is a significant number and India already has the third largest internet user-base in the world. And with the kind of penetration of mobile telephony that India has, it is only a matter of time before that fraction shoots up. In fact, it may already have started doing this: that fraction has doubled in the last three years.

A fifth of the country now has regular access to the internet. Internet access is, therefore, no longer a vanity; it is what might be called a public utility (like electricity or water) and should be to be regulated as such. Would you be OK with having to pay more for using electricity to power your computer rather than a TV? If not, you shouldn’t be OK with somebody forcing variably-priced internet upon you. This has long been the argument of supporters of a free (not as in beer) internet, activists for net neutrality.

The flashpoint recently was Airtel’s decision to start charging for using its network to make VoIP calls. Unsurprisingly, Airtel wants its customers to talk over their mobile telephony network rather than use their network to make calls over the internet. It looks like they were only testing the waters, though, because they’ve now rolled back the proposed tariffs. About which, two thoughts:

1) Like the article at medianama says, they’ve possibly only done this to force TRAI to make a decision, and you can imagine how good they feel about their chances to do something like this.

2) What airtel did here was both a clear violation of net neutrality and something that would cost the end-user money. The more insidious threat to net neutrality will come when airtel (or some other company) partners up with skype – make calls on skype free, but you’ll have to pay for any other VoIP service; I don’t know if we’ll see the same kind of backlash from the public then as we’ve seen now.


*fn1: The numbers I remembered were 5% for the world as a whole and 10% for India. Good thing I decided to look up the numbers, then.

I’ve got one finger for the two-finger test

I wrote, in the wake of Mulayam Yadav’s ‘Boys will be Boys’ comments at an election rally in mid-April, about the two-finger test having been ruled illegal. This was in early-March. I feared that women would continue to get harassed by the medical establishment.

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.

There are times when I wish I had been wrong, jaded, overly cynical; that people turned out to be better than I feared. Desperately. This is one of those times.

After interviews with medical students from across India, The Ladies Finger reports that

Many well-intentioned and well-framed bits of legislation are passed by the government, but their larger reach into the worlds of law enforcement and medicine is never guaranteed. Often, the different branches of the state – the police, the law, the health apparatus – function in a deeply discordant way. So, has the passing of these regulations snowballed into a greater awareness within the medical community, especially amongst students? Our short answer – and yes, it is a chilling one – is a resounding no.

The interviewees put up every defence of the indefensible you can think of. Apparently, medical students aren’t above victim blaming. And this isn’t gender-specific. Female medical students seem as oblivious to what rape survivors go through, or what the two-finger test supposedly tests or how horrendously unreliable it is as the men.

The article points out that there seems to be a systemic and ingrained mistrust of women. If the students don’t bring in enough misogyny, their education makes sure they leave with it.

Underlying the whole procedure is the idea that women lie and falsely accuse as a matter of routine. When we pressed medical students about why they though this, the answer was the same bone-rattling chorus we kept hearing: “this is what we’ve been taught”.

“When their teachers teach the wrong thing, they might disagree. But then the textbooks say the same thing and that leaves them little space to make an argument.”


The roster of pseudo-medical rationalisations for the two-finger test that medical students come up with, or are taught, or both, is victim-blaming institutionalised. Do read the whole article for the authors’ trenchant good sense.

The two-finger test is a problem that needs to be dealt with at many levels, beginning with the judicial system. There are efforts being made by various people and organisations in the medical fraternity and outside to change this system. If brought to the court, the question of a woman’s sexual history needs to be resolutely ignored. If there was willingness, a law could be passed banning the test from medical and judicial practice. And while that will probably take time, doctors should be responsible for spreading negative awareness about the test. Medical students also need to be taught better.

When classes are conducted to teach medical students, they are taught to be distant and objective – to reduce all knowledge to scientific distillations. Their textbooks make up some of the bedrock from which their worldviews spring. For them, medical textbooks are right because they have dispensed with the messiness of social life in favour of ‘facts’. But have they? Contrary to their own self-perception, medical students are not taught to ignore the social world in favour of everything scientific. Instead, they are taught to perpetuate a particular social vision in which women often appear as yet-to-be-proven liars with potentially dubious sexual histories.

An infinitely long Maxwell’s demon in a vacuum

In which the second law of thermodynamics plays spoilsport in the high dreams of an honourable Gujju.

UPDATE Sep 27: Work intervened. More on this in a bit, but I thought I should say something before then. Like Saikishan points out in the comments, the Carnot engine argument is flawed. The idea of generating power from the temperature rise caused by the train is laughable. I’ll say why. I’ll also argue why I think the idea that energy can be extracted from the small scale motion of turbulence is also deeply flawed. Soon.

There’s this article doing the rounds about the Indian central government getting a letter from a gullible Gujarati man who thought he had a brainwave when he realised that moving objects drag the medium they are in (air) behind them, and leave eddies of flow in their wakes. “All that wasted energy! Let’s put a windmill there and extract it all, why don’t we?”

So went he forth and sent a letter by post to the Prime Minister’s Office. (The article makes double mention of the fact that he sent his letter by post. That’s either wonderfully subtle mockery, or just blind luck.) And apparently the PMO saw fit to send this letter to the Railways asking for expert opinion.

The PMO, in turn, forwarded it to the Railways Ministry, asking it to explore the “techno-economic” feasibility of the idea, and sought regular updates.

The expert opinion was, of course, that this is a useless idea:

“A train will pass the windmill in less than 20 seconds. Even if there is a train every 15 minutes, a windmill can operate for only 25 minutes per day. This will not be viable economically. Further, the energy produced by the windmills would have to come from the trains only, which will consume extra energy[…]”

I have no problem with people sending silly ideas to engineers in the railways. I’m sure whoever got the job of explaining why the idea is silly had a lot of fun with it. I thought I would too.

So what’s wrong with sticking a windmill next to a train? The good people of the railways point out that this would be a huge investment that’s only ever going to be ‘switched on’ 25 minutes a day. Philistines, I tell you. What stops them from working with infinitely long trains and infinitely many windmills? Unfortunately, even with infinitely long trains and infinitely many windmills, there’s the little matter of the second law — the no-free-lunches law of thermodynamics.

Stick a windmill–indeed or any mechanism–next to a train and whatever energy the mechanism produces has to come out of the fuel the train burns. (There would be additional losses too.) As proof by reductio ad absurdum, imagine an ideal engine (a Carnot engine) running the train; i.e. the train’s already running at the maximum possible efficiency. The addition of the windmill draws extra work out of the fuel that the train is burning, and fucks with the second law. And as we all know, the second law is Tony Montana.

The infinitely long train idea is out, then. How about a mechanism that captures energy from the random motion of the turbulence that the (finitely long) train leaves behind in its wake? I can think of two inter-related problems with this.

The first one is logistical: what is the mechanism you have in mind that “knows” when the train has passed by? Because if the mechanism is in place when the train is passing by, it will affect the flow around the train, and therefore change the drag on the train, and therefore effectively draw energy from the train’s fuel source. At which point we’re back to fucking with Tony Montana.

The second problem is fundamental. Can you extract energy from the random motion in a medium? The idea of extracting energy from the wake behind a train is a rehash of the very old problem of Maxwell’s demon: a mechanism that can separate the ‘hot’, i.e. faster moving, molecules in a gas from the ‘cold’ ones. If you think about it, all you need is two compartments with a tube connecting them which only allows ‘hot’ molecules to pass in one direction, and only allows ‘cold’ molecules to pass in the other direction. And soon enough, one of the compartments will be full of ‘hot’ gas, and the other full of ‘cold’ gas. And of course, nothing of the sort is physically possible without violating the second law. Why this is so has to do with information and energy being equivalent, but I shan’t say more about this here.

In conclusion, windmills need large-scale movement of the air around them, i.e. they need wind, in order to extract energy. And changing the large-scale flow around a moving object has to be paid for with interest in increased drag, owing to the second law. The second law of thermodynamics also precludes any attempt at extracting energy from the small scales (albeit in a different way from above).

Rape isn’t rape

There are relics of colonial rule which we as a country seem desperately to want to cling to. The criminalisation of homosexuality is a perverse case in point, with the highest court in the land seemingly holding one fuck-awful section of the IPC a century and a half old above constitutional rights to freedom, dignity, privacy, life. The party which will presumably rule this country for the next five years has said it will continue this mockery of human dignity.

We’ve just been given another glimpse of what may be to come. A Delhi court has ruled that a man cannot rape his wife, lack of consent and the use of force be damned:

“The girl was more than 21-years-old at the time. Thus the girl and accused being legally-wedded husband and wife and the girl being a major, the sexual intercourse between the two, even if forcible, is not rape and no culpability can be fastened upon the youth,” Additional Sessions Judge Virender Bhat said while absolving the youth of the charge of rape.

I know none of the particulars of the case, and the NDTV article does nothing at all to make anything clear (the woman met her husband in December 2013, but the marriage was solemnised in March 2013?). But what the judge said in his ruling will harm more than just this poor woman. This ruling will become another in the list of cases where nothing was found wrong with marital rape.

The judge is, strictly, correct. According to what is the law today, a man cannot legally rape his wife if she is an adult. (But, you say, how can a woman even be married if she isn’t an adult? The law until 2010 said that age limit was 15. Raising the age to 18 was the ‘compromise’ Indian lawmakers struck.)

Isn’t it time we fixed this stupid law? Sexual violence against women is staggeringly common(fn1). And a significant majority of the instances of sexual violence are committed by acquaintances. I don’t know what fraction is marital rape, but surely the only acceptable number is zero. (fn2)

I can’t imagine what the woman must have gone through. And she’s among the lucky ones who can get a case registered and take it to court. For every one of her, there are many others who either can’t or don’t report sexual violence against them, or aren’t even taken seriously enough to be given a hearing. (fn3) Or, if they are, they’re put through mind-numbing ordeals.

HT: Srikanth, who pointed me to the court ruling and hopes the Supreme Court will do something about this.


1) One in three women will face some sort of sexual assault in her lifetime. That number is just depressing.

2) Two-thirds of rapes are committed by people who aren’t strangers to the victims. The page at the link also says 28% of rapes are by an intimate.

3) 60% of sexual assaults aren’t reported. 97% of the accused will never serve jail time. India’s conviction rate (for cases that are actually reported) is 24%.

The abuse of a raped woman

Justice is a lottery.

When I wrote about Mulayam Singh Yadav and his ‘boys will be boys’ speech, I was trying to make the point that while Mulayam Yadav is an ignorant asshole, his views on sexual violence are representative of our culture of victim-blaming; that how the country’s law-enforcement and medical establishment treats victims of rape is symptomatic of this culture.

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. [Emphasis added.]

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that what I said I feared might happen is now happening to a woman in Kolkata. She is now the victim of an establishment that not only fails to provide adequate care or support, but on the contrary seems to be accusing her of making it up (the joint police commissioner of Kolkata has apparently held press conferences where he has said he finds the victims statements inconsistent). She has also been at the mercy of a doctor who clearly didn’t get the memo about what not to do during a medical examination of a victim of sexual abuse:

[…] the doctor asked the victim a few questions and took a vaginal swab which he gave to the police for forensic examination. However, the detailed protocols as mandated by the MoHFW guidelines (page 23-36) were not followed. Some key specimen (like pubic hair samples) were not collected/looker for and some outdated and irrelevant information (relating to the hymen, elasticity of vagina, admissibility of fingers etc.) was noted on the ‘report’ – clearly flouting the March 19 guidelines, which make us believe that the doctor who performed the preliminary examination is not aware of the MoHFW guidelines and protocols.

Besides, no steps were taken for the victim’s medical care, and health concerns. No urine test or testing for HIV was done and no psychosocial care was offered. When she requested the doctor to take samples/pictures of fingerprints of the culprit that might still be there on specific places of her body she was curtly told that the doctor knows what he is supposed to do. The doctor did not even use the correct and detailed form to record details of the medical examination. (page 62, MoHFW guidelines). It appeared that the hospital does not have a copy of either the new guidelines or the correct form.

That there are doctors who haven’t kept up with the law isn’t surprising. That this is happening in Kolkata’s second biggest government hospital is. That the doctor is either so much of an ass or so cynical that he can barely go through the motions even when faced with a woman who has been raped is both surprising and shocking.

I dare not imagine what the situation is in small towns and villages.

Here she is, a politically aware, intelligent and brave young woman who was lucky to have so much immediate support from her student comrades and women’s organizations. Even she has to experience so many hurdles and so much of stigma and maligning attempts, just during the immediate aftermath of her traumatic experience. Justice remains elusive as ever. Her father wants justice for his daughter, but is extremely skeptical about the prospect of justice, going by the prevailing standards and conviction rates. One can imagine what women of lesser privilege and in places where even basic medico-legal infrastructure are missing, go through. Justice is a lottery.

From Kavitha, who pointed me to the Kafila article.