Sunday, November 21, 2004

Pet Peeve: Powerpoint

A discussion on Lubos' blog set me off on another of my pet peeves - Powerpoint. Lubos dismisses problems with Powerpoint as "pronouncements of left wing morons who want to fight against America, capitalism, Microsoft". I, of course, think differently. The problem is not with the technology as such, it is with the bad habits that it promotes.

Let me give an example of something else that puts me at risk of being a moron who wants to fight against America, capitalism, Verizon and Cingular. The cellphone is a very useful tool. But I've been in too many meetings, where people constantly receive calls on their cell, from their management, and so keep losing the thread of the meeting. It is not that the meeting is disrupted; people do put their phones on silent mode, and slip out of the room to talk and so on. But you do not know who has missed what part of the meeting, and whether any important points have been missed. "My boss can interrupt me at any time" becomes counter-productive.

In a similar way, Powerpoint promotes certain bad habits. In my experience, the problem is foreign to a physics department. Imagine a professor giving a physics talk with some slides as an exhibit. If physics is still done as I remember it, the slides are used as an outliner, or to display a complicated equation, or a figure, or a list of collaborators, or citations. The slides represent skeleton, the speaker provides the flesh and blood.

In the corporation, however, (and apparently in NASA as well, see Tufte's criticisms below), a powerpoint presentation may begin as something similar. For instance, an engineer may talk about a technical solution using some slides. But the slides take on an existence independent of the engineer. The slides, sans talk, accompanying notes, explanations, may be fed up the management hierarchy. An accompanying technical report is needed. But who wants to read? The next phenomenon is that managers stop accepting anything that is not given to them as a terse hierarchical bullet-point list.

Powerpoint became a pet peeve of mine many months ago, after some incidents at work. When I went online, I found that many criticisms pre-date mine and are more comprehensive. I do not really have much to add to the following, garnered from the net.

Feynman apparently was no fan of bullet lists, as some of his commentary on the first space shuttle disaster indicates.

Peter Norvig shows us how Powerpoint mangles Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. He explains further, here.

Some of the problems with Powerpoint are explored in this essay from The New Yorker. The essay also gives the history of the Powerpoint software.

Edward Tufte has written extensively on the drawbacks of Powerpoint. A parody of his ideas in Powerpoint is available here. Tufte's own writings (and readers' comments) are available at his web-site. Two of the most relevant are this, and this which talk about the role of Powerpoint communications in the space shuttle Columbia disaster.

Global Warming or Not?

The US administration has signed an agreement targeting methane, a greenhouse gas. The treaty involves only a relatively small amount of money - $53 million - which is to be invested in companies to control methane emissions.

Methane is present in much smaller concentrations than carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 1998, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was 365 parts per million (ppm) and methane was 1.75 ppm. Moreover, the rate of concentration change in the preceding decade was 1.5 ppm/year for carbon dioxide, and 0.007 ppm/year for methane. The EPA also says that, molecule for molecule, methane traps 21 times more heat than carbon dioxide. So, for global warming, methane does not seem to be as significant as carbon dioxide.

Now, if one believes that global warming is nonsense, then why sign the treaty?

Possibilities are:

1. The administration does not believe in global warming, but is throwing this as a sop to its critics on global warming. One might call it buying a little political capital.

2. The administration believes that global warming is nonsense, and signing the treaty is simply because of the irrationality that afflicts large organizations, of which the US Federal Government is a prime example.

3. The administration knows that global warming is not nonsense. However, the cost of reforming the economy to limit carbon dioxide emissions is enormous, and might require a lot of change in people's lifestyles. The administration does not want to spend its political capital on this. So the administration encourages its cheerleaders to attack the idea of global warming, in general. However, when something is doable relatively on the cheap, the administration will do it, despite its public rhetoric.

But I expect the scientists who say that global warming is not happening or is happening but not because of human activities, to clearly state that this treaty is a waste of money, and not just because it is an insignificant part of the overall problem.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Pet Peeve: People are not Resources

This is directed to anyone out there who is a manager. People are not resources. Mistaking the two seems to be a common problem among Information Technology Managers.

Resources are things like PCs and software licenses and servers. Money is a resource. Time is a resource. People are, well, people. There are many bad decisions that would obviously be nonsensical and that might be avoided, if one realizes one is dealing with people, and not with resources.

Certainly, there are types of jobs where daily hire-and-fire might make sense. For example, digging ditches. If you have a highly knowledgeable workforce, then you can move them around rapidly on an adhoc basis to put out the fires of the day. In that case, mistaking people for resources may not do any harm. But when you are short of people who know your business and your systems software and how it all works together, then you have to remember that people are not like toasters that you can plug in and plug out. Developing people from fresh hires takes time. Trying to staff up today to meet your next month's deadline will not work. Laying off people to meet some target and then trying to get some back to meet another target is both poor planning and is also mistaking people for appliances.

Anyway, enough said.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Limits of scientific explanation?

Following a discussion at Sean Carroll's blog-post on science and god :

Physical color (mixtures of wavelengths of light) maps into perceptual color (what I perceive). We can compare the maps between physical to perceptual color between two individuals. For instance, the perceptual differences between a "normal" person and a "red-green colorblind" person would be objectively established by their ability or lack of ability to distinguish between two different physical color stimuli.

If we simplify and say color is defined by Red, Green, Blue color coordinates that are in the range (0,255) and as displayed by a particular computer monitor, then we can do some easy computer experiments to construct the map of the physical to perceptual. For instance, I could have the computer display a solid area colored with one color (r1,g1,b1) surrounded by a solid area of another color (r2,g2,b2), and have it ask me whether I perceive a difference. Based on what I can and cannot distinguish, the nice 256 x 256 x 256 cubical lattice of Red, Green, Blue color coordinates will map into possibly some smaller set of points, representing the adjacent colors that I can distinguish. (I'm leaving out complications like the possibility that my ability to distinguish two adjacent colors may be affected by the presence of a third, distant color in my field of view.)

But speaking for myself, because I do not know how to pose this as anything but a subjective question, I can imagine two different physical-to-perceptual maps. I can do this via a physical transformation. The second digital image is derived from the first simply by exchanging the red and green channels.

Tulips by the fence

Tulips by the fence(2)

Subjectively, I can imagine someone, who sees the world like image 2 and not image 1. Identical neural nets in my brain and his brain may be firing, our physical-to-perceptual maps may be identical. Nevertheless, subjectively, I can ask whether what he sees is like image 2. I cannot see how to turn this into a scientific question, but I think this is a valid question nevertheless.

My reality is subjective. I'm the product of an enormous amount of natural selection, and so my reality corresponds closely to the physical reality that we can measure, capture in our equations, reason about. Nevertheless my reality is different from that physical reality. Scientifically, we can construct the physical - subjective reality map, verify that the maps are more or less homologous among all humans, and are different between, say, humans and parrots. With such maps, we may be even able to manipulate or enrich subjective reality. E.g, if today I can distinguish between 256 shades of physical red but only 180 shades of physical blue, perhaps some tweaking of some neuronal circuit or gene might make my blue perception expand to 256 shades of blue. But some subjectively essential ingredient eludes the scientific grasp, I think.

All that is required in order for humans to be able to communicate amongst themselves is that the physical-subjective reality maps for almost all humans are homologous to each other.


At the core of the Indic Traditions (which include the so-called religions of Hinduism and Buddhism), stripped of its sacred stories, deities, rituals, etc., is speculation about subjective reality, and the use of meditation as a tool to unlock its secrets. If we insist on calling this "religion", then it is very different from the Biblical or Quranic religions. If anything like "God" exists, this is the only place in the world left for him.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

On the non-creation of the world

(Taken from A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, Moore & Radhakrishnan),
this is from a section of Kumarila Bhatt's (7th century AD) `Slokavartika'.

1. On God's Not being the Creator of the World


45. At a time when all this (earth, water, etc.) did not exist, what could have been the condition of the Universe ? As for God himself, what could be his position ? And what his form ?

46. And at that time (when no men existed) who would know Him and explain His character to the later created persons ? (If it be held that He cannot be perceived by any man, then) without perception (or cognition of some sort, by some person), how can we determine this (fact of His existence) ?

47. Then again, in what manner do you believe the world to have had a beginning in time ? (If it be held that it is brought about by a desire on the part of God, then) since God is (held to be) without a material body, etc., how could He have any desire towards creation ?

48-9. And if He has a body, assuredly this body could not have been created by Himself; thus then we would have to postulate another creator (for His body)(and so on, ad infinitum). If God's body be held to be eternal, then (we ask)-- so long as earth (water, etc.) have not been produced, of what material would that body be composed ?

49-50. Then again, in the first place, how is it that He should have a desire to create a world which is to be fraught with all sorts of troubles to living beings ? For at that time (of the beginning of creation) he has not got any guiding agencies, in the shape of virtue (or sin) etc., of the living beings themselves. Nor can any creator create anything, in the absence of means and instruments.

51. Even the production of the spider's net is not held to be without some sort of a (material) basis; as (the net is spun out of) the saliva, which is produced out of the body of the animals (flies, etc.,) eaten (by the spider).

52. (If it be held that God creates the world out of pity, then we say) in the absence of objects of compassion (in the shape of living persons), no pity (or compassion) could be possible for Him. And if He were urged to creation by pure compassion, then He would create only happy beings.

53. If it be urged that "without some pain, neither the creation nor the continuation of the world would be possible," - then (we reply that ) when everything depends upon the mere will of the Creator Himself, what could be impossible for Him ?

54. And if He were to depend upon laws and agencies, then this fact would deprive Him of His (boasted) independence. (You say He desires to create the world, -- will you let me know) what is that end which He desires, and which could not be gained without creating the world ?

55. For without some end in view, even a fool does not act. Then if He were to act so (without any end in view), then what would be the good of His intelligence ?

56. If the activity of the Creator were due to a desire for mere amusement, then that would go against His ever-contentedness. And (instead of affording any amusement), the great amount of work (required for creation) would be a source of infinite trouble to Him.

57.And His desire to destroy the world (at pralaya) [time of destruction] too would be hardly explicable. And (above all) such a Creator could never be known by anybody.

58. Even if He were known in form, the fact of His being the Creator could never be known. Because at that time (i.e., in the infancy of creation) what could the living beings, appearing at the beginning of creation, understand ?

59. They could not understand wherefrom they have been born; nor could they know the state of the world prior to creation, or the fact of God being the Creator.

60. Nor could the idea that they would derive from His own assertion (with regard to His being the Creator) be altogether trustworthy, because even though He may not have created the world, He might speak of having done so, in order to show off His great power.

61. In the same manner, the Word [Veda] that would proceed from Him would only be doubtful, and hence could not be admitted as sure proof of His existence (and creative power). And as for that (Veda) which is eternal, how could it make a mention (of facts with reference to the creation of living beings, etc.) ?

62. For, if the Veda existed before the objects (created), then there can be no connection between this (Veda) and the objects created. Therefore the passages (occuring in the Veda) (which appear to describe the process of creation) must be interpreting something else.

.....after this it starts getting more technical (starts using concepts
that when translated, would have to be shorn of all the connotations the
translated word has ) and so I quit.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Battlefield Ruminations

Wandering over the Monmouth battlefield, I idly wondered, whether the American patriots who fought there so long ago, would be so passionate, if they knew that their fight included me, a brown-skinned Hindu. Though such thoughts were probably farthest from their minds. They would eventually drive Cornwallis out of America, and he would next go to India, where his career was a tad more successful. No one can trace the chain of events, but I land up on these shores. If they knew, perhaps they would apologize to Cornwallis.

And today I wonder, about the soldiers in Iraq. I don't want them to be there, I do not want to accept their sacrifice, I do not want their protection against a non-existent threat, a war based on non-truths.

Reluctant they may have been, but they have no say in the matter, I walk on their battlefield, invoking their ghosts. Reluctant am I, but I have expended my choice fruitlessly, and they continue to march into battle.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

The way forward?

This is what I wrote elsewhere, soon after the election:

If we are indeed tolerant of differences, and cultural relativists in the best sense of the word, then perhaps we need to stop trying to impose our values on the whole country via the Federal Government.

Roe v. Wade, gay marriage are cultural issues based on which Democrats lost their say on truly national issues such as the
war in Iraq or budget deficits.

The truly fundamental rights are those which are required to keep democracy running - the right to vote, to dissent, to not be subject to arbitrary arrest, held without trial, etc. Those we defend at all levels.

All cultural issues, which do not destroy democracy, we pledge not to impose on anyone via Federal/Supreme Court fiat, except if we have a state by state consensus, enough to get a constitutional amendment.

The culturally liberal states can convert their openness into an economic and demographic advantage over the states that are illiberal. So liberal get their say on matters of national import.


One reason I wrote the above is that, e.g., I think Roe vs. Wade is doomed, and the liberal states are going to have to put the right of choice into their constitutions, and stand on state rights against any federal law. It will come down to a state-by-state struggle.

Now threatened are the very self-corrective mechanisms of democracy, that are operative because of our rights. Without minimizing the pain and suffering of people who would be adversely affected by restrictions on abortion, or marriage, I think keeping the system capable of reversing these restrictions is far more important in the scale of things.

I know that there are difficult issues, like guns, where the porosity of state borders makes any state-wise regulation practically useless. But that porosity also works in our favor, I really think that people will vote with their feet, and to the blue states' advantage.


Clinton famously declared - The era of big government is over. How about the era of small, effective government?

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Microprocessors hit a speed bump

"Somewhere between 130 nanometres and 90 nanometres the whole system fell apart. Scaling stopped working and nobody seemed to notice."

-B Meyerson, Chief Technologist, IBM

So far, with every process shrink, the microprocessor folks have been able to crank up the clock speed of the processor. But now they've hit a wall, it seems, and the fastest Pentium will not exceed 4 GHz any time in the near future.

So far, the preferred way to increase processor performance seems to have been to crank up the clock. Now, engineers will have to be much more clever. They had to be pretty clever before - today's processors run hundreds of times faster than memory, and so, they'd be spending most of their time waiting for data fetches to complete without some serious ingenuity. There are good articles around the web on this, but it might be fun to solidify my understanding by trying to list them out.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Election results

As I head off to sleep, the election results seem to be trending towards Bush.

The scary thing is that whichever way it goes, half the nation doesn't get it.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Re: Genetic superiority

Some thoughts on the discussion at Sean Carroll's blog about women in physics, genetics, etc.

The genetic argument, I imagine, goes something like that in The Bell Curve.That is, there is some quantity, like I.Q., that may be reliably measured, and that may correspond to something real, and for any population, the distribution falls into a bell-curve. The peak of the bell-curves for men and women are slightly different, supposedly for genetic reasons. Physicists are drawn from the extreme tail of the bell-curve, and so the small difference in means produces a significant difference in the ratio of men to women in the field.

Every statement in the above is debatable. Anyway, that is only one part of the problem. But if such a description is true (which, incidentally, I do not believe), then physics will be male-dominated. Nevertheless, some women qualify to play, and it is a fair question to ask whether they face obstacles above and beyond the usual ones in physics, simply because they are women. The talk given by Georgi, referenced here, would indicate that the answer is yes.


The top three reasons not to vote for re-electing President Bush:

1. Dropping the ball in the war on Islamist terrorism : Osama bin Laden is still out there.
2. Starting the war in Iraq : Iraq, whatever threat it might have posed, was not an imminent threat. Nor did Iraq have anything to do with Islamist terror.
3. Botching the war in Iraq : If WMD was the primary reason for going to war, then why did so many of the nuclear sites end up looted? One would have expected them to be secured for searches for WMD. You can wade through the humungous Duelfer report or see much the same thing in this editorial

The top three reasons to vote for Kerry:

1. He understands that Islamist terrorism is a specific threat, which cannot be solved by invading random countries.
2. He has better prospects than Bush of fixing Iraq - though the mess is so bad that we have Newsweek reporting that Colin Powell says in private that the insurgents are winning.
3. He will bring back budgetary discipline to the government. The fiscal deficit is one of those icebergs we are going to run into; and unlike in the past, foreigners are more reluctant than ever to hold this debt. China has indicated that it is diversifying - buying euro or yen or commodities or building up a strategic oil reserve, and reducing the amount of US treasuries that it buys.

P.S. GOP endorsements of Kerry

Political misfit

Two web-sites that I follow are Lew Rockwell and Common Dreams.

The first is conservative. Its pro-market, limited government ideas appeal to me. The writers on this site are consistent, for instance, since war involves big government, they are generally non-interventionist, and oppose the war in Iraq. This is unlike many other conservative websites, where the war in Iraq is a good thing. The main problem is that the conservatism is tied to Christianity, and that too, of a type that I find repellent; and the limited government ideas are tied to the Confederacy. Now, Lincoln did change the relationship between the states and the Federal government in a fundamental way, and that is worth thinking about, whether that change should be undone. But since the Confederacy was also a defense of slavery, it would be good to free these ideas about States Rights from that historical association.

The Common Dreams site is a liberal site. ( I don't like the word progressive, because it doesn't mean anything, e.g, aren't there progressive diseases?). The main charm of liberals is that they are tolerant of a much wider range of folks than are conservatives. Their main problem is that they tend to think reality is very malleable, so that good intentions are all that count, the means (fiscal) are merely an annoying detail.

So, I find myself in sympathy with both, in part, and that means I belong to neither group.