Thursday, November 30, 2006

Pearls from a Pig

Our favorite Capitalist Imperialist Pig predicts the next fifty years of science.

Teach girls and die horribly

The Independent reports:

"The gunmen came at night to drag Mohammed Halim away from his home, in front of his crying children and his wife begging for mercy.

The 46-year-old schoolteacher tried to reassure his family that he would return safely. But his life was over, he was part-disembowelled and then torn apart with his arms and legs tied to motorbikes, the remains put on display as a warning to others against defying Taliban orders to stop educating girls.

Mr Halim was one of four teachers killed in rapid succession by the Islamists at Ghazni...."


Is it because this is a male teaching girls?
No, the article reports that Ms. Fatima Mushtaq has been threatened for not sending
girls home.


We need to be as fanatic about our values as the Islamists are about theirs.

It means making war on them in Afghanistan.

It means boycotting Pakistan, which supports the Taliban, and making war on it if necessary.

It means boycotting Eric Margolis, who is a Taliban apologist. He claims that the Taliban don't want girls in school to keep them from Communist influence, the Commies having infiltrated the ranks of the teachers.

It means ostracizing anyone who says "the Taliban are bad, but..."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Myth of the Enlightenment?

A Richard Shweder had a op-ed piece in the NYTimes on Monday, Atheists Agonistes. He wonders why the phenomenon someone called "AAAA" - the angry arrogant atheist attitude - is manifesting itself at this point in time.

One obvious answer that he considers is that it is a reaction to the increasing religious fundamentalism, both within and without America. But he speculates that perhaps it is because the myth of the Enlightenment is coming undone.

"The Enlightenment story has its own version of Genesis, and the themes are well known: The world woke up from the slumber of the “dark ages,” finally got in touch with the truth and became good about 300 years ago in Northern and Western Europe.

As people opened their eyes, religion (equated with ignorance and superstition) gave way to science (equated with fact and reason). Parochialism and tribal allegiances gave way to ecumenism, cosmopolitanism and individualism. Top-down command systems gave way to the separation of church from state, of politics from science."

But the world seems to be headed in a different direction. Hence an anxiety and AAAA.


Here, I continue without Shweder. One idea that is not working out is that Enlightenment values are based on objective truths about human nature and hence are universal. But these "universal" values are far from being accepted in the Islamic world, for instance. Why might this be so? My answer requires a digression.

Professor S.N. Balagangadhara (Balu) examined Western accounts of Indian culture and religion and found that the object of their descriptions is not recognizable to Indians - except those who have accepted the Western discourse. The Indian misunderstanding arises from a faulty understanding of the West. To give a probably not-so-good example, Indians identify the Western "God" with "Ishwara", even though the two are conceptually quite different, and then proceed to misunderstand everything the West says about "God".

The Western side of the misunderstanding is a bit more difficult to grasp. After all, don't they have the imprimatur of science? Hasn't the study of other cultures been ever more scientific ever since the Enlightenment?

We must detour a bit more. The social sciences say that religion is a universal. Since Christianity describes itself as a religion, Balu examines religion (in The Heathen in His Blindness) and asks what is it that makes Christianity a religion? The answer I will not explain here; but equipped with that answer, one sees that many cultures in the world do not have religion - the native Indian culture in particular does not have religion, and the construct of Hinduism as a religion is a mirage. "Hinduism" is a barrier to a truer understanding of India and must be discarded as a concept. What made the social scientists think that every culture has a religion?

The answer is that the Enlightenment is really a secularization of Christianity. One loses God, Jesus and the Bible, but retains the epistemology, metaphysics - the theology without the theos. It is Christianity that defined the non-Christians as having (false) religions; the Enlightenment thinkers and their successors continue to think of non-Christians as having religions. Science itself - as insight into the mind of God, an idea one finds echoed by Newton and Einstein - had religious roots and had to have arisen in a religious culture. The idea of God as sovereign who has delegated His sovereignty to a king or ultimately to individual humans and the human rights that arise from this sovereignty also arise from religion.

One of the implications of all this, to my mind, is that while Hindus do not have religion and are able to handle a rather incoherent 'secularism', Muslims do have a religion and if the Enlightenment is at its roots Christian, they must resist its values or abandon their religion.


Returning to Shweder - he thinks the Enlightenment story is a myth because any viable society needs religion. We think the Enlightenment is a myth because it is secularized theology. The understanding of cultural differences and managing them is a work just begun, it cannot be done within the current framework.

PS: the above is my understanding and is not binding on the authors cited.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

If you say so...

"The stereotypic image of the Muslim holy warrior with a sword in one hand and the Koran in the other would only be plausible if he was left handed, since no devout Muslim should or would touch a Koran with his left hand which is reserved for dirty chores."

- Ibn Warraq
- From: The Origins of the Koran, Classic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book

It is possible that someone flipped the photo below, or miscaptioned it. Or maybe the subject has two right hands, or is not carrying the Koran but a book of al-Sadr speeches? Or somebody forgot to mention to the warrior below not to feed into the stereotype. Or that these folks in the stereotype were not devout in the Ibn Warraq sense.

"MASKED A militiaman in Baghdad carries a rocket launcher and a Koran during a parade by the Mahdi Army, a militia that is reported to be splintering, as other armed gangs proliferate."


Friday, November 24, 2006

The New Physics

In the comments thread on Bee's blog

"I used the word 'unverified' with the meaning it's not verified through experimental facts that it is actually realized in nature."

"This is a nonsensical assertion. AdS/CFT is a statement about the character of mathematics that describes quantum gravity, and if you agree that it is an essentially proven one, then it follows that it is realized in Nature much like 2+2=4 is realized in Nature."


What is AdS/CFT you ask?
Wikipedia on AdS/CFT
"In physics, the AdS/CFT correspondence (anti-De-Sitter space/conformal field theory correspondence), sometimes called the Maldacena duality, is the conjectured equivalence between a string theory defined on one space, and a quantum field theory without gravity defined on the conformal boundary of this space, whose dimension is lower by at least one. The name suggests that the first space is the product of anti de Sitter space (AdS) with some closed manifold like sphere, orbifold, or noncommutative space, and that the quantum field theory is a conformal field theory (CFT). However, the conjectured equivalence is more general, and is therefore sometimes termed gauge / gravity duality."


"The most known example and the first one to be studied is the duality between Type IIB supergravity on AdS5 * S5 (a product space of a five-dimensional Anti de Sitter space and a five-sphere) on one hand, and N=4 supersymmetric Yang-Mills theory on the four-dimensional boundary of the Anti de Sitter space (either a flat four-dimensional spacetime R3,1 or a three-sphere with time S3* R).[6] This is known as the AdS/CFT correspondence, a name often used for Gauge / gravity duality in general."


The reader should note:
1. AdS/CFT is a conjecture; a very well-founded one perhaps, but still a conjecture.
2. Even if proven, it does not mean it is realized in nature. In particular that we live in a 5-dimensional AdS spacetime is yet to be established. :)
3. Even if AdS/CFT is established, its relevance to ultra-high energy heavy atomic nuclei collisions is yet to be established.

This is the new style of physics. In theology, non-existence would be a permanent imperfection that mars The Perfect God, and therefore God must exist. In the new physics, the same holds with Superstring Theory.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Rules for the mind

One should avoid multitasking as much as possible.

The constant breaking of attention, the switching between different tasks is detrimental to the mind.

The phone on the desk, the cell phone, email, instant messenger - turn them all off.

Don't channel-surf. Don't watch television with commercials.

When driving, drive. The driver's seat is not a home away from home.

I'd say more but I have to answer the phone :)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The laws of human stupidity

Via a comment on turcopolier

"The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, according to Dr. Cipolla:

First Law - Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

This is not as obvious as it sounds, says Cipolla, because:

1. people whom one had once judged rational and intelligent turn out to be unashamedly stupid; and,

2. day after day, with unceasing monotony, one is harassed in one’s activities by stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places and at the most improbable moments.

Second Law
The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

Stupidity quotients appear unrelated to gender, ethnic heritage, education or other sociodemographic.

Third (and Golden) Law
A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

Fourth Law
Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.

Fifth Law
A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

The Fourth Law greatly resonates with me. ( if anyone wants an example).

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Internet Lesson

Life is too short to be spent debating the endless supply of idiots that become visible because of the Internet.

Added later:

Example 1 :
Example 2 : Lumo on this thread

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Webb - the Conservative

The Main-Stream Media characterizes James Webb, recently elected Senator from Virginia as a conservative. After all, he was a Reagan appointee (Secy. of the Navy) and was against women in the armed forces and so on.

As pointed out on, this is an interesting conservative :)
Read this and figure it out!

Three paragraphs from there:

"The most important--and unfortunately the least debated--issue in politics today is our society's steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century. America's top tier has grown infinitely richer and more removed over the past 25 years. It is not unfair to say that they are literally living in a different country. Few among them send their children to public schools; fewer still send their loved ones to fight our wars. They own most of our stocks, making the stock market an unreliable indicator of the economic health of working people. The top 1% now takes in an astounding 16% of national income, up from 8% in 1980. The tax codes protect them, just as they protect corporate America, through a vast system of loopholes."

"This ever-widening divide is too often ignored or downplayed by its beneficiaries. A sense of entitlement has set in among elites, bordering on hubris. When I raised this issue with corporate leaders during the recent political campaign, I was met repeatedly with denials, and, from some, an overt lack of concern for those who are falling behind. A troubling arrogance is in the air among the nation's most fortunate. Some shrug off large-scale economic and social dislocations as the inevitable byproducts of the "rough road of capitalism." Others claim that it's the fault of the worker or the public education system, that the average American is simply not up to the international challenge, that our education system fails us, or that our workers have become spoiled by old notions of corporate paternalism."

"The politics of the Karl Rove era were designed to distract and divide the very people who would ordinarily be rebelling against the deterioration of their way of life. Working Americans have been repeatedly seduced at the polls by emotional issues such as the predictable mantra of "God, guns, gays, abortion and the flag" while their way of life shifted ineluctably beneath their feet. But this election cycle showed an electorate that intends to hold government leaders accountable for allowing every American a fair opportunity to succeed."


What is unusual is not the message but the messenger. Few politicians dare speak this way, because they are all beholden to the corporate money that they would be attacking by such ideas. So, a newly elected Senator speaking this way is very encouraging, one can hope there will be a debate and useful actions resulting from this.

Stepanov's advice to programmers

A couple of years ago, Stepanov, a noted computer scientist, gave a talk to students in India, and here are some of his remarks taken from here

"1. Study , Study and Study

Never ever think that you have acquired all or most of the knowledge which exists in the world. Almost everybody in US at age of 14 and everybody in India at age of 24 starts thinking that he has acquired all the wisdom and knowledge that he needs. This should be strictly avoided.

You should be habituated to studies…exactly in the same way as you are habituated to brushing teeth and taking bath every morning. The habit of study must become a part of your blood. And the study should be from both the areas: CS, since it is your profession, and something from non-CS…Something which does not relate to your work. This would expand your knowledge in other field too. A regular study, everyday, is extremely essential. It does not matter whether you study of 20 minutes of 2 hours,but consistency is a must.

You should always study basics and fundamentals. There is no point in going for advanced topics. When I was at the age of 24, I wanted to do PhD in program verification, though I was not able to understand anything from that. The basic reason was that my fundamental concepts were not clear. Studying Algebraic Geometry is useless if you do not understand basics in Algebra and Geometry. Also, you should always go back and re-read and re-iterate over the fundamental concepts. What is the exact definition of `fundamental’? The stuff which is around for a while and which forms basic part of the concepts can be regarded as more fundamental. Of course, everybody understands what a fundamental means."

"2. Learn Professional Ethics

As a CS Professional, you are morally obliged to do a good job. What this means is that you are supposed to do your job not for your manager but for yourself. This is already told in Bhagwatgeeta : Doing duties of your life.

The direct implication of this is: never ever write a bad code. You don’t need to be fastest and run after shipping dates; rather you need to write quality code. Never write junk code. Rewrite it till it is good. Thoroughly test every piece of code that you write. Do not write codes which are “sort of alright”. You might not achieve perfection, but atleast your code should be of good quality.

Let me quote my own example in this context. You might have heard about STL, The Standard Template Library that ships in with C++ compilers. I wrote it 10 years ago, in 1994. While implementing one of the routines in the STL, namely the “search routine”, I was a bit lazy and instead of writing a good linear order implementation of KMP which was difficult to code, I wrote a best quadratic implementation. I knew that I could make the search faster by writing a linear-order implementation, but I was lazy and I did not do that. And, after 10 years of my writing STL, exactly the same implementation is still used inside STL and STL ships with an inefficient quadratic implementation of search routine even today!! You might ask me: why can’t you rewrite that? Well…I cannot,because that code is no more my property!! Further, nobody today will be interested in a standalone efficient STL …people would prefer one which automatically ships out with the compiler itself.

Moral is, you should have aesthetic beauty built inside you. You should “feel” uneasy on writing bad code and should be eager to rewrite the code till it becomes upto the quality. And to the judge the quality, you need to develop sense regarding which algorithms to use under what circumstances."

"3. Figure out your Goals

Always aspire doing bigger things in life.”Viewing promotion path as your career” is a completely wrong goal. If you are really interested in studying and learning new things, never ever aspire for being a manager. Managers cannot learn and study…they have no time. “Company ladder aspiration” is not what should be important for you.

You might feel that you want to do certain things which you cannot do till you become a manager. When you become a manager, you will soon realize that now you just cannot do anything!

You will have a great experience as programmers. But if you care for people and love people, you will never enjoy being a manager…most good managers are reluctant managers. If you see people as people, you cannot survive at management level.

Always aspire for professional greatness. Our profession is very beautiful because we create abstract models and implement them in reality. There is a big fun in doing that. We have a profession which allows us to do creative things and even gives nice salary for that.

The three biggest mistakes that people usually make are aiming for money,aiming for promotion and aiming for fame. The moment you get some of these, you aspire for some more…and then there is no end. I do not mean that you should not earn money, but you should understand how much money would satisfy your needs. Bill Gates might be the richest person in the world; he is certainly not the happiest. Our lives are far better than his.

Find your goal, and do best in the job that you have. Understand that what is in your pocket does not matter…what is in your brain finally matters.Money and fame do not matter. Knowledge matters."

"4. Follow your culture

I have seen the tradition that whatever junk is created in US, it rapidly spreads up in the rest of the world, and India is not an exception for this. This cultural change creates a very strong impact on everybody’s life. Habits of watching spicy Bollywood or Hollywood movies and listening to pop songs and all such stupid stuff gets very easily cultivated in people of your age…but believe me, there is nothing great in that. This all just makes you run away from your culture. And there is no wisdom in running away from your culture. Indian culture,which has great Vedas and stories like Mahabharata and Bhagwatgeeta is really great and even Donald Knuth enjoys reading that. You should understand that fundamental things in Indian culture teach you a lot and you should never forget them.

Finally, I would like to conclude by saying that it’s your life…do not waste it on stupid things…develop your tests, and start the fight."

Monday, November 13, 2006

The non-complexity of the mind

Creationists make an argument against the theory of evolution that goes by the name "irreducible complexity". I refer you to Wikipedia here for a detailed discussion of the argument. The idea is that that if a biological system is useless if any of its components is missing or modified then it could not have evolved - arisen from an accumulation of small changes. An every day example would be a mousetrap - it has no utility if any of its parts is missing, and so could not have evolved.

It turns out that in all cases suggested so far by the Creationists, the argument doesn't work. It doesn't work in the case of the mousetrap, either - somewhere out on the net is an example of how a good mouse-trap could arise from a series of small changes to a primitive mouse-trap. Biological systems have another trick up their sleeves as well. While the system may be useless at its current apparent function if a part is missing or changed, the modified system might very well have another use. Thus, e.g., a bacterial secretion system might evolve into a seemingly irreducibly complex flagellum - a means of locomotion that doesn't work if its parts are missing, but very plausibly works as a secretory mechanism.

As puzzles, the latter type of seemingly irreducible complex systems are the most interesting, their evolutionary pathway is not apparent from simple inspection. During the early part of its evolutionary history, the system was under a selection pressure different from that during the latter part. At some point the system "discovers" a new use, and now selection chooses improvements on the new function. Quite unlike, e.g, the idea of how the giraffe neck evolved. Supposedly, the giraffe neck is an accumulation of small changes, each small additional growth in the neck length giving its possesor an advantage in browsing tree-high foliage.

To come to the purpose of this post - it is that the evolutionary explanations of human intelligence and self-awareness to be more like the story of the giraffe neck than like the story of the bacterial flagellum. So, e.g., how did human mathematical ability arise? The standard story would be that mathematical ability is a manifestation of intelligence and from general primate intelligence to human intelligence there is a simple evolutionary pathway, small increments in intelligence almost always being advantageous selection-wise. So our minds have grown in some way analogous to the giraffe neck. Without something seemingly irreducibly complex intervening, our minds and behavior are explained by the conditions under which our predecessors evolved. This parody is the kind of explanation that bothers me. But maybe, the pathway to mathematical ability is more subtle, e.g., the functions associated with language were being selected for, and at some point those faculties "discovered" the new use of mathematics.

Anyway, enough said, I'm already sufficiently confused.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Macaca Revisited

Now Republican ex-Senator George Allen of Virginia famously threw his campaign for re-election off the rails when he referred to S.R Sidharth, a student worker for the Democratic candidate Webb, as "macaca, or whatever his name is", and "“Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”

Frank Rich, in the Sunday NY Times, points out that even if Allen's claim that he meant nothing racist by that epithet is accepted, "Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia” was unmistakably meant to demean the young man as an unwashed immigrant, whatever his race.

Rich tells us that

"As it happened, the “macaca” who provoked the senator’s self-destruction, S. R. Sidarth, was not an immigrant but the son of immigrants. He was born in Washington’s Virginia suburbs to well-off parents (his father is a mortgage broker) and is the high-achieving graduate of a magnet high school, a tournament chess player, a former intern for Joe Lieberman, a devoted member of his faith (Hindu) and, currently, a senior at the University of Virginia. He is even a football jock like Mr. Allen. In other words, he is an exemplary young American who didn’t need to be “welcomed” to his native country by anyone."


This story did resonate with the "South Asian" community, but in an unexpected way, perhaps. Please note that Sidharth is a Hindu, and is of Indian descent. Therefore, on, a popular Pakistani web-site, Pakistanis began referring to Indians, and not fondly, as "macacas". I suppose they imagine that Allen's bigoted eye would be discerning enough to distinguish the Paki-ness of what otherwise would look to him to be yet another macaca.

There is an effort by some to promote the notion of a "South Asian-American" rather than "Indian-American". But this pretends a solidarity or common cultural mooring that does not exist.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

To blog or not to blog, that is the question!

Still undecided.