Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Rajiv Malhotra - the Battle for Sanskrit

I just received my copy of Rajiv Malhotra's "The Battle for Sanskrit", and am just upto page 12.  Rajivji writes about his conversation with the person merely designated as "the financial donor", supposedly a fifth generation follower of the Sringeri Peetham. 

My observation, peripheral to the theme of the book is that this person, a major money man in the financial industry, it seems, exhibits such woolly thinking, e.g., that since the truth is unassailable, it doesn't matter if people propagate lies, that one can only wonder how this person made his money.  A lawyer, a physician, a software engineer, an architect, a scientist can never be successful with a mind with such poor quality of thought.   If people such as this donor can amass a fortune in the financial industry, it simply reinforces the impression that it cannot be honest work and these must be dens of crooks.  If not law-breaking,  it must be low animal cunning.   Moreover, the enormous power that their money gives them makes these people dangerous to everyone around them.  Even more so in modern capitalist society that valorizes the "money maker".

Monday, February 22, 2016

What passes for political discourse

Many of Professor Krugman's readers of his column and blog at the New York Times are upset with him.  It boils down to this (taken from a reader's comment):
The arguments keep changing with the new ones contradicting the old ones, but the aim stays fixed: to tar Sanders
  • He is not popular
  • Wait, he is popular but he is not serious
  • He is serious but is not electable!
  • Ok, he polls stronger against Trump and wins with Cruz (unlike Hillary!) but 4 "wonks" I hang out with think Hillary is more electable.
  • He has no concrete plans
  • He has concrete plans but cannot carry them out
  • Policy proposals of his economist are crazy, say 4 guys working for Hillary citing no numbers
  • OK, the economist in question actually supports Hillary not Sanders and better macroeconomists than me say his numbers add up, but Sanders' supporters are mean
  • He is mean to point out that Hillary gorges on Wall St money
  • I think Sanders also takes contributions! No? Never mind, his supporters are so mean
  • Obamacare is great but single payer would be better
  • Now that Hillary says single payer will never happen and Sanders proposes it, single payer is crazy
  • Some health care VSP who worked for Hillary assumed crazy numbers and proved Sanders wrong
  • OK, his analysis was debunked by health policy professors, but Sanders' supporters are just too mean to listen to us wonks.
As I recall it, for months, Krugman's readers were asking for commentary on Bernie Sanders, but none were forthcoming.  Until Sanders starting posing a serious threat to Hillary Clinton.  Then there was a whole series of posts, deriding Sanders' supporters as "Bernie bros", and essentially terming them deluded for supporting Sanders.  Krugman then cited other economists, who it turns out, didn't really do their homework.  Krugman, famously a wonk, did not explain whether the premises behind Sanders' programs are flawed, or whether the reasoning leading to the results was flawed; he simply targeted the rosy projections as absurd.  As they may be.  But the sequence above that Krugman is seen to have gone through does not aid his credibility.

The US was on a particular trajectory of economic growth till 2008; and then the financial crisis hit, and since then the US is on a lower trajectory.  This is the famous "output gap".   The economists who are positive about Sanders' plans essentially believe that it is possible to get back to the previous trajectory,  to close the output gap,  and that is where their rosy numbers come from.  Only now is there some substantial argument that, sorry, that is impossible.  And sorry to say, that did not come from Krugman, who gave us only the big sneer.  Great economist though he is, I think he has jumped the shark. 

PS: see this.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanti - commentary by Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst's "Pluralism in Ilā’s city" which is a commentary on Ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanti is, I suggest, well worth your time.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Physical Insight

Physicist Lee Smolin has an interesting pre-print in the History and Philosophy of Physics section of arxiv.org : "Lessons from Einstein's 1915 discovery of general relativity".  ( If one has read books at the level of Penrose's popular works, this paper should be quite comprehensible.)

Smolin argues, that contrary to the myth created by Einstein himself, it was not beautiful mathematics that led Einstein to his theory of general relativity.  Historians of physics have gone through Einstein's notebooks, and what they shared with Smolin led him to this:

I had a very happy day about fifteen years ago when I visited Jurgen Renn in Berlin and he showed me images of the notebooks in which Einstein had created general relativity. What impressed me was that Einstein was using the same techniques all physicists use to grasp the essential features of a phenomena they want to model. These are the development of approximate expressions, together with theplayful creation of simple examples and models. These are the tools every physicist is taught, which they employ throughout their career, first, to do their homework and, later, to make progress in their research.

The mathematics Einstein used may appear beautiful to some who study it, but what is going on in Einstein’s notebooks was not beautiful. It was hardheaded and pragmatic.  When you dine at a fancy restaurant you may be impressed by the aesthetic presentation of a dish as it is brought to the table. But this is only the last step, just as the freshness of the ingredients as they come from the farm is only the first step. In between, hidden in the kitchen, it is all just hard, practical work. Mistakes are made, but these, ideally, never leave the kitchen. In Einstein’s kitchen—his notebooks it was no different.

It was Einstein's physical insight and intuition that gave him his greatest successes, and when he had no new insights and relied on the beauty of mathematics, as in his futile quest for a unified theory, he got absolutely nowhere. 

Smolin draws the lesson:
The lesson is that the task of formulating a physical principle must come first—only when we have one in hand do we have a basis to look for new mathematics to express the new principle.

The physical principles "that Einstein invented such as the principle of equivalence and the principle of the relativity of inertial frames"..."are directly about nature."

They constrain, and can be falsified by, individual experiments. They require no mathematics to express them: their contents can be entirely captured in a verbal description of an experiment. Historians talk of “thought experiments”, but in fact the principles invented by the young Einstein referred to genuinely doable experiments.

All very good, but then Smolin goes on to propose that background independence ("...the laws of nature should be statable in a form that does not rely on the specification of a fixed geometry of spacetime") might be one such physical principle. Here, I'm lost. This seems to me to be a statement the real content of which can only be expressed in mathematics. I'm hard-pressed to think of genuinely doable experiments that test this principle.

Smolin weighs in on the holography principle: "This says that a model world with gravity can be described as if it were a world without gravity, with one fewer dimension, where that surface theory has one degree of freedom per Planck area", and says that this principle does not have the physical content of the principles of relativity and equivalence, and cannot be tested in single experiment.

So color me puzzled. But it suits my particular inclination that physics proceeds with physical insight, not with mathematics. Of course, if we're stuck with no unexplained anomalous observations or experimental results, and we have no good physical principle, then we can only pay attention to the mathematics, and hope that it leads to something. The history of the last forty years of particle physics is that this is a slender straw to cling to.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Climate disorders

New York City just had its warmest Christmas Day (66°F) on record, and likely will have its coldest Valentine's Day on record tomorrow.   (The current record is 2°F in 1916.)

The Legal Meaning of "Hindu"

India is a country with "religious" personal (civil) laws.  Its Constitution, adopted in 1947, when the so-called "Hindu Right" was a tiny political minority,  has a directive principle, which states that the State will strive to have a Uniform Civil Code, but apart from the so-called "Hindu Right",  nobody wants to get there.

So, e.g., to govern marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc., there is a Muslim Personal Law, a Christian Personal Law, a Parsi Personal Law and a Hindu Personal Law. The question always arises, to who does the Hindu Personal Law apply?

The Constitution does not really go into this. However, specific legislation does, so e.g., to borrow from Koenraad Elst:
The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 goes in greater detail to define this "legal Hindu", by stipulating in Section 2 that the Act applies:

(a) to any person who is a Hindu by religion in any of its forms and developments, including a Virashaiva, a Lingayat or a follower of the Brahmo, Prarthana or Arya Samaj,

(b) to any person who is a Buddhist, Jain or Sikh by religion, and

(c) to any other person domiciled in the territories to which this Act extends who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew by religion
This is a legal definition.  How it should be related to cultural realities is yet to be determined.

Why is it possible to legally determine who a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew is?  Because each of these has a definite creed, a definite Holy Book, definite Prophets and so on.

In fact, in "secular" India, the government can interfere with Hindu institutions, such as Hindu temples or schools; but are constitutionally barred from interfering with non-Hindu institutions. So back iwhen the communist government of West Bengal was giving the Ramakrishna Mission a hard time, the Ramakrishna Mission moved the courts that it is not a Hindu institution.

The Supreme Court in its ruling, way back in 1995 stated:
When we think of the Hindu religion, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to define Hindu religion or even adequately describe it. Unlike other religions in the world, the Hindu religion does not claim any one prophet; it does not worship any one God; it does not subscribe to any one dogma; it does not believe in any one philosophic concept; it does not follow any one set of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not appear to satisfy the narrow traditional features of any religion of creed. It may broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more.  Confronted by this difficulty, Dr. Radhakrishnan realized that ` to many Hinduism seems to be a name without any content. Is it a museum of beliefs, a medley or rites, or a mere map, a geographical expression [The Hindu View of Life by Dr. Radhakrishnan, p.11]]
(Dr. Radhakrishnan was the first Vice President and the second President of independent India.)

and therefore, with this reasoning
In the result we dismiss these appeals, however by setting aside the holding of the learned single Judge in the Writ Petition that Ramakrishna religion being a religion distinct and separate from Hindu Religion was a minority in West Bengal based on religion, entitled to protection under Article 30 (1) of the constitution of India as upheld by the Division Bench of the High Court in its judgment deciding the appeals before it and also by setting aside the holding of the Division Bench of the High Court that Ramakrishna Mission as a religious denomination was entitled to establish and maintain institutions of general education under Article 26 (a) of the Constitution of India as those established and maintained for a charitable purpose. 
PS: one might, based on behavior observed from a distant ship, think that sharks and dolphins are the same, e.g. when they swim at the surface with their dorsal fin sticking above the surface.  Having analogous behavior does not make them the same, one has to look deeper into the structure.  Casting the Indic traditions as religion is akin to someone who only knows sharks, insisting that dolphins are sharks, and throws into doubt whether the someone understands even sharks.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

We have no religion

Professor Roddam Narasimha (a Caltecher, by the way) points out that the Kannada word that is used for "religion" in the "what is your religion?" question is "mat" (Devanagari: मत ) which is the same word for the vote. "Mat" means "opinion" or "view".  Anyone who tells you religion is just an opinion or a view, analogous to a vote is simply wrong.  "Religion", even after a millenium of exposure to Islam,  and centuries of exposure to Christianity, simply is not a native Indian concept.

With that,  perhaps this description Kalavai Venkat gives of himself, "a Silicon Valley-based writer, an atheist, a practicing orthodox Hindu" might become a little closer to comprehensible to those from the Western cultures grounded in religion.

How Free Speech Actually Works

Begin at 12:08, for how free speech actually works.  Rajiv Malhotra takes on American academic Sheldon Pollock and the response is to try to stop the publication of his book through "informal" methods.  However, when someone moves the court (e.g., with respect to Doniger's book) that is gross intolerance.