Thursday, March 26, 2015

First World Problems : Should Robots Have Gender?

Even with all the clamor around the documentary India's daughters, the aftermath of rape in India and women's rights in Muslim countries, I did not write anything it. Primarily because there is a surfeit of smart women who can and did talk about the issue themselves, they don't need a middle class, Tambrahm dude preaching about what he imagines its like to be oppressed by the hypocritical patriarchy. I think I contributed more by liking their posts than by writing one myself.
It would have been funny if it were not true.
Having said that I do consider myself quite an expert in philosophical first world problems and their hypothetical impact on society. So when Slate ran an article exploring the motivations, nuances and consequences of assigning gender to robots, I am jumping on the chance to talk about gender in a totally noncommittal, never-been-affected-by-it, you-go-gals-I'l-wait-here context.

The key point of the article is this : whether we want to or not, we unconsciously assign humanity, and gender to our environment,usually based on prevailing societal stereotypes.

For example : robots with angular construction, darker colors seem more masculine to people, as do one that are used in strength-intensive functions such as lifting or construction.
Robots with lighter colors, curvy designs and intended for calmer functions such as those involved in healthcare and teaching are usually identified by people as female.
Guess which one is male and which one female. And go watch Wall-E.
This obvious stereotyping occurs even if the robots do not have an interactive voice, or even a "face".

The article goes to on to describe NASA's answer to the DARPA Robotics Challenge- The Valkyrie DRC Robonaut. Built with the intention of replacing humans for tasks that are too dangerous, the robot has been given a female name and characteristics. The article praises NASA for doing this. However when NASA was asked specifically if the Valkyrie was intended to be female, NASA chose not to assign its robots gender.

In an ideal world, I think what NASA did was correct. Robots do not have gender. It is a slippery slope if you start assigning them one. If certain characteristics strike as masculine or feminine, it can be in the eye of the beholder. There need not be any explicit delineation of robot gender from their creator, just like buildings and cars are not required to be male or female, despite people's individual preferences.

Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world.

Emotions and symbolism exert more power over our actions and beliefs than we would like to admit. As the Slate article says, "if robots are given female form only for designing sexbots and maids, and all the heavy lifting is done by male robots, what will it say about the humans who use these bots"?

Is it possible to prevent this from happening? I don't think so. A private robot manufacturer will be free to design and label his product. I think sexbots and cleaningbots will be given the female form, simply because they might sell more. Even if we could legislate that all robots should be sexless, is it the right thing to do? It can be argued that a feminine design for a healthcare bot could actually be beneficial for a patient's emotional and psychological recovery. 

Given such grey areas, it might be more practical to admit that whether we like it or not, many robots will be assigned genders, be it to augment their function, or just to augment their sales.

And in this imperfect world I have to agree with the article, we might need (and I can't believe I am saying this) "strong female robot role models" for the same reason we have had to 'promote' women in science; to prevent prejudices and stereotypes from denying rights and opportunities from those who deserve it.

Friday, February 06, 2015

In this moment

I feel like life is passing me by. Every few days something marks a milestone, a birthday, an anniversary, or a new year. And each year I decide, this new year is going to be the most productive of the my life. I am going to life my life to the fullest. And somehow, I catch myself, a few days later, thinking, did I? Am I? Can I?

What would living my life to the fullest imply?

I do not know.

All I know is, life is passing me by.

A lot can happen in a day, but years fly by unnoticed. The first couple of peers from my PhD class are preparing to graduate soon. Home stretch for me too now.

Years, unsure how many, unnoticed.

I need a construct, a labor of love. Something that grows with time, that I do not have to force but comes out naturally, yet little by little, day by day, year by year, it builds, monotonically increasing.

So that every time I look back and wonder how far I have come, if at all, I have a reassuring monument tethering me to hope.

What can one man do?

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Last days of 2014

It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was drivin'
Trees flew by, me and Del were singin' little Runaway
I was flyin'
                               -- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "Runnin' Down A Dream"

We, my wife and I, escaped the sub-zero flurries in Virginia to flee to Florida and a resplendent 25 degrees Celsius, literally the scientifically defined room temperature. All the niggling hiccups notwithstanding, I declare vacation accomplished.

I like what I do, and if I got paid a little more I could do it all my life. Even though I am but a microscopic pinprick in the vast expanse of scientific endeavor, I believe the very contemplation of the fact unites me with the expanse. I suspect this belief (being an insignificant yet irreplaceable part of a larger plan) is fundamentally similar to a profound spiritual or religious faith except that it does not contradict logic or common sense. 

And common sense says that much as I like having equations and conjectures floating in my head, I would do well to periodically wipe the slate clean. Every six months a week long vacation away from the daily grind does wonders for my psyche. Not checking e-mail is the modern age tapasya, a cathartic penance for those seeking to rise above the world-wide-web-ly desires. 

Of course that does not mean that it is even possible to turn the mind off even on a vacation. Give a man a fish and you have fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish for meaning in every unassuming nook of an indifferent cosmos and you have given him food for thought for a lifetime.

What does a manatee do but sleep all day and eat when its bored? As my wife asks, why does it exist? Why is a 3000 pound lumbering hulk nibbling on my hand like a puppy? Is a manatee a metaphor of existence - either pointless, caught in an endless cycle of self gratification, or blissful, uniting with rather than conquering its environment.

A circle, no matter how vicious, has no direction.

I felt so good, like anything was possible
Hit cruise control and rubbed my eyes
                               -- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "Runnin' Down A Dream"

Florida keys are a group of islands stretching out more than a 100 miles south of mainland US connected by a thin highway practically at sea level. On either side of the road, the ocean is an infinite expanse. Water as far as the eye can see, water as green as blue can be, water so perfect, so serene and so infinitely deep, it inspires and terrifies me...

I can watch waves crashing for ever. In nature where most beautiful things are ephemeral (sunsets and snowflakes) and most things terrible eternal (death), crashing waves and open flames can bring me endless joy. Each wave or lick of flame that stands out from the rest seems to be the last great one, one that could not be bettered. I wait for a while, then eventually resign and let the juvenile antics of squabbling licks and middling waves amuse me.

Yet if I wait long enough, there is always a bigger, longer, higher, better one. Always.
And yet, if I wait long enough, the average is always the same. Always. 

Bell curves can make life worth living...

The last three days and the rain was unstoppable
It was always cold, no sun shine
                              -- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "Runnin' Down A Dream"

Speaking of eternal, stars. The stars are out all night in the everglades campsite. Sure I have seen better starlit nights before, but that never seems to disappoint me. Seeing any more than the five stars I can see from the city is exciting.

I meet relatives on this trip who have been around the world more times than they can remember, even though every trip has left a mark in their life. I would like to go all around the world someday, eat all the crazy foods and listen to all the weird languages. And I want to look at their stars and say... "We are not so different, you and I. See that star, it sings to me too."

I try to show off some star trivia to my wife to look smart. However, when its midnight and a raging thunderstorm threatens to rip your tent off, or flood it at the very least, I feel dumb. Why did I not check the weather and book a hotel instead? Why did I not buy a better tent fortress? Why did I not get the electric dipole question right in JEE and get a job at Google, it <probably> does not rain like this in California? 

And then my wife rolls over to tell me she's okay and I should go to sleep. To let me know that I am not "that" dumb. That I could do a million dumb things a day and they would all still not match up to the smartest decision I made. To sit next to the chirpy dimpled girl in class all those years ago. I won't go to sleep. I'll stay awake to make sure we are warm and dry. 

That is what a smart person would do, and I is smart.

Wooo ooooo...
Wooo ooooo...
Wooo ooooo...
Wooo ooooo...
                              -- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "Runnin' Down A Dream"

How fast can you go in a car before you start contemplating the fragility of your mortality? Physically, the human body was never designed to move faster than 45 km an hour. An impact or slip at that speed, which cheetahs and gazelles routinely experience, would shatter the human body like glass. Our bodies are uncomfortable with motion, we get jetlagged, seasick, carsick or just plain injured. Yet our minds seem to be perfectly comfortable with the idea of moving at 50 or 500 mph. That is why we have a need for speed, our minds yearn to go beyond our bodies' limits.

It is a rush to hurtle down from an airplane at terminal velocity, or to be spearing the wind down the interstate with a blistering guitar solo piercing the heavens in the background.

Its a high that has no crash.

Wooo ooooo...

A great 2015 to yoooo....

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Obama tries comedy...

The President of US, Barrack Obama, introducing himself as the "leader of the free world", took over a hilarious segment on Monday night at the Colbert report. Whether you like Obama or not, it is a must watch simply for its uniqueness, I cannot imagine anything of this sort happening in India ever.



I am sure this is going to generate plenty of fodder for a few days of american TV.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Philosophy vs Science

In recent times we seem to be a entering a new argument characterizing our time, the one between Philosophy and Science. I have read a whole slew of articles and posts on this issue lately. Most of these posts have been in defense of Philosophy sparked by incidents where famous physicists like Stephen Hawking and Neil de Grasse Tyson seem to be disparaging and dismissing philosophy as a worthless enterprise. I recently read another post by a scientist sparking me to write this post providing a counter-view.

When Hawking or Feynman or NdGT criticize philosophy it seems disingenuous, since these minds have produced sentences of great philosophical earnest and profundity in recent times. I myself am incredibly partial to philosophical speculation and conjecture, this blog can easily convince you. Yet I find myself agreeing with these "critics" of philosophy. So I will pretend I understand what they mean by their dismissal and try to elucidate it.

Also I will limit myself to natural philosophy, philosophy that seeks to explain the natural world around us. For sure, there is philosophy of morality and behavior and politics and others that I am unaware of, but I presume no physicist is trying to comment on that, nor am I qualified to comment. 

Much of the debate between philosophy and physics seems to be muddled by the semantics of what philosophy is. Both science and natural philosophy can be said to be the love and pursuit of truth as it pertains to the natural world around us. Science, in fact, is a descendant of natural philosophy in the sense that all the old world fathers of science were philosophers of their time. For most defenders of philosophy, the shared heritage and eventual divergence seems to be a positive argument justifying why philosophy is relevant. I do not agree. Just because we have a different word to define two nuances of the pursuit of knowledge doesn't mean they need to be done by two separate classes of people. 

The problem is that natural sciences have so far surpassed the realm of common knowledge that it is impossible to ask meaningful questions, much less answer them, without a long and intricate study of the natural sciences.

As a result, today there can only be two constructive kind of philosophers. 
1. Active scientists who are of an intellect and courage required to see the larger picture and ask questions that may or may not be easily answered. 
2. An individual who is well trained in science, enough to reach the frontier of human knowledge, but chooses to not engage in active scientific research preferring the more contemplative and speculative method of philosophy.

Regardless of which camp you are in, you qualify to be called a scientist. The designation of philosopher can be applied to the second class only with full knowledge that they are ex-scientists or at worst, amateur scientists, but never non-scientists. Any non-scientist, one who did not go through training in science simply cannot understand what is already known and therefore cannot even ask the right questions about the unknown.

The point is beautifully made in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, although about religion, not philosophy. Physicists and scientists often deflect unanswerable philosophical questions by saying that is not the purview of science but of theology. And Dawkins asks, why? What expertise does religion bring in the attempt to answer the question?

A similar question could be posed to philosophy. If you have an individual who is not trained in the science and is asked the question why the universe exists, how good can we really expect the answer to be? If you do not understand string theory or the standard model or relativistic field theory, what expertise about the nature of the universe can you bring to that question as a philosopher versus a scientist? My feeling, and perhaps the view of the famous scientists in question, is that a natural philosopher without training in science has nothing to add to this conversation. 

Another notable spat in the philosophy science tussle was the one between David Albert and Lawrence Krauss, wherein Albert criticizes Krauss' book for dismissing that the philosophical question of why the universe is as it is compared to the scientific question of how the universe came to be as it is. I personally do not dismiss the question, in fact, I would side with Albert on his criticism of Krauss (I am not a fan of Krauss, that's why I don't count Krauss in the list of physicists I'm defending here). Albert is a professor of philosophy but has a PhD in theoretical physics. He represents the second method for practicing constructive philosophy. I am fairly sure his kind is not the one physicists have a problem with nor do I. 

Remember, Feynman, Hawking and NdGT are huge public faces of science and face vastly more of the general non-scientists populace than most others. I am sure they have to face questions everyday from "philosophers" who would like to stump scientists in an attempt to prove that science does not have all the answers. The anti-science ignorance is betrayed by the presumed non sequitur that if scientists cannot answer the question, someone else has to do it. Bringing us back to Dawkins' question, who? Who is qualified to ask or attempt answers to these questions? A philosopher? The famous scientists, in my opinion, are dismissing amateur philosophy by non-scientists who can easily be misled into believing that a difficult question is a profound question.
As the post points out, Hawking, Feynman and NDT themselves are philosophers in many respects and we are all wiser for it. In fact philosophy, in so much as it is questioning every aspect of knowledge and attempting to formulate answers, is the fundamental building block of science. I believe philosophy of science should be a required learning for all scientists, to either excite and unleash their inner philosopher or at the very least, inform them of the thought process of the giants in their fields. Science encompasses and surpasses all of natural philosophy, one could say philosophy has grown into modern science, hence the observation that philosophy is dead and replaced by science. 

A final confusion here is the difference between philosophy is dead vs philosophy is unimportant. Latin and Sanskrit are dead, yet a study of these languages is essential in liguistics. They are essential to understand how the currently alive languages evolved and to understand broader aspect of the civilizations they thrived in. They also might provide insight into the future of language evolution and methods of language construction.

Similarly a study of philosophy is essential, not only to understand the history of science and philosophy but also to understand the evolution of human thought in the past, present and future. More importantly, philosophy for a non-scientist is introduction to scientific thought and for scientists, a source of great foresight and insight.

But natural philosophy, as a separate entity and not as an attribute of scientific thought, making any meaningful contribution in understanding the physical world is just as likely as Latin making a comeback as a practical language. 

A scientist with a philosophical bent is a great scientist. A scientist who is not a philosopher is a good scientist. A philosopher who is not a scientist (and not trained as one) is just "dopey".

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Interstellar is awesome, People are depressing!

I just watched Interstellar this weekend. I went in with very low expectations, even lower than the cautious intrigue I express in my previous post, thanks to a flurry of negative reviews on my various newsfeeds. I did not read any of them before I saw the movie for fear of spoilers, but I was prepared to be disappointed.

But I was not.

By far the best movie I have seen in quite some time, Interstellar solidly redeems Chris Nolan from the ghastly TDKR. I am just going to forgive him that one and never mention it again.

In the aftermath of the movie, I unfortunately let myself devolve. Out of morbid pitiable curiosity, I wanted to see what all the negative reviews were about. A precious few of those critics have anything worthwhile to say. I almost wrote a massive rant in answer but then thankfully caught myself. So I will just briefly mention the broad classes of irritating Interstellar criticism and not waste my too much of my time on pointless banter.

1. The Petty Fault Finding

"What causes the food to go scarce, why can't the blight be cured? Won't the X-Rays from the black hole killed the ships and life? How can a planet with frozen clouds be stable?"
The people who watch movies and notice "bloopers" like "the table cloth was a different color in the two scenes" come out in full force to greet every science fiction movie.

Science fiction, by its very definition, takes liberties with science and shows things we may not think are physically or practically possible. As I read on Twitter, "the plot holes of a science fiction seem to be just the fiction part". One of the reasons for this attitude might be the proliferation of hard science fiction, sci-fi where the science is used accurately. The reason hard sci-fi has become a separate genre in the last few decades is because fiction that details any science, accurate or inaccurate, is now too complex for mainstream fiction readers. Some of the hard science fiction can be called just fiction. But this is just semantics and not important. 

What is important is that existence of hard sci-fi does not take the license of true 'soft' science fiction away. Interstellar is not a documentary, it is fiction, art. Would you say you do not like Van Gogh's screamer because the person's head is not realistic? The painting is not intended to be realistic, it is meant to make the artist's point. Sci-fi is allowed to imagine worlds or rules that may differ from the rules of real life because it is just that, imagination.
Then there are other "plot holes" which are not holes at all, but opinions. "Scientists don't talk like like they do in the movie", "Love transcends space and time" speech is so stupid, "If Cooper loves his daughter, why does he go to space/to Brand at the end". These are the dumbest plot holes because more often than not these opinions are wrong and misinformed. Or they go away when you think deeper into the subject - e.g. the "Love" speech is brilliantly done to expose Brand's own emotional frailty and willingness to say anything, even compromise rationality to see her lover. It never seemed like a stupid and sappy attempt to prove that love is a physical force of the universe.

There are bunch of other non-scientific plot holes like "if entire video communications could be sent to Cooper's ship, then why couldn't the Lazarus ships send more information about the planet back to Earth than just a beacon signal" and "who made the tesseract" so on. I admit, some of them do seem like contrivances, but not large ones. Suspensions of disbelief this small are fairly easy for me when so much else is going right. If you can't swallow even these tiny incongruencies for the sake of a larger story, well, good for you.

I will not go through other "plot holes" since mentioning some of them is an insult to a reader's intelligence.

2. The Lazy Entertainhog

One review I read says, "His movies are numbingly sexless...Characters gabble on about taking risks, about needing oneanother, but they never leap toward anything so dangerous as intimacy."
Nolan's three most famous movies, Inception, The Dark Knight and Interstellar are indeed 'sexless' and are clear examples of why they must be so. All three movies are set in a setting where the bulk of the action happens within a few days of constant action (the long travel years in Interstellar are spent in cryo-sleep). All the protagonist are (Cobb, Gordon, Cooper, Brand) were married or committed (or dysfunctional like Bruce Wayne) and are brought together for a short intense mission. Whether by design or coincidence, the story does not require "sex", or more broadly, intimacy.

Scientists, mercenaries, police commissioner and vigilantes don't really feel the need to build intimate relationships when on a fast-paced mission to save the world. Hot single ultra-skilled prodigies do not really hang around waiting for the most dangerous moments in history to form intimate relationships with other conveniently paired hot single prodigies. If the story makes said intimacy work within its framework, good for it. But the idea that nothing in this world happens without deep intimate relationships forming between complete strangers shows an extreme myopic view of movies and reality. Given my experience of everyday American life, the necessity of intimacy in a story reveals a level of hypocrisy that I thought did not exist outside Bollywood's depiction of "real Indian women".

3. The Snooty Art Critic

These critics are harder to please, because they are right in their own way. Yes the character development is not too great. And the musical score sometimes overdoes it a bit. My personal opinion is that the setting of the movie did not have any scope for character development. Most characters in the movie have defects but they seem to be aware and in acceptance of their character flaws. So while the characters don't really evolve (except perhaps Murphy) and grow through the movie, they are still multi-dimensional. Not much time was wasted in the 3 hour movie and so any more development would put this story beyond the scope of the movie medium itself. So there is some truth in the decree that the movie was perhaps ambitious for the medium, but I liked it for that very same reason.
2001, the art critics' fav sci-fi. Interstellar has suffered the most being compared to 2001, a pity we are not allowed to like both.
To the movie's credit however, it does not try to bamboozle the audience with physics. Every physics term is mentioned in the shortest words possible - time dilation, black hole and wormholes. No MichaelBay-BigBangTheory-ish fake words like Lepto-Chrono-Transmogrification. The movie tries hard to be accessible and if its not, it is just a reflection of how far the common populace is from hearing, much less understanding, basic truths about how their GPS-Facebook-LED world works. If you still think the movie is too laden with science, I would only say that you go easy on this critique because they tried and this is the best they could have done. Banishing such topics from ever entering the public zeitgeist will only further the divide. If you could not follow the movie even on its face value as a piece of fiction, then the movie is perhaps not for you and you can take solace in that only a Nolan is allowed to do something like this once in a while.

4. The Juvenile Revolutionary

Of course a movie with such overt socio-political theme atleast in the first half of the movie will attract its fair share of "intellectuals". Many of them might find their beliefs validated by the movie, while others might simply be picking and choosing. However, I do not think it entirely fruitless to find validation in art, since Nolan clearly did want to just make a summer blockbuster. I do believe a true artist can't help but make ideological statements which can certainly influence the public opinion.

The obvious one is environmentalism, and they will find validation in Nolan's imagery of a bleak future for Earth. The anarchists and libertarians will find great joy by their paranoia of suppression of speech by big govt being given its due by Nolan's schools rewriting the history of Apollo lunar landings, calling them a hoax operation intended to bankrupt the Soviets. I have written before on why I agree with these groups about some of the problems in society, but disagree on their proposed solution so I will not extol it here.

But I was quite amused by another review I read which said "If there is anything that Christopher Nolan represents, it is the belief that technology trumps everything else. ...I think that Bezos [advancing space tourism, super-rich in space]... should be encouraged but not exactly for the same reasons. Given the bestial behavior we can expect from the super-rich bent on destroying just such a rational system, there will be a need to quarantine the Koch’s and Bezos’s of the world. What better place than a colony in outer space where they can live in comfort and be of no possible danger to the rest of us?"
Millionaires who are pushing for space travel.
Wow, that's the stupidest thing I have read in a while. Where did the rich spring out of? I decry the hyper-capitalist system of inequality as much as the next guy, but to pretend that the rich are somehow evil and separate from "the rest of us" is just as juvenile as hippies and anarchists. The rich are just like everyone else, some are good, some are bad and all just respond to the socio-economic system we build around us. Even if you managed to vaporize all of the rich, it would not save the Earth, other people would just take their place. Science, technology and education is the only way any progress has ever been made in any direction. Whenever there is any form of scarcity, someone will always try to exploit it, whether it is a capitalist, socialist or any other form of society. And the only way to mitigate, and hopefully someday eradicate scarcity, is technology.

5. The Misguided Educator

The last class of critics is the hardest to stomach. Various newsfeeds are full of people who are science literate and lambast the movie for being scientifically inaccurate. These people are not petty or lazy, they are intelligent people who understand some if not all of the science in the movie and are simply misguided imo.

The goal of a science educator is to broaden the horizons of a person by exposing them to what humans have discovered about the universe. Technology is the second step of harnessing said knowledge to invent tools to benefit humanity. Together they show how beautiful and awe-inspiring our universe is and at the same time how powerful a force human ingenuity and curiosity is. Anyone who believes that science/technology is the key to the future, regardless of whether they themselves are in the field, I will bunch broadly in the category of science educator.

The critique that most annoyed me was Phil Plait's (science writer at Slate) review. Apparently he "really really did not like the movie". And then in his post he goes on to "debunk" the time dilation construct and numerous other scientific leaps in the movie. He says that such a large time dilation would only literally on the edge of the horizon of the black hole and could not be a stable orbit for a planet. Stable orbits around black holes must be at least 3 times the size of the black hole and therefore cannot have such strong time dilation.
Another one - Where is the matter for the bright accretion disk coming from, no other star is visible?
That is your problem with a movie? Phil Plait, I have been a follower of your science journalism for a while and I find it quite enjoyable, but this is far out. Firstly, Nolan is not educating people on where stable orbits of black holes can be. As I have already said before, its fiction, so get over it. 

Secondly, when challenging an art form on the basis of unrealistic depiction you have to be careful. The art form has no onus to be accurate, but you the critic of said accuracy, do. Are you confident enough in your claims that your knowledge is so sound and true that you cannot even admit the remotest possibility of such a thing being invented or is covered or happening? Remember, any sufficiently advanced technology might seem like magic to the unimaginative. 

Just over a hundred years ago, no one would consider that anyone or anything could walk through walls. Yet today, we know that particles passing through walls is possible and happens every day, a.k.a. quantum tunneling. I personally work with quantum teleportation and particles that are in multiple places at the same time every day. Are you sure there can never be an untreatable blight? Are you so absolutely sure, so unshakeably sure that not stable orbit can exist with a large time dilation can exist for a black hole? As it turns out, Phil should not have been so sure. He later learnt that his calculation had not accounted for spinning black holes, which would allow such orbits and he had to issue a retraction.

But I wish Phil Plait was not wrong. Because now he can apologize for not checking his math. The point I am making is that even if Phil had been right he was still wrong

So does the qualification of fiction give complete freedom to show anything with no regard to reality? Well yes, because freedom of speech ideal gives every idiot the right to say whatever wrong things they want to say. However, the same freedom also gives other sane people the right to call the idiot an idiot. So when you should you exercise that right?

Every one will have their own opinion here for sure. In my opinion, a science educator should only be critical of science-fiction is the fiction does harm to science education. The reason is very simple.

Science is intricate, with many prerequisites necessary to reach the frontier of current knowledge. If scientific concepts were taught as currently understood, no kid would ever learn Newton's gravitational law or Bohr's model of the atom. Saying half truths is not an incorrect method of instruction, it is often necessary because the complete truth might be beyond the scope of the current method of instruction. If a movie that exposes millions of people to concepts such as time dilation and wormholes for the first time used an exaggerated time dilation to make the effect interesting, I don't think it is not doing anything wrong. Educators such as Phil Plait should use this opportunity and point out the correct intricacies of the scenario without saying the movie was bad because of the inaccuracy. This shows off their knowledge and educates those who are capable of following the calculations to learn even more without bashing the movie that tries so hard to make "nearly" accurate science interesting to the people. 

But if a movie uses artistic license to spread a patently false message, then the above excuse obviously does not apply. Say a movie introduces the idea of black holes and then tries to scare people saying false things like the LHC might make a black hole tomorrow and destroy us all, sure criticize the movie for using bad science to spread fear and discredit. Even if a movie is positive using ridiculous excesses like heroes throwing black holes to fight villains and running faster than light to bring back their one true dead love, the criticism would be well deserved, even if hilarious. If someone made a documentary or an educational movie with bad science, that would be worthy of the exact criticism leveled by Phil. 

But Nolan is not doing any of the above. He is staying close to the rules of science we know while bending some to make a entertaining, fictional movie. Educators and science literates who do not realize this and try to score cheap points rather than use the opportunity to educate have lost sight of the reason why they do what they do. 

In fact the movie does something far more valuable than just educate about science or entertain. It portrays science as the savior of mankind, but not scientists. Every scientist in the movie except maybe Murphy, is fallible and given to bad, sometimes irrational, decisions. The fallacy in the argument against science is that scientists are somehow different than non-scientists, which leads to either elitism or irrational opposition to reason, depending on where you stand. The movie treats scientists as humans and science as the key to the future, and manages to separate the two, something not many movies can or even aspire to do.

Anyway, that was the massive Interstellar rant I thought I was not going to write. You don't want to read when I do rant. I pity my wife for having to listen to many of my diatribes.

On more movie news, The Imitation Game looks promising.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

BlackHole Weekend : Interstellar and Theory of Everything.

This weekend is all about black holes in Hollywood with Christopher Nolan's wormhole sci-fi Interstellar and the the movie about Stephen hawking, The Theory of Everything.
Stephen Hawking is, of course, the pre-eminent authority on black hole physics in the last few decades. His life is among the more interesting and should definitely be an interesting watch. Even though my wife thinks he is an asshole for leaving his wife of many years who stuck with through his disease to marry his nurse. I might agree if I was not distracted by his vastly more important contributions to science. The movie is probably going to be all about love but hopefully they can capture some inspiration and make science look cool for at least an hour.
At first glance, I almost dismissed Interstellar as standard sci-fi movie hollywood churns out every now and then. Then I found out it was directed by Christopher Nolan... hmm... mild intrigue. Amazing memories of the Dark Knight said "oh yeah" but then blocked out memories of the Dark Knight Returns snuck in and whispered "slow down". But then I read this greatly illuminating post by Quantum Information boss, John Preskill, on the awesome Caltech blog Quantum Frontiers. The post details how big names from Caltech staff played a role in the brainstorming and fleshing out the story of the Interstellar, from way back when Spielberg was at the helm, and later when the Nolans took charge. I won't go through all the details spelled out in the post but do check out Caltech theoretical physicist Kip Thorne's book The Science of Interstellar which goes on sale the same day. Kip Thorne is an executive producer for the movie and was the "science consultant" (how can I get that job?). So now, my mild intrigue has grown to intrigus maximus.

Definitely looking forward to watch both these movies.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Should we privatize the Government?

Just finished reading this book called Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty. It is interesting how I found more to think about in direct continuity from the last post after I read Superfreakonomics which talks about altruism.

The book traces the life of Fred Koch, the founder of what would become the U.S corporate behemoth Koch Industries and the father of the four Koch brothers, the enigmatic billionaires considered to be the power and the money behind the Libertarian movement in America. It is extremely well written, and it helps that the life and times of the Koch family reads like a gripping TV drama. The book is quite impartial and does not take a political stance, which is commendable given the extremely polarizing political profiles of the subjects.
The main side benefit of this book, besides the fascinating story of the Kochs, is a peek into the origins and ideologies of the Libertarian movement in the American politics. The Koch dynasty has funded this movement since the 1950's into its current form. The book depicts them as passionate individuals, who truly believe that the government is source of corruption and the enemy of progress in modern civilization. They believe that anything that a government does can, and should be, done better by a private enterprise. Ironically, in a curious circular argument, the Koch corporations political activities against govt. regulation on private enterprise has become the strongest argument for regulation against corporations like Koch getting too much power and running amok.

Such arguments have quite naturally existed in India as well, given how much more apparent the Indian government's red tape and inefficiency is. With Modi coming to power, many express doubts/fears/hopes (depending on who you ask) that he will attempt to rectify the ineffectual Congress govt by privatizing everything. I will mostly use the American political scene as examples but the main discussion is relevant in every nation in the world today.

Is privatizing everything the solution to the worlds problems? Is government regulation what is holding us back from the progress highway?
Here are my thoughts

The libertarians philosophy, at least for Fred Koch, really stems from a 70 year old communist paranoia. And to some extent, in its time, it was required. Communism as practiced by USSR and its satellites were truly a destructive force and the paranoia was quite justified. However it is important to understand why rather than be blindly paranoid about everything government.

When a company is motivated only by profit, there is nothing really preventing it from taking advantage of unethical means and morally grey areas to benefit from. Even if we assume that all companies obey the basic minimum laws such as do not kill or steal (which they do not) there will always be gray areas to exploit. The idea that the market can self-regulate is quite ridiculous.

An obvious example is De Beers and diamonds. Is it against the law to monopolize, or create artificial scarcity, so that you can extract whatever price you want for your commodity? No one is killed or robbed, no one is forced to buy diamonds so why should it be illegal. All they are doing is making sure there are no competitors and no knowledge of their business process. If either was allowed there would immediately be competitors who could undersell De Beers and the market to stabilize to a better state more friendly to customers. As a result, the producers of the diamonds, hypothetical competitors and the ultimate buyers of the diamonds, all have be kept ignorant of the options available to them.

That doesn't seem illegal, does it? So no regulation is required. Then is it o.k. to lie to keep the ignorance? At what point is it illegal? What if to keep the secret you have to kill one person who knows about this 'technically not illegal practice'? What is the one person's life worth? What if the person is a beggar? What if the company is not De Beers but say Bank of America, which if did not silence the whistleblower would not only lose its money, but likely go under and cost millions of innocent people their life savings and possibly a national/global recession? Surely the lives of those innocent people is worth sacrificing that one person. What if it was the healthcare industry, which can literally kill people by inaction?

By the way, you can see that I have not made this hypothetical scenario up. This is exactly the current situation of the world market and the stakes are exactly that high. I used murder to exemplify that even that extreme step seems almost acceptable, surely smaller crimes can be justified far more easily.

In my opinion, the idea of reducing government regulation on private enterprise, at least in the US, is an idiotic one. India might need reduce government regulation, cautiously. The scale of corporate activity is so large, affecting millions of lives and of trillions of dollars (units of national GDPs) that a few people cannot be allowed, unregulated, to have the power to influence entire nations. The idea that these few people have succeeded in a competitive environment and have thus earned their power or somehow deserve to have this power is flawed in two very fundamental ways.
  1. It can never be true without regulation. Imagine two people, one a billionaire tycoon, and the other a garage start up company who is a direct competitor of the tycoon. If there were no rules, how can the start up ever possibly beat the tycoon. There is simply no way. The only reason it happens in our world, sometimes, is because there are some rules as to what the players of the game can and can not do. Without rules, the rich will do everything in their power to stay rich. Success will be a gift from the existing rich, bestowed more often than not on undeserving relatives and favorites. We do not need to try out this idea, it has been done countless times in history. This path inevitably leads to oppression, suffering and eventually revolution. 
  2. Many times it is true... people might have made it rich through their own efforts and skill. These people truly are special and deserve 'something' more. But if history has taught us anything, it is that 'something' is not power to control other people. Good businessmen make more money, because money is an adequate reward befitting their skills and contribution to society. 
There have been many kings and leaders in history who rose their position due to some skill that made them better than the average droll. Napoleon and Hitler come to mind. It was their skill in exploiting their environment, leadership and belligerence that got them their power. So when they got said power, they continued on, on their exploitative belligerent ways, to great detriment to society as a whole. They might have made great entrepreneurs or inventors or planners, just not great rulers.

Individuals who are great at one thing might not be right about other things. Michael jackson was a great artist. But he also went crazy later in his life. His skill, and all the money accrued in one field should not be allowed to influence public policy on, say, pediatric care. The Kochs' skill in entrepreneurs and engineering, brilliant as it might be, has no bearing on public policy and they should have no more of a say in the political process than the average joe. Therefore, the socio-political system which has enabled the Koch corporation to earn billions of dollars from petroleum products should also insure itself against the influence of said dollars from changing the socio-political system for its own benefit. 

That is the very description of democracy, a system by which the people decide on candidates whose public policy is better by voting for them. Regulation of private enterprise, taxation and really everything that the government does is simply an evolution of that idea. To have a more stable state/nation/world where the selected few are given power not because they are good at math or oration or combat or singing or making money but something that is beneficial for the the long term good and stability of the nation, i.e. framing and implementing good public policy. If richer people have more political power then you have a plutocracy not a democracy.

Therefore any logical argument defending unregulated capitalism/Libertarianism eventually has to dispose of democracy itself to be consistent.
Most libertarian/tea party ideals involve reversing centuries of knowledge and complexity added on the government and going back to 18th century, or at the very least pre-cold-war-era of corporate freedom. I assume then they would have society go through all the mistakes of the last century - slavery, imperialism, labour exploitation, environmental destruction - before rediscovering them.

If the government has become entrenched and filled with corrupt and/or inept bureaucrats then its a good idea to try to cleanse the government, but not by going back a century, undoing all the checks and balances on corporate avarice. Therefore in my opinion the Libertarian ideas are at worst foolish and misleading, or at the very least naive. 

There is, however, a more coherent and persuasive argument than government ineptitude to privatize everything. Which is the proposition that public policy "should not" be different from Darwinian capitalist rules. That the welfare of everyone is not natural, and that democracy is a flawed mutation, a diseased organism that needs to die for humanity to evolve into the future unfettered. This is at least an idea that is logically consistent. For sure, a social welfare system, even basic democracy, is highly unnatural. Such a system does not exist in nature. In nature might is right, irrespective of whether said might was achieved through skill, treachery or random luck.

The question is do you really want to live in that dog-eat-dog world, always watching your back against everyone else? Or do you, like me, think mankind can achieve far more by working together?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Games aren't Just for Playing!

I wrote a post a few months ago about gaming. The post got deleted due to the blogger app being a bitch. I couldn't retrieve the post so I rewrote the post completely anew and here it is again. I chose to post it today, a few hours before the group stages for the Season 4 League of Legends World Championships kick off. The Season 3 Final, held in Staples Center LA, was watched by 32 million people worldwide. If you are not watching yet, you are at the right place, read this post then go watch/play some games.

I have always been big on video-games and, with the recent explosion of e-sports, extremely excited for the future of gaming. E-sports, for the noobs, is just electronic sports i.e competitive gaming. As a concept, e-sports has been big in Asia for a while. (I use Asia in the American geographical sense, meaning it only includes south-east Asia, China, Korea and so on. Russia is part of Europe. India does not exist.) In the recent past, e-sports has exploded in the US. Of course it has always existed, but never on a scale anywhere near what it is now. The advent of live streaming has been just the perfect catalyst to bring what was already a culture of passionate, if disorganized, competition, mainstream. There's a long way to go but at least e-sports has arrived.
League of Legends All Star event in Paris, e-sports are the real deal, believe it.
This in itself is something I would generally write about. I don't see myself writing about how professional gamers now earn regular salaries and have seasons, playoffs and world championships. Or how pro gaming events have everything from huge corporate sponsorship to millions of viewers watching live to millions of dollars in prize money. Or how both Sony and Microsoft are catching on fast and the next incarnation of both their consoles and have built in live streaming support. Or how the US govt recently granted League of Legends Championship Series' international players the same visa status that international sports players are accorded. And now everyone knows Twitch, the game streaming service recently acquired by Amazon for $1 billion. No... these are details, facts that I will leave to news portals or someone more entrenched in the actual e-sports scene. If you have been to this blog before, you know you are not here to read facts. Or news. No, what you expect to see here is a philosophical argument why something is as it is, and my opinion on what it should be. Well... I shall not disappoint.
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Too many people I know consider video games a childish pursuit. This would not upset me if they simply did not like games, maybe they are just different, don't like the same things I do. It is when they are fervent advocates, and proselytize that gaming is bad for you that I take exception.

So tell me, you who deplore video games, what is your preferred medium for entertainment or education?

If you answered, watch TV or read a book

Sure TV and books are entertaining, but they are passive, not active, entertainment. Information -educational or recreational - flows through TV and books unidirectionally from the author to you, there is no participation required from you. Of course, there are merits to this method, books and movies have taken us to wonderful lands, real or imagined, beyond what we could ever experience first hand. We can travel distant planets and depths of the ocean from the comfort of our room. Yet we are always reminded that in the end, it is a story borne out of a creative mind, and you are welcomed to see the world as he paints it. The greatest author, or actor/director is one who can make you believe the experience is as personal to the reader/listener/viewer as to himself. Yet try as you might, in the end, the product is the experience of the creator and not the audience.

Another more important limitation is the lack of ability to communicate in more ways than one. Books and audio/video are a two person interaction, from the author to the audience. The author usually has a vision he wants to convey and the audience can interpret it only so freely. The connection the audience can share with the art form is limited by the authors vision. Many audience members may also associate the art with other audience members, for example the romantic song you share with your partner, the book your brother made you read, the movie that only your inner circle of friends know about. Yet, the art form itself limits its own meaning, the meaning that was given to it by its creator. It would hard (not impossible) to share a special love song with your brother, or a book about endless suffering with your lover. In the end the inability of the media to be as multi-dimensional as humans subtly encourages the audience to limit their own range based on the art or education they identify the most with.

If you answered, play games and sports

Games have been played by people for centuries. A good game can transcend age, race, language and interests. Every person sees a game as a different object, some see a puzzle to be solved, some see a challenge to be conquered, others see an opportunity to learn while others might just enjoy the company of others. The same game can be all of those things to different people. A game can be educational and entertaining, competitive and cooperative, fantastic and strategic. Most importantly a game is experiential, not instructional, active, not passive. You learn by doing, not seeing. In the end, books and TV might be great media to explore the inside of an atom or outer space, but they can never describe the experience of say, sky diving or simply the thrill of competition, better than the visceral experience itself.
Mancala (in Africa) or Pallankuzhi (in South India) is one of the oldest games known to man, over 3000 yrs old.
Yet, the games and sports we play today, represent a old world that we are fast outpacing as a society. The Olympic sports were invented at a time when physical fitness was the most important factor in deciding the worth of a man. This is why all the sports we know gear us towards better physical fitness since that is assumed to be a worthy ideal. As a result they are limited by what our bodies can do. A hundred years ago, that was enough. However, the industrial age and now the information has shown us, that amazing as our bodies are, our minds are far, far superior.

A sport creates an artificial arena with a few rules and gives the players the freedom to create an experience they like. The same game can be played in an ultra competitive manner with championship rivals, or a casual friendly way with friends. It can be played without even keeping score, just for the camaraderie. If a guy loves football, he can watch professional championships, play with friends competitively and also coach his son; his love for the sport can transcends individual experiences like books and movies rarely can (its possible, but uncommon). If physical sports whose design is so severely restricted by our physical abilities are still so versatile, imagine how far sports for the mind could transcend these limitations.

Hence electronic games (which for historical reasons are still called video games). A video game can be a book, movie, song and sport at the same time, and be so much more. As a form of art it can have all the elements of a creative author, communicating a vision to the player, and still leave plenty of room for the player to create his own unique experience. As a sport it can have all the teamwork, competition, focus and strategy elements that build character.

Minecraft satisfies the basic criteria for a game, an artificial world built with a fixed set of rules with the added freedom of being able to choose the goal. And the ability to compete or cooperate with not just a few people around you, but anyone around the world, as many as you want. You could play alone or with a 5 yr old or 50 yr old (a tech savvy grandma perhaps) or with a whole group and the experience would be unique every time.
Minecraft has been a remarkable proof of principle of  the educational and entertainment powerhouse a video game can be.
Video games can revolutionize the education and art industries if they let it. However the stigma and inertia in these arenas is strong. There exists a strong entrenched disdain for video games as a legitimate medium. Historically gamers were the losers of society, who were not cool enough to be social and not smart enough to do something worthwhile when alone. Video games of a previous generation were mostly just single player reflex tests, one dimensional puzzles at best, barring a few gems. This historic origin of video games in the entertainment industry is however purely incidental and very unfortunate. The development of video games, like in all entertainment, was towards making flashier and more addictive games that encouraged players to spend money and time on it purely for entertainment. The stigma of being a time wasting enterprise for losers still holds it back to this day.

But more and more people are now seeing the light. We see self confessed gamers becoming successful by other more mainstream metrics. With many tech millionaires and entertainers "coming out" as avid gamers, the average person can no longer claim that gaming is not for successful people, smart or sexy. It had to happen eventually because the stigma is ultimately unfounded; games are only harmful in excess, just like everything else. With gaming being more and more acceptable, new forms of gaming are evolving.

Amazing single player games which are some of best, most fun and challenging puzzles ever made by man. (Portal, Antichamber, NoTPron, Crimson Room come to mind, there are too many I can't remember right now)

Great multiplayer games you can play with teams of friends, requiring fantastic team play and intricate strategy. (League of Legends, DOTA, Age of Empires are some of my favorites)

Fascinating single player games which are incredible stories, rivaling books and movies in content. (Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed, and of course Warcraft)

Massively Multiplayer games, which have no analogs in the history of man, since no story or experience has ever been created collectively by millions of authors. (WoW, Destiny, Life itself :P)
Age of Empires - my first foray into team gaming. Infi paladins conquer all.
While these are mostly entertainment, gaming is being applied in other areas such as education and research such as -
Fold it - A puzzle game where you have to disentangle proteins, millions of people play it recreationally, exercising their brains while actually helping solve problems in medical research.
Minecraft - An open world game which are so versatile that they have been used everywhere from education to art and still new ideas are being generated everyday. e.g Here is an great minecraft mod to help introduce kids to Quantum physics.

It is true that games for entertainment dominate the zeitgeist than any other, but as I said, that is purely due to historical accident. Facebook games and apps have set the game industry back a little, perpetuating the stereotype of stupid, addictive games. But it had to be from the entertainment industry that gaming had to break out into the mainstream consciousness. Given its birth in entertainment, games can only conquer the rest of the world once they are taken seriously at home. E-sports has been just that. Gaming is now a spectator sport with millions of people watching professional gamers in competitive tournaments. With Amazon buying Twitch, I expect investment in the gaming sector to explode.

But my expectation from the future of gaming is more than just entertainment. Today when books or movies are created, an accompanying video game is usually made for the relatively small section of the audience who also play games. With advances in technology and acceptance of games as as an art form, I expect the video game to completely absorb and transcend the movie and book experience. Imagine if you could play the entire story rather than just see or read it. If you were feeling lazy or in a hurry, put it on autoplay, and it becomes a movie. Turn off audio and video and it becomes a book.

In truth, I expect video games to become the mainstream form of entertainment, the next generation of art, requiring graphic artists, thespians, musicians and writers, with books and movies being the add on media lacking that ultimate user experience of creative freedom.

I imagine virtual reality to be able to give us a taste of what it feels like to fly like an eagle and swim with the whales, travel to the stars and expand the horizons of the every person.

I expect neuro-eletronic games to allow us to visualize and create what we cannot even put in words and tell us what our dreams mean.

I expect video games to make collaborative classrooms where kids (and adults) across the globe can play together.

I want video games to show us that a million minds can create much more than silly viral videos, and unlock whole new paradigms for emergent creativity.

I want to see things that I cannot even predict because my imagination is limited by my past experiences.

What makes me the happiest, and fills my heart with optimism for the future, is that, for once, progress does not require a revolution. Everyday whether you know it or not, one more thing in your life is turned into a game, from the way you exercise (Nike+) to your kids educational modules. If you do not like games, you will soon be in the minority. Soon you will be an old person, who will rue the old days when education used to be boring and work was monotonous like it was supposed to be. When experienced could only be narrated not shared, and worlds could only be imagined not felt. The future is bright for gaming and it is only a matter of time before gaming sheds its stifling entertainment mold and becomes integral to every part of our life. It does make me sad that India is not a leader, not even a follower in this field, but I guess I shouldn't complain too much.

As aptly put by Twitch, "Games aren't just for playing".  

Grief

I did not pine when I lost my love, for what is love save chemistry and comfort, it can be substituted.
I did not mourn when my hopes were crushed, for hope is mere fantasy, essential and unattainable, it can be always be regenerated.

There is no sorrow in my impending death, my friend, for death takes us all, this day or next.
What is death after all but an impetus to think and act, for only our ideas and deeds can live on, perpetuated.

No, it is only you who should grieve, you who are content with what you can buy, for you are the one who never lived, just existed.


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Written as a Five Sentence Fiction exercise at Lily McFerrin Writes
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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

An Insecure Writer

I came across this blog of an author that had a page dedicated to this loose community called the Insecure Writers Support Group
I need it. 

Even though it is probably useless. 

A writer is many things, none of which I understand fully. Am I a writer? I do not think so, not yet. I want to be a writer. I occasionally try to be a writer. But I am not one yet. I have not stopped anything in my life to write instead. Writing has not taken precedence over anything else. So I am a husband, a physicist, amateur programmer, and much more of a reader than a writer. But I would like to be a writer. So why don't I write?

Insecure is not an adjective I usually attach to myself. I am not insecure, I know I write well. I know I am not the next Nobel or Booker or Hugo, but I know I could be decent if I tried. I like to say I just don't have the time to write. It takes me so long to write a blog post, so long to edit and polish it, that I just cannot afford the time. Because I am trying to do all the other things that will 'secure' me a stable job that I like so that I can write when I can find the time. Which is never. Because I cannot drop everything and just write, what if no one wants to read it... what would I be then? An insecure writer? 

No one can change anything to help a writer, much less one in denial, feel less insecure. All they can do is start an imaginary support group which, if you look closely through the websites and badges and words of advice, really is just ... a reader.

And that is all a writer needs...

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Freakonomics of Altruism : Are we selfish?

I recently read SuperFreakonomics, the 'sequel' to the bestselling book Freakonomics. The book does not really have a coherent overarching point to make, rather it is a collage of various concepts and experiments used by economists to understand human behavior, particularly economic behavior. It is actually quite an interesting read. The titles of the chapters are obviously only meant to be obscenely eye catching which has a tendency to disappoint when the rationale for the title is explained in the chapter later, but that a minor detail. 

There is a chapter where the authors discuss global warming and the concept of human altruism. Are humans intrinsically altruistic? Or are they primarily selfish creatures? The book explores this through the famous Dictator Game. Subject A is given x amount of money and given the option to share it with another anonymous person Subject B. There is no obligation on A to share, he is also free to choose the amount he wants to share, if at all. When the experiment was done the results indicated that a majority of subject chose to share the money, with the average share being around 20-25%. Children tend to donate even more... close to 50%. So humans are definitely altruistic by nature, right?
Apparently there is an actual dictator card game. Is this a trump card game? People murdered 4 million CLASH!!
You can't run an experiment like this and expect a physicist to listen and appreciate. This experiment obviously has dozens of massive sources of error and bias. Thankfully the book points them out and goes on to redeem economists. 

First of all, the subjects were all volunteers. We would obviously expect  that the people who would volunteer for studies do not represent the average population. In fact you would expect people who volunteer to be decidedly more altruistic than the average population. Secondly the subjects knew they were part of an experiment. Obviously their psychological responses will be modified by that knowledge. Who wants to appear cheap and selfish when specifically part of a psychological experiment?  Therefore the responses given by a biased subject in an academic environment clearly will far from the natural behavior of the average subject.

More importantly, even if the subjects were truly random and were observed secretly, the experiment itself is designed so poorly. To illustrate this, an alternate version of the Dictator experiment was run, but this time A and B were given an equal amount of money. Once again A had the choice to do whatever he wanted, he could share some of his money with B, but more importantly, A could also take whatever amount from B he wanted. This time, it was seen, that on an average people chose to take money from B, around 20-25%, rather than give or do nothing. 

This completely deflates the altruism result from the first version. It can be explained though from the simple observation that people like to do something rather than nothing. Given the choice to either give or do nothing, people would give. But the choice to give take or do nothing, which is a far more realistic choice, completely flips the result. The experiment is still extremely limited in what it can tell us about the true psychological nature of its subjects, but at least its better than the first version. 

A more accurate view, in my opinion and mentioned in the book as well, is that it is possible to design experiments in such a way that you could get whatever result you wanted to get. You could easily show humans as angels as in the Dictator game, of you could show humans as monsters capable of heinous acts, such as in the Stanford prison guard experiment
The 1971 Stanford psychological experiment, you should definitely visit the site and wiki it, I have nothing to add.
So is man utterly selfish? Or is he fundamentally altruistic?
The question relates to a deeper question, is there such a thing as good or bad in the absolute sense, intrinsic to our nature? Or is all of morality just rules that we have made up for our societal construct?

I will write about that in the next post since this one is too long already :P

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Does Death make us Human?

Last time I wondered if free will is what makes us human. That was too serious a post, so I will lighten it upa bit with Death. Does death make us quintessentially human?

Well, obviously not, in its most literal meaning. After all, plants die, animals die. In some sense, even stars and galaxies die. But we all know human death is not quite like any of these, right? Right?

Most animals have no cognizance of death as a concept. Sure, they run from danger to avoid death, and mothers may protect their young from predators. But when a member of the pack dies, animals, even biologically related ones, seem not to understand. They continue to prod the dead as if expecting them to suddenly wake up from the slumber, and when it becomes apparent that the condition is irreversible, simply drop the issue and go about their own business. There may be occasional cases of animals, most likely chimps or some dogs, who experience some 'emotional' responses that seem to be pseudo-human. But at best, they express grief and anger at the death of a close companion, something they might even express had the companion just gone away rather than died.
Chimps seemingly mourning a fallen relative, Cameroon
But humans, and their ancestors, have been consecrating death for millennia. We do not understand death, and hence we fear it, and hence we worship it. Rituals of death are probably mankind's oldest surviving symbolic activity. The cornerstone of practically every religion is what happens after death. Reincarnation, heaven-hell, purgatory... all largely imaginative constructs meant to ease our mind on earth so we do not fear the 'afterlife' much. Incredible human feats of engineering and creativity have been temples of the dead... the Egyptian pyramids, Taj Mahal, the catacombs... and countless others.

Most unique is the nature of the fear of death. Animals fear death, but it is mostly a self preservative instinct intrinsic to all life. But humans have another, seemingly far greater, fear. We seem to fear that our work on earth would get cut short by death. As if we had any greater purpose to our existence, than mere existence. One of the greatest forces driving human evolution is the need for humans to somehow make an impact on the future. "To make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance" as Theoden, son of Thengel would say. Why is that? Is this what makes us human? No animals have this need for sure. No animal has ever expressed a desire to leave behind something that will leave its indelible individuality on the canvas of history.
Death Note - anime series about a schoolkid who finds a notebook that kills the person whose name is written in it, recommended watch.
I do believe however that this uniquely human feature is an extension of the same basic instinct, that of self preservation. Just think about it!

Humans have long superceded the system of incentives and constraints imposed by the biological vagaries of our bodies and our ecosystem. 

Once upon a time natural selection was in control, the strongest survived and procreated and the weak executed. But man subverted evolution; the weak found a way to survive by finding favor with the strong. Compassion is a virtue; at best the strong find more success, if that, and the weak are to be nurtured into strength, not culled. 
Once upon a time, nature was in control and man was subject to the elements. The earth was flat and infinite, the skies were filled with vengeful gods and the five elements were fickle beasts. But man subverted nature; nothing on this earth has escaped our leash... plants animals earth water wind fire and the sky. Even the vast silent darkness of space does not petrify us anymore. 

And so it was that once upon a time man feared death just like the animals because he did not want to die. He wanted to live. But soon he learnt that death can be defeated, or at least delayed. 

It seems natural that the value of a man's life and its worth is not measured in its how many genes he could pass on but what he accomplished during his lifetime. Therefore the death should also be defined not in biological but intellectual terms.  And in that sense, the desire to impact future generations, leaving a legacy is simply the desire to live longer, as long as possible. 

Archimedes, Aryabhatta and Albert Einstein are all still 'alive' today in every sense of the word except biological. They probably have more impact on your life than your neighbor; and you probably know more about their life than your neighbor's as well. Sure biologically we may not be alive much longer (even though life expectancy is tripled in a few centuries), but through our actions we could be remembered centuries, even millennia in the future. 

After all, who doesn't want to live forever...