Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A poem on free will.

A leaf was riven from a tree,
"I mean to fall to earth," said he.

The west wind, rising, made him veer.
"Eastward," said he, "I now shall steer."

The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he: "'Twere wise to change my course."

With equal power they contend.
He said: "My judgment I suspend."

Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: "I've decided to fall straight."

"First thoughts are best?" That's not the moral;
Just choose your own and we'll not quarrel.

Howe'er your choice may chance to fall,
You'll have no hand in it at all.

     Came across this beautiful poem on free will, written by Ambrose Bierce. The way we rationalize our actions/decisions and the way we continuously continue to believe that we are in control of  ourselves & our actions is indeed surprising. A large amount of research has been done on this topic - whether the decisions we take are really the results of deliberation done by our conscious self (i.e 'I' or 'me') or whether our brain decides stuff and makes it appear to our conscious self that it was the one that took the decision. In other words, how many of the decisions we take (should I overtake this car or not ? should I buy this brand of soap or the other ? should I ask him/her out or not ? ) are conscious decisions and how many are taken unconsciously. A clear answer to this question won't come until the big daddy of all philosophical questions is answered - what exactly is consciousness ? Where precisely does it reside and how does it work (inside the brain ? outside ? is it emergent ? epiphenomenal ? quantum mechanical ? fundamental ? adaptive ? darwinian ? mystical ?) Where (in actions of humans) does the conscious end and unconscious start ? These questions have been reflected upon for hundreds of years.
     With the increasing additions in technology and overall sophistication, I hope to see these questions answered in my lifetime...

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Amazing linguistic ingenuity!

[from Wikipedia]
     The Shishupala Vadha (Sanskrit: शिशुपालवध, lit. "the slaying of Shishupala") is a work of classical Sanskrit poetry composed by Māgha in the 7th or 8th century. It is an epic poem in 20 cantos of about 1800 highly ornate stanzas, and is considered one of the six Sanskrit mahakavyas, or "great epics". It is also known as the Māgha-kāvya after its author. Like other kavyas, it is admired more for its exquisite descriptions and lyrical quality than for any dramatic development of plot.

     The entire 16th canto, a message from Shishupala to Krishna, is intentionally ambiguous and can be interpreted in two ways — a humble apology in courteous words, or a declaration of war.

     There is not much point in pasting the entire article here, so please continue on to wikipedia and go through the amazing mastery over language, and wordplay presented in the poem - Linguistic ingenuity

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Long live the queen!

Ants have always amazed me! The way they act, sometimes, one begins to doubt whether they are individuals or are selfless robots built to serve their queen. No wonder, Darwin submitted to group selectionist thoughts when it came to ants...

Showcasing below, a spectacular group adaptation of army ants to survive Amazon floods.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Value of all the gold ever mined

If Wikipedia is to be believed: 'At the end of 2009, it was estimated that all the gold ever mined totaled 165,000 tonnes'. From
Let us extrapolate the figure to a optimistic maximum of 200,000 tonnes up till 2011. Then, going by the current rate of gold, the total value of all the gold ever mined comes to around 11 trillion dollars.

Now, although the two figures have nothing to do with each other, I found it rather surprising/shocking, that total value of all of the gold in the world is appreciably less, than the amount of debt the US government owes! (~14 trillion dollars)

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Intelligence in crows.

     Everyday a crow(or crows, I can't differentiate between two :) ) comes and sits on our window sill making loud requests for food. My mom keeps some food for him everyday, and this has been going for years now.
     The suprising fact is this however - when myself or my dad goes to put food near the sill, the crow simply flies away and comes back only when he is sure that there is no one near the window. But, when my mother goes near the window, he does not feel insecure! In fact, he does not fly off even when my mom's hands are close to him to put food. I wondered whether it was due to difference in clothing or overall appearance(from the crow's POV that is :) ) or some other factor. My mother said, that the crow 'recognizes' her. I believed that was not possible, until... I came across this amazing video! Especially the episode narrated starting at 4:19.

     We often, so much, underestimate the animals living around us. Their brains make them do a variety of things in order to stay alive, and even this is a big feat! We look with awe when a VTOL takes off and lands, but we hardly appreciate the feat a crow or sparrow performs when they land precariously on a thin branch of a tree. Of course, the comparison is not apples-to-apples, but the fact I want to strees is that, birds and animals have a superbly strong, real-time physics engine* with an amazingly fast feedback loop built right into their tiny brains.
Just another wonder of great Nature...

* - for lack of a better word

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

     Last week, I received an unexpected mail(not email!) from the US.
     The mail was from a company called GoGrid. GoGrid is one of the early cloud providers. I was one of their beta customers, more than three years ago. At that time, beta customers had to register a credit card with them in order to participate. After I was done with the beta(which I liked!), I never kept track of GoGrid. Hence, was a bit surprised to hear from their corporate office in CA.
     Here are the two scanned pages. The first sentence on the first page tells it all!

     Their euphemism states no other fact than that - they were hacked into! And, the hackers had got access to credit card information(along with other personal data) of GoGrid users.
     IMHO, a cloud vendor itself getting broken into is really a shame! Hardware failure is okay, downtime due to maintenance is fine (if once in a blue moon), insufficient provisioning can be tolerated at times, an SLA breach can be compensated for, but a security lapse is just not done!

     GoGrid has offered credit card fraud monitoring and protection plans to those whose cards they think were exposed. But, whatever they do now, बूंद से गई, वो हौद से नहीं आती! They are not getting back the trust they had!
     I had nothing to worry about the data breach though. As always, I had used a virtual credit card when I signed up at GoGrid :)

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

On websites storing passwords...

     Many sites, especially the ones with a 'social' angle ask for usernames and passwords of your other accounts like gmail and facebook, so that they can leverage your already formed contacts from those sites. These sites that ask for username/passwords conspicuously mention that they don't store your passwords for the other accounts. However, I have seen no site conspicouosly mention something like 'We do not store passwords you entered on *unsuccessful* login attempts at our site'.
     Of what use would an incorrect password be to a site/organisation ? Well, none, if the the site is 100% professional and ethical. Otherwise an incorrect password can prove to be quite useful. For a user, an incorrect password for one site might be the correct password for some other! Thus, if a site has accumulated enough incorrect passwords entered by a particular user, chances are, that they can successfully log in into other sites using the user's username and one of those incorrect passwords! Now thats bad, isn't it ?
     One of the reasons people use same passwords everywhere or even use simple passwords is because strong passwords are difficult to remember. In addition, there is this innocent looking advice that they are trying to follow - 'Never write your password down'. When in fact, the advice should sound like this - 'Never write your password down where someone could easily find it.' Carrying the list of passwords in one's wallet is worse than having a weak password. However, keeping the list in a decently safe locker is way way better than using weak passwords all over the Internet.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Buying goggles for summer ?

     I just bought new sunglasses for summer B-) It makes a lot of difference if you are driving/travelling for even an hour in bright sunlight. I brought a pair of nice polarised goggles. Thought, would share some details about it here in case somebody finds it useful.

      First- why 'polarised' goggles(hereafter PGs) ? Do they make any difference ?
      Polarised googles are aimed at reducing 'flare' (bright, undesirable reflection in simple words). Flare quickly causes eye fatigue and I can say this is true with experience. By reducing flare, PGs essentially make your driving comfortable by keeping your eyes relaxed instead of strained (often unconsciously) to compensate against the flare. But, as might be portrayed by some shop owners, PGs by no means are a cure-all against bright sunlight. I guess, in general they would make 10-15% difference in the long run at max, over normal non-polarised goggles.

      In a shop, how to make sure that the pair you are planning to buy is really a pair of PGs ?
      The test is really simple - put on the shades and look at anything that uses LCD technology for display. That would be - mobiles, digital display watches, LCD monitors, LCD TVs, laptops and what not. Now tilt your head sideways while looking at the LCD display. Try both, left and right sides. With any of the tilts, if the brightness of the display changes appreciably or you see wierd colours on the display, then you can be sure that the goggles are indeed a polarised pair. If not then not! With a mobile, the test is even simpler, just hold the mobile in front of your eyes and rotate it in the same vertical plane. The reason this test works is because LCDs themselves work on the principle of selectively blocking light on the basis of its angle of polarisation.

      On road, in which cases would a PG help and in which would it won't ?
     Almost all PGs are constructed such that their axis of polarisation is perpendicular to the plane of ground (road). Thus, any light being reflected off the road will be effectively(but not perfectly) attenuated. At the same time, any light reflected off non-horizontals surfaces like vehicle bodies, windscreens, advertisement hoardings etc will not be affected by PGs. Hence, PGs are best suitable and effective for highway driving esp. if it is a 'cement road'. In city traffic, we hardly get to see the road surface, leave alone flares from it :) However, it is good to get PGs just in case you decide to travel far. Also, non-glass PGs (thanks to polymers!) are not very expensive. One can get them starting 350-400 INR.

Happy Polarising ;)

PS: For photographers - buying PGs instead of a proper polarising filter can be a makeshift way to saving a few bucks. However, don't expect the same fidelity. Also, since PGs are only linear polarisers, your AF sensors might be misled :)

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

'If we are merely matter...'

Came across a wonderful passage written by Carl Sagan. It was used as a 'stimulus' in a psychology study recently. The passage is about human pursuit of understanding what we and the universe are all about, and the belief that there is something higher than science. Being written by Sagan, it is no wonder that the passage leans towards science, however, it does not tout science or scientists as omniscient. It is something to think about, and definitely worth sharing. I have made bold what I think is the most crucial in the passage -

It is very reasonable for humans to want to understand something of our context in a broader universe, awesome and vast. It is also reasonable for us to want to understand something about ourselves. And understanding the nature of the world and the nature of ourselves is, to a very major degree, I believe, what the human enterprise is about. Truth should be pursued, and science helps us pursue it; science gives us meaning. All we have to do is maintain some tolerance for ambiguity, because right now science does not have all the answers. This tolerance goes with the courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations and knowledge tell us. The more likely we are to assume that the solution comes from something outside science, the less likely we are to solve our problems ourselves. If we are merely matter that is intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there's nothing in here but atoms, does that make us less, or does that make matter more? We make our purpose. And we have to work out what that is, for ourselves.

[ copyrights with original copyright holders ]

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