Archive for June, 2008

Synergy between science and poetry

June 30, 2008

Grrlscientist reviews Chris Norment’s deliciously titled Return to Warden’s grove: science, desire and the lives of sparrows:

This well-written book is a brilliant synergy between science and poetry. It describes the author’s highly personal journey to establish a connection to something beyond himself, to discover his intellectual, emotional, and spiritual “far country” in a world that felt less and less familiar and welcoming for him. But this book is also about the process of doing science, particularly the type of science that focuses on patiently observing and recording the details of the lives of animals in their natural environments — a dying “breed” of scientific inquiry in a high-tech world filled with cell and molecular biologists, it seems.

From at least this quote from the book that Grrlscientist highlights, it is not just the title of the book that is delicious:

One of the things I loved most about this book are the beautiful descriptions of those fleeting moments that I also experienced during my own dissertation work, the depth and richness of those moments, along with the intensity, the sheer poetry of his revelations;

Listen. When I cup a small bird in my hand and feel its heat, feel the thrum of its fear and the tiny pounding of its heart against my palm, it is impossible not to wonder. Or when I look into the umber silence of its eyes and imagine the paths of light and chemicals that bind us together (cornea and lens, retina and optic nerve, sodium and potassium, brain and neural network), it is impossible not to wonder. And when I am done with my measurements and I have written down the last of the numbers, I will open my hand, as if in supplication, and the bird will rise into the air. Then, too, it is impossible not to wonder — about the arc of its flight, the way in which the barbs and barbules of its feather vanes interlock, the lightness of its bones and very being and, most of all, its completeness. Connected as we are by the paths of history and genes — stasis and change, extinction and speciation, and the tangled necklaces of adenine and guanine, thymine and cytosine — it is still impossible not to marvel at its sheer otherness, and the way in which it makes its way through the world. [pp. 7-8].

I certainly would love a copy of the book — if it is available here (which I doubt — even the best book shops in Bangalore were not even aware of The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao, the last time I checked).

Diaz on GTA IV

June 30, 2008

Diaz reviews GTA for the Wall Street Journal (link via Maud). Apart from the immediacy of Diaz’ prose, which I have come to enjoy immensely, there are also some weightier issues that Diaz deals with — like art, and what it does to people and so on:

GTA IV sucks you the hell in but its narrative doesn’t move me in any way or shake me up or even piss me off. I get madder when I crash my car in the game than when Niko makes a stupid decision in the cut-scenes (the movie-like interludes that players don’t control). GTA IV for all its awesomeness doesn’t have the sordid bipolar humanity of “The Sopranos,” and it certainly lacks the epic flawed protagonists that define “The Godfather” and its bloodier lesser brother “Scarface.” Successful art tears away the veil and allows you to see the world with lapidary clarity; successful art pulls you apart and puts you back together again, often against your will, and in the process reminds you in a visceral way of your limitations, your vulnerabilities, makes you in effect more human. Does GTA IV do that? Not for me it doesn’t, and heck, I love this damn game.

If “Battlestar Galactica,” a show on the Sci Fi channel for God’s sake, is able to create characters as compelling and troubling as race traitor Gaius Baltar and tackle issues as profound as genocide and religious fanaticism without once losing its thrill-factor, GTA should be able to do the same. Niko, as a character, doesn’t surprise, and the choices he confronts don’t make me want to put the game on pause in order to mull things over; they don’t implicate me or reveal me in any way.

For me, GTA IV is more an example of our evasions as a culture, more of a fairy tale, more of a story of consolation than a shattering cultural critique or even, dare I say it, great art. GTA IV is a game that allows you to forget how screwed-up and complicated things are in the real world; it could have done more, it could have put that screwed-up complicated world front and center.

The real world is currently the hardest, most troubling piece of real estate around, and even GTA IV, which wants to dial everything up to 11, can’t, to paraphrase Hammer, touch it. Doesn’t make the game any less worthy or awesome. GTA IV doesn’t have to be “Moby-Dick” or “Beloved” to be the Greatest Game of a Lifetime or even to be worthy of discussion.

What’s interesting though is that GTA could have been exactly what some folks are claiming it is. For all its over-the-top aberrance and brash transgressiveness, GTA IV doesn’t really wrestle with the radiant feverish nightmare labyrinth that post-9/11 America has become. Which is too bad. When you’re as lost as we are in this country, maps, no matter from where they come, are invaluable. It could have been that popular art blade that cuts through all pretensions and delusions; it could have been the map that we’ve been needing. But for that to have been possible GTA would have had to have put a small portion of the people playing the game at risk of waking up, even if only for a second, from the dream that is our current world.

Rockstar Games could have had a field day with Niko as immigrant, Niko as veteran from a war that was screwed up from the start, with Niko as aspirer to an American Dream that might never have existed in the first place. It wouldn’t have taken much to have made some plot alterations, to have had Niko ducking ICE special agents, to have had him actually struggling to get the girlfriend of his dreams, robbing, stealing, killing in order to dress up to local standards, or to end the game with Niko being deported back to Europe. Any one of these narrative additions would have made Niko’s journey and his successes all the more poignant, all the more surprising — would have put a face, a very real, hard face on the American Dream, which for many aspiring Americans, throughout our country’s long checkered history, is a nightmare.

Take a look!

The neutrinos and the tiger

June 29, 2008

No, this is not a post about the The Quark and the Jaguar type adventures in the simple and complex.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara writes about an ambitious scientific project to be housed in the middle of the tiger sanctuary at Mudumalai which threatens the sanctuary and the wild life:

Few environmentalists even are aware of the fact that a top level scientific project, the India-based Neutrino Observatory, is scheduled to be built in Singara, in the Mudumalai Sanctuary in the heart of tiger and leopard territory. Scientists who presented the news to a shocked local audience in Ooty argued that this was a dream project which was the pride and joy of the Indian scientific world. Questions regarding genuine environmental concerns about the impact on the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve were met with defensive reactions. The atmosphere at the Ooty Collectorate, where the presentation was made, turned into practically a pitched battle between the scientists versus the conservationists. Raised voices and unnecessarily rude comments are futile and counterproductive. However, many of the questions asked by the Nilgiris activists needed valid answers from the INO team and the Chennai-based Care Earth group, an NGO presenting the pros and cons of the project.

While few people would oppose a science project described as Abdul Kalam’s dream, the question being asked by serious local residents and environmental scientists is whether one can really force the country to choose between Science or The Tiger? It’s a ludicrous proposition.

Explaining the Neutrino Project to lay people is a difficult and complicated task. Those interested can go to the INO website for the technical details. For the lay reader it is sufficient to know that an enormous underground observatory is planned in Singara, within the core Tiger Reserve of the Mudumalai sanctuary.

Though Thekaekara, unfortunately, does not give the URL for the INO site, here it is, for those of you who are so inclined; I also would have liked the information on the scientists who made the presentation, which, again, unfortunately, is missing in the piece.

The damage that Thekaekara describes that would be inflicted on the sanctuary read horrifying:

The INO project needs 52,000 tons of iron in the first stage and another 50,000 tons in the second stage only for the detector. Additionally, approximately another 35,000 tons of cement, steel, PVC, copper, aluminium, sand and other building materials will be needed. This huge volume of iron and other material will come from Mysore (nearest railway station) normally moved in 20 ton trucks. New roads through the forests will be essential. Normally the Forest department prohibits such disturbance of core areas.

Equally problematic is the debris and muck that will be generated. The official Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has not yet been released but rough calculations based on the dimensions and scale of the project can be taken from the latest INO report.

The tunnel will be “D” shaped, 6.5 m wide and 6.5 m tall and 2.38 km long. So, nearly 90,000 cubic metres of rock will be taken out. The cavern complex will consist of an Experiment hall (about 22 m wide, 30 m tall and 120 m long) — about 75,000 cubic metres, a smaller cavern for the control facilities of about half the size, and a loading and storage area of about another 60,000 cubic metres. So that’s 2,25,000 cubic metres totally.

Given the density of granite in the area (2.8g/cm) this translates to 6,25,000 tons of debris or about 78,000 truck loads. That means almost 95,000 trucks, and double that in terms of trips through the forest since the trucks have to go back and forth.

As the construction is scheduled to take about four years, this involves 130 truck trips going through everyday!

Although the INO scientists assured the group that they would contain the damage, local environmentalists have had a bitter experience. Masinagudi has grown from a village of a few hundred people to a town of 10,000 because of the PUSHEP (Pykara Ultimate Stage Hydro Electric Project).

And, there also seems to be some PR mishap:

Ms. Jayshree Vencatesan of Care Earth, when asked how such a project could possibly be located in the heart of the Tiger Reserve, replied that it was on patta land, a remark that enraged serious environmentalists who have watched the slow erosion of animal turf by the tourist and PUSHEP projects. “Does the elephant or tiger read maps to know when a patch of land in the middle of the forest is declared patta?” local conservationists ask.

Finally, Thekaekara also makes references to the muscle and power of INO project in high places:

The INO project has muscle and power in high places. Only the State government and Forest Department permission stands between the Tiger Reserve and destruction.

A very disturbing and saddening piece!

Update: A bit of poking around at the INO site took me to their FAQ page, which does answer the question about the location selection (there are also photographs of the site, elsewhere on the page, by the way):

6. What were the factors in deciding the location at Singara?

The main reasons for locating the laboratory at Singara are safety, accessibility, minimal disturbance to environment and ecology and outreach possibilities.

The Nilgiri massif is known to be highly compacted granite which is suitable for tunnelling. The existing underground power station PUSHEP, at Singara, has provided a wealth of data about the existing conditions for tunnelling. In addition the steep northern slopes provide shortest access to the laboratory which is located 1300 meters below the top surface. No other site has this major advantage. When a laboratory is expected to run for decades underground, the safety and long-term stability of the location is a primary requirement.

It was also very clear from the beginning that any site requiring such a large overburden will come under environmentally and ecologically sensitive areas. It was therefore decided that we look for sites where the needed infrastructure already exists so as to cause minimal disturbance.

Accessibility of the site is also crucial. The site at Singara is accessible easily from major cities like Coimbatore, Mysore and Bangalore. Such factors are important to develop a laboratory with participation from scientists from many parts of India and even abroad.

The FAQ goes on to claim that there would neither be new road construction nor forest clearing.  The FAQ also answers questions about storing the muck, vehicular traffic disturbance, disturbance during construction, and so on.

Update: NBRAlliance, in a comment below, alerts me to this blog which has some more information on the issue.

More from Russell’s In praise of idleness

June 29, 2008

I am about to complete Russell’s In praise of idleness. It is a thought provoking read (with lots of slyly humorous sentences).

[1] I was somehow under the impression that Russell is an agnostic if not an atheist; however, from these essays, I see that he was one of those who believed in Christ but opposed Christianity (or, organised religion); there are several places in the book where Russell writes approvingly about the good influence of Christianity on the Western civilization; he even goes to the extent of calling Fascism “a return to the worst in paganism”:

The root objection to Fascism is its selection of a portion of mankind as alone important. The holders of power have, no doubt, made such a selection, in practice, ever since government was first instituted; but Christianity, in theory has always recognised each human soul as an end in itself, and not a mere means to the glory of others. Modern democracy has derived strength from the moral ideals of Christianity, and has done much to divert Governments from exclusive preoccupation with the interests of the rich and powerful. Fascism is, in this respect, a return to what was worst in ancient paganism.

I do not know enough political history to know if it indeed is true that one of the main sources of moral strength behind democracy is Christianity; it would be interesting to follow this thought up.

[2] Russell has some interesting things to say about Anthropology. Specifically, this sentence, namely,

The anthropologist selects and interprets facts according to the prevailing prejudices of his day.

reminded me of this recent blog post at Savage Minds, wherein, Rex indicates that if not according to the prevailing prejudices of the day, the anthropologist and her/his hosts co-construct the fieldsite. In any case, Russell goes on to say,

What do we, who stay at home, know about the savage? Rousseauites say he is noble, imperialists say he is cruel; ecclesiastically minded anthropologists say he is a virtuous family man, while, advocates of divorce law reform say he practices free love; Sir James Fraser says he is always killing his god, while others say he is always engaged in initiation ceremonies. In short, the savage is an obliging fellow who does whatever is necessary for the anthropologist’s  theory.

The last sentence on theory reminds me of a quote I read in Barsoum’s book on ceramics, which goes something like this:

All sintering models can be made to fit all sintering data.

[3] Russell has very little to say about India, and most of what he has to say is not flattering; here is his views on why the Indian youth are not cynical, for example:

In India the fundamental belief of the earnest young is in the wickedness of England: from this premiss, as from the existence of Descartes, it is possible to deduce the whole philosophy. From the fact that England is Christian, it follows that Hinduism or Mohammedanism, as the case may be, is the only true religion. From the fact that England is capitalistic and industrial, it follows, according to the temperament of the logician concerned, either that everybody ought to spin with a spinning-wheel, or that protective duties ought to be imposed to develop native industrialism and capitalism as the only weapons with which to combat those of  the British. From the fact that the British hold India by physical force, it follows that only moral force is admirable. The persecution of nationalist activities in India is just sufficient to make them heroic, and not sufficient to make them seem futile. In this way the Anglo-Indians save the intelligent youth of India from the blight of cynicism.

I do not know about Russell’s views on India’s independence movement (whether he supported them or not); however, the attribution of  everything (including the belief in one’s own religion) to reactionary feelings does not make a pleasant reading.

[4] Here is Russell on why uniformity is usually achieved by lowering standards:

… good qualities are  easier to destroy than  bad ones, and therefore uniformity is most easily achieved by lowering all standards.

[5] Here is Russell on Christianity and its influence on education:

The educational machine, throughout Western civilization, is dominated by two ethical theories: that of Christianity, and that of nationalism. These two, when taken seriously, are incompatible, as is being evident in Germany. For my part,  hold that, where they differ, Christianity is preferable, but where they agree, both are mistaken.

I believe this distrust of nationalism is something that Tagore would have approved.

As these examples above show, Russell has many interesting things to say, and he says them in a nice style; some of what he says is not acceptable to me; but, that does not diminish the worthiness of the book; it is still a wonderful read and is highly recommended.

Teach yourself: Phase diagrams

June 28, 2008

Here is a nice, flash based tutorial from the multimedia group of University of Cambridge:

Simos Kitiris (2001/2002) created a comprehensive Flash-based package to “Teach Yourself Phase Diagrams”, a self-taught second-year course. This has since been extended and the revised Phase Diagrams is now being used for teaching within the Department, and is also linked to the DoITPoMS site as a useful resource for teaching material science. An additional microsite using HTML and Flash 5 has been created to cover the Iron-Carbon Phase Diagram.

Have fun!

Scientific methodology obsoleteness: the last update?

June 28, 2008

Tom Slee at Whimsley bemoans bad ideas winning the day:

Then I see that Anita Elberse of Harvard Business School has actually looked at some data behind the same Chris Anderson’s Long Tail hypothesis (please, don’t call it a theory) and, not surprisingly found it misguided. You would think that would cheer me up, but reading Anderson’s response just (here and reprinted here) plunged me further into gloom. Why? Because although he loses this battle (if asked I will bore people with the details, but I really don’t think there is a point), sloppy business journalism has won the war.

Face it. Chris Anderson has people at Harvard Business School of all places spending their valuable time following up his idle speculations. He comes up with a half-baked idea, has basically no data to support it, and yet other people – smart people, with real jobs and things to do – actually spend their time following up these idle daydreams; acting as his research assistants. What a waste.

And other people – smart people, probably with families and friends who could use their attention – feel they have to spend their time explaining a few of the reasons why he is wrong in his latest article. And here I am wasting my evening writing this junk.

Journalists and popular science or technology writers should take the serious thoughts of others and communicate them in an interesting and attention-getting way. I have no problem with that. But this is all backwards: a few stories from a business journalist setting the research agenda of Harvard Business School?

How did this happen?

I guess this post is also a reminder to me that I should stop updating on the issue!

On the use of semi-colons (or, lack thereof)

June 27, 2008

Moira Redmond quotes a commentor:

Demilune had other things on his/her mind, and clear views:

Love the little buggers [semi-colons]. Don’t use them a lot. Matter of respect, you know. Now, on the subject of which/that, isn’t there a nice philanthropist out there who will donate a copy of Strunk & White[‘s Elements of Style] to all writers everywhere?

Take a look!

The threat to Indian economic growth comes from

June 27, 2008

Media hype; Ram Mohan at the Big Picture explains:

Seeing the coverage of the rise in inflation and the reactions to it, you might think the Indian economy is in the midst of a crisis or headed towards one. Relax. Take a few deep breaths, pinch yourself nicely and chant thrice: this economy is growing at 8%. Done? Now, read my latest ET column, Inflation threat is exaggerated. Let me elaborate on why I am fairly optimistic.

A top CEO told me a couple of days ago that most firms are “investing like there is no tomorrow”. Existing projects will be not be delayed or cancelled. Any hesitation will relate to future projects and fresh fund raising. This means investment will continue to drive growth this year. That is one reason for optimism.

Another is corporate profitability- PAT growth of 40-50%! In most economies, this would be regarded as a fantasy. That gives enough scope for absorption of price increases. The consumer will not face much higher prices, so consumer demand, while being moderated, will not be undermined.

Thirdly, extremely low leverage, thanks to strong profit growth in the recent past. With such low leverage, interest rate increases can be shrugged off by corporates.

Fourthly, the runaway increases in salaries- these make it possible for the real spenders to keep spending. The distributive implications of inflation are another matter. Inflation will not affect growth but will demolish the UPA’s chances especially if it relates to food inflation.

Most analysts take the view that cost-push inflation is a threat and the RBI needs to clamp down even if it means putting the brakes on growth. I disagree. The impact of supply shocks on the price level is not clear enough, although we can say with some assurance that large supply shocks tend to raise the inflation rate.

I go with the view that inflation is primarily a demand-side problem. This is true of our present situation as well. Aggregate demand is much too strong for comfort. If the Indian economy accelerates in the second half of the year as global problems recede, we may find growth in the region of 9% plus, which I would regard as the ‘overheating zone’. So, in my view, it is the prospect of too rapid a growth rate for the sixth year running that provides the rationale for a rise in interest rates, not cost-push factors.

It is not interest rate increases that pose a threat to growth. The biggest threat to growth is posed by media hype on inflation, the global outlook, etc- the continuous blast from news channels may come to be taken seriously at some point by investors and consumers, which is when the problems will begin.

Take a look!

Science and engineering approaches

June 27, 2008

Here is another take on the Wired piece of Chris Anderson — this time around, by Seth Roberts:

Varangy wonders what I think about this editorial by Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired. Anderson says “faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete.” Anderson confuses statistical models with scientific ones. As far as the content goes, I’m completely unconvinced. Anderson gives no examples of this approach to science being replaced by something else.

For me, the larger lesson of the editorial is how different science is from engineering. Wired is mainly about engineering. I’m pretty sure Anderson has some grasp of the subject. Yet this editorial, which reads like something a humanities professor would write, shows that his understanding doesn’t extend to science. It reminds me why I didn’t want to be a doctor. (Which is like being an engineer.) It seemed to me that a doctor’s world is too constrained: You deal with similar problems over and over. I wanted more uncertainty, a bigger canvas. That larger canvas came along when I tried to figure out why I was waking up too early. Rather than being like engineering (applying what we already know), this was true science: I had no idea what the answer was. There was a very wide range of possibilities. Science and engineering are two ends of a dimension of problem-solving. The more you have an idea what the answer will be, the more it is like engineering. The wider the range of possible answers, the more it is like science. Making a living requires a steady income: much more compatible with engineering than science. I like to think my self-experimentation has a kind of wild flavor which is the flavor of “raw” science, whereas the science most people are familiar with is “pasteurized” science — science tamed, made more certain, more ritualistic, so as to make it more compatible with making a living. Sequencing genes, for example, is pasteurized science. Taking an MRI of the brain while subjects do this or that task is pasteurized science. Pasteurized science is full of rituals and overstatements (e.g., “correlation does not equal causation”, “the plural of anecdote is not data”) that reduce unpleasant uncertainty, just as pasteurization does. Pasteurized science is more confusable with engineering.

There’s one way in which Anderson is right about the effects of more data. It has nothing to do with the difference between petrabytes and gigabytes (which is what Anderson emphasizes), but it is something that having a lot more data enables: Making pictures. When you can make a picture with your data, it becomes a lot easier to see interesting patterns in it.

By the way, is Seth correct about being a doctor? I do not think so; having read Atul Gawande and Oliver Sacks, I do see that most of the problems that they face and their approach to them is more science-y than engineering.

By the same token, even though engineering might be applying what we already know, in real world, there is no such clear distinction; and, even in cases where there is, the problems that one comes across are so varied, we do not know enough to start applying — and, in any case, innovation is all about applying some ideas which others have not even thought of as relevant for the problems in hand.

In other words, while I agree with Seth that Anderson’s piece reads rather naive about the scientific methodology, I am not sure if the naivette can be attributed to his training as an engineer.

Story of Bharathi memorial

June 27, 2008

Several years ago, I went with a couple of friends of mine to Ettayaapuram; we visited the Brindavanam of Muththuswami Dikshitar and the memorial of Bharathi; the kritis of the former and the poems of the latter were immortalised by DKP, and it seemed somehow fitting that their memorials should be so close by.

Sriram Venkatkrishnan, in his Encore piece writes about the Bharathi memorial foundation stone laying ceremony; the piece is accompanied by a nice photo of Rajaji addressing the gathering, and a facsimile of Gandhi’s one line letter, written in Tamil, giving his blessings to the efforts of Bharathi memorial. From the piece, I understand that DKP was also present at the ceremony and sang the songs of the poet.

Venkatkrishnan, in his piece, also traces the history of how Bharathi’s songs were banned by the British as being seditious, and how, slowly his songs caught the attention of nationalists and artists and became part of the repertoire of every household in Tamland. There is also a mention of the controversy associated with Kalki’s pronouncement about Bharathi as compared to Tagore:

There was the odd controversy however. Writing at around this time, ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy had, for reasons best known to himself, compared Tagore to Bharati to the former’s advantage and had declared that Bharati could not be compared to him.This resulted in enormous protests and bitter debates. In many ways, the effort that Kalki took to make the Bharati memorial a reality was an act of expiation.

A nice piece!