Saturday, July 31, 2010

Upside of Irrationality

This new book  by Dan Ariely sounds like a bumper !! Review - here:

Imagine that your favorite sports team has just won the championship. That night, you have dinner with your mother-in-law, and your spirits are so high that you decide, on a whim, to buy her a bouquet of flowers. A month passes, and it’s time for another dinner with your wife’s mother. You recall your earlier touch of in-law gallantry, and bring her flowers once again, recycling the gesture and initiating what now becomes, unintentionally, a monthly ritual. An entirely unrelated and fleeting emotion has somehow crystallized into a habit that will stretch far into the future. While in this scenario the habit is positive, for negative emotions, these effortless slides, or “emotional cascades,” can have scary implications, suggesting how important it is not to let bad moods get the better of us. Sleep on it, indeed.

Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke, delved into the negative effects of biases in decision making in his bestselling book,
Predictably Irrational. He continues that effort here, emphasizing that when it comes to choosing, “irrational” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. If we can understand why we make poor decisions, he argues, we can better plan our own happiness, and in the long term, “design the world around us in a way that takes advantage of our incredible abilities while overcoming some of our limitations.”

Because You Are My Friend

"Because you are my friend,
my life is enriched in a myriad of ways.
Like a cool breeze on a sweltering day,
like a ray of sunshine parting glowering clouds,
you lift me up.
In good times, we soar,
like weightless balloons
over neon rainbows.
In bad times, you are soothing balm
for my pummeled soul.
I learn so much from you;
you help me see old things in new ways.
I wonder if you are aware
of the bright seeds you are sowing in me.
I'm a better person for knowing you,
so that everyone I interact with
is touched by your good effect on me.
You relax me, refresh me, renew me.
Your bounteous heart envelops me
in joy and love and peace.
May your life be filled
with dazzling blessings,
just as I am blessed
by being your friend."

Joanna Fuchs

We Have Learned Nothing from the Genome - Craig Venter

Ain't that the truth? Full interview here:

PIEGEL: The genome project hasn't just raised hopes -- but also worries. Do you understand those concerns?
Venter: Yes. There are two groups of people. People either want to know the information or they prefer to live like an ostrich with their head in the sand, not knowing anything. The fear is based on the ill-founded belief that those who know the DNA sequence also know every aspect of life. This nonsense has been spread by the same geneticists who were afraid of the commercialization of this stuff. From the time of the first few discoveries of gene defects -- Huntington's disease, for example, everybody thought that if you knew your genome, you would know when you would die and what you would die from. That is nonsense.

PIEGEL: So the significance of the genome isn't so great after all?
Venter: Not at all. I can tell you from my own experience. I put my own genome on the Internet. People had the notion this was the scariest thing out there. But what happened? Nothing.
SPIEGEL: And what about the fears about the abuse of gene data through insurers or employers, for example? Do you see that as sheer hysteria?
Venter: Abuse is not a question of whether the data is available. It is an issue of laws. You can't do anything to change the availability of genetic data. Look at this bottle that you have touched -- that's all I need to obtain your entire genetic information.
SPIEGEL: How much would you be able to learn about us by doing so?
Venter: If anything, we don't really know how to read the genome and it can't tell us very much right now. So what's the ethical debate about?
SPIEGEL: The decoding of your personal genome has so far revealed little more than the fact that your ear wax tends to be moist.
Venter: That's what you say. And what else have I learned from my genome? Very little. We couldn't even be certain from my genome what my eye color was. Isn't that sad? Everyone was looking for miracle 'yes/no' answers in the genome. "Yes, you'll have cancer." Or "No, you won't have cancer." But that's just not the way it is.
SPIEGEL: So the Human Genome Project has had very little medical benefits so far?
Venter: Close to zero to put it precisely.
SPIEGEL: Did it at least provide us with some new knowledge?
Venter: It certainly has. Eleven years ago, we didn't even know how many genes humans have. Many estimated that number at 100,000, and some went as high as 300,000. We made a lot of enemies when we claimed that there appeared to be considerably fewer -- probably closer to the neighborhood of 40,000! And then we found out that there are only half as many. I was just in Stockholm for the 200th anniversary of the Karolinska Institute. The first presentation was about the many achievements the decoding of the genome has brought. Then I spoke and said that this century will be remembered for how little, and not how much, happened in this field.
SPIEGEL: Why is it taking so long for the results of genome research to be applied in medicine?
Venter: Because we have, in truth, learned nothing from the genome other than probabilities. How does a 1 or 3 percent increased risk for something translate into the clinic? It is useless information.
SPIEGEL: Do you think there will be a time when you can extract all this information to yield real medical results?
Venter: For that to happen we need a lot more information: Information about your body's chemistry, your physiology, your complete medical history, your brain and your entire life. We would need to do that a million times on different people and correlate that data with their genetic information.

Finally I think, the answer to this question is most important to subside the overblown expectations, paranoia and the future snake oil salesmen:

"SPIEGEL: Will that lead in the end to the kind of personalized medicine that genetic researchers have always touted? Each person would get his or her own personal treatment that is tailored precisely to that person's genetic make-up?
Venter: That was another one of these silly na├»ve notions that was out there. It's not, 'Oh, we know your genome, we're going to make this drug for you.' That will never happen. It is more important that you use the information in the genome about your personal risks and reduce them through intelligent behavior."

The genetic revolution expect's intelligent behavior from us but irony is we are expecting miracle's from the geneticists. Intelligent behavior makes it less interesting in the world longing for cognitive fluency, right?

What's the big deal about Blogging?

Amit Verma's latest yahoo column albeit the incongruousness of that question, has some well written points (and I am not even in the "beta" version to talk about this):

"1. Blogging captures the moment. One of the most attractive things about blogging to a mainstream journalist is that it has immediacy, and is not a slave to news cycles. A newspaper journalist, if he sees something today, will find it published tomorrow. A blogger can put it out there within five minutes, and it can be read (and linked) around the world in ten. Today, when everyone's using Twitter and newspapers handle their websites much better, this doesn't seem like a big deal. But when I was travelling through coastal Tamil Nadu in 2004-05, in the aftermath of the tsunami, it was huge. 

(And most importantly it captures our the emotions of the moment and helps some much in self-reflection)
2. Blogging sharpens your craft as a writer. When you write a blog with one eye on building a readership, you cannot bullshit. At a functional level, your writing has to be spot on. Your readers have countless other things they could be doing with their lives, and hazaar links to click on if you bore them. You cannot be self-indulgent, and your prose cannot be flabby or long-winded.
When you write regularly for such readers, your writing is bound to improve. I wrote an average of five posts a day for the first few years of my blogging -- my frequency has dipped alarmingly since, alas -- and have probably written more than 8000 posts across blogs and platforms. That kind of practice is bound to have an impact on your writing. Many of my early posts make me cringe today, and I've clearly improved hugely as a writer. And as I keep writing, hopefully I will keep improving. (Also see: Give Me 10,000 Hours.) 
(I don't even want to talk about this now, this is a very obvious. I can't even muster up enough courage yet to read my older posts)
13. Blogging expands your world. From a reader's perspective, the sheer variety of content that blogging enables introduces one to ideas and content we may not otherwise have come across otherwise. There's a lot of such content out there, and over time we find out own filters to navigate this content. Thanks to blogs, I've learned much more about the world than I otherwise would have."
(Ever since I started blogging, it has made me live and feel that famous quote from Newton - "To myself I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me.”)  

Quote of the Day

"Absence diminishes little passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and fans a fire."
- Francois Duc de la Rochefoucauld

Friday, July 30, 2010

When We Two Are Parted

"When we two parted
In silence and tears,
Half broken-hearted,
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.

The dew of the morning
Sank chill on my brow
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame:
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.

They name thee before me,
A knell to mine ear;
A shudder comes o'er me
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well:
Long, long shall I rue thee
Too deeply to tell.

In silence I grieve
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long,
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears."

Lord Byron

Biomimicry: Future Solar Technology From Eyes of Flies?

Scientists are eyeing the future of solar technology–specifically, fly eyes. Turns out those bubbly-looking spectators might be just the ticket to more-efficient solar cells, researchers from Penn State University say.

Blowflies have peepers that would help solar panels collect light more efficiently, and creating these fly-eye molds was a feat in itself, according to Discovery News. After plucking the corneas from blowflies. “The researchers took corneas, fixed them on a glass substrate, added a polymer to protect the shape and then coated nine-eye arrays in nickel within a vacuum chamber. The result was a master template that retained those useful nanoscale features. Ultimately that template can be used to replicate the pattern exactly.”
As they say, 30 eyes are better than one. Accordingly, the researchers next plan to create a template using 30 fly corneas.

Quote of the Day

"I do not really like vacations.  I much prefer an occasional day off when I do not feel like working.  When I am confronted with a whole week in which I have nothing to do but enjoy myself I do not know where to begin.  To me, enjoyment comes fleetingly and unheralded; I cannot determinedly enjoy myself for a whole week at a time."

-Robertson Davies

Emotional Intelligence for Personal Growth - 3

Seventh part of the emotional intelligence series -  this time on self punishment  (my personal "favorite" is still the sixth part):

Some people when they look back on their lives, they see mostly regrets, mistakes and failures. They berate themselves for their failures. They punish themselves thinking it will make their future efforts better. But when a challenge presents itself, they feel dazed, anxious, exhausted and/or discouraged. They expect to fail again, tainting their effort and perceptions until it indeed looks like another failure.

If you find yourself struggling with some of these issues, then the problem could be shame. Shame is a self-destructive form of guilt. Guilt is the feeling you get when you make a mistake.

Persons who have learned to see all of their behavior from a shame-based view point suffer from a tragically low self-esteem with very little hope of relief. Shame becomes a filter through which everything is distorted in a way that makes every action a test of the person's adequacy as a human being. It's like they carry around with them an internal harsh dictator that pummels them with withering criticism at every turn. They may actually believe that self-abuse will motivate them to make a change. But change becomes the first casualty in a shame-based person. Instead, they are locked in a never ending cycle of shame and self-defeating behaviors.

The cycle of shame and self-defeating behaviors becomes a trap. Every mistake is interpreted as proof of a person's unworthiness. A mistake becomes a personal failing, evidence of a character flaw. It becomes so painful to examine the error that any effort to correct the mistake is compromised. Without change, the shame-based person is condemned to repeating the mistake, perhaps many times.

To break this self-destructive pattern it is necessary is to fundamentally change one's relationship with oneself. A shame-based person can't afford to ever call themselves stupid again. Any amount of self abuse starts the cycle all over again, and leaves them lacking the energy and belief in themselves to make changes. The problem is that it's been going on for so long, it's become automatic and may even happen beyond immediate awareness. All the person may be aware of is a dull feeling of failure and discouragement.

It is necessary to become more aware of your feelings and self-talk. That will certainly increase your misery for awhile. The next step is to replace that thought with a more constructive one. While you may not be able to readily stop a thought from happening, you can always replace it with another. It's not as simple as filling your thoughts with only positive thoughts. You need to recognize the meaningfulness of the new thoughts. Answer your negative thoughts in a meaningful way.

You may not believe in your new thoughts for a long time. The effect of life long shame-based thinking is akin to brainwashing. You are now charged with reprogramming how you think.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


That famous one from the last chapter of Super Freaknomics (Monkey Business)

"When taught to use money, a group of capuchin monkeys responded quite rationally to simple incentives; responded irrationally to risky gambles; failed to save; stole when they could; used money for food and, on occasion, sex. In other words, they behaved a good bit like the creature that most of Chen's more traditional colleagues study: Homo sapiens."


Ascent of Money: An Evolutionary Approach to Financial History

Fascinating Talk!!  Highly recommend Niall Ferguson's last year's book The Ascent of Money

"Just as some species becomes extinct in nature, some new financing techniques may prove less successful than others."
-Anthony W. Ryan

"The history of the productive apparatus of a typical farm, from the beginnings of the rationalization of crop rotation, plowing and fattening to the mechanized thing of today–linking up with elevators and railroads–is a history of revolutions. So is the history of the productive apparatus of the iron and steel industry from the charcoal furnace to our own type of furnace, or the history of the apparatus of power production from the overshot water wheel to the modern power plant, or the history of transportation from the mailcoach to the airplane.The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation–if I may use that biological term–that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in. . . ."
Joseph A. Schumpeter

Quote of the Day

"A friend can tell you things you don't want to tell yourself"
-Frances Ward Weller

On Being Wrong

America’s founders understood that all of us, including our leaders, are fallible; that errors are inevitable; and that mistakes can’t always be recognized as such in the moment. As a result, they realized, a stable nation must not seek to eliminate mistakes but strive to tolerate them.  Almost all the founding principles of democracy – freedom of religion, freedom of speech, direct elections, political parties – reflect this commitment.
The United States was founded on a then-radical and still radically insightful acceptance of error, and we would do well to embrace those roots.  Consider the words spoken by Benjamin Franklin just before he appended his name to the most famous piece of parchment in American history.  “I confess there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve,” Franklin said, “but I am not sure that I shall never approve them.  For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.”
-Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz

Quote of the Day

"The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles."
-Anne Frank

Naseem Taleb on Deficit and Next Book

"What are are potential sources of fragility or danger that you're keeping an eye on?
The massive one is government deficits. As an analogy: You often have planes landing two hours late. In some cases, when you have volcano's, you can land two or three weeks late. How often have you landed two hours early? Never. It's the same with deficits. The errors tend to go one way rather than the other. When I wrote The Black Swan, I realized there was a huge bias in the way people estimate deficits and make forecasts. Typically things costs more, which is chronic. Governments that try to shoot for a surplus hardly ever reach it.
The problem is getting runaway. It's becoming a pure Ponzi scheme. It's very nonlinear: You need more and more debt just to stay where you are. And what broke [convicted financier Bernard] Madoff is going to break governments. They need to find new suckers all the time. And unfortunately the world has run out of suckers.

What are you working on now?
My next book is about beliefs, mostly. How we are suckers and how to live in a world we don't understand."
Full interview (Thanks)

What I Owe You

"This is a list
Of what to expect
From me to you
With love and respect
I owe you an ear
Cuz u would always pay attention
I owe you a shoulder
Cuz on yours lies my affection
I owe u a hand
You always helped out
I owe u advice
Of that there’s no doubt
I owe u respect
Of that your full
I owe trust
With my secrets you were cool
I owe you knowledge
You taught me so much
I owe you love
Deep in my heart, you touched
I owe you a friend
Who is honest and true
I owe you my life
Because of what you still do"

-Mary Oslzewski

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Things The People Say - Rumors in an age of unreason

One of most important books from last year was On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done by Cass Sunstien. I am not going to go into the politics in that book since politics is a different animal (older post here). Here's New Yorker review:

Sunstein’s theory of the (Dis)Information Age is pointedly nonjudgmental. By his account, the problem is basically structural: certain tendencies of the human mind interact badly with certain features of modern technology, much as certain prescription drugs interact badly with alcohol. Young or old, bigoted or tolerant, liberal or conservative—everyone is equally implicated here, since everyone is predisposed to the same, or at least analogous, mental habits and has access to the same technological tools.

The acquisition of knowledge is, as Sunstein points out, a social process: it is shaped by language, by custom, and, since the Enlightenment, by certain widely accepted standards of evidence and rationality.

The most plausible explanation for this dark, post-Enlightenment turn is unavailable to Sunstein; so hard is he trying to be nonpartisan that he can’t see the nuts for the trees."

That's the sad truth about the political side of the rumors but other rumors we face in everyday life is easy to face. All it takes is time, persistence of truth, perseverance and nonchalance against all odds. That calmness, serenity and peace with oneself is very very crucial for rumors to fade and for truth to become self-evident. It is that simple. If we are calm, we the subject(s) of rumors become boring for others and niche for gossip is lost. When the niche is lost, the rumors fade way since it loses it dopamine reward characteristics. More over, people have their own worries and will move on to more "rewarding" rumors for instant gratification.  Until that stage, we just have to sweat less and never get so worked up. It's simply not worth it. Life is too short to sweat on rumors.

Arthur Schopenhauer was right about truth:
All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. "

Secrets of Success - Malcolm Gladwell Interview

Gladwell on Radiolab talking about Outliers (and Matthew Effect) - HERE

If parents haven't read his book then check out this awesome interview!!

White Flowers

A.R.Rahman on the same theme:

"Let white(peace) flowers bloom all over the world,
Let peace heal the unrest world,
let the sun’s rays fall on this soil,
Let the flowers lose their laziness and bloom.

Let the child open its eyes
in the mother’s lullaby
let the world wake up to
children’s laughter

In the breeze’s melody,
In the music created by raindrops,
Is there anything that give utmost joy than silence?
Would a crore melodies and words penned by poets be as meaningful
as a drop of a tear shed?

Let the moon rise in the place where the child reaches out its hands
Let the white bird sing in the place where there is no war."

He is just my dog

"He is my other eyes that can see above the clouds; my other ears that hear above the winds. He is the part of me that can reach out into the sea. He has told me a thousand times over that I am his reason for being; by the way he rests against my leg; by the way he thumps his tail at my smallest smile; by the way he shows his hurt when I leave without taking him. (I think it makes him sick with worry when he is not along to care for me.) When I am wrong, he is delighted to forgive. When I am angry, he clowns to make me smile. When I am happy, he is joy unbounded. When I am a fool, he ignores it. When I succeed, he brags. Without him, I am only another man. With him, I am all-powerful. He is loyalty itself. He has taught me the meaning of devotion. With him, I know a secret comfort and a private peace. He has brought me understanding where before I was ignorant. His head on my knee can heal my human hurts. His presence by my side is protection against my fears of dark and unknown things. He has promised to wait for me... whenever... wherever - in case I need him. And I expect I will - as I always have. He is just my dog."
- Gene Hill

Trading in Addiction for Thinking

"That's why I don't have an iPhone, for example; the last thing I want is for the Internet to follow me out into the world.  My latest trick is taking long hikes. I used to think running was a better form of exercise than hiking because it took less time. Now the slowness of hiking seems an advantage, because the longer I spend on the trail, the longer I have to think without interruption.

Sounds pretty eccentric, doesn't it? It always will when you're trying to solve problems where there are no customs yet to guide you. Maybe I can't plead Occam's razor; maybe I'm simply eccentric. But if I'm right about the acceleration of addictiveness, then this kind of lonely squirming to avoid it will increasingly be the fate of anyone who wants to get things done. We'll increasingly be defined by what we say no to."

Paul Graham (Thanks)

Quote of the Day

"A friend is one to whom one may pour out all the contents of one's heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away. "

Arabian Proverb

Are We Naturally Lazy?

I don't about that but I do agree keeping oneself busy helps one to be happy (I think, the whole premise of Protestant work ethics and that pursuit of happiness is based on this)  - here:

A team of researchers claims to have uncovered an interesting paradox: humans are happier when they’re busy, but we’re inclined towards idleness (“an evolutionary vestige that ensures we conserve energy.”) Christopher K. HseeAdelle X. Yang, and Liangyan Wang ran a series of experiments with college students and found that students were inclined towards idleness, but would seize even superficial opportunities to be busy. Furthermore, students who took the opportunity to do something with their downtime reported feeling happier after the experiment. In keeping with the times, the authors see an opportunity for government intervention: “Governments may increase the happiness of idle citizens by having them build bridges that are actually useless.”

A Question

"A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth."

-Robert Frost

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


This month, with in a span of last 3 weeks, our community has lost three dogs. I try not to think of... but one needs to be polite, talk and empathize with the families. It's one of the hardest thing for me to do because of the obvious ape in the head. 

Pain and Suffering

Pain and SufferingSuffering is mostly self-induced while pain is a fact of life. Some believe we are here because it's gift and some believe of it's curse. Some swear few flickering special moments in time is happiness and some think lack of suffering is happiness. Some believe in God and some believe we are mere chemicals. Some find a purpose to carry on and some give in. Some like to live on the edge for the thrill and some go into a shell of introspection. Some build a family and some live lonely. Some comprise and some wait for truth. Some flourish only in the past and some long for the future. Some prove we are social creatures with oozing empathy and some define us as self-centered creatures filled with selfish genes.  Some live to live a mark and some live to live a scar. Some find the meaning too late, only to dwell in "could have been" and others find the meaning too early, only to dwell in "what if". Some say its important to ask these question and some think it's stupid to ask these questions. Some learn all this with experience and some learn from others. Some think of all this and some are oblivious. May be, the accumulations of all these "some's" makes us diverse and also divides us. May be, there is no right or wrong answer. May be, there is no question at all.

One way or other we all live in a cocoon of self-fulling prophecy influenced by genes, society, nurture, religion, culture and what not. Is it possible to get out of it? Even if we did, isn't it probably jumping from one cocoon to another? I don't know if Max thinks about all this but I do know pain and suffering is part of him too. I anthropomorphize his happy face as smile but his real smile is wagging tail. I have seen him in pain but never seen a tear in his eyes. Is that a gift? It's takes a lot to make him unhappy but happiness comes to him seamlessly like breathing. There is so much beauty in that simplicity. I wish I was him, I wish I had his attitude, I wish I had his happiness, I wish I had his joy for living and I wish I have his lifespan. To paraphrase Darwin, there is grandeur in Max's way of life. 

Quote of the Day

"There is one friend in the life of each of us who seems not a separate person, however dear and beloved, but an expansion, an interpretation, of one's self, the very meaning of one's soul."-Edith Wharton

Sneaky Dogs

For the record, Max never stole anything from the kitchen. As a matter fact he doesn't even touch his treats unless given to him. Either "politeness" is his virtue or he so good at sneakiness that I have become delusional. Maybe, I don't want to know. I would rather keep it a mystery forever. Sneaky Dogs from Scientific American:

LIKE children with their hands in the cookie jar, dogs steal food quietly to make sure they don't get caught. The finding adds to evidence that dogs can work out what others are thinking.

Shannon Kundey of Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, and colleagues, gave 40 dogs, which had previously been trained not to eat food left on a plate, a chance to take food from inside two containers. Both containers were fitted with bells, but on one container the bells were muted.

When someone was watching, the dogs took food from both containers equally. But if the watcher looked away, for instance by putting their head between their legs, the dogs went for the silent container. This suggests they knew they could get a meal without the watcher hearing them.

Kundey says her results back up other evidence that dogs can represent for themselves how others perceive their actions. For example, previous studies had found that dogs are more likely to take food when people are not watching them."

Quote of the Day

"She is a friend of mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It's good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind."
-Toni Morrison 

When you are old

"When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars. "

William Butler Yeats

Monday, July 26, 2010

What I've been reading

Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopgramatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand (longnow blog here). I have quoted enough from this book already - one of the best books I ever read. I respect people who adapt and change minds, when the facts change (but not because of intellectual laziness or inferred justification or just being a plain old cognitive miser). I haven't seen anyone who adapted so seamlessly like Stewart Brand did.  This book is a call to embrace charter cities, nukes and biotech (genetic, microbes etc) to save not only our civilization but this planet as well. I have been bought into genetics and microbes a while ago but Brand made me change my mind on other two (well.. at-least one).

Here is one of the many
warnings on Yucca Mountain nuclear waste which made me anti-nuclear:
Before one can communicate with unknown future societies about deadly nuclear waste, it is important to consider with whom precisely one is trying to communicate. Such people may be part of a highly advanced civilization, they may be a society much less advanced than our own, or they may have comparable technology to that which we have today. Further, they may not be directly descended from local cultures. Messages will thus need to communicate to anyone– regardless of their culture, technology, or political structure– that intruding upon the repository is not in their best interest."

But Brand changed me with a very simple and pragmatic argument (even his TED debate wasn't convincing enough but this book did the job).
"With Climate change, those who know the most are the most frightened. With nuclear power, those who know the most are the least frightened."
We should start thinking nuclear energy as a less probable danger albeit a known demon. On the other-hand climate change is known unknown, not excatly a Black Swan but has the potential of dissipating into many Black Swans. We as a society have to accept some sought of risk for the betterment of (and to save) our civilization. Good thing is we always have that Bayesian on our side.

Charter Cities:

"Cities make countries rich. Countries that are highly urbanized have higher incomes, more stable economics, stronger institutions. They are better able to withstand the volatility of the global economy than those with less urbanized populations."

"Cities of engines of rural development... Improved infrastructure between rural areas and cities increases rural productivity and enhances rural residents' access to education, health care, markets, credit, information and other services. On the other hand, enhanced urban-rural linkages benefit cities through increased rural demand for urban goods and services and added value derived from agriculture produce."

Yes, Brand's argument did convince that charter cities are in-fact green. But there are two crucial factors missing - First, people currently living in slums are not planning to do so for ever but they do so on the hope someday they will be able to get out of it. That's the hope that keeps them going. Charter cities might take that dream away. Question is what happens then?
Secondly, what are the neural implications of living in a slum? What happens to our brains sans Biophilia? Thanks to neural plasticity, wouldn't that change who we are? I don't have the answer to those two questions but I think those needs to be answered before falling in love with slums.
And Brand does addresses the "cease-pool of criminality" that comes with packing humans in close quarters with this analogy:
"Electricity was stolen from shore via extension chords, water via garden hoses. People crapped in the bay, and it smelled rank at a minus tide. There was some drug trade and the occasional murder. There was some freelance prostitution."-
This is not the profile of Dharavi, Mumbai but surprise surprise  
Sausalito, California in 1950's!! Well... I am not sure if Dharavi can become Sausalito someday.

I cannot half-heatedly accept the charter cities yet but suburbia is disastrous too. We have to debate other options, if any.

Now for some reality check on state of science in this country, I haven't seen this in any western country or India but Brand writes that every elementary school in every village in China has a sign over the door in Mandarin with the following guidance:
With that attitude, guess who will be at the forefront in science this century?

"If any group can get itself into ecological balance and stabilize its population even in the face of environmental change, it will be tremendously disadvantaged against societies that do not behave that way. The long term successful society, in a world with many societies, will be the one that grows when it can and fights when it runs out of resources. It is useless to live an ecologically sustainable existence in the Garden of Eden unless the neighbors do so as well"
Constant Battles, Steven Leblanc.

That's very crude version of tragedy  of commons. Although, it has some truth to it, it's a very pessimistic outlook. I think, we as a civilization can and will do better than that. So the next book on my reading list is Rational Optimist!!

Inception for Dummies

Neuroskeptic has a post on Inception - here:

If you haven't watched Inception yet, don't read this post. It's great and I don't want to spoil it for you. So stop."

I haven't watched it yet, so not reading now. 

update - here

On Dying

"In the past few decades, medical science has rendered obsolete centuries of experience, tradition, and language about our mortality, and created a new difficulty for mankind: how to die."
-Atul Gawande, Letting Go