What next, now?

Unfortunately as I found out recently, Quora is not that great a way to challenge and debate over any sufficiently reinforced “mainstream” viewpoint..

Well, no matter how indifferent anybody else may or may not be to the existing reality, there are some things I know for sure: I DON’T want to just keep earning and spending money for the rest of my life.. and I DON’T want to just grow old one day and retire before I die, just like our previous generations have for decades. As J. Krishnamurti put it so brilliantly:

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

It might take 10, 15 or maybe even 20 more years to really change things.. (hell, it took over 50 years of Bucky Fuller’s own lifetime.. and even after that, many of his inventions, his Geodesic domes were only brought down to ruins). But now I am determined to work towards what it is that I know I eventually want, and it’s certainly not personal possessions, or some nameplate formal success in the existing system.

After much deliberation over what should be my next course of action, I have come to this conclusion: To put it succinctly in a Fuller quote:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

So.. my desired reality of tomorrow is that technology and robots can (and should) displace all humans in all mundane tasks and jobs (or atleast, deliver an immense efficiency speedup per man-hour). Keeping those jobs around just to keep people employed is to undermine our own human potential.. no matter what your opinion may be about our “inherent” ability or capacity, I feel we are capable of much better.. we all might be in for a big surprise at the magnitude of our pent-up thirst for self-study and creative expression.. if only given a chance.

To that end, these days I am considering heavily engaging in robotics/infrastructure development.. open-source, mostly driven and built upon projects like Arduino, Linux, Blender and so on. And this time it is practical robotics, not hobby line followers (which BTW might turn out to be a surprisingly important basic building block for any sophisticated setup :D Electronics Club FTW!)

Within a few years, I expect that my own house will become a “living” system that maintains itself.. maybe a technology zoo!

Quora?

In a nutshell: from the following observations as well as seeing the response to my only Quora answer so far, I feel that Quora is a place for conformism, not critical thinking.

It’s been maybe a week since I have been browsing Quora content.. and I had begun to really like that place.. extensive topics, their voting and credit system and so on.. Highly sensible design decisions, well oriented towards the question asking, reading and answering. Quite enjoyable. [That alone should have set the alarms ringing in my head]

( For months before that, I had been largely ignoring all the Quora posts that keep coming on the Facebook news feed. Even when a question that prodded my curiosity came along, I would ignore their ‘login to view’ banner and read off the answer from the page source.. just to deny them the satisfaction of having coerced another user to register. Quite juvenile, maybe.. but I have redressed that now, finally. )

So yes, Quora as an experience is quite popularly enjoyable. And then I realized.. Enjoyable? Discovering the truth and coming to terms with it can hardly be considered an enjoyable process for the masses. I thought the quest for truth is supposed to be an unexpected, uncomfortable journey, with many more questions and blurry brainstorming, than answers that are confidently upvoted and reinforced over time.

So then, what is Quora doing, if not exposing people to discomforting facts and perspectives? Well, creating less questions and many more answers. Of which the ‘right’ one will get upvoted, is how one expects that system to work. Thus, this system is not really meant to work for open-ended questions that may have no right answer yet.

(My answer so far has neither been voted up or down, nor received any response, favourable or otherwise. Ignored? Well.. so much for critical thinking. Especially since I think my answer does expose the readers to a very different facet of the original question. Isn’t that supposed to unguide us away from our own localized views? )

What I would like to see is the Quora credit system turn around on its head.. a place where you get to ask as many questions as you want for free, and you will earn credits if people upvote your question, because it means that your question provokes something they either don’t know already, and/or consider to be worth critical thinking or discussion. How would people’s answers be credited? Not sure; maybe pay-to-respond. So, only if you have asked enough good original questions, would you be able to respond. This mechanism seems quite harsh at the moment. So again.. not sure about this.

Free energy! FREE FREE FREE

Apologies for the spam-like title. But this deserves it.

First, we have the pledge:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_of_energy

Then, the turn..
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero-point_energy#Free-energy_devices

and the prestige… wait for it:

*applause*

Time for questions:

What was all that?

You tell me, if you figure it out. As far as I can see, we CAN create energy out of what we always referred to as ‘thin air’; and air is much Fuller than the (again, presupposed) emptiness of space itself.
Why would people not use this technology, then?
I think you already know the answer… in the current system, there is no profit to be made by solving problems permanently.

What is turning out to be even more a shocking thing to me, (and this part, I am not very sure of) is that it seems from some online sources, that this technology (or atleast, the seeds thereof) had originated as far back as in some of Tesla’s work. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMhAIdqH0Cs )
If this is indeed the case, dare we pay our energy bill at home after reading this.

∀∃∞

In the New year, I have generally been busy reading and browsing on a wide range of topics. In the process, I keep encountering interesting facets of thoughts and ideas, ranging from very old books to recent developments in research. In the weeks to follow, I intend to post about some of these, that seem worthy of sharing and discussion.. which shall hopefully resurrect this place. Let there be blog!

At some point, I got curious about understanding the ‘big’ economic picture mathematically. That is when I first began learning of problems in the very nature of some basic ideas in macroeconomics. For example, the mechanics of money creation, which largely happens today on the basis of “Fractional Reserve Banking“, seems rather bewildering. The ‘system’ went beyond my tangible perception somewhere, so let us leave that. Beginning to critically go through the arguments presented in a microeconomics book, I encountered something very strange being done there.

In the introductory chapter, the book said that the [presented] economic theory is based on the assumption that firms try to maximize their own profits; and though this may be inaccurate at times, there is sufficient reason to generally use the theory since it largely explains a broad range of phenomena regarding the behaviour of firms.
Well, this is where I perceive a flaw in the cause-effect dependence. To justify the assumption of self-maximizing firms, we observe the ‘phenomenal’ behaviour of existing firms; which makes you wonder.. don’t the policies and decisions made based on economic theories shape the behaviour of firms? And in that case, how are these theories and policies made for the ‘first’ time, if that is to be?

Escher 'outdraws'.. himself, I'd say. Twice.
Do you see what we do? To ourself?

Let us turn to a parallel in mathematics: Euclid’s fifth postulate was based on the observation of the ‘existing’ lines, i.e. the straight lines drawn on flat paper as seen and imagined by Euclid and others; and hence the Parallel Postulate seemed to be a reasonable property to assume.

It goes without saying that Euclid and others have tried to derive the property from other axioms, but in vain. Possibilities of creating “non-Euclidean geometries” that work without using that axiom began to be pursued over time; but they fully bore fruit much later. For instance, hyperbolic geometry and Riemannian geometry came about in the 19th century.

There are several lessons to learn here, I feel. Think about it.. the mental energies of people across several thousand years were put to work on a seemingly small point! And yet, we abandoned a radical idea such as Google Wave so easily. (There are still a couple days left for you to try Wave, before it shuts down.) There were initial issues with providing a glitch-free experience; and there was the question of the learning curve; rather, of our readily considering such a radical mental transformation. Why are we so short-sighted that we acted the way we collectively did? As I see it, the power of Wave API together with the open-source development model could have transformed that service.. only if it were given a chance.

The consequences of our actions become even more a topic of introspection, when one realizes that Riemannian geometry, a result of an age-old pursuit for the seemingly trivial, is one of the key concepts used by 20th century Einstein to base his theory of General Relativity! If those hundreds of mathematicians had not worked towards their unseen future, the occurrence of relativity (and hence, many modern technologies such as GPS and flight/space navigation) might have been offset by years.. maybe decades.. maybe eternity? Scary thought. I am only glad that Wave would reappear as Apache Wave, so nothing would be lost.. probably.

Besides this, there is another lesson to learn through the above example.. when mathematics was faced with a dilemma, it willingly split into multiple possibilities; it did not ‘choose’ one and kill the other. In a very similar fashion, when the study of economics is made on such a one-sided self-recurring basis as the profit-maximization assumption, I feel the possibility of there being another economical model that is created to work without such an assumption. Current economic theories are based on a marginally softer notion of self-maximization than the extreme end; yet, the entire spectrum is not represented. (Ideas such as communism and socialism are not directly relevant here; they are elaborate socio-economic models and do not relate to any fundamental mathematical assumptions in micro/macroeconomic analysis.)

The final lesson: One has to make the mental leap of considering a hyperbola to be a line, to get to a whole new geometry. When will we all evolve?

Escher's reptiles
Transcend pattern.. think better

Escher all the way..

PS: Rate this!

Blackjack

I turned 21 this week.

All you’ve done is not die for a year – Jerry Seinfeld

And how do I want to see myself 21 years hence?

Happy, obviously; but in all seriousness.. not dead.

And where is the current system likely to take us in 21 years?

Here.

You don’t need to be told that the world is currently not working out well for everybody in the world. The more I think of it, the more I feel the need to support change.

And who, according to me, might provide the basis for change?

Well.. as an aside, let me describe an incident. This was during a ‘career orientation’ lecture that my school had organized. The speaker, Mrs. Shailaja Mule had asked, “Those of you who DO science, stand up!”

Funnily, I was the only one who stood up. And it was spontaneous, now that I recall the moment. The audience broke into applause and all that.. what a waste.

Returning to the question.. who might provide the basis for change?

I think the answer is Science. The scientific method, to be more precise. I stood up for it once (literally), and I think it’s time we all do so, now. And there is a group of people who have been making efforts in that direction, for some time now.

Simply put, what The Venus Project represents and what The Zeitgeist Movement hence condones, could be summarized as: “The application of The Scientific Method for social concern”

- Preface to the Zeitgeist Movement Activist Orientation Guide.

I feel we need to take this as seriously as we can. The reason for me to personally do so? If nothing else, so that I may be able to enjoy my 42nd birthday as freely as I did my 21st, in a future that otherwise might turn out to be the greatest gamble of all.

Magic

Projects (especially, B.Tech Projects) are very fascinating, in that they let you do a lot of things just for the sake of it. For example, at one point in my code, I wanted to iterate through all the 4-element subsets of a given N-element set. The most straightforward way would be to actually write 4 nested loops. A bit “scalable” approach would probably employ proper recursion.

Or.. we could do some goto magic!

int i[4];
int m=0;
 nest:
for(i[m]=(m?i[m-1]+1:0);i[m]<10;i[m]++){
    if(m<3) {m++; goto nest;}

    cout<<i[0]<<i[1]<<i[2]<<i[3]<<endl;

  unnest:
    ;
  }
  if(m>0) {m--;  goto unnest;}

The above C++ code will iterate through (and print) all 4-subsets of {0,1,..,9}.

How does it work? To understand that, one needs to appreciate a very simplistic view of compilation, namely that it is just a highly complex regexp find-replace operation. (Of course, this is oversimplifying things; since so many intermediate steps and much optimization happens; but we’ll ignore that, because all that does not define (or change) the external behavior of the program)

In other words, processors have no real sense of understanding about what the program syntax means. Code is just executed as it comes along; and the code can be doing absolutely anything. And this is precisely what the above snippet makes use of. The nest and goto-nest is a small nesting loop that blindly steps our program flow 4 levels deep into for-loops. The processor has simply no idea that it is seeing the same for-statement again and again! It simply executes it, which is to say it nests up another level each time.

And then, the unnest-loop is needed to formally exit all the nested levels, so that the program can continue execution ahead. Again, the processor is given the illusion that it is encountering four quite distinct ‘unnesting’ operations.

Word of caution: goto is considered hazardous, and the above snippet indicates why: simply because then the program flow takes strange routes, difficult to keep track of. But the above also suggests that if somehow you can manage the ‘proofreading’, goto can do some beautiful things for you.

new Category(“BTP”);

Yes, I know.. that statement won’t compile. But honestly, I couldn’t think of any good name for the pointer that should have been.

As an aside, some of my programming sessions in the past have been fruitless because I simply didn’t like the variable names, or their length (because the code won’t line up otherwise). A particularly nasty one is that “server” and “client” are of the same length; but “peer” just disrupts everything. I could call it “peerer”, if I wanted. But then, the English embedded in the C statements is horrible: “kill(peerer);” almost sounds like a fundamentally barbarian act.

But back to the main: This is the new category: my B.Tech project. I feel that any ‘sensibly chosen’ project should teach us many things along the way, and that’ll happen on a wide range, from something concrete (like a new software or language) to abstract (like a general heuristic or thumb-rule). Well, my BTP is a very sensible research problem, and is set amidst a very sensible team. For now, at least. And I think that sharing the notable ideas as one comes across them along the way, would be a great way for research enthusiasts to know what each other is doing.

Of course, I don’t plan to bore the readers by posting about each and every detail of my project, because that will essentially amount to making the readers of this category recreate my results from scratch. Rather, I’ll abstract out the noteworthy things I discover, and present them with some context, for the reader to appreciate them.

For now, let me just give a brief background about the problem: It started with a single frequency estimation problem as my summer project. And now as a BTP, it has been extended in the most natural way: estimate more frequencies. I have been working on it for about two weeks now, and I’ve already started writing my first algorithms, which are just natural extensions from lower-order results that I had arrived at during the summer. Nothing interesting yet, except that this doesn’t beat logic, and that’s a good thing.

Again, as an aside: In a place where logic doesn’t seem to be applied to decide our core syllabus, today I was looking for logic in the order in which the bathroom buttons in my new wing are arranged, with respect to the lights they control. What would be funnier, is if some faculty/authority reads this, and decides to fix the buttons before the syllabus.

Meta: Outlink Design

I had completely forgotten my idea of posting a meta every now and then. For those unfamiliar with this idea: Simply put, metas are posts about this blog. (For a more elaborate description of the ‘meta’ concept, read this book.)

I was browsing through the WordPress settings, when I came across a feature called Proofreading. Basically, it scans your posts as you type them, and detects unusual sentence construction, repetition/clichés and highlights them. But another feature, which I am more interested about, supplies “Additional Post Content”: It identifies keywords or phrases in the post, hunts the internet for related links, and gives the writer the option of inserting any or all of them as links into the post.

Quite a few popular blogs that I have seen, are infested with these kind of links.. to the point of irritation at times, I think. I remember a time when I had fallen into the habit of randomly selecting and deselecting text with the mouse while reading anything, and I would invariably click on some or the other hyperlink in the process.

But let us analyze the function of these ‘outlinks’ from a Design perspective. For that, we need to first create a fictitious personality for the average reader, or what my last IDC course called a Persona. Now, this may not be the most accurate statement, but it is fair to say that the typical person who tends to read blogs (and several of them, probably), is fundamentally a reader. Further, people often do chain reading.. one article or post leading to another and so on. Also, the readers that land up on a particular post, via such chaining, may have very diverse origins and interests; so it becomes a must for any technical terms or names in the post to be properly defined or documented, in a way.

Looking from that Persona’s perspective, outlinks become very essential: A blog post that points to other sources of reading, is like a chain propagator, and is surely more welcome than one which acts like a chain terminator. And pointing to the definition/documentation for non-standard terms and names is a neat trick.

All this, in support of adding links. Any striking disadvantage of the same? Not that I know of, except that the visual flow and readability of the content is marginally reduced.

In short, you’ll find more outlinks in my recent posts, now that I have activated the Proofreading feature.

(PS: This is the first post that goes into all the categories. Time to add a new category next time…)

The Odds

Almost all the science fiction I know is built upon some very futuristic setting; and the whole mood is as if tasks like time travel, meeting extraterrestrials and using Aperture Science Hand-Held Portal Devices are but second nature. Right from Asimov’s positronic brains to the Infinite Improbability Drive, scientific progress has been taken for granted. And I guess that is what Fiction is about.. otherwise, what would be the point, mostly?

But today, I happened to come across this article, which provides more evidence of our inability to cross the speed-of-light barrier. And that is when I was suddenly struck by the extreme other possible end of the future.. Imagine that somehow after centuries.. or millenniums, despite all scientific attempts, we fail to create artificial intelligence; plus, no aliens seem to exist; nor can we visit most planets because we are still brutally nailed down by constraints like the speed of light. Further, consider that all this pent-up zeal for Progress might find an outlet by completely solving our environmental/socio-economic problems. That would be a scary nightmare.. leaving us with nothing to worry about; but nothing to do either, except maybe waiting indefinitely for that alien phone-call.

“Look at us, hurtling through space on this big, blue marble. ” – Seinfeld

But a while after I was immersed in this rather kill-joy view of the future, I remembered Jules Verne  bravely discussing submarines in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea(1870) and space travel in From the Earth To the Moon(1865).. a full century ahead of the Apollo 11 ! No doubt these ideas seemed as fantastic back then, as do Portal guns now; yet Verne had such tremendous and accurate vision of the future path of Technology. This somehow does offer some reassurance that we will, despite all odds, break all barriers and actually become the sophisticated civilization that science fiction envisages. Asimov’s Foundation might be our future, after all.

Yet; the above do not eclipse the solid, unyielding statements that have withstood brutal cross-examination for about a hundred years now: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the speed-of-light barrier. The odds still remain.. what lies ahead?

(PS: The only science-fiction story I can recall that has been set in a believable real-world framework, is Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days(1873). Do you know of any others? If so, kindly mention it in the comments below)

Goldquest

This year at the 52nd International Mathematical Olympiad, a team member of India got a Gold Medal; an event that had been missing from our performance for about a decade. Hence, this is an appropriate moment for me to write a bit about Mathematics in general.

The first thing I wish to say about maths, is that it deals with figments of our imagination and thoughts. And no two people can actually have the exact same thoughts. Then what does it mean, to know the Pythagoras theorem? And more importantly, what does it mean to say that the Pythagoras theorem I am thinking about, is the same one that you are? How can people actually have intelligent conversations and write even books on what might mean different things to different people?

So, my own explanation for this is: If one could somehow instruct the whole world to simultaneously think about the Pythagoras theorem for a while, we would all be (probably) thinking of this property of a right angled triangle. Of course, the mental picture or dimensions of the triangle will vary wildly from person to person. The content of our thoughts may be different, but the form is the same. So in a way, mathematics is a living example of collective memory at work. And knowing the Pythagoras theorem, is tantamount to nothing other than being part of this collective memory. So, whenever you teach somebody the Pythagoras theorem, you are not just saying the words to him; you are including him to also share the collective memory that millions of people already have in common.

If art is considered as the purest form of human expression, I think mathematics is the purest form of human thought. And often I wonder whether the analogy between maths and arts can be taken further. For instance, it is a generally accepted fact, and does not come to us as a surprise that not all people have the same level of appreciation of art. But for some reason, when we see students who don’t like maths, we consider that as a failing of our education system. Sure, one can train people to be able to do some basic calculations, just the way anybody can be mechanically trained to play a piece of music. But true appreciation of maths, just like art, is an inherent quality of each person, and cannot be created out of nothing. Then, is it wise for educators all over the world, to strain their brains to create better ways to make children like maths more and more?

To conclude: the thirst for maths is like the quest for gold.. And the true location of the treasure has been given by Paulo Coehlo in The Alchemist: One has to look within.