Sunday, November 25, 2012

An Indian Summer

I wrote a story! This one is set in a background of global warming and climate change.
Read it here!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Breathe! You are alive!"

I was walking down campus here in Berkeley the other day, along a path I tread often, indeed everyday, and I found this gem of a statement written in chalk on the road.

"Breathe! You are alive!" the writer said, with two little hearts drawn on either side of the words.

I continued walking, but the two sentences reverberated in my head. It was a simple statement of course. I mean, what could be simpler? Breathe, because you are alive. Well, duh! Of course I am breathing, won't I be dead if I didn't?

But then, how often do we think of the fact that we are alive? Alive, as opposed to dead, as opposed to inanimate, a pointless existence that just goes from one day to the next as the earth goes around the sun? Alive, as opposed to a stone that sits there, silent, till it is kicked about; alive, as opposed to dead, as most of the universe is; a cold lifeless place, most of it, with perhaps only the third small planet from a medium sized star capable of giving birth to life.

Life! What a miracle it is! Don't you see? You and I are part of miracles! Living, breathing miracles! How beautiful and magnificent are those millions of cells that pervade our body, constantly metabolizing, with their elaborate machinery of nuclei and mitochondria and ribosomes and DNA, a whole factory packed in a system so small it would put the best engineer to shame! How beautiful the lungs, full of tiny balloons to allow diffusion of oxygen as the blood passes behind the thin walls, how amazing the notion of  diaphragm that goes in and out, up and down to control intake and outgo, and how wonderful to know that even as I am writing this and you are reading this the whole machinery is going on and on, lub dub, lub dub, a wonderful incessant machine bringing in the precious fuel of oxygen, itself left behind by the sudden appearance several million years ago of a breed of creatures capable of actually storing energy, actually holding onto the sun's fusion; the best solar cells there are. And how wild that this energy all comes from the heart of a star that is such a huge explosion in the making, one of the strongest creative forces in the universe!

And not just life, but life capable of understanding itself! Life that has tiny little cells holding hands in such incredibly complicated patterns as to appear completely random, while at the same time giving the appearance of exquisite design: I am talking of the brain of course, the mother, quite literally, of all machines and all machinations humankind has ever concocted, all of art history culture literature science and this post itself emanating from that cosmologically tiny mass of grey cells in what to the best of minds seems an almost unsurnmountable enigma! And how inspiring to know that just one such a mass of grey cells somewhere, that one such miraculous creature hardly a few cosmological instants ago, took a piece of chalk and scribbled on the road what he felt inspiring, and me, an apparently unrelated creature, should stare at the statement and feel inspired enough to write this post, inspired enough to share with you....

Inspiration! What could be more miraculous than the fact that happiness and beauty and hope and creativity can flow like water from mind to mind and creation to creation, as if we were all part of just one huge canvas, one impeccable story that stretches as much through space as it does through time, as much through perception as through imagination; as if, as Walt Whitman said, we are all just part of one powerful play; each of us contributing a verse. Not just any verse, mind, but a verse, of the most powerful play in existence:


And you say you are insignificant, that you can find no meaning, that you are bored and disinterested in life. But how can you be? You are alive, isn't that enough? You are a living, breathing miracle.

So breathe. Because you are alive.

Now go inspire someone.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Against Intelligence

A tirade against "intelligence" has been building up inside me for a long time, but only now have my thoughts become clear enough to say something worthwhile. So here goes :)

The word "intelligence" is surprisingly commonplace, and at least colloquially, people kind of agree on what they mean by it. Intelligence seems to involve, to quote from Wikipedia (or rather from "Mainstream Science on Intelligence"):
"A very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience"

Well, that's the definition, although I don't know (and don't think) if that is universally accepted. Most people when they talk of being "intelligent", especially when they say "X is intelligent" seem to have in mind logical puzzles, abstract thought, complex ideas, the like. They also talk of it in admiration; almost as if intelligence is a quality to be desired, and all life on earth can be arranged beautifully in a single linear scale from the "least intelligent" to the "most intelligent". Of course, with humans on the top, and maybe some humans on top of others. (What great narcissism to think that humans have to be at the top of the ladder! Perhaps the position of possibly being the first species to calmly, knowingly and willingly destroy itself is worthy of some pride! But let's keep cynicism out of here).

From an artificial intelligence perspective however, this notion of intelligence seems almost hilarious. Playing a game of chess, for instance, or solving a Sudoku puzzle, is the easiest thing to get computers to do. A few lines of python code will get you a very good sudoku solver. To take a simpler example, multiplying two numbers together is extremely simple. So much so that, funnily, in today's day and age "thinks faster than a computer" is a feat worth world records!

Yet by several other metrics, computers are not even close to human abilities, or for that matter maybe even monkeys. Let me give you a typical example. The best possible computer vision systems in existence today will take roughly a minute to identify tens of objects in an image. The human brain on the other hand, though sluggish in solving Sudoku puzzles, can detect thirty thousand kinds of objects in under a tenth of a second. That's thousand times more computation, in a thousandth fraction of the time. Oh, and I forgot to mention: at almost twice the accuracy.

It is worth remembering, when we talk of things like IBM's Watson, that Watson is the exception rather than the rule. In most parts of artificial intelligence we struggle to do tasks that humans and monkeys and, who knows, perhaps half the mammal kingdom achieves subconsciously and, for all intents and purposes, instantly. (Of course, fellow AI-folk know this well enough, but that's not the case out in the non-computer-science world). The hardest, the most impossible tasks for AI right now are those that evolution solved millions of years ago, before we puny humans came about and thought up math and reasoning and abstractions.

And the reason such things are hard is not because we don't have enough transistors or we don't have enough RAM or anything like that. No, the fact is, they are just hard. It is relatively easy to think 5 moves ahead in chess in silence for several minutes; it is incredibly hard to try to discern if that little patch of what-seems-like-orange is a carefully camouflaged tiger that might devour you within the second. Evolution, unlike its supposed "pinnacle", us humans, sure got its priorities right.

Now many of those "in the know" will claim that many problems of "reasoning" or "planning" are also incredibly hard. True. But it is also true that people also think of "playing chess" and "verifying proofs" as "intelligent activities", and very frankly, they were for all intents and purposes solved at least 20 years ago.

What am I trying to say? I am trying to say that I can't understand why "reasoning" and "solving problems" are de facto assumed to be the definition of "intelligence" and hence worthwhile goals to strive for. What is it about logical reasoning that automatically makes it the right metric to rank living organisms and people? Why does the fact that we can solve math problems make us better than those tiny bugs that can survive naked in frigging space, or the ospreys that can identify underwater prey from far above in the sky, swoop down, go underwater (while flying, like actually) come out of the water with prey in hand, and frigging dry themselves while still in flight?

And, more than anything else, why does it make sense for "solving problems", especially "solving exam problems", the way it is done in India at least, to be the right metric to rank people? Why do we so take for granted the fact that those who are "intelligent" are also those "meritorious", and those who deserve "privilege"?

I am not saying that there is no virtue in reasoning, or in the ability to solve problems, which are of course crucial to science in general. What I am complaining against is the fact that while we bemoan "financial privilege" and "caste privilege" we are perfectly happy with a privilege based on a made up notion of "intelligence". How much time would it take for us to learn that any linear ranking of humans is discrimination, that there is no way that you can "rank" anyone, and that "ability" or "merit" is something contingent on the situation, not a single number we can stamp on every one and be done for eternity?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The art of not knowing

I sometimes feel that I am a rather arrogant person: I have opinions on a lot of things, and I claim to know a lot. And I brandish whatever knowledge I have left, right and center. It is a weapon to make people believe you, make them look at you like an expert.

But there is really no point in being an expert. Knowledge closes one's mind, in some way. It seals off questions about some things, it seals away doubts that might crop up now and then, and it erodes one's wonder. Less time, then, is spent in being surprised, and more in being annoyed. You get adept at debating, with the flurry of facts and truths you have at your disposal, yet you slowly lose the opportunity to debate with yourself.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with knowledge itself, only in how you choose to use it. I find more and more that I am using it to win debates. Of course, the point of a debate is never to win, and it is good to understand that. Even if the debate is about a factual claim. There is no point to a debate unless you can take something back from it, and if you are in it for the winning, then you aren't gaining anything from it. You have just closed your mind and are standing guard on the fortress of your beliefs, externally very confident but internally insecure because you are so used to your beliefs being right that all you can think of is the chaos that will ensue if you are indeed wrong.

The key issue, then, is not to gain more knowledge as time goes on, but to stay perpetually ignorant, in some sense. To constantly find new ways of asking questions, new ways of being wrong. To realize that no matter how much you know, there is always the infinite amount you dont know and will never know. And to focus on the ignorance: we are after all a tiny species on an insignificant planet around a nondescript star in a vast universe, and we will always be tiny, we will always be insignificant. There is no "enlightenment" that will open all knowledge to us, the only enlightenment is the realization perhaps that we can never be completely right, only less wrong.

And there is no harm in being ignorant, or wrong. There is a charm, a beauty in discovery, and its only the discovery that is beautiful, never the knowledge. There is a beauty in looking at something happening, or listening to someone speak, and feeling the slow flame of understanding getting kindled in your head. There is also a beauty in being wrong, in being on the "losing" side of a debate. Because arguably, the "losing" side stands to gain so much more: a whole new point of view..

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Talk to me

Talk to me.

Talk to me,
Of the sun, the stars, the moon, the skies,
Of the sea, and water, and trees, and forests
Of the universe ever expanding
Teasing, as if,
Our little minds trying
To grab hold of the boundaries
And fit them into a box

Talk to me
Of the boundaries of knowledge
Of wisdom gained and lost
With eyes of wonder
And a voice of truth.
Question me,
Till beads of sweat
Break out on my forehead
Till I frown and flounder
Struggling to grasp
My own follies and truths.

Talk to me
As the night wears on
As conversation gives way to debate
And debate gives way to thought
To questions unanswered,
Till the moonlight becomes a silver thread
Entwining us together in this moment
This instant of discovery
Wedged immovably between
The transience of now
And the permanence of forever.

And talk to me
Till when the sun comes up
With the red horizon
Boasting the regularity of day,
We have our secret safe:
A secret question we shared,
A secret answer we found,
And a night, etched in memory,
When we found ourselves.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Devil's advocate II - The JEE

It is now well past 1 am, and hence well past the time when I am expected to be both awake and sane. It follows therefore that I must do something insane now, such as getting into an argument over the internet.

Now, contrary to what this post's title seems to indicate, I am not going to argue that the government's decision to scrap the JEE was right: to be sure, I know little or nothing about that decision to make any informed argument whatsoever. I am, however, mildly pissed off at the flurry of Facebook shares this decision has caused, and at the number of "Save the JEE" banners that have cropped up. Pissed off partly because, hey, this is hardly the biggest issue right now worthy of attention (hear hear, so said the guy with a blog post on the topic!) but also because for some reason people seem to have this highly romantic view of IIT, almost as if it is some sort of coming of age ceremony; you know, something that separates the "men" from the "boys". The sexism in that statement is very much intended.

To be more precise, here are some of the arguments that are put forward, and why I think they are bad.
  1. "It promotes a level playing field". It does not, rather obviously. Anyone who has been through the IIT system will know that quite a majority of students who get in are those who went to some coaching institute or the other, which is of course a monopoly of the privileged. This argument doesn't even deserve a rebuttal. 
  2. "It tests raw intelligence". A milder version of 1., according to me, and subject to the same fallacy.  I have heard/seen people argue that the prevalance of coaching centres is just a small flaw that can be plugged. Not so. A little bit of thought will tell you that there can never really be an examination which does not favour the privileged : imagine two children of identical innate intelligence, the one unschooled, working perhaps for most of his childhood, and the other an upper middle class kid sent to the best schools. By the time they give the exam, the latter very simply has just had a lot of time to think, not withstanding the schooling. Intelligence grows with time, with experience and with education. Short of putting an electrode into the skull at the time of birth, there is no real way of checking "innate intelligence" or "creativity". If such things exist.
  3. "JEE establishes IIT as a global brand". That is, to me, a totally meaningless statement. What are we more concerned about, providing higher education or creating brands? True, the IIT brand helps us graduates along quite a bit, but saying that the purpose of the JEE is to give IIT a brand name makes JEE sound like those annoying stickers on apples that say that they are imported, and that are annoyingly hard to remove.
  4. "You need a difficult exam because studying at IIT requires some caliber." Well it's not supposed to. They are undergraduates for God's sake, IIT is supposed to provide them with caliber. I was a teaching assistant for Dan Klein's undergrad AI class last semester (we had 400 students in that class. Hear, ye who say that IIT has too many students, although we were 7 teaching assistants), and the one thing that the class taught me was that it is possible to have a course that doesn't require superhuman "intelligence" and yet teaches a lot. The assignments were extremely simple by IIT standards  (you could do them in a couple of hours), yet a lot more engaging and interesting than most (probably all) of the assignments I have ever done at IIT, and their coverage of the material couldn't have been better. In any circumstance, if a teacher cannot teach a student something, it is by definition a fault of the teacher. No one said teaching was an easy job.
There, that's it. I have vented my feelings. In short, the JEE isn't the sparkling jewel in a messed up education system. Quite the contrary: it is merely the sad and unhappy marriage of a higher education system that can't find enough teachers and a sickly mindset that forces engineering dreams like straitjackets onto innocent children.

And like it or not, we are the children of that marriage.

[UPDATE: Abhishek in his post rebuts a lot of the other arguments that people have against passing the JEE. If you need any more convincing you should read his post. I especially like these lines (I couldn't have said it better):
"If you have any competition of academic perseverance, choose the best five(?) thousand out of five hundred thousand, pack them off to sanctuaries and drill them in technical knowledge, you are bound to unearth a few diamonds. Those diamonds reflect some of their light on all that 'made' them, viz. the academic contest and the sanctuary. And the latter become holy."

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Wrote a story! Read it here:

It's not a very good story, but it came to me almost whole, and I've learnt it's usually not good to stifle such stories.

Also it has a liberal sprinkling of science, mainly about vision science. I will not claim that the science is accurate, but it is accurate to the extent that it is based on reading half of a random vision science paper. If you want to know, the condition I talk of is, I think, called "visual agnosia", but I have had no interaction with anyone who actually has that condition; this is entirely my imagination. So pardon me if I am completely off-track.