Funny paradigm

August 31, 2007

My younger brother in Malaysia sends some great forwards in the mail. A few days ago he had sent the one I am paraphrasing below. I had read it long time ago but I enjoyed it this time just as much I had originally enjoyed it. I doubt someone actually performed this experiment but it sounds so right that it is probably what would happen if it was ever done in real life.

A group of scientists placed five monkeys in a cage and in the middle of the cage they placed a ladder with bananas on the top.

Every time a monkey went up the ladder, the scientists soaked the rest of the monkeys with ice cold water.

After a while, every time a monkey went up the ladder, the others beat up the one on the ladder.

After some time, no monkey dare to go up the ladder regardless of the temptation.

Scientists then decided to substitute one of the monkeys.  The first thing this new monkey did was to go up the ladder.  Immediately the other monkeys beat him up.

After several beatings, the new member learned not to climb the ladder even though never knew why.

A second monkey was substituted and the same occurred. The first monkey participated in the beating of the second monkey without a clue as to why. A third monkey was changed and the result was the same. All the monkeys including the ones who never got wet beat up on the monkey going up the ladder.  The fourth was substituted and the beating was again repeated and finally the fifth monkey was replaced.

What was left was a group of five monkeys that even though never received a cold shower, continued to beat up any monkey who attempted to climb the ladder.

If it was possible to ask the monkeys why they would beat up all those who attempted to go up the ladder, I bet the answer would have been…

“I don’t know – that’s how things are done around here.”

Computer future 1

August 30, 2007

Current microchips in computers have a transistor count of more than 1,000 million? That means that the actual chip (inside the black casing called the die) is about the size of my thumbnail and has a billion individual transistors. Each transistor requires several components which make it work like resistors, capacitors and semiconductors. So you can imagine how small the actual components would be. We get pen drives today (also called USB drives) which have capacities of 4 GB meaning that the 1 square cm of the actual chip can store about 4,000,000,000 bytes of data. The entire works of William Shakespeare can be stored in their entirety in less than 500,000 bytes. Everything that Shakespeare wrote in his whole life fits permanently word for word into a drive 2 cm by 6 cm 8,000 times! That’s a lot.

We already have digital response times of picoseconds. A trillion times a second. Wow! That is fast but apparently its not fast enough. The ever increasing demands of today’s software and communication requires even faster more compact chips. But we seem to be heading into a wall. Semiconductors have a finite physical limits of switching circuits even if we reduce their size to near molecular levels. And we have nearly reached it with the present technology. Pretty soon we won’t be able to get more information crammed into lesser space. All these magnetic media, like hard-drives, would reach their threshold even sooner. That leaves only optical components. There is no other way. The storage capacities using light waves is still several orders of magnitude greater than the best we have today. The future belongs to light.

Those of you who have seen the original Superman (Christopher Reeves) would remember the part where Superman goes up to his ‘castle’ on the South Pole. If you can recall the long crystals he uses for storing all his ancestral memories of Krypton, those will be the type of chips we may end up using in the future. And they are not electrically operated, the storage as well as the operation is optical. Same as the technology being developed. So there would be no wires or metals in these machines, only varying lattices from different types of crystals.

Even as the speed of our technology increases, the space requirements will be less. And since we can control light both in terms of intensity as well as frequency, the power requirements of these devices will be reduced in the same ratio as LED based devices to LCD ones. So it’s a win-win situation for the near future. I for one can’t wait to take one of these babies for a ride.

Though it may sound far fetched by today’s standards, it is none-the-less one of the more probable truths of the future. With today’s ever increasing demand of information processing and communication, there is no way the present technology will be able to cope with it successfully. But it doesn’t end there. One day we would have outgrown even the optical technologies because I doubt the human hunger for information will satiate so easily or so soon after our species coming of age. Eventually we will need to reach even further out to the grandest of all computing engines known to humanity – man himself.

Here’s a link on these optical chips

Winter chill 3

August 29, 2007

He ran towards it as hard as his legs would carry him. After some time, he became certain of the light. He kept running and the light kept coming closer. He just prayed he would not trip or run out of running space before he got to the light. Now it was becoming bigger and more clear. He could tell it was slightly greenish. He was sure of it. He was not imagining it anymore. It was almost the size of a marble held out at arms length.

Then the light started to grow. He stopped cold. The light continued to grow. It looked like it was coming towards him. He stood still. Soon he could make out small wisps of dull coronas on the surface of the light. It was the size of a melon now but it still looked far away. It started to slow. He looked down. He could see his hands and the grass at his feet. It was getting warmer as well. The light was not very bright. Almost like a full moon but in green.

The wind started to rush around him, through his hair, through his arms. He raised an arm towards the ball to touch it. He couldn’t tell how far it was since he was not able to focus on it. There was no reaction on his hands. But he knew that this was the light he was looking for and he had to get to it before it went away without him.

It started stretching on the sides like someone was pressing down from the top and the bottom. It was elongating, pulling itself on the sides trying to grow. It started to lose altitude and dropped to his eye-level. It grew to the shape of a very large cucumber. He didn’t know whether it was good or bad or even if there was going to be any pain. There was no mention of any of this in any of the material he had read before in preparation of this. He thought hard and decided to take his chances by grabbing it. He reached out again with both his arms.

This time there was a cold contact. He felt like he had just put his hands in a bucket of cold water. It gave way easily but he could tell there was resistance. It was there.

Now the cold started spreading up his arms. It was rising inside him. He rose with the light. His arms started glowing with the same green glow as the liquid like texture started up his arms, surrounding them on all sides. It rose to his neck, then his mouth and down to his feet. As soon as it reached his eyes, green light was all around him, enveloping him in a green cold. It was not unbearable. He was getting excited now. He could feel his fear draining away as he rose higher and higher. Ok, he thought, I might just make it. Lightening flashed out of his hair and when he raised his hands to his face, stray bolts of tingling silver flashed across his finger tips. He realized that he wasn’t breathing anymore and it didn’t seem to be any problem. There was no pain at all.

He threw up his arms and started laughing.

Gory details

August 26, 2007

In many ways we Indians do not deserve the freedom guaranteed to us by our constitution. While we boisterously take the freedom part for granted, we don’t try to even understand the responsibilities that come with that. I’m talking specifically about the private news networks which unnecessarily dramatize and exaggerate their presentations. The problem seems to be that sensationalism generates viewership and viewership generates revenues.

There are news programs exclusively dedicated to reporting ‘actual’ ghost stories. I mean actual NEWS channels which regularly broadcast a half hour segment on ghosts and witches with ‘documented’ facts. Many people who did not believe in demons before these programs now go for regular visits to witch doctors and exorcists because it is so much easier to blame supernatural powers for their own misfortunes. Then there are the bloody and graphic footages of accidents and crimes. These channels don’t even bother to blur out the excessively violent or gory sections. My elder daughter had started crying because a news channel was showing disturbing details of a woman whose husband, in a fit of rage, had jabbed an iron pike all the way through her head. They showed hi-res close-ups of her head.

The fact is that desensitized people tend to commit more crimes over issues which could have been otherwise resolved amicably. Is this what these channels are trying to achieve? They should just be reporting the news, not creating a nation full of people with no empathy. I also agree with regulations to curb unnecessary blood and violence in films, but this is worse. When people watch movies, they know its fiction but not so when they watch the news. I may be coming on here as someone against the freedom of the press. I am not. I am all for this freedom. It is essential in a democracy that the press be free to report the nature of the issues its covering. But there are limits. Someone sneaked a camera inside the bathroom wing of a women’s prison. These private news channels bloomed like maggots in meat and the footage was regularly aired. This is not sensible news reporting. The woman they were showing had to approach the Supreme Court of India to get a stay order to stop these broadcasts.

Heinous crimes like rape and murder are sensationalized daily through endless reenactments. All this does is lower the sensitivity of the people, the acts themselves desensitize impressionable minds. It is not necessary, while giving the news, to reenact the crime and dramatize the events. Simply stating the facts should suffice, that is what giving the news is about anyway. Many of these presenters act like the jury, judge and the executioner all rolled into one.

In any democracy the government represents the power of the people. And in the world’s largest democracy when the power of the people reacts, it does not split hair. It does not need to. It wipes the whole the whole thing out – body, head and hair. The private news channels should stop this blatant misuse of their freedom and think about the repercussions of their exaggerated programming on the innocent public. Granted, being private organizations, they need profits to survive but it should be done keeping in mind the gullibility and innocence of the people they are broadcasting for. Or the proposed regulations bill for cable channels will get passed in parliament and they will be left with barely enough finances to afford a single presenter holding a clipboard with handwritten notes to read from.

Orkut dilemma

August 24, 2007

There’s an Indian chat site called Orkut which is coming under a lot of flak recently. A teenager from Mumbai, lured by misleading photos and promises from a chatter, was kidnapped and subsequently killed when his ransom deal fell through. Since it was done through this site, many people are asking for it to be shut down and more stringent regulations enforced to prevent this from happening again. There are other allegations about Orkut – pornography, easy access to user profiles and the subsequent possibility of their misuse.

While I agree with the intent, I don’t think restrictions will yield the expected results. By its very nature, the internet is decentralized and cannot be selectively controlled. Once a website is turned off, others will take its place. Or if the server lies outside India, as many of them are, kids will find a new way to access them. The original design of the internet was rooted in its ability to maintain communications in case of a nuclear war, it finds its own way.

It would be unwise to remove or restrict internet access because our country is still a developing nation. After decades of struggling we have finally found our niche in the global market. By denying our children exposure to these new technologies we will be severely limiting their future prospects and surrendering our dominant position to other developing countries. This time we were lucky; most educated Indians know how to communicate in English and that has made all the difference. But other countries are catching up fast. We need our kids fluent in these technologies if they are to excel in global economies.

The solution is not restrictions but education. Demographically, the use of internet in India is still limited to English-speaking, well-to-do families living in larger cities. Almost all these kids attend regular school. While the K-12 syllabus in India covers computers to a fairly acceptable level, it falls far short in explaining the pitfalls of using computers and internet. If children are properly educated in the correct use of computers, many of these problems can be minimized. For example, if the kids are properly made aware of the risk of giving out their personal information to strangers on the net, they will not do it. From my own observations, I know that kids are much better at understanding technology than adults could ever be. They embrace it faster and are much more adept at handling it than we are.

I’m not just talking about chatting. There are other aspects of computer safety not covered by our education system. Things like incorrect postures, carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injuries, eye strains – these problems must also be addressed at length if we want our children to grow up as healthy adults. The developed nations have had some successes at combating many of these problems simply because they have made their people aware of the risks involved and have recommended ways and means to deal with them. But just writing the usual drab text in school books may not be enough. The government could also create lively and informative websites which provide this information. There are many ways to educate the kids in the safe and enjoyable use of new technologies. Technology is a double-edged sword, from cell phones to internet, they all have their possibilities of abuse. Simply banning them would not be a part of the solution, it would just be a part of a bigger problem. Computers and the internet are here to stay, its time we taught our kids to use them wisely.

Mysterious times

August 22, 2007

Every generation thinks that theirs are the more difficult times and that a generation ago people had it easy. I am no exception. Things were much simpler when I was growing up. Life was maybe not as full of technology as it is today but it was much easier to live in. I remember happiness being lot easier to get and pass around than it is now. But there seems to be a catch. Maybe I am confusing between living in a protected childhood then and being the one to provide the protection for my family now.

I think therein lies the secret. Life was simpler then because my parents worked hard to make it so for me. I was more relaxed because the things I had to do then were very few and very uncomplicated. It looks happy in retrospect because I had no real responsibilities, everything was taken care of for me. Now there are a hundred decisions to make each day and so many demands on my time that I start wondering whether things are ever going to get done. I am whining, its true, but the reason is that I am trying to figure out the changes in my life from then to now. Its not easy.

My problem is that when things get too much, I say no to everything. That isn’t always the best solution because I end up missing out on many things which would have actually been more help if I had allowed them to happen. I tend to close up everything including myself. Not the best way to deal with things.

One thing is sure. There is a marked difference in the lifestyles from those a generation ago. It may not be more difficult but it is a lot different. I know my parents are forever struggling to make sense of technology which they must use to make their lives more simple – like cell phones, computers, internet, DVD players; but for them it is more difficult to adjust to these changes. My eight year old daughter seems born ready to deal with these things. She handles technology like it was her birthright and for some reason technology responds to her as well. Even my two year old daughter knows how to change the channels and the volume on the TV remote while my mother will stare at it for a while and then press the buttons with uncertainty.

There is another thing. The wonder is gone. I remember when I was small the world was full of wonder. There was so much to be fascinated about. I guess that alone made the journey through youth a lot easier to handle. Life does seem less complicated when you are constantly gawking at it. Now the only wonder is that things manage to work at all and that is more sarcastic in nature than a reflex to curiosity. I get bored faster as I get older and it makes being decisively enthusiastic about life in general even harder.

So have I worked out a solution for myself? No, I’m still working on it. Eastern philosophy suggests that the wonder will return as I get older. As we get older, we begin to realize that the time we spent on apparently important things was a waste and that there is nothing more important than say family, flowers on the roadside or the stars in the sky. But there is a time for that, we can’t realize it till we come of that age.

Winter Chill 2

August 21, 2007

The first knot came up on the twine. The mark of a hundred feet. He repeated that to himself so he wouldn’t loose count later on. Anywhere from three thousand to four thousand feet. That was the estimate by most who had tried this before. It was never the same, always a little different, both in distance as well as in content. He kept walking. There was no way to be sure he was moving straight in the dark silence. He walked slowly trying to fathom the direction even though he could not even see his hand holding the ball of twine.

Slowly, over an excruciating amount of time, maybe two hours or so, he reached the thirtieth knot on the ball. He had brought six thousand feet of twine just to be sure. He had to move even more carefully now. His heart started beating faster as a small lump of fear started to rise in the pit of his stomach. His confidence was starting to fade, slowly being replaced by the threat of failure as well as his life. There was no way to back out of it now. He didn’t have the time anymore to return back. If the darkness disappeared before he got back to the exact spot where he started, he would never return to his world and would forever wander in the unimaginable space and time this portal came through.

He quickened his pace and started moving faster. There was nothing to worry, he told himself. He had planned this well and he knew what he was doing. Still, a nagging doubt struck his mind. He knew the many who had survived this and chronicled it in details for those who were to follow. But there were countless others who never made it back alive to write about it. There were an unknown statistics. Even now, as he walked, there must be others around doing the same thing for the first time and most of them would fail even with all the precautions they would have taken just like him.

There was no way to be sure.

He continued walking at a little faster pace. Time moved on.

Five hundred more feet were added to his total. His was getting afraid that somehow he may have missed the straight line. The twine may have gotten caught in a small bush and he may have veered off course and now he was lost forever. He was getting scared now. It should have happened. The average was correct. No one would ever remember him anymore, he would never have existed in the only world he knew as his own.

Suddenly, he thought he saw a very dim light in the distance. Maybe, he thought, my eyes are playing tricks on him. Maybe it was just a shadow in his eyes. He squinted hard but the impression remained. He almost started running towards it. There would not be much time left. If the light was real, he had to get to it before the darkness moved on. The twine slipped from his hands. He stopped. He had no clue where it landed. The tension in it would have snapped it back. There was no way to figure out how far. Since he was using the tension in the twine for direction, he couldn’t figure out which way to go.

He squinted hard again ahead to try and find that dim pin-point he thought he saw. He thought he saw it again, a little brighter now, he was sure of it.

… cont

Office experts

August 20, 2007

Years ago when I first started using MS Word, I think it was with Windows 3.1, I came across a great feature, the full screen button. I still use it today. Most of my writing is done in MS Word, though now I use Office 2003. I don’t think I will ever use the 2007 version since I have yet to find a single feature that I need which is not in v.2003. I use the blue background feature with a full screen. Till Office 97 the full screen button worked perfectly, I got a borderless full screen with white text and absolutely no distracting toolbars or scrollbars. I have some obsessive compulsive disorder in me and that is the only way I seem to be able to work in Word. I can’t write on a white background with black text with the toolbars all around the screen.

But with Office 2002 onwards, Microsoft chose not to give the full screen feature. I have never understood why. There is a full-screen button but it is not true full screen. An icon or a taskbar always remains even in the full screen mode. For those who work with full screen, like me, it can drive us mad. If I wanted buttons and toolbars, why would I choose the full screen mode? But try as I might, I was not able to get rid of them. So in the end I kept both Office 97 and Office 2002 on my computer. I worked in Office 97 and hunted around the net for a possible solution to this problem. It was a small thing but for me it was a big deal. Whenever I tried to work with the new full screen mode, all my attention would forever be focused on that obnoxious ‘exit’ icon.

One day while surfing I came across this site – The Office Experts. They help, free of cost, with all kinds of problems with MS Office. They also have a forum for all kinds of tips and tricks with all versions of MS Office. So I registered for posting and logged in my question. The next day when I checked to see if anyone had answered my query, I had my answer. One of the people who help out at this site is a nick called Dreamboat and she had responded to my problem. Her real name is Anne Troy and I later came to know that she is a MS certified MVP, a globally recognized expert on MS Office and has several books to her credit on Office Suites. She explained that the problem was with the way the new Office was configured and the event which caused the new icons was the same event which caused the program to go in full-screen mode. So there was no way around it. But she promised to check with one of her programmer friends, nick – byundt, and that she would let me know by tomorrow. Sure enough when I logged in the next day, she had a macro already prepared for me which redefined the full screen event without the annoying icons.

That was almost four years ago. I still use that macro, I’m using it now. It’s a great tool and I don’t think I would have ever moved out of Office 97 if Dreamboat hadn’t helped me. So if you use MS Office, try their site, they have great tips for all versions of it.

The Office Experts forum

The bet

August 19, 2007

Most people have clear junctures in their lives, defining moments if you will, which mark turning points in their lives. In retrospect, I have several very clear ones. Even though I did not know at the time, had my choices been different at any of those moments, I would not be sitting here writing. To be fair, they were neither good nor bad and at no stage would I have chosen otherwise. Of course, not all of them were choices, some were just circumstances without alternatives but they exist just the same. Practical philosophy!

One of them was many years ago when I was a teen. I had read a short story by a Russian author Anton Chekhov called The Bet. I did not know at the time but this story was going to launch my reading habit and empower my imagination. Of all other influences, this short story has been instrumental in inculcating my love of books. When I first read it, it was just another story, not even particularly well written by current standards. Maybe that was lost in translation. Even then, I knew there was something the book was trying to tell me but it took several readings to figure out the message that the author meant for me.

There are so many pearls in such small amount of text. Sacrifice vs. wisdom, confinement vs. freedom, denial vs. indulgence; I am sure there are more. There is also a warning for the light-hearted; wisdom’s price may not be payable by everyone. But one thing I got was clear. Each book is a universe onto itself. Each book is a locked piece of space and time captured forever in words for eternity. But unlike the implication it is not static. Every reader discovers his own universe when he reads a book, each unique and expansive according to the his own imagination guided by the author.

Words are powerful objects. They have a life of their own. I don’t care what the statisticians say, even a whole planet full of monkeys cannot type out Shakespeare’s works on a million typewriters. This story illustrates why. The monkeys have no concept of sacrifice for the celestial. I have never understood the points of the banker in the story but each action of the lawyer makes perfect sense to me. And I have tried to look at the story from the banker’s point of view. I really tried.

Now we have movies, computers, TV and AI; and as a result our imagination has been forced to take a back seat. We are so acclimatized to being spoon fed with audio-visual extravaganzas that we seldom take the time to turn off these senses and let our minds go places at will. Our bodies are like a battery and everything we do takes a bit of power to run. Because we never bother to recharge it, we end up with dead senses pretty soon. The main protagonist, the lawyer, turns off all power consumers by allowing himself to be locked up for fifteen years! The locking up is a metaphor but the message is clear.

I think it’s a must read for anyone interested in books. Since its an old story, The Bet is in the public domain and royalty free as far as I know. Many websites host it on their servers. This is just a random pick from the first page of a Google search for it.

Anton Chekhov: The Bet (1889)

Happy Place

August 18, 2007

At the core I am a loner. I am not a people person and it’s a daily battle successfully handling intra-people communications. And in my line, I have to deal with people constantly. So why did I choose this line to make a living? I like the creativity, I can’t handle doing the same thing over and over again and I get bored very quickly. Mine is one of the rare lines of work where there is something new each and every time. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike people, I just like being alone to my thoughts more. So like many with my disposition, I too have a happy-place in my mind I go to when I need a break.

Mine is a Dyson Sphere with a single AU radius and a G4 star. The inside of my DS is totally terraformed and most of my time in it is spent living in a small area doing carpentry with hand tools. I love carpentry and if I hadn’t been sat down (?!) before a computer when I was young, I could have taken that line of work. The remainder of my time in my happy-place is spent working out the technical logistics of my DS. I also love physics. I have a natural affinity for it – far more than I do for computers anyway. In my mind’s eye, I have worked out most everything I need for my DS to work, from night & day, gravity, stability, power, erosion to stuff like seasons, ecological balance (from a purely human perspective). Since I have plenty of space (gee!), every possible permutation and combination of human living conditions can co-exist without influencing each other.

The only significant deviation from reality is the manipulation of two extra dimensions from the four that we know exist. I believe in the string theory and so for me those dimensions, and countless other, must exist. Just because we can’t manipulate them does not mean that they aren’t there. I need those extra dimensions for suitable gravity and to prevent my DS from collapsing should any big enough asteroid hit it. Mathematically it works and I guess for a happy-place, it’ll do. The only glitch seems to be about the technology. It is not terribly advanced but it is on a very large scale. So as far as I think, when we do have the technology for it, I don’t think we will need any DS because we would have found a better way to keep all our eggs in different baskets. I believe in us. We have many shortcomings but without them we would not have our virtues. It’s a package deal and all in all, I’m sure we can see our own existence through long enough to get there.

So I often do carpentry in my happy-place. Sometimes in a remote small cottage beside a small waterfall (for the water-mill), sometimes in a small attic in a crowded Shakespearean-town with narrow cobbled lanes. From large furniture to small keepsakes, I work with everything depending on my mood and the time on my hands. Sometimes I read a book good enough to stir my imagination and I try to place the whole setting in the DS (it is a pretty big place) and try to work out the logistics. All in all it’s a good place to be and works best if I’m just moving off to sleep.