Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Zen of Computers

  • No computer works the way you want it to. This is a problem not with the computer, but with you.
  • Pick a computer (or software), any computer (or software), and stay with it. When it stops working, abandon it, pick something else, and stay with that.
  • It is okay to be a fanboy or an ideologue. But it is not okay to let fanboyism or ideology make your life, or the life of others, miserable.
  • If you cannot decide between using one tool or another, you probably need to use both of them.
  • Occasionally, you will find peace with your computing machine. But this peace shall not last.
  • All exciting software will always seem to exist on the some other OS/Platform/Hardware that you're not using. Know this to be an illusion.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Software Updates are Not Exciting Anymore

I recently realized that I'm not excited about software updates anymore. A younger me would eagerly await the release of the next version of a particular piece of software. Often, I would get impatient and just download and install the beta or the release candidate. Not anymore.

Software isn't doing anything new anymore. When was the last time that a new software genuinely allowed you to do something that you could not do before. Most action is being seen the smartphone and tablet world which are just slowly painfully catching up with what their desktop counterparts have been capable of for at least a decade. The desktop counterparts themselves are busy reinventing the wheel with no real benefit in sight. (What, exactly, does Window 8 do that Windows 7 doesn't?)

Perhaps all the low hanging fruit of software has already been picked?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

the mind/body divide is meaningless

We often think of our minds as something that inhabits a body. We think of the mind as separate from the body that it inhabits. Literature is full of this idea. In Freaky Friday, a mother and her daughter exchange bodies. Apparently, the only thing that changes is their bodies. Their personalities remain intact. In Harry Potter books, wizards and witches can transfigure, turning themselves into an animal or a piece of furniture. Prof. McGonagall is known to turn herself into a tabby cat. But even as a tabby cat, she still remains Prof. McGonagall. Her essence, her mind remains intact in this new body.

This kind of mind/body divide is artificial. Minds cannot be separated from bodies in this fashion. Let us do a thought experiment. Suppose that you suddenly acquire a sixth finger on one of your hands. Do you remain the same person, albeit with six fingers on one hand? I think not. You are now a person who has six fingers. You are person who knows how to use this sixth finger. When you hold something, your perception of that object has changed. Your perception of the abilities of your body has changed. All of this is also part of your 'mind'. Bodily sensation cannot be separated from the mind.

See Also:

Monday, February 28, 2011

Minimalism does not work with food

Leo Babauta has this interesting article on the minimalism of a pizza Margherita. I enjoy minimalist food. I like to eat fruits plain and I enjoy minimal meals with only one or two items. (My all time favorite is daal-chawal with pickle.) However, food is a classic example where minimalism does not work. You cannot capture the rich taste of a Hyderabadi Biryani or the subtle flavors of chana masala with minimal ingredients. All the dozen ingredients have to come together in the right proportion to create that magic. There is no way you can capture that beauty with just a two or three ingredients.

Thus, minimalism cannot be some universal principle governing all aspects of your life. It has to be a deliberate choice, used only when it fits the context.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How to Use Experts

Noreena Hertz gives a passionate talk on how experts are fallible and how we, as a society, should develop a health mistrust of experts.

I have some gripes with the talk. In the opening lines, she makes us believe that we have always relied on experts to make decisions. This is not true. Relying on experts to make decisions is a fairly recent phenomenon. Take the decision on what to eat, for example. In most cultures, there are elaborate rules, rituals, traditions and folklore surrounding what to eat, when and how. It represents the collective knowledge and experience of a culture about a very important aspect of human life - eating food. Relying on nutritionists a fairly new phenomenon, a by product of the modern capitalist/consumerist culture.

Second, I do not think the problem lies with experts themselves. I think experts are often very aware of the assumptions that they make and the limitations of their methodologies. There is often ample dissent within an expert group, at least during the early stages of development of a field. Experts also know that they are only human and make mistakes all the time.

The problem doesn't lie with non-experts either. People are often inquisitive and cautious. They will always challenge authority whenever they feel empowered to do so.

The problem lies with communication. Experts opinions get to the public in pithy slogans. The media loves taglines - eating chocolate decreases risk of cancer, drinking coffee can help you live longer. Experts will seldom make claims like that. The media fails to deliver the nuances and the details of expert knowledge to the general public.

The communication problem also runs the other way round. In most cases, there is no mechanism for experts to listen to 'user' feedback. Experts are often working with limited eyes and ears. This is perhaps a folly on the part of experts. With the advances in communication technology, this shortcoming can perhaps be overcome.

See this great talk by Thomas Goetz about how to redesign medical data to better communicate with patients.