Sunday, June 22, 2008


Watched this SF movie just a few minutes ago. It's called Sunshine. It's a hard SF movie and constantly reminded me of Solaris in look and feel. Story – the sun is going out. Seven years ago, an expedition, Icarus I, was sent to deliver a payload that would have reignited the sun. But Icarus I mysteriously disappeared. Icarus II was then sent, with a similar payload. Halfway through, they receive a distress signal from Icarus I. Reasoning that salvaging the older payload will increase their chances of succeeding, they decide to alter their course to rendezvous with Icarus I. A series of unfortunate events happen, they get haunted by a mutilated and insane captain of Icarus I but in the end manage to deliver the payload. End of story.

The movie has a hard SF feel to it. Like I said, it reminded me of Solaris and 2010 A Space Odyssey. The director seems to be enamored of majestic spaceship shots. He does create an eerie feel with long empty corridors and echoing voices. It is a gripping watch by otherwise a time pass movie at best. I think the only reason the director got away with it was because of a very tight script.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Silent Comparison

Thousands of students agitated against reservation. The demonstrations were reported to be peaceful. Yet, the government lathi-charged and arrested several students.

Thousands of Gujjars agitated for reservation. The demonstrations were clearly voilent and disrupted the lives of millions of people from several states. Yet, the government stood silent and finally actually granted their demand.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

KDE 4.1 Beta 1

Rather buggy but definitely ready for everyday use. Here's my desktop.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Frustoo 09 IIT Ji!

Ashish Khare draws up another Frustoo. Go take a look.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

June 13 2008

Google has entered into an advertising agreement with Yahoo. That news is all over the internet by now. Go search.

1. Atanu Dey writes a scathing blog about how Mera Bharat can never be Mahan without the like of the American First Amendment. America worship or logical thinking?

2. Another blog about the trouble with exams in India. A most thoughful piece, I must say. Finally some one has realized that there is a specific quantity that every exam is testing and the formulation and the use of the exam is dictated by its stated purpose.

3. A blog on the power of plasma theming. Really, I can't seem to wait until KDE 4.1 goes online. The release date is July 29, if I'm not wrong.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

I’ve also finished reading up Choke by Chuck Palahniuk. I don’t think I can say anything about it except that it’s anarchic and libertarian. The writing style is urban noir meets magic realism. Palahniuk has infinite capacity of observation and gives you surprising insights while narrating the weirdest possible things. For example, there is this one chapter in which the protagonist, who is a sex addict, is describing having casual sex in airplanes. He describes how perverts will leave the doors to the toilet open and sit naked inside. People will see the ‘vacant’ sign and come in – some of them will have casual sex. At this point Pahalniuk is narrating absolute pulp – total bullshit. Things like what positions to use in what kind of toilets, what airlines give you what sort of opportunities, what you should do if the airlines staff comes along. And then, suddenly, he throws this line at you – ‘one begins to wonder, what exactly do they mean by vacant’ – and it hits you like a brick. The book is full of suck stuff. Absolutely delightful.

Rating - 4/5 (Recommended)

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

I have finished reading Cryptonomicon. While I could construct a lot of meaning around it (it is 1100 pages of fine print, after all!), I will not do that because I don’t think the author intended that much. It is very much written as a suspense thriller with the suspense clearing up in the last few pages. However, it would have thrilled you a lot if only it was a bit shorter. With its current length, the thrills come approximately 100 pages apart. Anyhow, the recurrent themes of the novel are two. One – the tussle between pure theory and practical world. So in one timeline you have the cryptanalysts vs. the soldiers in WWII while in the other timeline you have the hackers vs. the businessmen. The author seems to believe that it is only a blend of the two that helps mankind – viz technology. So out of the WWII scenario comes the digital computer and out of the modern scenario comes some sort of world changing internet startup. Stephenson bashes the dinner table intellectual types in several pages – especially the post modern social scientist.

The other recurrent theme is that everything has roots. Hacking has its roots in WWII cryptanalysis. Modern finance has its roots in the primitive banking systems of WWII. The current world order has its roots in the trifles of WWII. On a more plot level, all of the modern characters have grandfathers who played significant roles in WWII. Some of these grandfathers still survive and are important people in Nippon and China. Not only does that seem uncannily spooky, it leads to a kind of deliberately constructed plot which I dislike.

Yet, there were a few things that I liked about the novel. For example, Stephenson uses diagrams to narrate stories at some places. In the book, a Nipponese soldier is designing an elaborate tunnel system to hide a huge amount of Japanese gold. Have you ever read a story where the plot crucially depends on the geography of the place and after a few paragraphs of descriptions you lose track of everything that’s going on. I find such plots highly irritating and usually end up skimming pages. Stephenson solves all of these problems by giving you a map. And trust me, it does wonders to the clarity of the plot.

I think the message that gets across by doing this is that the non-technical types should understand that a lot of technical vocabulary is used not to complicate matters but to simplify them. Yes, to the non-initiated a diagram may look more complicated than words but once you’ve familiarized yourself with the vocab, a diagram will make a lot more sense. So the author is imploring the non-technical types to learn a little bit of technology to better understand the modern world. For example, the hacker protagonist in the novel has a debate with a social scientist type wherein he criticizes the social scientist for making claims about the internet without really knowing what internet is.

Rating - 3/5 (Good)

June 09 2008

1. A Frustoon has been redone by Ashish Khare. Go take a look.

2. An interview with A R Rahman in today's Hindu. He talks about Ada, his new film (which I thought to be an album till now :P). He also bashes the talent hunt graduates a little.

3. An interview with Annu Kapoor in today's Hindu. He talks about a new show that he's hosting and takes a dig at today's music and acting scene.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Gmail Labs

Google launched Gmail Labs today. Read about it here and here.

1. According to Google it is the next stage of 20% time. Till now, projects developed under 20% time were internal to Google. Now they can be seen, after some scrutiny, by end users who can then give feedback directly to the developers. I think it is an excellent idea.

2. To me it also seems like openly embracing the open source software development philosophy. That is how open source works. People can propose a lot of changes or patches to the original code. If the improvement is strong enough it becomes part of standard distribution. I've seen this happen with KDE. Many of the panel applets, superkaramba, etc. started out as independent projects but are now part of standard KDE distribution. This process has done wonders to KDE. It is good to see this philosophy seeping into Google's development process.

3. What I fear on the other hand is what I call the application syndrome. This happened with Facebook. Too many applications, or additions to the original product resulted in increased complexity. It also made the website very slow. Apps on Facebook put many people off. I would hate to see the same phenomenon happen to Gmail.

Embodied Mind School of Philosophy

What follows is my impression of the embodied mind school of philosophy. If you want a more rigorous academic discussion of the topic, you know where to look (wikipedia).

The Basics
The embodied mind theory asserts that human knowledge is embodied in the actual physical structure of the human brain.

The Bridge
In this sense, embodied mind theory bridges the gap between geneticism and social constructivism. Take numbers for example.

A geneticist would claim that numbers and all that we do with them is dictated by our genes. The facts that we came up with number theory, Euclidean geometry and differential calculus are all dictated by our genes.

A social constructivist will claim that all mathematics is a social construct. That number theory was born out of the human need to count things, Euclidean geometry out of the need to measure land and differential calculus out of the need to describe motion of things.

However, there are flaws with both theories. Geneticism clearly fails very early on. Some kinds of mathematics indeed seems to dominate over some others due to social reasons. Creation of mathematics is indeed a social process, the reality of which, few can deny. Nevertheless, social constructivism fails to answer other questions. Take for example the questions of why the complex number system should be complete. Traditional numbers, zero, one, two etc., can be extended to negative numbers, rational and irrational numbers and finally to complex numbers. But, magically, we don’t need any numbers beyond complex numbers. Indeed, it has been proven that there are no numbers beyond complex numbers.

Why should that be? Why should the ratio of the dia and the circumference of a circle be constant? Why should the number e popup again and again in the world of mathematics? Social constructivism would claim that we have constructed our number system in such a way that these things happen. However, mathematicians would not agree. That is because of how mathematics is done. Mathematicians would start out with a number of axioms and rules for manipulating them. They will grind through all the algebra and lo and behold they will end up with e-s and pi-s flying all over the place. The axioms and the rules were not constructed to end up with pi-s. Indeed there are no means to predict whether you’ll should get pi-s in a certain equation or not. Yet, they appear.

No wonder then, that most mathematicians are Platonics. To them, pi has a reality as concrete as the real world around them. The mathematician is only allowed to discover that reality.

What embodied mind theorists will say about this conundrum is that mathematical knowledge is embodied in the precise structure of our brain. Our brain is geared, right from birth, to count things. This is why counting comes so naturally to us. Human kids look at four oranges and then four apples and are immediately able to abstract out the concept of ‘four’ from that. They are taught two plus two is four and four plus two is six, and after some practice they are able to derive six plus two is eight by themselves. They find not much difficulty in abstracting out addition. It seems obvious to most kids that a thing either exists or does not without anything in between, a statement cannot be true and false at the same time, that if a equals b and b equals c then a should equal c.

The claim there is that fundamental things like numbers, formal logic, etc. are hardwired into the human brain. And the reason they are so hardwired is because it helps is describe the universe in a useful manner. If a human being can count, he stands a much better chance of surviving in this big bad world. Evolution takes it over from there.

However, embodied mind theorists will not reject social constructivism. Once a child is born with all this hardwired information, social construct will take over. Thus we have physicists who are able to reject the hardwired notions of this or that and are able to accept the quantum fuzziness of wavelike particles.

The closes analogy is Data from the Star Trek universe. His creator gave him certain hardwired faculties – his human form for example. He cannot suddenly become a eight legged spider. He cannot communicate in ways other than what his hardware would support. However, he can still go beyond his programming in unpredictable ways. He can write a laughing subroutine for himself even though he seems like a homicidal maniac when he laughs using that.

The Consequences
The first question that social constructivism lets us answer is the questions of why mathematics should prove to be such a useful language in describing the physical universe? Why should mathematical equations be able to describe falling bodies, oscillating electric fields and rotating solid bodies? The answer is because the precise nature of human mathematics has come into being by virtue of human beings inhabiting this particular physical universe. Indeed, the embodied mind theorist would claim that if human beings were born in another, fictional, universe where the laws of physics did not follow existing mathematics, we would have come up with a different, parallel mathematics that was suited to describe that world.

The second question it helps resolve is that of artificial intelligence. The embodied mind theorist would claim that intelligence is the property of the form that it inhabits. Thus human intelligence depends in crucial ways upon the way we see, hear, smell, feel and taste as well as the precise way in which we move, manipulate objects etc. Artificial intelligence created in any other sort of body will essentially have to be different. In short, the human kind of intelligence can only inhabit a biological human body.

Four Men across a Bridge Puzzle

Four men want to cross a bridge. However, the bridge is weak and they can only cross it two at a time. There is an additional complication. It is nighttime and they cannot cross the bridge in the darkness. Fortunately they do have a single flashlight with them. Clearly, only two men at a time can cross the bridge so one of them will have to return with the flashlight to take another man across and so on. The first man can cross the bridge in 1 minute, the second one in 2 minutes, the third one in 5 minutes and the fourth one in 10 minutes. When two people travel together they can only go as fast as the slowest person. For example, if the 1 min guy travels with the 10 min guy then they can get across only in 10 minutes.

What is the shortest time in which all of them can get across and how?

Brute Force Solution
The brute force solution to this puzzle is simple. Send the 1 min and the 10 min across. The 1 min guy comes back. This takes 11 minutes. Then send the 1 min and the 5 min guy across. The 1 min guy again comes back. This takes 5 minutes. Then send the 1 min and the 2 min guy across. This takes 2 minutes. The total is 11 + 6 + 3 = 19 minutes.

But as you can guess, that’s not the shortest time.

Real Solution
If you look at the problem carefully then you will realize that for each round trip, it is the slowest guy who is the bottleneck. So, instead of sending the 5 min and the 10 min guy separately, if we could send them both at the same time then we could save some time. However, it would make no sense to send them together and then ask the 5 min guy to come back because he will anyway have to cross once more which only increases the time take. Thus, we ought to have either the 1 min or the 2 min guy already standing at the other end when the 5 min and the 10 min guys reach together. Bingo! That’s our solution.

Send the one 1 min guy and the 2 min guy across. The 1 min guy returns. This takes 3 minutes. Then send the 5 min and the 10 min guys across. The 2 min guy returns. This takes 12 minutes. Then the 1 min and the 2 min guy go across again. This takes 2 minutes. The total is 3 + 12 + 2 = 17 minutes.

You can be happy now.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

How to Turn a Sphere Inside Out

I absolutely have to link to this video. It is about how to turn a sphere inside out. I guess it has to do with the much talked about field of math called topology which no layman really understands or knows about. Don't know what practical applications this one might have but that's not why we do math, do we?

In any case, the video is a good study of how even notoriously bizarre mathematical ideas can be made accessible if only you do it the right way.

Monday, June 02, 2008

June 02 2008

1. A blog contemplating parenting and alcohol. Made me wonder why most parents cannot realize that their kids are individuals in their own right and should be allowed a certain amount of freedom. Also, why can't the parents realize that the world is perhaps larger than they imagined and thier kids are possibly exposed to more and definitely to different things. Why is the parental urge to control so very strong?

2. A blog that shows that the Macbook Air is thin enough to slice a cake. :P

3. A blog that covers a huge range of adobe products. Adobe's online services are going to take up a long way towards a more desktop like web. Personally, I'm not comfortable about having my entire desktop on the web. Imagine having all my important data on the internet and then a catastrophe of any sort occurring. The first thing to go would be internet. I much prefer the model of an independent closeted machine linked to the internet in well defined ways.