Monday, July 28, 2008

Disadvantages of an Elite Education

Despite the bandwidth crisis currently going on in my life (I have only 60 MB of bandwidth left for this month and I have to make it last 3 days), I absolutely have to link to this lovely article by William Deresiewicz. William has taught English at the Yale university for ten years. What struck me most about his article is that except for the America specific paragraph (the one about living comfortably as a school teacher) the rest of it applied directly to IITs and IIMs in India.

The most disturbing was the sections about forced socialization and loss of solitude. I've written earlier about suicides in IITK and that section seemed to ring a bell.

Linux Revolutions

Big things are happening in the Linux world these days. In fact, what is happening in no less than a revolution. I would like here to point out three key developments that are going to shape the computer desktops in years to come.

1. Ubuntu: Before Ubuntu came along, Linux was by the geeks and for the geeks. It was written by people who were computer experts and used by people who were computer experts. These geeks were, no doubt, very passionate about FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) and wanted others to use it. However, they made no effort to make it possible for normal humans to use it. If you wanted to use Linux, you'd have to raise yourself, slowly and painfully to the exalted status of geekdom.

Enter Ubuntu. With it's motto of 'Linux for Humans', Ubuntu began serious work towards making the Linux desktop simple. After over four years of development, Ubuntu has become as simple to use as any other OS - Windows or OSX. In fact, I tried out the latest version of Ubuntu a few days back and I have no reservations in saying that I recommend that every informed layman try it out. You can now recommend Ubuntu to your mothers and girlfriends.

2. KDE4: Before KDE4 came along, linux desktops (be it Gnome, KDE3 or XFCE) were merely copying the apple user interface. Windows too was copying the apple user interface. So, all of them had a start button, desktop icons, system trays, taksbars and desktop widgets. Of course, the exact nitty-gritties of features available changed from one DE (desktop environment) to another. Linux was always a lot more flexible and customizable than Windows or OSX, but at its core, in its philosophy, it was still copying the OSX.

Enter KDE4. With it's motto to 'bring a breath of fresh air' to the linux desktop, it completely revampled the whole desktop metaphor. Out go the desktop icons and taskbar and everything became widgets and containments. Although KDE4 is still very much a work in progress (despite the rather misleading version number of 4.1), even in its infancy it promises a radical desktop experience, completely different from the OSX model that the entire world is familiar with.

What's more, KDE4 actually promises that it will become a lot more easier to port Linux applications to Windows or OSX. I can't wait for Amarok to slaughter all other media players on Windows.

3. Open Document Format: Before ODF came along, computers users were caught in the myriad world of proprietary file formats. If you used MS Office, you had to save your files in the native file formats (.doc, .xls and .ppt). If anyone else wanted to view your documents, the absolutely had to install MS Office. In a way, Microsoft ensured that if one person used Office, at least one other had to use it too.

These file formats were proprietary and Microsoft was under no obligation to release their documentation. As a result, other applications could read office files, but poorly. Formatting would go off, things will not work in exceptional cases and like.

With the recent adoption of ODF as the worldwide standard for documents but the ISO (International Standards Organization), I would no longer be forced to buy MS Office if I don't want to. ODF is an open format and anyone can develop applications to read it. A lot of applications on Linux already read it. What this means is that even if you professor insists on using MS Office, you don't have to buy Windows and Office to read his assignments. You can do it only any OS - Linux or OSX.

The above three developments are, in my opinion, key to the rapid adoption of Linux desktops in the future. The road ahead seems well lit and smoothly paved and I'm eagerly looking forward to the journey.
Those who think that fact is stranger than fiction, have never read the right kind.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

What is a Story?

I love literary debates. For one, there's no point to them. Most of them aren't trying to prove anything apart from the superiority of the speaker. Second, they usually lead nowhere, a place that I find delightfully refreshing in ways.

So, what is a story? How do we define it?

Usually such discussions would start out with a standard definition and then go on to give counterexamples of how that definition does not hold, a revised definition, counterexamples to that and so on. I will not do that. I will just give you my definition.

A story is a text that starts somewhere and goes somewhere. That is, development is the key concept that defines a story (for me). Development can happen at various levels.

1. The plot. This is the most common way of telling a story. Things happen. And yes, I would still call it a story if there is no proper climax. If you write about what you did all day, it would still be a story. It would be a rather uninteresting one, but still a story.

2. The character. The characters in the story learn, discover, realize something. They divine the profound truths of life. Again a very popular device in story writing. Generally these kinds of stories would be considered more literary than plot stories although I see no reason why that should be.

3. The idea. You start from some basic assumptions and then develop, challenge, refute, redefine then to their logical conclusions. This is perhaps even more literary than developing characters but opinions may vary.

Personally I like story that combine all three. Such stories tend to be most powerful of all.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Characteristics of Chaotic Systems

Disclaimer – this is not meant to be a definitive article on chaos. This is merely to set in order the definition of chaos I've gathered from reading James Gleick's book.

The Lorenz attractor. Three simple equations produce a path is space that never repeats or intersects itself. First discovered by Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist who first studied such systems, this figure has become the universal symbol for chaos.

Traditional Thinking
The traditional thinking in science favors linear systems. The science we study in schools and colleges is essentially linear science. Linear means that the equations we use to describe phenomenon don't have powers of variables. For example, if some quantity depends on the temperature T of the system, we like to express this law in the form of some function of T but not T squared or T cubed.

This is because linear equations are easy to understand, easy to solve and easy to teach. They give our graduate students problems that can be clearly stated and solved and hence ideal to earn their PhD degrees in.

Thus, non linearity is usually the last chapter in any science textbook and even then, the attempted solutions to the problems are to reduce the non-linear equation to a linear one using some clever trick.

This hegemony of linearity in science has led us to believe that nature itself if linear and behaves in certain ways. There are two significant characteristics of linear systems that people start taking for granted.

1. Small changes in initial conditions mean small changes in the final result. If you were traveling 40 kms at the speed of 10 km per hour, you will reach your destination in 4 hours. If you travel at 11 km per hour, even without doing the math, we say that you'll reach in a little less than 4 hours. If you travel at 9 km per hour you will reach in a little more than 4 hours. No one in his right mind will claim that you might take a 100 hours to reach, if you vary your speed by 1 or 2 km per hour.

2. Systems tend to be monotonic or periodic. Linear systems are either monotonically increasing or periodic. If you heat a cup of coffee and leave it be, it slowly cools down to the room temperature and that is all there is to it. If you swing a pendulum, it oscillates at a steady, periodic rate. Scientists are habitual of looking for monotonic or periodic laws.

3. Simple governing equations lead to simple behavior. If you system is complex, the underlying math should also be so.

The Reality
The reality is that nature is non linear. In fact, even the term non linear is funny because the bulk of natural laws are non linear. We study a small set of natural laws, the linear ones, make them canon and then use the negation to define the most wide ranging phenomenon. (This reminds me of a discussion at Alfaaz. Fiction is only a small part of written texts. However we define this bulk of written stuff as non fiction.)

Thus, some of our 'intuition' about nature doesn't really hold.

1. Small changes in initial conditions can have very large effects on the final outcome. Everyone's heard of the butterfly effect. That's what I mean.

2. Nature can be non-periodic and non-repetitive. Take weather for example. Meteorologists keep on looking for repetitions in the weather. However, the weather each day is something we have never seen before. There are infinite combinations possible.

3. Simple equations can lead to complex behaviors. Chaos theorists have shown that even simple non-linear equations can show behavior that is infinitely varied and hence infinitely complex.

The Consequences
Thus, chaos theorists have shown that while non linear behavior may be complex, the underlying mathematics may be simple and by consequence, simple mathematics may underly complex behaviors such as weather and turbulence. The key idea is to get rid of this impartial affection for linearity and start looking at nature in another way. It is a paradigm shift, in Kuhn's words.

Related Posts:

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Night of Weird Dreams

Had some really very weird dreams last night.

1. I want to buy a bike. Brother comes home with the news that they are selling them real cheap somewhere. It is the cheapest deal that we can get at the time. I withdraw money from my bank account but that's not enough. I take some from the heap that mummy has stashed away in her almirah. We go and buy the bike, for some forty thousand rupees. When the bill comes, I remember to check the specks of the bike. It's a real stupid deal. The bike isn't powerful and and the mileage sucks.

Next, my mother and I are riding behind someone (who I think is my uncle) on a very steep road. I mean very steep, something like seventy degrees. The bike speeds and then the tires lose their grip. We fall into the valley below, straight down.

I wake up.

2. Some sort of alien bugs have attacked the city. They can fly and they sting. One of them has stung me in the lower abdomen. For some reason, I'm washing the spot with water and it starts becoming white and there's a circle marking the spot on my skin. Someone says that the water is making it grow. Suddenly the spot pops out like a flower and glob of white flesh pops out. It's the cocoon in which the bug is growing, I guess.

I suddenly find myself in an outhouse with giant windows. A grown up bug, nearly as big as a human being is outside and we are desperately trying to close the windows as the bug moves from one to another, trying to get in. In the end, we just run out the gate and enter something that resembles a temple courtyard. People are running out through a doorway decorated with bells etc. We turn to look and a truckload of giant spiders is moving towards us.

I wake up.

There was another one about a close friend being accused of committing communal violence but I don't remember that one as vividly.

Freud fans - would you care to try your hands at these?

Social Issue Adverts

These days there seems to be, on television, a slew of advertisements having a common thread. And this thread is that the 'protagonist' of the advert is rallying a social cause. And the product being advertized is helping him/her in working for tha social cause. I'm trying to compile here a list of such advertisements and we will later see if there's a trend involved.

1. Idea ad featuring Abhishek Bachhan in which he educates people in remote villages using mobile phones.
2. Crocin ad in which the protagonist is working with blind children and keeps working despite ill health using Crocin

Can you suggest more?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Who am I?

When I look around myself, these days, I feel a loss of identity. There is nothing around me that I can connect to, nothing that I can relate to. I systematically dislike religion and maintain that it is a load of bullshit. My culture, I have come to disrespect. What is there to respect in a culture that is full of discrimination (caste), exploitation (gender inequality) and conformism (patriarchy). Even ideas that Bollywood movies tout as tenets of Indian culture repell me. Respect for elders, that's just a load of patriarchal bullshit. It prevents people from taking responsibilities for their lives and making free and independent choices.

My people do not produce any science or technology. We borrow all of it from others and use it. Whenever we are faced with problems we do not sit down and solve it, we run to find instances of the same problem in another nation and then try to implement the solution that they have implemented.

I do not wear clothes that my ancestors wore or variations thereof. I do not speak a language that my ancestors spoke or variations thereof. I do not read books that are written in my own country. I do not watch films made in my own country. I do no believe in ideologies that have origins within my nation.

Who am I, really? What is my identity? Will I ever feel a sense of pride in what I am?

Chaos by James Gleick

Chaos is a popular science book by James Gleick which traces the development of chaos theory, a broad reaching scientific development impacting various disciplines.

Popular science writing can be broadly divided into four types.

1. Explaining scientific principles to layman in a language that he can understand.
2. Bringing out the 'human' aspects of science, the emotional ups and downs that a scientist goes through in making his discoveries.
3. Putting scientific discoveries in a historical perspective analysing the historical causes and effects that led to the discovery and beyond.
4. Analyzing the philosophy of science and how the scientific principle fits into the framework of philosophy.

The beauty of Gleick's writing is that he weaves all four types of writing into one text. The reader gets acquainted with a new kind of science, experiences the joys and sorrows of the scientists that worked at that science, understand why, historically, that science came into being when it did, and gets to mull about the philosophical implications of this new science.

I recommend this book for general reading.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Quota for IIT Faculty?

This news article from TOI tells us that the HRD ministry is about to implement quota for IIT faculty too. I quote the article -

MUMBAI: Buoyed by its success in pushing through a quota for OBC students in higher education, the government has now ordered IITs to introduce - with "immediate effect" - quotas in the teaching faculty for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and OBCs.

IIT directors, not surprisingly, were livid with the decision, though none of the four TOI spoke to were willing to go on record. The high quality of IIT faculty has built the institution into a globally respected brand. Said an IIT-Delhi professor: "It is hard to imagine that even teachers will now use the caste flag to get in."

The government diktat dated June 9, which has been sent to all the IITs, lays down 15% quota for SC, 7.5% for ST and 27% quota for OBCs in teaching positions. IITs currently have reservations for backward category candidates for
administrative posts - from attendants to the level of deputy registrar. However, there is no reservation for faculty members in these premier technological institutes.

The order signed by Seema Raj, director of technical education in the HRD ministry, read, "I am directed to say that the matter relating to reservation of SC, ST, OBC categories in recruitment to teaching (faculty) posts in the IITs was considered in the second meeting of the SCIC (Standing Committee of IIT Council) held on 11/2/2008. The recommendations made by the SCIC have been accepted by the chairman of (the) IIT Council. Accordingly, it has been decided to implement reservation for SC, ST, OBC, in recruitment to teaching (faculty) posts in IITs with immediate effect."

For subjects in science and technology, posts will be reserved for lecturers and assistant professors. In areas like management, social sciences and humanities, reservations will be applicable up to the professor level. The ministry allows IITs to dereserve the posts after a year, if they do not get filled "despite all efforts".

Insiders feel that merit, on which brand IIT rests, would be shaken by the decision of the government.

The order specifies that in departments dealing with science and technology subjects, "reservation shall be applied to the extent possible at the school or broad branch of engineering, at least, if not at the individual department level."

The IIT directors TOI contacted, who were yet to convey the order to their faculty members, said they are shocked by the decision.

"Some of the finest people have given up top positions and fat cheques that were offered to them in other parts of the world to come and teach in the IITs, despite the low pay scale that the government offers. With reservation in faculty positions, I see a day, not far from now, when the IITs will crumble," said one director.

Another director said that there had been no bias against hiring backward category candidates to teaching positions if they were found meritorious. "Till now, if a backward category candidate was found on par with another candidate, the former was given preference, but reservation will change the atmosphere on campus," said the director.

All directors agreed that such reservations for faculty posts would mar the quality of education at the institutes.
The lecturer’s post in the IITs is a contractual one and the basic salary is Rs 10,000 per month. Usually, fresh PhD candidates are taken in at this level.

If their services are found satisfactory, they are promoted to assistant professor and get onto the permanent rolls of the IITs. But now, almost half the posts - 49.5% to be precise - will be reserved at both these levels.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

July 06 2008

1. Desi pulp fiction is here. From today's Hindu.

2. Excerpt from Paulo Coelho's interview. To put it on record, I thoroughly dislike The Alchemist.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Why Linux Sucks

Chatting is one of the most basic activities that you do on the net. Let us compare the two activities on Windows and (Ubuntu) Linux. We will chat using Google Talk.

1. Windows – I download Google Talk chat client. It is a small download (less than 2MB) and takes less than a minute to download. I click the executable. The installer prompts me a couple of times. I press next, next, next and at last see the Google Talk screen. There are text boxes for me to enter my login and password in. I do so and start chatting. I can change my status using a single click and typing. I can see popups whenever a new event occurs.

2. Linux – I install Pidgin using Adept. I start Pidgin. I go to accounts setup and create a new Jabber account. I visit the internet and look up the documentation for setup Google Talk on Pidgin. After a couple of tries, I manage to get that right. I activate that account and the buddy list appears. I start chatting and realize that there's no popup notification. I open adept and install guifications. I open the plugin setup in Pidgin and activate guifications. I start chatting and realize that guification shows me a popup for every possible event – even when a buddy has started or stopped typing! I open the plugin setup again and turn off most of the notifications. I then also realize that the popups are supremely ugly. I search the internet and locate a dozen nifty themes for guifications. I download four or five and see what fits into my desktop. Finally I settle on one. But now, the text on the popup is too big and I can't see the message properly. So I open the pluging setup again, and change the font sizes. Ah, now all is set. The entire morning is gone and I can go have lunch. So I click new status in the pidgin window and whoa, I'm confronted with this overly complex dialog wherein I must create a new message complete with a title and all, save it and then use it as my status. The whole issue of statuses gets me interested in my buddies' statuses and I read them one by one. Oh wow, an interesting link. Can I click it? No!! I can't even copy paste it in the browser. And to top it all, file sharing and voice chat doesn't work either. I'd better go have that lunch.

I hope I've made my point.

July 4 2008

1. Vivek Reddy analyses the recent arrests of Andhra Jyoti reporters under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. A very well reasoned post, I believe. However, given the fact that the arrest has been made, what does it tell us?

2. Gary Markus on how unintelligent the design of the human body is. The question of creationism aside, I am once again amused at the human habit of assuming that we are the epitome of perfection in every way.

3. Brian Proffitt expresses bafflement at the opposition KDE4 developers are facing. Truly, I don't understand it either.

4. And my won opinion is that all Bajrang Dal activists that held the country on ransom yesterday should be shot publicly.

Arkham Asylum

There are some artists whose work is just so beautiful that it doesn't make sense to say anything about it. A R Rahman is one such artist. I can't tell you why his music is so awesome, it just is. Dace McKean is another such artist. He is the Rahman of the visual world. I can't tell you why his work is so beautiful, it just is.

McKean makes each frame of Arkham Asylum an exquisite masterpiece.

I haven't read much stuff my Grant Morrison but it this is a representative sample then I'm impressed. He manages to take the Batman metaphor and turn it upside down. In other Batman stories, Batman is the hero. In Arkham Asylum it is the villains who are the hero and Batman is the oppressor. When the inmates of Arkham Asylum manage to break free and take the personell hostage, Batman has to go in alone to rescue them and in the process face his worst fears. In a confrontation with arch enemies such as the Joker, Two Face, Clayface and Doctor Destiny etc., Batman learns the bitter truth about himself – that he is as mad as any of these formidable foes.

I enjoyed reading a comic book after a long time. This is one is definitely recommended.

Distraction Free Writing for Authors on Linux

There is much talk on the internet about distraction free writing on the computer. The argument mostly given in this context is that the myriad tools and options offered by any modern word processor are distracting to an author. The author is constantly tempted to try out the various features of the word processor and his attention is diverted away from the real work that he set out to do – that is, writing.

To some extent I agree with the argument and can see merit in various creative writing oriented software that I encountered on the net. WriteRoom and DarkRoom are two of these. Unfortunately, when I set out to locate some such software for Linux, I turned up a blank.

Most people suggest using any standard text editor on linux. However, all text editors on Linux are made for programmers and none for creative writers. It was surprising that the Linux community has not catered to such a simple demand.

However, worry not because most things on Linux are so configurable that it's very easy to modify existing software to your needs. I will hereby outline two methods by which you can achieve distration free writing on Linux.

1. Use nano on a console – Yes, this is the most simple and basic solution. I tried out vim and emacs on the console but what I finally liked was nano. When nano is run, it presents a blank screen for you to type. The bottom toolbar lists shortcuts for saving files, running spell check and closing the program etc. The reason I prefer nano over vim or emacs is because nano's keyboard shortcuts are very simple. Vim and emacs are much more difficult to operate. Plus, if you're computer savvy then you'll actually find vim and emacs to be distracting too. While they don't have a gui (I'm talking about console versions here) they do offer so many choices using command line that it's tempting to try them out. Use nano, it has nothing to offer and there's nothing to try out. :) Use it on fullscreen mode in konsole or better still use it on a CTR+ALT+F3 terminal. :D

The problem with nano, however, is this. You can't italicise words for emphasis. And there is no on the fly spell check. True, there is a spell check available which will highlight wrongly spelled words once it is run but it will not highlight the wrong spellings as you type like MS Word or does.

This, in fact, can be seen as a boon by many authors. I personally find it very irritating to be bothered by spelling in my first draft. I good proposed workflow is this. Write out your first draft in nano. Then copy paste the text in a modern word processor for subsequent revisions. Here you can correct spellings and make other second draft changes.

2. Use Writer in fullscreen mode – Yes, in fullscreen mode, Writer offers only one button (to exit the fullscreen), a scrollbar, an empty page and a blinking cursor. The fullscreen mode can be accessed from the View menu. You can even turn off the spelling underlining before you enter the fullscreen mode to reduce distraction. All the standard shortcuts (ctrl i,b,x,c,v etc) work. The commonest feature are accessible by right click.

Personally this is the method I prefer. I like to see my text in italics and my paragraphs justified. And I usually turn spell cheking off. We can always do that on second draft. :)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Diversity in Amerian Universities

Read this post by Abi. I wonder if the whole this is 'good' or 'bad'. On one hand creating this kind of false image will probably lead to more diversity. Made up images of women that we see in the media prompt women to emulate them. Similarly these made up images will probably make black people feel more secure in white dominated institutes and hence lead to greater diversity. On the other hand, this kind of dishonesty doesn't quite seem right, does it?

KDE 4.1 Beta 2

Have been using KDE 4.1 beta 2 for quite a few days now. I'm using the Kubuntu packages on Kubuntu 8.04. No complaints this time. The software is definitely ready to be used on a daily basis. Of course, this is beta so things are still a big buggy but I'm sure they will sort it out over time. Here's a screenshot.

1. Dolphin - Dolphin has matured and is acting as a good supplement for Konqueror. The good thing is, folder display in Konqueror-KDE4 is being handled by dolphinpart so that you get all the feature that dolphin had to offer (in terms of folder view) inside of Konqueror. However, Dolphin is still rather buggy and mine crashes too many times. I do hope they fix this soon.

2. Dragon Player - This is still in baby stages. Not much functionality here, although it plays all of my video files effortlessly. The screen blanks out if even part of it is occluded by another window. I'm not sure if it's a bug or just something that compiz-fusion is causing. In any case, not very usable just now.

3. Okular - This is probably the most mature part of KDE4. It has good functionality, is very stable and usable. I use it to read PDFs and CBRs and have found it much better than all other softwares I use. One, it is fast. Comic Book Reader on windows lurches when I scroll images. Okular doesn't. Adobe acrobat lurches when loading big PDFs, Okular doesn't. What we have to wait for are more plugins to display all sort of obscure file formats. :)

4. Gwenview - Again, quite mature, stable, and usable. Excellent image viewing software.

5. Plasma - this is where KDE4 loses out. Plasma is still VERY buggy, and not very funtional. And frankly, I don't see the point of all this paraphernalia. The only think I liked, was it's capability to run Superkaramba widgets seamlessly. There's some talk about it being able to run OSX widgets too but haven't tried that out. Plasma needs to mature a bit more.

One the whole, I like KDE4. The developers have done some very radical things. I don't understand the whole opposition that they are facing. Yes, the changes are radical and users will take time to get used to it, but hey, isn't that very much in the spirit of free software? People should try out new things and users should always have the option. If you don't like KDE4 then use KDE3!

Where KDE4 went wrong was in its marketing. The users assumed, understandably so, that KDE4 was KDE3 + something, which it isn't. It's a whole new desktop environment, really. The whole experience is nothing like KDE3. And keeping that in mind, KDE4.1 beta 2 is more like 0.1 beta 2 of some totally new software. For just the second release of a new software, it is awesome!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

They are Nuts!

Read this. Now, first they said it was the lack of interaction that caused suicides. Now they say it is an abundance of it that does it. Do they have any idea what they're talking about. Shows you how much though they're really putting into the whole issue. Also shows that all they're doing is playing the blame game.


As I'd told you, I've been reading Witchblade. I read uptil issue 15 and then gave up. The story is insipid at best. It narrates the story of this young, female cop, who (surprise!) happens to have the body of a goddess, and who discovers a magical object of immense power called witchblade. Understandably, there are a lot of people who want to possess the witchblade so the poor girl has to one by one vanquish these enemies and also simultaneously discover the true nature of the witchblade.

The only reason why this comic must have sold is its depiction of hot females in various states of undress. It is funny how, when the witchblade manifests itself on the body of the protagonist, her clothes gradually turn to shreds, progressively revealing her very healthy thighs and breasts which are positively the epitome of mammary precision. The same happens with most of the other female characters of the comic (and there seems to be an abundance of them). Clothing obviously is the least of anyone's cares when there are such mysterious things happening all around them.

The men too, have been depicted as typical hunks. No one has less than 50 Kgs of musculature on them. And all the women seem to drool over these muscular hunks irrespective of whether they are worth it or not.