In The Armchair


Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on November 25, 2008

spinAfter a long hiatus, I picked up my first sci-fi book in about a year: Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson.  The story begins when, one clear night, all the stars disappear.  The story is from the perspective of one relatively ordinary person (Tyler Dupree) who happens, just by luck or chance, throughout his life, to be close to all the significant developments in humanity’s response to this event.

Darwinia is the only other book by Wilson that I’ve read so far, and it was a relief to see that, unlike that book, this one stays true to itself and doesn’t jump out of its own skin in an effort to shock the reader.  Spin is an balanced mix of pseudoscience (i.e. science-like ideas) and down-to-earth emotional storytelling.

The pseudoscience doesn’t have many ideas that could be called new.  Malthusian principles, von Neumann replicators, advanced alien civilizations that have colonized the galaxy eons ago, relativistic-style time differentials.  It’s the way Wilson uses these ideas that is unique: he arranges them in new, interesting configurations.

Wilson creates interesting problems and comes up with brilliant solutions.  Many science fiction products — for example, Star Trek: The Next Generation, though that isn’t a book — create interesting problems but then rely on a solution that is extrinsic, unrestricted by the parameters of the problem.  If the ship’s drive is about to fail and Lt. Data says, “add some dilithium crystals and increase power to the secondary antimatter drive, resulting in a Markov field which will get us out of here” that isn’t a solution; it is mumbo-jumbo.  Conceptually, it is no different from a magic spell. In Spin, once the laws are laid out it’s obvious that the solution lies within the parameters of the laws; if the reader thought about it long enough, s/he would be able to come up with the same solution.

Just as importantly, he doesn’t focus on the pseudoscience itself.  His main interest in the book is in how things affect humanity.  The story is almost entirely about the Tyler’s feelings as he moves through life in close proximity to the people who make the big decisions about mankind’s response.  A lot of the feelings have nothing to do with the momentous events at hand; just with normal human relationships and how they are affected by the events.  This is in contrast to several modern science fiction writers, such as Greg Egan, Charles Stross and Peter Watts, who go all-out with the pseudoscience.  I find such authors fascinating but slightly unfulfilling as story-tellers.

Because I’m Indian, I like to see India mentioned.  India finds little purchase in the minds of most science-fiction writers; I can’t think of many sci-fi books where India is portrayed favourably (Carl Sagan’s Contact at least doesn’t brush India off). This book was written in 2005, a time when it became obvious India is going to space, and also that India would be inflential economically.  Wilson seems well-informed but dismisses India: Russia, the EU, China, the US all have important roles to play — India doesn’t.  But that’s a very minor gripe.

The real problem with this book is its low-keyness.  The narrator Tyler is excessively humble in his descriptions of himself and everything else.  While the descriptions do get ideas across, there are no highlights: things are delivered in a kind of emotional monotone.  Even exuberant events don’t seem to affect Tyler’s understated observation; he doesn’t seem to know what to do with strong emotions.  Reading such a monotone throughout the book was a little wearisome: I wish there was a little more enthusiasm!

Slumdog Millionaire

Posted in Movies and Entertainment by Armchair Guy on November 22, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire is based on Vikas Swarup’s Q & A, a book I picked up at random from Landmark in Kolkata a few years ago.  The book had an great concept; the execution was passable.  I got the same feeling from the movie.

The story is about slum kid Jamal who grows up and gets on Who Wants to be a Millionaire (probably Kaun Banega Crorepati).  He gets all the answers right, which makes the police think he’s cheating.  They take him to the lockup, where he tells his life’s story and how he knew the answers to all those questions.

Slumdog Millionaire is not for those with weak hearts — or stomachs.  The violence is graphic and explicit.  You can almost feel someone’s head splitting open like a coconut when it’s hit with a club.  Mutilation and brutality abound.  The targets are often little kids.  The other side of the coin is the frofusion of filth.  The filth gets as graphic and explicit as it’s possible for filth to get, including one particularly cringe-inducing scene at the beginning of the movie.

What is the purpose of the glut of violence and filth in a movie like this?  The movie tries to depict the life of a slum-dweller.  The depiction of slums in India is not over the top.  Indeed, most Indians going about life’s business in big cities (even those not living in slums) have been in close proximity to slums very similar to those depicted in this movie, with their attendant filth, at some point.  I have walked on huge pipes surrounded by gigantic open sewers on occasion, and I was always middle class.  I was in a taxi that drove through small pukka roads carved out of landfill mountains on which slum-urchins were scavenging for bottles, plastic and paper.  The levels of violence we see in the movie are completely commonplace in that world.  The filth and violence simply serve to tell the audience where the protagonist comes from.

Still, I think the writer (or director?) carried the debasement a little too far with the “Amitabh Bachchan” stunt; it was gratuitous and absolutely unrealistic.  It just doesn’t seem like anyone, even a slum child, would do that.  Another slightly gratuitous scene is the Hindu mob, everybody’s favourite punching bag.  While violence of the type shown did happen, I think it happened at times of stress and tension when people were already scared.   Not out of the blue on a pleasant, sunny day without any provocation.  But perhaps I can explain this away: maybe that, from the kids’ perspective, it really was a normal sunny day.  It just didn’t seem that way.

Watching the movie, I almost felt it was Bollywood.  The grittiness, the angles: it had a Bollywood feel.  Not the “masala” Bollywood, but the more realistic style that has been catching on lately.  But interestingly for such an Indian-style movie, this movie is not made by Indians.  Sometimes I think that makes it have little details that are so commonplace to us Indians that we don’t notice them, like the sparking noise made by pantographs sparking as they pass over power line junctions.  Beaufoy and Boyle, the writer and director, did a great job, despite occasional glitches: there were a few times when I thought the movie seemed a little lost, as if the director was wondering, “What next? Should I do this or that?”.  But that’s just a minor foible.  One sequence I especially liked was the “TV gatherings” sequence, familiar to all Indians, where almost the entire country comes together at the same time through some shared interest to gawp at any TV available: at a neighbour’s house, at an electronics shop.  Rahman’s music sets the perfect tone.

On to the most glaring deficiency in the movie.  Somehow, they failed to explain how Jamal and his friends learned flawless English.  (Or was the English in this movie supposed to be Hindi really, translated for Western audiences?)  In the novel, this has a specific, plausible explanation.  The movie does away with this.  What’s grown-up Jamal doing that lets him dress so well?  He looks like a well-heeled yuppie with a rich dad.  No explanation.

The actors were great. I thought both Dev Patel and Freida Pinto seemed a little too genteel for their characters — they look like well groomed, privileged rich kids — but their acting was pretty plausible.  I especially liked the two “kid Jamals”.  Very believable, and their make-up was great.  They did have the ungroomed look of slum kids.  I am quickly becoming a fan of Tanay Chheda’s (who played middle Jamal) acting.  He was fantastic as Rajan Damodaran in Taare Zameen Par, and he did a fantastic job in this movie too.  Irfan Khan is dependable as always.  His character comes off as unsympathetic but not malicious.

The truebred Bollywood dance sequence at the end of the movie was just an excellent dessert.  Even though Dev Patel and Freida Pinto can’t dance.

Determinism I: Definitions of Determinism

Posted in Armchair Ruminations by Armchair Guy on November 21, 2008

In a previous post, I said that determinism and causality are incompatible.  The argument was that in a universe where everything is determined at every time point, it makes no sense to speak of alternatives or counterfactuals of the sort: If A had happened instead of B, then C would have happened instead of D…A could never happen, so we are predicating on something impossible: logically, “if A happens instead of B” is like “if 1 = 2”; if that happens, every statement is vacuously true.

I’ve since rethought my ideas about this.  The issue is the exact definition of determinism.  I used an unusual definition, so I got the unusual result that causality and determinism are incompatible.  Here’s my attempt to structure my current understanding of determinism.

It appears that a definition of determinism is contingent on how we describe the evolution of the universe over time.

Let’s assume that at each time point, a system can be described by a state which belongs to some prespecified set of states.  A system here could mean something like the universe, and a state could be a position and momentum for every particle in the universe (assuming the universe only contains particles).  The set of states is the collection of all possible configurations of particles in the universe.  In a simple universe containing only two particles that move only in one dimension, a state would look like ((p1, m1), (p2, m2)), where p1, m1 are the position and momentum of the first particle, respectively, and p2, m2 are the position and momentum of the second particle, respectively.  p1, m1, p2, m2 are all single real numbers here.  (If we were in 3-d space, p1, m1, p2, m2 would be vectors like (x, y, z).)

Definition of Evolution of the System in Time and Definition of Determinism. When we speak of a description of the evolution of the system over time, we are not talking about what actually happens in the system (unless, of course, the system is deterministic in which case what actually happens is the same as what might happen). Instead, we are talking about potential occurrences i.e. predictions about the future.  We might say that if the system is in state X at time 1, it could be in either state Y or state Z at time 2.  This does not mean the system will be in both states Y and Z simultaneously at time 2.  It means that the system will be in one of those two states at time 2; we don’t know which one.  The description is from the viewpoint of an extra-system observer, unaffected by the system’s timeline, who knows what might happen, but not what actually will happen (unless the universe is deterministic).

To describe the system’s evolution, we have to provide an evolutionary tree of some sort.  It might be of the following form:


That is, a tree depicting potential states at each time point.  Providing a particular evolutionary tree with X1 being the actual (observed) state at the beginning of the universe is one option.  Providing “transition functions” that specify what the potential states at the following time point are given any state at a particular time point is another way.

  1. [Invalid Definition] (E1) Suppose a description of the evolution of the system over time consists of a single evolutionary tree.  (D1) A system is deterministic if the state of the tree has no forks; otherwise it is non-deterministic.
  2. [Valid Definition] (E2) An alternative description of the evolution of the system over time consists of a collection of transition functions (“the laws of physics”).  Given any state at a time, the transition functions can be applied to calculate the possible states of the system at any point in the future (i.e., calculate an evolutionary tree starting at that time point).  (D2) Here we would say the system is deterministic if there is exactly one state possible at every point in the future (i.e., the calculated tree has no forks).

These two definitions look almost identical.  However, the first definition only specifies one possible tree rooted at X1. The second definition lets us calculate the potential states at time 2 once we know the actual state at time 1, using the transition functions.  In other words, we can substitute another state, say X8, at time 1 and still compute what possibilities that universe would have.

Even in the deterministic case, they are different for the above reason.  The second definition is constructive and so tells us what will happen in the case of interventions.  That is, if an external (from outside the system) agent sets the state of the system to some value at some time point, the second definition allows us to calculate the new states in the future of that time point.  The first definition doesn’t.  For example, in the figure, if the state at time 2 is X2, we know that the possibilities for time 3 are X4 and X5.  But what if the state at time 2 is X6?  Under (E1) we have no way of knowing; under (E2) we can calculate the possibilities.

Quantum of Solace

Posted in Movies and Entertainment by Armchair Guy on November 17, 2008

This is probably the worst Bond movie ever made. It’s so bad I’ll just rant.

It doesn’t even feel like a Bond movie. There were no “wow!” gadgets. There’s some cell-phone mumbo-jumbo and touch screens masquerading as cool gadgets, but we’ve seen these gadgets used to better effect even in TV programs.

There’s no romance. Craig’s Bond matter-of-factly sleeps with one bit-part girl. The main female is supposed to be interesting but is absolutely not. No interesting women, no chase, no Bond charm working its magic.

There’s absolutely no style: elan wasn’t written into Daniel Craig’s role. I think they were going for Jason Bourne more than James Bond. (Why would a Bond movie director do something like that?). Even the fights and rooftop chases seem copied from a Bourne movie. They end up with a weird cross between Bond and Bourne with neither the smooth style of the former nor the brutal effectiveness of the latter.

The villain is the weakest Bond villain I can remember. He has neither menace nor humour, neither style nor strength. He’s a pushover whose strength supposedly derives from the organization he represents. So maybe the organization is the real villain. Except that the organization plays almost no role in the movie; we’re just told (repeatedly, often) that it is a Very Menacing Organization. It’s like Aliens with no aliens, just an actor who keeps repeating “the aliens are very scary”.

Let’s talk about the chase scenes. The mandatory chases are there, but they are the most uninteresting chase scenes I’ve ever seen. Daniel Craig doesn’t look worried during the scenes. This happens in some other Bond movies, but Craig looks like he just wants to be done with shooting the scenes. Chase scenes should have some creativity; I think any random man-on-the-street could have scripted these scenes in 15 minutes. Utterly boring.

Finally, this film has absolutely no highlights. I’m finding it hard to think of a single thing that was unique or impressed me in any way whatsoever. A single piece of dialogue, a brilliant scene, a novel stunt — I’m coming up with nothing. That’s how bad this film was.

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Indirect Signaling in non-Indian Societies

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on November 16, 2008

I was reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat recently. One of the things it says is that during the dot-com boom, companies laid excessive amounts of fiber-optic and other data carrying cable, so that communication became dirt cheap. The surprising thing is that communication is not dirt cheap for the consumer in the USA. In the competitive market, competing companies have somehow accomplished the feat of dividing up turf and avoiding a competitive price war without any explicit negotiations (that would be illegal). They signaled their intentions through indirect communication and were able to arrive at figures that were profitable to them (and, of course, detrimental to the consumer).

This kind of indirect signaling appears common in many societies. Its features are:

  1. Enhancement of the common good
  2. Existence of conditions which make agreements/pacts impossible
  3. Decision making based only on observation of behaviour of other agents

It seems to find less purchase in India. For example, Jihadi terrorism finds a lot of sympathy in India. There are many people who are staunchly opposed to it, but there are also apologists for terrorism who give sympathetic reasons why it exists. This makes it hard to act against terrorism: there is always a section of apologists opposing any anti-terrorist move. On the other hand, in Western society people are somehow able to get together on issues like terrorism: everybody condemns it and no one makes apologies for it. Those who do make apologies for it are excluded nonviolently but very firmly. Society is able to act more coherently against the problem.

Another example comes from the recent India-Australia cricket wars. In Australia, Ricky Ponting set a nasty tone by employing a sledging approach as well as dishonourable calls (claiming catches that bounced) to win matches. Initially, the Australian press seemed annoyed with Ponting for this behaviour. But pretty soon, they almost magically banded together and began vilifying the visiting Indian team to put pressure on them. Harbhajan Singh came in for particularly nasty attacks. The Australian press went so far as to position a camera that exclusively shot footage of Harbhajan throughout one of the matches, and soundly criticized all off-field moves the Indians made. The Australian press rallied around this psychological attack on the Indian team in a way that the Indian press can never do. There is often a “fashionable” section of the Indian press which will support the Australians in such situations. Putting concerted pressure on the Australian team during their visit to India never occurred to the Indian press. Thus, teams like Australia have an extra card up their sleeve that the Indian team is unable to possess.

Perhaps another example of such signaling lies in the way European powers divided up India and avoided conflict with each other to a great extent in the 18th and 19th centuries. They somehow recognized it was better that a European power win control than the alternative of fighting among themselves and letting the Indians repulse them. The Indians, on the other hand, failed to recognize that defeating the European powers should have been higher on their agenda than trying to use the Europeans to defeat other Indian powers. Europe signaled, India didn’t. This example may not be valid because I’m not sure the Europeans didn’t explicitly discuss this among themselves. Maybe they did.

That Indians fight among themselves is well-known; we are taught this in our history classes from primary school onwards. It is obvious in our politics and our culture, which seem based on primacy. However, the distinguishing feature in indirect signaling is the indirectness. Some societies seem to be able to act in concert even without explicit agreements. India seems to be able to do this to a lesser extent than some other societies.

Microsoft and Evangelism

Posted in Computers by Armchair Guy on November 9, 2008

What does Microsoft have to do with Christian churches?

Nothing, except that they both exhibit a certain behaviour: aggressive evangelism. Both operate in ways that tend to reduce freedom of choice and make it hard for people to choose alternatives. Their behaviour on this count is similar because their motivations are similar. Both wish to monopolize society.

When Google became popular in search, Microsoft tried to beat Google at search. When Google began its mail service, Microsoft tried to beat Google at mail. When Google began getting into maps, books, Microsoft put some serious effort into the same fields. This is reminiscent of church planting in Indian villages.

When a Hindu temple undertakes a major activity that might get people interested (such as renovation of a temple or appointment of a new priest), Christian organizations often rush to plant a church and engage in a publicity and incentive blitz to attract villagers.

Microsoft has been doing the same thing in the tech domain. If there’s any tech development that attracts people, Microsoft tries to enter it in a big way in order to attract customers to the Microsoft fold.

Both Microsoft and church have practically unlimited financial resources compared to their competitors, and both are extremely resistant to the existence of alternatives.

It’s no secret that I’m on the side of Freedom here: freedom as in free software, and freedom of religion. Makes me wonder: do Microsoft vs. open source and evangelism vs. freedom of religion have the same solution?

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Posted in Movies and Entertainment by Armchair Guy on November 7, 2008

fasionIt’s unusual to see a realistic portrait of a human being disintegrating mentally in and Indian film. It’s been done a few times, for example in Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Maara starring Anupam Kher. Fashion is a movie where this is done with two different people.

Fashion is a movie that depicts the highs and lows achieved by the people in the modeling and fashion industry. It’s a film that portrays various aspects of its primary topic. The glitter is in evidence but it’s just a mood-setter in this movie, a thinly brushed-on veneer of glamour-paint. Most of the movie is about the weaknesses of the human character: the arrogance that comes with easy success, the meanness and lack of strength exposed when success turns to failure. It’s hard to find a single cliche in this movie. There are many movies that show people descending to low levels because of a mental sickness; this movie shows what being in an industry like the fashion industry can do to healthy, normal minds. The movie often makes the viewer think about what’s going on.

The unfortunate thing is this happens only in parts of the movie. Although the topics and writing are great and handled well, I found the movie gripping only in parts. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but some parts are just a tad too bland to grasp attention. This could’ve been a great movie, but it ended up being merely good.

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Automatically Inserting Matching Parentheses for LaTeX in Emacs

Posted in Computers by Armchair Guy on November 1, 2008

My use of emacs varies, but a good chunk of my time is spent writing in LaTeX for mathematical formulae. AuCTeX simplifies my life quite a bit, and whizzytex makes it awesome. But one feature that would really save me some typing is auto-completion of matching parenthetical symbols. In LaTeX, such matching delimiter pairs are $$, [], {}, \{\}, \left\{\right\}, \left(\right), etc. I found a major mode called Ultratex that does exactly this (and much more), but unfortunately it replaces AuCTeX rather than augment it, and isn’t maintained any more.

Here’s some trivial emacs lisp code for a minor mode that accomplishes this. You can easily modify it yourself to add or remove simple matching completions. You can put it directly in your .emacs file, or in a file called dlmins.el, and add the line

(load "/path/to/dlmins.el" t t)

to load it. If you want this to be activated every time LaTeX is fired up, put the following line in your .emacs file:

(add-hook 'LaTeX-mode-hook 'dlmins-mode)

To toggle the mode manually, use command M-x dlmins-mode. Here’s the code for the minor mode.

;;; dlmins.el -- Trivial minor mode to insert matching LaTeX
;;; delimiters automatically.
;; Copyright (c) 2008 Rajeev Ayyagari

;; Author:   Rajeev Ayyagari
;; Keywords: Parenthesis matching
;; Version:  0.01 of Sat Nov  1 11:22:44 EDT 2008

;; This file is not part of GNU Emacs.

;; Minor mode: dlmins-mode
;; Entering a left-parenthetical symbol causes the corresponding
;; right-parenthetical symbol to be inserted automatically, and point
;; is positioned appropriately.
;; To use, place this code in a file called dlmins.el and add the line
;; (load "/path/to/dlmins.el" t t)
;; to your .emacs.  To make the mode start automatically when a latex
;; document is opened, add the line
;; (add-hook 'LaTeX-mode-hook 'dlmins-mode)
;; to your .emacs after the above "load" line. Manually toggle (enable
;; or disable) the mode using M-x dlmins-mode.

;; Set up keymaps and list of delimiter pairs.
(defun dlmins-setup ()
 "Initialize delimiter auto-insertion."
 ;; Order matters in the list below!
 ;; The rule is if STR2 is a suffix of STR1, then STR2 should come
 ;; after STR1.
 (setq dlmins-dlm-list
  ("\\left\\{" "\\right\\}")
  ("\\{"       "\\}")
  ("\\frac{"   "}{}")
  ("{"         "}")
  ("\\left("   "\\right)")
  ("("         ")")
  ("\\left\\|" "\\right\\|")
  ("\\|"       "\\|")
  ("|"         "|")
  ("\\left|"   "\\right|")
  ("\\left["   "\\right]")
  ("["         "]")
  ("$"         "$")
 (define-key (current-local-map) (kbd "{") (lambda () (interactive) (insert "{") (dlmins-pair)))
 (define-key (current-local-map) (kbd "[") (lambda () (interactive) (insert "[") (dlmins-pair)))
 (define-key (current-local-map) (kbd "(") (lambda () (interactive) (insert "(") (dlmins-pair)))
 (define-key (current-local-map) (kbd "$") (lambda () (interactive) (insert "$") (dlmins-pair)))
 (define-key (current-local-map) (kbd "|") (lambda () (interactive) (insert "|") (dlmins-pair))))
;; Called when left delim is typed, finds and inserts appropriate
;; right delim.
(defun dlmins-pair ()
 "This should be called as soon as an opening delimiter has been typed.
  When called, looks backward to see which delimiter has just been typed.
  It inserts the matching closing delimiter.
  Eventually it will be smart enough to take care of \left and \right as well."
 (catch 'getout
    (lambda (dlm)
      "If expression before point matches open dlm, insert close dlm."
      (if (looking-back (regexp-quote (car dlm)))
     (insert (car (cdr dlm)))
     (throw 'getout nil))))
;; Toggle the parenthesis matching mode
(define-minor-mode dlmins-mode
 "Minor mode LaTeX matching delimiter auto-insertion. use
 \"dlmins-mode\" to toggle."
 :init-value nil
 :lighter " DlmIns"
 :keymap '()