In The Armchair

Microsoft Bags Maharashtra

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on August 29, 2009

devil

Here’s yet another diabolical move by Microsoft: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/4908445.cms.

According to the article:

The government of Maharashtra has signed an MoU with Microsoft India, which will provide training in information technology to school teachers. Microsoft will also help build “employability-readiness skills” in junior college students.

Reading between the lines, Microsoft will indoctrinate teachers and students in the use of Microsoft products.  What this really is is an ultra low-cost captive marketing cum indoctrination opportunity for Microsoft.  Schools in Maharashtra will now boast Microsoft acolytes who will diss other operating systems, search engines and email providers because to their Microsoft-educated minds and Microsoft-tinted eyes, Windows will be the only OS worth using, Bing will be the only search engine worth using, and Hotmail will be the only free email service worth using.  Several entire generations of Maharashtra students will grow up ignorant of anything else.

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Backup (Part III)

Posted in Computers by Armchair Guy on August 21, 2009

As I keep using computers, I keep changing my backup requirements. I’m a fairly simple user: I have one laptop (with three partitions), one desktop (with 3 partitions), and one external hard drive (with one partition) that I need backed up. I back up everything to another external hard drive. I started off with lofty industrial-strength backup ideas. The backup drive had to be on my LAN, always accessible from any computer, and available to anyone on my LAN with a password. (It was a pain to administer and quite slow to transmit data, so I gave that idea up.) I needed industrial strength encryption and versioning. And so on. I even wrote two posts on this: Backup and Backup (Part II).

At first I was using a tool called dar. It had all sorts of features, but its main problem was it used its own data format. This made it very hard to access my archives. Then I switched to Sbackup. This was a bit simpler, but stored the backups in tarred and gzipped files. I thought this would be accessible enough, but when your .tgz file is 60 gigabytes, it’s a major chore to unzip it just to see the contents! I think the rar format solves this problem somewhat. It maintains indexes so that to access the table of contents or to extract any particular file in a rar archive you don’t need to unrar the whole thing. But I think I’ve finally decided that I’m not that interested in compression or encryption or any of that fancy stuff. So I’ve switched to a lightweight tool called rdiff-backup.

rdiff-backup stores an identical copy of a directory on the backup drive. No unzipping, no decrypting; the files are all there for you to see. Every time you run a backup rdiff-backup stores a reverse incremental diff. This means that the backup looks like a mirror of your latest version, but some additional info is stored so you can retrieve an earlier version if you need to.  Plus, it’s super easy to use.  I just run one small script (for each computer) that basically checks to see whether the backup hdd is connected, then runs rdiff-backup for each directory I want backed up.

Pros: Super-simple, super-fast, has a sort of versioning system, your latest version is immediately accessible.
Cons: Unsecure, takes a lot of space because of no compression, no stable gui frontend for rdiff-backup yet.

Science and Truth

Posted in Armchair Ruminations by Armchair Guy on August 20, 2009

Science has a strange fascination.  Everybody would like to lay claim to it.  Those who follow the scientific method, the scientists, are of course the practitioners.  But even those whose work has less connection to science do.  Some of the most insidious of these are the medical hacks, the creationists (a.k.a. intelligent design proponents), the “Christian Science” folks.  But there are other relatively harmless co-opters, such as some science fiction authors and filmmakers.

There’s a general feeling that science automatically implies truth, and everybody wants to claim their version is the truth.  However, I think science only implies truth under some assumptions extraneous to the scientific method.  So I’m going to provide an example of a situation under which science fails to provide the truth.

A Model

handinflowThe best way to explain what I mean is to assume a model for the universe that is consistent with everything we observe.  This model is as follows: suppose that the entire observable universe is really a simulation on a computer.  Everything has been programmed by somebody.  We are not directly aware that we are simulations because, of course, we are part of the simulation.  The programmer may have coded some “natural laws” into his simulation and then let it run.  The programmer may or may not intervene; if he does, we call it a “miracle”.  In this case, the truth is that there is a god — the programmer.

Science

Science is a method, or maybe a collection of methods, for understanding things we observe (inside the simulation).  The method is supposed to yield an explanation (theory/hypothesis/law of nature)for observed phenomena.  The primary tenets of the scientific method are that

1. the phenomenon must be verifiable.  That is, it must be observable by multiple independent observers.  It isn’t enough if one person claims the phenomenon occurred.
2. the explanation must be testable or falsifiable.  That is, it should be possible to make predictions which, if false, disqualify the explanation — and which can be tested experimentally.  If I claim that God is the explanation, this isn’t falsifiable.  There is no clear prediction anyone can make which, if false, conclusively proves that God doesn’t exist.  This is closely related to the explanation being “in-universe” i.e. a “God” explanation doesn’t satisfy these requirements.
occams-razor-23. the results of experiments to test these predictions must be verifiable and reproducible.  That is, multiple independent observers must be able to reproduce the results.
4. the explanation should be simple. That is, a complex explanation would be rejected in favour of a simple one, until the simple one fails.  This pertains to what we mean by an “explanation” or law.  If we didn’t include this requirement, every phenomenon would suffice as its own explanation — not a very useful state of affairs.

Science is inherently a negative discipline.  You can never prove any law using the scientific method.

Even if an explanation (i.e. a natural law) is true, it is never possible to prove scientifically that the explanation is true.  All you can do is collect evidence for it.  Every experiment which fails to disprove the explanation is evidence for it.

On the other hand, if the explanation is not true, even one negative experiment is sufficient to disprove it.

Science and Truth

universe-simulationCan science unravel the existence of the programmer?

The answer is yes — only if the programmer designed the universe that way.

On the other hand, if the programmer coded the simulation so as not to reveal his existence to us, there’s nothing we can do to discover him.

In the second situation, the truth is there’s a programmer.  But there’s no scientific way to discover that.  In this situation, science cannot decipher the truth.  In fact, there is no way to show that science leads to the truth.

In other words, science can be agnostic to the truth.

But in fact, it gets worse.  It is quite possible that the programmer coded the simulation to be deliberately deceptive.  Let’s say that whenever anyone applies the scientific method to some particular question, there’s a subroutine that determines this and feeds the scientist false results designed to make him think something that is not true.

In this case, the scientific method would always yield the wrong answer to that question.

“The Fundamental Axiom of Science”

einsteinThe scientific method is the only logically sound method available to us.  It is the best we can do.  However, our best may not be good enough.  Our best method may not be enough to decipher the truth.

This is a sort of fundamental axiom of science: that the scientific method never leads to untruth.  More specifically the axiom is:

If the scientific method shows that some explanation is false, then the explanation is indeed false.

This is an assumption.  We can’t test it, because the programmer may not have designed the universe so that it is testable.  If the assumption holds, the scientific method is valid.  But not otherwise.

Conclusion

This is why I think that, while science will never accept god, science is actually primarily unconcerned with god. There need not be a contradiction between religion and science — until religious types start claiming they are scientific.

Cheese Board

Posted in Food by Armchair Guy on August 18, 2009

I don’t know much about cheese, but a couple of days ago I had the pleasure of having a knowledgeable cousin set up a Cheese Board.  This British course consists of grapes, olives, and a selection of cheeses.  The idea is to get a variety of contrasting tastes and textures (and even looks) of cheese.  A red wine like a Cabernet goes with it particularly well.  You just eat pieces of the cheese, enjoying the taste and texture and flavour, and liven it up with bites of grape and olive in between.  We added a few strawberry slices as well.  Crackers are also an important part of the cheese board, I was told, but we forgot to buy any.  I thought I’d put it up here before I forget my impressions.

So let me plunge in and describe the cheeses.  Now you have to remember that I don’t know the cheese lingo, so this may not be how aficionados describe them.  The cheeses my cousin selected were:

1.  A Swiss Emmental.  This was a semi-hard, mild cheese, pretty much the same as the common “swiss cheese” slices generally available in the US.  We used an imported version.  This was mild and easy — a good thing, since all of us (other than my cousin, the expert) were cheese beginners.
2.  A French Le Roule.  This one was a white, spreadable cream cheese coated with garlic and some herbs and folded into a spiral.  It was I think the fattiest of the cheeses, a little stronger than the Emmental because of the herbs.  You could taste the richness — part of what made it delicious.  Another beginner-friendly cheese.
3.  A Swiss Gruyere.  This was the most interesting of the lot.  When we first unpacked it, it had a pretty strong smoky-moldy smell that emanated from the thin, dry “rind”.  It made me a little chary of trying it.  This was the only “stinky”, non-amateur cheese on the board.  But once I got started, I began to appreciate the complexity of this cheese.  The chalky/moldy/smoky flavour offset the fairly standard creamy texture (a bit harder than the Emmental).  It got to the point where I was almost enjoying this cheese.
4.  An English Cheddar.  This was an imported, aged, super-sharp cheddar.  The differences between this cheddar and the usual blocks of mass-produced stuff were striking.  First, it was slightly dried-out, to the point where it looked a bit like sonpapadi — and it even flaked like a dense sonpapadi.  Adding tremendously to the texture was the fact that there were a few barely-perceptible, tiny salt/calcium crystals that crunched between your teeth.  The crunch was so mild I kept wondering whether I was imagining it, but it was there.  And finally, the flavour was a little like that of Amul cheese (!) — with the slightest itch on the tongue.

All in all, a great delicious fun item, though my arteries are probably clogging up.  I think about once or twice a year is more than enough for me!

India and the US: Current Disagreements

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on August 9, 2009

Nice Rediff article on three major points of difference between India and the US at this point of time.

The first point:

The United States wants developing countries such as India and China to agree to control the emissions being produced by their rapidly growing economies, setting time-bound targets to this effect.

Yet India argues that this would hurt its economic growth and wants the industrialised world to curb its pollution as well as fund new technologies in the developing world by underlining that it has one of lowest emissions per capital (sic).

The man-on-the-street in America certainly shares the Obama administration’s views on the topic; much casual disgust is directed towards India (and China) on this topic.  India’s main statistic is the per-capita figure, while America’s is the whole-country figure.  Which is right?  The American viewpoint (and indeed any viewpoint which ignores the per-capita calculation) has the usual element of “one American is worth several Indians” in it.  OTOH ignoring the whole-country figure and focusing only on the per-capita figure is almost an incentive for irresponsible population growth.  (Another issue like this: freezing U.P.’s representation in the Lok Sabha.)

The second issue is agriculture-related and led to the collapse of the Doha talks:

The US has suggested that developing nations such as India need to provide greater market access for the [Doha] talks to advance.

India argues that it cannot compromise on food security and livelihood concerns even as the US and the EU remain resistant to scale down their own agricultural subsides for fear of offending their well-entrenched domestic farm lobbies.

On the face of it, both countries are wrong: each wants to other to do something without reciprocating.  There are deeper concerns on both sides, with the long-term strategic fallout very hazy.  Fears about sacrificing food security to another country probably play a role.

The third issue is nuclear, with the West practically reversing its position as soon as Obama came to power:

The recent G-8 statement … “contained in the NSG’s ‘clean text’ developed at the 20 November 2008 Consultative meeting” came as a major surprise for India.

The Obama Administration cannot make meaningful progress on its non-proliferation agenda unless it brings India into the fold of the global non-proliferation regime.

Delhi fears … a particularly restrictive reading of the text [under Obama].

There’s no doubt that, while Bush was viewed negatively globally and within thinking circles in the US, his tenure was a great boon for India.  Obama is back to the traditional U.S. viewpoint, reversing all that and positioning closer to Pakistan.  India is playing a delicate game here.  There are some who want a major expansion of the “nuclear club” and others who want the status quo.  India is going against both these camps: we want the status quo modified to include us, but not anyone else.  Worse, we want to do it without signing the NPT.

S. L. Bhyrappa’s Vamshavriksha

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on August 3, 2009

I had an interesting discussion with Bekaar BokBok recently about writing styles among Indian English authors.  For practical purposes, my first language is English.  It would be lovely to read immersively Indian books that also sport a suave command of English.  A few authors do write this way.  Rushdie does, at times.  Samit Basu and (sometimes) Amitav Ghosh do it.  But it would be fun to see a lot more.

S.L.BhyrappaS. L. Bhyrappa excites a lot of interest in the blogosphere, probably because he tends to write from a traditional Hindu viewpoint — a taboo in today’s “secular”ized media environment.  Bhyrappa writes in Kannada, and unfortunately the translations of his books leave a lot to be desired. It is a hard thing to translate. I’ve read translations of two of his books: Saartha and Vamshavriksha.  One way to describe the translations is that the form of the novels is translated, but not the texture.  That may not be entirely accurate, since I have no idea what the texture of the Kannada originals is like.  But the English translations simply lack texture.  By this, I mean that the writing is utterly unevocative and deficient in beauty of language, milieu details and ambience.  Rather, it is a matter-of-fact narration of the events in the Kannada originals.  It is quite amazing how off-putting this is, even if you get the essentials of the story.

It’s possible that the originals are also written in this style.  Unfortunately, I’ve not read much Indian-language literature.  However, a few Telugu short stories which I have read also seem to have this characteristic.  There is a steady flow of narrative, but minimal descriptive writing.  If someone is in a forest, for example, his surroundings might be described (directly) as dense, gloomy, dark or thick.  But this kind of explicit description seems more common than an evocation of those feelings through a more detailed description of the surroundings.

Bhyrappa-VamsavrukshaAnyway, to get back to Vamshavriksha.  Interesting though it was, this book also belongs to the large body of “open to interpretation” lit.  The events are vaguely connected to a perceivable philosophical undercurrent, but they defy easy categorization.  Neither the underlying philosophy nor the novel’s flow in any one direction.  The story doesn’t have much of a beginning or conclusion.  Events lead to one another rather unsatisfactorily, and there’s rarely a build-up of pace or a sense that something important is happening.

I found even the subject matter of the novel, the stuff in the narrative, unusual and difficult to identify with.  However, this was actually a good thing.  For a change, we have an author who isn’t ashamed to present Hinduism in a positive way in his novels.  Also, while it’s not exactly spiritual, Vamshavriksha is saturated with the spiritual/philosophic attitude of the protagonists.  Every event is evaluated in the light of tradition, the Vedas, Hindu philosophy.  It’s a viewpoint I know many people have (including most of my relatives and almost everyone in my parents’ generation), but I don’t have it, and so this book gives me a window into the way they think.

It’s a book worth reading, intellectually, but I must say the translated version is a tad insipid. A translation with a bit more verve would do Bhyrappa’s readers a great service.

writes in Kannada, and unfortunately the translations of his books leave a lot to be desired.  It is a hard thing to translate.  Bhyrappa