In The Armchair

The Plausible Deniability Defense

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on December 11, 2010

So the Congress is getting some heat for minority-inflaming politics immediately after 26/11, based on cables leaked by WikiLeaks (everything seems to be about wikileaks nowadays).  The Congress is in the crosshairs.  They’ve tried the deniability route, questioning two things: first, whether there really was such a wikileaks cable, and second, whether the ambassador truly said what’s in the leaked cable.  The first one is very easy to answer: yes, it did.  And it said a lot more than what the press has the courage to report.  If you’re interested, just search for “wikileaks” on google. Then go to 2010/12/10 under “Browse Latest Releases” and click on Reference ID  08NEWDELHI3228.  The second issue, whether the cable is genuine, is of course much harder to ascertain.  But its contents are completely consistent with Congress strategy in the last decade or so.

I’m quite undecided on whether wikileaks is good or not.  I don’t think disclosing all information just because it’s there to be disclosed is good.  On the other hand, we occasionally get a neutral, unsanitized (because it’s not expected to be public) opinion on our country’s politics.

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Corruption Cake

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on November 21, 2010

It’s been like a layer cake the last few months.  We’ve had one scandal after another and it shows no signs of slowing down.  You’ve probably read about most of the scandals, but the icing on the cake (at least until another scandal breaks, at which point it will become just another layer) may have escaped your notice.  That’s because this latest scandal involves the media themselves, and they’re doing everything they can to cover it up.  Barkha Dutt, Vir Shanghvi, Rajdeep Sardesai and a bunch of other media bigwigs were found to be doing some power-broking between the Congress and its vassal parties.  The story was leaked by outlook magazine here.

I don’t know why anyone should be surprised.  It’s like being surprised that a baboo in an official position in government is taking bribes.  Everybody does it, and everybody knowns that everybody does it, even if no evidence has actually emerged.  I’d guess there are two paths you take to get exclusive interviews with prominent people.

The first path is to dedicate your life to quality journalism until your reputation is so well-established that people want to talk to you.  I think Dan Rather fell into this category — his demise came about because he hadn’t checked the quality of his sources.  His integrity was never in doubt.  But this path takes a long time.

The second path is where you do people favours in return for interviews and inside scoops.  I’m sure the majority of Indian journos don’t do this, but I’m equally sure a lot of them do.  So when this big expose on Barkha and co. came around, I was surprised — not that they were doing it, but that something like this saw the light of day.

But it’s still not easy to find.  The tapes themselves are available online for all to listen to, but the story isn’t getting much prominence.  I hate to agree with anything Arundhati Roy says, but one thing she did get right:

Much of the mainstream media has been captured by a small clique of columnists, editors and TV anchors, an incestuous little coterie with shows on each others’ channels and interviews in each others’ newspapers.

The responses Barkha and her higher-ups have provided are pretty standard: they liberally tossed in phrases like “smear campaign”, “misrepresentation” and “caricature” into boilerplate denials.

Superbugs and Medical Tourism

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on November 19, 2010

A superbug is apparently spreading through Europe.  When a superbug from India was discovered, the Lancet reported it, but gratuitously hinted that people should not go to India for medical care.  Perhaps the Lancet should now gratuitously hint that people should stop going to Europe for medical care as well… 😉

LaTeX Forward PDF Search with Emacs

Posted in Computers by Armchair Guy on November 15, 2010

I wrote a blog post on implementing inverse PDF search with okular and emacs here.  This post is about the reverse: forward search.  That is, with point at any position in the LaTeX source while editing in emacs, a keystroke causes okular to center the corresponding portion of the PDF in its viewable area. A nice overview of LaTeX synchronization can be found here.

In the comments on the inverse search post, B. Slade suggested the procedure at http://www.bleedingmind.com/index.php/2010/06/17/synctex-on-linux-and-mac-os-x-with-emacs for forward search.  However, the instructions there require installation of AuCTeX version 11.86, while the latest version in the Ubuntu 10.04 repositories have is 11.85.

I managed to kludge a solution for the AuCTeX shipping with Ubuntu 10.04 by slightly modifying some emacs code I found here: http://www.mail-archive.com/okular-devel@kde.org/msg04913.html. Most of the work was already done by Mark Altern and earlier authors; the only change was to tell it to use the .pdf instead of the .dvi.

A note of caution.  Forward search with okular is not very convenient.  This is because okular redisplays the PDF document every time you do a forward search — with a side “contents” pane and also repositioning the PDF.  So if you’ve removed the space-hogging contents pane (by pressing F7 twice) and zoomed and positioned the PDF to your liking, doing a forward search will undo all of that.  You’ll have to remove the contents pane again and re-zoom and re-position.  This severely limits the usefulness of forward search.  There doesn’t seem to be a way around this for now.

Anyway, here are the steps.

  1. Follow instructions here to set up inverse search.
  2. Source for okular-search.el is at the end of this post.  Copy it and put it in a file called okular-search.el.
  3. In your .emacs file, add the following code:
    
    (add-to-list 'load-path "/path/to/okular-search.el")
    (require 'okular-search)
    (add-hook 'LaTeX-mode-hook (lambda () (local-set-key "\C-x\C-j" 'okular-jump-to-line)))
    (add-hook 'tex-mode-hook (lambda () (local-set-key "\C-x\C-j" 'okular-jump-to-line)))
    

That’s it. Press C-x C-j to open a new okular viewing window. Subsequent presses of C-x C-j will reposition the PDF in that okular window to correspond to whatever’s at point in emacs.

Here’s the code for okular-search.el:


;;; (X)Emacs frontend to forward search with kdvi. See the section on
;;; FORWARD SEARCH in the kdvi manual for more information on forward
;;; search, and for an explanation how to use this script. This script
;;; is a modified version of the script "xdvi-search.el" by Stefan
;;; Ulrich, version 2000/03/13. The
;;; modifications were performed by Stefan Kebekus
;;; . Tested with Emacs 20.7.1 and Xemacs 21.4.
;;;
;;; This program is free software; you can redistribute it and/or
;;; modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as
;;; published by the Free Software Foundation; either version 2 of the
;;; License, or (at your option) any later version.
;;;
;;; This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful,
;;; but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of
;;; MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. See the GNU
;;; General Public License for more details.
;;;
;;; You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License
;;; along with this program; if not, write to the Free Software
;;; Foundation, Inc., 51 Franklin Street, Fifth Floor, Boston, MA
;;; 02110-1301, USA.
;;;
;;; Please report bugs or improvements, etc. via the "Report bug"-Menu
;;; of okular.
;;;

(defvar okular-script "okular"
  "*Name of start script for okular.")

(defun okular-jump-to-line ()
  "Call okular-script to perform a `forward search' for current file and line number.
See contents of okular-script for details.
If AucTeX is used, the value of TeX-master-file is used as filename
for the master .dvi file; else, the return value of okular-master-file-name
is used (which see)."
  (interactive)
  (save-excursion
    (save-restriction
      (widen)
      (beginning-of-line 1)
      (let* (;;; current line in file, as found in the documentation
	     ;;; of emacs. Slightly non-intuitive.
	     (current-line (format "%d" (+ 1 (count-lines (point-min) (point)))))
	     ;;; name of the `main' .tex file, which is also used as .dvi basename:
	     (master-file (expand-file-name (if (fboundp 'TeX-master-file)
					     (TeX-master-file t)
					   (okular-get-masterfile (okular-master-file-name)))))
	     ;;; .dvi file name:
	     (pdf-file (concat (file-name-sans-extension master-file) ".pdf"))
	     ;;; current source file name.
	     (filename (expand-file-name (buffer-file-name))))
	(start-process "okular"
		       "okular-output" "okular" ;;; src-args
		      ;;; args for -sourceposition:
		       "--unique" (concat "file:" pdf-file "#src:" current-line filename)
		       )))))

(defun okular-get-masterfile (file)
  "Small helper function for AucTeX compatibility.
Converts the special value t that TeX-master might be set to
into a real file name."
  (if (eq file t)
      (buffer-file-name)
    file))

(defun okular-master-file-name ()
  "Emulate AucTeX's TeX-master-file function.
Partly copied from tex.el's TeX-master-file and TeX-add-local-master."
  (if (boundp 'TeX-master)
      TeX-master
    (let ((master-file (read-file-name "Master file (default this file): ")))
      (if (y-or-n-p "Save info as local variable? ")
	  (progn
	    (goto-char (point-max))
	    (if (re-search-backward "^\\([^\n]+\\)Local Variables:" nil t)
		(let* ((prefix (if (match-beginning 1)
				   (buffer-substring (match-beginning 1) (match-end 1))
				 ""))
		      (start (point)))
		  (re-search-forward (regexp-quote (concat prefix "End:")) nil t)
		  (if (re-search-backward (regexp-quote (concat prefix "TeX-master")) start t)
		      ;;; if TeX-master line exists already, replace it
		      (progn
			(beginning-of-line 1)
			(kill-line 1))
		    (beginning-of-line 1))
		  (insert prefix "TeX-master: " (prin1-to-string master-file) "\n"))
	      (insert "\n%%% Local Variables: "
;;; mode is of little use without AucTeX ...
;;;		      "\n%%% mode: " (substring (symbol-name major-mode) 0 -5)
		      "\n%%% TeX-master: " (prin1-to-string master-file)
		      "\n%%% End: \n"))
	    (save-buffer)
	    (message "(local variables written.)"))
	(message "(nothing written.)"))
      (set (make-local-variable 'TeX-master) master-file))))

(provide 'okular-search)

How Much Did Enthiran Cost??

Posted in Movies and Entertainment by Armchair Guy on November 15, 2010

Enthiran, the Rajnikanth movie, was released to huge publicity and an incredible public reception.  In Boston, the initial ticket prices were double the usual movie ticket prices, and people still went.  They came down to normal around week three or four. That’s when I went and saw the movie.  It was an ok movie.  Somewhat silly in places, but it had its entertaining moments.

According to Wikipedia, Enthiran cost Indian rupee162 crore.  This is quite amazing to me.  Indian rupee162 crore equals $32.4 million.  In comparison, Jurassic Park cost $63 million in 1993 and The Matrix cost $63 million in 1999.  The special effects in Enthiran are pretty good, and somewhat innovative, but the amount of screen time they get is minuscule compared to the effects in Jurassic Park and the Matrix.  Plus, they’re far poorer in quality than —  not as as detailed or spectacular as — the effects in those films.  I presume the cost of CGI special effects has also declined.

According to the Indian Express, a major reason for the cost was the special effects which alone cost 40% of the entire budget.  Even accounting for inflation, I can’t understand why Enthiran cost so much. Did they simply get ripped off by the special-effects-wallahs?

Ramachandra Guha on Dynastocracy

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on November 9, 2010

I’ve long been incensed at the way in which Congressmen in general, and Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in particular, have attempted to wipe out the memory of P. V. Narasimha Rao and his tremendous achievements.  I don’t find it surprising that they have done so; to acknowledge Rao would be to admit that almost all the positive developments the Congress can lay claim to in the last 20 years were initiated by an Outsider.  It’s possible Rahul and Sonia now believe their own hype — that they are no longer capable of understanding that non-Dynasty members may have made major contributions.

I have mixed feelings towards Manmohan Singh on this topic.  On the one hand, I feel angry at his silence.  But mostly, I just feel bad for him.  He seems to have sold his soul to Sonia and Rahul in exchange for his gaddi.  But  I don’t believe Manmohan lusts after power — I think he just wants to be rescued from the utter obscurity that awaits a leader with no political network of his own.  Perhaps he’s not strong enough to embrace that obscurity.  Perhaps he feels that, puppet though he may be, he can do more good than his putative replacement.  It doesn’t matter. What feelings bubble up behind that weak smile, I wonder, when he hears Sonia and Rahul giving Rajiv credit for everything that his original mentor did?  Has age and time numbed his conscience?

These points are nothing new.  They have been standard talking points on blogs and online discussion fora for at least half a decade.  I said it too: here and here.  But Ramachandra Guha collects them all at one place here, and fleshes out the story with a little bit of history.  He says:

Our leaders … do resemble Stalin … in their vanity and insecurity. They cannot purge or kill former colleagues, but they can at least disparage their contributions, while magnifying their own.

And then he asks:

In the 125 years of its existence, the party has produced a series of impressive and important leaders. … will its historians and propagandists recall the great women leaders of the past, such as Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Sucheta Kripalani? … Will … such charismatic and greatly influential individuals as J.B. Kripalani, C. Rajagopalachari, Jayaprakash Narayan and Rammanohar Lohia be mentioned at all …? Will … its most outstanding president, K. Kamaraj, and its brilliant prime minister who died early, Lal Bahadur Shastri?

Let’s keep dreaming.  Ram Guha addresses this topic from time to time, see also for example here.

How India and China Spend Money

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on September 29, 2010

Remember the US$ 3 billion that India spent on building a single “swanky” terminal at the IGI airport?  Considering what’s going with the Commonwealth Games, I wouldn’t be surprised if the true cost was much higher.  China, on the other hand, is planning to spend US$ 2 billion developing rail infrastructure in Tibet, a relatively remote region.  I wonder which will be a better investment.

LaTeX Inverse PDF Search with Emacs

Posted in Computers by Armchair Guy on September 2, 2010

Latex is such a time hog that I’m always in search of ways to improve my efficiency. My editor of choice is emacs. I’ve tried other editors but it usually turns out that there is some “tail” feature that I can’t find in any other editor. By “tail” feature I mean a feature that is used either very rarely or by very few people.

I’ve tried LyX, which is described as a WYSIWYM (What You See Is What You Mean) editor. It’s actually quite brilliant, and I do use it for simple MS Word-style documents. I’d use it in conjunction with emacs, switching back and forth between LyX and LaTeX source code editing, if it were not for the fact that it messes up LaTeX source code big time (all source code formatting is lost, making it pretty unreadable).

So I stick to emacs. One of the problems with a non-WYSIWYG editor for a language like LaTeX is it is hard to spot what you’re looking at. If you’re looking at a PDF file, it’s really hard to find the tex code that corresponds to what you’re seeing in the PDF. This is where Inverse PDF Search comes in.

What inverse PDF search does is allow you to click on a location in the PDF file and be transported to the corresponding spot in the LaTeX source. I find this tremendously useful.

Under Ubuntu 10.04 “Lucid Lynx”, this works almost out of the box, with a little bit of work. Here are the steps.

  1. First, install Okular, the KDE PDF viewer. This may require a huge number of KDE libraries. Evince is nice but doesn’t support inverse PDF search yet.
  2. In okular, go to Settings > Configure Okular > Editor and change the editor to “emacs client”, and the command to “emacsclient -a emacs –no-wait +%l %f“.
  3. Make sure you have Emacs 23. This is the default in Ubuntu 10.04.
  4. We have to start emacs in server mode so that okular can talk to it. Add this line somewhere in your .emacs file: (server-start) The next time emacs is started, it will be in server mode.
  5. When emacs compiles using latex, it has to include “source specials”. Roughly, this is an index connecting every position in the PDF file to a line number in the source file. To create the index, a latex package called synctex must be installed. Under Ubuntu 10.04 this is included in the package texlive-extra-utils, so make sure that’s installed.
  6. To tell emacs to always use PDF (i.e. compile with pdflatex instead of latex) insert the line (add-hook ‘LaTeX-mode-hook ‘TeX-PDF-mode) into your .emacs.  This step is optional if you don’t want to automatically pick PDF each time, but everything in this post pertains to PDF.
  7. Tell emacs to compile using source specials by adding the following line to your .emacs: ‘(LaTeX-command “latex -synctex=1”) Alternatively, when editing a tex file, go to the menu LaTeX > Customize AUCTeX > Extend this menu; then LaTeX > Customize AUCTeX > TeX Command > LaTeX Command, then change “latex” to “latex -synctex=1” and click “Save for future sessions”.
  8. To tell emacs/AUCTeX to use okular rather than evince, add the following to .emacs: ‘(TeX-output-view-style ‘((“^pdf$” “.” “okular %s.pdf”))).  Alternatively, this can be done through the customization menu LaTeX > Customize AUCTeX > Extend this menu; then LaTeX > Customize AUCTeX > TeX Command > TeX Output View Style and change evince %o %(outpage) to okular %o %(outpage).  Click “Save for future sessions”.

When you restart emacs and use AUCTeX to compile under PDF (using C-c C-c), it should compile with source specials.  (You can manually compile with source specials using the command pdflatex -synctex=1 filename.tex at the command line, but it’s easier to use AUCTeX from emacs.) After compilation is done, the AUCTeX view command (also using C-c C-c) should start up okular. To use inverse search, Shift+Left Click on a position in the PDF file in okular. The cursor should jump to the corresponding line in emacs.

Note. It’s possible to omit step 7 and instead insert \usepackage{pdfsync} in the preamble of the TeX file.  This uses pdfsync, which is older than synctex.  But this has two drawbacks.  First, your LaTeX source file is now less portable (if you send it to someone without the pdfsync style file).  Second, the accuracy of the source specials generated using this method is atrocious: Shift+Left Click only places you in the general vicinity of the point you’re looking for, may be 15 or 20 lines above or below, and worst of all, is not even monotone (you click a later spot on the PDF, you might jump to an earlier spot in the source).  Using step 7 is much better.

The Aryan Invasion Debate

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on August 31, 2010

Hot potato political topics in India are extremely hard to understand. There just doesn’t seem to be a culture of balanced or careful presentation in the Indian press. Seemingly impartial reports in top newspapers only tell half the story, and non-opinion articles have unseemly opinionation mixed in. Certain sections of the press and society seem incapable of any contribution but hammering away at popularizing their favourite viewpoint. But one of the hottest potatoes, the Aryan Invasion Theory and debates related to it, is especially hard to understand. This is because academics throughout India and the West seem to have clear political agendas when writing about this topic.

Indology, as the study of Indian religion, language and culture was known in the 18th century, started with the “discovery” of Indian culture by Europe. Initially, there was a great deal of excitement and positive press. By the mid 19th century, in tandem with the development of race theories, the denigration of Indian culture was institutionalized especially in Britain but more generally throughout Europe. This was, of course, an economic and political necessity: India was, to a great extent, the source of Western prosperity; and it had to be retained convincingly. Almost all Indologic academic endeavour in the late 19th century throughout Europe had as its eventual goal the denigration of India. There were some dissenting voices, including a few from India, but these were generally scoffed at and not taken seriously.

The theories of Aryan invasion and migration were originally created in that atmosphere, and the field of Indology developed into the corresponding field today. The tools that are used today include two old ones: archaeology and linguistics, dating back to the original Indologists, and one new tool: genetics. Those who are opposed to the idea that Aryans (or the original creators of the Vedic religion) invaded India usually claim that the Vedic culture originated in India. A basic assumption of many of this group is that the entirety or majority of the body of academic work based on linguistics is not trustworthy, because it is based on the politically and racially tainted work of 19th century European scholars, and because 20th century and current work is essentially a continuation of that work. Many of these academics claim that genetic tools show a lack of evidence for an “Aryan invasion”.

The pro-AIT Indologists generally believe that the other group have failed to answer certain archaeological and linguistic puzzles that surfaced during the 18th and 19th centuries. The anti-AIT group, they say, are not experts in archaeology or linguistics, which require careful and sustained study. They are merely dilettantes, and are thus unqualified and unable to comment on the more detailed issues. They also claim that the counter-theories advanced lack appropriate levels of academic rigour, and the anti-AIT group also tends to advance some its ideas through the press or the web as opposed to academic journals, leading to an erosion of their credibility within academic circles. And without satisfactory answers to the conundrums in the archaeological or linguistic record, one can’t simply rely on the genetic evidence to arrive at conclusions.

I’ve been reading a bunch of random online pages on this debate, and it appears that both sides have much going for their arguments. It’s pretty clear that both are very wedded to their viewpoints. The academically-heavy pro-AIT groups seems to lose its neutrality when it comes to this topic. On the other side, with the anti-AIT lobby, you have to cull out large numbers of laymen who believe their opinion has the same levels of validity as that of the academics. (This may actually be true, but if so we need an academic process to ascertain it.) Both groups acknowledge that there is some truth in the other group’s accusations, but nevertheless believe they know best.

For the interested layman (like me), it’s hard to be sure that even one argument is valid on either side. For example, the neutrally-named Archaeology Online seems to be a vehicle for the anti-AIT lobby. This is not to say the arguments there are not valid, but there is a little bit of pro-AIT bashing on the website. It also appears that some papers that seem to support the AIT are not reported on that website. On the other hand, it is hard to believe the pro-AIT lobby is neutral. There seems to be some of the usual “greatness of the West” stance in their general attitude, and since they exert total control over the academic old boy networks, it is hard to see how an anti-AIT thinker could break into their domains. They also tend to issue blanket dismissals of the anti-AIT lobby from time to time.

I’ve come across what I think is a rather balanced and important book on the archaeological and linguistic aspects of this topic: “The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture” by Edwin Bryant. Bryant’s thesis is that there should be a balance, and that viewpoints from both sides should be presented, as long as they meet some basic standards of academic discourse. I haven’t got too far into the book: about 60 of 300 pages. I think it’s a hugely important book because of its balance. The overall conclusion seems to be that, in truth, we don’t know whether there was an Aryan invasion, and barring some major new finds in primary evidence, we will never know.

So, perhaps all of the theories propounded today express the fond wishes of the theorist rather than the truth.

The Virga Series by Karl Schroeder

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on August 30, 2010

It’s certainly not deliberate, but I tend to read similar science fiction novels at around the same time.  Perhaps it’s because of the kinds of searches I do to try to find interesting books.  My latest excursions have been the Virga series by Karl Schroeder, and the Ragamuffin-Crystal Rain series by Tobias Bucknell.  This post is about the former series.

You can classify sci-fi writing in various ways.  The subject matter can be described using overlapping subgenres like steampunk, cyberpunk, space opera, post-apocalyptic, humour and alien encounters.   Hard and soft science fiction refer to the scientific plausibility.   One of the less-popular genres is that of world-building.  There are several good books in this genre.  Clarke’s Rama, Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia, Niven’s Ringworld are among those I’ve read.  Right up there with the best of hard world-building sci fi is Karl Schroeder’s Virga series, which has a bit of many of the genres described above mixed in.

I’ve read the first four of the Virga books.  I’ll completely avoid describing the world that Schroeder built.  Here’s why.  When I read the first novel, Sun of Suns, I had no background on the Virga universe. This led to a great deal of confusion initially, since the laws and functioning of the world were unusual and unknown.  Clarity came slowly, with an understanding of the physics and laws of Virga. Concepts that seemed odd, unlikely or silly began to make perfect sense.  This is quite common in many science fiction books, and it adds a lot to the experience.  I’d recommend that anyone else planning to read the books in this series approach it the same way: don’t read too many reviews, just go by the rating on Amazon etc. if you need to be convinced that it’s a good sci-fi series, and plunge in. It’ll be an interesting ride.

One of the things I’ve been lamenting in recent sci-fi is the sacrifice of storytelling on the altar of ideation. A lot of recent authors have brilliant ideas, but their novels feel simply like vehicles for outpourings of their ideas. Storytelling seems cursory and irrelevant. Stories are wrapped up without a real ending, seemingly either because an editor somewhere decides they are getting too long, or the author finished conveying his ideas and was too bored to bother with any more work. The Virga novels don’t suffer from this. They’re well-plotted.  The story in these books hurtles forward in a series of action-filled, high-energy encounters that take place in amazingly innovative scenarios.  The science supports the story.  The little details add to the atmosphere, and don’t distract from it.  Overall, these stories have pretty good pacing.  There are occasional stutters: pacing can be a tad inconsistent, and they have a few dead spots where the story drags. But this only happens occasionally.

The true reward in reading these books is the world that Schroeder has created. Starting from the basic premise of a devolved society in a world without gravity (why such a world would exist is explained in the course of the series), Schroeder uses nothing more than the laws of physics and his imagination to come up with plausible ideas for human artifacts and societies that are quaint and whimsical yet solidly grounded in science; swashbuckling and rollicking yet paying great attention to detail.  Elements of steampunk and high seas pirate adventures are mixed in very holistically; all of the various aspects quite obviously flow from Schroeder’s fundamental premises. At no point did I feel that a notion or an idea that was in spirit different from the rest was tacked on.

The four books don’t tell a single story, although they should be read in order.  They have a common feel, but are slightly different in the type of story they tell.  The first one is a bit of an introduction: it describes the emotional and cultural gestalt of the world and culminates in an event that sets the stage for events in the rest of the books. The second book, Queen of Candesce, is the fastest paced (and to me, the most enjoyable) of the lot, with a little bit of political intrigue. The third book was slightly uneven, although it had some soaringly creative highlights. The fourth is the most daring book, providing Final Explanations of various things that go on in Virga, and even — for the first time — leaving Virga entirely.

Highly recommended!

America’s Independence Day Gift to India!

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on August 14, 2010

Just before India celebrated its 63rd Independence Day, America had a gift for India.

The gift is summed up in various articles, for example here.  America will hike visa fees for companies with a high proportion of Indian employees.  Only companies with Indian employees, not any other country, so it’s a gift intended solely for India.  Thanks, America!

For some peculiar reason, Indian companies are displeased with this gift. Don’t we know we shouldn’t look at a gift horse in the mouth?  We should be happy.  President Obama explained that he welcomed the passage of the bill.  In a separate statement, he praised India for being a beacon of hope to people all around the world!  That should make us doubly happy, for everyone knows that what Indians crave the most is a little bit of praise.

American Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano expressed logical reasons why Indians should be pleased with the gift. Basically, America, being such a poor country, has no money to defend its Southern border from the nefarious expansionist designs of Mexicans.  Hence America thought of forcing India, since it is so rich, to pay for protecting America.  To compare the horrendous poverty of America with the fabulous riches of India, look at this graphic from Wikipedia.  If you prefer visual media to get an idea of how much disposable income Indians have to spend on protecting American borders, watch Peepli Live, (which of course is a copy of at least 4 American films, all of which are perfectly original, and as the reviewer points out Peepli Live would only be enjoyed by unsophisticated Indian audiences).

Some Indians were found asking, foolishly, what the protection of America’s Southern border has to do with India, and why Indians should be paying to protect Americans from Mexicans.  But they are simply discontents and should be happy they have the opportunity to serve America’s interests!

Good Dictators

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on August 2, 2010

It is a peculiar feature of Indian democracy that the people expect the government to act, not like elected representatives, but like benevolent kings.  If you look at what people seem to admire, it isn’t a propensity to stay within the limits set out by the constitution, self-limiting their own power.  This has been a characteristic of many Indian politicians who believe in procedure and democracy (S. M. Krishna, Chandrababu Naidu, Atal Behari Vajpayee).  But such politicians haven’t lasted.  What the people seem to admire is the tendency to use an initial election to grab onto power and step outside the limits of the constitution (Laloo Prasad Yadav, Jyoti Basu, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati).  Such politicians have lasted far longer than the “good” ones who self-limit power.

There are many reasons for choosing a politician, some of which have more to do with immediate concerns than any grand theme.  But if we grant that the pattern above is real, it’s interesting to speculate why.

First, the voting masses actually admire this kind of power-grabbing.  Those who eschew such power grabs are viewed as weak.  That is understandable from a base point of view: why would someone not grab power if they could?  Finer ideas like checks and balances and democratic propriety don’t make much sense in a dog-eat-dog world.  From this point of view, a king should act like a king, not like a sarkari naukar.

Second, the masses expect to be given benevolent handouts once the people they voted for establish themselves as all-powerful maharajas/maharanis. (Think Sonia Gandhi visiting Amethi, thronged by worshipful subjects, bestowing her munificence as fancy takes her.)  This kind of “reward for our electoral loyalty” is an expectation across the masses.  These rewards are usually (though not always) not in terms of generally applicable legislation.  They are out-of-turn gifts bestowed in return for loyalty.

Of course these are not the only reasons; the voter is very aware of other intermediate-term benefits: revenge against an inimical social class, free power/food/credit, reservations, material gain as in land reforms, etc. These are usually granted more gradually and less gratuitously often through legislation. I’m talking about the type of person the voter wants to vote for, modulo factors such as these. In other words, who would the voter prefer, assuming they promised the same legislation?

The power-grabbing legislator is what I’ll call a dictator.  S/he is a dictator because s/he doesn’t believe the laws really apply to her/him. If s/he is kind to the constituencies that gave her votes, then s/he is good from the voter’s point of view. So the Indian voter’s electoral aspirations can be summed up as the desire to elect a good dictator.

Out of Ideas?

Posted in Movies and Entertainment by Armchair Guy on July 21, 2010

It’s pretty harsh to say that cheating and plagiarism is nowadays part of India’s core identity, but it’s true.  Institutionalized cheating in nearly every examination is just the tip of the iceberg.  Our newspaper reporters simply read various other newspapers to make up their report. Fashion fads are copied from the West.  Students will defend exam cheating in debates, and talk openly and boastfully about their cheating exploits.  But the most visible aspect of India’s xerox culture is plagiarism in visual media.  We copy most successful TV programmes from the West.  We copy music.  We copy storylines.  We shamelessly copy entire scenes, camera angles and all, even if you’re one of the biggest directors.  Bollywood takes plagiarism to new heights (and new lows).  See here for the tip of the iceberg.

But it’s not just India that’s running out of original ideas.  America is, too.  It’s not quite as bad in Hollywood.  They’re still trying pretty hard, putting out a variety of content.  But not much of the new content is hugely successful.  A really good new concept is a rare thing.  (The last one I can think of is Shrek.)  More and more, they’re turning to unoriginal content.  In Hollywood they don’t plagiarize — because that’s just a lawsuit waiting to happen.  Hollywood nowadays prefers to bring out sequels to existing movies, feeding off the success of the first installment.  They adapt bestselling books.  And comics.  Then they begin remaking old movies and TV series, crossing over from TV to the big screen and vice versa.  This trend seems to be on the rise.  In the last few years, we’ve seen the Batman movies, Phantom, Iron Man, Superman, Spider Man, Watchmen, Flash Gordon in the super-hero genre.  TV crossovers to the big screen include Star Trek and the A-Team.  Star Wars has gone to TV.  Harry Potter, Narnia, Lord of the Rings come from popular books. I’ve heard about ERB’s Barsoom series being turned into movies. The list goes on and on.

Could it be a function of the rising costs of doing business in a competitive entertainment industry?  Since incidental costs are high, it’s safer to bet on something tried, tested, and known to be widely popular than a new concept that might bomb completely.

Mistaking Beauty for Truth

Posted in Armchair Ruminations by Armchair Guy on July 3, 2010

Karl Popper, in his 1953 lecture on science, described three pseudo-scientific theories thus:

I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appeared to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refused to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still ‘un-analysed’ and crying aloud for treatment.

I think Marx and Freud specialized in selling beautiful theories.  Their ideas had (have) a simplicity and basic unity that people found (still find) attractive.  Although the ideas were elucidated in pages upon pages of writing, there seemed to be some common underlying principles that were elegant and simple, yet possessed of wide explanatory power.  The ideas were beautiful.

A lot of people mistake beauty for truth.  I first came across this theme while reading blogs by self-styled economic liberals.  It seemed to me that many of these liberals are excessively concerned with coming up with pithy one-liner descriptions of reality.  A pithy, attractive, succinctly stated “theorem” that allows them to conclude major things or explain a wide variety of phenomena impresses readers and raises cachet. The problem is that the world usually doesn’t admit such oversimplified explanations, but some people are so in love with their one-liners that they continue trying to shoehorn every fact to fit such theories.  The problem isn’t just related to blogs; it’s widespread at all levels. 

In fields like mathematics, beauty is an asset, because it’s often obvious what’s true. (Obvious in the sense that a trained mathematician can, with sufficient work, in most cases, correctly determine whether an argument is correct or not.)  In the other sciences, carefulness in establishing the truth usually trumps the coolness factor.  However, economics exists on the dangerous boundary between storytelling and empirical truth.  Economic theories are often grand, sweeping — and aren’t subject to the kinds of simple tests scientific theories are.  So beauty is an attractive feature of a theory, sometimes the most attractive feature.  This is perhaps why Karl Marx’s views are so attractive: they give a beautiful explanation that fits the facts.  Economists themselves recognize the problem.  I took the phrase “mistaking beauty for truth” from an article by Paul Krugman.

Scientists, like economists, are not immune to the fallacy.  Mathematicians often strive for elegance in their proofs, but they are supposed to.  Other scientists, however, may get swayed by such considerations too.  An interesting example of this is the canonical explanation for the reason moths are attracted to light.  For a long time, this was supposed to be due to confusing lights for the moon.  The theory went that moths fly in a straight line by keeping a constant angle to the rays of the moon.  The moon being a faraway object, its rays are almost parallel by the time they reach the earth.  So this is a good approximation for the moth; it wouldn’t deviate much from a straight line in a flight of several miles if it kept a constant angle from the moon.

However, if a moth sees a light that is much closer by and mistakes it for the moon, the situation is quite different.  The rays are no longer parallel, and keeping a constant angle to these rays will always result in nonlinear motion.  If the moth maintains a perfect 90-degree angle with the light rays, it will fly in a circle.  However, the theory goes, moths tend to maintain an acute angle to the light rays.  This causes them to move in a spiral that leads inward toward the light.  It’s fairly easy to calculate an equation for this spiral.  The polar equation of the curve followed by the moth when it maintains an angle of \alpha to the rays, parametrized in terms of the angle \theta subtended at the origin between the current position and the positive X axis, starting at the point (d, 0), is given by

r(\theta) = d e^{-\theta/\tan \alpha}.

Here’s what it looks like in 2D:

Beautiful.  The only problem is, it isn’t true.  This isn’t why moths fly towards light, and that was shown by the first careful experiment to be done. Looking at the above graph, the moth circles the light several times before falling into it.  Henry Hsiao, a biomedical engineering researcher, studied moths’ flight patterns and found that they don’t fit this behaviour.  His alternate theory has to do with mach bands.  But why did this theory about the equiangular spiral survive so long?  It seems to me its mathematical beauty trumped considerations of its veracity.  It’s just another example of beauty being mistaken for truth.

3 Billion

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on July 3, 2010

New Delhi’s IGI airport has a new wing constructed at a cost of $3 billion.  The politicial establishment fell over itself with glee while inaugurating the wing.  The words used by the media to describe the new wing were ‘swanky’ and ‘world class’.  Let’s look at what swanky means, according to Merriam-Webster:

swanky [ˈswæŋkɪ]adj swankier, swankiest Informal

1. expensive and showy; stylish a swanky hotel

2. boastful or conceited

In comparison, ISRO’s annual budget is $1 billion, and this is after ISRO has proven itself repeatedly over the last 20 years.  According to Wikipedia the Delhi Metro, one of the most useful infrastructure undertakings ever, is supposed to have cost about $3 billion for Phase I and II, moves over 1 million commuters every day, and runs at a profit without any government funding.  In contrast, the Delhi Airport moves about 23 million passengers a year, and the new terminal’s capacity is 34 million — about 10 to 15 times lower than the Delhi Metro.

Still, it’s good to spend on infrastructure that needs upgrading, and in fact the swank factor might act as a bit of an advertisement of prowess (as it does in the case of some of China’s awe-inspiring but overly grand and unnecessarily expensive infrastructure). First impressions count and the first thing tourists see when they arrive in Delhi for the Commonwealth Games will be this terminal.

But does this really serve that purpose, or was this a knee-jerk reaction to the upcoming games? The shining, excited faces of our politicians are all well and good, but will we get our money’s worth from this in the long run? Or will it be a massive investment that is equally expensive to maintain, turning shabby in a few years? Time will tell.

“Charlie Bit Me!”

Posted in Movies and Entertainment by Armchair Guy on June 24, 2010

I just stumbled upon this YouTube meme.  It’s funny, but I don’t know why it’s SO popular…

The original:

Again:

Remake:

Remade again:

In the news:

Judiciary?

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on June 17, 2010

I was shocked to read this in the Indian Express: Hurt yourself to prove case against wife, HC tells lawyer.  Briefly, wife accuses husband of physical abuse, showing wounds.  Husband claims wife self-inflicted the wounds.  Judge tells husband to self-inflict similar wounds on himself in order to demonstrate it is possible, while police officers film it!

Of course, it could be a case of the IE reporter incorrectly or incompletely explaining what actually happened.  Or even modifying the incident to get a sensational story.  With our media, you can’t be sure.  But assuming the story is true, it is utterly incomprehensible.

I don’t know whether forensic science can establish whether the wounds were self-inflicted or not.  Even if forensic science can do it, I’m not sure those facilities exist in India.  In either case, I am not sure what it would prove.  Suppose the husband did successfully inflict wounds resembling the wife’s wounds on himself.  Even so, the wife might be innocent — it wouldn’t prove anything.  The other side of the coin: suppose the wife did inflict the wounds on herself.  Why would a judiciary demand that an innocent party injure himself?  Whether the wife did or did not inflict such wounds on herself, the husband inflicting wounds on himself seems to have no judicial value.

Men on the Moon

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on June 14, 2010

It appears there’s a sudden glut of attempts to colonize the moon, coming from nations all over. India did launch Chandrayaan, and Chandrayaan-II is on the way. But we need to scale up and colonize, perhaps using robots, or we risk being left far, far behind. Building autonomous robots is hard; we should start robot programmes soon if we wish to get them working on the moon anytime in the near future.

NASA is talking about building a permanent manned base on the moon.
Japan is planning to send robots to build an entire base on the moon.
Italy is planning to send robots to assemble a telescope on the moon.
China is going to send exploratory rovers and, eventually, carry out a manned landing.
Russia is planning to resurrect a moon orbiter with multiple hard and soft landers.

The initial phases of many of these programmes have a 2 to 5 year timeframe.  The GSLV Mk II setback was significant because we lost a year (by optimistic estimates).  Still, ISRO’s had a good track record, and moon landings use the well-tested PSLV. Hopefully other programs won’t suffer from the GSLV problems.

The Hairless Ape

Posted in Armchair Ruminations by Armchair Guy on June 9, 2010

Humans have very little body hair compared to most other primates.  There are several theories on this, summarized well and interestingly at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/19/science/19HAIR.html, which makes for a very interesting read. The currently accepted theory is that it’s an adaptation that helped avoid diseases spread by lice and ticks which found hiding places in fur.

This immediately raises the question: why didn’t other animals lose their fur for the same reason? That looks like an easy question to answer. Lice and ticks are not the only factor.  For example, in cold climates man could survive by wearing the fur of animals he killed.  Animals couldn’t do any such thing, so having a fur pelt was much more important than getting rid of lice.  This sounds like a plausible explanation, but it is wrong. The article says that man lost his body hair about 1.2 million years ago (estimated assuming the tick theory holds), but only started wearing clothes about 50,000 years ago — so there was a period of several hundred thousand years when man was hairless and naked. Other animals (at least those living in the same regions as man) could have lost their fur during this time, but didn’t.  I don’t have a good explanation.

All this changes if we consider a different theory for the loss of body hair.  There are many we could consider, but one of the more fanciful theories is that of the Aquatic Ape, which contends that, sometime in our remote past when all humans were still living in Africa, all the ancestors of currently extant humans were trapped in a small region around a shallow sea.  According to the theory it’s possible there were other humans not trapped this way, but they all died out.  Eons later, another cataclysm scattered these humans, who had now developed adaptations like the loss of fur to be able to swim better, as well as a slight webbing between their fingers, and a host of other adaptations.  To me this sounds more like science fiction than fact, and it has little acceptance in the scientific community.  But it’s a fun theory.

On-Screen Reading with Comprehension

Posted in Computers by Armchair Guy on June 6, 2010

Reading on paper is something most of us grew up with.  It’s possible coming generations will have more memories of growing up reading on a computer screen.  Perhaps static text and non-interactive content will feel archaic to many of them.  But for the generation that grew up holding real paper in their hands, reading a real book or a printout is much easier than reading on a computer screen.

I come to that conclusion because most people I’ve spoken to express in some way that they’re more comfortable with paper than with the screen.  Some feel they cannot read technical articles with full comprehension, or perhaps with equal comprehension, on a computer screen. Some say that fiction just isn’t as much fun on a computer screen. (I don’t know anyone who owns an e-reader; so I may be using a poor comparison on fiction.)

What could the reasons be?

Several people comment on the feeling of holding a book, and how that just feels satisfying.  Others simply say it has to do with comprehension.  I have a few theories:

  1. How you got your start might have something to do with what you enjoy the most.  If you are accustomed to physical paper, that might affect your enjoyment.
  2. I think it’s possible that vertical text is harder to read with comprehension than horizontal text; most screens are vertical.
  3. For technical reading, the ability to flip back and forth for quick comparison, quickly search by flipping through several pages, rapidly access specific parts of a book (beginning, middle, end, about 10 pages back, etc.) all contribute to making it easier.  I would’ve thought these functions are not too hard to implement ergonomically on reading program, but there’s a whole lot of things you can do.  It might be hard to make them all available through a GUI.
  4. To some extent, memory is assisted by connecting content with position.  For example, I often remember whether a formula in a book is on the left or right side, whether it’s closer to the beginning or the end.  It’s said that this is a bad habit and does the memory no good (hey — my memory really isn’t that good!).  In any case, that feeling of knowing where you are “on a map” — the physical location on the book — is completely lost when reading on a screen.  It’s possible to know by looking at the scrollbar, but that doesn’t give me the same sense of knowing where I am.