Sunday, January 30, 2011

Faith is not a virtue - I

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see—
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.
- Emily Dickinson

'Faith is good' is a meme (see this TED talk on memes) that I have heard since childhood. An article in The Huffington Post says:
Faith, as Gary Whittenberger wrote in Skeptic magazine, has multiple common uses.
"Faith" may refer to a religion or worldview, as in "My faith is Islam." It may refer to an attitude of trust or confidence, as in "I have faith in my physician." Or it may refer to believing propositions without evidence or out of proportion to the available evidence.

It is this latter use of faith that is incompatible with science.
I also have problems with the third meaning of faith. Believers, whether deliberately or unwittingly, will blur the lines between these various meanings in order to justify their strange tales.

Following my stroke, there was an avalanche of 'cures' suggested to me - powders, pastes, oils, threads, mantras, etc. There being no shortage of gods and godmen in India, there was no dearth of these ideas. Many of these suggestions were given by concerned womenfolk who were in thrall of various godmen and believed implicitly in all their tales. I tried to keep an impassive expression because, as everyone knows, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. (Any resemblance to any real person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.) Moreover, they were nice people who were telling me the most potent things they knew and I didn't want to 'say' or do anything that might hurt their feelings.

I will be told - 'Even your son believes it, why can't you?' Seriously, I should think like a four year old? At that age one would think that the earth is flat. (Perhaps that is the wrong example. You don't need to be four years old to think that the earth is flat.) Though not personally religious, I thought at the time that religion must be shown respect. So I generally kept quiet and listened with a dumb smile. I must have looked like Bertie Wooster listening to Aunt Agatha (the one who chewed broken glass pieces and had babies for breakfast).

I will be told that for these things to happen, I must have faith. Over time, I began to think that 'faith' is a five-letter word for 'anything goes'. It was the opposite of doubt. 'Faith has no reason' seems to be the ultimate get-out-of-jail statement ever thought of. As the former preacher turned atheist Dan Barker said, "Faith is a cop-out. If the only way you can accept an assertion is by faith, then you are conceding that it can't be taken on its own merits". A Hitchslap is in order - "What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof." I have never said it till now. It does not have the same punch if dictated letter by letter.

I used to get very irritated when Sujit used to be told that tying some thread would make him do well in exams. When he was much younger, he thought that this was a good idea: he need not study at all and if he ties some thread, he will get all the answers during an exam. We had to convince him that it was not so simple. There is a get-out-of-jail statement for this situation also - 'Do your best and god will do the rest'.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola said: “We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides” Such a sentiment is alright for a romantic song but I don't know how a person can hold such a position as his guiding principle in life. It boggles the mind how two such contradictory worldviews can exist in one head. Faith has consequences.

But there are situations when faith can lead to good actions as Robert Sapolsky says towards the end of this speech. (Listen to the whole speech because it is entertaining but the relevant portion is towards the end.)

Aside - In The Song of the Dodo, there is an example of a belief that I don't have a problem with:
In the clarity of a Monday morning, I take another glance at the diamond- shaped highway sign with its TASMANIAN TIGER, NEXT? KM alert. Just beside that one is a smaller sign, which I didn't notice on Saturday night. EVERYONE NEEDS SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN, it says, Closer inspection shows me a foam-topped mug, and the fine print: "I believe I'II have another beer."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Flying chapptis

I saw a post about Indian food. The last video in that post is awesome.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ngram Viewer

Google has a new tool called Ngram Viewer. It has led to a new field called “culturomics” - the study of culture using vast amounts of data. Here is how these buzzwords came about. For a jobless guy like me, it is fun to key in different words and see their trends. Some interesting ngrams were:
  1. India,China,Brazil - Why is India dipping in the last three decades?
  2. Some management jargon - Oh those MBAs!
  3. Schadenfreude
  4. I saw a list of 100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know. I looked at the graph of a couple of words that I did not know. (There were some words whose meanings I was not sure of but I probably would have guessed them if I had a few alternatives like in Reader's Digest. But I had no idea about these two words.)
  5. I saw a post about the best movie quotes of all time and looked at the trends of some of the movies (not the quotes because I am not sure how to handle the punctuations).
  6. Some poets
  7. Some fictional detectives
  8. Distinguishing real science from fads
  9. Apparently this is the Best Google n-gram yet.
  10. The Science Hall of Fame
But the graphs should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Some random thoughts

A couple of passages in two books struck a chord in me. The first passage is from Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers:

An overabundance of information can be stressful as well. One of the places I dreaded most in graduate school was the "new journal desk" in the library, where all the science journals received the previous week were displayed, thousands of pages of them. Everyone would circle around it, teetering on the edge of panic attacks. All that available information seemed to taunt us with how out of control we felt - stupid, left behind, out of touch, and overwhelmed.

I got this feeling many times. In school, the library was this wonderful place which had splendid story books that gave you hours of pleasure. Then you go to college and the library will be filled with journals and books bearing intimidating titles. Serious People will be poring over these books with great concentration. Was I intimidated much? You bet! I will also try reading these books but will not be able to get past the first couple of pages.

There will be whole books on topics that you had thought had been adequately covered in one paragraph in the textbook that you had been using. There will be a rack with the ominous sign 'New Arrivals' where new books with strange titles will keep arriving and disappearing every week. I will wonder who read these books and survived. (There are people who do incredible things. I saw a list of The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English and the first word itself I did not know, among many other words. It is disheartening, I tell you.)

The other passage is about the Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar in E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation:

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was renowned for keeping a calm exterior, but internally: "I am almost ashamed to confess it. Years run apace, but nothing done! I wish I had been more concentrated, directed and disciplined." At the time of this lament he was twenty, and it was but one year since the sea journey where he'd peered into the catch-22 from E=mc2, which, along with other work, would ultimately lead to the understanding of black holes.

When I read books on evolution and astronomy, I often think how the authors know so much. At the end of the book there will be a plethora of books and articles listed as recommended reading. I will wonder when they got time to read them and more importantly, assimilate them. As Mortimer J. Adler said, " In the case of good books, the point is not how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you." And they also have to spend time on a day job. Did that guy called Isaac Asimov really exist? He wrote so many books on so many diverse subjects that I wonder when he slept. And I start thinking like Chandrasekhar: 'I should not have wasted so much time.' As Kushwant Singh says:

Over the years I have discovered what enormous energy silence creates, energy that socializing and useless chit chat depletes. You have got to train yourself to be alone. You have to discipline yourself to follow a slavish routine.

A major difference is that Chandrasekhar had the thought at 20, I had the thought at 40. What is it that Jimmy Connors said about experience? " The trouble with experience is that by the time you have it you are too old to take advantage of it."

Sunday, January 2, 2011

More communication snafus

When I read about mondegreens, I realised that I also had been stumped sometimes by such auditory glitches but unfortunately I cannot remember any, except for the confusion between 'about' and 'above' which happens frequently. I will frame a sentence containing 'about'. I will dictate 'abo..' and Jaya will guess 'above'. I will hear it as 'about' and blink affirmatively. When the sentence is over, Jaya will stare at it in incomprehension and I will wonder what was so complicated about it. When I examine it, I will realise what the problem was and make the necessary correction.

Dictating mathematical notations could cause problems. Once I wanted to dictate a2-b2 = (a-b)(a+b). I began : 'a square...' and immediately ran into trouble. Why? That was because Jaya started wondering why I was telling her about a square when the problem had nothing to do with squares or rectangles or any other shape. After much rolling of eyes, pulling of hair (figuratively speaking), stiffening of muscles and cough induced due to frustration, Jaya will guess what I was trying to dictate. I had thought that I would be able to solve the problem in fifteen minutes but here I was having just got started. I will realise later that the confusion could have been avoided if I had dictated 'a power two minus b power two' or 'x square minus y square'.