Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cloud computing

This is an old post but I saw the video only recently. Thought you knew about cloud computing? Think again!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Reducing guilt

I just completed reading The Trouble With Testosterone. ('Just' is a relative term. Actually I completed it almost a month ago. At that time I was in the middle of writing a post and the next post was its continuation.I didn't want to juxtapose this one between those two posts.)

In one essay, Sapolsky discusses the evolution of firing squads which according to him were means of reducing the feeling of guilt on killing a person. In olden times, one shot was often not enough to kill a person. Multiple shots, say five, had to be fired in order to kill a person. If a person fires five shots or five people fire one shot each at the same person, the result will be the same. But in the latter case, a person thinks at some irrational level that he is only killing one-fifth of a person and is able to convince himself that he has not actually killed a person. Sapolsky writes:
Why do I think the firing squad was an accommodation to guilt, to the perception of guilt, and to guilty consciences? Because of an even more intriguing refinement in the art of killing people. By the middle of the nineteenth century, when a firing squad assembled, it was often the case that one man would randomly be given a blank bullet. Whether each member of the firing squad would tell if he had the blank or not - by the presence or absence of a recoil at that time of the shooting – was irrelevant. Each man would go home that night with the certainty that he would never be accused for sure, of having played a role in the killing.
Guilt reduction techniques are used even in modern execution methods.
In the American states that allow executions, lethal injection is fast becoming the method of choice. In states more “backward” about the technology of execution, execution is done by hand. But among the cutting - edge states, a $ 30,000 lethal injection machine is used. Its benefits, extolled by its inventor at the wardens' conventions he frequents, include dual sets of syringes and dual stations with switches for two people to throw at the same time. A computer with a binary-number generator randomises which syringe is injected into the prisoner and which ends up in a collection vial-and then erases the decision. The state of New Jersey even stipulates the use of execution technology with multiple stations and a means of randomisation. No one will ever know who really did it, not even the computer.
PS: Currently I have many new books to read. It often happens this way - for a while I won't have any new books and I will be reading old books that were disappearing from memory. Then a raft of new books will arrive in a few days from different sources, It is like waiting for a bus - you wait for one for half an hour and then three arrive at the same time. The difference is that I can read all the books sequentially over time but multiple buses at the same time are useless for a single traveller.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ig Nobel prizes for 2011

LITERATURE PRIZE: John Perry of Stanford University, USA, for his Theory of Structured Procrastination, which says: To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that's even more important.

Now you know why I am so late in informing you of these awards.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Emotional blackmails - II

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences. - Clive Staples Lewis

Sometimes, people will ask me a series of questions hoping to convince me to meet their favourite godman, playing on relationships and friendships. (They were not unlike Humphrey's lesson in survey design.) I will be in a bind about what to say. It will be a case of damned if I do and damned if I don't. When politicians are asked tricky questions that they find difficult to answer, they say, 'That is a good question.' My version of saying, 'That is a good question' is to sit silently, keep smiling and hope that they won't press the issue for too long.

I have learned that when someone gives you a lot of undiluted nonsense there is a good chance that he is also on first name terms with god. I know correlation is not causation but as one scientist said, it gives a damn good hint. The incidents were different versions of the synecdoche – many small facts that point to a big truth which is that religious superstitions predispose a person to accept simplistic explanations that don’t accord with reality. (Of course I am biased. There is no such thing as an unbiased opinion.)

It is not as if these people are consulting a CIA torture manual for techniques of mental torture. They are all honourable men. (Actually the majority were women.) It is a major success of organised religions that exerting subtle mental pressure on vulnerable people has become a respectable part of the social fabric. People feel that if they don't offer these suggestions, they are being remiss in their social obligations. Bizarre and cruel rituals are accorded sanctity. For example, in one community, a widow has to dress in full bridal finery a few days after her husband's death and remove her jewellery one by one in front of assembled guests in order to signify her widowhood. Jaya was invited to attend one such function but was too horrified by the thought to go.

The unending sequence of quacks smothering me with their gyan and religious cults trying to save my soul and emotional pressures being exerted on Jaya sometimes made me think that Sartre had a point when he made his most famous quotation, "Hell is other people." This being a family blog constrains my language a bit and I sometimes had to eschew the temptation to use more colourful words. Those supercilious, condescending, sanctimonious hypocrites. Ah, that feels better!

That is why (there is more apart from the ones that I have forgotten; I will mention them later) I have no problems when various blind superstitions are criticised and exposed. (The video in the last link reminds me of a similar scene in the Malayalam film Midhunam.) That’s how the light gets in. Some amount of supernatural thinking may be present in most people but this natural tendency is often exploited by unscrupulous people as noted by Spinoza (as quoted in The Story of Philosophy):
Those who wish to seek out the causes of miracles, and to understand the things of nature as philosophers, and not to stare at them in astonishment like fools, are soon considered heretical and impious, and proclaimed as such by those whom the mob adore as the interpreters of nature and the gods. For these men know that once ignorance is put aside, that wonderment would be taken away which is the only means by which their authority is preserved.
I wonder how much of religiosity in India is explained by 'Relative Power' theory. As Napoleon observed,“Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet”

of course, criticism religion invites a bad press. It seems to be a sacred value for some people which leads them to make false statements without any qualms. In this debate, when Richard Dawkins is accused of being 'militant and fundamentalist', A.C.Grayling says:
You know why you see it that way? He speaks bluntly and he speaks frankly and he speaks his mind and you don't like what he is saying. That's why you react as you do.
(On a lighter note, in one interview, Dawkins said that he had read the books of Wodehouse so many times that he knew them backward. One commenter said that anyone who enjoys Wodehouse can't be all that bad.)

When apologists for religion accuse their opponents of being absolutist, arrogant, fundamentalist etc., they sound like John McEnroe admonishing his opponent of scowling at his racquet. In the few debates that I have seen involving New Atheists, they have been far less pompous and preachy than most of those with a hotline to this god character.This blogger has saved me the trouble of writing more. Spare me the halo of piety.