Saturday, April 22, 2017

The march of ides

The spouse and I will participate in the march for science on April 22nd, joining thousands of others who will. The march hopes to represent diversity in the scientific community and in that, diversity of ideas is most important. So, as we do march with a large group, our reasons and expectations from the march may differ from our fellows, and the ones listed in websites and community pages. This post elaborates on our personal agenda.

WE HAVE NO POLITICAL PURPOSE: I am an alien to America and I have not been around for an election in my home country; making me a non-partisan observer irrespective of stated beliefs, because I have no actions to back them up. Ethically, that should tell you that my political ideas are not to be respected beyond a basic measure. Even if my political ideas are obliged, and even if I may have stances that require protest and attention, our march is not for them this time. Our rights in this country are provided by treaties and ties between America and our home country, we do not march for them either. This march, despite its claims of non-partisanship, will be laughably partisan; that's just how the setting is. That is why it is very important that we do not draw lines in the sand and make 'us versus them' points in this process; liberals and conservatives do that every day on social media to heavily divisive effect. We do not wish to add to that. Partisan ideology is, at least partly, based on belief and science isn't.

WE DO NOT WANT TO BEAT OUR OWN SCIENCEY DRUMS: A substantial set of people of science tend to believe strongly in their intellectual exceptionalism and superiority. This has impacted their dialogue and their social responsibility, triggering a reaction where intelligence is treated as an elitist sin. They air their opinions, either in a hit-and-run fashion or in spaces that only serve to confirm their biases. They patronize more and empathize less. They may choose this platform to validate their feelings of intellectual superiority. We do not wish to be part of that set; it is not helpful. We also do not intend to impress other members of the scientific community with our genius signs (pun may be taken as intended) and nimble brains; the world and this march will have enough narcissism without our indulgence.  We believe that holding a post-graduate degree or working in science does not make one smarter, better or more noble, it just assigns your roles and responsibilities. Speaking of which...

WE WISH TO EMBRACE OUR PUBLIC ROLE AS SCIENTISTS: One of the main purposes of this march is to draw attention of the role of science in policymaking - we share that. We feel that the lack of empathetic communication between the scientific community and everyone else is responsible for the confusion over what constitutes science and what its role ought to be; the scientific community should take a majority of the blame in that. We wish to engage positively and learn as much as we teach. We wish to humanize scientists so they are looked upon as experienced in a specific subject rather than unfriendly wizards and witches in ivory towers. Scientists forget sometimes that the humanities are also an essential method of inquiry. Only a joint application of the two is useful to society; we should be aware of that as we make our point. 


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Basketball student sections

In the spirit of college football being is officially over for the season, I present my collated (incomplete) list of college basketball student section names. It took me a couple of weekends to put this together; some of these are tough to find and others are quite fluid with their names. Additions and corrections are warmly welcomed. Help me complete this list!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Election selection

Conservative elements in America have recently protested that Facebook may have a liberal bias. The social media company has defended itself and said that Facebook's functioning is not influenced by the political choices of its management or employees. While this is probably true, with Facebook being equally accessible to all people irrespective of their political leanings, I argue that social media, by virtue of it being on a (currently) free internet, is a liberal tool; irrespective of what its management may say and do to keep looking independent. 

Social media has revolutionized social interaction in two general ways:

1. Interaction is between crafted representative avatars rather than real people. Our airbrushed, free-thinking, like-awarding, social commentator avatar interacts with other cartoons of the same make in a sandbox world of finite means. Our perceptions based on these interactions, however, are in the real world. This gives us a heavily cognitively biased set of conclusions to react to and our real world reactions sometimes are the opposite of what we choose to evoke in the sandbox. 

2. Your interaction is your presence. Social media is not a place for introverts. You cannot smile warmly and hope that it counts as a social action on the internet. You share anything between a supportive +1,  to a high-definition live video of your life to mark your presence. That has not been the human way for a good chunk of us; how I dress up is not a social interaction (though some rapists differ) but uploading a photo of myself on Facebook is. Social media, therefore, does a poor job in mimicking and substituting for real social interaction leaving a lot of us dissatisfied or depressed. 

This is not to say that social media is bad. It acts as a good compliment to true social interaction rather than a replacement, and that is what we ought to take it as. The human condition cannot evolve to keep up with the freedom and framework of social media, making this a social experiment that nobody really understands well enough to predict an outcome. For a lot of us, it is jarring for sure. 

Back to politics, conservative thinking places its faith on a traditional lifestyle of choice (or conditioning) and strives to not move away from it. At times, this is a logical choice - you have faith and comfort in a tried and tested method that has worked for generations before you and has stood strong against the test of time. What it is not good against though, is changed evolutionary pressure, and different circumstances may demand a more case-defined approach than a formulaic one. 

The conservative approach relies on the recirculation of traditionalist ideas rather than the free sharing of ideas in an unweighted manner. The liberal school of thought however chooses to engage such ideas aligning it perfectly with the rules of social media on a free internet. So Facebook is not liberal because of the views of its makers. It is not liberal because it is populated by more liberals than conservatives (hypothetically). It is liberal because it attempts to be unweighted on a free-access internet. And that cannot be fixed; unless you violate net neutrality...

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The thathuva padam

In a time when opinions are rained through free and porous internet mouth pieces, some still choose to collate their opinions and present them as fictional, but exemplary motion pictures. This remains a smart strategy because of how powerful motion pictures still are and how they have a longer lasting impact than the average mouthpiece. I personally enjoy deconstructing a good issue/message driven movie, even if I may disagree wholly with its content; just good food for semi-productive parts of the brain. However, for consideration at the present time, are some basic rules to be a quality moral-instilling motion picture that deserves at least grudging respect. If they do not fit these rules, they haven't met the bar.

1. They must satisfy the Bechdel-Wallace test.

Not because these rules are inspired by the Bechdel-Wallace test (which they are) but because if you are not going to trouble yourself with content that appeals to roughly one half of your target audience, potentially alienating them, then your message needs more work.

2. There is no prize for being good.

So the person that chose to be kind to the beggar on the street does not get rewarded with a sexy girlfriend halfway through the movie. That is not the world we live in.

3. Target stereotype may not have unrelated flaws.

Your movie probably involves some straw characters that you will tear apart and burn to fuel the smoke of your fiery message. Do not make him boring and whiny (and ugly) just because he also decided to extol the virtues of some form of badness. Bonus positive points for your movie though, if target stereotype has other potentially redeeming (but unrelated) virtues. That makes things fun.

An optional (essential) fourth - Your concept must have some validity outside your straw universe.

Otherwise your discussion is a mountain of an expense for a molehill of an issue. We have social media for that.


Note to Alison Bechdel: Alien may have passed this test but the underlying message has been elusive.

Friday, April 08, 2016

On Sci-Hub

If you are not a first world researcher you definitely know what it is. For the rest of us, Sci-Hub is a free (as in beer) repository of scientific articles; articles that would normally cost you upwards of approximately $30 (USD) each, or a slightly less-cost (but still expensive) annual membership with the publisher. Sci-Hub achieves this by accessing these articles with voluntarily (though discreetly) provided proxy accounts that subscribe to these journals and publishers. Once accessed, these articles are available to download from Sci-Hub for all visitors. So naturally it is illegal, because piracy. Thievery is bad. Shame.
More details add wrinkles and grey shades to the picture. The publishers opposing Sci-Hub's activities are registered non-profit organizations but do not function so selflessly. They do not pay for the research in their publications. They do not pay the scientists who critically review and edit these articles for their time and effort. They separately charge submitting authors for printing costs. The also have revenue from ads. So in being a record for scientific data, publishers do not add any real value to the product. However, the system of science has anointed them the gatekeepers and power-brokers of achievement and progress. We have come to unofficially define science as something that is peer-reviewed and published in an established scientific journal. 'X papers in journals with an impact factor of at least Y' is a requisite for most any research position and this dogma gives a lot of power to the middleman publisher (who, I repeat, adds little or no scientific value). Over time, it has created an artificial brand of which the publisher is an under-deserving owner. It is not to say that there is not a sound logic in the concept of scientific publishing and valuation, merely that this brand-based system is extremely vulnerable to greed and outdated in in the internet age. 
The central issue with the publisher's monopoly on science is the cost. The publisher owns the window and so, both the producers of scientific information and the consumers have to pay him to access the window. The system has also created an unspoken rule that if you create your own window, it is not as good as the publisher's branded window. The tax-payer who funds the whole machine is unable to access this information that he paid for, unless he pays for it again, which he should not have to. $30 is not a nominal cost, even in the first world, especially considering that the seller pockets all of it and does not pay the producer or even the quality-control crew. If I need to access a conservative average of 60 articles for a report that I am writing, the cost becomes big. Any reasonable research requires access to hundreds of articles and if I belong to a country or system where funds are at a premium, this barrier becomes unbreakable. Local scientific progress is therefore held back because of the cost of brand value. And that is not good. It is this environment that creates and nurtures Robin-hood elements like Sci-Hub. The poor are definitely very happy about it. Sci-Hub has, in short time, revolutionized scientific access in places like India and is of major value to Indian academia. 
It could be argued that the poor are just lazy folk that want handouts. The thing is, most of the people accessing scientific data do not intend to sit on it, they will use for science. They are not begging for things they do not deserve, they pay for the research, as tax payers and sometimes as the people that created the data. The publishing company profits big from the whole system. This is not wrong if these profits were directed back to science in some way, by paying for new research. It is, when publishers behave like unbridled, greed fueled, selfish corporations (like you Elsevier). As long as the system of excessively rewarding a publisher who gives back little exists, rebel endeavors like Sci-Hub will keep getting created and celebrated underground. 
Am I promoting piracy? No, merely the need for reform in scientific publishing. The onus is on the scientific community to take science back from extreme capitalism. The cost of scientific access should equate to the running cost of publication and no more. There should be less focus on brand value on more on scientific value. The scientific community must actively boycott profit-oriented publishers and use and promote open-access methods. The law must weigh on the wrongs of monopolistic practices by publishers as much as it weighs on Sci-Hub's methods. When a community that prides itself on its intellect and ethical quality is exploited, that, is a shame. 

Friday, January 09, 2015

Moderate and extremely clueless

Apparently extremism has no religion. So I guess religion gets to wash its hands clean every time someone bad invokes it. In a different way, that thought makes religion even more scary. Extremism could hijack any religion! Like computer viruses that work on Windows, OSX and Linux (Yes they exist). All one needs is a good hole and both operating systems and religions have plenty. 

Holes in computer operating systems can be fixed however; and people are expected to work on that everyday. The big problem with organized religion is their holes don't get fixed easily, if ever. People try to not talk about them, jump over them, walk around them, ignore that they exist, and sometimes they fall into them because they are told that it is not a hole. A common tie across all levels of religious fandom is the belief that their texts and the so-called "word of god" are perfect and infallible. It is not amendable to fit new sizes and you do not question it. This tying tenet is THE oath of religious membership. None of them invite open questioning; they are challenged by it. So you are expected to get married drinking sweetened milk on a swing because that is how they performed child marriages in the dark ages, and by the gods, that is how you will be wed. No questions. 

While most religion followers faithfully refuse to ask or answer questions that carry logic, the occasional apologist will present semi-logical ideas. He will deny the official membership of extremists and state that moderate followers - the teeming millions of them - are the majority and their membership is truly for inner peace and salvation, as is said in the texts. The extremists, the zealots and the evildoers are a handful and are not exemplary of the religion, which is pure and beautiful.

Like Windows 8.1

Here is the problem with that line of thinking. Religious membership exists as a hierarchy defined by how far you are willing to take your fandom with your actions.
I call this a hierarchy of support. Each level supports the next tier, even though they may not support the levels beyond. The support may be open or a non-verbal nod to their ideas. At the base you have the apologist who suggests that religious membership is truly an innocent experience, exemplified by the pious and gentle moderate follower, who strives to make his life more beautiful with his religion. The moderate follower supports the political follower who will use his position of power to influence others to also enjoy this wonderful mission to peace and bliss. The political follower takes his religion and his job very seriously. He believes that he can enlist ideas from his religion to do his job. Through this, he hopes to provide good governance to the people who are of his religion and the people who aren't. He supports the chief religious body that fashions the guidelines of his religion. The chief religious body strives to preserve the identity of the religion and ensure that members adhere to the tenets of the religion properly and non-members maintain good respect. And for that, they accept the existence of the extremists.      

Each of these levels have increasing amounts of power even if their numbers decrease. And just having that power makes them dangerous and disquieting. Should they choose to move away from ethical behavior, standing up against them could spell doom. The extremist could be willing to sacrifice thousands to ensure success for his holy mission of supremacy. The chief religious body holds the rulebook on the religion and their interpretation and direction could alter the fates of all followers. The religious body could threaten followers (and others) with damnation if they did not buy into its policies. The political follower holds all other rulebooks that could make or break the world around him. It could be argued that the meek and modest moderate follower poses no danger as he holds no such power. Certainly, all apologists make good mention of it. But if you consider how these higher tier bodies are empowered, we get the reverse hierarchy of hijacking to hide away evil intentions and deeds. 

The extremist is empowered by the approval of the religious body; he does not question the ethics of his deeds anymore. The religious body is empowered by the approval of the political follower; now even its questionable actions under the guise of religious self-preservation can be cleaned away by use of political power. The political follower is voted in by the moderate, so abuse of the power is acceptable because the people enabled him to do it. The moderate follower never doubts his choices because there is an apologist over the shoulder validating him on the news and social media. It does not matter if the apologist is religious or non-religious. However, it does matter that you might be one of these.

This hierarchical model suggests that religion is a general subscription. If you buy in, you have bought in all the way and the extremists become your people even if you don't like it. It may be too radical to suggest that all individuals quit religion in an instant. It challenges your identity and a way of life that defines you. It may take away what gives you inner peace. But think about what you follow and what it can lead to. Think about the relevance of archaic practices and how they stand in the way of humanism. Think about who truly deserves your respect and support. Think about who they support. Think about where your values come from. Offer a hand, not blind fandom. Is the preservation and resurrection of dark-age remains of your organization truly more important than humanity?

 You are afraid of breaking out of this system of fear, hate and blind following. Don't be. 

Je Suis Charlie

P.S. This

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Google Cardboard

I tried out google's cardboard virtual reality (VR) system this week. It was awesome!

I have always been a big google fanboy, mostly because they make life cheaper and easier. And most of their applications are free. What is to really be admired though is their commitment to lateral thinking and cool science. For the uninformed, google cardboard is one such project. A couple of google employees took some time out to write an application that ports google maps, photos and youtube to a stereo display format on supported android devices. They then designed a simple cardboard mount to hold the phone to be viewed through lenses on the mount. They even put a cute little magnet contraption on the side of the mount to act as a switch detected by the phone. And then they released the app and the mount schematics for free. 

I had heard of some upcoming sophisticated VR devices that are apparently poised to take humanity a lot closer to The Matrix. So when google announced this cheap cardboard app, I wanted to try it out. I was skeptical however. You see, most of my specialized viewing experiences have been less fun than expected. Stereo images make my eyes water and 3D movies give me a headache. I still grieve the day I spent $17 on a that awful remake of Clash of the Titans (in 3D!) that looked better without the glasses. I spent a weekend playing Super Mario 3D land on the 3DS console and it was OK because I turned off the 3D function. But a gadget-geek coworker encouraged me to try it out just as a craft project, so I bought in. The schematics were simple enough and in no time I had the pieces ready. Getting the lenses was a little tricky but I managed to find what I needed ($2.52) from the local hipster hardware store. I had a couple of spare magnets lying around for the switch contraption.

Assembly was a breeze and I had the mount ready in ten minutes. The phone app was quite big and I was concerned if my faithful old galaxy nexus would handle the beast but it loaded fine. 

I turned on the app and a playstation-like menu popped up and I could navigate through it by looking around. The dual viewing paired with the lenses worked well enough and I could see just one image; the measurements from the schematics weren't too shabby. I magnet-contraption-clicked on the street view (street vue) option and within seconds my mind was blown. 

It put me on a car driving through a European city in full speed where I was free to look around and it rocked! I am a big google maps user and I spend about half hour everyday taking virtual tours through the world on it. This was that experience on steroids. I spent a good ten minutes on the ride after which I tried the other options, that were mercifully slower paced. The earth option puts you on a stationary spot in a few selected locations and surrounds you with google's 3D building models to look at. You can even fly off to space and look at the earth from above. Tour guide does the same with some select spots in Versailles and adds voiced descriptions. Photosphere allows you to explore you own photosphere images. While all these options were more like trial versions than full fledged virtual worlds, the youtube app seemed more open. It put you in a theater-like surrounding with the video of choice running on the big screen and more videos on the side to look at and click on. Some of the videos seemed related to my viewing history on youtube, so I suspect that it may have a longer lifetime than the other app options. 

It was a fun home project. Overall, the experience was brilliant cheap fun and has me lauding the google engineers that came up with it for their smart work. Thumbs up gentlemen, keep up the good work!