Saturday, April 30, 2011

Versatile Mr. Richard Feynmann

I am not sure how many of you know about him. He is a nobel prize winning physicist. He is not talked about in the same breadth as Einstein or Edison and so he is not so famous (atleast I didn't know about him previously). I came to know of him from reddit where a link to one of his lectures was posted. It was very interesting. In no time, I came to his online home,  and started reading the anecdotes about him. Of particular interest was a speech given by him called - "What is Science" upon reading which I had a plenty of aha moments. Read the whole article. It is a gem. In that lecture Feynmann talks about how he learnt what science is. It is really amazing. Talking about how he got interested in science, he says

My father did it to me. When my mother was carrying me, it is reported--I am not directly aware of the conversation--my father said that "if it's a boy, he'll be a scientist." How did he do it? He never told me I should be a scientist. He was not a scientist; he was a businessman, a sales manager of a uniform company, but he read about science and loved it.When I was very young--the earliest story I know--when I still ate in a high chair, my father would play a game with me after dinner.He had brought a whole lot of old rectangular bathroom floor tiles from some place in Long Island City. We sat them up on end, one next to the other, and I was allowed to push the end one and watch the whole thing go down. So far, so good.Next, the game improved. The tiles were different colors. I must put one white, two blues, one white, two blues, and another white and then two blues--I may want to put another blue, but it must be a white. You recognize already the usual insidious cleverness; first delight him in play, and then slowly inject material of educational value.Well, my mother, who is a much more feeling woman, began to realize the insidiousness of his efforts and said, "Mel, please let the poor child put a blue tile if he wants to." My father said, "No, I want him to pay attention to patterns. It is the only thing I can do that is mathematics at this earliest level." If I were giving a talk on "what is mathematics," I would already have answered you. Mathematics is looking for patterns. (The fact is that this education had some effect. We had a direct experimental test, at the time I got to kindergarten. We had weaving in those days. They've taken it out; it's too difficult for children. We used to weave colored paper through vertical strips and make patterns. The kindergarten teacher was so amazed that she sent a special letter home to report that this child was very unusual, because he seemed to be able to figure out ahead of time what pattern he was going to get, and made amazingly intricate patterns. So the tile game did do something to me.)

Another interesting story hitting why just knowing the name of the effect or thing doesn't mean anything.

On the weekends, my father would take me for walks in the woods. He often took me for walks, and we learned all about nature, and so an, in the process. But the other children, friends of mine also wanted to go, and tried to get my father to take them. He didn't want to, because he said I was more advanced. I'm not trying to tell you how to teach, because what my father was doing was with a class of just one student; if he had a class of more than one, he was incapable of doing it.So we went alone for our walk in the woods. But mothers were very powerful in those day's as they are now, and they convinced the other fathers that they had to take their own sons out for walks in the woods. So all fathers took all sons out for walks in the woods one Sunday afternoon. The next day, Monday, we were playing in the fields and this boy said to me, "See that bird standing on the stump there? What's the name of it?"I said, "I haven't got the slightest idea."He said, 'It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn't teach you much about science."I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that [the name] doesn't tell me anything about the bird. He taught me "See that bird? It's a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it's called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird--you only know something about people; what they call that bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way," and so forth. There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.The result of this is that I cannot remember anybody's name, and when people discuss physics with me they often are exasperated when they say "the Fitz-Cronin effect," and I ask "What is the effect?" and I can't remember the name.I would like to say a word or two--may I interrupt my little tale--about words and definitions, because it is necessary to learn the words.It is not science. That doesn't mean, just because it is not science, that we don't have to teach the words. We are not talking about what to teach; we are talking about what science is. It is not science to know how to change Centigrade to Fahrenheit. It's necessary, but it is not exactly science. In the same sense, if you were discussing what art is, you wouldn't say art is the knowledge of the fact that a 3-B pencil is softer than a 2-H pencil. It's a distinct difference. That doesn't mean an art teacher shouldn't teach that, or that an artist gets along very well if he doesn't know that. (Actually, you can find out in a minute by trying it; but that's a scientific way that art teachers may not think of explaining.)In order to talk to each other, we have to have words, and that's all right. It's a good idea to try to see the difference, and it's a good idea to know when we are teaching the tools of science, such as words, and when we are teaching science itself.

there are many such stories, about inertia, about law of conservation of energy etc.. and we can feel the wonder he felt when he learnt about that. It is such an interesting story.  I was very much impressed by this talk. So I got hold of his book 'Surely you are joking Mr Feynmann' and started reading.

In that book in one place, he talks about his experience teaching Brazilian students who would answer any question but still not understand anything. It was because of the people just learning by rote and not really understanding anything.

If you think that all he did was just study, do research and teach then you are terribly mistaken. He is a versatile genius. He, at various times, was a radio repairman, a samba player and dancer in Brazil, a tumba drum player, a very experienced professional lock-picker (his stories about how he used to pick locks in Los Alamos are very interesting), an accomplished painter (so much so that he painted commissioned pictures),  a learner and speaker of other foreign languages(Spanish, Portugese, Japanese)
,a mayan hieroglyphics solver (he loved puzzles), a mind reader (literally) , a hallucination experiencer and many more. He really had a very very interesting life. Apart from the things mentioned above regarding what is science, I also learnt a very easy way of understanding physical theories. You just have to apply that theory on a valid physical object and see if the observations in the theories are right. that is a very very easy way to understand and remember the theories. I wonder why we don't do this more often.  I read the whole book in one sitting. It is full of  really witty, funny and interesting stories. You will come out with a whole different feeling after you read the book. You will really become a lot more interested in science. Even if you don't have any interest also, it is a very good read

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Media Fast for twenty five days. - Updated

I waste a lot of time daily doing a lot of things but in reality, I don't do much. Today was a relatively free day at office and I have been meaning to complete a small project from the last week. But I am always putting it off for just a few minutes whenever I get a sense that I am free. It typically goes like this. If I feel I am free from 11:45 am, I decide that because anyway I will go to lunch at 12:30 pm, I will just check what is happening in hacker news. It will go till 12:30. I will go to lunch and I come back to my desk by 1 PM. Then again, I want to start working on the project but I remember that there are revolutions going on in Libya, Bahrain and else where in middle east. I open up nytimes and guardian to check the status on that. I know that I can in no  way influence the outcome of that but still I can't keep myself from checking those sites. Then I check gmail. I will get a mail from facebook saying so and so person has left a comment on your post. I follow the link and see the comment and reply to that. Also, I see the links and statuses and photos that my friends have shared and in no time, I will be diving deep in the chain of links and by the time I come to my senses and start working, it will be 3:30 PM. I work for half an hour, go for a tea break and come to my place. Again I want to check twitter to see what my friends are saying.  Again I drown in another sea of links. By the time, I am rescued, it will already be time for my leaving. I come home and hope that I can do something at home atleast. After coming home, I start checking sites of telugu movies like idlebrain, etc and by the time I see the interviews, news and videos I am starved. So I just pull me up, cook something and eat  and by that time, it will be time for calls to India. By the time I am done, I can only sleep. 

                This is kind of frustrating.  I just tell myself tomorrow will be better daily. The days have become weeks and weeks have become months. With such an addicted situation, it is really a wonder that I have been able to complete an android app. So something has to change. As I have mentioned in my resolutions review conentrating on something is not a problem thanks to pomodoro once I have started, but starting itself is a big problem now. So I have decided to extend the pomodoro technique to get me started also. In the classic pomodoro technique, we start working on something for 25 minutes without any distractions -any distraction is  attended to after this 25 mins-, now I want to start something and work on only that thing of 25 days and leave the other 5 days to attend to any distractions. 

                    So I will not visit any news sites during these 25 days. I will check my email and facebook only once everyday and that too at the end of the day. Ideally this would be best if I start it at the beginning of the month, but then I don't want to lose the motivation now, so I am starting it now. If I am able to successfully complete this, then I will take an extended break at the end of march. 

Update- 1: So It has been one and a half week since I started this fast. I would say I didn't succeed wildly in this becuase I am still seeing the websites and news sites I will visit. But still, there is a marked change in the way I see reading. Before I read anything, I am asking myself if it will help me take any action - If yes, then only I am reading big articles. Ofcourse I am just glancing over the news, which I would have previously read. But still I can be better. I followed the Ipad 2 announcement live on Endgadget. But over all, I am very happy with the decision. I have been very productive this two weeks. I will continue to observe the fast and tell you of all the updates.

Update - 2: It is going really good. To be frank, I am not really forcing myself to not go to websites and I am checking them intermittently, but the key word their is intermittently, I am not getting stuck there. I am visiting them only as break in my work. And it is working too. I completed my first Django web application and deployed it here.

Update -3: After the success above, I should say, i completed hit the wall. But the media fast ends. It is one thing which is very difficult for me. I am a sucker for news... The Japan earthquake and the surrounding media hype was too much to ignore. Now it is the cricket world cup. This will never end, but this week has be disastrous in the sense, I didn't even work for one pomodoro after I come home. Saving grace is that I am reading and summarizing Keith Ferrazi's book on relationships - 'Never Eat Alone'. Check out the posts here. Meanwhile, I have also  have to do a lot to improve the app which has been languishing without any improvements. You can follow my progress and encourage me here.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The role of organized religion

In 2009 when I was thinking a lot about religion and our place in the world, I wrote these

Following a religion gives us hope, faith and confidence about problems which we cannot solve ourselves...and a sense of humility which is very necessary in this random world.It also is used to give some sort of stability, checks and balances in the society so that it will not degrade..

All these things (castes and rules)  make me feel these things were only created for manipulation and power-grabbing. 
After that I argued that I didn't need someone else to set the rules and that we ourselves can make our own rules for life. 

I found a different perspective regarding organized religion in Sebastian's blog. 

because people attribute things like discrimination or war to religion, but I think that’s mistaken. We naturally draw lines as humans, and support the people on our side of the line. Sure, religious groups often promote themselves at the expense of other groups. But so do trade organizations, national organizations, race-based organizations, and so on, and so on. Humans naturally divide themselves into groups, support people in their group, and oppose people outside of it.
So I’d say, even the worst implementations of religion tend to get 80% of things correct. They all pretty much say don’t steal, don’t kill, do charitable and good deeds, be hospitable, purify and master yourself, serve and do good works…
If you belong to an organized religion, you know how people are generally expected to act, you know it’s pretty good, and you know everyone’s consistent about it. You have some people that you know are going to back you up if times get tough, and you’ve got common ground to connect on and work together, socialize together, and build families together.
Y’know, a hardcore athiest that focuses on the mystical side of religion and says it’s ridiculous is kind of missing the point. Organized religion greatly simplifies people’s lives by giving them a reasonably good belief structure and standardizing a large group of people’s customs, culture, and expected conduct. It makes life easier and allows for strong connections and alliances and agreements.

 So he says, religion has made life easier by giving us a culture and standard beliefs. This helps in creating and maintaining relations and being together amicably. Though I argue that if we are all intelligent, we can think about and form our own beliefs and understand that our well-being lies in live and let living, I will not.  Because, 

guy that can research, strive, examine, think, brainstorm, and scratch and claw your way towards having a uniquely developed, cohesive, powerful set of ethics.
Most people can’t, and don’t want to do that. It’s a lot of work, and it leads to a lot of doubt and confusion and then no one understands you. Having your own ethics is lonely. Very lonely.

Hence religions have spread and established with the help of the charisma of the people spreading them. But I think his perspective is very useful to understand religions influence in the world. His blog is very good and he writes really interesting stuff. You can read it here

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Utopia is just a dream

Friends, I just watched the movie 'Inside Job' which clearly shows how the financial crisis of 2008 was an inside job by the big investment banking companies like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Meryll Lynch with the support of the credit rating agencies like Moody's , S&P and Finch. Apart from that it shows how the CEOs and directors of those investment banks become the economic adviser to the US government, the head of Federal Reserve ( the central bank of US like the Reserve Bank of India) and still maintain their loyalties to the banks. It also lays bare the lobbying the financial companies do to create laws to decrease their taxes, increase their leverage and no regulation for their activities.  They sold things to the investors which they knew were junk.  It increasingly proved that and the documentaty states - "It is a Wall Street government". Yes, money speaks. No, it was not only Bush.

Obama who came to power on the promises of financial overhaul, did nothing, virtually nothing to address the root cause of the problem. Now here is where I am convinced that Utopia is just a dream. I wonder if we always have to cheat a few poeple to live?  You might be innocent, but your bosses might be lobbying for some tax cut for your industry.  And then we ask the question  - Why should we pay tax? What is the right amount of tax that we should pay? Who decides which industries should be exempt from taxes?  I don't think anybody has answers to these. May be,  it is the nature of humanity - survival of the fittest. The more I see and understand the world, I think dishonesty is the norm and honesty is the exception, not on an individual level but on a group level. What I mean here is you will not cheat your colleague, you might be cheating your client by not working for their interests. The Wall street wants its company to get profits so they didn't see any harm in cheating the investors. I really wish that is the not the case, but it seems to be.

Now what if we don't want to do such stuff and want to live honorably? Till recently I thought it was, but I think except if you escaped into a cave, it is virtually impossible. But may be at our individual level we can strive to do the best we can. Call attention to any cases of cheating and fraud. And somehow, the feeling of guilt in cheating the faceless government is decreasing day by day. I think humans have had such problems all over history and people with money have always brought laws to favor them and grew more rich until it became unsustainable and people revolted . Then some sort of level playing field is established during the revolutions like the French Revolution, or the Russian Revolution. Then once everything settles down, new players comes, they get some money (honestly or dishonestly) and again with the money, they make favorable rules and the cycle continues. It looks like this has been the way of life. It looks its indeed the survival of the fittest.

I would love to hear a different perspective from you guys..!!!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Optimistic about the Future

You might have heard about 'Jasmine Revolution' or 'Tunisian Revolution' where citizens fed up the rule of corrupt and uncaring dictators revolted against the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, of Tunisia, and overthrew him. He was ruling them for the past 23 years. They changed the rules in their country such that they can continue ruling their country forever. But it was not to be, as the young people fed up of unemployment and no prospects of a better future took the matters in their hands. They had no leader. They  organized among themselves with social media tools like Facebook and Twitter and the good old sms. With peaceful protests ( comparatively, though some people died), they were able to change the regime. 

This news inspired me very much and I was not alone as the neighboring countries like Egypt and Yemen also drew inspiration and decided enough was enough and are protesting against their dictators. Especially in Egypt, the protests are still continuing. It has been six days and about a 100 people have become martyrs, but still the people are hopeful that Hosni Mubarak's 30 year regime is going to end. I really wish they are successful in bringing about change. 

Both of these news have given me immense hope that the youth of India will revolt against the ever increasing corruption in India. I also wish that we all realize that it is not required that everyone has to go into dire conditions as people in Egypt are in now as we have the opportunity provided by democracy to vote a government out of power every 5 years. Its a pity that there are very few good candidates standing in the elections, but it is never too late to encourage good people into politics by voting and voting correctly, by demanding transparency and an end to corruption. 

I hope the scent of Jasmine Revolution affect Indian citizens too. :) 

Singapore gets it

Friedman writes in the NYT about Singapore.

"Top bureaucrats and cabinet ministers have their pay linked to top private sector wages, so most make well over $1 million a year, and their bonuses are tied to the country’s annual G.D.P. growth rate. It means the government can attract high-quality professionals and corruption is low."

How simple is it to add a little accountability into our political system in India ? It is in the hands of our generation. If the pay was comparable to private sector jobs and had good accountability, I am sure, more people will be interested in coming to politics than now. Now, politics is not a viable career opportunity, if you are not corrupt but this change would make it attractive overnight. No wonder, Singapore was able to eliminate corruption in a decade. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

You just want a magic wand if ...

"I'll go further and say that the repeated compulsion to resolve and resolve and resolve is actually a terrific marker that you're not really ready to change anything in a grownup and sustainable way. You probably just want another magic wand."

How true. You can never make life changing changes at once. At best, you will struggle to keep them for a few days or worst not even one day. Better option would be to make simple changes and act on them. Excellent post by Marlin Mann here

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Movies & More Movies

These days I am watching a lot of movies online.  I have discovered couple of great resources to discover and watch movies online. I go to IMDBs top 250 list and just browse through the descriptions and decide on one movie. Then go to one site and search for it and watch it. As simple as that. So whenever I feel bored, I am watching a movie. In this way I discovered some very good movies and some movies have touched me a lot and some of them have inspired me and some have haunted me (not literally but because of the emotions which they evoke). Today I have watched a particularly haunting and a dark movie that I am sure, I will give a break to this movie watching spree.

Without further ado, I present some of the best movies I have watched. I will start with some haunting movies to the heart warming movies.

Haunting Movies: 

Grave Of the Fireflies:This movie is a tragic tale of a young child Seita and his baby sister Setsuko during the time of second world war. Their father is in the navy and their mother is killed in a bomb raid on their place. It shows their struggles after losing their parents to live. The Setsuko is so sweet and you almost can't see her suffering and Seita's love for his sister is very touching. If you see this movie you will not want any other war for sure. The innocence and sweetness of the actors will haunt you always.

Revolutionary Road: This movie was recommended to me by my friend Gautam. It is the story of a young couple whose life seems fine from outside. They have a good house, the husband (DeCaprio) works in New York and the wife (Kate Winslet) stays at home with their two children. Winslet wanted to be an actor but gives it up. They feel something is missing in their life so they hatch up a plan to leave everything and snift to Paris. When everything seems ready for that, De Caprio takes a counter offer their manager makes when  he informs him that he is leaving. When  he tells this to Winslet, she is very unhappy and feels very bad. When De Caprio understands that Winslet is not happy, he rationalizes himself and says that Winslet doesn't love him or thier children. Out of guilt, Winslet tries to abort a child whom she is carrying, with crude instruments herself. That doesn't go well and she dies due to loss  of blood. The mesmerizing action of De caprio and Kate Winslet will leave you spell bound. The skeleton of the man, De Caprio  is left after Kate's death will haunt you and teach you not to take loved ones for granted. Thanks Gautam for a really must watch recommendation.

Heartwarming Movies

Its a Wonderful Life: This is the story of a man who dreams of travelling all over the world but has to settle in his town to serve the people in his town. The acting of James Stewart as the idealistic young man, Donna Reed as a supportive wife and a heartwarming story leave you asking for more and wishing that people were so good.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington: This is another story of idealistic James Stewart as a senator from a southern state, trying to fight against graft and corruption in government projects. The stubbornness of James even after it seems everything is lost leaves you wishing the same kind of people in our politics. It just shows the contrast with our current political conditions.

Good Will Hunting: I watched this movie after I saw a post on Reddit in the best of posts for 2010. Will Hunting, a mathematical prodigy takes up a janitorial job at MIT. A professor discovers his prowess and wants him to help him in research. As Will is difficult to work with, he takes the help of a psychologist to help him who teaches Will the valuable lesson that you can always criticize from the sidelines but life is not meant to be lived that way. It is meant to be lived and experienced.

Yes Man: In this movie, Jim Carrey's wife leaves him and he becomes a 'No Man' literally which means he is closed to all opportunities. One day, when he doesn't get the promotion he deserves he goes to a seminar upon the force of his friend and is challenged to say yes to every opportunity he gets. His life soon changes and lot of good things like unexpected promotion, a new girlfriend comes into his life. But he gets into problems because of saying yes to everything which is soon resolved when he realizes that, the condition was just to get him opened up and as he is more open now, he can say yes to whatever he really wants. Really a good watch.

How to train your dragon: This story tells us about a village on a hill which has vikings and dragons and there is always a fight between them. Ages have gone by with the vikings fighting the dragons and dragons fighting them. A young guy who is sidelined as he is deemed too weak to fight by his father, secretly shoots a dragon and injures it. He goes after it and finds that it is scared. He helps heal its injury and becomes friends with it and names it Toothless. His father enrolls him in a dragon fighting camp. With the understanding he gets of dragons playing with Toothless, he wins the competition held after the training camp and is given the opportunity to kill a dragon. But he refuses to kill it, wanting to show to the people that dragons only attack for defense. But the villagers refuse to listen and attack the dragon which retaliates and tries to till the boy. Toothless comes to his defense but is captured by the villagers. The boy tries to explain to the villagers that there is a nest of the dragons and if they don't bring food the dragons themselves will be killed by a giant dragon. The villagers use Toothless to find the dragon nest and destroy it. But the giant dragon attacks them but the day is saved when toothless and the remaining dragons which the villagers have caught help them win over the giant dragon with the help of the boy. The story shows how difficult it is to convince others against their beliefs and how you should stick to your belief till others see the light.