Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Internet - and How Research is Much Easier. Or Not?

Firstly, a quick comment on gmail. I have all my mail on Gmail. My university mail gets forwarded to gmail (I have set it up to do so because the interface is very easy to use). All my data is on gmail. My tax returns, all my documents, everything. I am so dependent on gmail, that I am sure it is not healthy. Keeping all my eggs in the same basket is not a good idea. I am positive that some time down the line, there will come a day, where some malfuction (or sabotage) of some sort will erase all my data, leaving me high and dry. (Along with a significant proportion of internet users).

I am writing this little disclaimer because, when that day does come, I don't want to be blamed for not having enough foresight. I do want do go on the record as someone who has foreseen this coming. All the data I will have lost will be becuase of pure laziness. Serves me right, eh?

Back in 1905, when Albert Einstien was coming up with his theory of relativity, he did not have access to the vast amount of literature the average researcher has right now. Newton, when he came up with gravity, had to spend a lot of time to find giants to stand on the shoulder of. Pythagoras did not have the luxury of reading journals when he came up with his theorem.

Right now, if you go into any univeristy in the world, odds are you have a access to electronic copies of all scientific literature published in the last 50 years. And with VPNs and other modern miracles such as science driect, google scholar and engineering village, standing on the shoulders of giants has never been easier. You can do it from the luxury of your own bedroom. Or from a bus, what with wifi, laptops and all.

And to top all that, there's the search facility. Rather than laboriously look through various articles in journals at libraries, looking at keywords and then finding pertinent articles, (utlizing those cumbersome index cards) the modern researcher just goes to a search engine and types in what he or she is looking for.

Since technology is a collaborative work (i.e. people improve on the state-of-the-art ideas rather than reinvent the wheel), getting ideas across quickly has certainly speeded up research. (That's why the industrial revolution started only after gutenberg invented the printing press).

And now, with most journals scanning all their old copies and making available old papers as pdfs on the internet - the rate determining step of reseach (for any competent researcher) ceases to be the literature survey. It is now the actual work. We now can do in a day what Einstien and Newton could do in a month. And we can do it much better.

Of course, there's always the flipside. Research is getting tougher in most areas because of saturation. Even though it is getting easier to find out what has been worked on in the past, the amount of work which has been done in the past is also increasing. Consider a field like the one I am working on right now. (I won't talk about it in detail, since I'm trying to keep this blog anonymous). I come up with an idea, one fine day, and all excited, go an tell my adviser about it. He looks at it and says that it has already been done in 1982 by a couple of blokes. And then there's another publication we come up with - present it in a conference and all - even get it approved for a journal - and then we see another paper talking about something very similar.

Perhaps the ease of getting access of oceans of pertinent information - and then having to skim through all those oceans of information kind of run counter to each other.

It is indeed fortunate that all scientific literature has been organized so well that one can access it at the click of a button. Because keeping abreast of the nearly infinite scientific literature pertinent to one's field would be quite impossible if not for modern technology. But that said, I still am happier to be a researcher in the 2000s than a researcher in the 1900s.

Friday, February 20, 2009

How much should one work?

The notion that the fruit of hard work is sweet has been indoctrinated into almost every educated human being. There's always this story about some juvenile pedaling all the way atop a hill and then enjoying the ride down , which is supposed to inspire one into persevering.

Common sense tells one that hard work is necessary to live a satisfied life (by maintaining a well-fed and satisfied family, essentially). Clearly, evolution can justify this heuristic. It is not impossible to see how the perseverant had an evolutionary advantage over the lazy. But with the absence of predators, stunning advances in medical science and abundance of food, we seem to have prevailed over a large component of evolution. With every passing year, it is getting safer and safer to say that we are not evolving any more. (Mike Judge makes a rather fascinating satirical exaggeration in Idiocracy).

But what if, in the modern context, common sense was all wrong? What if hard work was one of the reasons why there's a lot of trouble in the world today? What if hard work was the reason why the planet's climate is heating up every year? What if this obsession with overtime is forcing us to adopt a particularly ecologically unsustainable lifestyle?

Because the main motivation behind working hard is greed. Nothing wrong with greed, per se. But, a fairly strong case can be made contending that more people working hard results in more economic growth - and more economic growth results in a larger usurpage (sic) of resources on a limited planet. And since the west's GDP usually consists of significant lifestyle components, one feels safe in calling it an inefficient waste.

Every economy is gauged by how much it grows every year. Economists and policy makers try to stimulate growth, create prosperity and wealth. With 6 Billion people (and growing) on this planet - of which more than 4 billion are extremely poor - but getting richer all the same, some questions arise. The planet had a constant population of 300M poorer people before the middle of the 19th century. And then, it rose exponentially - despite British and American Imperialism, despite Hitler, despite genocide in Rwanda, despite the HIV virus and others.

Is it reasonable for us to expect to get richer every year, given that the per-capita resources on this planet are dwindling? Ground water is drying up under large cities. Forests are being cut at a frightening rate. Species are going extinct like there's no tomorrow. Fossil fuels are getting harder to find. Man made dams have more or less sealed the fate of the Colorado river and other major rivers around the planet. Himalayan glaciers are melting.

And on top of that, man made climate change is burning Australia; drying up America's southwest; Darfur, China and Iraq, to name a few. Hurricanes are getting more intense because of warmer oceans. More tornadoes in tornado alley.

Are fantasies of economic growth given such hostile conditions realistic? Is "lifestyle" economic growth justifiable? Considering that third world economic growth is for "survival" rather than lifestyle it is certainly more justifiable.

Perhaps we ought to sit down and make some smart decisions. Perhaps some legislation ought to be passed converting the week to a four day work-week (32 hours). This would ensure that no one gets paid exorbitant amounts of money to pillage the planet as they want. This will bring about less unemployment; there will be more equality - and the GDP will contract - having less of an impact on the environment.

Since almost all nations in the world have strict laws disallowing people from being employed more than 40 hours a week (without adequate compensation), how draconian is it to enforce a law that makes it 32 hours a week? (Of course, if you get paid $7.50 an hour, this 32-hour-workweek will start hurting you - so perhaps some thought ought to go into who should be asked to cut down working hours).

And the extra time people get can be dedicated to leisure - therefore enhancing the quality of life. Working less in the developed world is a win-win situation. From a personal, ecological and social perspective. Perhaps this shall increase the "Gross National Happiness" of the developed world. Perhaps this will make America as happy as Bhutan.

It is heartening to see these opinions make it to the Mainstream. The magazine, New Scientist had a remarkable issue on how economic growth is killing our planet, which makes a very strong case that the planet is in deep trouble because of economic growth. Alternet keeps coming up with brilliant articles every now and then.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Terror on Valentine's Day

In a world with a collapsing financial system; with arbitrary military ventures shamelessly killing hundreds of thousands (in lieu of the deaths of a handful); with wildfires burning down nations; with temperatures going up on every molecule of the planet (despite the main perpetrators being in staunch denial of the fact), it is bizarre to see that profound jackass, Pramod Muthalik protest "love".

In a nation so dreadfully poor that 4 out of a 1000 women are forced to peddle their flesh for a handful of rupees; in a nation where 15% lives in the abject misery of slums; in a nation where people are discriminated on based on who they are born to (rather than how good they are), it is bizarre to see the aforementioned Muthalik resort to terror to protect what he perceives as a transgression of culture. His energies would be much better used in rehabilitating the 2 million prostitutes in India with compassion (for instance) - or just minding his own bloody business.

Just like all conservatives on the planet (Rush Limbaugh in the US comes to mind, as do the Bin-Ladens and that idiotic Dutch parliamentarian whose name has slipped my mind), I find it hard to agree with a single word he says.

Don't get me wrong here. It is not that I think Valentine's day is any less stupid - but it is just that I think Muthalik is more incredibly stupid (perhaps by a few orders of magnitude). This Valentine's day is an occasion manufactured by the card making companies to make a quick buck. It is not a religious tradition in any nation. It is a contrived, modern, materialistic occasion. Nothing wrong with it, of course, if you ask me. It's just stupid.

In a nation with such a shameful women's rights record like India, any discretion given to women should be lauded as a good thing. That Indian society is evolving to allow women (at least the economically well-to-do top 5%) a voice in whom they want to marry is a good thing. Not a bad thing. That unmarried women and men are testing the waters before they take the maritial plunge is a wonderful thing from a progressive perspective.

What aspects of Indian culture does it go against, Mr. Muthalik? Where in the great Indian manuscripts does it say that women must not be given roses to by men? Was Lord Krishna (eminent hindu diety credited with authoring the holy Gita) violating "Indian culture" by being quite the womanizer? (having 8 + 16000 "wives").

I'll tell you why that Pramod Mutalik (and his band of goons) is hell bent on ruining Valentine's Day. It all goes back to 1960, when he was a 20 something, and in desparately love with a maiden.

The day was Feb 14th. And love was in the air. Well, not in the air, but just in the air surrounding little Pramod. None around the said fair maiden. Now, little Pramod wanted to reach out to lady love. He ran out to his garden and started searching for roses. Alas, no roses were to be found. His cow had eaten them a few minutes ago. He sat down, disappointed.

And then he spied, with his little eye, a patch of vegetables in his neighbour's yard. There were tomatoes. Okras. And cauliflowers. Without much further ado, he proceeded on to his neighbour's garden, burgling the same. (As you can see, he was always quite a goonda).

So, when the maiden recieved a little cauliflower from Pramod, she did not do what he wanted her to. He wanted her to go down to the kitchen and cook up a quick saute. Nope. She just thew the hideous thing back at his face. (She hated cauliflowers too). His heart was broken. And that day he took a vow to disrupt all romances in the world. Especially on Feb 14th.

And thus was born the Indian Taliban. All because a maiden in Mangalore did not like her cauliflower.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

India Unveils 10,000 Rupee Bungalow

Press Mistrust of India

The Indian Government announced that it was planning to announce the inauguration of the word's cheapest bungalow in Mumbai a week from now. Details are a little sketchy at this point, but we have learned that the bungalow shall have a small garage to park the world's cheapest car in and a table to charge the world's cheapest laptop on. It shall also have a keyhole to (presumably) facilitate the installation of the world's smallest air-conditioner.

Majority of Mumbai's 22 Million (62%, to be exact) live in unimaginable poverty - without a roof on thieir head - (and clearly no air conditioner). A similar (though less dramatic) ratio suffers in other urban centers in India. The government's press release indicates that it wants every "slum dweller" to enjoy every luxury of modern life. We quote from the press release:

After a tiring day of begging at roadside intersections, we expect that the average beggar is quite tired. What better way to rejuvinate than soak in a warm bubble bath in your own personal bathtub in your very own bathroom?

India's Ministry of human resources, headed by Arjun Singh, in partnership with the Civil Engineering Departments of the Indian Institutes of Technology at Chennai and Mumbai started work on the cheap bungalow project two years ago.

Though there is no official press release detailing the various construction methods and materials used in the bungalow, word has leaked that molasses, milk and twine were used liberally. Also used are polythene bags and methane gas (emitted by cows). Staircases are made of paper and walls are made of cinnamon.

Professor Ram Singh, the dean of IIT Madras proudly proclaimed "We would have finished this earlier had not our mess staff gone on strike because of missing supplies a year ago. We are proud of this significant achievement."

Even with this revolutionary building technique, it is anticipated that house construction rates shall not explode in Mumbai. Because building a house for Rs 10,000 is one thing - but purchasing land for Rs 2 crores is another. And that's why India is working on the Rs 50,000 spaceship to Mars, so that a lot of houses can be built on mars (as land is not expected to cost anything).

Why am I writing this article?
The answer is in two parts.
Part 1 and Part 2
All I can say is w.t.f.