Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Science and Honesty

Recently, Sunil over at Balancing life had this nice post where he was listing the qualities that distinguished a mediocre scientist from a truly good one. And to that post I added the following comment.
“I would like to add one more to your excellent list. Honesty. What I mean by that is to be able to see things as they are, not as we want them to be. Some of the really great ideas have come out because the scientist in question was really looking and was not trying to fit what he/she saw to the existing world view, but rather was willing to see that it was the world view that needed to be modified. It takes exceptional intellectual honesty to do this, especially in physics.”

But I don’t think I made myself very clear on what I actually meant. So, I thought I will take a moment to clarify in the unlikely event that a random reader of that post stumbled over here.

Let me start with normal communication among people first to lead up to what I actually want to say. Suppose you tell me something. I don’t actually hear what you are telling me. I hear the projection of what you are telling me on the space of my own life’s experience. Do you see what I mean? Suppose you were telling me something simple, for example about some object, a pencil or whatever. Then, I will understand what you are saying completely. But if you were telling me about something complicated, something associated with the sixth sense, like an emotion you felt, then how much of what you say I understand will be determined by how similar my life’s experiences are to yours. Pause for a moment and think about it. You will see that this is true.

Now, what has all this go to do with science? A reductionist definition of fundamental science would be expressing observed phenomena in the language of mathematics. In this sense, nature is talking to the scientist and the scientist tries to understand what nature is telling him/her. And the scientist truly hears only when he/she eliminates the process of projection as described earlier in the context of normal language as applicable here to the language of mathematics. This is the quality I call intellectual honesty. It is the ability to see the box in the clich├ęd phrase of “thinking outside the box”. The example that comes to mind for me is the Maxwell Equations for the theory of electricity and magnetism. Once the wave equation was written down and found not to obey Galilean Invariance, the box forced people to come up with the Ether idea and spend time and energy looking for it. It was the people who saw the box that recognized that nature was telling us that she did not have Galilean Invariance, she had Lorentz Invariance. Sorry for the esoteric example to the non-physics folks and ask me to clarify if what I am saying rings a bell but does not quite hang together.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Vegetarianism and Existential Angst

There are two kinds of vegetarians in this world. The first are what I call “conscious vegetarians”, those that think it is wrong to eat other sentient beings and hence stop eating the meat of those living things that they think of as sentient. There appear to be all kinds of gradations among conscious vegetarians. Some of these people think fish is OK to eat (it is harvested in some sense?) while at the other end of the spectrum, some others think dairy products should be excluded as well. I even met this one crazy Belgian guy who was a vegetarian most of the time because he said he only ate those animals that he killed himself! The second kind of vegetarians I call “absent minded vegetarians” (a breed special to South India?), to which category I belong. We are vegetarians because we have always been and have enough inertia built into our systems that we stay that way and we borrow the “it is wrong to eat animals” idea from the conscious vegetarians whenever the need arises to justify our lifestyle.

One fine day, I woke up and said to myself I will not be an “absent minded” anything anymore and I will associate a logical reason or a contextual rationale with everything I do from this time forward. So, I thought I will start with something simple, I will come up with a rationale for why I eat what I eat and not other things. As it turned out, this was easier said than done. I realized that one can look at vegetarianism from all kinds of points of view. The most obvious one is ethical, but ethics is such a poorly defined quantity that I did not want to start there. So, I first considered some other examples. One point of view could be economics. You can feed more people off a given amount of land if you used the land to grow grains rather than to grow animals. So, a theory could be promulgated stating that if everybody became vegetarians, we could eliminate hunger in the world. But this is an oversimplification of such great magnitude that I did not even want to get into it. Another point of view could be biology. Are human beings by nature meant to be carnivores or herbivores? Since this looks like a question with a clear cut answer, I asked Google to see what the consensus was. As it turns out there are clearly demarcated camps, one of which thinks we are herbivores (don’t have the right teeth or claws to be carnivores) and the other thinks we are carnivores (don’t have the right digestive system to be herbivores). And even if you wanted to go with “the majority is right” kind of thing, both camps appear to be equal in terms of number of campers and the quality of campers! So, I had to give up on that as well.

So, finally I had to come back to the ethics point of view for the rationale I was in the quest for. Hence I formulated the following Sophistry (as you will see, it does not deserve the dignity of being called an argument). Right up to the point at which human civilization came about, there was only what we now call the natural world. And in the natural world the governing principle was and is “survival of the mightiest”, yes? What sets the civilized world apart from the natural world is that here apparently the governing principle is “One for all and All for one”, to quote the The Three Musketeers. Well, may be it is not the governing principle yet. But it is clearly the goal towards which we are evolving, right? We try to take care of the old, the infirm and the underprivileged in our society. And with the passage of time we have gone on broadening our definition of what constitutes our society, from “my family” to “my country” to eventually “all human beings”. If you agree with the above, then the natural next step is to extend this consideration to animals as well and not eat them, right? So, this sophistry says that vegetarianism is the natural next step in our social evolution and incidentally some of us are already there!

I was fascinated with the above “argument”! It even explained the fact that I drink milk (in India the cow is supposed to be part of the society right? You take care of your cow even when she is too old to give milk). So I said to myself, since I don’t have a cow I take care of, I will stop drinking milk. And I have been a “no leather no silk” person anyway. So, my lifestyle is completely explained by the above the rationale and all is fine with the world. But then I ran into the roadblock of my laziness and inertia for change. I started disliking the idea of not having yoghurt which had been a staple for my breakfast for a large number of years. So I went back to my “argument” above to see if I could modify it suitably so that I can have a rationale and still continue to live the way I have absent-mindedly lived all these years anyway.

But in the process of revisiting the argument I noticed something. If you take the argument all the way then you must eventually include plants in your society right? This in itself is not fatal because unlike animals, plants want us to eat them. We are supposed to eat the fruit so that it can be dispersed properly for example. But then, we must limit ourselves to “plants that want to be eaten”, namely fruit. You can’t possibly live like that! So then I said may be the rationale is that you can eat what you grow. But then you grow cows and pigs and chicken as well. How are they different from eggplants and cucumbers and potatoes? That they can walk and make noise? That I can look them in the eye while I cannot do that to an eggplant? All the lines were blurring and I was getting dizzy! And all this in quest of rationale in the simplest aspect of my existence, eating! What is going to happen when I try to address the logic behind the more complicated aspects like love, suffering and so on?

So, by the end of the day (that day on which I woke up and said I wanted “logic” to govern my every action), I decided that life is much simpler if you did not analyze it and tried to make sense out of it. Just be. And so now I just am!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Anxious About Home

I have not been home in three years. Time, money and visa issues have kept me away this long. Before this extraordinarily long spell, the longest I had stayed away from home was a year. And now I am anxious to go back home for good AND am anxious about going back home.

The place I think of as home is Madras. First of all, why am I anxious to go home? Logically it makes no sense. I have never lived in Madras as an adult. I went to school there for a few years. My parents have always had a home there and I have spent every holiday there as long as I was still in India, all Deepavalis and all Pongals and so on. And most of my extended family, namely my aththais and chiththappas and mamas and perimaas live there. But all of this does not make it home, does it? I am too old in one sense and not old enough in another to feel nostalgia for family. So that can’t be it. What about friends then? But I have no friends left in Madras. All of them are either here in the US, or someplace else in the world, but none in Madras. As far as company and companionship goes, I am better off here than in Madras. So, that’s not it either.

And Madras must be a completely different place now from when I last lived there, oh so many years ago. I left Madras before there were so many Coffee Days and Food Worlds, before Lifestyles or Shopper’s Stop had opened, before there were Italian restaurants and Mexican restaurants that people actually went to. And even this knowledge is three years old now and I have no clue what the latest “happening” things in Madras are. I hear that young people, even middle class ones like me, now have such places to go as clubs and pubs and Salsa classes. If that is true, then the Madras they live in is different from the one I did.

Sometimes I think I want to go home because I miss little things. Having masala chai and vada in the afternoon, onion rava dosa and coffee whenever I feel like it, going to my neighborhood Shiva temple on Pradosham (I am not religious, but I love the resonance of people chanting Rudhram and the ringing of bells), the smell of Jasmine from vendor’s baskets in the evening, going to the smaller concerts during the music season and many more itsy bitsy things like that. But that is not it either. Each of these little things that I remember now through the rose tinted lens of nostalgia will in reality be accompanied by some irritant I have gotten unused to by now.

The real reason I think I am anxious to go home is a sense of nostalgia for a time when I lived in a place where I BELONGED. Now, what is this sense of belonging really? On the one hand it is a very real and material thing. On the other it is this ethereal thing that is hard to put to words. First, let me state the real part of things, which incidentally is also the part mostly inconsequential to my day to day life. If only by accident of birth, I am Indian and hence India is where I belong. The one place in the world I have rights and duties. If I do something wrong I can go to jail, but cannot be thrown out of the country as it is MY country, right? And if you are a serious citizen of the society you belong to, then you take your duties seriously and that adds to your sense of belonging. You stay politically and socially aware, take a stance on whatever the issue of the day is and try to do your two cents worth whenever the opportunity presents itself and you feel good about it. I was a serious citizen when I was in college, but as grad school progressed I increasingly tuned the world out and lived only in my own mind. Only recently have I opened my senses to the world outside and am trying to get involved again. Remains to be seen how successful I will be at this.

So much for the “real part”. The ethereal part of the sense of belonging one does not see until one has left the place where one belongs. When I was in India, my identity or sense of self was defined by how different I was from other people. But then, I left home, lived in strange places and met strange people and then realized how essentially Indian I am, how much of what I am now has been determined by the conditioning that the society I grew up in imposed on me. And since I have a positive feeling about the way I turned out, I yearn to go back to the place that made me become this way. Of course, if I felt negatively about the aspects of my character that came about by my social conditioning, like some of my friends do, then I would have felt differently.

And finally why am I anxious about going home? Well, this one is easy. My home is a different place now from when I left it. And I am a different person now even if you only consider the fact that I was 20 when I left home and will be 30 when I go back, an adult that has lived essentially by herself for a decade. When this changed person goes back to the changed home will they still belong together? That is the million dollar question.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Feminism and Such

As always, I was wasting some time this morning surfing the web and came across this post , a nicely written expression of venom against this guy and that, the first of which was expressing the view that "Feminism is all wrong" (he did not quite know what he was talking about and if he had just left the word feminism out, would have gone unnoticed) and the second guy was saying something along the lines that "women should not wear (underwear) revealing clothes" (I read this when Desipundit first featured it and laughed because it seemed to imply that skin is OK, underwear is the problem!) and this other rather strongly worded protest against these guys.

Two things struck me about this whole thing. Firstly, when I read the posts that caused the uproar subsequently, my thought was that this whole man-woman issue is too multifaceted for anyone that thinks straight to have an opinion without parenthetically clarifying context and scope of said opinion. You cannot just randomly say something sweeping and be expected to be taken seriously. But then, the outbursts mentioned above happened because the authors did take them seriously enough to want to respond. I was surprised by the very justified passion it aroused in them and failed to arouse in me. That immediately presented two tasks for me. One, I have to stop and think as to what I thought Feminism was and how I felt about things associated with it. And two, what is the reason I do not feel the passion that some others do. This post is an attempt to do a little of both.

A reasonable definition of feminism is a movement that tries to ensure social, political and economic equality for women (not the ability to lift 80 kgs as defined by the first guy mentioned above, NOT physical). Now, notice that all of the above, social, political and so on are based on achieving a consensus among a large enough group of people. It is not like science or somethings like that that have an absolute truth of sorts associated with them. At the present time, we appear to have attained the latter two objectives of the feminist movement for most parts. The law does not distinguish between a man and a woman in most parts of the world today (the exceptions to the above statement need more specific considerations, that is beyond the scope of this post). So the only thing that remains is the social aspect of things. The consensus concept mentioned above takes a hydra headed form now. Let us consider the rather simple point the second guy mentioned above was thinking about, namely modesty in clothing for women. The reason this phenomenon evolved (on some social time scale, not biological time scales) into a consensus was Freudian in some sense. When civilization came about, people realized the value of conformity. When all women in a society look the same at all times EXCEPT your wife in your bedroom, then sexual fulfillment for both partners is enhanced. This is important for reproduction AND for the overall sense of well being for all concerned (this is where Freud comes in) and hence a good thing over all (I realize that I have to substantiate this claim some more, by first telling you why conformity among women is more important than among men and giving you some references, but not tonight, too lazy). But as with all such consensus, it has outlived its usefulness for, conformity in today's context is irrelevant as you have access to the whole world (through the movies and the Internet and such) and the people in your immediate vicinity conforming does n't mean a thing and you can never make the whole world conform to anything. But reaching the new consensus, namely that the old one about conformity is not relevant will take time and effort (sometimes in the form of the bloggers mentioned above that expressed their venom).

On a slightly different track, most of the survival issues in life are taken care of for us at this time in our evolution as a society (at least for all of us that can blog and read bogs for sure). And hence we can think of other things. This is illustrative of Socrates' words "Slavery is essential for the advancement of civilization" or words to that effect. Somebody must take care of the basic survival essentials before we can start thinking about other things. In this day and age we have electricity (or some other equivalent power source) that does this for us, draw water, provide fuel to keep warm or cold or whatever, cook food, wash clothes and so on. If I was sitting here and cataloging these same thoughts on a papyrus scroll 2000 years ago, I would have had slaves take care of these other things. So, as a society, we have more time for objective thought and logical deduction. When we utilize this time to think clearly we realize that we (all bloggers and all others that are in the equivalent economic strata that choose not to blog) now live in an almost purely intellectual world, "I think, therefore I am" kind of thing. Then, it naturally follows that women must be allowed equal opportunity in everything. We have to admit that we are physically different, we can bear children, they cannot. But intellectually, there is nothing established scientifically or otherwise that says women are lesser in some way (ignoring some things in the Quoran while making this statement). So, after this long rambling, I am allowed (I think) to restate the objective of the Feminist movement as being able to afford an upbringing to all children in the future that does not distinguish them based on their gender except in the very basic physical sense? What this would do is eliminate "nurture" from the "nature vs nurture" question and allow us to look at nature itself, and how it distinguishes, if at all, between man and woman. That kind of brings me to the end of the first point I raised, namely what does Feminism mean to me.

Now onto the second point. Why don't I feel very strongly about this? A one sided and rather stupid comment like the ones mentioned above should make my blood boil. Should n't it ? In the course of this rambling about Feminism above, I have realized that the reason this is not the case is rather personal in the sense that it has no global validity beyond me as an individual, i.e., they have no statistical relevance. Hence I will relegate them for some subsequent post (Hint: I was brought up in a relatively ultra liberal household; I am a woman in a man's world viz., theoretical physics). Got to go now anyway.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Chukkallo Chandrudu

Well, yesterday I watched the only movie missing in my Siddharth repertoire, Chukkallo Chandrudu. This one has been on my list of movies to watch for a while as I had heard that Siddharth wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay of this movie and Siva Kumar, Mani Ratnam's assistant in such movies as Alaipayuthe and Yuva was in the director's chair [1]. And what did I think of it? Well, not bad as Indian movies go will be my verdict I think. Why am I being so ambiguous and not my usual assertive self? It is because I am not able to put my finger on what was wrong with it. Lots of little things may be. They tried to embed comedy into the script a la Mani Ratnam, but not with as much success. But the plus to Chukkallo is that it was genuine Sit-com, not the slapstick kind of thing in NVNV, the previous Telugu release of Siddharth. May be the incessant mispronounced "dude" grated on me, I don't know. And I did not quite get Arjun. The premise in itself, namely that an ultra-nice-guy Arjun, pressured by his grandparents to get married decides to get re acquainted with some of his gal pals from his school days and hopefully marry one of them, is OK and is implemented onscreen alright as well. So what is it about Arjun that does not quite hang together? Oh, well, I am not able to see right now.

On other fronts, all the three girls were nice, even though portrayed as kind of nitwits. And Siddharth was his usual perfect self. The music was good, including the BGM. The songs, except Pichchi prema, had run-of-the-mill picturization with Siddharth and one of his girls running around a tree set in an exotic location. So, you can basically tune out and just hear the song. But I should also say that I was a teeny-weeny bit disappointed with the picturization of Pichchi prema (you can watch it on YouTube here). Now why is that? Because I know that Siddharth is a pretty good dancer (see for example the Fanaa song in Ayutha Ezhuthu, again on YouTube, here, he totally rocks in that, though being a Mani Ratnam song you can only see Siddharth in a few scenes) . But a Siddharth clad in floppy white SHOULD NOT dance with the one and only Prabhu Deva clad in sleek black and a Siddharth in sneakers SHOULD NOT dance with a Prabhu Deva in boots. Dancing with Prabhu deva is a big handicap to begin with (the only person I have seen overcome this with elan is Madhuri Dixit in Pukar). In addition to that, you burden the poor guy with bad costume choices, it makes him look rather silly.

All in all, a fun one time watch.(And by the way, you don't really need to know Telugu to watch this movie. There is so much English and Hindi mixed in that you can follow the conversation anyway!).

PS : Here is a link to the coverage on IndiaGlitz of this movie's launch. Watch the video to see Siddharth's hilarious attempts at speaking Telugu impromptu. But to give him credit, I should also point you to the video here at some Bommarillu associated function where you can see how much more at home in the language he has become now.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Vicarious Pleasures

We won!! (To put that in context, I am a part of the gator nation that Urban Meyer talked about in his speech, being a former gator and all) We were crowned the BCS champion last night! And how? A team that came in with an average of 410 yards per game in offensive gain, we held to 82 yards! We sacked the Heisman winning quarterback Troy Smith five times! They had the ball for only about 19 minutes of the game. And our quarterback Leak completed his first nine passes in this game, something that I have never seen him do! I watched all the SEC games this season and most of the OSU games, and I can't for the life of me see if our defense is that wonderful normally and they took it up a notch this game or is the OSU offence just plain overrated. As with everybody else from the south, I believe, albeit religiously, in the superiority of the defense of the SEC teams, but this much? I just have to see all the games one more time to see which of the above hypothesis is the valid one. But, for somebody that bleeds orange and blue, a wonderful night and a wonderful year (we are now the reigning NCAA basket ball AND football champs)!

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

My pitch for Rang de Basanti

I was trying to while away some time this morning looking for motivation to try and sort out some details for a new project I am starting this week, associated with pattern formation in myxobacteria colonies (a topic for a subsequent post) when DesiPundit pointed me to this post that picks out the best movies of the year 2006. I wanted to add my two cents worth to this author's take. Hence this post. Broadly speaking, I agree with the choices made there. Jaan e Mann is the first attempt I have seen at a Broadway style musical that works. And Omkara is the best movie I have seen in a long time, not just this year, and I was n't expecting to like the movie for Othello is a play that is close to my heart (I played Othello when we staged it at the Shakespeare Club in my school). But, I want to say that Rang De Basanti deserves a place on any list of best movies for this year.

First of all, I have to admit that it is not a great movie. Lots of things are not quite right with the movie. Unless you suspend logic, you cannot really buy the story. The screenplay is not tight enough. Way too much time is spent to convince us that these are a bunch of happy-go-lucky kids. I guess you need a Mani Ratnam to do that right. The cutting back and forth to the stories of Azad and company and to DJ and company did not work for me. But then, why do I say that it belongs in the top five? Again, there are a bunch of reasons. First, I have never seen a Hindi ensemble movie made this way, with screen space for everybody together, not through tangent threads that let you find out about each character separately. And to do this with such beautifully constructed scenes and so few continuity goofs is an achievement in itself. Second, I am trying to remember when was the last time I saw characters in a Hindi movie wear the same clothes a second time in the movie and I am not successful in this effort. All characters in all Hindi movies (even when they are living out of a suitcase) have endless wardrobes. The costuming and styling of the characters in this movie made them really real. I liked the attention to detail in such things as the fact that the clothes Karan wears in the Rang de song are hanging in the background when he comes into his room after talking to his dad. Such things make it a labour of love, not just another movie.

There are exactly three scenes for Aamir Khan that don't need to be there, but are there so we know he is the hero of the movie, the one where DJ explains to Sue why he is still on campus even though he graduated a while back, the one where he is weeping in Sue's arms and the one in the end where a dying DJ is juxtaposed with a dying Azad. Wonderful. Thanks to Rakesh Mehra for writing the movie that way and thanks to Aamir for allowing it to be so. And then there is the music. I could go on and on about how amazing it is. Instead let me just say two things. All the songs are seamlessly embedded in the screenplay, a rarity in a Hindi movie (happens way more often in Tamil). The next is A R Rahman's genius of contradiction that works so wonderfully. Pairing a voice like Daler Mehndi with Chithra, the use of such positive strings as in Lukka Chuppi in the background of Ajay Rathod's funeral, the really surprising choice of instruments for the BGM in the chase scenes with Azad and the englishmen. It is just plain amazing how well it all works. And finally (largely because I am getting too carried away and need to get back to work), the cast. Everybody does what they need to do to a perfect T (I shudder to think what would have happened if Karan had been played by Hrithik instead of Siddharth!). So, a wonderful movie as Hindi movies go. But I will never understand how anybody picked this one over Omkara as our entry to the Oscars.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Back from a vacation

Well, it has been a week or so since I last posted. Happy new year to me. I have been off travelling, whiling time away in the one and only NYC. Not really doing anything, just walking around, mid town, the Village and so forth. Will have to write about that at another time.

This particular note is more a message to myself to get back to reality and get into the grind. I have not done anything worthwhile in a month. So, I need to fix that now. Starting tomorrow, I have to be a good girl, stay focused and get back on track. I will let you know how that goes.