Thank you, Burgess Laughlin

I just came to know that Burgess Laughlin passed away recently.

I only knew him from his blog and some very insightful and penetrating comments he made on some of my posts.

I particularly remember his series of posts on what he called a central purpose in life.

Thank you Mr Laughlin.

On Tyranny

I have decided to come out of hibernation and revive this blog. This post is an easy start – with not much original content!

In the last month or so, I read two of Robert Heinlein’s novels – “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and “Stranger in a Strange Land” and am very impressed, delighted even, at discovering an author whose ideas are a breath of fresh air. And so I noticed a quote on the editorial page of today’s Times – a newspaper I usually ignore almost entirely. Here is the quote:

“There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him.”

If the point needs to be illustrated with a concrete example, here is a post on the workings of the IRS in the United States by a blogger I very much admire:

Sadly, having argued numerous times with the proponents of involuntary taxation, I have come to the conclusion that imagining a system fundamentally different from the status quo is too difficult for most people. And the nonchalant acceptance of tyrannical political systems is just one manifestation. The same nonchalance can be seen in other areas of life as well. More on that later – particularly in regards to the theme of Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”

Thoughts about technology funding

Over the past three days, I attended a workshop on GPU programming and applications at IIT Bombay by NVIDIA. Here are a few comments by different speakers, that stayed with me. And prompted me to write about a topic I have got tired of writing about.

1) “If the government had not invested in super-computing in the 90s we would not have mobile phones today.”

2) “The prime minister recently announced an outlay of Rs 45,000 crores for developing supercomputers. This is what all of us are excited about”

3) “Gone are the days when hardware was designed to solve important algorithms. Today, we have to adapt our algorithms to suit available hardware.”

The last comment refers to the fact that GPUs were developed to satisfy the enormous demands of the gaming industry. They are now being used for solving scientific problems, and algorithms have to be adapted or designed to utilize the enormous capabilities that GPUs can provide.

It seems plausible that some of the complex problems being researched would remain unsolved if the government did not fund them. But, is it true?

The history of GPUs indicates otherwise. GPUs were funded by the desire of people to entertain themselves. By consumers who have no knowledge whatsoever of the problems researchers are trying to solve, no knowledge of the technical hurdles they face, and perhaps no ability to even comprehend these problems.

10 years back when I was doing a project that required some graphics programming, I was struck by the enormous amount of computing and programming effort involved in producing realistic rendering of scenes. And I wondered about the guys who toiled to build games that had not just realistic rendering but so much more (modelling collisions, deformations, haptic feedback, simulation of human behavior …). I wondered where they got the motivation to toil away just to satisfy some silly gamer who wanted to see blood spurting out of a bullet wound in a realistic manner in some 1st person shooter game. The computational and modelling was challenging and interesting. But to what end? I couldn’t have done that.

The point is that it doesn’t matter. The technology that is useful to model fake blood spurting out of a fake bullet wound is also useful to simulate the impact of waves generated by a storm surge or a tsunami. And the amazing thing about the free market is that the idiot gamer who spends much of his life shooting imagined enemies on the biggest and most expensive devices money can buy, is contributing to the research efforts of all the speakers who presented their work in the last three days. And the idiot gamer is spending his money voluntarily to enrich (or waste?!) his own life. It is not necessary to tax him or the luxury products he buys to fund research projects.

Proponents of government funding often make the argument that it is necessary to invest in activities that are not economically viable in the short term to get returns in the long term. And yet, ask any of the eminent speakers if they would have invested government money in GPU technology 20 years ago. The answer is probably obvious. The fact is that none of us is good at predicting what the future will hold, what direction technology will take, what will work, and what will not. And none of us has the right to take other people’s money for what we think are more worthy projects. I might choose to think of hard core gamers as idiots, but that judgement does not give me the right to take their money and spend it on earthquake modelling. Those of us who are passionate about scientific projects have as little conception of the joy that gamers derive from their games, as the gamer might have of the joy that we derive in formulating and solving differential equations. It is not for us to decide what activities other people should value. And we should stop making the case for robbing other people of their money to meet our goals – even if we do think our goals to be bigger and worthier that those of the people we propose to rob.

And if the moral argument is not sufficient, the history of GPUs should be a humbling reminder. The money we propose to spend on our pet projects could have been spent by others in other ways – on their pet projects. Are we confident that our pet projects will do more for the future of technology (whatever that means), than their pet projects? And if we are not, we should have the good sense to let the decision remain in the hands of the people who earned that money in the first place.

What is mathematics?

There is a video doing the rounds that shows that 1 + 2 + 3 + … = -1/12. For those like me who don’t like videos, here is the math. It involves nothing more than simple algebra and it is not a hoax. Apparently, Euler reached the same result.

S1 = 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 + …
1 – S1 = 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 + … = S1
S1 = 1/2
S2 = 1 – 2 + 3 – 4 + 5 – 6 + 7 – 8 + …
S2 =     1 – 2 + 3 – 4 + 5 – 6 + 7 – …
2 S2 = 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 + … = S1
S2 = 1/4
S = 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + …
S – S2 = 4 + 8 + 12 + 16 + … = 4S
S = -1/12

The reason for this highly non-intuitive result is that all of these sums are divergent series, and the equality used in the second line of the math above doesn’t hold in a strict sense.

Apparently summations like this are useful even if they seem to make no sense. Somewhat like complex numbers.

And that fact raises the question that is the title of the post. More on this later when I get some time to ponder it.

The Guide: A non-spiritual perspective

Last weekend, I read “The Guide” by R.K. Narayan on the recommendation of a friend and enjoyed it thoroughly. I wasn’t sure what Narayan wanted to convey however. Even as I thought about it, I looked up the wikipedia entry which links to two pieces which talk of symbolism, illusion, self-deception, maya, man being a tool of divine purpose and so on. I was quite bewildered because all those interpretations seemed entirely forced to me.

There is no explicit philosophy in the story. No moralizing. Just a simple dramatized narration. And that leaves the message open to interpretation. The following is my interpretation based on a simple reading of the story itself. (I am not familiar with any of Narayan’s other works so I cannot claim that this is what Narayan intended to convey). Spoilers ahead. Please read the original work before reading ahead.

Raju is a drifter. He does whatever amuses him, interests him, or arouses his passions. And he does not care what the world thinks of him. He inherits his father’s business – a shop on a railway station – and happens to become a travel guide. Quite by accident. He makes a career out of guiding tourists to places he has never seen himself and telling them history which he makes up on the spur of the moment. He is unscrupulous enough to not mind what he is doing and sharp enough to make a good business out of it.

When he meets Rosie – the neglected wife of an archaeologist, he immediately falls in love with her and gets involved in an affair. Against the advice of his friends. He doesn’t really think about the consequences, about the damage to his business, or anything else. He simply follows his heart. Rosie is from a caste of dancers – treated as public women by society. Raju tells her that he doesn’t believe in caste, and he is telling her the truth, but it is not as if he has consciously rejected the concept. It is just that he has never accepted it, never thought about it consciously, and he is too free-spirited to be bound by rules he does not understand.

When Rosie’s husband discovers the affair and dumps Rosie, she comes to him and he takes her into his home. And keeps her there braving the ire of his mother, uncle and society. Out of his passion for her. Not out of any deep conviction that he is right. But that is being unfair to him. More accurately, Raju is just incapable of deep convictions. He lives his life by the whim of the moment, not by a philosophy.

Being a smart man, Raju is soon able to help Rosie achieve her dreams of becoming a dancer. And he gets caught up in the trappings of wealth, power and influence. He begins to believe that he is the architect of Rosie’s success, not realizing that she is a strong woman who would eventually have found her dream with or without him. He is still insecure about Rosie’s husband and foolishly ends up committing a forgery. By this time, Rosie has grown tired of Raju, and although she does everything in her power to help him financially, she decides to go her own way.

Raju is sentenced to two years of prison. And he doesn’t really mind it! On the contrary, he begins enjoying it. Despite having been carried away by the trappings of wealth, he is still too free-spirited to be troubled by the censure of society.

When he comes out of prison, he has nowhere to go and settles in a village. The villagers mistake him for a holy man and he plays along, getting a sustenance for free out of the offerings the villagers make him. He is sharp enough to make the sort of grand-sounding but empty statements that fool the villagers. The railway guide becomes a spiritual guide. But the spiritual guide is just as fake as the railway guide. The railway guide played on the ignorance of the tourists, on their desires to feel that their holiday was worthwhile without knowing what would make it worthwhile, on their mindless acceptance of the fiction that he told them as fact. The spiritual guide plays on the insecurities of the villagers, on their desire to control what is outside the control of any man, on their mindless acceptance of his empty statements.

Finally, Raju gets trapped into a twelve day fast to bring rain. On the eleventh day, he collapses saying “Velan, it’s raining in the hills. I can feel it coming up under my feet, up my legs –“. And that is how the story ends. Ambiguously. Does he die? Does it rain? It does not matter.

Raju is a free spirited and intelligent man but he is not a thinker. He never plans ahead. He doesn’t reflect on what he is doing. He does not ponder moral questions. He does not live by the rules of society, and he does not make his own rules either. There is an oft-cited maxim for a good life “Follow your heart”. Raju symbolizes that maxim. And the story is a brilliantly dramatised account of how that maxim actually plays out. The free spirited man without a guiding principle becomes a tool for others – all through his life. First, as a railway guide, visiting places he is not interested in visiting, because others are interested in visiting them. Then, as a partner with Rosie, promoting art that he doesn’t really understand or appreciate, because the object of his love appreciates it. And finally as a holy man, proclaiming beliefs he does not hold, because others hold them. His entire life is shaped by other people’s decisions. There are two other important characters in the story – Rosie and Marco. Both know what they want, are passionate about it, and work tirelessly toward it without compromising. And both achieve their dreams. Marco publishes a book, Rosie becomes a dancer.

There is no short-cut to happiness. Those who mindlessly abide by second-hand beliefs do not achieve it. Narayan doesn’t even bother with them. But those who mindlessly reject the second-hand beliefs do not achieve it either. And that, to me is the meaning of this story.

Thank you, Sachin

All good things come to an end, they say. And they are right. I will wake up tomorrow to watch Sachin Tendulkar bat for the last time in his career.

Greatness stays on however. In the minds of those who witness it, in the actions of those who are inspired by it, in the lives of those who can appreciate it. And that is some consolation.

I have never known cricket without Sachin and I don’t intend to follow it any more after he retires. When I started watching cricket, it was already very popular. And it has only grown more popular over the years. Not surprisingly, the increase in popularity has been achieved at the cost of reducing standards to the lowest common denominator. And that denominator is now too low for me to retain my interest. All these years, Sachin has been the one redeeming factor in a game that has progressively become faster, shorter and mindless. There is a thrill in speed, instant gratification in brevity, and an escape in mindlessness. But they don’t compare to the beauty in leisure, the substance in length, and the art in mindfulness. And Sachin is perhaps the last batsman to embody those values today. In the foreseeable future, there will not be another Sachin. What a pity!

There is nothing much that I can add to what I wrote last time about Sachin, so I will just quote myself verbatim:

“Poetry,” wrote Aristotle, “is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.”

A similar argument may be made for sport. Sport reduces life to its essentials and expresses its fundamentals in their purest form. Just as poetry expresses the universal through particular characters, sport expresses fundamentals through the actions of individual sportsmen. But unlike the characters in poetry, who are after all, mere figments of the poet’s imagination, the sportsmen are real. Sport then, is likely to fall short of poetry in its power to inspire, to embody the values of life. Perfection and purity is easier to achieve in poetry than in the life of a sportsman.

But once in a while, a sportsman comes along to prove that the difficult is not impossible, that a single-minded dedication can be maintained, that ability can be turned into excellence, that consistency can triumph over uncertainty. And such a sportsman transcends the sport, lends it meaning, makes it real.

Sachin Tendulkar is such a sportsman, and I am fortunate to have grown up at a time when my values could be shaped and sustained by the example of his greatness.

Thank you Sachin!


एक चेहरा देख के आज
वो चेहरा याद आया है
जो देखा है वो अन्जाना
याद आया वो बेगाना है

वो चेहरा बिन बोले
कितना कह पाया है
अनदेखी सी दुनिया
वो सामने लाया है

इतना कुछ कह के भी
वो चेहरा बेगाना है
अपनी ही बातों से
क्या खुद अन्जाना है

वो चेहरा ना बोला था
ना कुछ सुन पाया है
मेरे मन की है ये बातें
चेहरा तो बस साया है

I saw a face today and now
her face I again remember
Whom I saw I do not know
And she is still a stranger

She did not say a word but still
her face spoke of grandeur
An unseen world before my eyes
her face was able to conjure

Her face said so much and yet
To me she is still a stranger
To all that her face conveyed
is she herself a stranger?

For she never spoke a word
My words she didn’t embrace
My mind it was that projected
its own words onto her face


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