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.

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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.

Superstition and the inversion of causality

From an interesting conversation about superstitions with my sister…

There are a number of superstitions that have little or nothing to do with religion. A few examples. There are probably a lot more like these.

  • Not serving poli (bread) before bhaaji (curry). Why? Poor people do that because they can’t afford vegetables.
  • Not taking a bath in the evening. Why? One does that after attending a funeral.
  • Not using a particular kind of flower for decoration. Why? That kind of flower is used during funeral.
  • Not saying/doing a namaskar (a kind of salute with folded hands) to a person who is resting. Why? One does that after a person is dead to pay one’s last respects.
  • Saying “yete” (“I will be back”) instead of “jaate” (“I will now leave”) at the end of a meeting, lest it be the last meeting.

Each one of these has a common thread to it – the belief that acting as if something has happened will make that thing happen. The belief that an effect will produce the cause. This is an incredible inversion of causality. But, now that I think about it, I think it is pervasive in our culture. Absolutely mind-boggling.

Who killed your father?

Background: A little boy about 5 years old was asking me some questions. He only knows Telugu. I only know enough Telugu to follow a conversation when I know the context and my vocabulary is limited to a few common words.

I will call the boy A and myself K.

A: Nee nana per enti? (What is the name of your father?)
I tell him my father’s name
A: Ekkada unnaru? (Where is he?)
Me: Leru (He isn’t. I didn’t know the appropriate way to express the fact that a person is no more in Telugu)
A repeats the question, apparantly not understanding my answer.
I repeat the answer, not knowing how to make him understand. This goes on a couple more times.
A: Chachi poyara? (Is he dead?)
Me: Aaunu (Yes. I would have used less explicit language had I known it.)
A: Evaru champeshadu? (Who killed him?)
I was too shocked at this point to respond properly and anyway I wouldn’t have been able to frame a proper answer in Telugu.
At this point A’s mother came into the room.
A to his mother: K nana chachi poyaru (K’s father died)
A’s mother: Atla kada raa. Devudu deggara ellaru. (You shouldn’t say that. He has gone to visit God.)

On one hand we have the euphimistic language we use to “protect” children from exposure to “adult” topics like death.
On the other, we have the casual and unnatural portrayal of excessive violence in what we watch for entertainment. (Telugu movies are probably worse than others in this regard).

The result is that the first thing that comes to a child’s mind when he hears that someone is dead is “Who killed him?”. Murder is obviously the most common cause of death that this child has been exposed to.

There is little we can do to improve popular means of entertainment, but we can atleast stop using unnecessary euphemisms to hide facts from children. The truth is the truth and no one – not even children – can or should be “protected” from it. As adults, it is our responsibility to teach our children to face it and deal with it. If we hide the truth behind words that they are clearly not capable of deciphering, we do them a disservice and fail in our responsibility.

Two thought-provoking posts on academia

I am not an academician, nor do I ever intend to be one. But it interests me. Most people who knew me thought I would/should enter academia. I thought so myself for a while. Anyway, here are links to two thought-provoking posts by Vivek Haldar with some excerpts

Reproducing Papers

It turns out that a good fraction of results documented in peer-reviewed scientific papers cannot be reproduced. …

This is not failure of ethics. … It is a failure of process and documentation.

Like I’ve argued before, the paper as a unit of dessimination of modern scientific results is outmoded.

…Instead, what if the paper was replaced by a publicly-visible activity log?

The Components of a University

In about five years, if not sooner, the entire education complex is going to face the same existential crisis that journalism and newspapers are going through right now.

on the demand side, employers (at least in software) have almost completely soured on degrees.

colleges are stuck in a death spiral of costs increasing, and increasing costs turning off applicants.

Likely, universities will go back to their smaller, simpler roots,  concentrating more on unstructured knowledge creation.

A poetic expression of a lack of purpose

Ye lamha filhaal jee lene de (Translation: Let me savour this moment for now)

This line came to my mind today at work (for a reason that I will leave unexplained) and I decided to look up the lyrics of the whole song after I got home. Here are a few lines. The lyricist is Gulzar.

maasoom si hasi bewaja hi kabhi
hoton pe khil jaati hai
(An innocent smile lights up my lips occasionally for no reason)

anjaan si khushi behti huvi kabhi
saahil pe mil jaati hai
(I find an unknown happiness, drifting away, occasionally stopping at the shore)

yeh anjaana sa darr ajnabee hai magar
khoobsurat hai ji lene de
(This unknown fear is a stranger, but it is beautiful, let me experience it)

yeh lamha filhaal ji lene de
(Let me savour this moment for now)
yeh lamha filhaal ji lene de

dil hi mein rehta hai aankhon mein behtha hai
kachcha sa ek khwaab hai
(It stays in my heart, flows in my eyes, this young dream of mine)

lagta sawal hai shayad jawab hai
dil phir bhi betaab hai
(It seems to be a question, it is perhaps an answer, but my heart is still eager)

yeh sukoon hai to hai
yeh junoon hai to hai
khoobsurat hai ji lene de
(This may be peace or it may be madness, it is beautiful, let me live it)

yeh lamha filhaal ji lene de
(Let me savour this moment for now)
yeh lamha filhaal ji lene de

The lyrics are deeply disturbing. They describe the mental state of a person, who does not know what he is doing, what he is experiencing, why he is experiencing it, but wants to savour it. The mental state of a person without purpose trying to find some meaning to life by “living in the present”. I was hoping to find a poetic expression of my state of mind but this is most definitely not it. Sigh.

Ridiculous lyrics

Yun to akela hi aksar
Gir ke sambhal sakta hoon main
Tum jo pakad lo haath mera
Duniya badal sakta hoon main
Maanga hai tumhe
duniya ke liye
Ab khud hi sanam faisla kijiye

From the movie: Mere Jeevan Saathi (1970). Lyricist: Majrooh Sultanpuri

Rough English translation:

Usually, all by myself,
after a fall, I can pick myself up.
But if you take my hand,
I can change the world.
I have asked for you,
for the sake of the world.
Now, my love, decide for yourself

Love is the most selfish emotion that one can experience. Claiming that it is for the sake of the world – I wonder what it takes to sink so low.

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