Spirits from Vasty Deeps

One of my favorite bits from Shakespeare. This one is from Act 3, Scene 1 of The First Part of King Henry IV:

Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

The “vasty deep” is so evocative. I see visions of deep dark oceans with strange creatures never seen on earth dwelling there. And spirits that are powerful and perhaps evil.

Anyway, what I like about that bit is that one can proclaim stuff but that does not mean that it becomes real. Much inflated rhetoric can be seen for what it is by recalling Hotspur’s question.

Yes, you can call the spirits from the vasty deep. But that doesn’t mean that they will oblige.

Note: The system is behaving strangely because there are changes going on in the background. Comments are iffy at best. So do email me if you cannot post. Thanks.

Protecting Freedom

Yesterday at a meeting where we were discussing India’s development, someone mentioned Justice Louis D. Brandeis. That recalled to my mind something that Justice Brandeis had noted about the dangers of government which I find absolutely applicable in the Indian context.

Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty
when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are
naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded
rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment
by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.

Amen to that. Not just men but women as well.

The Excellent Foppery of Blogs

Blogs are all very fine and democratic. But the opportunity cost of all the time listening to vox populi and reading stuff on blogs is pretty high considering that the world has an enormously stupendous store of amazingly insightful words which can instruct, entertain, and even enlighten. What would you rather re-read: the words of Shakespeare, or the prose by some idiot who is primarily concerned with his own silly little world?

Since you have wandered over here (by error, I presume), I offer you a bit of Shakespeare to make up for the time you lost on this blog. From King Lear:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star.

Need anything more be said about astrology?

It is morning in Africa

It is morning in Africa and
As the sun rises over the plains
The gazelle awakens knowing that
If it cannot outrun the fastest lion
It will be dead.
It is morning in Africa and
The lion awakens knowing that
If it cannot outrun the slowest gazelle
It will die.

It is morning in Africa and you had better start running.

Our Commitment to Immaturity, Mendacity and Profound Gullibility

I admire John Kenneth Galbraith for the clarity of his thinking and the quality of his prose. The greatest compliment I have ever received was when Irma Adelman told me that I reminded her of John Kenneth because like him I was an old world liberal.

Here, for the record, is a quote from JKG’s book Economics, Peace and Laughter:

In a well-to-do community we cannot be much concerned over what people are persuaded to buy. The marginal utility of money is low; were it otherwise, people would not be open to persuasion. The more serious conflict is with truth and aesthetics. There is little that can be said about most economic goods. A toothbrush does little but clean teeth. Alcohol is important mostly for making people more or less drunk. An automobile can take one reliably to a destination and back, and its further features are of small consequence as compared with the traffic encountered. There being so little to be said, much must be invented. Social distinction must be associated with a house or a swimming pool, sexual fulfillment with a particular shape of automobile, social acceptance with a hair oil or mouthwash, improved health with a hand lotion or, at best, a purgative. We live surrounded by a systematic appeal to a dream world which all mature, scientific reality would reject. We, quite literally, advertise our commitment to immaturity, mendacity and profound gullibility. It is the hallmark of the culture. And it is justified as being economically indispensable.

The Trick is not to Mind the Pain

I came across this quote in Myke’s weblog.
T.E Lawrence wrote in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.

I recall a scene from the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” where Lawrence puts out a burning matchstick with his bare fingers. Someone tries to immitate him and burns his fingers and asks Lawrence what is the trick. Lawrence replies, “The trick is not to mind the pain.”

Readings: “How to Win the Nobel Prize”

A friend of mine, who was a fellow grad student at UC Berkeley, gave me as a gift Michael Bishop’s How to Win the Nobel Prize [Harvad Univ Press 2003]. “In 1989 Micheal Bishop and Harold Varmus were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery tha normal genes under certain conditions can cause cancer”. I’d like to quote from the chapter, People and Pestilence, because it is relevant to my obsession with India’s population problem. Continue reading “Readings: “How to Win the Nobel Prize””

The Elephant’s Trunk

In a collection of essays called The Origin and Evolution of Intelligence (Scheibel and Schopf, eds.), Steven Picker’s article Evolutionary Biology and the Evolution of Language starts off with the assertion In Biology Uniqueness is Common and then immediately proceeds to give a stunning counterexample of that claim.

The elephant’s trunk is 6 feet long, 1 foot thick, and contains 60,000 muscles. Elephants can use their trunks to uproot trees, stack timber, or carefully place huge logs into position when recruited to build bridges. They can curl the trunk around a pencil and draw characters on letter-sized paper. With the two muscular extensions at the tip of the trunk, they can remove a thorn; pick up a pin or a dime; uncork a bottle; slide the bolt off a cage door and hide it on a ledge; or grip a cup, without breaking it, so firmly that only another elephant can pull it away. The tip is sensitive enough for a blindfolded elephant to ascertain the shape and texture of objects. In the wild, elephants use their trunks to pull up clumps of grass and tap them against their knees to knock off dirt, to shake coconuts out of palm trees, and to powder their bodies with dust. They use their trunks to probe the ground as they walk, avoiding pit-traps, and to dig wells and siphon water from them. Elephants can walk underwater on the beds of deep rivers or swim like submarines for miles, using their trunks as snorkels. They communicate through their trunks by trumpeting, humming, roaring, piping, purring, rumbling, and making a crumpling-metal sound by rapping the trunk against the ground. The trunk is lined with chemoreceptors that allow the elephant to smell a python hidden in the grass or food a mile away.

Elephants are the only living animals that possess this extraordinary organ.

If you like elephants, check out The Elephant Encyclopedia for a bunch of neat pictures. But you may ask why I am suddenly going on about elephants. This was prompted by a post on Rajesh Jain’s weblog on a dream device which combines the features of a Blackberry and iPod. To which Brian put a comment and asked whether we really need all-in-one devices. That got me to thinking about the elephant’s trunk and so this post.

To my mind, a device may have various functionalities as long as there is an underlying commonality to the supporting infrastructure that the device incorporates within itself. For instance, if the various functions require digital storage, retrieval, and decoding, then aggregating these functions on the same device that has at its core a huge amount of storage is logical. So you could combine digital diary functions with MP3 functions because they both share the same underlying hardware. Now add a communications function and you have a handheld PDA which plays MP3. Camera and picture viewer also logically follow since a PDA has to have a screen and so they are shared.

But then, an all-in-one device has the obvious disadvantage that Brian pointed out in his comment, namely, you lose the device and you are up the proverbial creek without the paddle. Well, in that case, the obvious evolution of the device is to use the device for retrival and communications alone and keep the storage function outside the device, say, on centralized servers that are unlikely to get stolen. Ultimately, if you have broadband connectivity, then you really don’t need to drag your own harddrive all over the bloody place. This has the other advantage of lower power requirements.

Indeed, most of computing could be moved to centalized servers and all you need is a retrieval device that is not complicated at all. Think about it.

The Art of Living

If you have been following this blog for a bit, you would have noticed that I lay quite a bit of stress on the population problem which I believe underlies much of India’s present problems and I argue that unless that problem is addressed, India may never be able to become a developed nation.
Continue reading “The Art of Living”

All things must pass

Civilizations, like everything under the sun, have a life-cycle. They arise, they persist for a while, and then they inevitable decline and fall. Happened all the time in the past, and there is no reason to believe that it will cease to happen in the future — we are all Bayesians, after all. Continue reading “All things must pass”

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