Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Expanding Circles

One of the stories making headlines in the past couple of days is about a tiger escaping from a zoo and killing a person.

I think the question screaming at us here is: Is it ethical keeping animals caged in zoos, away from their natural environment, just for our mere pleasure? I realize that many people think of hunting/caging animals as no big deal. But to put in perspective, 200 years ago, hunting/caging/enslaving people of races supposedly "inferior" to your own was no big deal either. Case in point, check out this instance which seems utterly horrifying today: In 1906, an African man from the Belgian Congo was caged with an orangutan at Bronx Zoo.

Thankfully, things are improving in the long run. Check out Amit Varma's column on "Expanding Circles", a concept first introduced by WEH Lecky in 1869: .
Lecky wrote that the number of people we consider worthy of our moral consideration has expanded through history like a circle. “At one time,” he explained, “the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.”

I'm glad that we have come a long way since 1906. And I'm sure with the global boundaries falling fast, we will continue on this path for a long time to come. We just need to be aware of the bigger picture and do our bit to keep the circles of sympathy and benevolence "expanding".

Update: A similar incident.
As an aside, the article is pretty poorly written, which is surprising coming from the BBC. "The dog was destroyed....."?? And how about "The death follows the unlawful killing of five-year-old Ellie Lawrenson who was killed by her uncle's dog......". Unlawful killing by a dog?? You gotta be kidding me.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

On Evolution

I often hear people asking the question: Do you believe in Evolution? Well, for starters, Evolution happens. It is a fact, not something you believe or not believe in.

Evolution is one of the topics not taught in schools in India. As a result, many people I speak to have an incorrect notion of evolution. Back in high school, I remember learning about botany and zoology and the difference between classes of animal kingdom, but nothing about how this variation came about. We learn the answer to the 'What' question, totally sidetracking the more fundamental 'How' and 'Why' questions.

In reality the process of natural selection (via which evolution occurs) is a simple and fascinating concept. Unfortunately most of the literature on the net, like this Wikipedia article, is rife with scientific terminology, making it too intimidating for a layman to understand.

Here is an amazing clip from Carl Sagan's Cosmos series where he explains natural and artificial selection using the Heikegani crabs as an example in a very clear and lucid manner. Check it out...

Carl Sagan is one of my favorite authors and the entire Cosmos series is worth watching. Or if you prefer the book, it is equally good. Definitely something worth checking out.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Quiz questions

A few questions from a quiz I set a few days ago. Try and answer them without using help from the net.

1. Olórin, Mithrandir, Stormcrow, The White Rider, Incánus, Tharkûn. These are the other names of which character?

2. This 6 time pro-bowler running-back was the first NFL player to rush for 2000 yards in a season. He was inducted in the pro-football hall of fame in 1985. He later turned to acting and was considered for the title role in The Terminator, but producers feared he was "too nice" to be taken seriously as a cold-blooded killer. Nowadays he is famous for completely different reasons. Who?

3. Connect
a. Napoleon
b. Pink Floyd
c. Four legs good, two legs bad.
d. Eric Arthur Blair

4. Many novice guitarists try to learn this song, and most end up messing it up. In the movie Wayne's World, it is banned in the guitar shop where Wayne starts playing it. In the movie, Wayne clearly plays the first few notes before being scolded, but due to legal issues, the video version was changed so Wayne plays something incomprehensible. On an episode of South Park, the character Towelie tries to play this in a talent show and screws it up. Which very famous classic rock song?

5. X is credited with leading the fight for independence in what are now the countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, and Bolivia, using sometimes-brutal guerrilla warfare tactics as outlined in his "Decree of war to the death". He is revered as a hero in these countries and throughout much of the rest of Hispanic America. Who's X? (Hint: He has a South American country named after him.)

6. X is a platform game developed by Jordan Mechner in 1989 and was widely seen as a great leap forward in the quality of animation seen in computer games. Mechner used a process called rotoscoping, in which he studied many hours of film of his younger brother David running and jumping in white clothes, to ensure that all the movements looked just right. Mechner has said that when he started programming, the first ten minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark had been one of the main inspirations for the character's acrobatic responses in a dangerous environment. X=?

7. up, down, charm, _____, top, and bottom

8. The element Uranium (atomic number 92) has the highest atomic weight of the naturally occurring elements. What are the elements with atomic numbers 93 and 94?

9. Complete the series. Canas, Canas, Nadal, Volandri, Nadal, ________

10. Daughter of Echidna and Typhoeus, she is best known as the riddle-loving monster that terrorised Thebes until Oedipus came along and answered her question correctly. Who is she?

11. Complete the series: Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, ______

12. X was born as John in 2511 and spent the first part of his childhood on the human colony planet Eridanus 2, where he lived with his family. He was large for his age at the time, approximately a foot above his school peers. In his 27-year career, X has been involved in over 200 engagements, and has been awarded all of the UNSC's major Decorations except for the Prisoner of War Medallion. Incidentally, in another world, X was the first of his kind to become a Madame Tussuad's waxwork. Who's X? (Think recent events)

13. This famous sitcom utterance is typically represented in the show's script as "(annoyed grunt)", and is referred to similarly in the official titles of numerous episodes. Which sitcom and what utterance?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ellen Says No

Here's a homemade video from a local Alternative Rock band that I listened to live a couple of times and took a liking to: Ellen Says No.
Neat stuff!!!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Halo 3 buzz

With Halo 3 being touted as the biggest entertainment launch ever, I did a little trend analysis with the other big entertainment launches of this year.

Not surprisingly, the final Harry Potter book outshines both Spiderman 3 and Halo 3 in terms of buzz in the blogosphere. Not being restricted to a niche audience (Xbox console gamers) definitely helps. Of course Halo 3 might still be the winner in terms of sheer monetary value. After all the game ($60+) costs way more than the book (~$20).

I wonder which one is more addictive.....

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Watching Federer live

Thanks to the 2 people who actually read my blog, for egging me on to write this post. It has been long overdue.

The big story is of course that I went to see the US Open mens semis and got to see Roger Federer live. The GOD himself. Now I can strike that one safely off my list of "Things to do before I die". It was a simple 3 set affair in which Roger easily beat Nikolay Davydenko. At the end of it, I was actually rooting for Davydenko to take a set, just so that I can see more of Roger. Not to be. Anyways watching Federer live is a treat, as he stands out from the rest of the field with his graceful and elegant strokeplay, if not anything else. Something not to be missed even if you are even a casual tennis fan.

Here are some pics:
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The other semifinals Djokovic vs. Ferrer was decent too, with Djokovic showing some big time potential. While he does not have the finesse of Federer, he looks to be the next great all-court player, more so than Nadal who is by and large ineffective on hard courts, where his top spin isn't as lethal. Lets see if Djokovic can back his potential with some Grand Slam wins.

Back to Federer, we should consider ourselves lucky to be around watching him play. In the 90s it was Sachin Tendulkar with his batting masterclass and this decade it is Federer with his flawless tennis. Here's hoping that such geniuses continue to be born, regaling us with their wizardry....

Friday, July 27, 2007

Prank calls

With The Simpsons' movie out today, here is a video compilation of Bart's prank calls to Moe. This thing never gets old.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Hawk-Eye in tennis

Recently the Hawk-Eye technology has been used in tennis to judge close line calls. I had previously posted about Hawk-Eye, thinking at the time that it was the right way to go for tennis. In this post I will try and make a case otherwise :).

The problem with using Hawk-Eye in tennis lies in the fact that what it shows us is the 2d projection of the tennis ball. This is fine when the ball is traveling through the air. But when the ball hits the ground, it is not the 2d projection of the 3d ball which is the point of contact of the ball with the ground. The soft tennis ball gets partially squashed when it hits the ground, & it is the squashed portion of the ball which touches the ground. Thus the point (or region) of contact is actually a fraction of the 2d projection shown to us by Hawk-Eye. Moreover such a fraction would be hard to figure out using simple physics, since it's a chaotic system depending on a lot of factors like speed, spin, angle, surface, temperature etc.

Of course, one can argue that Hawk-Eye need not be perfect, but merely better than the human judges for it to be used. But testing such an assertion would be very tough, simply because there is no ground truth in this problem. Even if such a test comparing Hawk-Eye and human judges were to be performed, who decides whether Hawk-Eye or the human judge is "more right"? That would have to be a system better than both Hawk-Eye or humans. The existence of such a system would imply that we wouldn't have this argument in the first place. Ah paradoxes :).

Monday, June 25, 2007

Pictures that changed the world

Jan Rose Kasmir confronts the National Guard outside the Pentagon during the 1967 anti-Vietnam War march, 1967

Stunning collection of "stories best told via images that capture the political and cultural zeitgeist of our time." Check it out at: Magnum: Photos That Changed the World

Update: This set is even better. Do check it out.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon

Most of you must have heard of the "Six degrees of separation". Wikipedia explains it thus:
Six degrees of separation refers to the idea that, if a person is one "step" away from each person he or she knows and two "steps" away from each person who is known by one of the people he or she knows, then everyone is no more than six "steps" away from each person on Earth.
Social networking site Orkut lists the steps if they are less than 2, but that's as far as it goes. With hundreds of people in the "friends" list, there are millions of links between people. This makes the problem very expensive computationally to solve, and it's no wonder Orkut gives up at 2.

A related concept for movie roles is the Kevin Bacon number i.e. if actor X acted in some movie with actor Y who acted in a movie with Kevin Bacon, the Kevin Bacon number of X is 2. For e.g. Al Pacino has a Bacon number of 2 since:
Al Pacino was in Godfather: Part III, The (1990) with Eli Wallach
Eli Wallach was in Mystic River (2003) with Kevin Bacon

I stumbled upon a cool site by some folks at the The University of Virginia CS department called the The Oracle of Bacon at Virginia, which lets you calculate the Bacon number of any actor you can think of. The Advanced Search option lets you find the separation between any 2 actors not just Bacon. And since they get their data from IMDB, the site works with Indian and other international actors too :). Really cool. Check it out.

Friday, June 08, 2007

My generation

This one's called "With apologies to The Who" :). Via xkcd.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Memorial day trip pics

A few pics from the small roadtrip to Central/Eastern Washington that I went to on the Memorial Day weekend. Most of the pics were taken at Leavenworth, and some at the Grand Coulee Dam. Unfortunately no pictures rafting the Wenatchee, or jetskiing in Lake Chelan (need a waterproof camera for that).

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And a video of musicians playing a polka at Leavenworth.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A musical offering

Washington Post did an interesting experiment when they had the great violinist Joshua Bell perform at a crowded metro station during the rush hour. Number of people who stopped and listened: 3. Number of people who passed by without giving a second look: More than 1000.

Read the article and watch the videos here. Smart, poignant piece of journalism. Definitely worthwhile.

It raises a number of important questions:
  • Is context important for a piece of music to be deemed great?
  • Do we have a tendency to associate familiarity with greatness? Do we tend to ignore the unfamiliar, no matter how good it is?
  • In this day and age are our priorities so messed up that we fail to appreciate beauty in life?
Tough questions these....

Monday, April 02, 2007

The history of violence

This article by Steven Pinker confirms using facts and figures what many of us already know. That mankind on the whole is moving towards becoming less violent, and a more peaceful species.
Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light.
I suggest reading it in full.

The basic yardstick that we can use to evaluate such claims is to compare our generation with the generations before. Do you think that we are on the whole more peaceful than our ancestors? Barring a few notable exceptions, the answer is a resounding "Yes" almost everywhere in the world. Is there a convincing reason that this trend which has been going on for centuries is going to overturn? With nuclear weapons and more powerful technology to produce weapons of mass destruction, probably there is. But the more powerful and faster moving trend of globalization partially negates that threat too.

Somewhat similar to "The law of accelerating returns" for progress, the law of decreasing violence probably follows the inverse exponential trend. Continuously decreasing but never quite reaching zero.

Monday, March 19, 2007

My blog is a spam

Over the weekend, I found out that Blogger has blocked by blog as spam. I could not add posts anymore.

I had to go through
  • Step 1 - a CAPTCHA to prove that I am indeed a human, followed by
  • Step 2 - a wait period while some human actually verified that my blog is not spam.

Step 1 eliminates all automatically created blogs. Which also reduces the number of supervisors at Google who need to do step 2.
Step 2 eliminates all human generated blogs which are spam

But then the question bugging me is: Why the hell did their algorithm think this blog is a spam? I'm sure they have some probabilistic algorithm to detect splogs based on simple features. But what features do you think this blog has which could characterize it as a spam?

This is a case of a spam detection algorithm throwing up a False Postive. False positives should be a big no-no for any spam/splog detection system. The algorithm error should incline on the side of having some false negatives rather than false positives, for e.g. have some spam show up in your inbox rather than good mail going directly to your junk folder.

All this talk of false positives remind me of the statement that is the basis of judicial systems around the world: "It's better for ten guilty men to go free, than for one innocent man to be convicted.". Same concept, different context.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


I like this image of the earth taken by one of the Voyager spacecrafts. From Carl Sagan's book Pale Blue Dot:
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
Really puts things in a perspective, doesn't it?

P.S. "thousands of confident religions"?? Nicely put :)

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Why can't I tag music?

I wonder why songs are not yet 'taggable'. For the uninitiated, a 'tag' is a word or a short phrase describing an entity. For e.g. this blog post is tagged (labelled) with 3 tags: 'Tags', 'Music' and 'Technology' which describe what it talks about. Tags are now ubiquitous in the Web2.0 world. Photo applications like Flickr, Bookmark managers like, Blog platforms like Blogger and Wordpress etc. use tags. Google is so sold on tags that it did away with folders altogether in Gmail and replaced it with tags (or 'label's as they call it).

Individual songs should be taggable. It would help a lot while playing music which transcends genres. For e.g. many of Eric Clapton songs can be tagged as Classic Rock or Soft Rock or Blues and should be played even if we select either of these 3 genres. Neither iTunes nor MediaMonkey (the app I use to play songs on my laptop) let me do this. Sucks big time.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Cool new way to search

If you are like me, you use the search bar in Firefox at the top right to do your search. If you are like me, you also have a number of search engines which you use pretty frequently e.g. Google, Wikipedia,, Amazon etc. etc.

Enter Yubnub. YubNub is a cool engine that allows you to search multiple websites for anything from one place. If defines shortcuts for each search engine e.g. If you want to search "Seattle" in Google all you type is "g Seattle" in YubNub. "wp Seattle" does a Wikipedia search. And it's pretty comprehensive. All the search engines I use, I could find shortcuts for. Just go "ls <search engine name>" to search among existing shortcuts. In the rare case that you can't find a shortcut for your favorite search engine, you can create a new shortcut in minute.

Now all you have to do is add Yubnub as your only Firefox search engine. Then go Ctrl+K and type on. It's gonna save you hundreds of clicks a day.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The shortest (flight) path problem

While on the unbelievably long India flight, I was thinking about flight paths that planes take when they travel around the world. I stuck upon this easy way of finding the shortest path between any 2 cities in the world.

Most people believe that the shortest distance between any 2 cities in the world is via the path obtained by drawing a straight line between them on a map. Take for instance Seattle and Paris. Both lie roughly on the 48th latitude. Seattle around 120 E longitude, while Paris roughly near 0 i.e. Greenwich Meridian. So the fastest way to go from Seattle to Paris is to simply go east along the 48th latitude till we hit Paris. Right? Wrong..... The truth is, that unlike a map, the earth is not flat. It is a sphere (It is actually a geoid, but for the sake of argument here we will assume it is a nice symmetrical sphere).

So what is the shortest distance between any two points on the surface of a sphere? Here is a simple way of finding it out:
Draw a circle, centered at the center of the earth and passing through these two cities. The smaller arc of the circle joining the two points is the required shortest path. The 3d symmetry of a sphere dictates that this should be the right answer and I am not gonna take the pains of proving it :). It is true at the poles and true at the equator and you could possibly prove by induction that it is true every point in between.

Thus for any 2 cities in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest flight path curves northwards and vice versa for cities in the Southern Hemisphere. For cities on symmetrically opposite longitudes, e.g. Seattle (~120 W) and Dubai (~60 E), the shortest path passes through one of the poles (in this case, the North Pole).