Amerika ist wunderbar!

Last week I visited the US. This is my third visit to the country. Since people are so friendly there, it is hard to feel foreign in the US but I still cannot stop myself from finding the following things strange about the country.

  • They first write the month in a date.
  • On US$ coins, they don’t write the values in large numerals.
  • Flights at the airports are listed in the alphabetical order of destinations
  • At the airports, they still use am/pm for time.
  • On a whim, they can drive 100s of kms in some direction and come back.
  • After every 30min, waitresses ask if everything is ok.
  • Their smallest coffee cup is thrice the size of my expectation of a small coffee.
  • They have huge parking lots.
  • There are not as many MacDs in the US as I imagined.

Otherwise, the US is fun to visit.

culture, Science

Book: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

A fantastic book! A sort of autobiography of Richard Feynman. I wish I had read this book during my undergraduate studies. Feynman’s worldview would have helped me a lot to understand the world of science. But, I may not have understood many of his comments on American society and the circumstances of his time.

He was mostly interested in doing science, discovering culture(s), and having good time with blond beauties. His attitude towards the world is full of curiosity with an element of bravado (assuming all is true in the book).  I truly identify with Some of his following discussions.

  • Once he visited Brazil for a year.  After his teaching experience there, he realized that his students were only memorizing physics but not really understanding. He said that it was a very serious problem. This comment was very true with my education(including IITK) and I found most people around me had no interest in the subject and they were studying only to get better grades.
  • He tried to learn Art and see if there is any sense in doing it. He learned music and painting. His initial skepticism about the art eventually turns into respect. And, he also becomes amateur artist. I am still in the realm of skepticism.
  • Once he participated in a interdisciplinary conference about ethical problems in education related to equality. He was totally confused in the conversation and failed to follow the ideas of people from the other disciplines. He thought they talk in a very ill-defined manner. Definitions are rarely explicated. Sooner or later the conversation was lost in the jungle of jargon. I still feel that way in my own field of  research. Let alone talking to the people of the other fields.
  • This book hardly comments on politics of his time except the WWII. During that period, he built the bomb. And, he wasn’t much bothered by the consequences of building the bomb. He only wanted to solve a difficult problem. Military applications of science and technology are always challenging. A highly skilled technical person may easily find the challenge very seductive and forget the consequences of his actions.
Politics, Science

Capitalism is live! Socialism is safe!

I am a researcher in the field of verification. In this field, the systems are verified against desired properties. For example, we may want a space ship to have a property of not exploding in mid-air. After building the ship, we may also want some engineer to analyze the ship design to verify that indeed the ship will not explode. In our research, we are developing tools and techniques for the verification engineer. The ideas of the field can be applied in any dynamic system, e. g., Economics, Society, etc. Some parallels are very interesting. Here is an example.

In verification, we divide the desired properties of the systems into two classes: safety and liveness. Safety properties require that something bad will never happen. For example, the space ship will never explode. In contrast, the liveness properties require that something good will eventually happen. For example, the space ship will some day reach to the Moon. This distinction is there because verifying safety properties are computationally much easier as compared to verifying liveness properties. In our field, the first question the other researchers ask, “Are you dealing with safety or liveness?”.

I recently realized that the distinction between safety and liveness can be used to see the distinction between the socialist thinking (welfare state) and the capitalistic thinking (free market). Today, the argument between socialists and capitalists is raging all over the world. A socialist demands social justice, a safety net against extreme poverty, a liberal set of laws, etc, while assuming that the society is sufficiently wealthy. On the other hand, a capitalist demands efficient economy, free market, simpler laws to start businesses, minimal state, well defined property rights, etc, while assuming well developed legal and political system to protect citizen rights. I see both of them demanding desirable properties of the social system, while assuming too much. In fact, assuming something, which exactly the other one is demanding.

Essentially, the socialist wants safety.

Inequality in the society will never be above a certain level.

But he doesn’t consider an undesirable situation in which  the society is mostly egalitarian but does not have enough food. Everybody is equal but hungry.

On the other hand, the capitalist demands liveness.

Some of the people will eventually create wealth.

But he doesn’t consider an undesirable situation in which the society is vastly wealthy but a few oligarchs control almost all the wealth. Most of the society is poor and exploited by the oligarchs.

What we need is each of the properties without ignoring the other one.

culture, Politics

Book: River of smoke

Just finished River of smoke: the latest book by Amitov Ghosh. This book is the sequel of Sea of Poppies. This book takes the story from India to China. The most part of the book follows an Indian merchant who is trying to sell opium in China, while Chinese government is about to crackdown on opium trade. As usual, Amitov Ghosh’s firm understanding of history makes the story all too vivid. Endlessly revealing.

River of smoke is not as convoluted story as Sea of poppies. Therefore, sometimes doesn’t feel that captivating. This may be because the River of smoke is more locked into the actual historical events and there was not much scope to add turns and twists.

Worth reading!


Book: Curfewed night

Curfewed night by Basharat Peer is a well written book about the rise and fall of Kashmiri Militancy in the duration of last two decades. His account is very personal. He describes his experience of the early stages of armed conflict when he was in his early teens. During the later part of the armed conflict, he was out of Kashmir and educated himself in Delhi and he watched his homeland being torn apart.  After the decline of armed conflict, he went back and collected the stories of the conflict. He interviewed the ordinary people who caught up in between equally abusive Militants and Indian Army. He also tried to capture the militants and the army perspectives but I would say that was not fully comprehensive.

As an Indian, I was deeply troubled by the accounts of Human rights abuses by Indian army. Indians often counter these stories by calling them as fabrication or telling another story of militant abuse on Kashmiri pundits or may be on Kashmiri Muslims. The first counterpoint is just state of denial. Answer to the objection is an impartial international investigation. I hope one day Indian government will see some wisdom of conducting investigations on these allegations. But the other counterpoint is the real sinister one.  Two wrongs does not make one right. Such argument gives a license to Indian army to abuse as much as they like with no accountability. We do not really know how much abuse has been done. In a decent society, we can not let slightest of abuse go unpunished. Specially by our own side. We must aim to create a decent society but not an India that is build on top of pile of corpses.

Until Indian population does not developed certain sympathy for Kashmiri people and recognize the abuses against them by Indian army, there will be no solution.

My fellow Indians, Please read this book!

Politics, Science

Book: The Quest

The Quest by Daniel Yergin is about development of business of energy in last 20 years. He wrote another book called “The prize” in early 90s that covered the history of oil industry and this book is a kind of squeal. This book tells a grand story in which the world started looking  for energy instead of oil, while oil remain a significant policy issue of the governments.

Book is an easy and fluent read to learn about the world of energy: major players, major technologies, major technical challenges, major sociopolitical challenges, and major environmental issues. The author is a pro-business American and he has inherent biases in his presentation of various political issues around energy business. Sometimes ridiculously simplified view of some political conflicts. For example, his description of coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002 is full of false statements (If you read the book then try to understand his explanation of the failure of the coup). Another example, the recent Bahrain protests are defined as ‘protracted violence’ therefore Saudi king had to send an army there to ‘restore law and order’. And of course in his view, 2009 protests in Iran were a long cry for freedom. I hope technical aspects are accurate or at least he truly reflected the world view of the businessmen who run the world energy companies.

Here are the key questions one may ask about energy. I also list a summery of his answers.

  • How much oil is left?
    • At least 5 times the humanity used so far… that means a lot..
  • How much natural gas is left?
    • Not much exploited so far. New technologies and gas fields are arriving fast. No one knows really..
  • How much damage oil/gas drilling can do to environment?
    • All you can learn from accidents. The impact of all the accidents have been limited.
  • Is nuclear energy safe?
    • It depends to whom you ask. France has excelled in error free mass nuclear energy production. US and other developing countries are not totally sure what to do. It is very much clear that one major accident and whole nuclear energy dream is off the table.
  • How much nuclear material is out there?
    • This book did not discuss this issue.
  • Is climate change real? and how urgent?
    • Very real! Data is becoming undeniable. The book stands with the scientists.
  • Are renewable energy sources viable?
    • This book has a lengthy discussion about each kind of renewable energy. Each one has enormous challenges to make them acceptable. May be things will work out.
  • Can electric car replace normal cars?
    • There is a big push around the world to go electric. It will depend a lot on government policies if they make sure electric remain competitive against oil cars.

In general it claims, there are significant problems but trust businessmen. They will solve them.