Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Why some scientists disagree with science?

 I find it intriguing when some of my fellow engineers, doctors or scientists take view-points that do not agree with science. A classic case is that of climate change. There are several deniers in my cohort group, and they are firm in their convictions that either it is a hoax or human beings have very little to do with it. Unfortunately, such denying is not restricted to climate change, other scientific or historic findings are also under assault form these folks who one would consider to be supporters of science.


What is really mystifying to me is how they started on this journey of denying science. (May be not all of it, but some aspects of it.) Once they start the journey, there is little they can do or anyone else to bring them back to reality. They slide into their echo chamber and only read/listen/view only those who agree with them. The social media makes sure of that. Such confirmation bias is too difficult to overcome. 


I can think of several reasons why they started:


1. They think of themselves as independent thinkers. Yes, the world will not survive without independent thinking, but that does not mean that you start disagreeing with well-established facts just to demonstrate your independence. There still are flat earth societies in existence, I am sure, with members who are proud of their independent thinking. It could also be that they started on the slippery slope due to some other reason, as articulated below, and then call themselves “independent thinkers” as a boost to their egos.


2. They slide into taking the opposite viewpoint because it comes as a package with something else. So, for instance, if you are a conservative, you find the platform of a certain political party more appealing than that of others. However, belonging to that party means listening to broadcasts or TV show that deny science or provide simple explanations for complex phenomena. You eventually end up buying the whole package, hook line and sinker. 


3. They have a strong religious background. Now, it is possible for scientists to be religious, however it must be quite difficult to strike the balance. Many folks who belong to Jain religion in India do not eat things that grows underground because they carry germs. One can argue that such non-scientific stand cannot coexist with their professional training. However, it does. Being a member of the tribe, and following traditions to do so, take priority over their science background. 


4. They have taken the view that any research done by a (fill-in-the-gap) is suspect because all those people want to do is to perpetuate their view points of the world. The candidates for the class of scientists/historians/writers who are suspect include---those who live in the West, white folks, Jewish people----you name it. Anyone who comes up with a historic research on your country, your tribe, or your ethnic group who does not belong to your country/tribe or ethnic group, is a suspect with a hidden agenda. As it is with reason number 1 above, this can be an excuse to justify what they have come to believe due to another reason. 


5. They take the opposite viewpoint because their place of work encourages them to do so. If you are working for an oil company whose profits are going to be harmed if people switch to alternate energy, the employer will convince you that Climate Change is hogwash. Not believing in the company’s view point may be harmful to your employment. 


Compounding the problem is the situation that most scientists are generally not savvy in marketing. They call their findings hypothesis or theories, not facts, even when there is little doubt that they are not true. Another issue is that these theories are often dealing with overall trends and not short-term fluctuations, including those that appear to be contrarian.  For example, global warming can include days of freezing cold without violating the overall trend. 


Either of these issues allows the deniers with an opening. “See, the scientists are not sure of their own work, how can I believe it?” Or, “aha, how can there be global warming when I am freezing in record cold?”


When an average Joe, not trained in a scientific discipline, takes such a stand, I understand (sort of). I find it disappointing when someone who has a similar background as mine and had a successful career does that.


PS: Thank you, my friends, who I shared these thoughts with, for your contributions.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Photoshop meets authenticity

 I wrote a couple of Blog Posts on authenticity some ten years ago. A conclusion I had arrived at in those posts was if you can achieve your objectives, even if it includes showing off, by purchasing a non-authentic thing, a rational person would do so. The implication…. authenticity will become a thing of the past!


More than ten years later I encounter subject of authenticity in a different form. It has to do with one of my passions, photography. I take pictures, use Photoshop to spruce them up, create composites (mixing two or more pictures) and even create abstracts that have nothing to do with reality. 


I have also moved to California and joined a local camera club. They help us enter our photographs in competitions sponsored by a massive consortium of camera clubs. There are multiple categories in which you can enter your photos. I will use some of these categories to illustrate my point.


The first one is a category called “Nature.” You can enter your birds and bees pictures in this category. However, there cannot be any manmade object in your photo because then it will be disqualified. So, our camera club will teach you how to remove manmade objects using Photoshop, but do so in a manner that does not arouse suspicion. So, my first question is, why do they have a rule that encourages cheating? Would somehow a picture be less about nature if a wooden post appears in it? 


Similarly, a picture in category “Travel” can only be entered if there has been no editing done to it. So, if you remove an unwanted person from the photo will it represent the place less so than if you had left it alone? Is the object of the competition to reward the art of photography or the one that chronicles a place faithfully? 


Really interesting things happen in a category called “Creative.” Here is where you would enter your Photoshop images, such as composites. In fact, you run into trouble if your image looks like it was not Photoshopped. Your end product should appear unreal, but not too much. Abstracts are considered too unreal and not allowed.


This when I realized that this is a different version of authenticity. Authenticity in this case does not mean that you are trying to sell your photograph as one created by Ansel Adams. Nor is it where you are altering reality by inserting a politician in a compromising picture. So, authenticity of the end product is not in question.


It is authenticity of the process used to create the end product that is questioned. 


Did your process of creating that lovely bird photograph include removing a manmade object after the picture was taken or you found a bird away from anything that would be considered manmade? Did the process of creating that wonderful photo of sunrise in Miami require you to remove an unwanted person in the photo or did you wait patiently for the beach to become empty? Was the process used to create your image of moon behind camels included using Photoshop (as you are supposed to in the Creative category) or you just happened to be there when moon was rising behind camels?


I always thought it is the end product that matters, not the process used to create it, especially in art.


Did someone forget to tell Ansel Adams that he could not use his post-processing in a darkroom to create his wonderful images...they had to be as they were taken?

Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Dark Forest

One of the more intriguing Sci-Fi novels I have read in recent days (and I read a lot of them) has been Remembrance of Earth’s Past, written by a Chinese author Liu Cixin and expertly translated in English. Actually, this is not one book but a trilogy. The three voluminous books are: “The Three-Body Problem”, “The Dark Forest”, and “Death’s End”. In China, the trilogy is referred to as The Three-Body Problem, the title of the first book, however, the title of the second book is most descriptive of the central theme of the trilogy. 


The universe is a dark forest with hunters quietly moving around. Since you don’t know the intentions or capabilities of the other hunters, it makes sense to take a hostile position against any civilization you find out about and eliminate it. However, you cannot take an instantaneous action due to distances involved. Even at the speed of light, the nearest star is more than four light years away. So, there is a potential negotiating window. 


Under this scenario, one of the most precious commodities you have against your enemy has is their exact location. You use the information of their location as a deterrent during the negotiating window. “If I see you coming after me, I will broadcast your location to the universe so some others will come and kill you. So better not come after me.”


This is similar to mutually assured destruction (MAD) used at the height of cold war.  “If I detect your missiles coming towards me, I will fire mine and destroy you.”  The way such a deterrence can be neutralized is if the enemy is able to destroy your broadcasting capability through a sneak attack, just like the enemy wiping out your counterattack capability during the MAD days. 


Three different technologies are envisaged for broadcasting the location of your enemy to the universe: amplification of the radio signals by using sun, creating a morse code using precise detonation of nuclear weapons in orbit, and gravity waves. Without giving away too much of the story, I can say that each one of these is considered.


Besides these principal themes of dark forest, deterrence, and attack running through the three volumes, there are some other interesting future projections, some literally mind bending.


Hibernation will allow humans to live almost forever, as long as they are willing to skip years of experience in between. The purpose may be to pass time while they are looking for the cure of your disease. It could also be a societal decision to send you to the future where you will be more useful.


The Superstring Theory proposes the presence of ten physical dimensions, not three that we are familiar with. In this Sci-Fi work, these extra dimensions are unfolded and come into play in several different ways. One is used by the aliens to interfere in the life on earth by managing to stop advances in science (so they will have an easier time defeating us), the other in travelling through space almost instantaneously, and yet another in causing massive destruction. 


Several ideas related to protecting human beings from an attack on the sun are described in detail. One involves using a spaceship that uses propulsion system manipulating curvature of space. It can achieve speed of light almost instantaneously without crushing the occupants. The other has humanity hiding behind the gaseous planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Yet another speculates slowing down the speed of light, so that the entire solar system can go into hiding. 


The name of the first novel, The Three-Body Problem, is one of those hard to solve challenges in celestial mechanics, making it virtually impossible to predict motion of three objects in space moving around each other.  So, if you have the misfortune to live in a system with three stars, you will have no idea how they are going to behave. During some periods, they will all be together, frying the surface of your planet. Other time, they will all in different locations and your home will be frozen and nothing will grow. 


The aliens living under these terrible circumstances do develop a technology which depends on dehydrating themselves during rough times, and rehydrating when things are going well. During the good times, they develop a very advanced civilization but they are very eager to leave their home and find someplace more pleasant. Fortunately for them, someone on earth sends out a signal inviting outside forces, because that someone, a woman scientist, is fed up with her government (China during the cultural revolution). 


Stephen Hawking, one of the most famous astrophysicists of our time, had warned us not to reach out to aliens out there in universe because an advanced civilization can put us at risk. This dark tale speculates what can happen.  



Thursday, April 1, 2021

Native habitat restoration

 We recently came across an interesting sign outside Arroyo Seco, an area in which we frequently go for walks. “Native Habitat Restoration,” it said. You see, in Southern California, a lot of vegetation is from plants and trees that are not native. They are of invasive species. The restoration aims to remove them and bring back the natives. “With the aliens taking resources, the natives can’t thrive,” they argue. 


This made us think of the larger picture involving people, both natives and aliens. The vociferous opposition to new immigrants, “aliens,” is based, among other things, on belief that they take away resources from those living here already, the “natives.”


The first problem with this is who is native and who is alien. Yes, California has native Americans. In our areas, there used to be Hahamongna Indians who lived before being displaced by the aliens. First those from south (Mexico), and then from East (United States). 


However, if you speak to most Californians, they would not consider themselves as aliens. They are natives. Only those who are immigrating recently are aliens, otherwise, the narrative does not work. They would not want to be uprooted so that the habitat goes back to Hahamongna Indians.


We came across a woman, an elderly local, who lamented the fact that in their zeal to restore native vegetation, the authorities had chopped of a lot of trees. She was not happy at all. The trees being chopped off were so valuable. Good for you, we said. 


So, my fellow Californians, let us not get too zealous about restoring native plants at the expense of the alien ones. Listen to the argument made by the old lady we met, and apply it to the human population. We recent immigrants, the “aliens” are here to stay, and we add a lot of value to the society, just as alien plants do. 


Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Enough is enough

When we were traveling most of 2019, and staying in multiple hotels, Airbnbs, and homes of family members and friends, there were two challenges we faced almost every time: How to operate the shower and a far greater one, how to make the TV work.  Each time we wanted to watch something, we were confronted with multiple remote controls, with scant explanation on what buttons to press to see the evening news, or watch a movie. 

Now that we have a place to stay, our household is no different. We are proud owners of four remote controls, one each for TV, cable, the sound bar, and Roku. Together, they have 120 different buttons you can press, some of which would be meaningless to you, as they are to us. To get the news channel, you press the TV power button on the sound bar remote and then the source button on TV remote to make sure you are on HDMI 2.  Next comes the cable remote’s turn. It allows you to select the channel. Now, once you get the channel you want, you need to go back to the sound bar remote to adjust volume. 


Want to watch a movie? We subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime channels. However, to get there, you will need to select HDMI 4 as the source and then learn how to operate the Roku remote. Again, don’t forget, the sound volume cannot be controlled by any remote except the one for the sound bar. 


Isn’t technology wonderful? I am an engineer, so this all should be easy. However I am also a senior citizen and find the product complexity unnecessary and infuriating. Pray tell me, why do I need so many choices?


Talking about that we bought a Subaru about a year ago. This is a stripped down version but yet it comes with mind-boggling number of buttons and screens.  The main instruction manual is a five hundred and thirty nine page long. It is choke full of information on how to operate the vehicle and its accessories. The section on seats, seatbelts and SRS airbags run for mind-numbing seventy-six pages! Do they expect their customers to go through this crap just to make sure that they are properly restrained in their cars?


If you want to know all about instruments and controls, you need to read just one hundred pages, and another hundred will tell you all you need to know about starting and operating the vehicle. 


I didn’t read all these pages, of course, but had to glance through them to figure out what most of the switches and buttons do. The last thing I want to happen is press the ejection seat by mistake (I am kidding). Still there were some switches that were not mentioned in the Instruction manual. Two were hidden in the overhead console and two near cruise control.  Then, I read somewhere that if my vehicle is equipped with the EyeSight system then I need to get another manual for that. I was told that indeed our vehicle has an EyeSight system, so I went to the website and found a pdf file of the manual. Guess how many pages are there in that manual? One hundred and sixteen! 


We are reaching a state of absurdity, I think.  Yes, AI will come to rescue when all we will have to do is to speak properly and the system will do what we want. No instruction manuals required. However, until that happens, we are caught into this quicksand of increased product complexity, driven primarily by “we will give choices because we can, not because anyone asked us to. “


Interestingly, at the other end of the spectrum are some products made by companies such as Apple. They have taken the elegance and simplicity of their products to an absurd level and end up creating the same level of frustration as those that come with too much information, as in the above examples. 


So, recently, we got the Apple TV to replace Roku, which is also a streaming device you connect to your television. You get a neat little box containing neat little black components of the device, and practically no instructions. I figured out how to connect the main unit to my TV, but had a great deal of difficulties understanding what the remote did. As I said, there are no instructions. Like the ape in 2001: A Space Odyssey, puzzled at encountering a slick black obelisk, I looked at the small thin black obelisk in my hand, turning it around, and wondering how one can use it to go up and down a simple menu on the screen. 


Finally, it took an explanation from our son-in-law to figure out that the top part of the remote is like the touch pad on my laptop. You move your fingers and press it to create action on what you see on TV. Also, there is a Siri like capability on the remote. You just say what you want to watch and it will appear on your screen. Would it have destroyed Apple’s brand image if they said these things on a small piece of paper in the box? 


Same issues with their new iPhone. My wife and I went through a hilarious episode when we could not figure out how to switch the damn thing off! Now we are not dumb…we have gone to college and earned many degrees among the two of us. Is something wrong with us or the manufacturers just don’t get it? 


I say, enough is enough.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Sharing vs. Showing off

 Recently, I wrote a Blog post on why can’t we stop showing off (1st December 2020). The main part of that post was a story in NY Times about how to get readers get introduced to classical music. This was filled with experts selecting obscure pieces and describing in such technical terms that only other experts will understand. I thought they were showing off instead of sharing their knowledge. 

I followed that soon after with a document introducing the recipients to classical music. Prompted by a gentle jab from a friend asking if now I was showing off, I started thinking. First, I asked the recipients if they felt that I was indeed showing off. I got a resounding response….no I was not. Then, I thought about when sharing becomes showing off. Here is what I came up with. Let’s start from the very beginning. 


What do we share?


We share information about ourselves, where and how we live, our family, what we do, our hobbies. 


We share our experiences, our travels, the places we have visited, the people we have met, the places where we have dined.


We share knowledge, something we know, we have learned, we have studied, we have researched.


We share our wealth, donate to worthy causes, help a family member, help a friend in need.


Why do we share?


We share information about ourselves as a way of establishing a social network. Our relationships in part are based on knowing about each other and establishing trust.


We share our experiences to learn about what each one of us have done, where we have gone, what types of friends we have made. 


We share our knowledge because it is a part of our job, to help someone learn something new, to start a discussion on a new topic.


We share our wealth because of altruistic purposes, and make ourselves feel good.


Why else do we share?


An additional reason for sharing is that being liked, admired, and respected by others will boost our ego.


People may say good things about our lives, our family our house, our car, our skills, and that will boost our ego.


The listeners will praise us for the experience we have had, places we have visited, folks we have met, and that will boost our ego.


Our audience of our lecture will be mesmerized by our knowledge and be grateful because they learned something new. That will boost our ego.


We will get heartfelt thanks for the funds received by a worthy cause. Or family member or friend who we assisted will pledge eternal gratitude and that will boost our ego.


Now, in an ideal situation, we should be living a life free from ego, as our wise people say. However, most of us it is impossible to achieve that state. So, this additional reason is important, and for many it might be the driver for sharing.


When does sharing become showing off?


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


The person listening to us talk about our house, our life, our family, our car may also think how egotistical we are. Although that is not what they will say in our faces. Their praise will not be sincere.


The folks listening to us talk, without them asking, about our experiences may think, “Here he goes again. I have heard about your Antarctica trip enough number of times. Just shut up.” Of course, they will maintain their pleasant demeanor.


The audience of our lecture, or a recipient of a massive document containing our knowledge, will say “I don’t understand a thing. If he were genuinely trying to impart knowledge, why wouldn’t he take my interests and limitations in to account?”


The person listening to our tales of donation will say, “He is doing it just to brag about it.”


In short, the recipient of our exchange will think that we are showing off.


Now again, for some this may be the ultimate goal. Getting their ego stroked is not sufficient, they want to feel superior to the recipients.


How can we stop showing off?


Showing off can be harmful in several ways. The relationships we are trying to build may not take hold and the existing ones my erode. We will come across as an egomaniac or a fool, not the most complimentary descriptions to aspire to. 


So, we should be aware when our sharing may slip into showing off. How do we do that?


The most important element in making sure we don’t fall into the trap is to know the recipients of our sharing. Who is the audience?


It is one thing if we are talking about our big house on a seashore with someone in the same wealth level, another if the listener is a person with more modest means.


It is one thing if we are comparing notes with another well-travelled person, another if the friend has barely left town.


It is one thing if we are discussing classical music with a peer, another if we are doing that with a layperson who is genuinely interested in knowing more about the field.


It is one thing if we keep the story of our donations just to ourselves, another if we use it to impress a new set of recipients…our family and friends. 


That’s my thinking on the topic.


Monday, February 1, 2021

American Terror: An unfinished opera

Act 1: Exposition


In this act, the three main characters are introduced and described.


1. Unhappy people: Mostly rural population that is unhappy because of a variety of reasons. One is the changing character of the country; it is not mostly white Christian country any more. The other is disappearing jobs. Manufacturing is moving to China; coal is not in demand any more, the Mexicans are taking over menial jobs. The old life is disappearing, and they desperately yearn for good old America. 


2. Social Media: A new way of communicating has emerged. There are multiple platforms that comprise Social Media: FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube, and so on. They provide a legitimate service by connecting billions of people worldwide, and bringing them news and entertainment However, they are also misused by those with malice in mind or have an alternate view of reality. These are addictive platforms, and what gets posted is quite believable.


3. Donald Trump: A low life narcissist who has mastered the skill of sounding very believable. He has inherited money and run several businesses with utter ruthlessness. 


Act 2: Development


In this act, the three characters interact among themselves, forming alliances and creating conflicts.


Donald Trump finds out that there are a large number of Unhappy People. He crafts a message that offers them salvation. Using his oratory skills, he convinces sufficient number of Unhappy People that he should be President of United States. He wins.


Donald Trump discovers the power of Social Media. He uses one form of Social Media, Twitter, as his megaphone and uses it to reach Unhappy People. He could say whatever he feels like, truth be damned. Since whatever comes through on these Social Media channels is believable, the Unhappy People lap it up. 


Several Unhappy People start creating an alternate universe that would explain to them and their cohorts why they are failing in spite of their birth right to succeed. They create conspiracy theories and put them on Social Media. Since anything on Social Media is believable, Unhappy People lap up these theories. 


Donald Trump discovers the power of alternate universe and conspiracy theories. Now he does not have to work hard to keep Unhappy People in his fold. He can find scapegoats for anything that does not work. Any negative reporting is attributed to horribly biased media. Every pain that Unhappy People are feeling can be blamed on Democrats, social liberals, Chinese or Mexicans. Almost all of the communication is done using Social Media. How convenient?


The conspiracy theorists use Social Media to weave theories on how Donald Trump is the savior that is god sent to save the Unhappy People from the others. Since everything on Social Media is believable, Unhappy People lap it up. 


Unfortunately, reality intervenes. The savior is soundly defeated in elections. How can that be, ask Unhappy People? Donald Trump is supposed to rule for ever. Donald Trump uses Social Media to confirm their suspicion. His defeat cannot be true. The election was stolen by Democrats, social liberals, and helped by media (and black and brown people).


Unhappy People become even more unhappy. The get angry. They want to do something about it. Donald Trump uses Social Media to foment anger. Things come to head on January 6th when the US Congress convenes to officially deliver their savior, Donald Trump, a defeat. 


This cannot be allowed to happen, say Unhappy People. They storm the Capitol where the dastardly act was happening, Bastille style. After many hours, they are turned back, but not before they have caused damage, terrorized elected representatives, and infuriated the rest of the population. 


Act 3: Recapitulation


In this act, the conflicts start resolving but are not resolved.


Donald Trump’s defeat is confirmed and certified. He is out of office and impeached. His access to Social Media is cut off. The Social Media also takes steps to contain conspiracy theorists. However, the Unhappy People remain unhappy. They remain defiant and have promised a continuation of their movement. 


The opera is unfinished. 




Note: A common structure for a movement in symphony is called “Sonata Form.” It has four parts. In the first part, exposition, two themes are presented, followed by the development part in which themes interact with each other causing conflicts. These conflicts are resolved in the recapitulation part, and finally a coda closes off the movement. I have taken liberty to use this as a way of explaining what is happening in America at the moment. I have called it an opera instead of a movement in symphony, so themes become characters. Also, instead of four movements, this one has three…the closing has not happened. It is an unfinished opera.


It is hard to predict how this opera will end. Like a scene from Romeo and Juliette, when the two feuding families Montague and Capulets reconcile after death of the lovers, the crisis has prompted some form of reconciliation among Democrats and Republicans. Will that be enough?