Thursday, July 17, 2014

About Orkut and Facebook

(This is a slightly edited version of a post from 2010. I don't quite believe in this, but suspect there is a grain of truth in it)

The difference between Orkut(as it was)and FB is that they belong to two slightly different times, or rather slightly different stages of human society.

Human society started out with tribes, where members were part of an almost organic whole. The more societies have progressed, the more ‘abstract’ they have become – with less and less direct human interactions. Ethically, the move has been from collectivism from individualism.

FB is the social networking site for a society further along the line of progress. Members of such a society are more likely to turn to a social networking site to look for a quick feeling of human warmth, quick social recognition. They will feel the need to talk about themselves, and they will need people to listen. They may be less interested in the opposite. These are services FB is tailored for.

In a society where people are not so lonely however, these desires will be less important. If you’re meeting your social network friends in real life often enough, you’re less likely to seek their attention online. However, if it’s a sufficiently abstract society, this won’t fulfill one’s need for human interactions. In social networking sites, the focus then will be on making more and more new friends. Something that requires more time than the more advanced (Facebook) society won’t have. Orkut is better than FB for meeting new people and making friends and caters exactly to the needs of the society. Further, people in this society are likelier to care less about privacy issues than people in more abstract, individual-oriented societies.

(Photo: This is a cropped version of a photo titled 'Alone in the City' by Flickr user nataliej)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

My New Blog

I am moving to a new blog : Fizpoky Dreams
This blog is closed. However, if anyone comments on previous posts they will be read and answered.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

How Magic defies Economics

In an edifying blogpost Sabine Hossenfelder describes her puzzlement about how magic spells sold online can fetch a price as high as $200.

She says:

"After I figured she spent $200 on somebody sending her an email with some probably random generated "magical words" I could not but be stunned. It raised two questions for me: First, why do people waste money on entirely useless crap? Second, doesn't standard economical theory tells us that the value of a product reflects all the information about it? So why then doesn't the miracle of the free market accurately price useless spells at zero? (To be fair, they probably have some slight entertainment value and a psychological effect. But that's like saying you'd spend $200 on an iPod, and if it doesn't work the money was still well spent on making you feel better for helping the economy.)"

She goes on to answer the first question in her post. It is lack of education, more specifically, lack of understanding how science works that’s the culprit. But the second question is somewhat more perplexing. This blog post is to share my perplexity on this question and invite answers.

Here in India, astrology, palmistry etc are pretty big. Astrology/ palmistry experts usually recommend their clients to wear these rings with gems embedded on them. Different gems are associated with different planets (I don't know how they dealt with Pluto's demotion). By looking at your palm or studying your horoscope, the expert will know which stones you must wear to get beneficial effects. And behind all this there is a science!

According to one website :

"The Science of Planetary Gemology has been used in accordance with Indian astrology for thousands of years. It is the science of understanding how gem stones transmit and reflect planetary rays, and how they increase planetary influences in a person’s life. Thus, gemstone therapy can become a potent form of natural vibrational healing."

The Science of Planetary Gemology, no less!

To come back to the business side, almost every big enough jeweler’s shop has an astrologer attached to boost sales. I just went through an astrology/gem selling site to check the prices. Some gems (like Ruby, Sapphire, or Emerald) can cost between Rs. 4000 to 7000 ($80- $150) per carat, and a stone would be somewhere between 4 to 8 carats. There are very probably people who have spent Rs 60000 ($1300) on a single stone, and not because of it’s aesthetic value.
Why? How does mumbo-jumbo evade the rules of economical theory?

My own hypothesis is that people are unable to judge the value of the products. The promises the sellers make are not often specific: success, happiness, health. The users do not know the time period in which the spell/talisman is supposed to give results. If these products came with promises like ‘get your lover/box office stardom/hair back’ in a week/month or some specific time, people would know if it weren’t working. If it was a restaurant, you could judge immediately. If it was a gadget, you would know in a while. But with something as vague as a charm, it’s much more difficult to reach a definite conclusion.

And if they do eventually come to a conclusion, it will take a lot of time. By which time they will have already influenced their friends etc one way or the other.

Suppose Mrs. X bought a Ruby to boost her health. That doesn’t mean that she would give up her medicines or her yoga or whatever. Now obviously the Ruby has no effect on her health (except placebo). Her health will continue to improve and deteriorate as it would without the ring. The very next time her health improves, she’ll likely give credit to the ruby. This will induce her friends who are also looking to boost their health to buy gems for themselves. If they would study the fluctuations in Mrs X’s health on a long term and compare with that of other people who have similar health problems, take other possible factors into account then they could reach the conclusion that all a ruby does is look good on your finger. But people don’t take such long times to judge and certainly don’t show such scientific detachment.

OK, so that’s probably not a very good illustration. But hopefully you get the gist of what I’m saying. But perhaps you have a better explanation?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Why I didn't like the book "Ender's Game'

Ender, when he contemplates violence against Stilson, Bonzo etc never for a moment thinks of the damage he may do to them. In both cases the violence is so excessive that it ends up killing them. But we are reminded again and again that Ender is good. Clean to the heart. The book seems to pronounce these actions to be moral. Of course Ender wallows in guilt afterwards (not because he killed them without meaning to, he didn’t know that. For hurting them) but one could wonder why, as his violence was completely calculated. He hurt exactly as much as he wanted.

I am not saying Ender should have allowed himself to be beaten to the pulp. I am questioning the need to pass moral judgment on this act, to approve of it. In Bonzo’s case, intense violence wasn’t needed. Ender could have told Bonzo ‘look, if I win you are not to bother me again.’ Bonzo, with his sense of honor and overconfidence would have bought that. ‘Hurting him so much that his fear would be greater than his hatred’ or ideas to that effect weren’t necessary.

But for Card, I suspect it was necessary, as were Stilson’s and Bonzo’s deaths. He is leading us towards a moral philosophy. This philosophy, imlicit in Ender’s Game is pronounced by Ender in the sequel ‘Speaker for the Dead’ :

“Speakers for the Dead held as their only doctrine that good or evil exist entirely in human motive, and not at all in the act”

We are quite cleverly lead to this bit of wisdom: When Ender kills Stilson or Bonzo we are not told that they are dead. The facts are kept from the reader. Should we have known them then we’d have probably passed a different judgment on Ender’s actions. However the circumstances of his action make us likely to sympathize with Ender : It wasn’t his fault, did what he had to do, not a bad boy even he can deliberately unleash intense violence etc. And so when it is later revealed that he actually killed the other two boys, the reader’s are unlikely to revise their judgments. From there we are almost inevitably lead to the above philosophy : Ender didn’t mean no harm, so he is entirely innocent.

Now if I was prepared to accept the moral absolutism (which I am not, who is to decide what is good or evil etc.) I have to object to the judgment based on motives alone. That would in fact make Hitler a good man – by all accounts the man didn’t want anything other than the good of the race. Is that an evil motive now? You could object and say Hitler also intended to kill people, which is bad in itself. However, so did Ender. He agreed to go and attack the Buggers when they weren’t bothering the humans at all. He didn’t say ‘Umm, why don’t we try some more communication?’ Mazer Rackham had a pretty good idea how the bugger hive-mind worked, so why not try to build on that? Ender may have been innocent of the actual killing (he thought he was playing a game) but he did agree to the attack. He agreed to kill innocent intelligent creatures in a pre-emptive strike and in the second book he would be absolved of this on the ground that he didn’t know the buggers were human. Similar arguments would work for Hitler, right?

So, yeah, I don’t much like the morality Ender’s Game tries to sell.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Me in MadScience

So here I am at MadScience ( I'm sorry, MatScience). Contrary to expectations, I am whirring along pretty well. It's a nice joint, this, with cool facilities.

The people here have been nice and kind to us too. Apart from one little kid who kept looking at me as if I hurt his finer sensibilities, nobody seems affronted by my presence.

There's a pretty good gym here, and some people work out even. I go there everyday, to stand and look admiringly at the equipments.

Chennai is full of surprises. The other day we found a restaurant where they even sell beef. Which is not all that surprising, except to people like us who were getting the impression that fish, chickens, goats or indeed any eatable creatures don't exist in this part of the world. And the hotel Annapurna here is to the good: the bangali food is as good as anywhere in Kolkata.

I shall stop now, Monk is calling me. We're going out to explore the city a bit more now....who knows what we may find today! Free cookies, maybe?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Right Not to Listen

' Our Party is for unity. Everything is in reality united, pleasure and pain, Hindu and Muslim, love and hatred, religion and science. You wonder about the last two? I am here to tell you they're the same (hear, hear). You know how? Because science says people will die, and when people die what do we do but pray? Thus the unity is firmly established.'

As I try hard to concentrate on the book I've been trying to read for some time now, such brilliant pieces of reasoning are pushed down my ears. Yet another political meeting is being held near our apartment, and they have placed loudspeakers everywhere. Closing doors and windows did not help. Listening to the voice of the Great Uniter, I wonder if the strategically located loudspeakers were at all necessary.  He has the sort of voice that you might confuse him with a firecracker during Diwali.

In the book I am trying to read, something on political philosophy, the words 'individual's freedom ' stare at me. I wonder if I don't have the freedom not to listen to whatever that is being shouted out on loudspeakers by whoever can afford  them. The freedom of speech does not include the right to be heard, and I would like some protection from the noise. Sure, I could put on my ipod or something, but that's not the point. The point is: a person, when she's in her own house, in her own room, should have the right to choose what she wants to listen to, which may be nothing at all.  At this moment, all I demand is a reasonable degree of silence that will allow me to just make sense of the words before me. But the Great Uniter has now worked himself into a frenzy of righteous indignation and is louder than ever. I can't make out anything he's saying, it sounds like a lot of tyres bursting. 

I wonder if there's a law protecting from such noise. Surely this is greater than 65 decibels.   Maybe I should call the police. Is it at all likely that they will stop a political meeting in election time, given the possible political repurcussion? And if they do, will I be able to continue living here, after angering all the political parties ? Or perhaps I should just 'adjust', like everyone else seems to be doing? After all, the Great Uniter has just stopped (having had a heart attack, I'm sure) and his replacement is somewhat less loud.  Besides, all this will stop when the elections end. Mmm, maybe I should settle for a scorching letter to the editor. Or just this post.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Alexander McCall Smith visits Jadavpur University

The place, I haunt all the time : JU, more particularly, the Eng Sci building. We often assemble near the door and chat. The man, Alexander McCall Smith,  whose stories takes place in such far away places like Botswana or Edinburgh. I've had imaginary conversations with him, but never expected to see him, let alone in this world of Jadavpur. So when the writer of No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency entered the Engineering Science Building, I was left feeling somewhat unreal.

I hadn't known he was coming to JU, and I suppose not many people did either. It was Ad Libber who informed me (and I am deeply grateful to her). Anyways I had arrived much earlier, so I chatted with our lab attendant Palash da who informed me that our batch had the lowest lab  attendence in recorded history and we were bound to fail in the exams. Feeling much braced, I again went outside and prowled around for a while, a forlorn figure. Dr. Rimi Chatterjee, the smiling Professor of Creative Writing, was also there - waiting for the BCL people to arrive. I really like her blog, by the way.

Anyways, I waited and waited and finally some friends arrived and while we were chatting the BCL people started to arrive. Then came this beautiful lady looking for the KP Basu Hall ( She turned out to be Susie Nicklin, Director Literature, British Council).  And then, finally, he arrived.
Ad Libber had asked me to get an autograph if possible, and I lost no time in cornering him even as he entered Eng Sc. As I cornered him with a 'Mr. Smith?' he immediatley smiled and shook my hands, and seemed delighted to have been asked for an autograph. And when I thanked him for the autograph, he replied ' Thank you very much indeed!' as if I had done him a favour by asking for his autograph, and not the other way round! There's this phrase which I've often read-  'Old World Charm'. I think I saw it in action today.

Not more than 30 people had arrived, including the members of the Faculty of English. So KP Basu was quite empty. Which was a pity, but also a pleasure for those present because they all got to ask questions. The introductory speech was given by the HOD of English Department, who informed the audience that JU English was one of the few places where Alexander Smith's work was taught. The Talk was chaired by Susie Nicklin, who told us that instead of reading, they would have an interactive session. Which was much cooler really. She then proceeded to interview Smith,  and we learned much about the man and his works.

  We learned about Smith's   connect to India through RK Narayan, a major literary influence on him. Narayan   wrote about people who were far removed from the centre of history, and yet he managed to capture many important things about the world in those stories. This was what appealed to Smith.  He said that if there was any justice in the world, Narayan should have gotten a Nobel prize. Smith talked about how he had loved being in Botswana and how his works are in a sense a homage to the place. He talked about Mma Ramatswe, someone who had suffered much and could still be very kind and generous. He spoke of the Little White Van and of author's relations with movie people ( They think authors are irritating people') 'I'm sure we all know such people', he said.  Is he really a crime writer, his books seem to be somewhat lacking in bodies? Smith said that murder is statistically one of the least significant of crimes, so perhaps people should write about more common crimes - like parking offences. He had the audience in splits recounting a story he wrote about an author who chose to write about real parking offences. Nicklin mentioned his Really Terrible Orchestra - an orchestra of people who can't play of which he was a founder-member. ' We don't always finish at the same time' he said, ' The audience expects something to go wrong, and we never disappoint them.'  A possible show in Kolkata? Sure, Smith said. 

 It was a wonderful  session, and Smith had us laughing all the time with his delightful sense of humor. Then came the question-answer session. A lady-fan complained to Smith why Jamie and Isabelle didn't have a full-fledged affair, which would have cured her of her prissiness? Smith said that they do in the later books, and Isabelle even has a child. He revealed to us that he had never had an idea in the beginning of any such development.  Isabelle is forteen years older than Jamie, not to mention his ex-girlfriend's aunt. ' We don't approve of that sort of thing In Edinburgh' he claimed mock-seriously. But it's pressure from his lady-fans which made him make Isabelle and Jamie have an affair. 'I'm an interactive writer', he said, and proceeded to ask the questioner if she would like them  getting married. Many other interesting questions were asked and answered very fully. I asked how he thought of those very interesting titles for his books. He said that he sometimes came up with the names before writing the books and would then write a book that had something to do with the title. He told us that his editor insisted on an adjective in the titles - so while he had come up with ' An attitude to rain' , it was to become ' The Right Attitude to Rain'. 

And then, finally, the session was over, and Smith signed some books. I left, knowing that I had had some really  wonderful time.

[ Note:  The Smith quotes in the post should  not be considered exact Smith quotes. I have obviously forgotten his exact words and may have understood him incorrectly. This is what I understood and remembered of his words.]