Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Vox Populi

Vox populi, vox dei goes the saying. Voice of the people, voice of god. It's a more loaded statement than one would initially believe. For instance - religion; quite literally the voice of god is often a function of what the people find popular at that point. Of course - I could open a whole can of worms, and I will - but religion is not the can of worms I'll be opening today. Instead I want to talk about the mass hysteria surrounding Anna Hazare.

Full Disclosure: I do not approve of his methods so before I criticise my bias (which I readily admit to) I implore you to question my arguments. I also do not consider myself patriotic, but I am as much for rooting out corruption as the most patriotic of you.

There have been enough opinion pieces about Anna and most of the ones I have read have been critical of him. I attribute this in part to the fact that he enjoys enough support that opinion pieces supporting him don't need to be written all that often and in part to my own bias. But the one thing I find very striking in all the pieces are the reactions, the only gauge of which I have access to being the comments.

A majority of the comments disapprove of the articles - which is fine. What isn't fine is the general pattern of comments. Anyone who criticises Anna and/or his methods is not a puppet of the government. Anyone who doesn't support his ideology doesn't automatically support a corrupt government.

One of the best articles I have read in a long time was an interview with Nandan Nilekani (Full Disclosure: I am a fan of him and his work) where he states his view that the Lokpal bill is not a magic bullet that will rid the country of corruption and that anyone who thinks so is drinking the Kool Aid. He went on to mention that not all politicians are corrupt and that it's important to engage in parliamentary proceedings and that his own experiences were pretty pleasant. And here are what were some particularly; for lack of a better word - gnarly comments:

See what a few months spent in the North Block of Indian Parliament and interactions with Manmohan Singh , Kapil sibal , P Chidabharam can do to a person.

He is now completely talking like a corrupt Congress Agent .
Not even his former colleagues at Infosys will agree to it

Likes: 21

Because OF course - the commenter knows exactly how his Infy colleagues would have reacted. And as far as I know - no one from Infosys came out to criticise the guy.

I mean - sure; criticise his stand, but not by attacking him personally. Even if the accusations levelled were true, they would not and should not diminish the point that was being made (whatever the merit of the point itself).

If you do not have a solution, do not criticize others who have, and are putting in effort to bring in the change.

Likes: 9

This is a favourite; for how utterly inane the statement is and just how often it is repeated. Let me put forth a terrible analogy for how terrible the argument is - if someone points out that 2.4343*pi*(e^(5/6))*-1=5 is wrong because you're multiplying the expression by -1 and so the answer should be negative, they shouldn't have to give a solution because their reasoning for why the answer is wrong is sound.

Mr.Nilekani...........big sorry comes for you!!!!!!...if you are so concerned about the country and against the way Anna is using for fighting against corruption!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!then please suggest some solid measures for the eradication of corruption and come up in front of every one and help the citizens of India!!!! WHO ARE GETTING MORE POORER AND PEOPLE LIKE YOU ARE GETTING MORE RICHER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.......................SHAME ON ALL OF YOU ...


Looking past the terrible grammar, extended exclamations and Caps Lock abuse, it is obvious that the commenter has not even read the article or watched the video. If criticism is levelled against the person you support - you can only counter it if you know what the criticism is. Nilekani clearly states suggestions and why he thinks what Anna is doing is a bad idea and some of the things that need to get done (and of course; promoting the nationalised ID system as ONE of those steps. Full Disclosure: Nandan Nilekani heads the project).

These are only some of the inane comments I have read. Others include things like "you {insert random political ideology}-ist upper class in your AC room are not connected with what's happening in this country and so cook up these conspiracy theories".

Assuming that the person writing that has any idea what that political ideology even stands for, it's an outrageous claim that they are somehow more connected with what's happening than the person they disagree with.

The latest I came across was " even a true cause fails to touch our hearts....its a pity.....".

A blind appeal to emotion and an implicit claim that the opposition is somehow less true in its intentions.

One of the worst are claims like "India is Anna". No it's not.

Say even a hundred thousand people supported Anna at Ramlila maidan (which they didn't) it's hardly representative of the millions of others who haven't said anything (for whatever reason).

I do have problems with Anna, I make no secret of that. But I respect your right to support him and I expect you to maintain my stand. If I have problems with your claim that I want to address - I will address them and not attack your character, your motivations or your backing.

Now I'm not claiming that one has to have a similar personality to the commenters quoted if they have to support Anna. But if your response to criticism is anything along the lines of the responses here, I urge you to reconsider your stand.

Because if you make the same fallacious arguments; you're adding to a growing list of people who do the same. And if these people are representative of the large majority of Anna's supporters, and if one accepts that the large majority of Anna's supporters are indeed representative of the voice of the people; they are the vox populi - then it is indeed worrying and makes for a disturbing vox dei.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The selfish scientist

We are nearing the end of an era. After 30 years, the shuttle program is at an end. Discovery made its last flight and soon Endeavor and Atlantis will make their flights. STS 133, 134 and 135 will mark the end of a remarkable and revolutionary space program. And I shall mourn its loss.

The shuttle missions, and manned exploration in general have brought about a number of advancements. The ISS would not have been possible without the shuttle missions. But while I do mourn for the fact that we've suffered a technical throwback, I'm sad for other reasons.

When I was a kid; every second person had a stock response to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" - invariably it was "astronaut" or "fighter pilot". Not many knew what hard work went into either - but they thought it was cool. That was reason enough.

Satellites orbiting earth help with communications, remote sensing and have brought about a revolution in the way we view our world. Measurements that could never have been taken in the past can be taken with ease because of remote sensing satellites. Satellites have made technologies such as GPS possible. While not space exploration per se, it is an industry that evolved with it.

Science is often considered a noble and higher human pursuit. It often leads to the betterment of the human condition, but often - that is not why scientists do science. They do it because it's a reward in itself. A number of scientific discoveries are completely useless. They fulfil nothing more than a desire to know about how the world exists. I can't think of many reasons why knowing the minerals that make up a random main sequence star in a distant cluster is useful. The Hubble space telescope has taken pictures of the cosmos that have revealed a lot about our place in this universe. It has also generated a lot of pretty pictures of the stars, which now adorn many a room.

I will probably receive a lot of flak for this, but I think that the fulfilment of human curiosity is reason enough to do science. Just as we do movies. They both fulfil needs that rise beyond the ordinary base desires of humanity. They both work to extinguish our boredom; something that we got along with out higher mental faculties.

Those who do science often have to deny this because admitting to the fact that returns are never guaranteed in science is taboo. And it doesn't help while asking for funds either. Of course I'm not claiming that science is useless. It has, in fact contributed to humanity's progress more than probably any other field. I'm just claiming that once shouldn't and can't expect scientific research to produce material that will help humanity.

And space exploration is one such science where results are not guaranted. I can't and wont say that space exploration is intrinsically useful. I don't think that landing man on the moon accomplished much. But I'll be darned if it wasn't cool. And I'm sure it was a catalyst to a number of people getting into science.

Not many people will admit to this, but I say scientists are not social workers. That's not to say they don't care about the world, but they're not always working *to* make the world a better place. Of course; there are medical researchers - vaccines have saved thousands, maybe millions of lives, but even in medicine there exists research for which there isn't any immediate apparent use. We can hope that eventually uses are found for scientific applications, but even this is not guaranteed.

I believe that this quote from the great Richard Feynman sums it up best - "Physics is like sex. It might have some results, but it's not why we do it". I suppose I have done a terrible job to advocate science, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way.

I can say this though. Doing science doesn't guarante results, but not doing it will impede progress.

Meanwhile I hope that enough people want to know more about the universe that the space program remains strong. And as for anyone claiming that we "waste" money on space, I will bring attention to the spending on space (in the US).

Obama's 2011 budget proposal has the US government spending (in 2011) ~31.44 billion dollars on science, of which we will spend 12.78 billion dollars on space research. Contrast that to the defense budget - 738 billion dollars. A significant portion of that money goes towards researching better guns and bombs. To kill people. I'm not going to debate the ethics of the obnoxious spending (in this note), but I will say that I am of the opinion that this kind of spending is odius.

(Source: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/02/01/us/budget.html?src=tp )

I do hope that the end of the space shuttle doesn't mean the end of manned space exploration. And I hope that we have effective re-entry vehicles for future missions. The shuttle was unique in it's design approach, and a few unfortunate accidents due to human error should not mean the end of the program, but having reached its inevitable end one can only hope that it's replaced by a worthy successor.

Irrespective of your views on whether this is a positive thing, I don't think there can be disagreement on the fact that this is indeed a landmark time.

I would also invite you to checkout the following radio program (BBC World Radio: Have your say) on which I was featured, which contains some interesting viewpoints on space exploration.


BBC World Have Your Say - Space by avic

Of course, not everyone has the same opinion - I would love to hear what you have to say about it.