This is great!

Why do you have to be a nonconformist like everybody else?
- James Thurber

From the Other Side

Francis Collins, head-honcho of the Human Genome Project, baffles me to no end. I have not read his books and I don't think he has much to offer as this interview in the February edition of the National Geographic indicates.

All he does in the interview is to offer apologies and excuses for God and religion, and pooh-pooh claims that science, including genetics, will eventually be able to answer questions that are currently the domain of religion. He does not have much faith in the power of prayer, except that through it we obtain fellowship (how?) with God; he knows that miracles are highly unlikely, yet believes that they may occur; suffering and evil in the world is not God's fault, but the result of human free-will.

Why only blame the uneducated and the ignorant for holding irrational beliefs?

There are no Spanish Darlings


From the IT department:

More versions are available here where you can can even order them for 2$ a pop.

The Tragedy of The Commons

Last night when I was renewing my library card at the AADL, the local public library, the librarian politely informed me that I had $4.00 in fines and if I wanted to pay some of them. Having to pay library fines is something I have struggled with all my life. I usually OD on books and despite my furious reading speed I don't have enough time to read all of them by the due date. There was a time when I thought that having to pay fines meant something was wrong with my character; something I needed to improve. I have since rationalized that paying fines is a way to support your local library.

So, I told her: "Sure! I would love to pay the all the fines and support my local library!".
She said: "You are already supporting your local library through your taxes."
I said: "True, but there are some, like me, who use the resources disproportionately!".

She laughed so hard that everbody in the checkout line wondered what I had said. I think she laughed because she looked like a disproportionate user herself! It is quite a club at the AADL. Ann Arbor, is a disproportionately overeducated town, full of self-styled experts and polymaths. You know you are in Ann Arbor when 'serious' books have hold queues with over 200 requests. I call this phenomenon the NPR Effect.

The public libraries in the US are fantastic. They let you borrow as many materials as you want; they will get whatever you want. The libraries do much to educate and engage the community. Perhaps it is less true in Ann Arbor, but in general the public does not use its libraries as much as it should. The public library seems to be a perverse example of the tragedy of the commons-free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately dooms the resource through over-exploitation. Here, a great public resource for which the public is paying taxes is being under-utilized. A tragedy indeed!

Old posts on: Fines and library nostalgia.

State of Denial: The God Delusion

Once upon time, I was an agnostic. Being an agnostic doesn't affect your daily life. You could be friends with the religious folk and non-believers and they would all think that deep down you were on their side. Like a certain famous Frenchman, I thought that agnosticism was a good insurance policy, just in case G-O-D did exist. So, I remained comfortably agnostic till I read the Selfish Gene. By the end of the second chapter, I was pretty much convinced of the foolishness of my position and was turned on by the beauty of evolution. He shows how life can happen without any agent. My agnosticism was a euphemism for ignorance. It takes a book like the Selfish Gene to convince you inconvertibly. To deny the existence of something on basis of gut feeling is one thing, but to have it shown scientifically is quite another. I felt a sense of betrayal; I had been misled all my life. I considered the hours I had wasted in prayer and there was no one even listening. What seemed shocking was the fact that the book had already been in publication for decades and things had not changed. Apparently, the word had not got out. God, or the idea of God, was still omnipotent as in John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God".

Armed with the powers of scientific method, Dawkins took on the Herculean task of trying to wrest control of the Word. Over the years, he has published numerous books on various aspects of evolution and has been a valiant soldier in the fight against creationism. With the God Delusion, his aims are more ambitious than any of his previous books - combating scientific ignorance; arguing that we are moral despite religion, not because of it; begging atheists to come out of the closet; and the mental torture of children by religious parents. "Children", he says, "should not be called Christian, Hindu, or Muslim, but children of Christian, Hindu, and Muslim parents." They should be taught not what to think but how to think.

He begins the book with the myth about Einstein believing in God. There are many interesting anecdotes and studies cited in the book, out of which I found Russell's teapot of great utility. He notes with irony in the first chapter that he might be preaching to the choir, but he hopes to at least convince the fence-sitters to re-evaluate their beliefs. Indifference is just as bad as ignorance, and he believes that is the moderates that give power to the extremists.

An important point that Dawkins brings up is the privileging religion. He asks why religion, which is like any other belief, is always given a place of privilege. Why is questioning belief in Jesus or Allah or Vishnu different from questioning belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden? Why is religion considered to be beyond the domain of scientific inquiry?

We humans always seem to have an anthropocentric view of the world, even though we are sensitive to only a limited part of the light spectrum, hear only a limited range of frequencies, live on a minor planet orbiting an average star. Science, he says, has a way of opening our eyes to a much bigger and wider universe around us.

Listen to Dawkins on Science Friday.

Male Bonding: The New Casino Royale

I resisted watching the new Bond movie Casino Royale for a very long time, because I felt that the whole Bond enterprise was a stupid exercise. I was greatly disappointed when I saw my first Bond movie and subsequent Bond flicks did nothing to change that impression. The whole concept seemed to be a silly male fantasy - exotic locations, fancy cars, sexy girls, and simply awesome gadgets. The stories are generally terrible and have no sensible thread and the action scenes are rather pathetic. I always thought that Sean Connery did a much better job playing roles other than Bond. However, meta-analysis suggested than when most reviews called Casino Royale the best Bond movie ever, I had to at least give the new Bond a chance. Also, my iron resolve was considerably weakened by the powers of female persuasion.

I was not only impressed, but also entranced by Casino Royale. Casting a blonde Bond (Daniel Craig) was not the only rule that was rewritten. Compared to the old Bond who seemed more at ease sipping his martinis in a black tuxedos and seducing women, this Bond preferred real action - gleefully smashing and blowing up all kinds of objects: glass, humans, cars, heavy machinery, buildings, and whatever else. For more than half of the time, Craig is simply running, running with the frenetic energy of man being chased by hellhounds, or a person who has had too much of Red Bull. In terms of muscle and energy compared to his previous avataars, Craig stands alone; it is hard to imagine Connery, Moore, or Brosnan being able to look credible in the Le Chiffre testicle torture scene. The blonde bombshells of yore with nothing going on upstairs have been suitably replaced with the independent and incredibly sassy - Vesper Lynn (Eva Green). A girl who is capable of telling Bond, 'Back off!'.

James Bond is a remarkably adaptive beast. I was wrong. Male fantasies have not changed, only slightly modified. The basic ingredients are still the same, only packaged and served to appeal to modern tastes, like my metrosexual-macho self. Replace guns with knuckles. Keep the fancy cars and gadgets. Replace Ursula Andress arising like Venus from the sea with a chick who knows how to connect a defribrillator. Keep her looking sexy in backless cocktail dresses. Despite knowing that Casino Royale is another in the series of great packaging cons by the Bond franchise I was converted. The story was silly as usual, but does it matter?

Historical footnote(shamlessly stolen from Nature):
1953 was an excellent year, especially for the bond — the structure of DNA was discovered, the Miller–Urey experiment was carried out, and the death of Stalin. And of course with Casino Royale the other Bond, James Bond, first stepped off the page in 1953.

Winter of our content?

The winter is a curse. Before I really experienced the winter, it always conjured up images of - genial looking snowmen with carrot-noses and mufflers, and snowflakes floating like soft, white feathers. The reality is that all the feathery snow lands on places like your car and you have spend hours dusting the snow and then scraping the ice off the windshield and shoveling the driveway. On windy days the the icy chill will drive out the most romantic notions you ever had of the winter and it seems especially furious when you have forgotten your hat or gloves.

Then there are days like today when there are poems on ice and you are willing to overlook everything.

PS: After all these years, I still have not seen a snowman, I mean snowperson.

One Question

Why our culture deem it acceptable to wear torn jeans but not torn t-shirts?

Pattern recognition

Evolution has made us humans so good at pattern recognition. Recently, in India a butterfly was discovered that has an image of Khatu Shyam, an avatar of Krishna. Reuters Video.

Is it not miraculous that that I was reading Richard Dawkins's book, The God Delusion when I chanced upon the story? Apropos the story, he writes, "We easily infer a shadow for a burglar, but never mistake the burglar for a shadow." The Rev. Paley's watchmaker or design stance is: If something so wonderful and complex exists, then it presumes a designer. Such a stance has distinct evolutionary advantage but tends to trip us up not only while deifying butterflies, but also while negotiating dark alleys. But a false positive is not as fatal as a false negative.