November 02, 2015

Going Beyond The Drake Equation

Taking the Drake Equation forward or modifying it, researchers have attempted to find out — estimate — the total number of intelligent civilizations that have ever existed in the visible universe since the Big Bang.

In their words;

Abstract: In this paper we address the cosmic frequency of technological species. Recent advances in exoplanet studies provide strong constraints on all astrophysical terms in the Drake Equation. Using these and modifying the form and intent of the Drake equation we show that we can set a firm lower bound on the probability that one or more additional technological species have evolved anywhere and at any time in the history of the observable Universe. We find that as long as the probability that a habitable zone planet develops a technological species is larger than ~10-24, then humanity is not the only time technological intelligence has evolved. This constraint has important scientific and philosophical consequences.

The paper

August 23, 2015

Curiosity's Three Years on Mars!

All that needs to be said: The best that humans can be!

And the mandatory: it's been three years already since that day in August!?

The Search For ET Gets A Boost From Yuri Milner

Astonishing Antarctica

That's all. The photos are breathtaking and the landscape is alien. Other-worldly!

Enola Gay Returns to Base After Hiroshima Bombing

You can see a color video.

Restless Baby

From the Rolling Stone article about birth tourism.

Wonder how many such cases of birth tourism are happening from India. I remember reading about people (from India) going to the U.S. to give birth in the India Today during the pre-internet days. Must be more than 20 years ago.

July 23, 2015

July 21, 2015

Best Magazine and Newspaper Writing of 2013

Clearly, there is just too much of the stuff.

This is a meta-collection of articles that are themselves collections of good articles.

Starting with this collection of the Best Business Journalism of 2013 compiled by The New Yorker.

The most popular Quartz stories of 2013.

Top Long Reads of 2013.

The 41 best stories of 2013 compiled by BusinessWeek.

Some of the best Sportswriting of the year for those interested.

Epilepsy And Its Treatments Including Medical Marijuana

Fascinating tales about childhood epilepsy and what people do (and doctors recommend) when drugs and therapies don't work.

One solution is keto diet which consists of food that is full of fat and no carbs. One would think this would damage the kids but strangely enough, the food stops the epileptic attacks.

And the latest is using medical marijuana processed in a particular manner to treat treatment-resistant epilepsy.

And it's working.

Chris Hadfield Space Photography

Commander Hadfield has tweeted many photographs during his time in space.

Here are a few of his tweets.

Five Hostages From The New Yorker

The story of Kayla, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, James Foley and Theo Fadnos in The New Yorker.

Apollo Lunar Landing Photos

Commemorating the lunar landing from 46 years ago, here are some wonderful photographs published on The Atlantic website. Some goods ones are there that I hadn't come across before. Really. Go check them.

Let me paste just one here.

Those tiny workers are perched some 110 meters or 360 feet above the ground.

And more photos of Apollo 11 are here.

July 06, 2015

Paul Kalanithi And Mortality

When do we learn to accept our mortality? At 60? At 20? Perhaps never. When should we?

Perhaps mot people never accept their mortality — certainly not before the time comes when you start seeing your contemporaries fall off.

Realizing that you are mortal at 60 or 70 may be a good thing. It perhaps makes people more mellow and more congenial, less abrasive, less aggressive.

If one could reach that realization earlier, it might make us better human beings.

Perhaps religion plays a role in how and when people come to terms with their mortality. For me, my idea of mortality and what lessons to learn have to all come from exceptional individuals who lived and died exemplary lives.

Learning you have an incurable disease when you are in your 30s has got to be one of the toughest things one can face in life. Perhaps after years and decades of effort, you are close to achieving some important life goal, some important professional milestone in your mid-30s but then suddenly you are told that you've to say goodbye to it all; you have to go.

"The party will go on without you," as Hitch put it once.

That's what Dr. Paul Kalanithi faced and with what courage and dignity. No words from me can capture his generosity of spirit. In his own words:

Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

And he writes to his daughter:

When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

Well, what would you do if you were diagnosed with metastatic cancer when you are 36.

July 03, 2015

Pluto Files

As New Horizons closes in on its Pluto encounter, some facts about it to blow one's mind.

New Horizons approximate distance from Earth: 3 billion miles; 4.8 billion kilometers (32.28 astronomical units)
New Horizons approximate distance from Pluto: 93 million miles; 149 million kilometers (1 AU)
Time for signal to reach Earth: 4 hours, 28 minutes, 31 seconds
Primary communications: NASA Deep Space Network Canberra Station, Australia (70-meter antenna)

Simple calculations show that at the enormous distance of 4.8 billion kms where Pluto is, one arcsecond equals some 24,000 kms.

Hence, when they point that "big seven-foot, high-gain dish antenna" of the New Horizons spacecraft towards Earth, they've to be pretty precisely so that the signal is received in Canberra. If you are about 15 arcseconds off, instead of the Earth, you might be pointing to the Moon.

June 29, 2015

Secret History of the Manhattan Project

Must download and read some of the key parts.

On Polygamy

And how and why it makes no sense to keep polygamy illegal.

This article dismantles all the usual arguments against polygamy.

Some people make the "slippery slope" argument saying allowing polygamy will lead to people marrying animals or children but the difference is the 'bedrock principle' of consent.

"This bedrock principle of mutually-informed consent explains exactly why we must permit polygamy and must oppose bestiality and child marriage. Animals are incapable of voicing consent; children are incapable of understanding what it means to consent. In contrast, consenting adults who all knowingly and willfully decide to enter into a joint marriage contract, free of coercion, should be permitted to do so, according to basic principles of personal liberty. The preeminence of the principle of consent is a just and pragmatic way to approach adult relationships in a world of multivariate and complex human desires."

" ... the case against polygamy is incredibly flimsy, almost entirely lacking in rational basis and animated by purely irrational fears and prejudice. What we’re left with is an unsatisfying patchwork of unconvincing arguments and bad ideas, ones embraced for short-term convenience at long-term cost. We must insist that rights cannot be dismissed out of short-term interests of logistics and political pragmatism."

The other arguments are even weaker.

Windows Disk Encryption

Detailed guide about how to enable disk encryption on your Windows machine. Also, Apple and Linux computers.

The benefits of full disk encryption are that they ensure the data on your hard drive is secure even if it gets physically stolen. Nobody but you will be able to access the data.

Worth enabling if your OS supports it. All you need to do is follow the steps given.

Shuttle Challenger Through The Clouds

With fake photos everywhere these days, it's difficult to tell what is true and what is not.

It's therefore good to have NASA's official comments on the Challenger image.

And a bonus picture of Challenger going to the launch pad on the crawler transporter prior to its first flight.

June 04, 2015

Comet 67P Photos

Views of comet 67P are quite breathtaking because it's an alien world. Here are a few photos.

May 17, 2015

Some Good And Long Reads

An amazing story of a Brazilian gymnast turned Winter Olympics aspirant.

An altogether touching account of how one brave woman dealt with her Alzheimer's diagnosis.

One more long-read on the favorite technologist, entrepreneur/innovator of our era, Elon Musk.

A long-read about a 34-year-old with cancer.

May 13, 2015

Chacha Nehru And Jackie Kennedy Photos

Scandalous! Is how the right wingers would describe these pics from 1962. Usually, these pics would be trotted out on November 14, Jawaharlal Nehru's birthday.

May 05, 2015

Edward Snowden

This seems to me to be the defining journalism-whistle-blower story of this generation.
It's rare in today's world when privileged people voluntarily choose to take steps whereby they give up comfortable lives to do something that is in the 'public good.'
Mr. Snowden was clearly a computer whiz which explains why he got jobs at the CIA (including postings in Geneva under diplomatic cover). Booz Allen obviously did not hire him or pay him the $1,20,000 salary without Mr. Snowden showcasing some considerable technical expertise.
I believe Mr. Snowden's expertise probably lies in having deep expertise in various flavors of Linux. That is what I am inclined to infer from his various job roles as a 'Systems Engineer' or 'System Administrator.'
Being the self-driven sort of person that he was, I am sure he must be having good knowledge about networking and encryption stuff including but not limited to Cisco routers and related technologies.
To put these things in perspective, I would guess there must be thousands in the United States with similar kinds of expertise as Mr. Snowden (and probably hundreds in India).
I imagine a 'Systems Administrator' in India or a Networking expert with 10 years experience having almost the same kind of technical expertise as Mr. Snowden. He would get a salary of $20,000 per annum to $30,000 per annum or may be even $40,000 per annum which is a very good salary in India. He would be employed at one of the top IT companies or banks. He would live a busy but 'comfortable' life defined by the usual material amenities of life and possibly a bunch of maids helping out on the home front (cheap human resources are one of the 'perks' of life in India).

February 03, 2015

Touching Story

Reflections about Kate by her mom almost made me hopeful about relationships.

One more.

January 24, 2015

How We Change — And Not

Einstein was so unlucky. He never saw Koffee With Karan. Or the wonderful strokemaking by the Sehwags, Tendulkars and Yuvrajs.

But we are all lucky. We have spent countless hours and hundreds of hours watching celebrities and cricket on television. I suspect our interest in these activities wanes as our age (and waistline) increases.

May be we realize that these are futile, time-wasting activities — or, may be we encumber ourselves with various responsibilities such as kids and we get busy making a living and buying groceries, masalas and vegetables and do not find time in our long commutes to watch celebrity talk shows.

Some people — say, Feynman, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs — perhaps get lucky and never spend time watching TV shows or cricket. But everybody cannot be geniuses like them.

Every new generation in India reliably grows to become cricket aficionados and becomes celebrity-crazed. Is there a cure for this? Is there a way to wean adolescents from adolescent-like activities and put them on to 'serious' stuff?

Luckily, most people out-grow adolescent habits. Though some people may retain a love for TV saas-bahu soaps throughout their lives. Some retired persons still watch and vigorously debate cricketing affairs.

So, we change. Our interests change.

Take sex. In childhood or when in school, kids of one sex typically tend to be 'anti' the other sex. The interest in the opposite sex develops later on. But once the interest is there, does it stay at a high level throughout one's life? How does it vary between men and women? From culture to culture? Is it that 'traditional' cultures are repressive and people learn to repress their innate sexuality?

Clearly, marriage is a wrong way to take care of humans' interest in sex. Animals — including humans — are typically interested in getting as much sex as possible. The idea of marriage is a recent human invention designed to make sure that paternity of children could be known for sure. Probably men want to be possessive of their wives and want to make sure 'only' they have access to their wives sexually and make sure that the kid is his. Women, it appears, agree to the idea of life-long relationships as it comes with an implicit promise that the man will provide for the woman throughout life.

In terms of change, perhaps interest in sex is also variable and declines in old age.

Kids are the most inquisitive creatures around. They ask questions incessantly to the point where parents feel harassed and ask the kids to 'STOP!' though that is the wrong way to deal with questions.

Kids learn and absorb new information all through school and college. But new learning probably declines with age as well. A school teacher or a college lecturer/professor or a police constable probably does not learn much new stuff from week to week or year to year. After a certain age, people probably just get by based on their skills and knowledge which they may have acquired years earlier. In ancient societies where people were farmers and carpenters and so on, this would have been even more emphatically the case.

In the ever-changing technological world that we inhabit, new learning is more essential. Those who are keen to acquire new knowledge and skills probably travel further than others in their careers. The really inquisitive ones are the people who make inventions and are the leaders in research institutions and so on.

But for most people, sadly, curiosity too is a non-renewable resource.

So what aspect of human nature is the one thing which stays the same throughout one's life?

Is it, perhaps, food? Eating?

we seem to derive pleasure from eating food from an early age and this continues non-stop throughout adulthood and old age. Some indulge in food more than others. Some learn to cook a variety of items but most people don't. It's a matter of economic circumstance and affordability as well.

But whether you are an amateur chef who can conjure Thai dishes and Konkan dishes and Bengality fish curry and some European stuff too — or just a dal-roti kind of guy, people tend to love food throughout their lives and this interest remains at a pretty high level throughout.

Of course, the body's capacity to digest food goes down with the advancing years and people have to limit or cut back on their calorie intake as they grow older. As Jug Suraiya once wrote, when you are young, you have to capacity to eat and digest everything but you don't have the money and in old age when you have the money, your digestive system has deteriorated and you need Hajmola and Eno and more to digest food stuff if you are adventurous enough to try out buffets at a family wedding or somewhere.

But it seems food is the one hobby most of us have and we cultivate it with some passion. It's perhaps not a surprise that 'animals' who need food for the energy to make their bodily machine run should a deep and abiding interest in food and eating.

Perhaps this is an evolutionary trait.

Some Straight Talking on The Decline of The 'Hindus' in India

The Hindus have more than trebled in numbers in the past 50 years.

Going by the comments below, these Hindus are nincompoops. Without exception.

They contribute nothing in terms of innovation or in inventions.

Merely keep braying about some mythical ancient glory.

And lack common sense.

If I were to share personal anecdote (while acknowledging that anecdote is not evidence):

My grandparents generation had 13 (living) siblings. Each of them produced 6 or 7 kids on average. My parents' generation had 3 kids each on average.

Thankfully, the 'young generation' seems to have got the message and usually tends to have one kid — usually a son.

[I guess we will have a lot of homosexuality in the manner of the English boarding schools that Hitchens mentioned.]

There is unfortunately too much ignorance or illiteracy around. Which is why absolute fossils of the BJP/VHP/RSS are able to suggest in all seriousness that Hindus should have 4 or 5 or 10 kids each.

Those jokers should be laughed out of town.

If India is to make progress, these religions — Hinduism, Islam, Christainity, Sikhism — must be banned and kids taught atheism and rational thinking in schools.

Just 'education' and certificates and MBA degrees and BTech degrees and MCA degrees are not enough.

That's very clear going by the nincompoopery of the IT crowd sitting outside India who are the most vociferous Modi supporters and who start jumping in anger when this or that 'foreign' publication does some straight talking about Modi's record or his government.

Education, at present, does not teach 'how to think.'

It must.

January 07, 2015

Why Do We Have A Name?

Humans across religious, cultural and national differences all have names. At least all modern humans have this. I wonder if the lost tribes in the Amazon jungle or the tribes who live in the Nicobar Islands cut off from civilization since the last many thousands of years have a similar naming convention as the rest of us humans do.

And we humans often choose to have system of naming that consists of a first name and a last name. the last name often indicates a person’s or a family’s occupation and remains the same from generation to generation. All the offspring of one family get the same last name as the parents — usually the last name of the father.

In some cultures, the first names can be the same as that of the father too. In some cultures, the name of the village, and other names too get added to the child’s name and it grows rather long.

But consider for a moment how it all would have started and taken hold among humans in deep antiquity. Humans would have acquired language first and learned to name things and then would have learned to name one another and at some point would have settled on this schema of a name consisting of a first name and a last name.

The fact that this system is so common across cultures tends to point towards the fact that all humans share a single origin story — out of Africa. May be naming was already there when humans were hunter gatherers and wanderers and as early humans spread out of Africa, they took this naming convention with them and it spread all over the world in a uniform manner.

Whatever the origin of this naming convention of humans, what about the future? It is so deeply ingrained in us that even as smart humans learn to look beyond medieval myths such as religions and learn to discard the old shibboleths, the naming conventions remain the same.

It will be interesting to see what if any changes are brought to bear on this human convention as our species makes advances in science & technology and becomes a multi-planetary civilization. Clearly, there is no possible harm that can arise from our propensity to name ourselves. We not only name ourselves but also our pets and in future our smart domestic robots will also probably get names.

Our business of naming appears to be one of those very rare traditions bequeathed to us from antiquity that do not appear to have any negative repercussions. Even if we as a society learn to navigate the challenges of human cloning and proceed to make thousands (or millions) of copies of whichever humans we choose to clone — a million Clooneys, anyone? — even then naming won’t pose any problems. Couples can choose to give birth to a Clooney look-alike but call him anything they like.

Perhaps we could even think of taking genetics further and clone a female Clooney (or make a male version of our favorite female). See? Our ability to understand and make sense of who we are and our technological accomplishments bring myriad complex challenges and moral quagmires for us to navigate.

Luckily, naming isn’t one of them.

Will The Singularity Make Cryonics Useless

The idea of cryopreservation is fascinating and the cryonicists of today are far from crazy. They certainly cannot be compared to the medieval people whose faith consists of a smorgasbord of silly religions, myths, gods and so on. It would be correct to shake our head at the extreme and undue optimism of the cryonics pioneers of today but then all pioneers appear crazy in their lifetime. Giordano Bruno paid with his life for his soaring imagination.

Carl Sagan cautioned about the danger of nuclear Armageddon and Richard Feynman in his youth was extremely pessimistic in the immediate aftermath of the success of the Manhattan Project and the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Can we be so sure today that we have once and for all avoided the fate of nuclear Armageddon for our species? I am not so sure. Nobody would survive if the fears of Sagan and Feynman come true at some point in the future.

The techno-utopians — which is a perfectly normal way to describe the cryonics believers — are merely making a rational conjecture that given the history of scientific and technological advancement of the recent two centuries, we will soon reach a point where today’s diseases become curable and the cryonically preserved humans can be brought back to life from their state of … hibernation.

That raises questions about resource challenges but keeping the long-term perspective in mind, humans will surely achieve a lot in different areas of science & technology and not just in medical science. Not only cancer and Alzheimer’s will become curable but space travel will become commonplace too and we will terraform many planets — not just Mars.

Our species will become a multi-planet species and with the aid of technology, we will learn to better harness the resources of the universe. There are a hundred billion galaxies out there each with a 100 billion stars. Even our Milky Way has billions of planets orbiting those 100 billion stars in it. Many of those planets may be habitable and our puny numbers — 8 billion at present which may even grow to 100 billion at some point in the future — present no challenge at all if those numbers are spread among thousands and millions of planets.

The techno-utopians also posit that the technological singularity will soon be upon us — as soon as 2045 if you believe the likes of Ray Kurzweil. But that coming Singularity poses a problem for the cryonics believers — if humans will soon reach a stage where we can design machines that are for all intents and purposes as smart as humans without our drawbacks, then what role do the purely biological versions of us have to play in such a future? 

Whatever form the Singularity takes — whether it leads to trans-humans or a race of smart machines that are entirely non-biological (no DNA, no genes, nothing), the need to keep alive this billion-year-old delicate thing that we call the human body becomes unimportant.

What role, then, cryonics?
Visit to discover Indian blogs PageRank Checker