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?
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