Saturday, January 31, 2009

I Don't Want to Say Goodbye

Our relationship is something really special. Three and a half years is by no means a trivial length of time. And to think everything might spiral down soon, pains me deep. But you're slipping away from me.... you seem to have no other choice. But I want to try harder, try to salvage this precious bond between us as long as I can. I hope against hope that you don't leave me...forever.

I dread the day when I'd walk towards you in the morning and lovingly try to wake you up and you'd refuse to come aglow with your usual cheerful self. What will I do without you? How will I carry on after such a loss? Who will be with me through every phase of my day, helping me learn, helping me work, helping me smile? I've confided to you things no one in the world knows. You've been a part of almost every travel, every little journey. Never have you once complained or made a fuss... you were with me all those days when the rain lashed, the wind howled as the snow crumpled, and the sun angrily shone; holding my shoulders affectionately, never complaining that the umbrella didn't cover you enough...will I ever find such a companion? Without you who would have regaled me endlessly, and patiently listened to every word I had to share when I had noone around me those dreadful weekends? Now you claim our relationship is too old to last any longer.

I try to prepare myself, but it's too hard. You cannot be replaced... no part of you can be replaced. You are priceless. You know I will go to any lengths to nurse you back. As I cradle you everyday trying to ease your pain, I mutter silent prayers refuting the thought that you maybe at your deathbed. Everyone around me says so.... they say your time has come and I should be brave. Some advise that I need to move on and find.... your replacement. Ah, how those words wrench my heart. How can I think of looking at someone new?! Your dark and handsome face, the heat of your body, your sturdy yet delicate features, your silly little whines, the way you chatter and giggle as I touch you.... oh will my fingers ever feel the same warmth and comfort as caressing your features? So many memories... words cannot describe all the moments we've shared. You know it will never be the same.

They say you need a surgery, an expensive one at that... but they say you may never make it for it's far too much of an organ replacement. I'm I risk seeing you being torn apart, only to realize you may never see me again with that familiar glint? Or do I save you the surgery and try to nurse you tender as long as you care to stay with me? But then you can't come out with me everyday my dearest... you need to rest and sleep. Our conversations and interactions will dwindle, but you will still be with me. But I may have to move on... find another companion. Oh what terrible crossroads has fate set me on, my darling Thinkpad!

My thinkpad's monitor is dying :(... It just gets dimmer and dimmer and I fiddle around with the standby button and with some magical combination it springs to life. The backlight and inverter seem to be the culprit but IBM doesn't sell those parts :(... A monitor replacement of $500 is recommended, although the chances of it being set right doesn't seem all that high. Some say this is a phase because of the terrible winter temperature messing with some internal springs causing loose connection (This is my first time within US that I have the privilege to stay in such a frigid place). Maybe its time for a new laptop...any other ideas to salvage my laptop? Help :(

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Veil of Ignorance

Imagine 20 civilians being selected to go and live on Mars. There would be a number of goods on the planet, including accommodation, food, drink and luxury items. The people who were selected to live on Mars had to decide how the goods should be distributed amongst them. All of these people knew they were going to be living on Mars for an extended period of time and they had to do tasks that were part of the Mars colony (which is one of the main reasons for them being sent there). However none of these people knew what sort of tasks awaited them in Mars, and if they were equipped for them. All the work could be manual, or none of them. So the first suggestion was to equally divide the goods amongst everyone on the colony: from each according to their abilities to each according to their means. However there was an objection - what if there were some who neglected their work, failed at their work, or worse, refused to do their share? Wouldn't it be unfair to give them a share of the goods they didn't deserve? Isn't incentive a good way to make people contribute? As much sense as the objection made, it lead to more problems on resolving what fairness really meant. Is fairness different from giving everyone the same share? (Source: A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls)

This is quite a popular piece. I remember having read this is in one of my Ethics books in the context of Rawl's popular Social Contract Theory, but I don't remember if I ever had a discussion.

The Social Contract Theory emphasizes the need for a social contract amongst people coexisting within a country/colony/community, to ensure liberty and equality for all. In simpler terms, the contract is a set of duties and responsibilities that people need to abide by, and this brings forth the basic principle that freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. It also emphasizes reciprocity of 'good' deeds. The people being sent to Mars are in the process of figuring out their Social Contract, or so it seems to me. But here is their core problem - all of them are shrouded in a metaphorical veil of ignorance since none of them have any clue of how their talents and abilities will benefit them in Mars. For all they know, a person who is a scholar on Earth maybe reduced to a nobody on Mars, and a bus driver on Earth maybe the most sought after person on Mars, based on the needs and work conditions. With such bleak understanding of life on another planet it now is a challenge to come up with a Social Contract.

Rawl's philosophy is that, given such a situation, people's general tendency is to be cautious from the danger of ending up in the lower rungs of the new society. Hence everyone would try to come up with a contract that ensures maximum/equal benefit to the least advantaged (the maximin rule). This, in his view is a good experiment for determining democracy - the liberal form of democracy. Is this form of equality really fair? Or are there prejudices despite the veil of ignorance which get carried onto framing the new Social Contract?

I've been putting off writing about this for a while now, for all I know about political "science" are the meaning behind capitalism, socialism, communism, democracy, dictatorship, monarchy and anarchy... enough to have some opinions, but probably not deep and robust enough. I'm not a person who follows enough of the political arena or analyzes history to have opinions on what works when, how and what fails, when and how. Therefore, with this limited extent of knowledge I try to analyze this chapter.

In my view (political definitions apart), I think it is impossible to guarantee equality to all... it is inherently impossible with the way the world is structured. I say this by popping onto a higher level, if we are to assume ourselves to be ruled by God/Nature. Call it Karma, or any other term, I believe one is entitled to what he deserves through his actions/deeds, and not every person can receive the same form of equality. Not all of us can be rich, none of our lives can be "equal" in the truest sense. None of the guys who will land in Mars have the same type of "equal" opportunities awaiting, and therein equality starts to crack even before there can be a contract.

So, would being behind the veil of ignorance help in shaping better social contracts that at least mitigates the state of the lower rungs? Yes, it appears so. Isn't our existence the survival of the fittest? Why bother rescuing those who can't survive on their own, by compromising on what the winners truly deserve? Well, I think this question borders on the principles of Capitalism versus Communism... or probably Socialism to some extent.

My view is that each person should have all the basic rights and basic amenities available. But then, how much of the share he is entitled to is dependent on how much he contributes to society/community, for rights and duties do go hand in hand. Every person will/and should have some way to contribute to the community. If one cannot contribute due to severe disabilities then is he doomed? No that is unfair. So should he get the same share as a person who works and toils everyday. No that's not fair either. He should still be entitled to basic amenities (out of dignity and empathy to his life), but the person who works will be entitled to more than just the basic. Now what exactly is the definition of "basic"? What if there aren't enough resources to help the disabled? Should the rest pool in and compromise on their rewards to be shared with the rest? Is that the true meaning behind the maximin rule? Maybe.

It takes a humanitarian turn. So yes, being behind the veil does give us a sense of uncertainty, of the need to save ourselves if we become helpless, and that attempts to tug at our humanitarian conscience, which is necessary to be in place while framing Social Contracts.

Those with more political insight, I would love to hear your views! :)

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Vicious Cycle

Too many thoughts today :). Ever since I read SUMI's post Nothing's Enough, I've been raking my brain on and off on a poem I read; a Hindi poem we learnt back in school. I unfortunately can't remember the name of the poem, the exact words, or the poet. Pretty vague recollections, but the thoughts conveyed remain fresh. I was going to leave a comment on her post with the poem, but put it off. But over the week I have had more impetus to recollect the poem's thoughts, so here it goes:

The moon looks down at us Earthlings, sad and frustrated
"It is indeed a mystery to me", the moon tells me
"I have looked down for millions of years and nothing has changed"
"Nothing?! Well, surely we have progressed in all these years. Look at all our innovations, our inventions!", I quip
"Well, that maybe so. But why did you have to create all those innovative things?", the Moon wonders
"To make our lives more comfortable of course!", I shrug
"Are your lives more comfortable now? Why doesn't it stop.... how much do you want to simplify", the Moon sighs
"Well... we are comfortable, but we still have problems to be solved. We need to creatively solve all problems", I mutter, fearing what the Moon will say next
"Hmmmm... my dear, that's your problem. You people seem to want to solve a problem, by creating one yourself. For millions of years I see all of you create confusions and problems due to your own faults, and then spend years solving them, and create more problems through the solution.... It is a vicious cycle you're stuck in. You put yourself through constant misery by constantly creating more problems to be solved. There is no peace, no rest. And I am tired of seeing it repeat over and over and over....will it ever end?," the Moon cries

I'm currently reading a book called "Normal Accidents" (well it's a text-book) that talks about inherent dangers in high risk technologies. The author makes you want to frame Murphy's laws and hang it over your desk. But anyways, 200 pages of that book (and more to go ) got me exasperated. I feel so very much like the Moon. The author's point is that even safety devices in risky environments can add to the risk.... a nuclear plant to solve energy crisis is a solution, but that solution has innumerable threats and risks... we try to solve those problems and more problems surface, and the cycle continues. Is there even an end? Are we really creating problems just to keep our thirst for challenge alive? Or is it purely because the environment is so inherently complex that we can't completely solve problems by reaching an end?

Legalizing Love

This question arose when I was in the middle of a debate on gay marriage rights. The argument predominantly was on the government's uncertainty on how to define marriage, if it were not between a man and a woman. I am known to go off on a tangent. Obviously my mind derailed on why it should be so hard and confusing to define what marriage meant. Maybe I'm being overly simplistic.

To me marriage is a promise of commitment - the simple vow, "for better or for worse, till death do us part." It is being together as companions for life. Or isn't it? Does a relationship qualify as marriage if and only if the couple could produce and raise children? What about those couples in wedlock who are not blessed with children? My point is not to write something in support of gay rights, or question it. It is to simply convey my bewilderment on what qualifies as marriage.

Ever since my teens I've had this peculiar thought, albeit a little "revolutionary". In a way doesn't marriage seem like a legal contract? It is like legalizing a relationship, and drawing out a contract for love and promises. Can there even be such a contract? Doesn't such a contract obviate the true meaning of love and commitment in the first place? If we are to loan money to our friend, there is no contract due to trust. Why then is there one between two people who are supposed to trust their lives with each other? It doesn't sound so much like trust if there are prenuptials and a legal document....sort of like a safety leash to ensure people are bound by their responsibility? Or is it only for the sake of being recognized in society?

There are many committed relationships that haven't entered wedlock, but probably are far more sincere than those within wedlock. And these are viewed as relationships far less serious, purely because of them not being legalized. Is it because they don't have a sense of "forever together"? Well, marriages don't really last forever all the time. How different is a relationship out of wedlock breaking after 5 years, and a divorce from wedlock after 3 years? Why is the latter viewed more seriously? Why is it that the sound, "I have been divorced" sound tragic and severe than two break-ups from past serious relationships? Is there somehow less pain associated with non-legalized-break ups? Or is it serious because of the money involved due to settlements? (here we will assume there are no kids involved, for their presence will obviously tip the scales)

One can argue it is the extent of emotions and attachment that marriage wields in contrast to other relationships. Maybe so, but in today's world, the lines are getting blurrier. Couples in committed relationships seem to share almost as much as those within wedlock. Again, I am not arguing if that is right or wrong, the fact is, it is very much prevalent in today's world. In such a case, is marriage taken more seriously because of the public ascertainment of promise and responsibility?

I know the government needs some form of system. Yet, it somehow sounds very very silly to me that up until the wedding ceremony the same couple receive very little respect for their relationship... but after that mere ritual, they gain all the respect and privileges society can offer.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Bigger Brother

The brain is the engine of thought and action, and the brain is entirely physical. Imagine that our understanding of the laws of physics evolves to a state that we can accurately predict how people's brains will react, and thus how people think in response to events in their environment. Such a machine is Pierre.

A brain scanner maps the brain states of a person. Then the supercomputer Pierre, monitors the various stimuli the person is exposed to and will then predict what their future behavior will be. But there are limitations. This technology works best in a controlled and enclosed environment akin to a lab experiment. And therefore the predictions can only be made a few moments ahead, since tiny errors in predictions escalate to large ones. But the computer can nonetheless predict how the person will react for the next few moments. In a sense we will be able to know the person's mind better than they do themselves. (Source: The deterministic thesis of the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace)

When I read this scenario in the chapter, I was unsure of what the main questions/issues it dictated for discussion. The possibility of such an evolution in the world of science? The ethics behind using such a powerful technology? The implications on what the mind is, if it could be dissected so clearly by science? Is it a violation of some sort? Does it mean we humans are reduced to machines who can be predicted through their inputs? Is our free will, or ability to act as free agents, being threatened in some way if such a machine could exist?

To begin with, do I concede to the possibility (at least theoretical) of such a machine? Well, my knowledge of quantum physics is little to none, so I don't think I'm qualified to argue either ways. So for the purpose of this thought experiment let me assume that there can be such a machine; I take Laplace's word for it :) . Well then if the machine could predict our next state based on the physical states of our brain and environment, then does it mean our thoughts are no more random than physical causal events in the universe? Does it imply our actions are not entirely free, they are obvious consequences that we follow through with?

Well, I was thinking of the difference between prediction and freedom/free will, and the relationship they have between each other. It took me to astrology... then to destiny... and then to a wall :). An age old question again. Are we in control of our lives, or is everything "predestined", "meant-to-be" and hence subject to prediction based on our physical states? I seem to be asking more questions than try to answer them :)

Ok for one, the machine can only predict the next state lasting a few moments into future, not more than that....and that too in a controlled environment. Life is not really a controlled environment. And I don't know what sort of predictions on future actions/behavior the machine can make. Is it something as precise as "the person will now occupy the red chair, five seats from his right?", or something with a tinge of conditional probability stating "the person will likely drink water since it was hot out". If it were similar to the latter, then I don't see it as a threat to free will. All of us can predict and judge our close ones on their likes and dislikes, behavioral patterns, and can make predictions on the food they would order, the clothes they would buy, their reactions to situations etc. It doesn't mean they are stripped of their free will, their freedom is intact. They eventually choose to do what they want to. There will be a margin of error in our predictions. But if the prediction were as precise as the former, then it is surely unsettling. If it were based on behavioral and psychological patterns then it's not as alarming... for that's what psychologists aim at (although they would still account for a margin of error)

Why is it unsettling - 1) one is the fact that all these predictions were made not based on psychological attributes, but on physical states, 2) there is probably no margin of error in the prediction lasting to the next few moments, 3) there is seemingly no logic to some "random" actions... we ourselves wouldn't know why we decided to sit on that specific red chair to the right. It was random, yet a machine could attribute some sort of "causal link", 4) there is no real uniqueness to our thoughts and actions. It all would depend on neurons firing away based on the physical state of our brain.

So yes, I do see ourselves as predestined agents with a disillusioned sense of free will if there could be a machine predicting even our seemingly random actions with a high degree of precision, all based on physical brain states. It doesn't matter if the prediction is only valid for the next few moments; if there were some feedback loop, then the machine can continuously predict our next states in consecutive small intervals. But if the environment were too controlled so as to drastically cut down the choices normally available in real life then the predictions have a higher chance of being mathematically accurate, and they seem to lessen the severity of the threat on free will; not convincing enough to disregard the threat.

Now taking a slight detour - I am curious about what one's belief in destiny is. There are some who take comfort in the knowledge that their lives are destined and set. Failures are not seen as harsh since they resign that no matter how hard they tried there was a greater force that they couldn't alter. Their actions are hence not blamed as much, they seem to cope up with changes in life, and are resilient to adapting since they accept each turn of event as the work of destiny. On the other hand, are those who can't accept that their lives are being controlled in some manner. They want to be in charge of their lives, and cringe from the possibility that their actions are not entirely their free will. And some in the middle, who view a little of both happening. I sometimes think Life is a game similar to Monopoly. There is an element of chance/luck due to the throw of the die. But once we reach the spot, what we choose to do at that juncture is up to us, our free will.... although our choices are very limited due to the rules. Who framed the rules of Life? Many times society, many times we ourselves.

Update: I just came across a wonderful post here: where the author has done a good job of bringing in the perspectives of determinism from the standpoint of Laplace, Heisenberg and Einstein. It adds the much needed physics-dimension to the discussion.