India’s Delhi-only air pollution problem

I woke up this morning to a PTI report telling me Delhi’s air quality had fallen to ‘very poor’ on Deepavali, the Hindu ostensible festival of lights, with many people defying the Supreme Court’s direction to burst firecrackers only between 8 pm and 10 pm. This defiance is unsurprising: the Supreme Court doesn’t apply to Delhi because, and not even though, the response to the pollution was just Delhi-centric.

In fact, it’s probably only a problem because Delhi is having trouble breathing, despite the fact that the national capital is the eleventh-most polluted city in the world, behind eight other Indian ones.

The report also noted, “On Saturday, the Delhi government launched a four-day laser show to discourage residents from bursting firecrackers and celebrating Diwali with lights and music. During the show, laser lights were beamed in sync with patriotic songs and Ramayana narration.”

So the air pollution problem rang alarm bells and the government solved just that problem. Nothing else was a problem so it solved nothing else. The beams of light the Delhi government shot up into the sky would have caused light pollution, disturbing insects, birds and nocturnal creatures. The sound would no doubt have been loud, disturbing animals and people in the area. It’s a mystery why we don’t have familial, intimate celebrations.

There is a concept in environmental philosophy called the hyperobject: a dynamic super-entity that lots of people can measure and feel at the same time but not see or touch. Global warming is a famous hyperobject, described by certain attributes, including its prevalence and its shifting patterns. Delhi’s pollution has two hyperobjects. One is what the urban poor experiences – a beast that gets in the way of daily life, that you can’t wish away (let alone fight), and which is invisible to everyone else. The is the one in the news: stunted, inchoate and classist, it includes only air pollution because its effects have become unignorable, and sound and light don’t feature in it – nor does anything even a degree removed from the singular sources of smoke and fumes.

For example, someone (considered smart) recently said to me, “The city should collect trash better to avoid roadside garbage fires in winter.” Then what about the people who set those fires for warmth because they don’t have warm shelter for the night? “They will find another way.”

The Delhi-centrism is also visible with the ‘green firecrackers’ business. According to the CSIR National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), which developed the crackers, its scientists “developed new formulations for reduced emission light and sound emitting crackers”. But it turns out the reduction doesn’t apply to sound.

The ‘green’ crackers’ novel features include “matching performance in sound (100-120dBA) with commercial crackers”. A 100-120 dBA is debilitating. The non-crazy crackers clock about 60-80 dBA. (dB stands for decibels, a logarithmic measure of sound pressure change; the ‘A’ corresponds to the A-setting, a scale used to measure sounds according to human loudness.)

In 2014, during my neighbours’ spate of cracker-bursting, I “used an app to make 300 measurements over 5 minutes” from a distance of about 80 metres, and obtained the following readings:

Min: 41.51 dB(A)
Max: 83.88 dB(A)
Avg.: 66.41 dB(A)

The Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules 2000 limit noise in the daytime (6 am to 10 pm) to 55 dB(A), and the fine for breaking the rules was just Rs 100, or $1.5, before the Supreme Court stepped up taking cognisance of the air pollution during Deepavali. This is penalty is all the more laughable considering Delhi was ranked the world’s second-noisiest city in 2017. There’s only so much the Delhi police, including traffic police, can do, with the 15 noise meters they’ve been provided.

In February 2019, Romulus Whitaker, India’s ‘snake man’, expressed his anguish over a hotel next door to the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust blasting loud music that was “triggering aberrant behaviour” among the animals (to paraphrase the author). If animals don’t concern you: the 2014 Heinz Nixdorf Recall study found noise is a risk factor for atherosclerosis. Delhi’s residents also have the “maximum amount of hearing loss proportionate to their age”.

As Dr Deepak Natarajan, a Delhi-based cardiologist, wrote in 2015, “It is ironic that the people setting out to teach the world the salutatory effects of … quietness celebrate Yoga Day without a thought for the noise that we generate every day.”

Someone else tweeted yesterday, after purchasing some ‘green’ firecrackers, that science “as always” (or something similar) provided the solution. But science has no agency: like a car, people drive it. It doesn’t ask questions about where the driver wants to go or complain when he drives too rashly. And in the story of fixing Delhi’s air pollution, the government has driven the car like Salman Khan.

The unclosed clause and other things about commas

The Baffler carried a fantastic critique of The New Yorker‘s use of commas by Kyle Paoletta on August 23. Excerpt:

The magazine’s paper subscription slips have long carried a tagline: “The best writing, anywhere.” It follows that the source of the best writing, anywhere, must also be the finest available authority on grammar, usage, and punctuation. But regular readers know that The New Yorker’s signature is not standard usage, but its opposite. Nowhere else will you find an accent aigu on “élite” or a diaeresis on “reëmerge.” And the commas—goodness, the commas! These peculiarities are as intrinsic to the magazine’s brand as the foppish Eustace Tilley, and, in the digital age, brand determines content. But the rise of the magazine’s copy desk has done more for The New Yorker than simply generate clicks. It has bolstered the reputation of the magazine as a peerless institution, a class above the Vanity Fairs and Economists of the world, even if the reporting and prose in those publications is on par with (if not often better than) what fills the pages of The New Yorker.

Paoletta’s piece was all the more enjoyable because it touched on all the little notes about commas that most people usually miss. In one example, he discusses the purpose of commas, split as they are between subordination and rhythm. The former is called so because it “subordinates” content to the grammatical superstructure applied to it. Case in point: a pair of commas is used to demarcate a dependent clause – whether or not it affects the rhythm of the sentence. On the other hand, the rhythmic purpose denotes the use of commas and periods for “varying amounts of breath”. Of course, Paoletta doesn’t take kindly to the subordination position.

Not only does this attitude treat the reader as somewhat dim, it allows the copy editor to establish a position of privilege over the writer. Later in the same excerpt, [Mary] Norris frets over whether or not some of James Salter’s signature descriptive formulations (a “stunning, wide smile,” a “thin, burgundy dress”) rely on misused commas. When she solicits an explanation, he answers, “I sometimes ignore the rules about commas… Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences.” Norris begrudgingly accepts this defense, but apparently only because a writer of no lesser stature than Salter is making it.

I’m firmly on the subordination side of things: more than indicating pause, commas are scaffolding for grammar, and thus essential to conveying various gradations of meaning. Using a comma to enforce a pause, or invoke an emphasis, is also meaningless because pauses must originate not out of the writer’s sense of anticipation and surprise but out of the clever arrangement of words and sentences, out of the use of commas to suppress some senses and enhance others. It is not the explicit purpose of written communication to also dictate how it should be performed.

Along the same vein, I’m aware that using the diaeresis in words like ‘reemerge’ is also a form of control expressed over the performance of language, and one capable of assuming political overtones in some contexts. For example, English is India’s official language, the one used for all official documentation and almost all purposes of identification. However, English is also the tongue of colonialists. As a result, its speakers in India are those who (a) have been able to afford education in a good school, (b) have enjoyed a social standing that, in the pre-Independence period, brought them favours from the British, (c) by virtue of pronouncing some words this way or that, have had access to British or American societies, or combinations of some or all of them. So beating upon the reader that this precisely is how a word ought to be pronounced could easily be The New Yorker using a colonial cudgel over the heads of “no speak English” ‘natives’.

That said, debating the purpose of commas from the PoV of The New Yorker is one thing. Holding the same debate from the PoV of most English-language newspapers and magazines in the Indian mainstream media is quite another. The comma, in this sphere, is given to establishing rhythm for an overwhelming majority of writers and copy-editors, even though what we’re taught in school is only the use of commas for – as Paoletta put it – subordination. A common mistake that arises out of this position is that, more often than you’d like, clauses are not closed. Here’s an example from The Wire:

Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, described by Hitler as the “perfect Nazi woman” was held in check by male colleagues when she proposed that female members be awarded similar titles to the males.

There ought to be a comma after woman” and before was but there isn’t. This comma would be the terminal counterpart to the one that flagged off the start of the dependent clause (described by Hitler as…). Without it, what we have are two dependent clauses demarcated by one comma and no independent clauses – which there ought to be considering we’re looking at what happens to be a full and complete sentence.

The second most common type of comma-related mistake goes something like the following sentence (picked up from the terms of service of Authory.com):

You are responsible for the content, that you make available via Authory.

What the fuck is that comma even doing there? Does the author really think we ought to pause between “content” and “that”? While Salter it would seem used the comma to construct a healthy sense of rhythm, Authory – and hundreds of writers around the world – mortgage punctuation to build the syntactic versions of dubstep. This issue also highlights the danger in letting commas denote rhythm alone: rhythm is subjective, and ordering the words in sentences using subjective rules cannot ever make for a consistent reading experience. On the other hand, using commas as a matter of an objective ruleset would help achieve what Paoletta writes is overarching purpose of style:

[Style], unlike usage, has no widely agreed upon correct answers. It is useful only insofar as it enforces consistency. Style makes unimportant decisions so that writers don’t have to—about whether to spell the element “sulfur” or “sulphur,” or if it’s best to italicize the names of films or put them in quotes. It is not meant to be noticed: it is meant to remove the possibility of an inconsistency distracting the reader from experiencing the text as the writer intends.


Here again, of course, I’m not about to let many Indian copy-editors and writers off the hook. Paoletta cites Norris’s defence of the following paragraph as an example of style enforcement gone overboard:

Strait prefers to give his audience as few distractions as possible: he likes to play on a stage in the center of the arena floor, with four microphones arranged like compass points; every two songs, he moves, counterclockwise, to the next microphone, so that people in each quadrant of the crowd can feel as if he were singing just to them.

Compare this aberration to nothing short of the outright misshapenness that was an oped penned by Gopalkrishna Gandhi for The Hindu in May 2014. Excerpt:

In invoking unity and stability, you have regularly turned to the name and stature of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The Sardar, as you would know, chaired the Constituent Assembly’s Committee on Minorities. If the Constitution of India gives crucial guarantees — educational, cultural and religious — to India’s minorities, Sardar Patel has to be thanked, as do other members of that committee, in particular Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the Christian daughter of Sikh Kapurthala. Adopt, in toto, Mr. Modi, not adapt or modify, dilute or tinker with, the vision of the Constitution on the minorities. You may like to read what the indomitable Sardar said in that committee. Why is there, in so many, so much fear, that they dare not voice their fears?

A criticism of the oped along these lines that appeared on the pages of this blog elicited a cocky, but well-meaning, repartee from Gandhi:

Absolutely delighted and want to tell him that I find his comment as refreshing as a shower in lavender for it cures me almost if not fully of my old old habit of taking myself too seriously and writing as if I am meant to change the world and also that I will be very watchful about not enforcing any pauses through commas and under no circumstances on pain of ostracism for that worst of all effects namely dramatic effect and will assiduously follow the near zero comma if not a zero comma rule and that I would greatly value a meet up and a chat discussing pernicious punctuation and other evils.

It is for very similar reasons that I can’t wait for my copy of Solar Bones to be delivered.

Featured image: An extratropical cyclone over the US midwest, shaped like a comma. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Source: YouTube.

Goopy junk

Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop, a wellness brand that has recently come under fire for advertising almost-certainly pseudoscientific “lifestyle” products like $66 jade eggs for women to insert into their vaginas to strengthen their pelvic floors, put up three notes in their defence: two by doctors and one by ‘Team goop’. The ‘Team goop’ note was the usual defence of pseudoscience that we’re all familiar with: that they’re keeping an open mind and seeking autonomous control over their bodies while remaining blissfully deaf to how this diverts the limited resources of many misinformed people who are desperately seeking solutions to health problems away from legitimate, and more reliable, solutions as well as to the capitalist overtones of their beliefs, an irony given Paltrow & co. insist the alternating modes they’re parroting are “Eastern traditions”.

Some of the coverage that goop receives suggests that women are lemmings, ready to jump off a cliff whenever one of our doctors discusses checking for EBV, or Candida, or low levels of vitamin D—or, heaven forbid, take a walk barefoot. As women, we chafe at the idea that we are not intelligent enough to read something and take what serves us, and leave what does not. We simply want information; we want autonomy over our health. That’s why we do unfiltered Q&As, so you can hear directly from doctors; we see no reason to interpret or influence what they’re saying, to tell you what to think.

And speaking of doctors, we are drawn to physicians who are interested in both Western and Eastern modalities and incorporate the best from both, as they generally believe that while traditional medicine can be really good at saving lives, functional medicine is more adept at tackling issues that are chronic. These are the doctors we regularly feature on goop: doctors who publish in peer-reviewed journals; doctors who trained at the best institutions; doctors who are repeatedly at the forefront of medicine; doctors who persistently and aggressively maintain an open mind. The thing about science and medicine is that it evolves all the time. Studies and beliefs that we held sacred even in the last decade have since been proven to be unequivocally false, and sometimes even harmful. Meanwhile, other advances in science and medicine continue to change and save lives. It is not a perfect system; it is a human system.

(The part in bold – not sure where that dichotomy comes from.)

In fact, the jade eggs are less problematic than goop’s other misdemeanours, such as advertising “healing stickers” that goop said was backed by NASA tech – and which NASA called BS on. It’s bad enough that an org with goop’s clout and money is going to market snake oil but it’s worse if it’s going to bill itself as a marketplace for all snake-oil vendors. Anyway, goop’s principal target in their tirade was Jen Gunter, an articulate doctor with a blog, a peculiar choice given the brand and Paltrow have both come under worse fire by major news outlets with millions of social media followers. Good job picking on the small people. And late last evening (or early this morning IST), Gunter published the post everyone was waiting for:

Regarding Aviva Room [doctor #2] I have frankly never heard of her, but she appears to be a vaccine skeptic so there’s that. Dr. Steven Gundry [doctor #1], however, is a special kind of patriarchal prick. I have devoted one sentence in my writing career to his pet project lectins and somehow this earned me a proper mansplaining about both potty mouth and evidence based medicine. Dr. Gundry even wants me to know he is pals with Dr. Oz (that is where I burst out laughing on the train), yes, he brags about being associated with the same Dr. Oz who was scolded by a Senate panel for abusing his national platform to push snake oil. …

To GOOP I say medicine is not subjective. There are facts and biological plausibility. Of course there are unknowns, but not in the way you present it. For example it is fact that sea sponges contain dirt and are completely untested for menstruation. It is highly biologically plausible that sea sponges could have a significant risk of toxic shock syndrome as they may be more absorbent than tampons, may introduce more oxygen than tampons, and be impossible to clean in a way that removes the toxic shock syndrome toxin or even staph aureus. If you disagree with this information it doesn’t mean you have a different opinion, it means you are choosing to be uninformed or the potential risk of being uninformed matters less to you. Subjective would be preferring tampons with a plastic applicator over a cardboard one.

To use a phrase coined by Tim Caulfield, a health law and policy professor at the University of Alberta, it seems the tragedies that “science-free celebrities” perpetrate usually centre around believing that there’s more than one way to interpret what constitutes scientific evidence, taking the suspicion of Western medicine to another level while assuming it has had no successes, taking feminism to mean anything that’s pro-women while ignoring the need to empower women, and wearing the traditionalism of Eastern medicine as a cloak to hide from not being able to produce scientific evidence.

Featured image credit: YouTube.

Wonder Woman. Credit: wonderwomanfilm.com

Why Wonder Woman’s breastplate isn’t disappointing

The Wonder Woman armour piece of June 19 is already among the most-read pieces on this blog that were published in the last year, and quite a few people have stepped forward to give me their take on Twitter and over email. Thanks for all the responses – it’s been an unexpectedly wonderful learning experience. 🙂 This said, one of those who replied, my friend Ishita Roy, also told me why – the logic in my piece notwithstanding – she isn’t actually disappointed by Wonder Woman’s garb in the film. I’ve reproduced her complete response below (from her Facebook comment). –VM

Your analysis of Wonder Woman armour is technically and logically sound. It should be disappointing to see her in such impractical (dangerous, as you pointed out) and male-gaze oriented “armour”. However, allow me to suggest a few reasons for the lack of disappointment here.

1. The origins: William Marston, who co-created the character with his wife, based her design on bondage (BDSM) gear. This is actually in line with the origin of Superman, whose original artist also was inspired by BDSM.

The idea here was not to cater to the male gaze, but to strike the same chord as the image of a dominatrix.
Indeed, Marston’s credentials and intentions were rather impeccable – he was a psychologist and a feminist, and in a polyamorous relationship with two other queer feminists, both of whom had heavy inputs in the making of Wonder Woman.

2. The “armour” is not actually accompanied by the male gaze.

There is not a single shot in the movie which tracks the bodies of any of the amazons. Not a single shot. The attire of the amazons is treated with superb nonchalance in the movie. Of particular note are two scenes: Diana is catcalled when she first appears in London, hidden under a cloak, and later in her green outfit – both of which would be perceived as modest by most folks. But when she appears in her armour, and starts kicking ass, she not even ogled at.

That’s a huge message to send audiences: that women’s clothing is not meant for consumption by an audience. I think giving them actual armour would have subtracted from that message – that women deserve respect regardless of whatever they wear. That even as warriors, modesty is not a requirement.
The whole amazon attire is thoroughly divorced from the concept of objectification by the cinematography, script and the very suggestive fact that amazons of all ages wear it.

3. That attire may not have been meant as armour.

The fighting style choreographed for the amazons is actively incompatible with plate-mail. It depends on ranged attacks, acrobatics and is more coordinated than single combat. Freedom of movement, along with coverage of vitals seems to be the aim here.

Now note that Diana’s attire is more revealing than the standard issue Amazonian garb. Also note that it has been depicted as a museum piece in-story, and is meant to be more ceremonial than actual armour.
Indeed the prevailing fan theory is that it is completely ceremonial, meant to be an appropriate superhero costume for the (wielder of) god-killers rather than a bulletproof vest.

Finally: re Thor and Bruce. Both guys spend a substantial amount of time with a naked torso and, in Thor’s case, wearing non-armoured clothing. Make of that what you will.

Wonder Woman. Credit: wonderwomanfilm.com

Why Wonder Woman's breastplate isn't disappointing

The Wonder Woman armour piece of June 19 is already among the most-read pieces on this blog that were published in the last year, and quite a few people have stepped forward to give me their take on Twitter and over email. Thanks for all the responses – it’s been an unexpectedly wonderful learning experience. 🙂 This said, one of those who replied, my friend Ishita Roy, also told me why – the logic in my piece notwithstanding – she isn’t actually disappointed by Wonder Woman’s garb in the film. I’ve reproduced her complete response below (from her Facebook comment). –VM

Your analysis of Wonder Woman armour is technically and logically sound. It should be disappointing to see her in such impractical (dangerous, as you pointed out) and male-gaze oriented “armour”. However, allow me to suggest a few reasons for the lack of disappointment here.

1. The origins: William Marston, who co-created the character with his wife, based her design on bondage (BDSM) gear. This is actually in line with the origin of Superman, whose original artist also was inspired by BDSM.

The idea here was not to cater to the male gaze, but to strike the same chord as the image of a dominatrix.
Indeed, Marston’s credentials and intentions were rather impeccable – he was a psychologist and a feminist, and in a polyamorous relationship with two other queer feminists, both of whom had heavy inputs in the making of Wonder Woman.

2. The “armour” is not actually accompanied by the male gaze.

There is not a single shot in the movie which tracks the bodies of any of the amazons. Not a single shot. The attire of the amazons is treated with superb nonchalance in the movie. Of particular note are two scenes: Diana is catcalled when she first appears in London, hidden under a cloak, and later in her green outfit – both of which would be perceived as modest by most folks. But when she appears in her armour, and starts kicking ass, she not even ogled at.

That’s a huge message to send audiences: that women’s clothing is not meant for consumption by an audience. I think giving them actual armour would have subtracted from that message – that women deserve respect regardless of whatever they wear. That even as warriors, modesty is not a requirement.
The whole amazon attire is thoroughly divorced from the concept of objectification by the cinematography, script and the very suggestive fact that amazons of all ages wear it.

3. That attire may not have been meant as armour.

The fighting style choreographed for the amazons is actively incompatible with plate-mail. It depends on ranged attacks, acrobatics and is more coordinated than single combat. Freedom of movement, along with coverage of vitals seems to be the aim here.

Now note that Diana’s attire is more revealing than the standard issue Amazonian garb. Also note that it has been depicted as a museum piece in-story, and is meant to be more ceremonial than actual armour.
Indeed the prevailing fan theory is that it is completely ceremonial, meant to be an appropriate superhero costume for the (wielder of) god-killers rather than a bulletproof vest.

Finally: re Thor and Bruce. Both guys spend a substantial amount of time with a naked torso and, in Thor’s case, wearing non-armoured clothing. Make of that what you will.

Credit: Pexels/pixabay

Geometry’s near-miss that wasn’t

On June 8, Nautilus published a piece by Evelyn Lamb talking about mathematical near-misses. Imagine a mathematician trying to solve a problem using a specific technique and imagine it allows her to get really, really close to a solution – but not the solution itself. That’s a mathematical near-miss, and the technique becomes of particular interest to mathematicians because they can reveal potential connections between seemingly unconnected areas of mathematics. Lamb starts the piece talking about geometry but further down she’s got the simplest example: the Ramanujan constant. It is enumerated as e^{π(163^0.5)} (in English, you’d be reading this as “e to the power pi-times the square-root of 163”). It’s equal to 262,537,412,640,768,743.99999999999925. According to mathematician John Baez (quoted in the same article), this amazing near-miss is thanks to 163 being a so-called Heegner number. “Exponentials related to these numbers are nearly integers,” Lamb writes. Her piece concludes thus:

Near misses live in the murky boundary between idealistic, unyielding mathematics and our indulgent, practical senses. They invert the logic of approximation. Normally the real world is an imperfect shadow of the Platonic realm. The perfection of the underlying mathematics is lost under realizable conditions. But with near misses, the real world is the perfect shadow of an imperfect realm. An approximation is “a not-right estimate of a right answer,” Kaplan says, whereas “a near-miss is an exact representation of an almost-right answer.”

It was an entirely fun article (not just because I’ve a thing for articles discussing science that has no known paractical applications). However, the minute I read the headline (‘The Impossible Mathematics of the Real World’), one other science story from the past – which turned out to be of immense practical relevance – immediately came to mind: that of the birth of non-Euclidean geometry. In 19th century Europe, the German polymath Carl Friedrich Gauss realised that though people regularly approximated the shapes of real-world objects to those conceived by Euclid in c. 300 BC, there were enough dissimilarities to suspect that some truths of the world could be falling through the cracks. For example, Earth isn’t a perfect sphere; mountains aren’t perfect cones; and perfect cubes and cuboids don’t exist in nature. Yet we seem perfectly okay with ‘solving’ problems by making often unreasonable approximations. Which one is the imperfect shadow here?

A lecture delivered by Bernhard Riemann, a student of Gauss’s at the University of Gottingen, in June 1854 put his teacher’s suspicions to rest and showed that Euclid’s shapes had been the imperfect shadows. He’d done this by inventing the mathematical tools and rules to describe a geometry that existed in more than three dimensions and could deal with curved surfaces. (E.g., the three angles of a Euclidean triangle add up to 180º – but draw a triangle on the surface of a sphere and the sum of the angles is greater than 180º.) In effect, Euclid’s geometry was a lower dimensional variant of Riemannian geometry.

But the extent of Euclidean geometry’s imperfections only really came to light when physicists* used Riemann’s geometry to set up the theories of relativity, which unified space and time and discovered that gravity’s effects could be understood as the experience of moving through the curvature of spacetime. These realisations wouldn’t have been possible without Gauss wondering why Euclid’s shapes made any sense at all in a world filled with jags and bumps. To me, this illustrates a fascinating kind of a near-miss: one where real-world objects were squeezed into mathematical rules so we could make approximate real-world predictions for over 2,300 years without really noticing that most of Euclid’s shapes looked nothing like anything in the natural universe.

*It wasn’t just Albert Einstein. Among others, the list of contributors included Hendrik Lorentz, Henri Poincare, Hermann Minkowski, Marcel Grossmann and Arnold Sommerfeld.

Featured image credit: Pexels/pixabay.

Credit: Pexels/pixabay

Geometry's near-miss that wasn't

On June 8, Nautilus published a piece by Evelyn Lamb talking about mathematical near-misses. Imagine a mathematician trying to solve a problem using a specific technique and imagine it allows her to get really, really close to a solution – but not the solution itself. That’s a mathematical near-miss, and the technique becomes of particular interest to mathematicians because they can reveal potential connections between seemingly unconnected areas of mathematics. Lamb starts the piece talking about geometry but further down she’s got the simplest example: the Ramanujan constant. It is enumerated as e^{π(163^0.5)} (in English, you’d be reading this as “e to the power pi-times the square-root of 163”). It’s equal to 262,537,412,640,768,743.99999999999925. According to mathematician John Baez (quoted in the same article), this amazing near-miss is thanks to 163 being a so-called Heegner number. “Exponentials related to these numbers are nearly integers,” Lamb writes. Her piece concludes thus:

Near misses live in the murky boundary between idealistic, unyielding mathematics and our indulgent, practical senses. They invert the logic of approximation. Normally the real world is an imperfect shadow of the Platonic realm. The perfection of the underlying mathematics is lost under realizable conditions. But with near misses, the real world is the perfect shadow of an imperfect realm. An approximation is “a not-right estimate of a right answer,” Kaplan says, whereas “a near-miss is an exact representation of an almost-right answer.”

It was an entirely fun article (not just because I’ve a thing for articles discussing science that has no known paractical applications). However, the minute I read the headline (‘The Impossible Mathematics of the Real World’), one other science story from the past – which turned out to be of immense practical relevance – immediately came to mind: that of the birth of non-Euclidean geometry. In 19th century Europe, the German polymath Carl Friedrich Gauss realised that though people regularly approximated the shapes of real-world objects to those conceived by Euclid in c. 300 BC, there were enough dissimilarities to suspect that some truths of the world could be falling through the cracks. For example, Earth isn’t a perfect sphere; mountains aren’t perfect cones; and perfect cubes and cuboids don’t exist in nature. Yet we seem perfectly okay with ‘solving’ problems by making often unreasonable approximations. Which one is the imperfect shadow here?

A lecture delivered by Bernhard Riemann, a student of Gauss’s at the University of Gottingen, in June 1854 put his teacher’s suspicions to rest and showed that Euclid’s shapes had been the imperfect shadows. He’d done this by inventing the mathematical tools and rules to describe a geometry that existed in more than three dimensions and could deal with curved surfaces. (E.g., the three angles of a Euclidean triangle add up to 180º – but draw a triangle on the surface of a sphere and the sum of the angles is greater than 180º.) In effect, Euclid’s geometry was a lower dimensional variant of Riemannian geometry.

But the extent of Euclidean geometry’s imperfections only really came to light when physicists* used Riemann’s geometry to set up the theories of relativity, which unified space and time and discovered that gravity’s effects could be understood as the experience of moving through the curvature of spacetime. These realisations wouldn’t have been possible without Gauss wondering why Euclid’s shapes made any sense at all in a world filled with jags and bumps. To me, this illustrates a fascinating kind of a near-miss: one where real-world objects were squeezed into mathematical rules so we could make approximate real-world predictions for over 2,300 years without really noticing that most of Euclid’s shapes looked nothing like anything in the natural universe.

*It wasn’t just Albert Einstein. Among others, the list of contributors included Hendrik Lorentz, Henri Poincare, Hermann Minkowski, Marcel Grossmann and Arnold Sommerfeld.

Featured image credit: Pexels/pixabay.

Prashant Bhushan. Credit: Swaraj Abhiyan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5

Religious sentiments: upsetting them v. getting upset

Featured image: Prashant Bhushan. Credit: Swaraj Abhiyan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5.

Get a load of this: Over the weekend, advocate and social activist Prashant Bhushan tweeted saying CM Yogi Adityanath’s anti-Romeo ‘policy’ would imply that the Hindu god Krishna could be classified as a “legendary eve-teaser” in modern Uttar Pradesh. In quick succession, Bhushan had FIRs filed against him from both BJP and Congress spokespersons, in Delhi and Lucknow respectively. On both counts, the charge was of “upsetting religious sentiments”.

This is funny: Bhushan’s tweet does not upset religious sentiments but recalls a story and questions how it will be interpreted in this day. And if the BJP and the Congress have been offended by this, it could only be because they have interpreted his tweet offensively. If reason had prevailed, Bhushan’s statement should’ve been interpreted to say Adityanath’s policy perspective almost directly raises questions about Krishna’s attitude towards women, and the only way the BJP/Congress can imagine it “upsets religious sentiments” is by suggesting either:

  1. Adityanath is right ⇒ Krishna was an “eve-teaser” ⇒ religious beliefs are wrong, or
  2. Krishna was not an “eve-teaser” ⇒ Adityanath is wrong ⇒ Adityanath is upsetting religious sentiments

Either way, the offence seems to stem from someone other than Prashant Bhushan. As for the offended, one thing is certain: women get the short shrift, as usual. They’re once again stuck making lousy choices: between a political ideology that supports honour killings and thinks its women should stay at home, aspire to get married and run a household – and a religious tradition that extols a god about whom the popular narrative is that he “teased” gopis, i.e. women. And this isn’t just the women in UP: it limits the narratives through which women can participate in national politics.

Moreover, it’s ironic that the anti-harassment squads are being called “anti-Romeo” squads. Romeo from William Shakespeare’s tale did not harass. Similarly, the couples being targeted by Adityanath’s anti-harassment squads – the Romeos and Juliets, supposedly – aren’t harassing each other. They’re spending time together in public spaces, spaces in which intimacy is still somewhat taboo because it is even more difficult for them to do so in private spaces. In the more conservative pockets of urban India (I can’t profess to know much about the rural), these spaces don’t exist. Adityanath should instead be empowering the police force and social support groups to intervene properly and sensitively, so those who feel victimised don’t have to seek arbitrary – and often drastic – courses of action.

He should also be cognisant of the fact that his and his supporters’ purported goal to ‘protect women’ robs women of their agency and right to self-determination.

Credit: bykst/pixabay

How infographics can lose the plot

By this point it should’ve become apparent to most people who engage with infographics on a semi-regular basis that there are some rules about what they should or shouldn’t look like, and that your canvas isn’t actually infinite in terms of what you can create that will a) look good and b) make sense. But just when you think everyone’s going to create sane visualisations of data, there comes along one absolute trash-fire of an infographic to remind you that there are still people out there who can and will ruin your day. And when that someone is a media channel the size of News18, the issue at hand actually transforms from being a molehill to a mountain.

Because it’s News18, it’s no longer just about following good practices when making an infographic but also about moving the hundreds of thousands of people who will have seen the infographic (@CNNnews18 has 3.4 million followers) away from the idea that News18’s effort produced something legitimate. It’s like you and your squad are guiding a group of people quietly through a jungle at night, almost unseen, when an idiot decides he has to smoke a joint, lights his match, gives your position away to the enemy and you all get killed. To the wider world, you were all idiots – but only you will know that things would’ve been rosier if it hadn’t been for that junkie (and spare me your consternation about what a lousy analogy this is). Without further ado, the trash-fire:

Fonts and colours, not bad, but that’s it. Here’s what’s wrong:

  1. The contours of the chicken-leg and the leaf appear to have dictated the positioning of numbers and lines in the graphic, whereas it should’ve been the other way around
  2. The same length represented by 25% for Rajasthan also signifies 31% and 33% for Haryana and Punjab, respectively
  3. The states (in the graphic) from Bihar to Telangana all have less than 10% on the veg side – but the amount of leafy area would suggest these values are much higher than actual
  4. If anything, West Bengal and Telangana are the worst offenders: the breadth of leaf they have for their measly 1% is longer than that of Rajasthan’s 25%
  5. The numbers say that only 4/21 states have more vegetarians than non-vegetarians – but a glance would suggest that fraction’s closer to 13/21
  6. Also: wtf are these irregular shapes? Why not just pick regular rectangles and shade them accordingly?

In fact, across the board (of mistakes), it seems the designer may have forgotten or ignored just one guiding principle of all infographics: that they should give a clear and accurate impression of the truth as represented by the numbers. This often requires the designer to ensure that the axes are clearly visible, that representations of values through parameters like distance, area, volume, etc. are consistent and predictable throughout the graphic, that the representation of relative values is proportionate, that colours and/or stylisations don’t mislead the reader, etc.

These are the reasons why the ‘3D’ pie-chart offered by MS Powerpoint hasn’t found wider use. It offers nothing at all in addition to the normal ‘flat’ pie-chart but actually make things worse by distorting how the values are displayed. Similarly, you take one look at this chicken-leaf thing and you take away… nothing. You need to look at it again, closer each time, toss the numbers around a bit if they make sense, etc. It’s really just an attention-whore of an infographic, to be used as bait with which to trawl Twitter for a flamewar around the Indian government’s recent attitude towards the consumption of meat, especially beef.

Also: “So what if it’s a little off the mark to get some attention? It’s done its job, right?” → if this is your question, then the answer is that if you don’t force designers – especially those working with journalists – to follow best practices when making an infographic, you’ll be setting a lower bar that will soon turn around and assault you with all kinds of charts and plots conceived to hide what the numbers are really saying and instead massage your preconceived biases while playing up ‘almost-right’ propaganda. Yes, infographics can quickly and effectively misguide, especially when you don’t have much time to spend scrutinising it. Hell, isn’t that why infographics were invented in the first place: to let you take one look at a visualisation and get a good idea of what’s going on? This is exactly why there’s a lot of damage done when you’re screwing with infographics.

So DON’T DO IT.

One of Google's driverless cars. Credit: google.com

A future for driverless cars, from a limbo between trolley problems and autopilots

By Anuj  Srivas and Vasudevan Mukunth

What’s the deal with everyone getting worried about artificial intelligence? It’s all the Silicon Valley elite seem willing to be apprehensive about, and Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom seems to be the patron saint along with his book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014).

Even if Big Data seems like it could catalyze things, they could be overestimating AI’s advent. But thanks to Google’s espied breed of driverless cars, conversations on regulation are already afoot. This is the sort of subject that could benefit from its tech being better understood; it’s not immediately apparent. To make matters worse, now is also the period when not enough data is available for everyone to scrutinize the issue but at the same time there are some opinion-mongers distorting the early hints of a debate with their desires.

In an effort to bypass this, let’s say things happen like they always do: Google doesn’t ask anybody and starts deploying its driverless cars, and then the law is forced to shape around that. Yes, this isn’t something Google can force on people because it’s part of no pre-existing ecosystem. It can’t force participation like it did with Hangouts. Yet, the law isn’t prohibitive.

In the Silicon Valley, Google has premiered its express Shopping service – for delivering purchases made online within three hours of someone placing the order for no extra cost. No extra cost because the goods are delivered using Google’s driverless cars, and the service is a test-bed for them, where they get to ‘learn’ what they will. But when it comes to buying them, who will? What about insurance? What about licenses?

A better trolley problem

It’s been understood for a while that the problem here is liabilities, summarized in many ways by the trolley problem. There’s something unsettling about loss of life due to machine failure, whereas it’s relatively easier to accept when the loss is the consequence of human hands. Theoretically it should make no difference – planes for example are driven more by computers these days than a living, breathing pilot. Essentially, you’re trusting your life to the computers running the plane. And when driverless cars are rolled out, there’s ample reason to believe that will have a similarly low chance of failure as aircrafts run by computer-pilots. But we could be missing something through this simplification.

Even if we’re laughably bad at it at times, having a human behind the wheel makes it predictable, sure, but more importantly it makes liability easier to figure. The problem with a driverless car is not that we’d doubt its logic – the logic could be perfect – but that we’d doubt what that logic dictates. A failure right now is an accident: a car ramming into a wall, a pole, into another car, another person, etc. Are these the only failures, though? A driverless car does seem similar to autopilot, but we must be concerned about what its logic dictates. We consciously say that human decision making skills are inferior, that we can’t be trusted. Though that is true, we cross an epistemological ground when we do so.

Perhaps the trolley problem isn’t well-thought out. The problem with driverless cars is not about 5 lives versus 1 life; that’s an utterly human problem. The updated problem for driverless cars would be: should the algorithm look to save the the passengers of the car or should it look to save bystanders?

And yet even this updated trolley problem is too simplistic. Computers and programmers make these kind of decisions on a daily basis already, by choosing at what time, for instance, an airbag should deploy, especially considering that if deployed unnecessarily, the airbag can also grievously injure a human being.

Therefore, we shouldn’t fall into a Frankenstein complex where our technological creations are automatically assumed to be doing evil things simply because they have no human soul. It’s not a question of “it’s bad if a machine does it and good if a human does it”.

Who programs the programmers?

And yet, the scale and moral ambiguity is pumped up to a hundred when it comes to driverless cars. Things like airbag deployment can often take refuge in physics and statistics – they are often seen in that context. And yet for driverless cars, specific programming decisions will be forced to confront morally ambiguous situations and it is here that the problem starts. If an airbag deploys unintentionally or wrongly it can always be explained away as an unfortunate error, accident or freak situation. Or, more simply, that we can’t program airbags to deploy on a case-by-case basis. Driverless cars however, can’t take refuge behind statistics or simple physics when it it is confronted with its trolley problem.

There is a more interesting question here. If a driverless car has to choose between a) running over a dog, b) swerving your car in order to miss the dog, thereby hitting a tree, and c) freeze and do nothing, what will it do? It will do whatever the programmer tells it to do. Earlier we had the choice, depending on our own moral compass, as to what we should do. People who like dogs wouldn’t kill the animal; people who cared more about their car would kill the dog. So, who programs the programmers?

And as with the simplification to a trolley problem, comparing autonomous cars to autopilot on board an aircraft is similarly short-sighted. In his book Normal Accidents, sociologist Charles Perrow talks about nuclear power plant technology and its implications for insurance policy. NPPs are packed in with redundant safety systems. When accidents don’t happen, these systems make up a bulk of the plant’s dead weight, but when an accident does happen, their failure is often the failure worth talking about.

So, even as the aircraft is flying through the air, control towers are monitoring its progress, the flight data recorders act as a deterrent against complacency, and simply the cost of one flight makes redundant safety systems feasible over a reasonable span of time.

Safety is a human thing

These features together make up the environment in which autopilot functions. On the other hand, an autonomous car doesn’t inspire the same sense of being in secure hands. In fact, it’s like an economy of scale working the other way. What safety systems kick in when the ghost in the machine fails? To continue the metaphor: As Maria Konnikova pointed out in The New Yorker in September 2014, maneuvering an aircraft can be increasingly automated. The problem arises when something about it fails and humans have to take over: we won’t be able to take over as effectively as we think we can because automation encourages our minds to wander, to not pay attention to the differences between normalcy and failure. As a result, a ‘redundancy of airbags’ is encouraged.

In other words, it would be too expensive to include all these foolproof safety measures for driverless cars but at the same time they ought to be. And this is why the first ones likely won’t be owned by individuals. The best way to introduce them would be through taxi services like Uber, effectuating communal car sharing with autonomous drivers. In a world of driverless cars, we may not own the cars themselves, so a company like Uber could internalize the costs involved in producing that ecosystem, and having them around in bulk makes safety-redundancies feasible as well.

And if driverless cars are being touted as the future, owning a car could probably become a thing of the past, too. The thrust of digital has been to share and rent more than to own with pretty much most things. Only essentials like smartphones are owned. Look at music, business software, games, rides (Uber), even apartments (Airbnb). Why not autonomous vehicles?