arnabocean

— by Arnab Gupta

☞ The climate change that helped the dinosaurs

November 01, 2018

The Atlantic has an excellent piece on a drastic climate change event about 230 million years ago, when vast quantities of carbon dioxide gas erupted from undersea volcanoes. We’ve all heard the story of how the dinosaurs disappeared; well, this one is a different story.

But perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the Carnian Pluvial Episode was not the crisis itself, but the world that came after. Until then, dinosaurs had been a puny and obscure lineage confined to the furthest southern reaches of Pangaea. But by the time the crisis was over, they had spread all over the world—perhaps using the oddly humid pulse to hopscotch across the previously arid wastelands of Pangaea—and rapidly diversified, using the extinction of their competitors to experiment with new lifestyles. The planet would never be the same.

Speaking of climate change, living in the US makes it pretty clear that some of us haven’t yet gotten our head around the whys, the hows, and really, the necessity, of caring about climate change. This is the part that we must keep reminding ourselves: it’s not that climate change destroys the Earth; far from it. The Earth was, is and will be fine. It’s just that the species that inhabit the Earth has and will change with drastic climate change.

If we, humankind, as a species are destined to have the same fate as the dinosaurs, well, so be it. But hey, if there’s one thing us humans have done better than any other species, that’s to change our environment to suit ourselves. Let’s use that to keep Earth’s climate as we like it! A huge chunk of our civilization is based on proximity to water, including oceans; a huge chunk of us are used to certain weather patterns. We won’t like it if either of those factors change. We won’t; the Earth won’t care.

(Hopefully we won’t end up like the dinosaurs. Hopefully, we will (a) keep Earth’s climate under control, and (b) inhabit other planets, at least, by the time the Sun makes Earth uninhabitable.)

Anyway, go read this great article. This kind of story about the paths of life and evolution on Earth is always fascinating to read.

☞ ‘Democracy brings discontent’ in peaceful Bhutan

October 30, 2018

From Joanna Slater at the Washington Post is this excellent piece about emerging democracy in Bhutan:

A small Himalayan nation wedged between India and China, Bhutan is famed for its isolated location, its stunning scenery and its devotion to the principle of “Gross National Happiness,” which seeks to balance economic growth with other forms of contentment.

Now Bhutan’s young democracy, only a decade old, just received a heady dose of the unhappiness that comes with electoral politics. In the months leading up to Thursday’s national elections, the first in five years, politicians traded insults and made extravagant promises. Social media networks lit up with unproved allegations and fearmongering about Bhutan’s role in the world.

It is enough to make some voters express a longing for the previous system — absolute monarchy under a beloved king. “I would love to go back,” said Karma Tenzin, 58, sitting in his apartment in the picturesque capital, Thimphu. “We would be more than happy.”

Interesting tidbit:

The way elections are structured here is atypical, too. Buddhist monks, nuns and other clergy are not allowed to vote, on the logic that they should remain outside politics. No campaigning is allowed after 6 p.m. And candidates found “defaming” their opponents or straying into certain sensitive topics — such as Bhutan’s oppressively close relationship with India — face fines or reprimands.

Fines have been levied for describing political opponents as “anti-national” and “all talk and no substance”. This is such a stark contrast in tone and expectations from election campaigns in both India and USA that it almost seems quaint and anachronistic. Here’s to Bhutan maintaining its peacefulness and innocence as its democracy matures.

Bhutan went to the polls for its third parliamentary elections on 18 October, the day that the Washington Post piece was published.

(Well, perhaps democracy can also broach the topic of the expulsion, deportation, ethnic cleansing of its Nepali-origin citizens. Can’t imagine that having a good bearing on the Gross National Happiness.)

☞ FIFA updates its ethics code… to fight defamation, not corruption

August 16, 2018

From the AP:

FIFA has officially eradicated corruption. All it took was pressing the delete key.

Soccer officials and players who bother checking out the new code of ethics governing their conduct will find the word “corruption” missing. They also will discover how to avoid being banned for paying and receiving bribes.

It seems that the lesson that FIFA took from their massive corruption scandal is that they need to run a tighter ship in terms of information about the corruption getting out.

Related, they have also previously addressed racism in the sport by disbanding its anti-racism taskforce, declaring that it had “completely” fulfilled its mission. “Completely”; meanwhile, task force member Osasu Obayiuwana had this to say:

“I wish I could say that I am shocked by the decision, but unfortunately I am not. The problem of racism in football remains a burning, very serious and topical one, which need continuous attention.”

What would you bet that the next FIFA scandal won’t be too far away, however much they declare defamation of the body to be a punishable offense?

☞ The ugly scandal that cancelled the Nobel prize in literature

July 18, 2018

From the Guardian:

In the eyes of its members, there is no more important cultural institution in the world than the Swedish Academy. The members, who call themselves The Eighteen (always in capitals), are elected for life by their peers, and meet for a ritual dinner every Thursday evening at a restaurant they own in the heart of the old town in Stockholm. And once a year, at a ceremony brilliant with jewels and formality, the permanent secretary of the academy hands out the Nobel prize in literature and all the world applauds.

But this year there will be no prize and no ceremony. In November 2017, it was revealed in the Swedish press that the husband of one of the academy members had been accused of serial sexual abuse, in assaults alleged to have taken place over more than 20 years. Jean-Claude Arnault, a French photographer and cultural entrepreneur, is married to the poet and academician Katarina Frostenson. In addition to assault accusations against him, the pair are accused of misusing academy funding. Arnault has denied all accusations, and Frostenson has refused to comment.

The academy is paralysed by the scandal, which was followed by a slew of resignations and expulsions. Six of The Eighteen have withdrawn from any part in its deliberations; another two were compelled to do so. The statutes say that 12 members must be present to elect any new ones, so with only 10, no important decisions can be taken and no new members elected.

What a mess this is. I’m tempted to say “you can’t make this stuff up”; would that be too ironical?

☞ Disposable America — A history of modern capitalism from the perspective of the straw. Seriously.

July 11, 2018

By Alexis Madrigal for The Atlantic:

The invention of American industrialism, the creation of urban life, changing gender relations, public-health reform, suburbia and its hamburger-loving teens, better living through plastics, and the financialization of the economy: The straw was there for all these things—rolled out of extrusion machines, dispensed, pushed through lids, bent, dropped into the abyss.

You can learn a lot about this country, and the dilemmas of contemporary capitalism, by taking a straw-eyed view.

This is a very well researched article on the humble drinking straw, and its correlation with the evolving American societal outlook. The pervasiveness of the drinking straw in this society probably makes this a pretty good correlation to make.

Go read, this is quite an interesting, albeit long, read. (I did not know, for example, that the original straw was made from actual straw.)

☞ New free street library in Kolkata!

July 02, 2018

The Indian Express reports:

If one gets down at Netaji Bhavan metro station and walks towards Rammohan Dutta road straight to Northern park one would stumble upon a rather curious sight. College-goers can be seen crowding the area and a familiar smell of books envelops it. Several books are exhibited in bookshelves on the footpath and it almost seems like a bookstore at first glance. This, however, is no bookstore, instead, it is an expansive library that houses books by authors ranging from popular Bengali comic books to Sidney Sheldon. The name of the place is Street Library.

This is such a lovely concept. Anyone who wants to read can pick up a book and return it once they are finished. People who have books that they don’t plan on keeping can donate and improve the collection. People with organization skills and some spare time can chip in and organize the collection every once in a while.

This is an excellent program that encourages reading, sharing and selflessness. It also depends on a community working together to keep a good thing going. I wish this all the best, and really hope that there is enough community interest and investment to overcome the occasional miscreant. Although Kolkata is home to the National Library of India, and hosts several other libraries, they are either not free or not easily accessible for many people. Street libraries are an excellent idea for people short on time and energy but an interest to read.

If you’re in Kolkata and have some books to spare, perhaps you can consider donating to this? Or better yet, perhaps you can see if something similar can be organized in your part of the city?

☞ Indian banks contemplate ‘face reading’ to spot doubtful loan seekers

June 29, 2018

From the Times of India:

Private banks in the western coastal state [Gujarat] have approached the Gujarat Forensics Science University to prepare a facial micro-expressions manual, to train its employees in recognising doubtful high net-worth customers like fugitive liquor baron Vijay Mallya demanding loans.

This is straight out of the American TV series Lie to Me (IMDB Link):

In the show, Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) and his colleagues in The Lightman Group accept assignments from third parties (commonly local and federal law enforcement), and assist in investigations, reaching the truth through applied psychology: interpreting microexpressions, through the Facial Action Coding System, and body language.

Have the Indian bankers in question seriously been watching too much TV reruns? In the show, the protagonists use micro expressions to evaluate suspects and their testimony to solve crimes. That’s slightly different from the real world case of deciding whether to give out large loans, no? (For context, India has had a slew of recent large loan frauds.)

I am completely bewildered by this. If there have been some large loan frauds, shouldn’t the most important step be a complete overhaul and re-evaluation of how credit-worthiness of prospective clients is determined? In a financial sense? In a risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis sense? In an available collateral sense? Especially given that investigations have been called for on bank employees, it has been alleged that a bank CEO “failed to initiate steps” to prevent the fraud after there were red-flags, and bank officials have been charged?

Do the bankers really believe that there is nothing to improve on their financial evaluations side and in their employee honesty side? Or is this a case of putting their head in the sand and going ‘la-la-la’? Are the bankers too entrenched in their current practices and workflows, don’t want to go through the trouble — and the expense — of actually re-evaluating their own businesses, and are looking for guises to exculpate themselves?

I mean, seriously, if the banks want to go for next generation methods, artificial intelligence and machine learning would be an actual avenue to explore. Examples to be found here and here. There are even courses and available computer code(here and here) to get people started!

Come now, bankers in question: get real and find real solutions to your real problems, and stop with the hand waving TV-show inspirations.

☞ Indian Railways decides to enforce baggage limits

June 06, 2018

The Times of India reports:

As a result of numerous complaints regarding excess baggage being towed into train compartments, the Indian Railways has decided to strictly enforce its over-three-decades-old baggage allowance rules, which will see passengers paying up to six times the stipulated amount as penalty, if caught travelling with overweight luggage, an official said today.

I never even knew that these baggage rules existed. All these years, I’ve simply assumed that there were no formal baggage limits; that space constraints and being reasonable to fellow passengers is all that stops people from carrying waaay too much stuff with them on to trains. Unfortunately, people often do carry too much stuff with them, and to the level of straining and breaking limits of reason.

Which is why the rule enforcement itself, to me, is entirely justified. Even in the little travel that I have done via Indian Railways in the recent past, people carrying way too much luggage, both in quantity and physical size, is way too common for comfort.

The important question, though, is how much luggage is allowed? After all, the railways is used in a vast majority by people for whom expense is a major factor.

According to the prescribed norms, a sleeper class and a second class passenger can carry luggage weighing 40 kg and 35 kg respectively without paying any extra money and a maximum of 80 kg and 70 kg respectively by paying for the excess luggage at the parcel office. The excess luggage would have to be put in the luggage van.

[…]

For example, if a passenger is travelling 500 km with luggage weighing 80 kg in the sleeper class, he can book his excess baggage of 40 kg for Rs 109 in the luggage van.

[…]

Similarly, an AC first class passenger can carry 70 kg of luggage for free and a maximum of 150 kg, after paying a fee for the excess 80 kg.

An AC two-tier passenger can carry 50 kg of luggage for free and a maximum of 100 kg by paying a fee for the excess 50 kg.

Only 35-40kg for the second class passenger? That seems a little on the lower side. Barely a couple of suitcases, perhaps? In our international travel to and from the USA we’re allowed 46kg in two checked in suitcases, along with additional cabin baggage; surely a railway compartment should be able to accommodate more per passenger? The limits for the AC classes seem a little more reasonable, but still low considering that fewer passengers occupy the same compartment area.

The cost for extra baggage doesn’t seem too bad either. About Rs. 100 for essentially doubling the baggage allowance is hopefully okay, considering prices of other commodities, although I hope the baggage charges increase with the class of tickets. The cheapest tickets should really also have the cheapest excess baggage charges, considering the budget conscious traveler.

I’m most concerned, though, with two things. One, the excess luggage is to be placed in a separate luggage van. (Come to think of it, I’ve always known these luggage vans exist on trains. I always assumed they were for freight or oversized luggage. Huh.) I’m guessing the luggage van is perfectly safe with no fear of theft, but I’m also certain many, many passengers will take a long time to be comfortable with the idea of their bags not being right next to them. (Although, side benefit: if the bags aren’t just lying around in the compartment, they’re safer from theft.)

Two, they say they will “enforce” the law by random checks. This is bad, especially in India, where: (a) this situation is ripe with bribing opportunities, and (b) random checking introduces the concept of fairness between travelers who got caught and who didn’t. I really hope they figure out a more robust way of executing this.

In concept, the baggage allowance idea seems reasonable, but I hope they do a good job of the current idea, and I really hope they revisit the current ideas and update them based on feedback and usage data. The Indian Railways is a lifeline in India, and things like this can have a major effect either way.

☞ How the smallest programming bugs can be catastrophic

December 15, 2017

From way back in 1996:

It took the European Space Agency 10 years and $7 billion to produce Ariane 5, a giant rocket capable of hurling a pair of three-ton satellites into orbit with each launch and intended to give Europe overwhelming supremacy in the commercial space business.

All it took to explode that rocket less than a minute into its maiden voyage last June, scattering fiery rubble across the mangrove swamps of French Guiana, was a small computer program trying to stuff a 64-bit number into a 16-bit space.

One bug, one crash. Of all the careless lines of code recorded in the annals of computer science, this one may stand as the most devastatingly efficient.

More links here, and the report of the inquiry into the incident is archived here.

A fascinating, and from a programmer’s perspective chilling, read. This is the stuff of nightmares — an apparently innocuous line of code causing an exception that leads to disaster!

Adios Cassini

December 12, 2017

A couple of months ago, 15 September to be precise, marked the end of an era in the human exploration of our solar system. The Cassini spacecraft was programmed to crash into Saturn’s upper atmosphere and burn up, thus ending an almost two-decade journey and exploration of Saturn and its moons. I was in middle school when this mission launched in 1997, and at that point, even reaching Saturn in 2004 seemed eons away. Twenty years later, perhaps it’s time to look back at some of the amazing insights we’ve gained.

Cassini is actually a shortened name for the Cassini-Huygens mission, and comprises the main spacecraft — Cassini — designed to travel as a satellite in the Saturn planetary system, and a small lander — Huygens — designed to actually land on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

Giovanni Cassini was an Italian mathematician and astronomer, and discovered four of Saturn’s moons — Iapetus, Rhea, Tethys and Dione. The Cassini spacecraft was the first to observe all four of these moons. Christiaan Huygens was, of course, a famous Dutch astronomer and scientist, and discovered — but of course — Titan, then the first known moon of Saturn. (He also invented the pendulum clock, was mentor to Gottfried Leibniz, studied optics and the wave nature of light, and derived the modern formula for centripetal force.)

Saturn by Cassini

Saturn by Cassini (via Wikipedia).

Of the many discoveries made by Cassini, I’ll focus on just two stories: those of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, and Saturn’s hexagon. Both of these fascinate me to no end, and I think reflect the best of Cassini’s contributions.