Flying to Europe

Today begins my fortnight-long journey across Europe. There were two small — perhaps almost inconsequential — things I have always wanted to do: fly direct to Paris, and fly in an Airbus. As a Francophone, my first wish is understandable. The second was something I fulfilled earlier this year on a trip to Sri Lanka. This time round, it was a business class A330 on an (approximately) ten hour flight to Paris.

Boarding at Bangalore started at the strike of midnight, delayed by ten minutes due to security concerns of some sort. Once the plane took off, two things became clear: first of all, sleeping in planes is hellish; second, the earth is stunning. Cruising at nearly 950 km/h, the 8,000 km–long journey lasted seventeen minutes lesser than planned.

Fluffy clouds beneath.

Fluffy clouds beneath.

CDG is somewhat similar to BIA in more ways than one would want. This could be a one-off experience, and indeed I hope it is, but there are long queues, pointless security checks even for connecting flights, and even Sky Priority passengers like myself waited a good 30min at passport control — only four out of eight border police posts were in operation for some reason — and many missed their flights.

I pen this as I sit at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, waiting a three-hour period as my flight to Lisbon comes in. Having previously been to Germany, it seems to me, at first glance, that the French are friendlier. I would attribute this partly to the rich, multicultural society in France as opposed to the mostly white, Christian population of Germany. Nonetheless, these are two wonderful countries to visit. Portugal, now an hour-and-a-half away for me, is an unopened book.

Waiting at CDG.

Waiting at CDG.

In a series of brief write-ups that published here over the coming weeks, I will describe the interesting bits of my trip, focusing on any observations I might make that may entertain or inform future travelers. My itinerary for the coming days is as sturdy as flan: it has a shape, but is not set in stone. Flexibility, mingling with people, and diving into other cultures with a blindfold is how one must travel — those who haven’t travelled, said a wise man once, have only ever read one page of the book of life.

Treating paralysis with brain training machines

An interesting approach to help paralysed people walk was tried out in Brazil recently. From the looks of it, the idea is to give the brain a sense of limb movement taking place (which VR is intended to do extremely realistically) so that it would serve as a driver of muscular movement or neural transmission — which, I agree, is possibly the least technical way of putting it. From Born to Engineer

A brain-machine interface (a system that recorded their brain activity to detect thoughts associated with movement) was used on patients to control VR avatars. Once they were able to successfully do this, researchers allowed them to take control of real-world robotic objects, eventually graduating to exoskeletons. This allowed them to take physical steps.

While the entire exercise ended up being nothing more than a momentary regaining of sensation and limb movement through an exoskeleton, it goes to show just how much of an effect computer-driven “brain training” techniques can have on humans.

With time we should go so far as to be able to train athletes and help paraplegics walk considerable distances and handle staircases, and with some more time we should be able to feed and extract information directly to and from our brains.

On science in the American election — or the lack of it

Not too long ago, an essay was published on this website talking about science, the ongoing American election, and Donald Trump’s ridiculous stand on various scientific issues. Back then, Mr Trump was not the GOP’s presidential nominee, although few doubted he was soon going to be. Now that he is, his ideas on science — and those of his pick for vice-president, Mike Pence, the overly religious, scientifically illiterate, populist governor of Iowa — went, much like his entire presidential campaign, from being a ridiculous joke to becoming a dangerous precedent.

Between them, the republican nominees believe that smoking does not kill, are hardline creationists, and scoff at climate change. Whatever your impression about America may be, it cannot be denied that the country’s stance on many issues has shaped those issues around the world. And, with the US being one of the biggest contributors to science today, what its coming president believes in is important. Now, fortunately, not a lot of people believe that Mr Trump will be the next president, and neither do poll numbers. But he will be part of the legislature and that is troubling enough for science.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you see it), Mr Trump has spoken little about physics. Perhaps the closest he has ever come to physics is when, sometime last week, a random fellow used suction cups to scale Trump tower. (Wired, staying faithful to the unanimously approved superhero naming scheme, called him the Gecko Man.) He has, however, claimed somewhat indirectly that his uncle’s genius is inheritable, and that because his uncle was a genius (which is a fair, testable claim) he too is.

On the democratic side, things are only slightly better. Vice-presidential pick, Tim Kaine, is as boring in this regard as he is in general — by his own admission. But Mr Kaine, given that he knows how to handle his e-mails, is probably the most fitting candidate for the country’s top office among all four contestants. As for science, he has once again been silent on physics as far as I know, but on the bright side he has been vocal about climate change. It would pay to be cautious here because Mr Kaine has played for both teams: he has set up a climate change commission in Virginia as governor and also done much to support oil drilling and coal power production. He is quick to describe himself as a moderate, although “undecided” would be a more moderate word to describe him. A more realistic picture would be that he has constantly tried to please both environmental activists and individuals with interests in non-renewable resources, and, surprisingly enough, has kept them both happy so far.

All said and done, Mr Kaine is probably in the running because he helps Hillary Clinton win over the Spanish-speaking population, a demography the Trump camp probably does not even realise exists. Among other things the Trump camp does not realise exists are evolution, stem-cells, climate change. Mr Pence even vigorously opposed Barack Obama’s support for embryonic stem-cell research. What brings the Trump-Pence duo closest to physics is probably the principle of uncertainty. As a recent SciAm article quoted Michael Werner, “we really don’t know what a Trump-Pence administration would do”. And this practice of celebrating a hazy, vague non-policy just to make it seem like a policy exists has been a signature move of Trump’s campaign right from the start: state what you plan to do, without ever stating how.

Another aspect of a Trump presidency that would affect science adversely, albeit indirectly, is immigration and his general fear of outsiders. As Nature pointed out, in America, nearly 380,000 people in science come from other countries. Building a wall, as Mr Trump plans, would end up alienating scientists and the country is in no position to afford that. The effects of such a move will prove to be heavily damaging in the long run. The only entertaining thing about Donald Trump is his Twitter feed, which stands as a silent witness to him being possibly the most unworthy presidential candidate America has ever elected till date. Next to that, of course, is @DeepDrumpf, a neutral network bot built by MIT and trained to speak like the republican candidate, based on his past speeches.

As a physicist, to me, the radio silence all parties have maintained in this American election is troubling for two reasons. First of all, whoever gets elected, the country will be going in blindfolded to face either the juiciest policies supporting physics research or the blandest ones curbing it, and certain other countries may follow suit sooner or later, and this will eventually lead to all international experiments in which the US is a participant being adversely affected — this is particularly important since we are in the midst of doing some of the most effective experimental work as humanity, from neutrinos to gravitational waves to having a possible restructuring of the Standard Model looming above our heads.

Second is the fact that, over the past year, some of the most influential characters in America could have said so much and done so much to boost scientific research but did not. Their voice could have made a difference in the way society views science and instead one spent it apologising for misusing her e-mail account and another wasted it on describing his fantasy ten-foot wall. For now, it appears that all science — except, perhaps, climate change — will remain under-appreciated in Congress at least for the next four years. Somebody please reset the stardates.

Irom Sharmila: casting light on the deplorableness of society

This week the world’s longest hunger strike came to an unexpected end. Irom Sharmila, a woman who had not eaten for sixteen long years (she had been forcefully fed through tubes inserted into her nose), had been protesting against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in northeast India. The act gave the armed forces free reign to shoot to kill, break up groups of larger than five people and other such powers begging to be misused and misuse it they did, as the locals allege. More details are always available in the news, so I will leave the storytelling to them.

So far, there have been nearly 1,530 reported deaths as a direct result of the AFSPA, into every single one of which the Supreme Court ordered a probe. How efficiently so many parallel investigations will be carried out is unknown, but earlier this week, Ms Sharmila declared that she would end her fast and contest in the state elections. Having received the support of thousands of people and recognition from the UN, one would think her decision would be supported by the public. However, she came in for a lot of flack from the locals who claimed to have been “betrayed”. She was turned away from the colony where she had planned to live (since she had lived her life as a prisoner of conscience in a hospital so far), and she was even turned away from a local temple (so much for religion) as well as criticised by several protest groups who brashly claimed to no longer have anything to do with Ms Sharmila. She was so shocked by the response that she had to be taken back to the hospital for treatment and recovery.

This goes to show a hint of the sadistic nature that lies in people; a sick, buried desire that lets us subconsciously feast on the suffering of another. To many people — all of whom would undoubtedly deny it — Ms Sharmila’s sacrifice was little more than a heroic tale, but they all need to come to terms with the fact that her strike had little effect. Sixteen years on, far too few even know of her cause, while many are aware of the alleged effects of the same AFSPA in Jammu and Kashmir. Her hunger strike, while commendable and undoubtedly a symbol of great strength, perseverance and noble intention, had no visible effect.

In such an environment, I think Ms Sharmila’s decision is a strategic one that deserves everyone’s support if they really are interested in getting the AFSPA repealed. If the natives stop crying over the fact that their entertaining story of local heroics has come to an end (which it has certainly not: it has simply taken a more practical footing, but that is debate for another day) and if they continue to stand behind Ms Sharmila and elect her into parliament, she will have a voice that will undoubtedly be heard and she will be in a better position to have the medieval AFSPA repealed. Perhaps she should have called quits on the hunger strike years earlier and perhaps then she would have already been in New Delhi, making her case, ensuring that she was taken seriously. In any case, the reaction her supporters had to her decision speaks volumes about how their attention was more on her act of going on a strike than on the critical issue at hand. Even her own mother coldly refuses to see her until she gets the AFSPA repealed. It speaks, most troublingly, of a lurid sense of inhumanity that seemed to be prevalent in the depths of our society today.

If the people of northeastern India really want to see the AFSPA repealed, they will have to pick their battle: fighting and shunning Ms Sharmila will do them no good and it will certainly not move the military out of the region. They should realise, as their once-beloved idol did, that the only way to change the system is to formally become a part of it and make their voice heard. Nobody hears a hunger strike anymore unless the issue or the region is already in the limelight — and the northeast has, arguably, been paid the least attention in the country. Ms Sharmila can remain a passive and pointless martyr or she can take proactive steps to make a difference. She chose the latter and both the locals as well as her closest supporters promptly let her down.

A tirade on iOS 10 and iPhone 7

Apple missed the mark with iOS 10, focusing heavily on material updates that do little to make the OS radically different. In fact, iOS 10 looks to me like a redressed iOS 9, which in turn is a redressed iOS 8, which is what iOS 7 should have originally been. The biggest features of iOS 10 (improved Messages app, new lock and keyboard sounds, redesigned Music and News apps, card-like interfaces that take up way too much space on screen etc.) should all have been app updates or minor updates in 10.x versions, not part of a core OS overhaul, and certainly not the highlight of iOS 10.

Share sheets and Extensions were probably the last major iOS change worthy of an entirely new edition of the mobile operating system. This time round, opening up Siri to third-party developers is probably the only notable overhaul — and it too came much later than it should have. A lot of other features I was hoping for (including stock apps residing on the App Store and enjoying regular updates like Apple’s Pages, Keynote etc. already do) never made it to iOS 10. Something as fundamental as natural language input — which Calendar.app on Mac already has — is sorely missing from iOS, and, combined with the fact that Apple now allows us to remove stock apps from the home screen (not delete them, but even removing them is better than having a folder full of junk), I am certainly tempted to wipe the slate clean and start over with a generally better experience. However, some apps like Mail.app are good for everyday, light users, as is Reminders. While on the other hand Notes.app can be useful for power users too.

This wide gorge between parts of the OS is what makes the whole experience feel incomplete. On the one hand is the better integration of 3D touch, which, frankly, I have come to enjoy immensely; however, while 3D touching an e-mail can offer you swipe options to, say, trash the e-mail, doing the same thing on a Messages app notification only allows you to dismiss the message and forces you to unlock your phone anyway and navigate to the Messages app to delete an unwanted text. It seems, once again, that while 3D touch has been used to make existing functionality better (since a 3D touch interaction just feels better than swiping around), Apple failed to do anything new with it. The only things I can think of are options to clear all notifications, access mobile data via the Settings icon, and controlling flashlight intensity via the flashlight icon in the Control Centre: all important changes but far too few in number.

With iOS 10 releasing next month, the OS already looks underwhelming, forcing users to learn a bunch of new interactions that are simply not worth the minor changes they bring along. What bothers me, though, are the new iPhones coming around the same time: all rumours (some of which will turn out to be false, a lot of which will be true, if the past is any indication) point to the larger iPhone having perks and the design of iPhones remaining same for the most part.

The second point is not troubling on its own: I do not see the need for a religious design change with every release. However, look at it in context and it really makes one wonder: when the biggest change in the phone is the positioning of antennae while possibly the biggest design flaw, the protruding camera lens, stays put for the third year in a row, it gives the impression that someone has got their priorities all mixed up. I could have lived with a phone 1mm thicker (even with the plastic antenna bands) if, instead, I got a flush camera with OIS and a beefier battery.

The first point is no less troubling because Apple seems to be making a somewhat unfortunate distinction between its iPhones based solely on screen — and hence chasis — dimension. The 7 Plus (or whatever the upcoming 5.5inch model will be called) is rumoured to carry two camera lenses based on LinX technology from a company Apple acquired last year. This is understandable because a dual lens setup will occupy more space than a single lens setup and only the plus sized model will be able to offer the space to fit it in without making the battery unbearably small or the phone unwieldily thick. But, at least partly, the point of innovating is all about successfully putting a dual lens setup on the 4.7inch phone without any sacrifices. Without this, the choice becomes more than just one between screen sizes, which should never be the case. I have nothing against 5.5inch phones, and it is not always about the price either: I have used phablets for years now, including the 6 Plus, but eventually found the 4.7inch screen of the 6S more to my liking — handy, comfortable, inconspicuous. The point is, some of us just prefer the 4.7inch size, and what is this year’s iPhone 7 likely going to offer us? Nothing much at all. Different antennae arrangement, improved camera; both of these, incidentally, have been features of the S-model released every other year.

Granted, everything I said about iOS 10 is based on the betas and everything I said about the upcoming iPhones is based on popular rumours. But, for years now, neither of these have been too far off from the facts we go on to learn on the actual date of release. The rumours are, to a reasonable extent, representative of the new iPhones (the leaked photographs are often uncannily accurate) and the last of the betas are identical in almost every way to the Gold Master or the first stable release that comes with the new iPhones — perhaps with improved stability and battery life, but carrying nothing radically different in any case.

Has Apple stopped innovating? It is hard to say, especially since nobody knows what goes on in their headquarters. Perhaps they have slowed down, perhaps they are refocussing, perhaps they lost footing and are getting back up, perhaps they are gambling on another year of slow growth to make 2017, the tenth anniversary of iPhone, a memorable one (I agree the last point could just be us dreaming), but the same people who have been calling the shots for years are calling the shots now, so there is no need to dramatically call this anything but an unsurprising period of slow growth. I do look forward to a time when the size of screens does not cause any discrimination between people because innovation guarantees that the features come in all sizes and the only difference between the 4.7inch and 5.5inch phones are the screen sizes. Right now having extras on the phablet model makes as much sense as the gold iPhone alone having faster Touch ID, the silver alone iPhone having OIS, the space grey iPhone alone having a flush camera etc. There should be only one iPhone available in two screen offerings. Not two wholly different iPhones, which is precisely what is happening now.

Think of the iPad Pro in 12.9inch and 9.7inch. They are basically the same thing with different screen sizes and improvements in the 9.7inch model simply because it came much later in the year. If iPhone 6S and 7 have differences, that is understandable, but two iPhones released alongside each other simply should not — besides screen size. Whatever your view on Apple’s marketing strategy is, the only thing that is certain is that 2016 has not been the best of years for us as Apple customers, and we can only hope to look forward to better things next year.