Neuschwanstein castle

It is hard to say for just how long I have wanted to write this piece, but today has finally arrived. I am on a plane from Paris back home, five hours have passed and five more remain. I could not have possibly written this any earlier than four days ago, and I have indeed contained myself for four weeks, so I will say it quickly and without much celebration: I finally visited Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria, one of seven places I have always wanted to visit in my life and it still floats in my mind like a pleasant dream, not unlike how it floats among the clouds above the grassy plains of Bavaria.

The special place Neuschwanstein holds for me is why this essay is a separate piece and not simply a passing section in part three of my “Notes from Europe”. The third part will be published as usual in the coming week.

“Some don’t really consider it worthwhile”, said the tour guide with disbelief, leading us through the eccentric King Ludwig II’s love story with Wagnerian operas set in stone. Even Mozart perhaps does not have such a grand commemoration for his works as Wagner does. Every room, neigh every inch of every room is dressed with behemoth paintings describing scenes from Wagner’s many operas. On a certain level, it is emotional. You feel connected with Ludwig, a misunderstood character in my opinion.

I heard at least thirty people describe the castle as looking “like a painting”. Continue reading

Notes from Europe, part 2

Following my weeks spent in Portugal and France, I was back in Germany. One of the things I have found true, even in my previous visits to Germany, is that the country seems to be more systematic in a manner of speaking. Cleaner, more structured, with traffic that is more disciplined and so on. France was open, undoubtedly clean (except sometimes), but felt just a little bit more lenient. Portugal, though, is another story: the cobblestones always seemed to embedded with a hundred cigarette butts every square metre.

Ich bin ein Berliner

Berlin — a city I have never visited before — started by giving me a rather bad impression in that it felt unwelcoming. Like you walk into a party and then realise you were never invited. Now I am sure this is a notion dominated by the places I visited first, (an isolated place near alle der kosmonauten) and that if I had, perhaps, entered other parts of the city first I would have had a different experience altogether. Nonetheless, during my first day in Berlin I felt somewhat unwelcome. This changed over the coming days, however, and to my surprise I was navigating the public transit system of Berlin with more ease and nativity than any other city. The only two things that turned out to be true were the rudeness of the French (they are incredibly friendly) and the punctuality of German trains (whoever told me they were always on time was lying). Perhaps my most memorable experience on the busses of Berlin was when all of us (about twelve passengers or so) were requested to alight because the door of the bus was kaput. Continue reading

Notes from Europe, part 1

Tomorrow begins what I consider the third and final leg of my journey across Europe. The trip (or voyage as I prefer to call it — humour me) has been going on more or less as planned, but my grand plan of writing about it regularly here has not: often there is no in-flight Wi-Fi (see below), and a hotel I stayed at had an incredibly slow network, and the fastest I have come across till date, surprisingly enough, was in Lisbon. The first leg of my journey was across Portugal and France, the second leg was in northeastern Germany (Berlin and parts of Macklenburg-West Pommerania), and the final leg will be in southern Germany and Austria.

I sit in my cozy hotel room in north Berlin, about thirty-minutes from the Hauptbanhof, overlooking a quiet little residential street, as I pen this. I have probably travelled the S1 past Gesundbruhnnen and up and down line 150 a hundred times. That is probably an exaggeration but you get the point. The metro goes up and down the street noiselessly several times. The public transport system is robust here in Berlin, but not as punctual as I was led to believe.

Flying budget airlines

It is interesting that the next part of this essay was penned on an hour-long flight to Munich and eventually in the city whose football team I support.

Traveling with Europe, for me, was by two modes: rail and air. On a personal level, I have always wanted to travel Europe by rail, but, while cost-effective, trains are time-consuming for longer distances. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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 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. Continue reading

The problem with films has nothing to do with realism

The annual Indian screenwriters’ conference was held last week in Mumbai. The fourth such gathering organised by the Film Writers’ Association based in the same city had, what I believe, was a flawed theme: do our stories reflect India’s reality? The keynote speaker was the journalist, Palagummi Sainath, whom Amartya Sen once called one of the “great experts on famine and hunger”, and who is somewhat conveniently placed to argue that Bollywood does not represent the real India.

My disagreement with this statement is twofold. Firstly, screenwriting is an art, and, like all art, its essence is openness in interpretation and it does not owe it to society to act as a mirror. Secondly, the crux of the conference, to be meaningful at all, should not have focused on whether stories in Bollywood reflect India’s reality, but rather whether they should reflect India’s reality at all.

The argument is somewhat like mirrors and windows: if people want a mirror, they should stop complaining about what they see when they look at a window. There are census bureaus, polling organisations, data collection and research centres, and, of course, National Geographic, to represent countries for what they are, to show people a non-fictional account of what India is and so on. Films, like stories of yore, have always been windows to let imagination escape, to heighten our senses, to present a larger-than-life portrayal that may or may not be grounded in reality. Ashok Vajpeyi spoke of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both stories rich in culture and moral but in all likelihood skewed when it comes to portraying reality — but then again, whose call is it to make? Continue reading

New column on the Science 2.0 network

This journal has seen articles being published regularly of late. This consistency is not new, but I am quite pleased with the fact that it has lasted this long. What I have rarely been pleased with, however, is the odd mixture of topics I write about here. There is always physics, a lot of social commentary, the occasional satire, reviews of tech and software, and on and on it goes. To make a long story short, the science section of this journal will have a new home on the Science 2.0 network where I will be writing a column alongside several other scientists.

A bit of rambling: while each of these topics I write about may appeal to those who like, or are familiar with, any of the others, I continue to find topic-based categorisation lacking in more ways than one. First of all, it is clumsy. Second, it is ugly. Third, there is no way to provide feeds for each of these topics without making a mess of the design. (Seven RSS feed icons are never a pretty sight.) Fourth, and probably the most valid point of all, it makes the entire journal directionless and gives readers no reason to stay back and follow it simply because there may be things they are simply not interested in. I made this point fourth on my list, however, because this is a personal website and marketing has always been the least of my concerns.

This is why a lot of “blogging pundits” advise making niche blogs. Continue reading

Additions to Chad Orzel’s article on physicists and philosophers

Chad Orzel wrote a column on his blog last week about James Blachowicz’s opinion piece in the New York Times titled “There is no scientific methods”. The Times article talks about how methods in science and those in, say, the humanities, are similar and then tries to make some point out of it regarding the validity of any thought.

Orzel uses an apt emoji (or is it kaomoji?) to describe the lack of a conclusion in Blachowicz’s article: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. This is particularly representative of a lot of research in the social sciences. There are two things Orzel’s article misses out on, in my opinion: firstly, it does not talk about the fact that such a practice of abrupt endings — that feel as if a closing inverted comma is missing — are a manifestation of a deeper problem in the humanities, and one that particularly disturbs physicists: vagueness. Somehow, most social scientists I have come across are perfectly satisfied with an answer that appears to point them in some meaningful direction, and they seem oblivious to the fact that the same argument is being understood by different people differently as a direct result of its being vague. The open-ended state of arguments (or the lack of a conclusion altogether) catalyses this.

Consider this sentence which Orzel also quotes, albeit for a different purpose: “If scientific method is only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry, how is it that the results of science are more reliable than what is provided by these other forms?” The argument begins by stating that the scientific method is only one form of inquiry. Continue reading

On bad metals

On Condensed Concepts yesterday, Ross Mckenzie talked about bad metals and the unitary limit. There were a couple of ideas I was unfamiliar with, and I note some points here for anyone similarly interested in this area. Dr Mckenzie’s own writing followed the paper “Breakdown of the universality of the Kadowaki-Woods Ratio in multi-band metals” by D.C. Cavanagh et al.

Generally, we consider a material to be a metal when its resistivity increases with increase in temperature, and its electron excitation spectrum has no gaps. Its classical picture is given by the Drude model in which electrons move some average distance between two collision-scattering events. This is called the “mean free path”. In its quantum mechanical picture given by Sommerfeld’s later model (which was built on Drude’s), like everywhere else in quantum mechanics, we consider plane-wave states with corresponding wavelengths.

To define a good metal we need to mash these two models together (which is not something I like) and state the following: when an electron propagates a distance longer than one wavelength, it may be considered a good metal. Further, the electron-electron collision that occurs is proportional to the number of excited electrons and the number of vacancies, both of which are proportional to the temperature, making the resistivity — afforded by such electron-electron collisions — proportional to the square of temperature.

When none of these (or even some of these) are violated, the material is considered a “bad metal”. In physics we have a lot of such boring names, and we hardly spend any time naming things elaborately like chemists or biologists may. Continue reading