What is it with people and weather apps?

“Weather forecast for tonight: dark.” George Carlin was probably the only one who ever gave an accurate weather forecast. Knowing how incredibly unpredictable the weather can be it always surprises me how much people seem to love weather apps. Perhaps it is just me but never in my life have I ever looked at a weather forecast before wearing “appropriate” clothes or grabbing an umbrella.

I love umbrellas and perhaps the only reason I would ever use a weather app was if I needed to find a reason to carry one, but the umbrella is a versatile device: you can use it come rain or shine. On a more serious note, however, weather apps are, quite a lot of the time, little more than entertainment. You would have just as much fun as if someone made an app that predicted all your shots in a game of billiards. Sure, given all the variables to enough degrees of accuracy, you could predict precisely where the cue ball goes and how much you score, but there are so many variables you are bound to go wrong sooner or later.

Sample forecast message, courtesy of NOAA.
Sample forecast message, courtesy of NOAA.

Model Output Statistics, says the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is a technique used to objectively interpret numerical model output and produce site-specific guidance of the weather. And there are a huge number of variables involved, all of which are measurable, but all of which are constantly changing. (See an old sample from the NOAA’s technical procedures bulletin above.) Couple this with the fact that it takes time for data to transfer from the detection site to the weather people (some call them meteorologists) to their machines and human interpreters — whom we will talk about presently — and then for the softwares to get updated and then for data to upload and transfer to everyone’s smartphone and you have a surefire recipe for missing the mark, sometimes narrowly, sometimes widely, but missing the mark nonetheless. Continue reading

Touring the Indian countryside

Several months back I wrote about a road trip I took to the countryside, spending time in farms and talking with rural folk. The essay, “In random conversations with farmers”, received a lot of positive feedback for reasons that still elude me. However, since I went on a similar trip earlier this month, I thought it would be a pleasant idea to share my experiences once again.

To me, calling it the “Indian countryside” has often seemed redundant. Most of this country qualifies under that term. Urbanity is the minority here, so perhaps this essay should have been titled “A trip away from urbanity”. Nonetheless, I was out a little late in the morning, heading northwest. The roads were free from traffic, but the potholes made sure I had no other conveniences whatsoever. The occasional bus shuttling from village to village was all that I came across. These busses are often painted bright red, and are dear to the villagers — unless the driver happens to run over some cattle — to the point where they deck it with thousands of flower garlands covering the windshield.


This part of the district is yet to see any development. This has two consequences: the people are nicer, not nouveau-riche, and there are still dedicated farmers with beautiful farmlands. The problem, however, due to fragmentation over generations is that farms in India are now mostly minuscule by comparison to those in Europe or America. This, in turn, means lower likelihood of even partially good yield, which means most farmers end up earning extremely little over the year — something no government seems to understand or even talk about. Continue reading

Briefing from the Alterverse

A common question that I get from several people, a few online and several offline acquaintances is how one can follow the news, understand what is happening around the world, and get a grip on the workings of things, be it literature, culture, economy, business or — possibly the most misrepresented of them all — the frontiers of scientific research1. In an attempt to provide a (partial) solution to this, I will be starting a new mailing list from this week called Briefing from the Alterverse. Before I provide the details, it would help to understand the motivation for this digest.

I can see where said question about following current events comes from: first of all, it seems like there is so much going on that it is hard to keep pace with everything; secondly, we often feel like we were dropped in the middle of nowhere and to understand the future we need to first go back and look at the origins.

The solutions to this, from experience, are actually simpler than one might imagine. In the first case, where there is a constant fear of not being able to keep up, the best thing to do is not try. There is no point keeping track of every piece of news, analysis, review or opinion, and the key is to filter out what is likely to be important and have an impact on society and what we are interested in — in that order of preference. And second, the plan to go back and understand the origin of a story before following the news may seem pleasant, but never works simply because there is too much to learn and the past, as always, is complex. Continue reading

Simplify Life

I am going to keep this journal entry brief. Most of us do a lot of superfluous things in our daily lives that we do not have to but want to for whatever reason. Perhaps we enjoy it or perhaps we are paid for it, or, for the lucky ones, both. But some of these things have benefits that are so entwined with our life that we hardly ever recognise, let alone acknowledge, their existence until they are gone. To me, writing is one such thing. It is something I love immensely, I occasionally get paid for my articles when they are published elsewhere, but it is not my day job, so to speak.

I recently also bought Launch Centre Pro because it was selling for only 40% of the regular price. I think it is worth it although I do not see myself using it anytime soon. The x-callback syntaxes are simple enough, but the core purpose of the software is where my problem lies. Over the past nine months I have been on an experiment to use technology more mindfully (a report marking my entire year is due by the end of October, so I will not describe specifics for the time being) and one of the results of that has been, rather unsurprisingly, a stark simplicity in the way I use technology. I therefore have no need for automating the modification of clipboard contents and then automating its use to invoke another application, or quickly viewing select 1Password entries, or building lists of contacts and the manners in which to reach them, or logging paid purchases to a cloud-based spreadsheet, or any of the myriad, unusually specific things Launch Centre Pro lets one accomplish. Continue reading

Making a case for police reform

Wednesday this past week, a webpage on The Guardian was updated with news of Mr Philando Castile’s death. The St Paul Public School district cafeteria worker was described as respectful, kind, warm, and funny by those who knew him. He was traveling by car with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, that day when he was pulled over by two cops for a broken taillight. At the school, everyone believes he made a real difference; he taught kids to eat their vegetables, he remembered who had not drank milk, he was friendly and ensured that the cafeteria was a pleasant and calm environment. Mr Castile was reaching for his license and registration when a cop shot him four times and killed him. Ms Reynolds live streamed the entire ten-minute video to Facebook. They later handcuffed her, also for no reason.

Just one day earlier, the newspaper had logged another entry: the 32-year-old black man, Alton Sterling, who was shot dead for a similarly non-existent reason. His killing too was caught on video and went viral. The cops were white in both cases, their victims black and unarmed. While this may seem like purely an issue of race, the numbers also point to it being a case of police ruffianism, plain and simple. Over the course of a day, between Mr Sterling’s and Mr Castile’s deaths, three others were killed by the police. Five had been killed the day before Mr Sterling was shot, and six have been killed since Mr Castile’s death. Continue reading

Comments and censorship

Over the course of this week, three things have caught my mind. First is difficulty in finalising a website, which I will talk about presently taking two case studies: Pixel & Paper, and Physics Capsule. Second is a question that has come to be one of my favourites in this era of increasing censorship: the relationship between website owners controlling comment threads and small scale censorship, specifically whether the former implies the latter. I think not, and I will explain why in a moment. Lastly, but nonetheless what I want to talk about first, is an interesting study that came out recently which used a square lattice model to study coöperation and competition among people. I have taken effort to ensure that no spoilers have crept into my brief review.

I.

A study published in the European Physical Journal B studies competition and coöperation using the snowdrift game in a lattice environment no less. The snowdrift game is a model in game theory that, simply put, involves two people at a junction in the road blocked by a snowdrift. At least one of them should clear it so both can pass on said road, and if one yields to clear it, the other must not — or need not — yield and vice versa. Alternatively, this is called a game of chicken or dove-hawk. On a more dangerous note, consider two drivers on a collision course where one must swerve and become the chicken in order for both to survive, while the other may, but does not have to, swerve. Continue reading

Newspaper neutrality

Are newspapers supposed to be neutral? Or better still, are they allowed to have a leaning? And if so, how exactly should we define a “leaning”? To expect anything run by humans to be absolutely unbiased would be naïve. Humans are biased to some extent, we have likes and dislikes, we have preferences, and we express it — subconsciously or otherwise — in everything we do, say, or write. And as long as humans run a newspaper, there will be some bias and some preference for one idea over another that creeps into the editing, and eventually establishes itself as the voice and political stance of that publication. This is true as much of television as it is of print media, and the question in the end of it all is not whether media are biased, but how consumers need to ensure they are not buying into a political stance blindly.

The Washington Post is a classic example of this: articles in the newspaper backed the remain campaign in Britain (although the paper did not do so openly or officially — their front page was uncannily neutral) and, the same day, right after the entire country voted to leave the European Union with disastrous consequences, the Post published an article titled, “The British are frantically Googling what the E.U. is, hours after voting to leave it”. First of all, no, it was most certainly not the case if you thought that headline meant most Brits did not know what they were voting for, but, at first glance, it certainly makes the most valid case yet for a second referendum by terming the past one effectively pointless — the people did not know what they were looking for, and given another chance they would vote to remain in the EU. Continue reading

Life on other planets

What is it about life outside the Earth that excites us so much? This was one of the questions Ian Sample of The Guardian asked Dr Stuart Clark two weeks back on the Science Weekly podcast. Around nineteen minutes into the show comes the question, “Why are we so keen on this idea?… There is something about this which seems to be endlessly appealing to us. What is this?”

“I thought about this a lot,” replies Dr Clark, “because I wanted to imbue (the book) with some sense of the philosophy of why we do this and why this seems to capture us so much.” He is, of course, talking about his latest book, The search for Earth’s twin. I think he comes up with a rather diplomatic answer: the idea that there could be other planets with life out there, he says, is “terrifically life-affirming”. To astronomers and astrophysicists, and to physicists in general, this is a question less about faith and more about the work we do. On the one hand is how Mr Sample points out that articles written about Earth-like planets become wildly popular on the web irrespective of how many remarkably similar ones get published in even a brief span of time, which is strangely true, and how Dr Clark attributes it to human nature, which is also true, and on the other is a harder truth: the Earth will not last forever, humans want to.

What makes a planet Earth-like?

The search for other planets is a recent one, starting around 1995, and it was accelerated some years ago with the launch of NASA’s Kepler mission which led to the discovery of thousands of planets. Continue reading

Locked out of Instagram

This week started with a bang: I somehow got locked out of my Instagram account. The account itself still exists and you can view and like my photographs and — as I expect will start happening now — leave a tonne of spammy comments. The reason my account was flagged was likely because I posted from travel abroad, which already resulted in an e-mail seeking clarification about accessing the account from a previously unused location or something to that effect. Back in my country now (which probably got flagged as another major change in location, although that does not make much sense) I find that the e-mail associated with that account has been mysteriously deleted and access to my account revoked with only one possibility of restoration: contacting Instagram directly.

While a lot of people wrote to me saying that Instagram will restore access if I write to them, and that the system may have made a mistake flagging it, I would, myself, look at this as a good thing — not unlike William’s curfew, for any of you who have read Sellars and Yeats’ 1066 and all that, the classic satire: “Another very conquering law made by William I said that everyone had to go to bed at eight o’clock. This was called the Curfew and was a Good Thing in the end since it was the cause of Gray’s Energy in the country churchyard (at Stoke Penge).” Coming back to the present, I have decided not to contest the blockade and instead let the account rest, or even be scrapped if Instagram chooses. Continue reading

The rise of the right wing

Make no mistake, the dynamics of the world are changing. The far right is taking over country after country as it increasingly seems as though the dominance of ideologies left of centre that followed wartimes are receding into the background. At first thought this could be in part due to the fact that the horrific memories of war are disappearing with every new generation, giving rise to polarising nationalism that caused the last two wars, and, undoubtedly, a curious sense of religious pride — both small-minded and pointless ideas in my opinion. However, facts speak otherwise: support from youngsters has been historically low for Donald Trump, the republican frontrunner in the American election, and the man who thinks “bigly” is a word; the Brexit polls last week saw thrice as much support from the older populace than youngsters; and India, where the nationalist, right-wing, RSS-backed Bharatiya Janata Party came into governance years before, did not see any unusually strong support from the youth — no more than other sections of society in any case.

In fact, all incidents point in the opposite direction. Society is now opener and freer than it has ever been, save in some countries like North Korea that have remained unchanged. Networking has increased, and with it populist beliefs. This is understandable — they are called populist beliefs for a reason. But, as the former British prime minister, Tony Blair, put it, “It was already clear before the Brexit vote that modern populist movements could take control of political parties. Continue reading

The trouble with democracy

Today is my birthday. (Thank you.) Today is also the day Britain’s fate was decided in what many believe to be a democratic vote — whether the country will remain in the European Union, as they should, or whether they will leave. (The country voted to leave and its capable Prime Minister, David Cameron, scheduled his resignation.) The foremost problem with the Brexit vote is a fundamental one: democracy is broken. I have said this before and I will say it again. Democracy is a fine idea, but it is also an ancient idea that has not been updated with the times and the growing population. Its problems run deep enough that the whole idea of a democracy is little more than a good intention, because the votes in earnest represent only a section of the populace — almost exactly opposite to the purpose democracy intends to serve.

Consider some simple mathematics: it was always believed that the Brexit election would be a close call, so let us say 60% of Britain wants to remain in the EU. If the turnout in labour strongholds is 70% and in conservative areas, or of remain supporters, is 45%, then the total number of votes for leave and remain will be 28 and 27 respectively, meaning Britain votes to leave the EU although a majority of Britons really want to stay, all because some of them were unable to vote for whatever reason.

In fact, this is exactly what happened: older voters who were more likely to vote leave were also more like to vote at all. Continue reading