Sunday, November 18, 2007

Boys, Girls and Science

Many studies have been conducted on this topic. Many philosophers have wondered why this is so. Many academicians, and academic communities have racked their brains to solve this "problem". What am I talking about? Well, it is the differing interests of men and women (or boys and girls) with respect to science.
Why indeed, 5o years after the gender equality movement, has the ratio of male to female physicists, or mathematicians not changed? Why is it that despite desperate attempts, particularly in the US, not enough women graduate from technical fields? Also, on a complementary note, why is women's enrollment in computer sciences so high, particularly in comparison with other fields in India?
Well, the answer is simple. Evolution has trained women to value social status over academic achievement. Evolutionarily, it was better to be the mate of a high-ranking man than be a brilliant hunter yourself. This guaranteed success of the off-spring, as the man's success determined that of the household.
Now things have changed. However, evolutionary habits die hard. Most women still prize social elevation over everything else. Note the qualifier: "most". There have been (and are) many women who prize academic achievement. But they are the exception and not the rule. So, bottom line, women will go to a field that will enhance their social standing. And for most of them, that is simply what their peers think is nice, or what the men of the day perceive to be "cool".
So, why hasn't women's enrollment in technical subjects increased? Because technical subjects are not perceived as being "cool" in the US. Why is women's graduation rates in technical subjects so low? Because they want to be socially elevated, not academically. And more controversially, why do women flock to computer science courses in India? Because that is the route to social elevation in this country.
Remember that most women who actually get into technical fields in this country rarely stay in them. Even if they do, their levels of accomplishment, in understanding and furthering the field are minimal. [Again, this is true of most women, not all.]
So, why am I ranting about this at 12 midnight? Because I'm fed up of people "encouraging" women in the software field by ignoring similarly qualified male candidates. It hasn't worked, it won't work. Those women who are really interested in getting on the software bandwagon will not need a ladder for it. And those that do, most probably, won't do much getting on the bandwagon.

Technology Notes, Vol 1, Issue 4: Machine learning.

This week, I'll write about my experiments with time, my thoughts on Machine learning, and a little bit of evolution theory.

* The speed of time
As I was writing my earlier post, "Nostalgia :80s", I kept thinking how time has flown since that time. Well, yes, but how fast does time really fly? I thought a while, and came to the conclusion that it is c. The speed of light. The speed of time should be the same as the speed of light.

What proof can I offer? Well, we know that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light - and time travels pretty fast -so, the speed of time must be c.

On a more mathematical basis: we know that t(v) = t(0) sqrt ( 1 - v^2/c^2). Therefore, when the observer reaches the speed of light, time stops. This means, that the relative velocity of the observer and time is zero - which means, v(time) - c = 0, or v(time) = c.

* The problem with Machine learning

If you are working on speech recognition, face detection, natural language processing or an other field that essentially tries to mimic the functionality of the human brain, you'd probably be using machine learning. Machine learning is the sort of intersection of the human and the computer - a science where humans tell computers how to learn based on vast amounts of solved problems. The deductions made are usually based on sound statistical methods, details of which are available at the wikipedia page.

The technique has taken huge strides in areas such as face detection, speech recognition and machine translation. However, complete success eludes it. Why?

My opinion is that the technique is trying to solve the problem by breaking it into parts, while the problem should be dealt with, at a holistic level. For instance, your brain interprets the whole image, while programs interpret colour encoded as bytes. Or does the brain really interpret the image as a whole? Hard to say. But it appears to be so - it can "understand" that a brightly lit part of a metallic object that reflects large amounts of light still belongs to the same object. It can filter a speaker's voice from the noise in the environment, almost automatically. It can translate sentences between languages taking care of ambiguities in tense, grammar, and meaning.

It'll be interesting to find out if this is really so.

* More choice isn't necessarily good

Don't believe me? See this ad for Vista choices: The sad thing about it is that it is really true. Recently a friend was making a movie in Windows movie maker and wanted to tweak a few settings. He was using Vista Enterprise, and this option - a single menu item that is default with Windows Movie Maker on XP - is available in the Home Preminum (and Ultimate) edition! How on Earth has choice helped the user?
See this talk for a more scientific explanation.

* On evolution

As some of you know, I've been reading a lot of Richard Dawkins of late. I've also been "evangelising evolution". In the process, I found that most people have misunderstandings about how the process works. This is a small attempt to clarify some of them.
  • First, evolution to create the present set of species has taken millions and millions of years, a time frame most of us cannot fathom.
  • Speciation (or the development of a new species by evolution) requires a separation between members of a species and a separation of their environments .
  • Evolution is occurring even today: Why do mosquitoes become resistant to DDT? Why do we need newer and newer strains of antibiotics? Why indeed is the AIDS virus so successful at avoiding every medicine we throw at it? Well, the answer is just one - natural (or in this case, human) selection. When we spray DDT or take antibiotics, we target and kill most mosquitoes(bacteria) in the environment. However, the few that due to some mutation survive, being selected by human selection, have the upper hand in reproduction, and spread the immune gene throughout the population, making the entire population resistant.
  • Evolution does not happen only by random events: It is indeed true that a hurricane blowing through a garage of aeroplane parts will not assemble a Boeing 747, and it is true that random mutations on their own will not lead to speciation. However, random mutation in combination with non-random natural selection, that selects the fittest, either by killing off the weak, or by having mates choose a particular trait in the other sex.

Have been reading too much evolution. I hope to start reading more Physics from now on. Keep visiting!

BTW, I know my "speed of time" hypothesis is wrong, and if it isn't, I take no credit for getting it right. It was just a random thought that popped into my head.

Congrats, Anil Kumble!

Better late than never. Better safe than sorry. Similar cliche's would've come to your mind when you heard that Kumble was made Indian test captain.
It may be a stop-gap arrangement, but it is still welcome. For nearly 18 years, Kumble has silently toiled for the country, bowling 50+ overs on a trot in test matches, getting the crucial breakthroughs, and even hitting a century when it mattered.

Congrats Kumble. It couldn't have happened to a more deserving bloke.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Nostalgia: the 80s

Recently, I was talking to a couple of colleagues when the topic of comics came up. In an instant, we connected over some familiar, but old names: Phantom, Diana, Flash Gordon, Mandrake, Bahadur, and Bela, to name a few. We also talked about their relationships - for instance, being Indian, Bahadur and Bela were _never_ introduced as a couple. They were "friends" who were planning to get married.

This took me on another nostalgic trip. To the times when the world was a lot more innocent than today. When a Ramayan would empty city roads, or when the only movies shown on TV were on Saturday and Sunday. The news ran everyday at 7:00 and 8:30 in the evening. Everyone saw the same programme, mostly on a black-and-white TV. Your TV was usually a Dyanora, or an ECTV, or a NELCO (which was mine). Families gathered around to watch a Buniyaad, or later, an Oshin. A 2-in-1 was a major purchase. Radios and TVs were taxed. I still remember the license my folks had taken, to own a RADIO - not a station!

In all this, my favourite TV serial was "Johnny Sokko and the Flying Robot" or "Giant Robot" as we knew it. This huge robot, controlled by a little kid, was so popular with us kids that we literally dropped everything - cricket bats, gillis, badminton rackets, chur-chand balls, marbles, even stones - to go watch this series. The next day, everyone would be doing the routine - the arms in front of the chest, then pointing upwards, followed by the "rap pa pa" tune, and flying away! Yeah, yeah, I know you want to see it too - here you go:

By today's standards, the graphics was crappy, the animation dodgy, and the story lines were like a three-year-old wrote it. Still, we loved it. It was every boy's dream - an adult who would do his bidding! :)

See this for some more memories: