Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sexual reproduction rocks!

I have come to the conclusion that sex is an amazing thing.

If it were not for this unique means of recombining our DNA (essentially mixing and matching our genes), we'd be screwed (metaphorically, not literally). Lack of mixing in genes results in an increased frequency of genetic disorders.

They're trying to clone Leatherback turtles to save them from extinction but this will lead to genetic diseases due to the imminent inter-breeding (not unlike Tay-Sachs among Ashkenazi Jews). They have a better chance of saving the turtles by acquiring as many eggs as possible, incubating them, keeping them secure until they reach puberty, and then let their instincts take over. If they do this for a few generations, they may manage to save the turtle. The cloning project costs 9 million dollars. This amount can be easily allocated the project that I just outlined. Makes sense, right?

After reading the first sentence you must have thought that this post would be about something completely different, didn't you? You, sir/ma'am, are a pervert.


Bonobos are one of the closest ancestors of man. In pop culture, they're known as the hippie chimpanzees. They're known for their promiscuity and proclivity for peaceful existence. However, recent studies by Dr. Hohmann of Max Planck institute show that there are instances of cannibalism and hunting among these supposedly peaceful beasts. For further information you ought to read the 30th July issue of the New Yorker.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The deliberately anonymous essay

“That civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the ponyTo a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the streamHis mind moves upon silence.)”

- W.B. Yeats

Don’t you think people spend too much time worrying about things that don’t affect them? Worse, they spend the rest of their time worrying and speculating on where they will be a few years from now. All they achieve in the process is being mentally absent from their own lives since they live in the past or the future; not in the present! Additionally, I feel these speculative endeavours are profoundly unproductive. I’ll specify why in a bit. You’re about to read some musings inspired by the muse that inspired “the fuzzy logic washing machines”: weather.

Sounds as boring as interviewing a sloth? It isn’t! I speak of the butterfly effect; a notorious derivative of the Chaos theory that can be described as the sensitivity of a non-linear dynamical system to its initial conditions. You must have heard that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can initiate atmospheric changes that can potentially culminate in a tornado in Texas a month after the first flap. Since human life is about as dynamic and non-linear (after a fashion) as it gets, the chaos theory is an interesting frame of reference for these musings.

It was a distractingly boring evening in 1961 when Edward Lorenz – a meteorologist with the heart of a mathematician- decided to review some singularly unexciting weather patterns. Instead of beginning at the beginning, he decided to take a short cut and begin from the middle. He punched in the relevant parameter (0.506) and trotted off for a short snack. When he returned, he was shocked to find that the computer generated pattern bore no resemblance to the one he was interested in. After despairing over the temperamentality of his computer, he realized that this difference was due to his abbreviated use of the full value (0.506127) because he considered the 0.000127 insignificant. This incident illustrated the influence and the sensitivity of the initial conditions in non-linear dynamical systems and put him on a trail that led to the chaos theory (and also to the fuzzy logic washing machines that give you cleaner, less tangled laundry by regulating the bubbles and the wobble in the machine). In addition, he also concluded something that I’ll talk about at the end of the essay.

Now let’s play god for an instant and create a non-linear dynamical (chaotic) system of a student applying for a transfer admission. Here goes-

The student sits leaning over a paper. Indeed, you can almost hear his/her brain buzzing as it considers one topic after another. I’ll desist from naming the student, specifying his/her gender and describing his/her physical characteristics since that may influence your reading of this essay. After all, this is the beginning and initial conditions matter according to the Chaos theory. For instance, if you share the random name I would have assigned the student you would have identified with him and perhaps even sympathized with his application. Alternatively, if you happen to loathe a person by that name, you might be less sympathetic. These are only two of the innumerable possibilities (read initial conditions) that could have been set in motion by the simple assigning of a name to the student. For a similar reason, I have been deliberately unspecific regarding the student’s sex and physical attributes. (Conversely, utilizing this unorthodox approach with respect to the protagonist may also influence your perception of him/her. For instance, it may just alienate the character and prevent you from empathizing with him/her.) However, returning to the point, this anonymous person is, as has previously been stated, applying to a college and is presently attempting to write an application essay. Like the student’s name, the colleges will also be left un-named. Let’s just say the person is at X university and wants to apply to an ivy-league college Y.

Let’s consider his/her application. The topic itself would have a considerable influence on the initial conditions. In extreme conditions, it could either deeply impress or clinically depress the admissions officers. It probably lies somewhere in between these two extremes and thus could leave the officer, mildly bemused, moderately amused, slightly intrigued or perhaps with a semblance of a headache. In addition to this decidedly strong determinant of the initial conditions, there exist other factors such as the quality of his/her grammar, typographical errors, length of the essay, tonality, etc. For instance, a misspelling of ‘is’ as ‘si’ could potentially provoke an unfavourable reaction from the admissions officer and influence his decision regarding the student’s admission.

Essentially, numerous seemingly insignificant and un-noticed factors can influence the fate of this application and indeed the direction of the student’s life. An important aspect of the chaos theory that deserves mention here is that no factor is too small to actually produce a drastic change within the system. This is exemplified by the seemingly negligible butterfly whose innocent shenanigans could theoretically cause devastating losses worth millions of dollars in another continent. In my opinion, this is applicable to our lives as well. Countless unnoticed and apparently insignificant and negligible factors end up moulding our lives and, indeed, the fates of populations, ecosystems, biospheres, nations, galaxies and the universe.

Returning to the saga of the student’s application to Y college- if we keep things simple, there are basically two decisions that the student can receive; yes or no. Let’s consider the ramifications of these decisions.

Acceptance: Acceptance at Y is the product of the series of events initiated by the student’s application. After arriving at Y, things could pursue several disparate trajectories. Numerous factors will shape the student’s college experience at Y and his life’s direction post-graduation. Some of these factors are: academic rigour, interaction with professors, student debt accrued, circle of friends, unfortunate happenings like losing room keys, etc. For lack of space and to avoid unnecessary complexity, I’ll create a secondary stage of the system using only two possible outcomes of the student’s admission to Y. Let’s select the factor of academic rigour and consider the various possible possibilities of this factor. Here’s the hypothetical situation: The student goes to Y, the academic rigour is greater than he/she had expected and, consequently, he/she gets undesirable grades in his first examination (again the specific grade that he gets also matters according to the chaos theory since it is a part of the initial conditions of the secondary stage of this chaotic system).

In one scenario, the student could get discouraged and the despair could result in the formation of a positive feedback mechanism. In other words, his failure could result in a vicious cycle of unsatisfactory performances. This happening has the potential to spawn more possibilities. For instance, the student could get discouraged and drop out of Y. Alternatively; he/she could change his/her major and find success or failure in that. Again, numerous factors like personality strength, peer support, the support of a boyfriend/girlfriend, instructor support, quality of tutoring, familial pressures, expectations and love, etc. could mould the system and result in disparate outcomes.

Conversely, in the second scenario, the initial success could potentially impassion the student to persevere and perform better in their subject. This could result in him/her passing out with a summa cum laude. Alternatively, after the initial success, the student could get carried away by the success and get lax with his/her academic work once again. The previously mentioned factors and additional unmentioned ones could also influence this scenario and bring an astounding variability in the result.

Rejection: Now let’s investigate the second possible fate of the application: rejection. If we keep the secondary system variable the same (academic rigour), we will probably have vastly different outcomes.

In the first scenario, the rejection weighs heavily on the student and he/she loses self esteem and despite the fact that the academics are not too demanding, his/her lack of esteem results in his/her grades plummeting like Galileo’s cannonballs. This could either result in a vicious cycle or inspire him/her to pull himself/herself together and produce a stellar academic performance. As seen above in the acceptance scenario, academic success could also result in a variety of outcomes as influenced by the multitude of factors mentions and not mentioned above.

In another scenario, the rejection leaves the student unfazed due to his/her upbringing, personality, friend support, faculty support, girlfriend/boyfriend support, etc. The student goes on to perform brilliantly and is widely considered the smartest thing since Einstein. Consequently, he gets brilliant recommendations, lands a coveted job and achieves the American dream…or not. Factors like, immigration Visa status, poor interpersonal skills, death, accident while returning from a party to celebrate the last 4.0 semester, etc. could foil his/her plans.

I find it astounding to look back at this point and think about the numerous possibilities spawned by the variation of a single factor. And this astonishment, like Escherichia coli in a cosy, well-stocked Petri-dish, grows exponentially when I realize that I had not even considered the possible variations produced by the numerous factors that I had listed and left un-discussed in each scenario. Indeed, comprehending the sheer multitude, scale and the range of all possible variabilities is sadly beyond my mortal sphere of comprehension. Indeed, omniscience is pre-requisite to understanding and being un-fazed by the underlying chaos of life that is parented by all sorts of invisible factors.

The incomprehensibility of these variabilities reminds me of the non-linearity and the dynamical nature of the physical world around us. It is frequently ignored and neglected in human calculations to make life, predictions and calculations easy (as can be observed in the ideal gas law, friction equations, kinetic theory of gases etc.). However, this ease comes at the cost of accuracy and precision. Indubitably you have been at the edge of your seat to read Lorenz’s conclusions. Here it is: long term weather predictions is usually wildly inaccurate because very minor influences in the atmosphere can culminate in very dramatic and unexpected changes that ring the death-knoll for distant-future weather forecasts.

I believe that a twin death-knoll has also been rung for the human tendency to make accurate guesstimates about the future based on only a handful of factors. One such example is, “I’ll be happy and satisfied if I get a million dollars.” Numerous examples of the contrary testify that this is not an enduring axiom. One may argue that we can predict the final state of one’s life: death. In response, I’d like to compare a human life to a cup containing hot cappuccino cooling down to room temperature. In this system, the cooling occurs mainly due to chaotic convection currents within the cup. While we know that the system will come to rest at room temperature, we won’t be able to predict the temperature of the cup 56 seconds from now. This lack of predictability applies to human life as well. I am certain that Aeschylus had no inkling that a bird of prey would drop a turtle on his head and kill him

Speaking of Aeschylus, let us consider his image of the net of life in which all actions – big or small- are related and produce an equal and opposite force and influence upon each other. For instance, Iphigenia’s sacrifice led to events that led to Cassandra’s death. Even though she could see her death coming, Cassandra couldn’t do much to escape the sticky net of occurrences that entraps all mankind.

Lastly, sensitivity to initial conditions is also seen in Yeat’s poem, “The long-legged Fly.” To take one of the cited examples, if the dog had barked, Caesar would have made a mistake in his military decisions and it's not hard to imagine how that would alter the history of the world. Thus, in conclusion, I want to urge you to enjoy the moment and to avoid pinning your hopes, desires and happiness on one single object since nothing can single-handedly change your destiny. It’s a chaotic symphony of factors that influenced your life, will influence it in the future and is influencing you right now even as you finish reading this essay.