Monday, 31 December 2012

Holidays...

Another winter solstice has passed. I'm not sure why but I seem to have associated winter solstices with blogging. Perhaps it's because of my blogging spree that occurred during the Winter Solstice of 2009. I've written a Winter Solstice blogpost every year since. It seems to have become a habit. Can people form habits out of things they do only once a year? I don't really know.

The most exciting thing that happened this December is the release of Chapter 86 of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I really like the way this piece of fanfiction is progressing. I love the way the story has been building up so far and my greatest fear is that Eliezer Yudkowsky might run out of ideas to continue the story. It would be such a huge disappointment if that happened. I wonder if there's anyone who knows the story well enough to continue the story and help it to reach an acceptable conclusion if that happens.

I recently installed this wonderful software called Rainmeter on my laptop. I just love the way my desktop looks now.

Apart from being visually awesome the background triggered quite a lot of memories and moods in me. Some pictures tend to do that to me. They immediately manage to change my mood. When I close my eyes at random this picture jumps to the front of my mental television. I see myself falling endlessly towards the big white field of fluffy clouds, arms outstretched in the the wind, lightheaded. And for some strange reason it made some really old memories of me watching an anime series called Stratos4 resurface. I guess it's because that anime has similar dreamy scenes of blue skies.

I've become really interested in anime over the past year. I never considered myself a real anime fan before. I used to watch them occasionally but not that often. I discovered some really awesome anime series last year which convinced me that it's more than just cartoons. I understand why many ore offended when people call anime "just cartoons". It really is more than that. I've come to see it as an art form. The best one I've watched this year is definitely Steins;Gate. Death Note and Code Geass comes close but but Steins;Gate is a clear winner. I've never enjoyed watching anything more.
One movie deserves special mention: an animated film called 5cm per second. It's not from a genre I usually watch and the story was probably a bit cliched, but for some reason, I really enjoyed it. It's been a long time since I watched anything of the sort. The animation was absolutely gorgeous. I've seen the movie referred to as '5 wallpapers per second' in many anime forums.

 The entire movie seems to be made up of amazing scenes like this. I wonder how long it took to render the entire movie.

My holidays are almost over and the next semester at college starts in a few days. I wonder if I'll be able to do better this time. Last semester was a big confusing mess. This time I'll be prepared ... I hope. There doesn't seem to be any subjects as tedious as Engineering Graphics this time but I won't know until the semester starts.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

This XKCD post is so awesome that it deserves its own blogpost. (Actually, every xkcd post deserves its own blogpost.)

And I was like

Oh well .... there goes my evening.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Pokemon and The Sagrada Família

When I watched the movie "Pokemon: The Rise of Darkrai", I noticed that the town in which Ash finds himself had absolutely gorgeous buildings. It's remarkable that I even noticed that since I'm not really a person who knows or appreciates architectural art. It struck me that the buildings must have been really well designed if they beautiful enough to make someone like me sit up and take notice. I particularly fell in love with the huge Space-Time towers. Something about the shape of the building really caught my eye. I remember thinking to myself, "Wow... That building looks awesome.."

 Two views of the Space-Time Towers

Out of interest I went through the movie's Wikipedia page to find out what inspired the Creators of the movie to make the building. I discovered that the town in the movie, Alamos Town was based on the Barcelona, Spain and the Space-time towers were inspired by this beautiful building called the The Sagrada Família designed by an architect called Antonio Gaudi.

I think this building looks breathtakingly beautiful. Usually appreciation of of a particular form of art is a learned taste. But sometimes an artist creates a masterpiece that is so good that it transcends these borders and appeals even to even the complete novice. If I think this building looks so good, I can only imagine how awestruck those people who really learn architecture must be.

Another amazing thing that i learned is that this building is still under construction! Work on the building began in 1882 and is still going on. That means the building has been under construction for over 130 years! And it's only expected to be completed by 2028! That is one long construction project. What I find remarkable is that even in it's incomplete, half finished state it looks so beautiful.

Even the inside of the building looks fantastic.

 Detail of the roof in the nave. Gaudi designed the columns to mirror trees and branches.

Antonio Gaudi must have been a real genius.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Installing

So after years of indecision I've finally decided to install Ubuntu on my laptop. Why? Because I identify strongly with the open source software movement and eventually hope to contribute to it. I will be documenting the installation process on my blog so that other users with the same laptop can use my experience to guide their own installation.

My installation is guided by many sources including some very linux-experienced friends. I've also found the blog of another person with the same computer who has installed ubuntu on the system. So I got some help from there as well.

Since one of the main reasons I wanted to install Ubuntu was so that I had a backup OS in case my Windows became infected with some sort of virus, I decided to go ahead and install the operating system on it's own partition.

So I have a Dell XPS L502x with the following specs:

Intel core i7 Sandy Bridge processors.
Nvidia GT540M graphics Card
Intel HD3000 integrated graphics
1080x1920 full HD screen

Before I go into the installation process let me go into the details of all the problems which could occur if you partition you drive. Now from what I've learnt from hours of browsing forums is that most of the problems that occur when partitioning are due to human error. If you windows installation dies while installing ubuntu it's usually because you misread some instructions or misclicked somewhere. So my advice for you is to DO YOUR RESEARCH. Make sure you understand exactly what is going on when you partition your drive and you'll be able to Dual Boot with windows without a single problem. I spent nearly two weeks reading up articles and tutorials on Ubuntu installation and disk partitioning before I installed it. By this time I had a really good understanding of how partitioning works and knew exactly what to do to minimize error from my part. I'll try to explain the process the best I can but make sure you read up on your own as well. Generally if you don't know the difference between a logical partition and a primary partition don't meddle with partitions.

First download the ISO image of the latest version of Ubuntu from here. Choose 64 bit or 32 bit depending on which processor you have. My laptop has 64 bit architecture and runs a 64 bit version of Windows 7 home premium. So I downloaded the 64 bit image and then verified the MD5 sums.

I then bought one of those extremely cheap 700MB "write once" CDs and burned the disc image on to the system. For doing this your best bet is to follow the instructions here. The process is incredibly straightforward on Windows 7. It took about 10 minutes for me to burn my own CD.

I put the CD into the CD drive and then restarted the computer. I pressed F12 to enter the boot menu  and chose the "Boot From CD drive" option. Once I made sure the CD was working fine, I proceeded to the installation. Several sources helped me here.

I wanted to be as safe as possible so I shrunk one of my Windows partitions from inside windows using the Windows drive partitioning utility. Just search for partition in the start menu and you'll find it. This left about 220 GB of unallocated space on my drive. (I have a 750 GB WD hard drive. So plenty of space for both operating systems.) The rest can be done when installing Ubuntu.

Every step from partitioning onwards, I followed from this website. My boot partition was 500MB, root was 20 GB, my home was ~180GB and my swap was 8GB. Here's what you need to know when you try to partition. There are two types of partitions. Primary partitions and logical partitions. A hard disk can only have a maximum of four primary partitions but it can have a lot more logical partitions. From what i understand, all the logical partitions in a disk together are called an extended partition. A hard disk can only have a maximum of four primary partitions. So if you want more partitions on your drive you should only create three primary partitions on your disk. Then make the rest of the partitions logical. I had it easy. My laptop's hard disk had only three partitions in it (One for the windows System Reserve, my C drive and my D drive). So it was easy enough for me to shrink one of my drives and leave some unallocated space for Ubuntu. However, some laptops already have four partitions on the hard disk. If that's the case you have to completely delete one of your partitions and maybe extend another before you install Ubuntu. This is a bit more complicated but there are a lot of excellent websites which tell you how to do it.

And that was pretty much it. I booted into windows, used EasyBCD to configure my boot screen as shown on the website. I booted into Ubuntu and everything just worked. No hardware issues at all except for the Nvidia graphics card. I solved this by installing the Bumblebee project and I was ready to go.

There was another hurdle in my case. Since I don't have access to a reliable WiFi network I use a 3G mobile broadband dongle to connect to the internet. To get this to work I needed to get a few updates and for that I needed an internet connection. On the third day after installation I was able to connect to the unreliable wifi network for a few minutes to perform a few critical updates. After that the modem started working ... sort of. It still seemed to have some trouble doing the modeswitch from a storage device to a modem. I found that if I booted into Windows first, then restarted (so that the power to the modem wasn't cut off) and then booted into Ubuntu, the modem would be recognized just fine. However if I just plugged in the modem after booting into Ubuntu, the network manager didn't detect it. It took me almost a week to get it fixed. It turned out that it was a problem with the USB ports. My laptop has 2 USB 3.0 ports and 1 USB 2.0/eSata port. I've always plugged my modem into one of my USB 3.0 ports. Yesterday, I tried plugging it into the USB 2.0 port and it just started working normally. Maybe I should submit a bug report to Ubuntu.

User Interface and Hardware

What impressed me most is that Ubuntu booted up for the first time and everything just seemed to work perfectly. Ubuntu's hardware support is commendable. I only to download extra drivers for my Nvidia Graphics Card. Everything else worked just perfectly with the fresh install including my webcam (Which interestingly stopped working in Windows after a driver update a few weeks before I installed Ubuntu).

So the most obvious difference between windows and Ubuntu is the user interface. The Ubuntu user interface is just amazing! I just love the fresh clean look of my desktop.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Oh Look, A Cat.

A cat that was saved from a burning building apparently.

The longer you look, the funnier it gets.

I think I've been browsing reddit way too much. It's love of cat pictures is getting to me.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Drunk on the Universe

Usually, all my blogposts are well thought out and proofread once or twice. Today I decided I would do something different. I am going to write down my train of thought exactly as it happened. That means there will be a lot of wrong conclusions and going revision of opinions going on. A lot of jumping about.

Richard Feynman was right. You really can get a kick out of thinking about things.

Today I chanced upon someone wearing a T-Shirt with this interesting design:

Life's priorities ... money, food and sleep..... It started me off on a very interesting train of thought. These are necessities in everyone's life. A complete absence of any of these three in a person's life will most definitely kill him/her sooner or later. Then I realized, we don't choose our necessities. We have absolutely no control over what our necessities are just like a little frog has no control over its diet. Just as the frog is destined to spend the rest of its mundane life hunting for flies, humans are destined spend most if not all of their lives hunting for basic necessities. Or are they? It's interesting how those  things that are the most important to us turn out to be our greatest weaknesses. In fact, this is inevitable for all living things. Evolution changes any organism so that it adapts to thrive on whatever is most abundant in it's environment which means that most living things are completely useless outside their natural habitat.

But can we make an exception for humans? Yes we can, in a way. We're clever enough to take our environment with us wherever we go. We were clever enough to walk on the moon! (a moment of silence for Neil Armstrong is appropriate I think).

So can those three things up there really be considered life's priorities? Yes, they are but they re not priorities I would choose. Sure, there are plenty of people who are completely satisfied if they have plenty of those stuff. Suddenly Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs comes to mind.

I'm wondering now, how true this is. I'm wondering how many people actually get past the third level. How many people break out of the monotonous work-eat-solve life's problems-sleep cycle and actually think about the more interesting stuff like how the universe began or what are the laws behind the beautiful complicated dance all the atoms in the universe perform so tirelessly. I wonder out of all the 7 billion people on earth, how many people look up at the stars regularly and take a moment to appreciate how very far away they are from us. Then again there are pragmatists who claim that all that is unnecessary. Why should we do all that when we can be perfectly happy otherwise? Well, I think we should do it just because we can. Out of all the species on earth humans are the only ones that can appreciate the fact that all the atoms in their body was once part of a giant supernova. Only human brains can do that. What a complete waste it is to not grab the opportunity to do something like that! Things like that are my priority. There should be a dichotomy between "priority" and "necessity". Necessities are things that we need in our life that we had no choice over. Those things which you need to seek whether you  like it or not. "Priorities" should be what you really want. I would gladly trade my ability to eat for a chance to view the vast depths of the universe from a transparent bubble floating through space. I would gladly give up my ability to breathe if given a chance to travel at near lightspeed (and maybe beyond) and explore the entire galaxies from my transparent bubble. But then, is giving up eating and breathing really a sacrifice at all? If eating is a necessity that wasn't our choice, then wouldn't giving it up be like getting a superpower? In that case it's not really a sacrifice at all. The only reason I eat is to prevent my body from breaking down. The only reason I breathe is to supply my brain (and its mode of transport, my body) with oxygen for normal functioning. If I could maintain life without these functions, if they figure out how to upload my consciousness into a robot, I would be one of the first in line. It would eliminate the need spend so much time maintaining my hardware.

It's getting dark now. I can see the first stars winking at me. The stars are so tiny. They really are very far away. And here I am on this tiny corner of the universe, a bunch of atoms that have come together for a negligible fraction of the lifetime of the universe. A small subset of these atoms in my head are doing a complicated dance with other atoms, changing electric potentials inside and outside my neurons using energy from ATP molecules. These waves of polarization and depolarization are travelling back and forth through this immensely complicated biological neural network, a process that is right now allowing me comprehend the fact that the universe exists, the fact that I exist.

And with a jolt I realize that I am a part of the universe that has become self aware!! Here's a little part of the universe that is thinking about itself! Here's a bunch of atoms that are billions of years old and still following the laws of physics just as they were billions of years ago. And these bunch of atoms are thinking about themselves!? The thought sends a shiver down my spine, a sudden passing sensation of excitement, a shudder of emotion from the epicness of it all.

The twilight deepens, and the mosquitoes start their relentless attack on my legs. I walk back to my room slowly, drunk on the beauty of the universe.

Source

Engineering Graphics

So today I had my first proper engineering graphics class. It is quite easily my least favourite part of an engineering course. It's boring, tedious, repetitive, menial work, the kind of work that should be done by a computer. Not humans. Worst of all the class was conducted in this lonely classroom in a long forsaken corner of the Institute that looked like it had been abandoned for years. The classroom looked so depressing.

Perhaps the reason I hate it is that is basically a polar opposite of physics, which is my favourite subject. Since engineering graphics is focused on creating technical drawings which are supposed to convey all the necessary information needed for a particular object to be made, it is full of arcane arbitrary rules which are in place just for standardization. It's in place for the sole reason that following even slightly different rules could carry over to expensive mistakes during production. So all the rules were arbitrarily chosen (or so it seems to me) and need to be memorized with absolutely no explanation at all.

This is the exact opposite of how physics works. A lot of Physics is about finding the rules which nature follows but that is where the similarity ends. The interesting part about physics is that it tries come up with new ways of thinking that makes the rules self evident. It tries to explain as much as possible with as few assumptions as possible. Relativity is a great example of this. Special and General Relativity can be learnt as a set of arcane and insanely complicated set of tensor equations but the genius of Einstein gave us a physical picture of the universe which makes these equations self evident. With just the assumption that the speed of light is the same in all reference frames a huge amount of physical phenomena were explained with amazing clarity.

I am so used to this way of thinking, this idea that every rule has this fun, interesting interpretation, a physical picture that explains it with clarity. This subject seems so alien.

Well, at least the instruments I use look kind of "interesting". And by "interesting" I mean "weapons of mass destruction".

The mini-drafter which I use looks like some kind of weird laser gun.

I half expected the thing to start glowing and beeping when I picked it up.

And most of the instruments in the instrument box look sharp, pointy and dangerous.

The instruments are really the only interesting part of the class. What comforts me is that I only have to learn the subject for the first semester. Maybe it'll get more interesting in the future but I doubt it.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

LOLCODE!!

I was scouting around for other interesting programming languages to learn along with C when I stumbled upon this awesome programming language based on the famous LOLCATS internet meme. Perfect for someone who loves internet memes.

So I've written my first ever official program in LOLCODE!!

HAI
CAN HAS STDIO?
VISIBLE "I HAS LEARNT LOLCODE!! LOL!!"
KTHXBYE

LOL... Sometimes I do the weirdest things to have fun....

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Going to College and C Programming

The last two weeks have been pretty intense. I was moving out of my house and into a college for the first time in my life. The settling in period was quite hectic and ... well ... unsettling.
I am right now in a college hostel room in the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Trichy in Tamil Nadu, India. There were insane amounts of stuff to think about, buy and drag across the campus into my new residence (No, I cannot and never will call it home.)

After a week of classes, things are finally starting to feel normal.

On a related note, I'm learning C programming in my computer science class (one of the 8 subjects I have to take during the first year of engineering.) and I'm finding (to my delight) that C is extremely easy to learn. There is an excellent reason for this though. Back when I was in Year 10, during my month long holiday in December, I had hours of endless fun self learning Java Programming. I never thought at that time that those hours of endless fun would translate into a general ability to pick up within days almost any C related programming language.  (Like Python, C++, Java ...).

I got an assignment to write down/create an interesting program. The only requirement our professor set was that I (the programmer) had to be able to explain exactly how the program worked if asked to do so. So, I decided to write a program which generated prime numbers up to a certain user specified upper limit. I thought it was a good place to start as it uses almost all the basic concepts of C programming.

But the program felt a little dull even for something related to prime numbers. So I decided to make it really interesting. I'm sure the geeks among my readers will appreciate much of the code, especially  the variable names.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
int gandalf_the_primechecker(int charles_CABBAGE);
int main()
{
printf("This is a program I wrote which spews forth all prime numbers that fall   below an upper limit.\n");
int charles_CABBAGE;
int ashwin_limit;  //The upper limit. I call it the "ashwin_limit"
printf("\nI now demand that you give me an upper limit! ");
scanf("%d",&ashwin_limit);

for(charles_CABBAGE=2;charles_CABBAGE<ashwin_limit;charles_CABBAGE++)
{
if(charles_CABBAGE==2 || charles_CABBAGE==3 || gandalf_the_primechecker(charles_CABBAGE))
{
printf("\n%d\n",charles_CABBAGE);

}
else
{
printf(".");
}
}
printf("That's all folks! Bye for now!\n");
printf("\nThe meaning of life is 42.\n");
printf("\nSo follow the white rabbit.");
system("PAUSE");
return 0;
}
int gandalf_the_primechecker(int charles_CABBAGE)
{
int Middle_Earth;//The midpoint between the ashwin_limit (upper limit) and zero.
Middle_Earth = charles_CABBAGE/2;
int The_Shire;
The_Shire = 2;
while(The_Shire <=Middle_Earth)
{
if(charles_CABBAGE%The_Shire != 0 && The_Shire==Middle_Earth)
{
return 1;
}
else if(charles_CABBAGE%The_Shire !=0)
{
The_Shire++;
}
else if(charles_CABBAGE%The_Shire ==0)
{
return 0;
break;
}
}
}

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Chaos Walking Trilogy

Here is what I said about fiction from a previous post:

"Another mark of a good story is how it draws you in. Many books (like Eragon and Harry Potter) talk about worlds in which, deep inside, everyone wishes to live in. Reading them makes me want to live the book so badly that sometimes I can't help laying awake at night thinking of all the cool, amazing things I would do if I were in the place of the protagonist."
No book I've ever read so far does this more perfectly than the Chaos Walking Trilogy.

I read the three books in this trilogy with a level of concentration that had eluded me for over a year. I've never come across a book with such endearingly real characters and such a realistic and deeply moving plot. The author manages to keep the plot complex and events unexpected without the use of unbelievable coincidences. I also found the whole concept of Noise and how the plot revolves around it incredibly original and creative. It's original enough that for the first time in many years I found it impossible predict the plot. A very worthwhile and enjoyable read.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

More about the Kindle touch Battery

I've made a few observations that seem to clear up the issue. I was reading "The Demon Haunted World" by Carl Sagan when I noticed that the value of the Kindle Touch's location seems jump forward quite a lot more than usual. I have no idea if there is a formula to convert between actual page flips and kindle locations. If there is one it probably varies with each book. So this paragraph I wrote in my earlier post is wrong.

Considering the fact that an average book like "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley has 3993 locations (that's the kindle's substitute for a page number) which translates to about 2000 page flips and that a person like me can finish a paperback edition of a book like that (If I find the book exciting and therefore impossible to put down) in about 8 hours or so ( I read quite a bit faster that 250 words per minute) I could probably drain the Kindle's battery with one night of reading!
It is evident that the 3993 page locations are not equivalent to 2000 page flips. It's most probably a whole lot less since I've seen the location value jump by 5 or 10. So I probably can't drain the battery with one night of reading. However the rest of my calculations still hold.

I did a quick search on the kindle forums and found that most people do use the estimate of 250 words per page to calculate actual page flips/numbers on the Kindle Touch. So for the average person with an average reading rate 1800 page flips do seem to be a reasonable estimate for the battery life (+ a bit more depending on discharge while not using the device).

So here's what I know for sure.

1. The Kindle Touch by amazon's estimate can last two months if used for half an hour per day.

2. If used continuously it can last for at least thirty hours. I reason that it may last more if used continuously. The lithium ion battery used in the Kindle Touch will discharge slowly over time if left unused. Amazon must have calculated the two months battery life taking into account this self discharge.

On the whole the one week of usage I get seems reasonable since I use the device for much longer than half an hour a day.

I wonder if I should use the device for a timed period of half an hour daily for a month as an experiment just for the fun of it...

Biscuits and tea with William: YouTuber and Maths-enthusiast Vihart on reaching y...

Follow This LInk to read the rest of the post--->Biscuits and tea with William: YouTuber and Maths-enthusiast Vihart on reaching y...: In this video Vihart discusses a surprisingly relevant, to the internet today, piece of writing from the 70s in a video that should be inte...

Couldn't agree more. Reminds me a bit of this xkcd comic.

(Note: Finding xkcd comics that are relevant to every situation you come across is the first sign of xkcd addiction.)

Enabled Disqus Comments in my Blog

The default comment space for blogger does not have that many features. So I've decided to add the Disqus commenting feature to my blog. This should clean things up a bit.

All my blogposts currently show zero comments because it'll take a while to import all the comments.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Spotted a Death Note Reference in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

One thing I've noticed is that HPMoR is full of geeky references to famous movies/books/anime that people like me are interested in. It's of the pleasures of reading the book after you've been exposed to the geek culture for a long time. Those references pop out of the page and make the experience of reading a book quite enjoyable. For example look at this little section from chapter 24. There is a spoiler below but I've managed to copy it so that it reveals as little of the plot line as possible.

SPOILER BELOW!

Father had once taken him to see a play called The Tragedy of Light, about this incredibly clever Slytherin named Light who'd set out to purify the world of evil using an ancient ring that could kill anyone whose name and face he knew, and who'd been opposed by another incredibly clever Slytherin, a villain named Lawliet, who'd worn a disguise to conceal his true face; and Draco had shouted and cheered at all the right parts, especially in the middle; and then the play had ended sadly and Draco had been hugely disappointed and Father had gently pointed out that the word 'Tragedy' was right there in the title.
Afterward, Father had asked Draco if he understood why they had gone to see this play.
Draco had said it was to teach him to be as cunning as Light and Lawliet when he grew up.

I couldn't believe it at first! It's actually a Death Note reference! If you haven't seen this particular anime series before, I highly recommend it. It belongs to that class of "intellectual" anime like "Detective School Q" (Which is also awesome by the way) that really stimulates the brain.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Exactly.

One of the many reasons Neil deGrasse Tyson is my favourite astrophysicist/science popularizer.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality: A Review

I finally finished reading all 85 chapters in HPMoR. Although it is a work in progress it is still one of the best books I've ever read. Until now the books I thought most highly about were the books in the Chaos Walking Trilogy written by Patrick Ness. That book was always full of excitement. Every sentence made you more interested. Every sentence made you want to read the next.

HPMoR is better not just because of the excitement in its pages. It does have exciting chapters. There are many chapters where my pulse literally started racing. (Personally I think Chapters 51-61 and Chapters 79-85 were the most exciting.) HPMoR is better because of the amount of knowledge and inspiration it can impart. It has evolved into something more than just a piece of fanfiction. It's when I read stories like this that I realize how much strict copyright laws are stifling creativity. I wonder how many more excellent works of literary art we could have enjoyed if copyright restrictions didn't extend so long after the lives of the authors.

WARNING: THE REST OF THE POST PROBABLY CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS. READ ONLY IF YOU'RE OKAY WITH SPOILERS.

I was particularly inspired by the thoughts expressed in chapter 45. Let me quote what is in my opinion one of the most beautiful thoughts I've ever seen expressed. It is so beautiful that even now as I read it to copy and paste, I feel goosebumps erupting all over my body. The kind that you often experience after  you stumble upon a heavenly piece of music.

Harry thought of the stars, the image that had almost held off the Dementor even without a Patronus. Only this time, Harry added the missing ingredient, he'd never truly seen it but he'd seen the pictures and the video. The Earth, blazing blue and white with reflected sunlight as it hung in space, amid the black void and the brilliant points of light. It belonged there, within that image, because it was what gave everything else its meaning. The Earth was what made the stars significant, made them more than uncontrolled fusion reactions, because it was Earth that would someday colonize the galaxy, and fulfill the promise of the night sky.
Would they still be plagued by Dementors, the children's children's children, the distant descendants of humankind as they strode from star to star? No. Of course not. The Dementors were only little nuisances, paling into nothingness in the light of that promise; not unkillable, not invincible, not even close. You had to put up with little nuisances, if you were one of the lucky and unlucky few to be born on Earth; on Ancient Earth, as it would be remembered someday. That too was part of what it meant to be alive, if you were one of the tiny handful of sentient beings born into the beginning of all things, before intelligent life had come fully into its power. That the much vaster future depended on what you did here, now, in the earliest days of dawn, when there was still so much darkness to be fought, and temporary nuisances like Dementors.
Mum and Dad, Hermione's friendship and Draco's journey, Neville and Seamus and Lavender and Dean, the blue sky and brilliant Sun and all bright things, the Earth, the stars, the promise, everything humanity was and everything it would become...
On the wand, Harry's fingers moved into their starting positions; he was ready, now, to think the right sort of warm and happy thought.
And Harry's eyes stared directly at that which lay beneath the tattered cloak, looked straight at that which had been named Dementor. The void, the emptiness, the hole in the universe, the absence of color and space, the open drain through which warmth poured out of the world.
The fear it exuded stole away all happy thoughts, its closeness drained your power and strength, its kiss would destroy everything that you were.
I know you now, Harry thought as his wand twitched once, twice, thrice and four times, as his fingers slid exactly the right distances, I comprehend your nature, you symbolize Death, through some law of magic you are a shadow that Death casts into the world.
And Death is not something I will ever embrace.
It is only a childish thing, that the human species has not yet outgrown.
And someday...
We'll get over it...
And people won't have to say goodbye any more...
The wand rose up and leveled straight at the Dementor.
"EXPECTO PATRONUM!"
There is also this little tidbit from the next chapter.

"I have a dream," said Harry's voice, "that one day sentient beings will be judged by the patterns of their minds, and not their color or their shape or the stuff they're made of, or who their parents were. Because if we can get along with crystal things someday, how silly would it be not to get along with Muggleborns, who are shaped like us, and think like us, as alike to us as peas in a pod? The crystal things wouldn't even be able to tell the difference. How impossible is it to imagine that the hatred poisoning Slytherin House would be worth taking with us to the stars? Every life is precious, everything that thinks and knows itself and doesn't want to die. Lily Potter's life was precious, and Narcissa Malfoy's life was precious, even though it's too late for them now, it was sad when they died. But there are other lives that are still alive to be fought for. Your life, and my life, and Hermione Granger's life, all the lives of Earth, and all the lives beyond, to be defended and protected, EXPECTO PATRONUM!"
And there was light.

I've had similar thoughts over the years but I could never have expressed it so beautifully and so elegantly. These are, in my opinion the best parts of he book. If you read the book and had to chose a single idea that you could remember forever and forget the rest of the book choose these.

I can't wait for Chapters 86-91 to be released.

Revised Thoughts on the Kindle Touch

It took me about 3.5 hours today morning to read "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" on my Kindle Touch. It had about 2600 Kindle Locations. And the battery didn't drain beyond 75%. So my theory about the Kindle Touch battery drain having a linear relationship with the page flips may be wrong. There are a few possibilities.

1. Somehow, reading half an hour a day for two months doesn't equal reading for 30 hours continuously. Somehow if you read continuously the battery drains slower than expected.
2. My guesses were wrong. Amazon used a different average reading rate to calculate battery drainage.
3. A software update I did recently on the Kindle Touch might have solved a software issue that was draining the battery.

I intend to experiment a bit more with the device to single out the most likely factor.

Also, there is a very faint crackling/buzzing noise coming from the bottom of the device which I can only hear if I put my ear very close to the device. I think it's most likely source is the speakers. Perhaps there is a software issue that sends a constant stream of noise to the speakers. Perhaps there is a software bug which makes the Kindle forget to turn its speakers off when they're not being used. But the strange thing is that the battery appears to last longer after the update and the sound coming from the speakers have not gone away after the updates. So maybe that isn't an issue. I'm not really sure. But I think it would be a good idea for amazon to write in some code to turn off the speakers when they're not being used (if it really is an issue with the speakers).

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Thoughts on The Kindle Touch

A few weeks ago I got myself a new Kindle Touch. Since I'm going off to college soon I thought it would be useful to get a device that eliminated the need to carry around huge heavy cartons of my substantial book collection. I must say that there is something mindblowing about the idea that it can carry around a library. It brings to mind this little comic from xkcd.
 YES! I LOVE XKCD!
There's little to criticize about the device. It's perfect for reading, listening to music and light web browsing. There is however one area in which the device which fell short of my expectations: The battery life. So let the nitpicking begin. Amazon promises two months of reading time on a single charge of the battery. My first full charge however lasted for only about a week even with the wireless off! After browsing through pages and pages of amazon forums I discovered that the problem did not lay in the battery but in the fact that Amazon's estimates were a bit too optimistic. It says on their website that you can
"read for up to two months on a single charge with wireless off and a half hour of reading per day"
Being an incorrigible math nut, I decided to do a little calculation to get a more realistic figure on how long the Kindle touch battery will last. From Wikipedia I get that the average reading rate of an adult human in is from 250 to 300 words per day. I assumed that Amazon probably used this statistic to come up with their "half an hour of reading per day" estimate. Next  I counted the number of lines on a page in the kindle touch with the default font size. It's about 25. The Kindle displays about 10 words per line meaning that each page displays about 250 words on avearge (I don't think the closeness of this number to the average adult reading rate is a coincidence).

So I interpreted Amazon's "half an hour of reading time" as being equivalent to about 30 page flips (That seems awfully small I wonder if I'm wrong?). This should be a reasonable measure of battery drain because EInk screens only use up power when they refresh or change what's on the screen. They do not require power to maintain a particular image or some text. So now our two months of reading time dwindles down into about 30(1800 minutes) hours (assuming each month has thirty days)  of continuous reading time or about 1800 page flips. This explains why my first charge lasted only a week as I read about 4-5 hours per day. Do that for a week and you get about 30 hours of reading time.

Considering the fact that an average book like "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley has 3993 locations (that's the kindle's substitute for a page number) which translates to about 2000 page flips and that a person like me can finish a paperback edition of a book like that (If I find the book exciting and therefore impossible to put down) in about 8 hours or so ( I read quite a bit faster that 250 words per minute) I could probably drain the Kindle's battery with one night of reading!

So I think that amazon should have quoted a more straightforward figure like "Thirty hours of continuous reading" or "1800 page flips" instead of "Two months". For more prolific readers the "two months" estimate is quite misleading. It's a bit like saying "Our laptop battery will last you two weeks with WiFi off and half an hour of usage per day" rather than "Our Laptop battery will last you 7 hours on a single charge." A misleading claim don't you think?

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

I've never been a big fan of fanfiction. I think that the alternate storyline presented in the fanfic intereferes with and contaminates my perception of the fictional universe as presented by the original author. Perhaps it matters so much to me only because I think too much about how fictional universes work. But I am a person who doesn't believe that thinking too much is a problem.

In my view any fictional universe is like a parallel universe governed by natural laws specified by the original author. But no living author can completely write down every single detail of the natural laws and physical occurrences in their fictional universe. It is impractical and will probably detract from the entertainment readers will get out of the book. So when, at the end of the last book in the Harry Potter series, J.K Rowling adds a section preceded by the statement "Nineten Years Later" we have to fill in with our own imagination how exactly Harry grew up in those 19 years and how exactly he got married, what job he took up, et cetera, et cetera ..
Until the original author fills in those details they are mysterious, unknown.

But if you really stop to think you'll realize that nothing actually happened in those 19 years. The fictional universe has no  real  existence. It's not like a biography of Albert Einstein in which the biographer says "Einstein spent his time in the Swiss patent office working on physics he liked." and we know for certain that this happened and there was a specific way in which it happened, a specific way he wrote, an expression on his face as he thought. In a fictional story no detail in the story actually exists until the author writes it down. And to me only  the details specified by the author are actually part of the fictional universe everything else not directly deducible that was imagined by the reader (or fanfic writers) are variables. They are just one possible way in which it could have turned out but not the way it actually turned out. So when I read fan fiction I ususally feel as though I am reading a fake story. I constantly fear that the real Harry Potter or the real Tom Sawyer is going to burst into my mental reading room to claim that all those things never really happened and that the fanfic is a big fat lie.

However Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a rare exception. I have never been more impressed by fan fiction. In fact, I think it would be completely unfair to call this story fan fiction. I think it has evolved into something more. It is more accurate to say that HPMoR is a fantastic tool that teaches the principles of rationality that merely uses the framework and characters of the Harry Potter universe as a basis. I have never been more engrossed in a book before. The first time I discovered HPMoR I read for about five consecutive hours completely absorbed and never once getting bored. In the end I had to tear myself away from it after realizing that pulling an all nighter probably wasn't going to help me with writing that pesky exam I had the next morning.

Trust me, this is a story you should NOT miss. You can start here: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/5782108/1/Harry_Potter_and_the_Methods_of_Rationality In a few days I will post a more detailed review of the Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Arduino

About a week ago I bought an Arduino, a single board micro controller as part of my venture into hobby electronics. It is an amazing tool to work with. And it's completely open source! I just have to connect it to the computer using a USB port and upload a program using the IDE freely available on the Arduino website and I'm good to go.

Here's a little demo. I wrote a basic program which plays a melody.

I tried to add in some chords as well but it turns out that the Arduino can only generate one frequency at a time even if you have two speakers. So you can't use it to generate elaborate musical pieces. It works well for old 8-bit music from the legendary 1990s game consoles though.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Relativity and Problem Solving Time Loops

Science and math geeks have two reasons to celebrate today.

Firstly, today is Pi Day!! In some countries todays date is written as 3/14 which are the first three digits of the Mathematical constant $\pi$ . So people around the world get together to celebrate the world's most famous mathematical constant.

Today is also the Birthday of THE Albert Einstein who has become something of a mascot for physics and science in general. The strange thing was, although Einstein became famous among the general public during the early 1900s for his theories, nobody really understood his theories. They just liked the crazy consequences.

I was really expecting a Google Doodle for the occasion on the Google homepage but they decided to honour  Akira Yoshizawa instead. (Google, you have disappointed me.)

Speaking of Einstein, my A-Levels are now over. So I'm getting plenty of time to delve deep into those obscure bits of physics which were too time consuming for an A-Level student. I've been reading up a lot on Einstein's Theory of Relativity in the last two months. I can finally say that I understand the basics of tensors without feeling dishonest.

A few posts ago, when I was testing out $\LaTeX$ I put down this equation in with many others.

$R_{{\mu}{\nu}} - \frac{1}{2} g_{{\mu}{\nu}} R + g_{{\mu}{\nu}} \Lambda = \frac{8{\pi}G }{c^{4}} T_{{\mu}{\nu}}$

This summarizes everything about the theory of relativity in one elegant equation and this equation is what I hope to eventually understand. Right now, the only part of the equation I know anything about is the $g_{{\mu}{\nu}}$ or the metric tensor.

Learning about relativity inevitably leads to thinking about the mind boggling consequences of time travel. I came across this really interesting application of theoretical time travel while reading on the internet. This trick works even if it is only possible to send information back to the past.

Imagine I have a machine using which can send a Word file "Something.doc" back to the past. If I am trying to crack a simple 3 digit number lock, I can use the time machine to my advantage.

I wait for my future self to send me a file labelled "Combination.doc". If the file contains a combination I try out the combination. If the combination works, I create a file named "Combination.doc" , write down the correct combination and send it back to my past self.

If the combination does not work, I add one to the 3 digit number, write it down in the newly created "Combination.doc" and send it back to my past self.

If if commit to doing this, the only situation which does not lead to a paradox is when I send back to the past the correct combination and so the very first time I open the file, it must contain the correct combination! It's kind of like a "do ... while" programming loop in real life.

The amazing thing is that this technique allows a person to solve any problem which involves combination without any effort at all! This could work even on email accounts which lock you out if you enter the wrong password. Since the information is going back in time, even if the the loop tests the  passwords a billion times, the actual password entry happens only once outside the time loop. Or you could get a hundred percent on any multiple choice test without reading a single question (Of course, if you're smart enough to invent this machine, you probably don't need to answer the questions in the first place.)!

I wonder if this would actually work if we had a real information time machine.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Synesthesia

Synesthesia is an interesting phenomenon that I discovered while watching a talk on TED by the neuroscientist V.S Ramachandran. It's when people have this amazing ability to make strange associations between seemingly unrelated concepts like sound and colour or numbers and shapes.

Toward the end of this video there is an interesting demonstration of something called the Bouba/Kiki effect.

 Two Blobs
The effect is seen in an experiment where a large number of people are shown this image (separately of course) and asked to assign the name Bouba and Kiki to any of the shapes. More that 90% of the people name the shape on the left as Kiki and the one on the right as Bouba. This shows a kind of shape-sound synesthesia that is present in all of us.

I've also been thinking about how this seems to be a learned skill. A person does not learn how to read or count without being taught. And since synesthesia occurs in learned symbols, I think it is to some extent learnable. I think it might be possible to learn to be synesthetic.

So I am going to do an experiment on myself. Since I do a lot of reading online I am going to try and create a script which assigns every letter and number on the page a colour but first I've got to find out if such a script is even possible.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Of Pokeballs, Nostalgia and Mood Superpositions

My most recent work in Blender 3D is a Pokeball (Pikachu's Pokeball from the very first episode for all the Pokemon fans out there.) which in the final rendering turned out a lot better than I expected it to. It is the best thing I've created in Blender so far and in my opinion, my first work that does not seem too amateurish. I posted it on my deviantArt profile. (Or you can go over to the "Blender Projects" section of this blog and check it out there.)

Well it definitely taught me that nostalgia can be a very powerful motivator for art. That first episode I is not particularly complex or entertaining when compared objectively to many of the more recent masterpieces of Japanese anime but it represents something very special to me. Tied to this episode are precious memories of old friendships quarrels that shaped my personality. In fact when I look back on my early childhood, I find that all my memories are inevitably tied with the many cartoons that I watched at the time. They provided a release from the harsh realities of a conservative school. I used to spend hours immersed in imaginary worlds, dreaming of all the amazing, crazy things I could do.

I also noticed something about how moods work. I think that at any one time, people don't feel any single mood in isolation but a mixture of several different moods. The "dominant" mood may vary from time to time but it's always a mixture. So the mood we are feeling is actually a superposition of many moods. I started observing this effect when I did international travel for the first time. When I first visited Malaysia for a period of two months something felt subtly different.  I was under the impression that it was a smell but that description didn't seem to describe it satisfactorily. In retrospect I think that the travel to a new country introduced new moods or intensified some moods that had lain dormant for many years. I observed a similar effect when I travelled within the country but to a lesser extent. Sometimes I walk into a house or some other building and I think: "There is something oddly familiar about this place." This could be because that place had a mood signature similar to that of a place I'm very familiar with.

The mood signature of a specific place also seems to change over time, especially during emotionally significant events such as going up from Year 5 to Year 6 at school or a transition from Junior School to High School.

Coming back to the subject of cartoons, I discovered that by just watching cartoons that I'd watched during a specific period of my childhood life I could temporarily produce inside my brain a close approximation of the mood superposition of that period. It is like being mentally transported back in time to relive that part of my childhood. All the troubles, mishaps, worries, joys and triumphs I had at the time come rushing back to meet me. And perhaps this is what is happens inside the brain when we experience the state of mind called "nostalgia".

I think it's exciting that despite "owning" my mind for over 17 years I still have a lot to learn about it.

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Lost Symbol and My Thoughts on Fiction

It's been a long time since its release but I finally got an opportunity to read The Lost Symbol. Now that I read it I don't think i missed out on much at all.

I was thoroughly unimpressed by the book. After "Angels and Demons" and "The Da Vinci" code this book was completely underwhelming. The plot was a bit weak and I felt none of the unexpected bursts of excitement that had made his previous books so difficult to put down.

About halfway through the book (at which point I was reading simply because I hate to leave a book unfinished) I realized something about why some novels seem so enjoyable while others make us cringe.

It's how believable the story is in its own "universe". The term fiction does not give a writer the freedom to put in whatever captures their fancy. For an example take Harry Potter. It is a story about magic. But in the very fist book the "scene" is set. So the reader gets an idea of the laws of nature (or magic) in the Harry Potter universe. The rest of the books follow the laws of the new reality very strictly. The same goes for  most of the good novels I can think of. The protagonist does not pull through whatever difficulty is presented due to string of coincidences bordering on unbelievable. But this is exactly what happens in The Lost Symbol.

Another mark of a good story is how it draws you in. Many books (like Eragon and Harry Potter) talk about worlds in which, deep inside, everyone wishes to live in. Reading them makes me want to live the book so badly that sometimes I can't help laying awake at night thinking of all the cool, amazing things I would do if I were in the place of the protagonist.

Dan Brown's take on Noetic Science also spoils the book somewhat. The book is supposed to be set in the real world but the book shamelessly represents this repackaged pseudoscience as the real thing. Noetic science tries tie in quantum phenomena with the problem of consciousness but with experiments that mainly involve trying to prove that low probability fluctuations in Random Number Generators are somehow related to focused intention of many people to produce this result which to me just sounds like Deepak Chopra 2.0.