u Notes from the Underground: January 2006

Around the blogosphere

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Rory Blyth has a rockacious-hilarious post on his experience with French Canadians. It does not belong in his "louvre", but is still just as funny. And if you're visiting his blog for the first time, then boy, do I envy you, for you have a lot of laughing to do. My personal favourite is the one on Excel sheets.

(Dratted blogspot. It does a publish post when you do Ctrl+S, which in about every other application in the world means "Save", not "Publish" or "Print".)


There's a new blog in the Indian blogosphere that's attracting a lot of discussion. Its called the How the Other Half Lives, and purports to fill the vacuum left behind by the mainstream media (and the mainstream blogs, presumably ) regarding the true state of India. Take a visit and see the comments, if you are interested in this kind of thing and are relatively jobless. Some of the comments are good, such as this.
Oops, sorry, :-D. I meant to link to this.


Gaurav Sabnis has put up a quiz which the quizzers amongst my reader(s?) might be interested in. At first glance, I knew only the 13th one. Ofcourse most of the non-googlable ones are stuff that I wouldnt know regardless of how many glances I took (unless I used .

Tyler Cowen on the global exchange of cultures

Monday, January 30, 2006

In a previous post, I made a glib statement which I did not try to substantiate:
Look at any culture close enough and you'll find that the search for what is "authentic" in that culture can be very elusive.

Well, there couldnt be a better exposition of that idea than this lecture (pdf) that Tyler Cowen gave at New Zealand, called "The Future of Culture in a globalized world".
What makes a cultural product ‘count’ as being from a certain region? New Zealand has two very well-known opera singers, Malvina Major and Kiri te Kanawa. Now, both Dame Malvina and Dame Kiri have sung in Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, among other famous operas. When you look at Don Giovanni, you know it is not New Zealand culture, and certainly it is not Maori culture. But what is it? The language is Italian. Mozart was from Austria, although not the Austria we know today. The libretto was written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, an Italian Jew. It is believed the story came originally from Spain and the opera Don Giovanni enjoyed its greatest success in Prague. Of course, you can trace many other influences, for example where the instruments came from – often from the Arabic world and also from China, further east. So, again, we have this idea of a cosmopolitan product.

Tyler Cowen has written a book on this subject, Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures. Here's an interview he gave to Reason about the book some time back.

On what drives cultural protectionism (from the interview):
reason: If this sort of hybridization [of cultures] is so striking and central to cultural production and exchange, why isn’t it more widely acknowledged, much less celebrated?

Cowen: I think a lot of it is pride. People want to take pride in either a country, an ethnic background, or a place of origin. In order to construct an identity, a story, a sense of pride, you need tales about how your group, your region, your nationality -- your whatever -- is somehow special, different, apart, and imbued with a particular kind of meaning.

I think these stories are actually quite useful. Such beliefs motivate people; they give people comfort. I don’t wish to strip them away from people. But if we take those stories too literally and start basing policy on them and forget about this other truth, then we’re in deep trouble. We’ll start thinking that the nation or the group is special and that you need to protect the group.

I particularly like that last paragraph.

Overheard at a restaurant..

.. "I analysed myself and found that I was an asshole".

Snuggling in the overcoat

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Picked up a short story collection by Nikolai Gogol, that includes the famous "The Overcoat".

Evidently the incomparable Dostoyevsky himself said about Gogol:
We all [future generations of Russian novelists] came out from under his Overcoat

I have a lot of ground to cover in 19th century Russian literature: havent read anything by Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev (with his famous nihilist protagonist in Fathers & Sons) or Chekhov. (Franz Kafka is another guy who doesnt belong here, but my mind always slots him in with these people). Oh, and Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. Havent read that too.

The evolution of religions

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Alex Tabarrok has a few things to say about how religions adapt:

My point is not to argue that Christianity or Islam are either more or less compatible with capitalism or liberal democracy. In my view all religions of reasonable age and numbers contain traditions and teachings compatible with modernity and all religions of reasonable age and numbers contain traditions and teachings incompatible with modernity. Call it the completeness theorem.

It's how religions adapt and evolve to modernity that is important. Religions are constantly changing, emphasizing certain features, downplaying others, creating new interpretations. Given enough time, I believe that any religion will evolve towards compatability with modernity because it's the memes that combine modernity and religion which will survive and prosper.

The problem is that Christianity has had hundreds of years to adapt itself to modernity while Islam has had modernity thrust upon it.

(Italics mine.)

I think the line that I emphasised is even truer of customs and traditions, (represented by the catch-all "culture") i.e. only such cultures which better adapt and evolve will survive for any length of time. Look at any culture close enough and you'll find that the search for what is "authentic" in that culture can be very elusive.

How to thrive using fear: a case study in environmentalism

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

[..], I began to recall other fears in my life that had never come true. The population bomb, for one. Paul Ehrlich predicted mass starvation in the 1960s. Sixty million Americans starving to death. Didn’t happen. Other scientists warned of mass species extinctions by the year 2000. Ehrlich himself predicted that half of all species would become extinct by 2000. Didn’t happen. The Club of Rome told us we would run out of raw materials ranging from oil to copper by the 1990s. That didn’t happen, either.

It’s no surprise that predictions frequently don’t come true. But such big ones! And so many! All my life I worried about the decay of the environment, the tragic loss of species, the collapse of ecosystems. I feared poisoning by pesticides, alar on apples, falling sperm counts from endocrine disrupters, cancer from power lines, cancer from saccharine, cancer from cell phones, cancer from computer screens, cancer from food coloring, hair spray, electric razors, electric blankets, coffee, chlorinated water…it never seemed to end.

Here's the whole thing. I am going to be a little respectful towards Michael Crichton, despite the fact that he writes only so that his books can be made into movies. Atleast he sees how neither the environmentalists nor the media have any clue as to what really is the matter with our world, if anything at all.

(Hat tip to the Commons blog)

A meta-post

Friday, January 20, 2006

I am finished with some of my modifications to the template of this blog. I am not completely satisified with the colours though, I have a suspicion they look awfully weird. Also, I dont like the sharp corners at the edges of all those boxes that my blog is composed of, but Blogspot has an awful way of rounding the corners: putting background gifs that have the corners in them. And I cant let those gifs remain once I decided that the width of all my boxes would be percentage-specified, rather than pixel-specified so I'll have to live with the sharp corners. Any suggestions here are welcome.

Bah! Just me being a fuddy-duddy here.

RSS Salvation, at last

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

After some painful market research, I think I can safely say that Newsgator is the best online feed reader around. It has great folder management, (with drag-and-drop); you have a link which you can add to your bookmarks toolbar (in Firefox) and which automatically subscribes you to the site/blog you are currently viewing (provided you are logged in); and their display is aesthetically pleasing. Great stuff.

Earlier, I had tried out Bandit,( which is decent but is a winodws desktop app, meaning you cant access it from different comps and thats a great disadvantage); Google reader (which was pretty, but pathetic beneath its prettiness; slow, dim-witted regarding folders; but, in time, by putting the right functionalities in the right places on the screen, it can be Gmail-level) and Bloglines (which seemed like everybody's favourite, but again it had non-existent folder management).

A compendium of links

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

I've decided that if I cant be disciplined enough to write a proper post by myself, I should atleast post links regularly.

From the The Skeptical Environmentalist:Measuring the Real State of the World

In a highly interconnected world, statistical short-term reversals are bound to occur in long-term trends. If we allow environmental arguments - however well-meaning - to be backed merely by purported trends of two or three carefully selected years, we invariably open the floodgates to any and every argument. Thus, if we are to appraise substantial developments we must investigate long periods of time. Not the two or five years usually used, but as far back as figures exist. Of course, we must be aware that a new tendency may be developing, and we must also be extra careful to include and analyze the latest available figures. But insisting on long-term trends protects us against false arguments from background noise and lone swallows.

If you (even in a vague, unarticulated way) believe that technology or modernity or capitalism or what-have-you are rapidly, mercilessly screwing up the planet, then you definitely ought to pay attention to this book.

Here's the review of the book in the Economist.

Here's a good post on the methodology that this book follows (I found this in a long session of link-following that yielded a lot of good blogs).


Nobody has done more to popularise open source and bring it into the mainstream than Eric Raymond. His Cathedral and the Bazaar was the first essay that really convinced me about open-source. It also alerted me to the way bottom-up processes are so much more efficient at solving large-scale problems than traditional top-down solutions. Think Evolution vs Intelligent Design, Capitalism vs Communism, traditional encyclopedias vs Wikipedia and whole a lot of other processes.

(Rajat also pointed me sometime back to another good essay, Open Source-onomics: Examining some pseudo-economic arguments about Open Source. )

Why have I suddenly brought up ESR? Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of Virtual Reality recently wrote , IMO, a very muddled-up essay whose point it seemed to be to pan the Internet, Microsoft and Capitalism, all in one go. ESR responded to it, and the response is far more worth reading.

I have begun reading his Homesteading the Noosphere, and its been a gem until now. His fundamental insight is that open source development, like any other human activity, is best explained by understanding the incentives that drive its programmers. He has some great insights as to the unspoken taboos and customs among open source communities and why they have arosen.


Christof Koch is a Prof in Caltech who has been working with the late great Francis Crick on finding the neurological bases for consciousness. If you have a great net connection, you can acces videos of his lectures from here. A few days back I could access all the chapters of his book too, but I cant find it today. Anyway, do read the first chapter, it's got to be the smallest synopsis of all the important philosophical positions on consciousness.


In case you havent much idea about all the fantastic developments going on in bio-technology, then this debate on its promises, perils can fill you in. I myself dont know too much about the specifics , but I've been told by a friend whose friend is working in the field that all sorts of unimaginable things (such as an injection performing eye surgery) may soon start becoming reality. The debate on what it really holds for the future is great food for thought. My own outlook is decidely optimistic, but its justification will need a proper post that I am, as usual, postponing to a later date.


This can do for now. I have to get back to writing suck-letters to profs.

Update: You can in-fact, access all of Prof. Koch's book chapters from here