Explosives or Not

We have earlier seen some quotes from the book The Golem: What You Should Know About Science. There are two companion volumes to this book The Golem Unleashed: What You Should Know about Technology and Dr. Golem: How to think about Medicine. These series of books by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch provide us with examples from these fields which most of the times are ‘uncontested’. For example in the first volume they discuss about the famous 1920 experimental confirmation of Einstein’s predictions in general relativity by Eddington. This experiment is told as a matter-of-fact anecdote in physics, where petty borders of nationalism could not stop physics and physicists. But in the book, as they show inspite of scanty or almost no positive evidence, Eddington “Concluded” that the predictions were true. This they term “experimenters’ regress”.

The experimenter’s regress occurs when scientists cannot decide what the outcome of an experiment should be and therefore cannot use the outcome as a criterion of whether the experiment worked or not.

The Golem Unleashed pp. 106

In The Golem Unleashed they present us with many examples of this from field of technology. One of the examples is from the Challenger accident which Feynman made famous by courtroom drama. In this case they call the “experimenter’s regress” as “technologist’s regress”.

Recently I read (all further quotes from the same link)an episode in India which would fit in very with these episodes. This is regarding baggage  scanning machines installed at Indian airports. They were brought at 2 crore rupees per unit in 2010. But in August 2011 they failed the tests on tasks they were supposed to do.

The scanners are called in-line baggage inspection systems as they scan bags that go into the cargo hold of the aircraft after passengers check in and hand over their luggage to the airline. They use x-ray imaging and “automatic intelligence” to verify the contents of bags and determine whether they include explosives.

Now one would think that this would be as easy as it gets. Either the scanner detects whether the explosives are present in the baggage or they do not. But it is not as simple as it seems so. Now when the tests were done, the testers found the machines failed.

During the tests, security sources said that a technological specification committee of officials from the IB, RAW, SPG, NSG, BCAS and the civil aviation ministry passed bags containing 500 gm of six kinds of explosives, including PETN and ammonium nitrate, as well as IEDs through these systems. The scanners did not flag any of these bags as suspicious, the sources said.

So after this “failure” the companies which supplied these machines were asked to improve upon the machines or to share the software to recalibrate them. But the companies and interestingly Airport Authortiy of India AAI said that the testing methods were at fault. Now the explosives were passed and the machines did not detect them, then how can companies say that the testing methods were not working?

The machines work on the so called 70:30 principle.

“Though it works on a 70:30 principle, if there is an explosive in the 70 per cent, it will throw up the image of each and every bag that has dangerous substances. We would like to emphasise that the systems supplied and installed by our company at Indian airports are of state-of-the-art technology and are fully compliant with current standards.”

The 70:30 principle refers to the “automatic intelligence” used by Smiths Detection machines to clear 70 per cent of the baggage and reject the rest, according to the Airports Authority of India (AAI). “The machines reject 30 per cent of the baggage, the images of which are then sent to the screener. These systems have automatic intelligence capability and have been tested against a wide range of substances considered dangerous for aircraft. The details and specifications are never disclosed, or else terrorists would understand the software,”

But if anyway machines are doing the job, why not do it 100%? And the funny thing is that they are not sharing the software, which is the main agenda of the proprietary software companies. This is a case where people realize that they are just Users of the software under question. This argument that  “or else terrorists would understand the software” does not hold. They don’t need to if the machine is going to reject a whole lot of bags And in anyway if there are bus/holes in the software, a thousand eyes repair them much faster than a few. And this is The companies further say that

“The technology or physics is that x-ray based system can’t detect explosives, it is only approximate detection of dangerous substances,”

Why is the AAI siding (they are rather defending the companies) with the companies is something worth pondering.

AAI people say “The problem could be due to the sheer ignorance of officers who lacked the skills to test for explosives,”

Still with no unanimity in the testing results, the case truly presents us with a “technologist’s regress.”

Places, Pictures and People

I like to have pictures of interesting and beautiful places I have been, but it seems unnecessary for me to appear in these pictures, and I have never quite understood why other people want that so much.

via Tikal | RMS

Frankly, I could not agree more. It is more like people want to tell you that I have been there. But in case of nutcases they will make sure that every photo that they take, of the monuments and the cityscapes that they went to, will have themselves as part of the photo. This is narcissism at its best. You want to tell the world that “I was there.” How many social-networking pages/posts are flooded with images of monuments with the poster / people as soon as they visit them? Better still live posting! In an earlier era of non-social networking, people used more cruder methods to tell you this. The solution was simple, just put your name on the monument, to tell all others you were there, or that you own the monument. Not that it is a bad thing, but at times it takes away all the beauty of the place under question to limits of what can be considered to be decent.  But this just seems to be just one more human tendencies, which I am not able to relate to, which would be because may be I am becoming de-humanized.

On another note, even kings and emperors could not give up this temptation. Apparently after conquering the Adilshahi kingdom of Bijapur, the last Great Mughal Aurangazeb, made an inscirption on the Malik-e-Maidan cannon (This cannon second largest, single cast canon). Though more artfully made, it is of the same kind.

Heaven and Hell

Circle Limit IV
Heaven and Hell

by M C Escher

Yesterday I have put up Escher’s Circle Limit IV – Heaven and Hell on my new desk. The Circle Limit series of drawings was drawn by Escher are essentially what are known as his hyperbolic tesselations. The new computer table that I have got has an odd shape. On one end the side is circular and it smoothly metamorphises into rectangle on the other side. Though it is not at all comparable to what Escher has accomplished, I feel bad even when I use the word metamorphosis for this, but I have not found anything better. The table is designed for use with a desktop. So it has sections for different parts of the desktop like the monitor, CPU keyboard etc.
Anyways the main point that I want to tell is that the table at one end is circular. Since I had put Escher’s Three World on another table, I thought it would be a good idea to use a ciruclar print of Escher for this part of the table. Of all the prints I had, which I had taken when I had at my disposal A3 sized printers, the one which fitted the purpose seemed to be Circle Limit IV – Heaven and Hell.

Let us see what Escher himself has to say about this series of works viz. The Circle Limits:

So far four examples have been shown with points as limits of infinite smallness. A diminution in the size of the figures progressing in the opposite direction, i.e. from within outwards, leads to more satisfying results. The limit is no longer a point, but a line which border’s the whole complex and gives it a logical boundary. In this way one creates, as it were, a universe, a geometrical enclosure. If the progressive reduction in size radiates in all directions at an equal rate, then the limit becomes a circle. [1]

And he says this about Heaven and Hell:

CIRCLE LIMIT IV, (Heaven and Hell)
[Woodcut printed from2 blocks, 1960, diameter 42 cm]
Here also we have the components diminishing in size as they move outwards. The six largest (three white angels and three black devils) are arranged about the centre and radiate from it. The disc is divided into six sections in which, turn and turn about, the angels on a black background and then the devils on a white one, gain the upper hand. in this way, heaven and hell change place six times. In the intermediate, “earthly” stages, they are equivalent. [1]

Like most of Escher’s drawings this one also takes you to a different world. A world which is far away from the reality. A world of mathematics. A world of abstraction. But then as always we can make connections between this abstract world and the real world. The connections that we can make are dependent on the world view that we have. Some people fail to make the connection. They cannot `see’.

The Circle Limit series is what brought Escher to the eyes of the mathematicians. H. S. M. Coxeter used Circle Limit II as an illustration in his article on hyperbolic tesselations. Since then the other works of Escher have been examined by the mathematicians, and we find that very deep and fundamental ideaso of mathematics are embedded in them. As to how Escher did it is amazing. The kind of clear insight that Escher exhibits in his artwork is astounding. He could visualize the mathematical transformations in his head and then transform them onto the artwork he was working with. Escher has said

I have brought to light only one percent of what I have seen in the darkness. [2]

This must be certainly true, as most of his artwork is nowhere close to what we see in the light. I rate the artwork of Escher as greater than that of the renessaince artist’s as they had just beautifully drawn what one could “see.” But with Escher we go a step beyond, imagination takes the control. What interests me in Escher is that he can make you imagine the unimaginable. What you know is not possible is demonstrated just in front of your eyes. Logic is discarded. Rather it is kept in the basement which is upstairs for Escher.

Yesterday you start to believe what you thought was impossible tommorow.

The way different things merge for Escher is just unparalled in the work of other artists. What has now become known as “Escheresque” is just the typical of his style. Lot of later artists are influenced by the works of Escher, I have found one Istvaan Orosz particulary good. There are others who are equally good but I don’t remember their names now….

Coming back to Heaven and Hell. The main artwork is in a woodcut format in black and white. For me this is a kind of dyad which represents the world. The idea of two opposing forces one termed to be evil and the other good are all permeating in the Universe. Here also the bat-devils and the angels are the representative of the same. There is no part of the Universe where these two are not present. It might seem that somewhere far out there there is nothing, but it is not so. Even there, the design is the same, it is just too far for us to see. This is what harmony in the universe is about. It is the same everywhere, when you have a broad enough world-view. The cosmologists say that the Universe is homogenous and isotropic, if you choose to “see” it at the right scale. The cosmologists often use Heaven and Hell to illustrate this point. For me introduction to Escher came in a talk by a cosmologist who used The Waterfall to illustrate the idea of a perpetual motion machine. Since then I have become addicted to Escher, as has everybody else who has some sense of imagination. For those who cannot appreciate Escher, I can just pity at their miserable imagination.

References:

[1] The Graphic Work of M C Escher by M C Escher
Ballantine 1975, ISBN 345246780595

[2] M. C. Escher (Icons) by Julius Wiedemann (Editor)
Taschen 2006, ISBN 3822838691

The 5 Φ’s of Life

Life as I see it, has five essential `F’s’. Many people may not agree to them, but then this is my blog, so I will tell, whether you like it or not. I will give my reasons for each one, why it is esential according to me. You may agree, or disagree, or give no opinion, it does not matter. Since this blog is more like a personal diary, which I will not link to anybody, I think it is safe to write things here, which I would not like to be in public.

[But then am I not contradicting myself, when I am putting my personal thoughts in a public place?]

So the five F’s

  • Phood: Food is essential for our survival, this represents a living organisms most basic needs. This is what distinguishes us from non-living matter. But the food just should not be for sustenance. It should also be enjoyed. What is the point in eating something that you don’t like? No I don’t mean that we get to eat everything that we like, [I am definitely not suggesting that if you don’t have breads then you should eat cakes], but with whatever we have to eat, we should be enjoying it. If you make the food [not like the plants] but in the more human sense of the world. When you “make” food you get joy of creating something wonderful, if you do not then I am sorry for you. Also the cook should have the complete freedom to do with the food .
  • Philosophy: This is what distinguishes us from the other living beings, we have to have a philosophy of our own, or at least one that is taken from others. But what is essentially needed is to critically look at the aspects of life.
  • Phuck: Well what to say about this? I guess you understand my feelings!
  • Physics: Physics according to some people is the pinnacle of our achievement. Since I am a physicist by training, I have included physics here. Physics has given me a skeptical attitude towards things in life. Though this is not the only path which will lead you here nor that everyone who is a physicist by training will go along this path, but this was my path, hence I list is here.
  • Photography: I have included photography for two reasons.[I am still an amateur [literally and figuratively], as I have not been paid for anything that I have done so far.] One is that photography enables you to store moments, that you have for an extended period of time, and that too in a form that you can share with other people. The other reason is about the art of photography itself. When you are behind a camera, you start to see things differently, from differently perspectives and angles. Is this what not a skeptic needs? Photography in a way provides me with practical tools of implementing many philosophical ideas which would otherwise remain abstract.