Thursday, March 30, 2023

The Mystery Of A Cat In The Box In An Uncertain Universe

Newton fathered physics as we know it now. He formulated precise laws that govern our world, which stood the test of time for centuries. But as our knowledge about the universe incrementally advanced and as we began to deal with scales (both incredibly minute and infinitely large) that were unthinkable at his times, we started redefining the laws. Albert Einstein postulated Special and General theory of relativity that helped us in dealing with the vastness of our ever expanding universe. Quantum physics did the same for the micro universe constituting of sub atomic particles. 

Though I had studied some quantum physics during school, the first time I thought seriously about its implications was during a long train ride when I read a book by Deepak Chopra. The book (I cannot recall it's name, fortunately) was the usual motivational self-help trash, that everyone ends up reading at a certain phase of their life. It married quantum theory with some spiritual mumbo-jumbo and produced a concoction of pseudoscientific rubble. The one and only positive outcome it produced in me was an interest to read more about quantum physics. (I am now curious to know what happened to the me in an alternate universe who tried to realise his true potential through quantum spirituality after believing Deepak Chopra). 

John Gribbin

In his book In Search Of Schrodinger's Cat: Quantum Physics And Reality, John Gribbin tries to make sense of the bizzare world of probabilities, uncertainties, ghost electrons, multiverses and time travel- concepts that are difficult for humans to even visualise. He starts from basics by introducing the concept of light as particles and waves, atomic structure and the weird inconsistencies that necessitated a new method of looking beyond our perceived reality. The book chronicles the evolution of quantum theory through the inputs from several ingenious minds that braved to think in radically different ways. 

The best thing about the writing of Gribbin is his explanation of complex and out of the world concepts in a manner that anyone with an interest can easily comprehend. Though the subject is very difficult to visualise and is heavily dependant on complex mathematical equations to make its points, Gribbin very patiently lead us on our way to understand the working of a world that thrives on uncertain resolutions. I loved the way he connects tough quantum concepts with easily understandable local situations and explains them. 

It is disheartening to know that quantum physics makes the universe unpredictable and dependant on chances and probability. The rigid frame work of Newtonian thought and the causal hierarchy of Einstein's findings turned out to be limited. Working of the building blocks of our universe doesn't work predictably. It is difficult to unlearn a lifetime's knowledge and accept a contrarian worldview. But the quantum cookbook has been an integral part of human development- super computers, nuclear reactors, microchips and lasers are all some of its most common practical applications. On the top, it is equally mind blowing to realise that quantum physics may open the door to more exciting prospects like multiverse and time travel. A basic knowledge of the quantum reality is essential for all and this book is a very good entry point for that. 

"The atoms in my body are made of particles that once jostled in close proximity in the cosmic fireball with particles that are now part of a distant star, and particles that form the body of some living creature on some distant, undiscovered planet. Indeed, the particles that make up my body once jostled in close proximity and interacted with the particles that now make up your body."

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Algorithmic Approach To Human Decision Making

One of the most important and crucial element of our life is inarguably decision making. It is a process that we all perform incessantly with varying outcomes. From the most trivial decisions like which Netflix series to binge watch, to the most existential ones like what is the right occasion to deploy a nuclear weapon, decisions decide the quality of our individual and collective being.

Algorithms To Live By: The Computer Science Of Human Decisions is a book written by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, that tries to compare human decision making with algorithms developed by engineers for the efficient running of computer systems. The books points out several daily life cases where algorithmic logic can be employed for decision making. Algorithms are basically a series of steps that solve a problem, which is what we do in our life too, sometimes consciously, like when we assemble a furniture using instructions or many times unconsciously, like when we plan a shopping trip across multiple shops.

The book is divided into 11 chapters, and in each one, authors demonstrate how a specific type of algorithm can be logically used to solve certain problems that are encountered in life. The book also details the evolution of these algorithms and surprisingly most of them are tweaked from solutions existing mathematical puzzles. In some cases, human mind follows the same logic unconsciously  to reach the solution by itself.
It is also important to note that, most of the algorithms are not mathematical formulas, which once applied lead us to a perfect solution. Application of algorithmic logic doesn't lead us to the best decision, but it can show us the one solution that has best probability to be perfect.
For example, if you want to find a rental place in a month's time, 'optimal stopping' algorithm will suggest a look/leap approach. You start looking and apprising all the apartments without selecting any for a period of time and then going for a leap and selecting the next best that comes your way. Your looking period should be 37% of the total time you have to maintain the probability to get the best possible apartment for you.


Likewise consider that you are in a new town for a period of one month and you have to eat in restaurants for the whole period. Would you explore as many restaurants as possible in a month, or will you settle for the first good one after finding it by exploring for it. Algorithmic approach of explore/exploit logic would be to explore initially and once your departure from the town is near, go for the best ones that you find by exploring and exploit them. Another intersting example for this approach is Hollywood, which explored many types of movie making for decades and now when it perceive its end, started exploiting all that it explored by making sequels, reboots and spin-offs.

Apart from these approaches, other chapters deals with human activities of sorting, caching, scheduling, communicating and dealing with other persons. I loved the chapter on using game theory to maximise mutual benefitting from human interactions. One important concept to clearly comprehend while using these techniques is that none of these are instant fixes. Applying algorithmic logic to real world problems will result only in the best probable result. Using it consistently over longer periods of time will better the probability to get the best solutions.In the author's own words:

...the best algorithms are all about doing what makes the most sense in the least amount of time, which by no means involves giving careful consideration to every factor and pursuing every computation to the end. Life is just too complicated for that.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Two Graphic Novels by Michel Kichka

 Michel Kichka is a left leaning Israeli cartoonist. I happened to read two of his autobiographical works that are published as graphic novels- Second Generation and Falafel With Hot Sauce. Second generation is a book about his relationship with his father who is a Holocaust survivor. Falafel With Hot Sauce is about his relationship with Israel to which he immigrated from Belgium. 

Kichka decided to produce Second Generation after reading Maus, another impressive autobiographical graphic novel in which Art Spiegelman wrote about his father, also a survivor. While in Maus, Spiegelman narrates the experiences of his father in the concentration camp, Kichka tries to ruminate on the effects of his father's experience on him and his family. 

Michel's father never talked to him about his past- how his entire family, except him was wiped out and how he survived inhuman atrocities of the Third Reich. Michel figured most of it himself, by reading his father's collection of books, from his caricatures that he drew and his many idiosyncrasies and rants about his sufferings that were tolerated because he was 'in the camps'. I believe all his attempts to identify with his father took him closer to his Jewish identity. 

Henri Kichka, father of Michel Kichka

After immigrating to Israel and starting his own family there, one day Michel wakes up to hear the news of his brother Charly's suicide. After that his father opens up about his experiences and soon becomes a public figure, doing talks and writing books on his experiences. Michel feels his brother was the victim of Second Generation Syndrome and feels his father's behavior has shifted the focus from Charly. From a belated letter from Charly, he infers that unhappy childhood was one reason for his death. Slowly over time he mends his relationship with his father, promising to visit Auschwitz with him. 

It is interesting to note that the book that starts on a dinner table ends in another one. Most of the major happenings in the novel are around dining tables were the mood alternates. But it is assuring to see the last one that emit acceptance and compassion. Second Generation is a very sensible portrayal of a delicate relationship. It never falls into the trap of sentimentality or sensationalism. Drawn fully in black and white, the narration, interspersed with a sprinkling of humor, is very tight and poignant. 

We see a young Michel tasting a helping of Falafel with hot sauce on his first vacation to Israel in the opening pages of his second graphic novel, aptly titled as Falafel With Hot Sauce. At that moment, he learns his first lesson- 'In Israel, what you see isn't always what you get'. The book builds up on this lesson and chronicles his bittersweet relationship with Israel. 

Michel grew up in Belgium according to Jewish tradition. After his visits to Israel and identifying with its struggle to stand up and walk, he decides to drop out of his architecture degree and immigrate. He pursues a degree of art in Jerusalem. In an Israel, which was fastly turning to a far right ideology, he decides to stay a left leaning cartoonists. The first half of the book is details of his integration into the country and second half features his rebellion as a leftist cartoonist. But finally he asserts his love for his country and how his attempts for peace are born out of that love. 

Falafel With Hot Sauce is more dynamic and far reaching in its political scope when compared to the more personal Second Generation. But Michel Kichka keeps the narration very much rooted to the humane aspect of life. Irony of the valuable lesson after his first Falafel is explored in several angles throughout the book- in his social interactions, his personal life and also his political assertions through his cartoons. He chronicles his tryst with the history of Israel in a deeply affectionate, though strictly honest manner. 

Michel Kichka

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Book Review: Dead of Winter by Darcy Coates

Christa hoped that a vacation on the snowy Rocky Mountains with her boyfriend may put the ghosts of her past to rest. When her boyfriend goes missing in a snowstorm, she is forced to take refuge in a remote cabin along with total strangers, waiting for the raging storm to subside and for an elusive rescue mission. But heads start popping and when she realise that one among her cabin mates is a serial murderer, she has to decide whom to trust before the worst happens. 

Dead Of Winter is an upcoming thriller novel by best selling writer Darcey Coates, which I got an opportunity to read, thanks to an advance copy by the publisher through Netgalley in exchange of an honest review. I am reading Coates for the first time. The book is a locked door suspense mystery with cabin in the wood kind of horror elements heavily thrown in. 

Story is narrated in the first person perspective of Christa. The narrative style of Coates puts the reader in the midst of the events. While reading through the eyes of Christa, we are aware of only that which she knows about. At the same time we are part of all the paranoia and anguish that she feels. This made me as a reader, more immersed and invested in her perilous journey. 

Ever prevalent suspense is the biggest asset of the novel. The writer has ensured that there are no dull moments in the plot by keeping it thriving and eventful. Right from the opening chapter, the book pulls the reader into its maze. The terror and paranoia that inhabits every character and the atmosphere of uncertainty and confusion that prevails in every page are sufficient to hook the reader. As bonus there are enough gore and jump scares thrown in to spice up the story. Constant presence of a merciless nature- never ending snowstorm and ice clad mountains that hinders every effort of the characters, disallowing any respite also serves as an antagonist in the tale. 

I have read many suspense thrillers that pull rabbits out of thin air. But the best ones always take care to stud sufficient clues (and of course some misdirections also) in the narrative for the more adventurous reader to pick on their way and attempt to decipher the final reveal. The credibility of a fine suspense writer, according to me, lies in making their reader feel 'why didn't I think of it' instead of 'I didn't see that coming'. Dead of Winter made me regret all the missed clues that I ignored, though to my credit, I was able to crack atleast a crucial one. 

In any locked door thrillers, it is crucial to have interesting characters because most of the thrills happens by the suspicious interaction among these characters. My singular objection with the novel is the lack of riveting characters other than the protagonist. All other characters where mostly one-note kind, and serves only the purpose of carrying the plot forward. More meaningful and complex interactions among them would have added layers to the book and whetted the appetite of serious readers who are interested in something more than a racy ride. 

Dead Of Winter is ideal for a reader who wants to read a relentless, atmospheric suspense thriller that features some gore. It is an easily readable book, with a complex protagonist who shoulders the plot effortlessly and a dense atmosphere saturated with paranoia. The novel will be published on 11th July 2023.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Reading About COVID-19 In A City On Fire

Nero played fiddle when Rome burned. And I read a book about Covid 19 when the city I live is burning. Brahmapuram is meant to be a waste processing plant that serves Kochi city, the financial capital of the Indian state of Kerala in which resides around 2.5 million people, many of them migrated from other districts in search of better opportunities. Kochi has a thriving port, it is a bustling entertainment hub with many popular movie stars living there, a transit point, a tourism destination and a huge business center. 

Every big city emits immense amount of waste- plastic, organic and chemical and electronic. It is the duty of the governing body to decide what to do with it, without affecting its citizen's healthy life. Waste management is an important function that decide the livability of a city. We know of several pandemic outbreaks in past when plague and cholera claimed thousands of lives due to pure sanitation. But today, situation is more critical as plastic constitutes a majority of modern waste materials. A well performing government segregate waste and process it- by recycling, incinerating or converting waste to useful byproducts. We have heard stories of Ammonia separated from waste being used in fertilisers. 

Kochi too had a plan for a waste treatment plant at Brahmapuram, a village in the outskirts of the city. In 2008, a plant was inaugurated that became dysfunctional within years of commencement. No attempts were made to make it operational. Brahmapuram remained a waste dumping yard. It initially covered 37 acres and now has expanded to 110 acres. Along with Kochi corporation, several other nearby Municipalities and Panchayats the place for waste dumping. 

An estimated 400 tonnes of waste used to be daily deposited here, out of which around 35% is non- biodegradable. Mayhem broke loose when an uncontrollable fire was set ablaze on March 2nd 2023. After two weeks, today it is officially announced that the fire is put out. Till this time Kochi and many adjoining places was immersed in fumes, which included carcinogenic toxic plastic exhaust. Health experts cautions that bad effects of inhaling the smoke can even transfer through generations. In one word, the fire is catastrophic. 

Now we will discuss the book that I read. It is titled Covid 19: The Greatest Cover-Up in History by Dylon Howard & Dominic Utton. It tries to chronicle the first 6 months of Covid 19 epidemic- from January 2020 to June 2020. More specifically it criticise the response of the governments of China, Italy, UK, US and Brazil in dealing with the pandemic and screwing things up for their citizens, resulting in loss of lives. 

The book predictably starts at Chinese city of Wuhan, the ground zero of the epidemic. The initial detection of a novel SARS virus from the results if two flu patients by Dr Ai Fen and the later cautionary messages by Dr Li to his closed group of friends starts a first wave of frenzy in medical circles. Local government took swift action. Not to contain the disease, but to sweep the rumors under the rug and to quell any more spread by censoring. Details about the virus and its potential to rapidly spread were not initially shared to the outside world and at least 5 million travellers were allowed to move from Wuhan domestically and internationally without screening. This set the stage for a global catastrophe that resulted in loss of precious lives and severe economic setback of several countries and firms. 

Even on the later stage of pandemic, China was busy trying to prove the virus didn't originate locally. The unusually low reporting of confirmed cases and fatalities further accentuated the suspicion on China's game plans. The book goes on to describe how different nations, refusing to learn from the Chinese debacle, continued repeating same mistakes. WHO, an organization formed to promote global health and which was successful in past with smallpox eradication, failed to warn the nations in a timely manner and to establish and enforce a proper unified procedure to deal with Covid. 

Though Italy acted swiftly when they diagnosed their Patient One, supposedly by then Covid had already spread widely. The government tried to maintain normalcy without enforcing lockdowns in southern Italy. Before they decided for a total lockdown, news was leaked and there were mass movement of citizens within the country. This led to even wider spread of the pandemic in Italy. UK believed in acquiring herd immunity for its citizens and decision for a country-wide lockdown came when the issue was already out of hand. Several ill-timed, ambiguous decisions made the public vary of the government approach against Covid. Low stock of PPE, infection among health workers and over-saturation of hospital space further weakened the country. 

In US, the President didn't wanted to create a panic and pull the economy down. Facing an election in 2020, he tried to downplay the danger and caused severe breakdown of hospital systems. Economy inevitably nosedived and eventually US suffered the most casualties due to Covid in the whole world. Brazil, which had the luxury of time to face the crisis also failed spectacularly in taking the virus due to adopting of the same policies that failed in other countries. 

Reading this book at this instant gave me an opportunity to relate the responses of these governments in parallel to the reaction of my local and state governments to the respective crises. In these two weeks of crisis, Chief Minister of the state has not made any comments on the issue. Incidentally he tweeted a congratulatory message to Xi Jinping, who also took care not to appear on public during the initial days of Covid in China. But once the pandemic was within control, he blamed the local government for all shortcomings and punished them. Our CM, instead of assuming responsibility, is quiet on the issue and has made a scape goat of our district collector. She, who was busy with the relief work and who had already in past issued strict orders to Corporation was immediately transferred from the spot. 

The common thread that binds the tragedy of Covid pandemic disaster is its continuous downplaying by the elected leaders by terming it as a common flu. They vehemently denied its effect on the masses and predicted the issue to be over soon. In Brahmapuram too there is an attempt to assure the public that it is just a common fire and there won't be any big effect on the population. A Minister was quick to claim that Air Quality Index of Kochi was still less than Delhi and people from Delhi should come to Kochi to get fresh air. He very conveniently ignores that the fumes in Kochi is carcinogenic and it comes from direct burning of plastic. He never mentions that the emission of these chemicals happened in a short time and in a big scale in Kochi and we are unsure what are the long term health consequences. 

On Covid times, leaders of many countries were reluctant to take immediate steps because of the fear of public panic that may result. But ultimate result was heavy loss of lives. In Kochi, it was suggested during an expert level meeting that the people who may be affected by the fire needed to be evacuated, but Government interfered and decided not to, so that there won't be panic among public and a subsequent ill will against the government. The schools of the district were given off, but public exams were not shifted. The whole city worked as usual, only a warning to use mask while venturing out was issued by the government to the residents and it is not implemented anywhere. 

Several theories about the origin of the Covid virus is floated, but most of them bordered on absurdity. It was confirmed that it originated in Wuhan, but there were conflicting narratives. Either it came from a wet market that sell wild animals or it may have resulted from a leak in the virus laboratory in Wuhan. The writer supported the theory that wet market was the originator. But some recent enquiries suggest otherwise. China is not ready to cooperate with any independent enquiries. 

Origin of the Brahmapuram fire is also mired in controversy. The Government refuses to comment on the reason of a huge contract to process the garbage being allotted to the relative of a leading politician. It also tries to downplay the fact that in spite of acquiring the contract, not a single piece of waste was processed in years leading to a tremendous accumulation. There are rumors that there is a fire outbreak every year at Brahmapuram. Is this year's fire part of an attempt to incinerate some waste, which went out of hand and became a disaster? Or is it an act of sabotage as claimed by the firm that got the contract for waste processing? What about such dumps in other cities of Kerala? Are there any plans to learn from this incident and seriously address the issue of waste management? Will any of these questions get answers? 

It is depressing to realise that in every catastrophies, be it pandemic, earthquake or a man made fire, the public eventually suffers. We elect our representatives with conviction that they are going to do everything that make our life healthier and better. But all citizens are left ultimately are many unanswered questions.