Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Free online documentaries

Recently I came across a site called Top Documentary Films which has documentaries on a variety of topics. This will keep me busy for a long time. Some of the videos that I saw were:
  1. Jim meets… Sir David Attenborough
  2. Parrots, the Universe and Everything - a talk by Douglas Adams. Coincidentally, I heard the mating call of the male kakapo a few days ago on Animal Planet, a ritual that Adams describes in hilarious fashion.
  3. Ethics Without Religion
  4. Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist
  5. The Evolution of Confusion
  6. Morality: From the Heavens or From Nature?
  7. The Death of the Oceans
  8. The Genius of Charles Darwin
The redesigning of this blog is done by Sujit. He was bored by the old look.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Rajesh Khanna, 1942-2012

Rajesh Khann, the first superstar of Bollywood films died a few days ago. He had a distinctive style that is parodied by Govinda in this song. Following my usual practise, I will link to some of my favourite songs picturised on Kaka.
  1. zindagi kaisi hai paheli
  2. kahin door jab din dhal jai
  3. aate jaate khoobsoorat
  4. zindagi ek safar hai suhana
  5. mere sapnon ki rani
  6. o mere dil ke chain
  7. yeh shaam mastaani
  8. chala jaata hoon
  9. ek ajnabi haseena se
  10. zindagi ke safar mein

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Statements that are wide off the mark

During sales training in Wipro Infotech, we were taught that it is better to under-promise and over-deliver than to over-promise and under-deliver. This a good rule to be followed in all circumstances. But it is a custom more honour'd in the breach than the observance.Many people seem compelled to make tall claims that many listeners take as more than empty verbiage.

This is especially common with quacks. I came across a concept called Hype Cycle. Many people seem to go through the the first 3 stages of the cycle but seem unable to make the transition to the 4th stage. Come the next quack and the same cycle is repeated. It is natural for desperate people to feel hopeful after hearing of various miracle tales. Quacks know this. I remember reading that how you speak is more important than what you say and quacks take full advantage of this idea. You can make any statement you like and many people will believe it if you say it confidently enough. As Carl Sagan said in The Demon-Haunted World:
Tellingly, pseudoscience and superstition tend to recognize no constraints in Nature. Instead, "all things are possible." They promise a limitless production budget, however often their adherents have been disappointed and betrayed.
Sometime back, Jaya was asked to talk to a guy who it was claimed could cure any paralysed person in 6 months. To observe social niceties, Jaya called up the person. He was horrified to hear that I had been paralysed for 13 years. He said that I should be brought immediately to him and he would cure me in 6 months. Jaya asked him if he had treated any patient who had suffered a brain stem stroke. He replied that he had treated plenty of them. Jaya made some polite noises and hung up. The incident reminded me of a story that Feynman related in this speech:
One time I sat down in a bath where there was a beautiful girl sitting with a guy who didn't seem to know her. Right away I began thinking, "Gee! How am I gonna get started talking to this beautiful nude babe?" I'm trying to figure out what to say, when the guy says to her, I'm, uh, studying massage. Could I practice on you?" "Sure," she says. They get out of the bath and she lies down on a massage table nearby. I think to myself, "What a nifty line! I can never think of anything like that!" He starts to rub her big toe. "I think I feel it, "he says. "I feel a kind of dent--is that the pituitary?" I blurt out, "You're a helluva long way from the pituitary, man!" 
They looked at me, horrified--I had blown my cover--and said, "It's reflexology!" I quickly closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating. That's just an example of the kind of things that overwhelm me. 
Many people make statements that don't square with reality. People who care deeply about a particular situation or outcome insist vehemently that they don't give a damn about it. The most argumentative types will say that it is better to keep quiet rather than get into unnecessary arguments. People who boast a lot and seem to often behave arrogantly keep saying that it is important to be humble. (Talking of boasting, this is awesome. And what about this?) Shakespeare was aware of this tendency: 'To thine own self be true' and 'Brevity is the soul of wit' were said by a character ('that Polonius guy') who was a scheming windbag.

Very privileged people keep cribbing about their troubles. They don't seem to realise that luck has played a significant role in ensuring their success. I keep hearing about talent and hard work but never about luck ('god's grace' is the place-holder term I hear). In her convocation address to Harvard University, J.K.Rowling says that humans alone among all species are capable of imagining themselves in others' shoes but some don't seem capable of it.This leads to bizarre situations. For eg., if the watchman asks for a 200 rupee raise, there will be a 1 hour discussion about it but the same people will spend the same amount casually on ice-creams during an evening walk. (I don't know what to make of this disturbing story. Those people seem to be training to become Snakes in Suits - it is a book that I have not read but I love the title, although I suppose it is being uncharitable to snakes.)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Inside Nature's Giants

Inside Nature's Giants is a British science documentary telecast by Channel 4. The documentary shows experts performing dissection on some of nature's largest animals. I was not sure whether to watch it because  dissections are not the prettiest sights in the world. I don't have the stomach to watch all the blood and gore. Even in nature documentaries I watch with fascination say, a cheetah chasing a gazelle but often look away at the climax of nature red in tooth and claw. As Sam Keen says in the foreword to The Denial of Death:
Mother Nature is a brutal bitch, red in tooth and claw, who destroys what she creates.  We live, he says, in a creation in which the routine activity for organisms is "tearing others apart with teeth of all types -  biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones  between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one's own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. 
But when I did start watching the programs, I didn't get the feeling of revulsion that I had expected. There were some yucky scenes but that can't be avoided in a dissection.  The episodes are on Elephant, fin Whale, Crocodile, Giraffe, Great White Shark, Big Cats, Giant Squid, Polar Bear, Camel, Leatherback Turtle, cassowary, python, sperm whale, kangaroo, hippo, baboon, racehorse  and a jungle special. It was especially fascinating watching the dissection of the laryngeal nerve in giraffe.