Category Archives: Topical

Includes posts on physics, philosophy, sciences, quantitative finance, economics, environment etc.

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Death and Grief

Some recent events have prompted me to revisit this uncomfortable topic — why do we grieve when someone dies?

Most religions tell us that the departed, if they were good in life, end up in a better place. So grieving doesn’t make sense. If the departed were bad, we wouldn’t grieve any way.

Even if you are not religious, and do not believe in an eternal soul, death cannot be a bad thing for the dead, for they feel nothing, because they do not exist, which is the definition of death.

One reason for grieving may be that you will miss the departed, and that is painful. Let’s examine this possible reason with the help of a thought experiment. (Or rather, Prof Shelly Kagan in his lectures on the Philosophy of Death examined it that way.) Let’s say you have a close friend who is going on a space mission to the nearest star. He will not return in the next hundred years, and there is no chance at all that you will be able to see him again. Let’s also say that because of the nature of the mission, it will be impossible to communicate with your friend after lift off. You will sorely miss your friend. To all intents and purposes, your friend is as good as dead to you. Or is he? Let’s say thirty seconds after lift off, something goes terribly wrong and the spaceship explodes and your friend dies. To you, is it the same as the friend continuing his space mission? If your missing him was the only reason, it should be. I think it is pretty obvious that death is worse than a permanent farewell. Why? What is the extra badness that death adds to the equation?

That brings us to the next common reason for the badness of death. Your friend dying in a spaceship explosion is worse than him leaving forever because he will be missing out on all the great things he could have done if he were alive. If somebody dies at the age of 70, it is bad because he could have lived for another 20 years; he is missing out on 20 years of life. If he dies at the age of 50, it is worse because he is missing out on 40 years. Dying at the age of ten or one would be horrible because they would be missing out on their whole life. Continuing that logic, not being born at all should be really really bad. How about not even being conceived? Shouldn’t that be worse still? But we don’t feel any grief for the trillions of potential lives (from all the unfertilized eggs and lost sperms) that never got started. I think there is a logical inconsistency in this “missing-out-on-life” reason for the badness of death. It cannot be the real reason, or we would be grieving for all the potential lives that never happened.

Another possible reason is that we know that the departed may have gone through a lot of pain and fear. I thought of it and worried about it during my own personal grieving. But I have to say that there was something beyond that concern, way beyond, in my grief. Now I think I know what it is. You see, when someone (anyone) dies, a bit of you dies with him. If that person was a large part of your life (like your parent, or your spouse), it is a large bit of you that dies, for all the memories you created in him, all the projections of your soul in his consciousness, are also gone with him. The space you occupy in this universe becomes that much smaller. Your grief is not for the departed. Your grief is for yourself because what is departed really is a bit of yourself.

This is probably what Hemingway meant when he penned the title, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” going by the epigraph of the book where he quoted John Donne:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Photo by SIRHENRYB.is ****the dreamer**** cc

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Fields Medal – First Woman

Just read the news that Prof Maryam Mirzakhani won the prestigious Fields medal (the equivalent of Nobel prize in Mathematics). She is the first woman to ever win the prize. First of all, congratulations to her. Coming from an Iranian background, being a woman, I’m sure it must have been hard for her.

Women seem to have difficulties in quantitative fields — we see this everywhere. The general belief is that compared to men, women are more creative and intuitive, but less analytical. They take in the world as a whole. Theirs is a romantic understanding, concentrating on the immediate appearance and values of the objects around them. This mode of understanding is to be contrasted with the analytic, classical understanding of men, who seem to mentally divide things in smaller, manageable chunks and drill down to the underlying forms to come to grip with world around them. In giving this description, I’m trying to paraphrase what Richard Pirsig said in the opening chapters of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The analytic mode of understanding lends itself better to quantitative fields like mathematics, and hence the paucity of brilliance among female mathematicians.

Stating the reason that way doesn’t really explain anything. We have to wonder where this gender difference comes from. Again, the common wisdom is that men and women are wired differently in their brains. Women are considered more right-brained and men, more left-brained. The right hemisphere of the brain is the origin of creative and intuitive thinking while the left side is supposed to handle linear, analytical (and boring) thinking. Here is a simple quiz that can determine whether you are right or left-brained. Hope you get the “right” answer. If the quiz says you are left-brained, you are likely to be in a mathematical field, like programming, finance, accounting, physics, engineering etc. And you are likely to be a man. If you are lucky enough to be right-brained, you are likely to be successful in a creative field. Do leave a note to say how it worked out for you. (In fact, I used the very same quiz to determine whether you believe in God!)

All the statements in the quiz above are meant to be true of a left-brained person. So if you get close to 100% in your score (or as the rate, if you didn’t actually finish the quiz), you are hopelessly left-brained, and probably in a technical field. If you find yourself at the other end of the spectrum, you are creative and intuitive, but a Fields medal is probably out of the question for you.

So, this is the nature part of the nature-nurture equation of our aptitude for mathematics. Of late, I feel that nurture has a lot more do with what we end up doing. Parents exert a scarily large influence on what their kids become and do with their lives. I’m speaking from personal experience. My daughter used to be of an arty-farty kind, spending all her time sketching, photographing and painting, with a career path pretty much set as a fashion designer like her mom. After my retirement last year, I started spending a lot of time with her, and something totally weird started happening. She topped her school in physics, and started seeing art as a chore rather than leisure. Her favorite subject has now become math. I really thought she was right-brained. Did she change into a left-brain being because of me? Is my left brain so strong that it can actually polarize the brains around me? God, I hope not!

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Back to Blogging

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been writing much in the last couple of months. It was because of one of my regularly scheduled writer’s blocks. When I’m blocked, I usually find other things to do, and convince myself that they are really important and urgent. One such thing this time around was a revamping of my blog backend. The original design was dated, and it really needed an upgrade. Or so I told myself and worked on it for a few weeks. If you are reading this post, you can see the fruits of my labor. And I hope you like it.

I was rather proud of my handiwork — until I showed it off to a collaborator. Or rather, a would-have-been collaborator. He was the big boss of one of those Internet startups in the advertising space, trying to reach the user base of my popular WordPress plugins. Our discussion wasn’t going well, and he wanted see my blog, all revamped and modernized. He took one look (about five seconds) and shot it down without even a second look, and told me that it was second-grade. I begged to differ, and I certainly hope you would too. You see, this guy was trying to shoot down my work to get an upper hand in the collaboration negotiations. It didn’t work, and the collaboration never really happened.

This is how the whole thing panned out. An illustrious marketing guy from the said startup contacts me one morning and tells me that I stand to make a ridiculously large amount of money by way of affiliate commissions if I promote their advertising product. I have heard such promises before, but I say to myself, sure, why not? But before doing anything, I decide to try out their product, and find that the returns from their product are, well, ridiculously small. The commission, which is a fraction of the returns, would be even smaller. So I offer them a different deal — a monthly paid banner placement model. They get all upset and try to badger me (and badmouthing my blog was part of that badgering effort), but finally come up with an offer which was about 3% of their original promise. Now, I’m not greedy, so I counter with 6%. I haven’t heard from them yet, and I don’t think I will.

If you make a living on the Internet, you have to be very careful about who you partner with. I don’t actually make a living (I’m retired), so I can afford to turn down such bogus affiliate offers and probe them with potentially smaller returns. I know that there are bloggers out there who make handsome rewards from their popular blogs and websites through such programs. But be careful — your assets may be worth quite a bit more than you think.

Photo by cambodia4kidsorg

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High Performance Blogs and Websites

Do you have a website or a blog and feel that it is getting bogged down with heavy traffic? First of all, congratulations — it is one of those problems that webmasters and bloggers would love to have. But how would you solve it? The first thing to do is to enable PHP acceleration, if your site/blog is PHP based. Although it should be straightforward (in theory), it might take a while to get it right. You know what they say — In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not. Acceleration, however, is a low-hanging fruit, and will go a long way in solving your problems.

Once you have extracted all the mileage out of the accelerator solution, it is time to incorporate a Content Delivery Network or CDN. What a CDN does is to serve all your static files (images, style sheets, javascript files, and even cached blog pages) from a network of servers other than your own. These servers are strategically placed around the continent (and around the globe) so that your readers receive the content from a location geographically close to him. In addition to reducing the latency due to distance, CDN also helps you by reducing the load on your server.

If you have the technical know-how and time to spare, you can actually do it the hard way, by defining a distribution, origin source and setting up the DNS records pointing to something like Amazon CloudFront. If it sounds like too daunting a task, go with the right provider who will make it both cheap and easy. The daunting solution will work best for those who consider themselves semi-hackers or developers. The easier option is to take up something like MaxCDN. They provide round the clock expert support as well as faster service in continental US. They can also work out to be cheaper at the right volume. [See the comparison]

MaxCDN Content Delivery Network

Regardless of which route you decide to take, a CDN works by “pulling” the static files from the specified location, caching them across the globe, and serving your readers from the closest location. When you choose a CDN provider, you have to compare features and cost. For instance, if you are a developer, it may become important to you to be able to refresh (“invalidate”) the cache on demand, which is quite a bit easier (and cheaper) on MaxCDN compared to CloudFront. Also of interest is the fact that MaxCDN gives you detailed statistics about your CDN usage.

In short, if you are a professional blogger and webmaster, consider MaxCDN as your content delivery solution. It will significantly improve the performance of your popular sites, and enhance end user experience.

Note that the links to MaxCDN on this post are affiliate links.

Photo by Yordie Sands

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Learn to Play Blackjack

Here is an online Blackjack game that will teach you how to play it. If you don’t know what to do, just ask the program!

Blackjack Game

How The Game is Played

You play agains the dealer with the objective of beating him by having a higher card total without going over 21. The dealer deals initially two cards face up to each player, and two to himself, with one card face up and other down. Based on the open card, you have to decide whether to draw another card (hit) or decline (stand). Once all the players have made their play, the dealer plays according to preset rules: he has to draw until he reaches 17, after which he has to stand.

Card Values

The suits are irrelevant to the card values. All numbered cards (meaning 2 to 10 any suit) have the face value. All picture cards (Jack, Queen, King) have a value of ten. An Ace can be counted as 1 or 11.

Blackjack Lingo

Blackjack: an Ace and a card worth 10 points (21 total)
Hole: the dealer’s card that is face down
Hit: draw another card
Stand: take no more cards
Bust = going over 21

Etiquette

  • Players place bets by putting the desired number of chips in the circle in front of their seat.
  • The dealer deals two cards face up to each player. The dealer receives one card face up and one face down.
  • The dealer asks each player, in turn, whether they want to hit or stand. ­ Base your decision on the assumption that the dealer has a card worth 10 points in the hole.
  • Indicate that you want a hit by tapping the table or making a motion to beckon another card (as if motioning someone to “come on back”). Continue until you desire no more cards.
  • If you don’t want a hit (or are finished hitting), indicate so by waving your hand back and forth face down over your cards.
  • Once all players have made their decisions, the dealer reveals his hole card and hits or stands as appropriate.
  • Payouts are issued based on the outcome.

Winning and Payouts

If your total is higher than the dealer’s (or if the dealer busts), you win.

  • If you get Blackjack, the dealer pays you 3 to 2.
  • If you and the dealer both get Blackjack, it is a push and no chips are given or taken away.
  • If you have a higher total than the dealer (or the dealer busts), the deale matches the amount of your chips.
  • If you have a lower total than the dealer (or you bust), the dealer takes your chips.

Doubling Down: You are allowed to double your bet after receiving your first two cards. Yo do this by placing the additional chips next to your original bet. If you decide to do this, you receive only one additional card.
Splitting: If you receive two cards of the same number, you can split them into two separate hands. Do this by placing another equal bet alongside your first bet. The dealer will separate your cards and give you an additional card to make each one a complete hand by itself. You will then play each hand separately as you normally would.
Insurance: If the dealer’s face up card is an ace, he will offer players the option of buying insurance. If you choose to do so you can then wager half your original bet (in addition to it) that the dealer does have Blackjack. If he does, your insurance is paid 2 to 1 but your original bet is lost (meaning you break even for the hand). If he does not have Blackjack, you lose you insurance.
Even Money: If you have Blackjack and the dealer has an ace showing, the dealer will offer you even money for your Blackjack (instead of 3 to 2). If you do not take it and the dealer also has Blackjack, you will have a push just like normal.


More Info
 
OK, got it
BLACKJACK PAYS 3 TO 1
DEALER STANDS ON ON ALL 17
What should I do?
Hit
Stand
Your Bet
0
+
-
Available Funds
500
How to Play Blackjack

This post hopefully teaches you sound strategies in playing Blackjack. But you should know that even with the soundest of strategies, Blackjack is a losing game. The house always holds a small edge. The best any strategy can do for you is to increase your staying power — the time it takes you to lose your shirt. So don’t play it to make a living. But, if you do have a couple of hundred dollars to lose, and want to have a grand time, Blackjack is the way to go. Having said that, I do believe that there is a strategy based on discipline and betting patterns that may make you some money. I tried it twice (once on a cruise and once in Monte Carlo) and walked away with some cash. I’m trying to recreate it as a computer simulation (a Monte Carlo, if you will). If I succeed, I will definitely post the strategy or sell it here on my blog.

Photo by Images_of_Money

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Sad Movies

I found something weird. People seem to like sad movies — tear-jerkers. But nobody likes to be sad. I mean, you watch great tragedies with genuine sadness, and then go around saying, “What a great movie!” If whatever happened in the movie really happened to you or somebody you knew, you wouldn’t say, “Wow, great!” Why is that?

I think a good answer is that such depictions in movies let you experience the emotional intensity with no immediate physical (or even emotional) danger. If you were actually on the Titanic, you would at least have taken a cold dip even if you survived. But watching Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio battle for their lives probably lets you experience their fear and pain from the comfort of your armchair, with popcorn and soda to intensify the feeling.

I have a similar morbid fascination with natural disasters. I don’t mean to trivialize the human trauma caused by events like tsunamis and earthquakes, but I cannot help watching the movies and documentaries over and over. Volcanos are my favorite though. Visiting a live one is one of the things on my list of things to do before I die. If it is a very active volcano, I guess it will have to be the last thing on the list. I think in my case, the fascination goes beyond the safety associated with movies; I suspect I actually want to see the real thing, and don’t mind a bit of physical harm. The only downside I can see is that the real experience may not be as good as the movies. I mean, say I am in a tsunami. I say to myself, cool, I get to see a real one. But then, I may get hit by a pole or a plank or some other debris in the first five seconds and get knocked out cold. What’s the point in kicking the bucket in a natural disaster if you don’t even get to see the show?

I wonder whether this kind of fascination extends to people who like horror movies. Would they really want to be in a haunted house with Freddie Crugers and other slashers running amuck? Or see creepy girls crawling out of their television sets? Luckily, I’m not a horror movie buff, and I don’t have to find out.

Internal and External Successes

Success can be internal or external. External success is easily measured in terms of money and material possessions. The internal one is measured in terms of less palpable yardsticks, like happiness, peace of mind etc. External success is related to extrovert qualities, like articulation, and depends on what others think of you. The internal one, on the other hand, depends on what you think of yourself. It is made up of things like duty, honor etc. Confusing one with the other leads to misconceptions like identifying money with happiness, for instance. You need one for the other, but they are definitely not the same.

The height of extroversion are the social medial networks like Facebook. Paradoxically, they are also an introvert’s desperate attempt at being an extrovert, but that’s another story. I think people’s success in life shines more through Facebook than anything else these days. It even leads to something similar to Facebook envy, as BBC recently reported. The report said something about people feeling left out because they see their friends having a grand time all the time. They then feel as though life is passing them by.

There is a flip side to this Facebook-evny phenomenon. You can try to generate as much envy as possible by posting your photos in fabulous locations, having wall-to-wall fun. If that doesn’t project an aura of external success, what does?

I should admit — I’m guilty of this Facebook bragging. I once posted a photo of mine with the Eiffel Tower in the background, and I even remember asking my daughter to be sure to catch the tower in the background. I guess in today’s day and age, you do need a bit of external success as well. The internal one by itself doesn’t quite cut it.

How to be Successful in Life?

When I talked about the dimensions of success, I used the word dimension with an ulterior motive. I want to define success for you in a formal way. You see, an entity that has many dimensions is a space, similar to the three dimensional space we live in. When we have such a complex multi-dimensional space to define success in, we have to apply some good techniques from physics to do it right. Don’t worry, i am here to help.

Success is hard to define, but the lack of success seems obvious — no money, no family, no friends, no education, no wisdom, no health, no wealth etc. That situation is one dark point in this multi-dimensional success-space. Your station in life is another point in the success-space. How far away from the dark point your station is is truly the measure of your success in life. The distance from this zero point of failure is the so-called Cartesian distance. If you have special likes or dislikes for one particular dimension of success (like money, for instance), you can assign an appropriate weight to that dimension, which effectively makes the distance what they call a chi^2 distance. Of course, it would be impossible to assign precise numerical values to all these abstract dimensions and distances. But this mode of thinking should give you a tool to analyze and understand successes and failures. It will tell you, for instance, why Bangladeshis score higher in happiness index than Americans. They just happen to have a different set of dimensions that they consider important.

The trick in achieving success in life lies in identifying the dimensions that are important to you personally. Don’t let yourself get influenced by others (unless, of course, pleasing others is one of your preferred dimensions). Once your own personal directions are identified, channel all your efforts along those dimensions. Just be sure that your dimensions are right for you both in terms of your deepest desires and your abilities. Choose wisely!

Dimensions of Success

Money is only one dimension along which success can be defined. There are many others, such as sports, music, art, acting, politics, professions and even more abstract things like articulation, soft skills, philanthropy, wisdom, knowledge etc. Excellence in any one of them can be thought of us success. Success is easy to spot — look at any one of the celebrities and ask yourself why you know them. The answer is usually one of the dimensions of success — and fame its byproduct.

Excellence in any field can translate to money, which is what Eddie Felson in the Color of Money tells the younger pool player. This transformability often leads us to mistake money for the measure success, which, by the way, is the theme of the afore-mentioned movie. Towards the end of the movie, when Felson realizes that there is more to life than money, he says, “I just want your best game.” Ability to hang with the best game anybody can dish out in any field is excellence; and it has to be reckoned as success. This excellence is probably what the ancient Greeks called arete.

Then, we have other dimensions of life, which, if lived well, lead to gratification and I suppose, spell success in life. Being a good son or daughter and taking care of your parents, for instance, is a worthy goal that my Asian and Indian friends will appreciate. Being a good spouse or a good parent is another worthy dimension of success that most of us would like to achieve, at least in principle. Excellence along these dimensions may lead to personal satisfaction, but no monetary glory. I wonder whether the lack of money makes these successes less impressive.

Success without money came to some other excellent souls as well. Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Karl Marx etc. had wretchedly poor existences, but were posthumously recognized as peaks of excellence in their own ways. Again, it looks as thought their success is somewhat less worthy because of its lack of financial rewards. Or is it the money-centric worldview of our era (or of my garden state of Singapore) that is talking? When we ask our kids to score A’s, are we asking them to be excellent in academics for its own sake and pleasure? Or are we hoping, secretly and hypocritically, that they will make oodles of money for themselves later in life? I’m afraid it is the latter.

Definition of Success

We all want to be successful in life. What does success mean to us? Because success is goal in life, when it is not achieved, we get disappointed. We are then, to be blunt, unsuccessful. But the word success can hold anything within. So if you we don’t know what success is, disappointment is inevitable. We really do need to define it.

Let’s go through a few common definitions of success and see if we can draw any conclusions from it. By the end of this series of posts, I hope to give you a good definition that will make you successful in life. What more can you ask of a blog?

We life in a material world, and the most popular definition of success is in terms of the things you own, or your ability to own them, which basically translates to money. So we use money as a proxy to success, which is why questions like, “If you are so smart, how come you are poor?” make sense. Being smart by itself, or acquiring knowledge for its own sake does not success make. However, this definition of success has problems. For one thing, money is the kind of thing you can keep accumulating, which means you can be more and more successful until you become the richest person on earth. Secondly, by this definition of success, someone like Mother Theresa would have to be disappointed with her life. And someone like Madoff would be considered to have lived a good life (if he hadn’t been caught, that is). In other words, the intrinsic goodness (a concept again hard to define) takes a backseat to pure accumulation of the green stuff. This phenomenon and the associated excesses, of course, are something we do see everywhere in the world around us.

We are not going to address the ethical question about money being the definition of success. We just need to understand that it leads to unachievable goals to almost everyone. By this money-based definition of success, almost everyone ends up being unsuccessful and disappointed with the way their life has turned out, because they always feel that they could have earned more, which of course they could have.

One way of avoiding disappointment is to set a ceiling, a limit to how much you want to accumulate. Let’s say you set a “modest” limit of one million dollars on your monetary goal. Given that it is only three or four percent of those in a rich country like Singapore that make the cut, it is a fairly respectable, yet achievable, goal for most of the readers of this blog. Now the trouble with this redefinition is that it ends up becoming a moving target. By the time you reach anywhere near the target, your lifestyle would have changed so as to make it look too modest. But if you can stick with it, a capped financial target seems like sensible definition of success.