Thinking out loud

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Probability - All in the mind?

It’s been a while since I have been troubled by the notion of probabilities; trouble with the simple notion that a coin showing up heads has a probability distribution. I have had a hard time trying to articulate what I have felt and I finally think I have succeeded somewhat. It is my contention that in a quantum certain world, probabilities have nothing to do with an experiment at all; probabilities are only a summary of the state of our knowledge about the world and its laws. I will try to justify this position.

We start with the simplifying assumption that the world is quantum certain. We’ll add quantum uncertainty and worry about its effects later. In a quantum certain universe, the current state of the universe completely determines the future states of the world (or universe). The connection of all the variables may be extremely complicated and may be affected by “a butterfly flapping its wings in Australia”; but the future is certainly determined by the present state of the universe. Now let us try out an experiment in such a universe. I have a biased coin. Initially I do not know what the “probability” of the coin showing up heads is. Without any prior information about the coin, I would say that the probability of the coin showing up heads is half. I then proceed to toss the coin and find that it does indeed show up heads. I repeat the experiment a few times and find that the coin shows up heads 8 times out of 10. This leads me to adjust my probability assessment of the coin showing up heads. Now I show the coin to a friend and ask him to make an assessment of the probability distribution. Again, without any prior information, my friend is going to put the probability at half. I then proceed to flip the coin again. Now here is the point to consider: what is the actual probability of the coin showing up heads – half? Or 0.8? Clearly, my friend’s or my belief should not affect the outcome of the toss at all. Indeed, in a quantum certain world, the end result of this experiment is already decided – only we don’t know what it is. So in this case probability is indeed only in our mind and it has nothing to do with the act of flipping the coin at all. It may be argued that probabilities should not be interpreted as being assigned to a single event but as the statistics arising out of several repetitions of an experiment. However, if the world is quantum certain, why should it be the case that asymptotically the coin will continue to show the same statistical probability of showing up heads 8 out of 10 times? Why may not the predetermined chain of events lead to a completely different statistical behavior in the long run?

Now, let us add quantum uncertainty. This clearly allows probabilities to be “out there” instead of being only a figment of our imagination. However, there is still a problem. Why is it that uncertainties at the level of the tiny atomic/sub-atomic particles so precisely affect and control the probabilities of much more coarse-grained events like coin flips and card selections? How do uncertainties at the quantum level lead to such probability distributions that can be so easily analyzed, like say the probability of picking a king of spades from a pack of 52 cards? Do they infact affect these events at all? Or are these probabilities (of gross events, not quantum events) still only creations of our imagination; a statement of our ignorance of the state of the world?

The "Right to Destroy Information" act

We heard a lot about “The Wayback Machine” recently. For the uninitiated, the wayback machine is a website that archives the internet; and not once or twice, but several times over, every so often. The Wayback Machine has around 6 copies of my homepage with the first copy being the half-built version of my very first. Another version still sports all the photographs I once had on my page but have since removed. I’m shocked, to say the least.

Just a few days ago I had written about how we find it extremely hard to hit the delete button. Now it turns out that even if I do hit the delete button on anything I put on the internet, its still useless. The undo button is still around and it can undo deletions that took place many many years ago. Why? This personal paranoia about losing information has reached epic proportions. We as a race so strongly fear the “loss of history” that we are taking repeated snapshots of the “world” every few days (months?). What purpose does it serve to store semi-complete homepages of individuals who are blissfully unaware that what they put up on the net may probably be around for eternity to see (atleast if the Wayback machine has its way). Its as if the saying “what’s done cannot be undone” has caught up with the internet; only not completely. We can undo deletions but apparently there is no way to undo creation.

Perhaps intellectual property rights should now be augmented with a new clause – the right to destroy information. This would mean that an individual or an organization should be allowed to destroy information that they created (unless they transferred the rights to someone else in which case the new owner would have the right to destroy the information). There would ofcourse be the problem of determining the rightful ownership of the content but then this problem also exists for the copyright act.

Is it really important that we preserve every aspect of the world we live in today? May it not be better to let certain information be destroyed so that it does not stifle the creativity of the generations to come? Does having lots of storage capacity justify us holding on to the past? We need to figure out.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Archive or Delete?

I came across the first “animation” program I'd ever writter, today. It was lying in some obscure corner of my hard-disk (which is quite large). The amazing thing though is not that I found it… its that it was lying around till today, almost 10 years after it was first written. It managed to survive perhaps 5-6 hard-disk changes, atleast 10 computer changes, 3 city changes and a growth from class VI to 4th year at college. You might think that the program survived because it was a first. I thought so too so I fired up a search for all the QBasic programs lying around on my hard-disk. It threw up around 500 programs. Now I stopped writing QBasic programs as long back as 1999. That means that all these programs survived on my hard-disks for atleast 7 years. The message is clear – As long as I have disk space, those programs are not going anywhere.

This was about QBasic programs; maybe something some geek may feel sentimental about. However, it sets one thinking. Why is that we find it so hard to destroy information? If you’ve been computer-friendly long enough, you might find your class XI physics project report lying around somewhere on your disk. Only those unfortunate (fortunate?) enough to have gone through a hard-disk crash would lose that data. Even they have probably started making regular backups of their disks so they are not going to lose anything again.

We seem to have this problem at every level. One of the main “feature” of gmail is – “never have to delete an email”. It sounds lovely, and we grab it. There are people in my department who haven’t deleted a single email from their department email accounts since they entered college – that’s all of 3.5 years and several thousands of emails. What makes us hold on to emails that inform us about cancelled classes – classes that we were to attend 3 years ago? Even so, those emails sit around. Older versions of homepages sit around as gzipped files on our web-servers. Source code of assignment 2 from 5th semester hardware lab is probably sitting around as another gzip file; perhaps multiple copies – one on your computer, another on your department account and yet another on the hostel account.

As the amount of digital information generated (email, blogs, photographs from digital cameras, mp3s and tetris/mine-sweeper highest score records) has exploded, so has storage capacity. In 1994, my computer had a total hard-disk capacity of 120 MBs (yes, MBs) with the operating system occupying about 30 MB (windows 3.11). Today I have 240 GBs of local storage (2000 times in 11 years) + 2.5 GBs of email space on gmail + 500 MB on department servers + webhosting space on tripod/blogger/yahoo… As long as I have this space, I don’t want to hit the delete key. Nobody does.

Will there some day be a limit when we are forced to choose to delete instead of archive? Meanwhile, as the amount of information on our hard-disks keep increasing, there will be increasing number of serendipitous discoveries of our pasts all written down as 0s and 1s.

Monday, January 09, 2006


On the sands of time?

It seems instead that its the ocean that is time and eventually washes away every footprint that ever was made... giving the world a clean slate to work on again and again and again...

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Indigo Days

It’s not been long since the British left India. Indeed, in terms of the age of a country, it hasn’t been long since the British first came to India. So it is surprising to see how quickly lessons that history teaches us are forgotten. Perhaps that is why history has to repeat itself, and that is exactly what it seems to be doing now.

India had been known for its spices, silks, cotton, sugar and indigo. Indigo was a dye and as everyone who was awake during history classes at school would know, Indigo plantations deplete the soil of nitrates, thus making it unsuitable for cultivation of other crops. The British forced the farmers to grow indigo to cheaply feed their own textile industry back home. The soil would then be incapable of producing anything else but indigo.

The situation is not very different today. It is widely agreed that at one time land was the source of power. Today knowledge is the source of power; and India had plentiful of both, cultivable land and knowledge. When land was the source of power, the British exploited it for their purposes. When knowledge is the source of power, the United States is exploiting it for its purposes. The call-centers of today are not very unlike the indigo plantations of yester-years. They suck in what could have been smart and intelligent people and turn them into brain-dead zombies. Our capabilities as a nation are being put to such menial uses. Thousands of call-center employees leave home at 9 PM to work over-night at these call-centers. They stay awake at night and sleep during the day. This is against nature itself. It affects the health of these people as it affects the health of the nation itself. At one time we produced great mathematicians and great writers. Today people who have the greatest success-rate in telemarketing get promotions. Our standards of performance have been dropped to these levels. And this is done by paying us a pittance as compared to what the same work would have cost them to do at home.

It does not matter what subject you graduated in – you are a good candidate for a call-center job. It is true that these jobs have served us by absorbing a large part of our working population and increasing the per capita income in the country. On the one hand, lakhs and lakhs of jobs are created by these call-centers; on the other hand, core industry like civil/mechanical/chemical engineering complain of a lack of trained personnel willing to work with them. It is this core industry that would build the infrastructure in the country to cope with the future, and yet they don’t have qualified people working for them. This is obviously because the BPO firms pay more than core industry can hope to pay and no student/professional can be blamed for choosing higher paying jobs.

The whole point is that even though we rejoice as disposable incomes rise and consumerism increases, we must really take a long hard look at what we are losing out as a nation in the long run. Its time we realized that it’s the Indigo Days all over again and we must take control before its too late.