Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reasons for Vegetarianism (which I hate)

People often make presumptions about why I'm a vegetarian.  Most of the time, these fall in the realm of religious reasons or the belief that I have some sort of indomitable affinity for animals, and can't picture gobbling up Fido or Mittens.  Well, I hate those types of reasons for going with vegetarianism, and it is rather saddening that those are mainstream reasons for it.  Now if I were totally honest, while I'm not vegetarian for religious reasons, it would be wrong of me to say that they had no role in the matter.

The simple reason why I'm a vegetarian is the same reason most people who eat meat eat meat -- I happen to like that type of food.  Now the reason I do say religion had some role in the matter is because I did grow up in a house of Hindu Brahmins, all of whom are strict vegetarians (not vegans, though.  They'd be considered lacto-vegetarians formally).  That meant I grew up most of my life eating no meat, no seafood, no poultry, and no eggs. Well, that's pretty much the role it played, to be honest.  I'd already found my own religion to be pure idiocy of the highest order and considered myself an atheist around the age of 5.  I thought science was far more magical than anything Vishnu could do (or more accurately, pretend to do, since he really only creates illusions).  But having that sort of food growing up meant it colored my tastes and preferences.  Those preferences still carry on to this day.  That's basically it.

That's also how it is for most people.  We're all most likely to have a preference for the food we grew up on.  The food which is familiar to us.  The food which signifies the comforts of home and childhood.  We're pretty well-conditioned to like something which we've generally liked for a long time.  That's perfectly fine, and at the very least, it's a reason based on food (which a lot of reasons for vegetarianism/veganism are not).  If people did not seek out that which is familiar to them, there probably would not be a market for things like veggie burger patties or vegan hot dogs.  It's really quite normal for a person to eat more of that which he/she likes the most.  Now in all fairness, that sort of decision, when carried out to a full diet plan, is only a really complete and full decision when you've actually explored outside your normal boundaries.

Friday, May 27, 2011

I Can Fix You...

Do you suffer from horrifying arthritis pain?  I've got a fix for that.  Are you overweight and out of shape?  I've got just the thing.  The stress of work and paying the bills got you down?  I can fix that!  Not enough time to cook a healthy dinner?  Well, now, there's a cure!  All you have to do is send me money!

There's always a product or service out there to help you with every ill.  Sometimes, when I fly, I take a nice load of amusement reading some of the absurd products in the SkyMall catalogs.  The best one I saw was actually labeled as a "Wireless Umbrella."  I had to wonder...  I can't recall the last time I ever had to plug my umbrella in.  I like dogs and cats as much as the next person, but seriously...  dog nail-polish?  A walker cart for your goldfish?  There exist minor products to solve the most inane problems, like a neck lanyard to hold a wine glass level while leaving both hands free.  Who the devil buys these things?!?!

Well, as it so happens, there's a plentiful array of buyers.  This is America -- where nobody does things to deal with their problems, but rather, they just figure there has to be a product or service to fix anything.  In fact...  let me rephrase that -- we NEED to buy a product or service to fix whatever we have.

I will go vomit now.

Monday, May 23, 2011

On Indian Classical Music (Part 4b)

See --
Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4a

...  continuing.

Picking up where I left off on the point of bhakthi in music, I felt I had to address first the connection between the music and performance and the the devotion to the imaginary divine.  The vocalist, Vijay Siva, had a counterpoint to my gripes as I addressed them in part 4a.  The point was that we cannot escape the fact that the music of India exists very much because of the religion, and that it owes its very existence to Hinduism.  I don't really deny that point in the sense that religion and the various aspects of Hinduism are precisely why Indian music is the way it is.  That is a different thing from saying that its merits exist in the frame of religion, or that devotion to the religion is an integral component to the music.  Indeed, one cannot escape the fact that so much of the lyrical content is devotional, but that doesn't mean music itself must be.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

No Armageddon, and nobody offered me a Mercedes...

Below are Garry Trudeau's series of Doonesbury comics relating to Armageddon.  These are in order from 16th of May to the 21st...  the final day before only the damned remain to face months of abominable horrors.  What's particularly nice about this, as is often the case with Doonesbury, is that the character who represents the fundamentalist nutjob is not really an exaggeration.  Many of the people who believe in the rapture already gave up all their stuff, wiped out their savings, and cashed out every investment they had, and stopped paying any of their bills, on account of their outright certainty that the apocalypse would come crashing down.  Not only are they certain that their claimant end would come, but that they would be the ones raptured away, because they have been washed clear of their sins while everyone else will and deserves fully to be damned to hell.  How very nice of them.  And so humble, too.

What adds to the hilarity of this is the depiction of the non-believer who somehow knew more about the scripture than the batshit insane religious crazy, and was actually competent enough to debate him in it.  It's a common conception among theists that atheists do not accept religion because their understanding of it is very shallow.  The reality is quite the opposite.  It's often because we do know it all that we don't buy it.  We have enough of an understanding of religion to understand what is so wrong with it.  And we tend to know it well enough that we can make a fool out of the average theist even if we were to make the same assumptions that they do.

How beautiful irony can be sometimes.  I have to say, though, that if any such idiot signed his car or some other valuable asset over to me "knowing" that I'd be one of the damned who would remain behind while he/she would be raptured...  you can bet I'd take it, and never give it back when they come to realize that their "knowledge" was complete garbage.  You'd deserve it for being the idiot that you are and for committing the unpardonable crime of having faith.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I hope my flight isn't canceled...

The wonders of Blogger maintenance updates...  Postings you made some time ago enter a state of limbo and then reappear as "not yet published."  So I'll edit it and bring it up to date.

So, I'll apparently be in L.A. during Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, so I'll have to post my contribution late.

Basically, on account of various hassles, I have to return the following day.  There's a small problem with that...  That's the day the world comes to an end, according to yet another Rapture prediction from yet another horde of Bible-thumping loonies who have not a single surviving cell of gray matter.  Well, to be exact, it's the day that the Armageddon begins, and then the universe will cease to exist 153 days after.  Yeah.  I think I'm more likely to die laughing than of any "second coming" of someone who likely never even had a first coming.

Well, assuming that the airports and the TSA run their operations on the basis of...  reality... all will go well.  The very nice thing about the apocalypse, though, is that it apparently will be cascading with the time zones such that it appears at 6:00 pm local time wherever you are.  I'll be home in time for it, but I'll also be in time to call my brother (who's 3 hours ahead) and see if he has seen any of the Four Horsemen coming his way.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Do You Believe in Karma?

A number of years ago, I had an employer who was, to put it mildly, a colossal idiot.  Many of the stories of my experiences there have become famous enough to have turned legendary throughout the video game industry.  The game Bioshock even includes a few hidden references to real-life events that I personally experienced and wrote about.  Not that I worked on Bioshock, but the team who did know my stories.  One of the more famous (or infamous) stories involves a dispute with said employer (who I took to referring to as "the creature", or at least using the pronoun "it")...  over the number of sides in an octagon.  I kid you not.  Well, that argument, after finding no dictionary which agreed with the creature's notion of a 5-sided octagon, culminated in it telling us employees that we are required to agree that an octagon has 5 sides if the creature says it does.  As this point branched off into a digression about timing and schedules and task appropriation, the issues of how long things take were placed on his head as the creature was the scatterbrained fool who would repeatedly change priorities on us for every new episode of Star Trek he would happen to watch.  To this, it responded that if things take as long as we had projected based on the nonsensical whims of the idiot in charge, the same idiot would fire everybody and restart the company from zero.  A fine display of maturity.

About an hour after that ordeal, the fool dashed out of the office.  I had my headphones on and was listening to music while I was working, so I didn't know anything about what was going on, but the art director on my team tried to get my attention at that point.  He asked me "Do you believe in Karma?"  For a moment, I was confused because I happened to be reading through code for wrappers to our middleware engine for rigid-body simulation (Mathengine Karma).  But I figured after a second or so that he was talking about the religious concept.  I don't believe in it, nor did I believe in it then, but I knew from the sly smirk on his face and giggles around that he was driving to a point worth hearing, so for the sake of getting there, I replied in the affirmative.  To be exact, I said "Sure, why not?".  He replied that the creature's house had just been robbed, and that's why it ran out so suddenly.  Ah, schadenfreude...

If anyone were to ask me seriously, I would pretty flatly say "No, I do not."  The notion of Karma is indeed a comforting one which offers this sort of sense of an overarching justice which is inbuilt into the universe.  It offers this message that anyone who does good will have good fortune, and anyone who does ill will be mete out with ill fortunes.  Although other religions may not necessarily have the exact same construct as Karma in the sense of being some inherent force that imbues all of existence, but they have something which provides roughly the same image.  Often, this comes in the form of "God" itself passing some form of judgment, meaning that the person's uppance will at least come after they're dead if it didn't happen during their life.  Karma extends beyond the current life as well, since it integrates nicely into reincarnation and lets people pay in future lives.  At least, that's the idea.

The idea that there is some universal force of justice that offers both boons to the good and retribution to the evil is something that people created so that they can feel better about things.  It's the same reason why the concepts of heaven and hell were ever devised.  There are certainly a variety of reasons why it makes sense that someone would want to believe it.  I can certainly imagine that if life gives you lemons, you will want to believe that something will be better at some future point.  I can certainly imagine that if you are at least aware of some crime where the criminal has escaped the legal justice system, one would want there to be a divine universal justice from which he/she cannot escape.  I can certainly imagine that if bad people amass untold riches and good people suffer terribly, one would want to believe that some force out there will rectify this inequity.

Here's the problem -- The kind of universe you want to live in has no bearing on the one in which you actually do live.  Life is not fair.  This is simply a fact.  We do not have any guarantee that doing good will net you a happy life, nor do we have any guarantee that doing bad will guarantee your suffering.  Sometimes, the nicest people in the world will suffer horrifying tribulations and live a life of utter tragedy.  Sometimes, the most vile crooks will get all the luck and never get caught on any count.  Sometimes, someone will try their hardest and never have their efforts acknowledged.  Sometimes, someone will lie and cheat their way to success without truly earning a shred of it.  That's just the way reality is.  The fact that we would like to make it fair is exactly why things like a legal justice system exist in the first place.  The fact that we recognize the inequity and unevenness of the way things are is exactly what inspires us to enact change.

A common sentiment I hear from religious people with an otherwise weak grip of faith is that they don't want to live in a world where their god's justice isn't there.  Well, so what if you don't want to?  I don't want to live in a world where I'm not a billionaire -- doesn't mean I am one now.  And if I try to live as if I am filthy rich without actually being so, I'm going to do some pretty stupid things as a result.  Similarly, if you live as if there is such a thing as God or Karma dictating a universal justice just in order to ease your mind about the unfairness of life, it just means you avoid having to face reality as it is.  There is no reason whatsoever to believe that reality is either moral or immoral.  It is amoral...  it is simply the state of things, and that state and all the forces acting on it are entirely indifferent to our wants and needs.  Those of us who prefer to face reality for what it actually is are the only ones who can actually do something about it.  When we don't expect justice from a supernatural ultimate force controlling all things, it ensures that we come to analyze what steps we need to take in order for justice to be carried out.  When we don't globally expect justice as a fundamental component of reality, that is exactly what makes us appreciate justice when it does happen.  When we don't expect evil to always go punished, that is exactly why we work together as a cooperative society to ensure that evil is punished and harm is minimized.

A belief in a cosmic sense of justice betrays both an intellectual laziness and an emotional ineptitude to face reality on reality's terms.  Get over it, and join the rest of us in the real world.

Friday, May 13, 2011

On Indian Classical Music (Part 4a)

See --
Part 1    Part 2    Part 3

I'll admit that I've been writing these to a certain extent keeping in mind that a majority of the audience will be people unfamiliar with any of the characteristics of Indian classical music in general.  The average person outside the community knows Indian music only in two forms -- wildly famous personalities like Ravi Shankar, or Bollywood dance numbers.  Both of these hold their attraction generally on account of the aura of being exotic and unusual...  well, and in the latter case, the opportunity to ogle sexy starlets.  Many otherwise don't really know what makes Indian music the way it is, or even the difference between a tambura and a sitar.  For the most part, the explosion of interest in Hindustani music in the west during the 1960s was made up of hippies who, under the influence of irresponsibly high quantities of experimental drugs, found themselves entranced by the timbral qualities of instruments like the sitar and tabla.  That has changed somewhat over the past few decades where most any student of music in any system has at least a cursory understanding of it on a theoretical level, even if seriously outdated.

There is a common sentiment throughout most of the world that Indian music has a deeply meditative quality to it that delivers a sort of religious experience.  Even if you ignore the qualitative aspects of it, it is hard to ignore that the lyrical content is almost entirely made up of devotional music, with perhaps padams and javalis being the only real exceptions which are inherently non-devotional in form.  This gets into another point on Indian classical music, which, for me, inspires a fairly heated rant;  that is the notion that bhakti (devotion) is somehow an essential, and even of primal importance to the music.  Not merely the performance, but to the appreciation thereof.  I find this not merely ridiculous, but tremendously insulting...  and by insulting, I mean to say that it is an insult to humankind itself.

I suppose I'm a little bit more free to speak on such a matter in that I'm not a practicing artist.  When a practicing Carnatic vocalist, namely T.M. Krishna, expounded the same sentiments, it raised quite a controversy.  By contrast, when Sanjay Subrahmanyam (who also doesn't really buy into this belief) was asked to comment, he is left with little recourse but to dodge the question.*

I suppose the first point that makes me fume with anger is this idea that it is only through devotion to the divine that one can truly come to understand the beauty of the music.  There are countless occasions on which a member of the audience will comment to an artist that some particular song brought to his/her mind, the very image of "the Lord."  Fine.  That person may well have such a deep devotion that the level of artistry evoked such imagery in their minds.  But is it fair to say that that was the true measure of quality?  Is it fair to presume that because the artist's rendering of a song had that effect on that particular person, that the artist as well shared in that same feeling of bhakti?  What if someone else in the audience had a similar experience with respect to a different deity?  What if a non-believer in the audience was moved to tears, when none of the believers were?  What if the artist(s) themselves were non-believers, or at least followers of a different religion?

I find it an egregious insult to say that without sharing in the very same bhakti, it is impossible to deliver a quality performance or to even enjoy a heartfelt performance.  I have seen all too many an article on this topic from the faithful which asserts that devotion to the divine is inextricable from music.  If that were really true, there could never be a non-believer who contributes to the field of music.  Similarly, one would have to say that it is sacrilegious of a Muslim to sing a song about Hindu deities or their respective folklore.  Oh wait, that actually happens...  quite often, in fact.  There's a simple reason why this is the case -- musicians actually care about music.  I figured this would go without saying, but apparently not.  How did figures like Jon B. Higgins or George Harrison attain any sort of proficiency in Indian styles of music or classical instruments without having a deep devotion to Hindu gods, or at least converting?  It's because they took it seriously as an art form on its own irrespective of its origin or content.

The characteristics of ragas, the various pitch effects (or gamakas), the interplay of rhythm, the overall flow and structure of a song, the purity with which it's rendered, and the inventiveness of a performer to devise intricate tunes and variations from there... none of these are religious qualities in any way.  Similarly, we associate a lot of ragas with the divine in ways that have absolutely no extrinsic justification.  Rather, people simply decided by fiat, for example that Shiva was fond of a particular raga, so it is called Sankarabharanam (ornament of Shiva).  Does this mean, for instance, that Mozart carried a deep Shiva-bhakti?  Most of his symphonies, save for #25 and #40 are effectively in Sankarabharanam**.  Symphonies #25 and #40, by the way, are in Natabhairavi**.  I know the system he applied is completely different, but the point here is to illustrate the absurdity of associating a tune or scale with a deity and asserting that this is a necessary association.
The main reason I bring this video of Prof. S. R. Janakiraman to your attention is not just to bring up technical details about the ragas, but to point out that the details are strictly technical.  The qualities of the raga lie in those technical details, and it is through the knowledge of these aspects that one is able to bring out those qualities.

Say that I wanted to do an RTP in a rare raga.  For the sake of discussion, I'll choose the 14th melakartha raga -- Vakulabharanam.  At no point in my decision to do so am I necessarily expressing a motivation deep down in my heart towards worship of the supposed mother of Tirupathi Balaji.  If I was to do such a thing, it would be out of interest and curiosity in trying to explore an area rarely covered and see what I can find out.  To be sure, we have to at least acknowledge that the raga Vakulabharanam (Basant Mukhari in Hindustani) is not really Indian in origin.  Its history traces back to a Persian scale named Hijaz.

I feel that to address all the aspects of this particular gripe I have will take more than one post, so I'm going to divide this up and cover more in a later posting.  Whatever you want to believe about the sort of religious experiences you might have, what cannot be escaped is the fact that devotion is a very personal thing.  There is no other person in the world who is going to share exactly your particular flavor of bhakti.  Delivering a performance that is provocative to your feelings of devotion says nothing about the devotion of the performer.  For all you know, that person's devotion may simply be towards a faithful reproduction of the qualities of the raga...  it may be a devotion to his teacher and his teacher's particular style...  or it may just be that he/she is more knowledgeable about music than you are and is demonstrating that gap through imaginative and well-thought-out tunes that elucidate the feel or bhaavam of the raga very very well.  That is the first point I want to get across.  It is not devotion to any imaginary divine being that matters, but devotion to the search for knowledge and depth of understanding of the system of music that makes all the difference.  It is through that knowledge that not only can one individual artist come to achieve mastery, but also a rasika (fan of music) among the audience can truly appreciate all the qualities of it.

And conversely, if you are so dyed-in-the-wool with your faith that you see a god when some musicians are singing/playing, you're obviously too preoccupied with your god on the brain to pay attention to the fact that there's still more music being made.

...  to be cont'd.

* For the readers out there who don't know Tamil, aside from the joke he referenced from the drama series, the main point is that he replied by saying that he's not equipped to answer such a question, and that he has never had any sort philosophical understanding to even attempt it.

** The raga Sankarabharanam has a scale which is equivalent to the Ionian or Major scale, albeit in just temperament.  Natabhairavi, similarly, is equivalent to the Aeolian or Minor scale.

You just know this will spur hatred of "Big Pharma"

Here's an interesting article I came across --

It's a very nice sentiment...  Somehow, the miracle cure for cancer has been found and now, no one need suffer chemo or radiation ever again!

Well, the problem is that this isn't really a very accurate picture.  First of all, the original studies on DCA started back in 2007, and it was very much in the lab-rat phase back then.  The study that the article is referencing is basically referring to one of the first major tests to be done on human tissue (which also wasn't that recent).  Tested on brain, lung, and breast tissue, and in every case showing a clean record of killing the cancer and leaving the healthy cells untouched.  How awesome is that?

Okay, well, there's one little oversight here.  The tests are being done on tissue cultures.  Yes, they're live cultures, but live cultures are not the same thing as patients.  I also find it interesting that the article only mentions tests that were successful, but not tests which weren't.  Did they simply not do tests on liver tissue, or bone marrow, or stomach cancer?  Either way, you can't escape the fact that patients have things like active immune systems, lymph networks, a nervous system, and a host of competing pathogens in their bodies, and all that can easily throw a spanner in the works.  Testing on live lab animals involved oral delivery by adding DCA to their drinking water.  This is probably fine for animals that small, but for humans, you might need more targeted delivery than that...  especially if we're talking about cancer that is more aggressive and/or has metastasized.  That technology exists, though, since we're already using it to localize the delivery of chemotherapy.  It could just as easily be used for DCA delivery.  So the research is definitely promising, but it's still a ways out.

The mistake a lot of people are going to make is derived from the fact that DCA is a drug that has been around for a long time, any existing patents on it have long expired, and it's therefore very difficult to make any money off of it.  They assume from that, that the pharmaceutical industry won't be interested in it because there's no money in it.  Especially not given the fact that most cancers are slow-acting through which people survive for several years, during which they'll be heavily medicated, and all that adds up to dollars.  Seriously, though, there's another point you're missing.  Because there are no patents on it, there is no need for researchers to rush the process of science.  Clinical trials on live patients are still yet to be done, and that's a necessary component before any drug goes to market.  We often see drugs rushed through testing on account of the need to protect their patent value and get the drug out on the market before the patents expire and somebody can sell a generic version of it, and that can have a big cost.  Without that pressure, the process of testing can be that much more thorough and the "medical establishment" people so fear can ensure that it is indeed safe and effective, and also how to maximize its efficacy.  I think that's worth not making a furor over it here and now.  The furor will exist within the confines of the medical community, but that will simply be the spark to spur on further research.

What I fear most, though, is that quacks out there are likely to jump on this, and take advantage of desperate people.  For those who are suffering through some form of cancer, especially terminally ill patients, the notion of some perfect miracle cure is something that will have some inexorable allure, and there hundreds, if not thousands of scam artists waiting to prey on those weak and suffering masses with unapproved and uncertain treatments.  This is evil, plain and simple, and the oversimplified articles with a headline that suggests cancer has been cured can open up avenues for repugnant quacks to do their quacking.  Where's Michael Specter when you need him?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Autism is NOT an epidemic

ARRRGGHHHH... There are relatively few things outside of religion which get on my nerves more than the anti-vaccine movement.  The fallacies abound in this crowd where the entirety of the beliefs are based on logical failures and incomplete information.

One major aspect that comes up in the argument is that the rate of autism is many times higher now than before.  Even around the time I was born, the rate of autism diagnoses was something like 1 in 8,000, and now it's 1 in 110 or so.  What happened?  It must either be a new epidemic of some sort or something has poisoned the well.  It's 'dem dere evil pharmaceutical companies!!!

The key word nobody notices here is that it's the rate of diagnoses which has increased.  Not the rate of incidence.

Ars reported on a recent paper in the Archives of General Psychiatry which tried to collect data on the epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders.  Till date, there has been no such collection of data.  The basic approach of the study was to take the current established rate of diagnoses for children and compare it to a sampling of the current adult population where they attempted a diagnosis according to the same criteria used in modern conditions.  Result?  Roughly the same rate of diagnosis.  Yes, I know it's only a preliminary study, and it has a fairly small sample size which makes the confidence interval really wide (funny, though, how the sample size of 12 in Wakefield's paper is considered conclusive proof for anti-vaxxers, but real science considers a sample size of 850 too small to make final conclusions).

Well, the main point is that it strongly indicates that there is no epidemic.  We're just being more proactive in diagnosing it.  Also, there's the fact that back when the rate of diagnosis was around 1 in 8,000, there were a variety of conditions all considered disparate...  now, some 20 or 30 previously different conditions are all categorized under the umbrella of "autism spectrum disorders."  It gets from the very extreme "Rain Man"-esque kinds of autism to the extremely mild higher functioning forms like Asperger's Syndrome, which is pretty much the level of the weird kid in class who keeps to himself (it's generally nowhere near the severity portrayed in My Name is Khan).

We're just better at finding it...  as well as a having a certain increased chance of finding it when it isn't actually there.  But then, if you, the reader are not an anti-vaxxer, I don't expect you to have any real doubts on that...  and if you are, well, then...  get your damn facts straight, already.

More Free Energy Nonsense...

Recently, at work, there was a discussion thread about the Genepax car as a recent article popped up on a Canadian news website.

The link is here -- http://presscore.ca/2011/?p=1910

It basically brings up the claims of a Japanese company called Genepax, who say it's possible to run a car on water by electrolyzing the water into Brown's Gas and run on that gas as fuel either for combustion or for a fuel cell.  The actual claim came out in 2008, and the company apparently shut its doors in 2009, though the Canadian Presscore writer didn't seem to know about that last part.  The reason this article came out was because the writer totally swallowed the claim that you can somehow electrolyze water with no external energy input to provide hydrogen from the water and run for about 1 hour on it.  This is also a time when Honda has its hydrogen fuel-cell car, the FCX Clarity, and it's actually proving to be quite feasible as a vehicle (provided there's a hydrogen economy, which is a big conditional)...  so the writer of the article thought...  what if you could combine the two and have Genepax's hydrogen generator in line with Honda's hydrogen fuel cell?  A water-powered car that spits water out the tail pipe?  How cool would that be?

Very cool, especially since it violates the laws of thermodynamics!  Yay, non-science!  I'm sorry...  but what did you think would happen?  You think you can make fuel and burn it and get no loss of energy in the process?  But you know what...  even if you could assume zero loss of energy in the process (that is to say, perfect 100% efficiency), it still doesn't work.  When I responded to the thread, I basically showed that point, and it pretty much silenced the discussion.  Here's an inline quote of my response to the email thread where I was responding to the question "Can it be true?"
It's physically impossible to break down water for the same energy you get out, and the only way this can work as described is if electrolysis is done through an external power input while you're loading in the water and then it stores the hydrogen and oxygen separately for use during the power cycle.

Think about a high-end automotive alternator that puts out, say, 100 amps. Assume that all 100 amps go towards electrolysis, for argument's sake.
Note : 100 amps of current is not typical for a car alternator, but there are performance-oriented aftermarket alternators made for very large high-power V8s (e.g. 6.0 Liters and up) which are conservatively spec'ed to output up to 100 amps.
100 coulombs per second = 0.00103642688 moles of electrons per second.
Since it takes 2 electrons to electrolyze one water molecule, we'll divide this in half and multiply by the molar mass of water to get --
9.32784192 milligrams of water per second can possibly be electrolyzed.

Out of that, only 1/9 of that mass is hydrogen, so you're getting 1.03 mg per second of hydrogen coming out of there. Not significant at all. You can get more hydrogen than that just from the atmosphere when running a turbo. That too, this is what you get with 100 amps going towards powering the electrolysis and assuming that you are operating at 100% efficiency.  Still, for combustion, this is about equivalent 3 mg of gasoline vapors, but since hydrogen combustion gives up its energy with a very high speed flame propagation, it can yield a stronger impulse.

On the link to the company website, it mentions a lot of other existing technologies for the generation of Brown's Gas (HHO gas) as a fuel efficiency booster for regular gasoline engine.  Problem is that you can't do this. The only way you'll get enough hydrogen to improve your combustion characteristics is to have a separate storage tank and mix it in like you'd do with nitrous oxide.  HHO gas is a transient product in the course of electrolysis, and cannot be stored -- it's just too unstable.  Try putting it in a tank, and it'll just become water vapor again in under 1 second.  That said, you could argue there are some theoretical possibilities for Brown's Gas (HHO) to do better than diatomic hydrogen alone since it is an unstable molecule that will dissociate into hydrogen and oxygen very quickly under high heat, and so you're getting both hydrogen and oxygen into the combustion mixture. The dissociation in the chamber can either help or hurt since it will increase pressure inside the cylinder. This also happens with nitrous, but with nitrous, the dissociation occurs in the heat after spark ignition, so the increased pressure (increased because you now have two gases instead of one and they each want to take up space) actually aids the power stroke. With HHO, it's unstable enough that it may break up in the compression stroke long before TDC, so you'll end up losing that advantage since the engine will have to work harder to compress. Either way, it'd probably be the same as pumping in both the hydrogen and the oxygen you get from full electrolysis.

Going back to the prior example of 100 amps directed to electrolysis, consider this :
Pure hydrogen-oxygen combustion will only net you 38 KWh per kilogram of hydrogen. While this is technically higher energy density per mass than that of gasoline, it's mainly because you need a lot of hydrogen to yield one kilogram.

To make the math easy, lets say you run this 100 amps for 1 hour --
100 amps * 3600 seconds = 360,000 coulombs or 3.73113678 moles of electrons.
This can electrolyze 1.86556839 moles of water or 33.58 grams...  or 0.03358 liters.
33.58 grams of water, of which 1/9th is hydrogen.
All of that combusted at 38 KWh per kg of hydrogen yields us a grand total of
0.141783197 KWh of total energy

Now in the video on the link, they talked about running at 80 km/h for approximately 1 hour.  Let's just say one hour to make it easy, which means that all that energy is spread out over the span of 1 hour.  1 KWh spread out over 1 hour means the output is 1 KW...  so in this case, we can basically say 0.14178 KW of output.

This by the way, means that we have an internal combustion engine that can put out a whopping 0.19 horsepower! You could get better performance out of the technology used in Fred Flinstone's car. Given the resistance of the whole drivetrain and the mass of a crank and the amount of torque necessary to turn the gears, you can't even move any car at all on that little power.

And considering how much power you had to use up to get there. 100 amps over 1 hour? Even if your circuit had a miraculously low 1 ohm of resistance, you had to use 10 KWh of energy to get 0.14 KWh output, and that's assuming 100% efficiency in everything.

Yeah. Totally possible.

Even if you assume that everything the guy said [in the video] about using ~1 liter of water per hour...  1 liter of water means 0.11111 kg of hydrogen...  at 38KWh per kg, that's 4.222222 KWh of total energy.  Spread out over 1 hour, that's 4.22222 KW output, or 5.66 hp.  Do you really see that working out?

There is no water car.  There never will be.  Let's put this damn pipe dream to rest, please.  And if anybody ever brings it up to you, do point them to this blog post, where they can be thoroughly blinded with science.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On Indian Classical Music (Part 3)

See --
Part 1   Part 2

Given parts 1 and 2, I feel like I've provided enough of a background on the systems of Indian classical music to begin with the actual topical rants I had intended to put out.  While I haven't really provided a thorough or complete explanation of anything, it was only intended to set the stage for people who are otherwise unfamiliar to have some understanding of why and in what context I bring up the topics I will be covering.

The first of the topics I want to get on is the question of importance of sahityas (lyrics) in Indian music.  This is also somewhat of a significant topic for me as a would-be instrumentalist (once upon a time), an atheist (insofar as so much of Indian classical music is devotional), and as part of a musical family where most of the people in my family are vocalists.  Almost 20 years ago, my father also published an article on the very same topic, and he approached it from his perspective as a vocalist, but one who had also studied violin originally.  I have some expectation that I will exhibit only a slight divergence from his viewpoint, but that view has also expanded on his part.  In any case, while I'm not going to go in the same format as he did in his article (where he simply takes the presentation of opposing arguments), but I am going to be fairly even-handed in the conclusions I draw.

My first point here is that music, no matter the region from which it originates, is ultimately a pattern.  There is no real specificity to it to say that it communicates a very particular message or carries a well-defined baggage in its output.  It is simply a pattern, and any piece can be recognized based on some characteristic of its pattern.  If I play for you : A-A-A-F-- , you'd probably recognize it instantly as the opening to Beethoven's 5th symphony.  But then, why would you?  Beethoven's 5th begins with G-G-G-Eb--.  Regardless, the relative shape of the pattern is still the same;  it's merely shifted up a step, and you recognize that pattern.

Given that, it is very hard to say that lyrics are significant to a pattern, except in one key factor -- the presence of N syllables in the lyrics means that one needs to parse rhythm in N units, and that offers room for at least N distinct notes in a phrase.  Obviously, it gets more complicated than that, but coming from an instrumentalist's point of view, that is how we distinguish performances of songs which have otherwise similar progressions.  Some songs, you might find, are actually melodically identical (even all the way through!), but because the lyrics are different, we subdivide rhythm differently.  It's also a way to differentiate between when we improvise in the form of neraval (improvised tunes set to the song lyrics) and swaram (improvised tunes using the swara/solfeggio syllables).  Where the latter has us parsing rhythm according to the format and pace that the performer sets, the former needs to follow the lyrical pattern.

I find that Carnatic music puts some weight on this aspect quite a lot more than a lot of other systems.  As mentioned in Part 1, it's a very vocally conceived form of music as it follows the exposition of an individual voice.  Even while I was studying violin, I was always taught to sing something before learning to play it.  It wasn't just because singing is higher priority, but also because a violinist is equipped to be an accompanist to a singer, and needs to be prepared to have some idea in his/her head as to how a vocalist would approach something (i.e. you have to think like a singer).

Some people take the position that a dedication to sahitya-bhaavam (lit. "the form of lyrics") is not valuable in instrumental performance.  The pair of brother violinists simply known as Ganesh & Kumaresh apply this sort of idea to the extreme that when the performance is strictly instrumental, that sahitya-bhaavam is entirely non-existent.
Personally, I don't completely agree with this, because of the fact that it is a form of music which is vocally conceived for one.  Secondly, many of these songs have been written with the lyrics in mind and can be distinguished by that parsing which is endemic to the poetry.  A differently structured poem can yield a differently structured song, even if the tunes are similar.  In a concert I attended a few weeks ago, the elder of the two brothers (Ganesh on the left in the video) raised an example where he played a short few lines in the raga Suddha Hindolam.  Immediately, we all recognized the tune as the song "Manasuloni"...  to which he laughed and said "I didn't play that.  I played 'Thunai Purindarul'."  Indeed the first few phrases are melodically identical (though not the rest of the song), but it is worth noting that he did parse the rhythm as if there were more syllables.  "Ma-na-su-lo-ni"  has 5 syllables.  "Thu-nai-Pu-rin-da-rul" has 6 syllables, and if we had paid attention to the rhythm, we all might have caught it.  Instead, it so happens that Manasuloni is the more popular and famous of the two songs, so when we heard the pattern, that was the song that crossed our minds first.

The counterpoint to this is that he also played it in such a way that the difference between the songs was there.  I should also mention that it leaves out the importance of a instrumentalist's role as accompaniment to vocalists.  While it is difficult to do this with many instruments (e.g. flute, because it is too pure or nadaswaram because it is too loud), an instrument like a violin is perfectly suited to that sort of a role, and it is why it is the single most favored accompaniment instrument (the formal word is "pakhavadhyam").

I will say, though, that I applaud Ganesh and Kumaresh for their compositions in a new format they've termed as Ragapravaanam ("formatted melody"), where it is essentially a song with no lyrics.  That is something that is perfectly valid from a musical standpoint, and I don't see any reason to consider it any less Carnatic or Hindustani simply on the basis of that.  True, we already have the form of Thillana and Tarana, which technically have no words (or only a small section of lyrics in the case of Thillana), but they also have a well-defined focus on rhythm which already separates them from other songs.  At the same time, I don't quite see the point of the other format they've created called Kriti-darpanam ("kriti mirroring").  "Kriti" is another existing song and lyrical format, which is pretty much the most common in concerts.  The idea of their Kriti-darpanam is to have a song without lyrics that sounds very similar to existing songs which do have lyrics.  Well, if you're going to go that close to existing songs which already have lyrics, why not just play those songs?  I can only really see this format as a vehicle to get their viewpoint about importance of lyrics across to listeners.

My favorite violinist ever, M.S. Gopalakakrishnan (or MSG) exemplifies the power of the violin to levels unimaginable.  His style of playing is one that stresses the ability to make as close-to-vocal inflections and effects and clearly enunciate every tone as it would be done by a singer.  More importantly, when playing as pakhavadhyam, he adapts his style to that of the lead performer.
In the video linked above (embedding disabled) of MSG and his daughter, Dr. M. Narmada on violin, you can hear rather distinctly how every note he plays stands out on its own and is clearly "shaped" such that its tonal inflection is clearly present.  Part of that lies in his characteristic bowing technique and the way he accelerates the bow to create a sort of "rounded" sound out of the instrument.  Yet he will functionally violate that in some instances.  If a song contains, for instance, a thick double-k sound in the lyrics somewhere, he will deliberately scratch his bowing on those points -- the reason being that a "double-k" when vocalized has that same sort of scratchy character to it.  In essence, he pronounces the words on his instrument.  In the same video linked above, around the 6:50 mark, he does a few heavily stylized expressions which emulate recited spoken vocalizations.

Where I think I differ from the people who do put a lot of weight on the importance of sahitya is this -- the meaning is not that significant.  The classical counterpoint to the people who value lyrics is the case that when we really look at a measure of how much people really understand the depth of a raga, for instance, the exposition of that is in raga alapana, which has no words to it in the first place.  It's simply pure freeform melodic improvisation with no constraints.  A complete exposition of the capacities of an artist with a particular raga would lie in ragam-thanam-pallavi, and while the pallavi section of that contains words, it only really contains a single line of poetry (and it's not rare to take that line from an existing song), which is hardly enough to convey a whole lot of meaningful content.  For that very reason, it doesn't really matter to me a great deal if someone writes beautiful lyrics about a god or about an eggplant.

Secondly, I highly disagree with the practice in Indian classical music with associating a song with its lyricist.  Regularly, we tend to say that the "composer" of a song is actually the person who wrote the poetry, and not necessarily the person who set it to music.  In many cases, these may well be the same person, but this is not always true.  Some 1500 Carnatic songs are attributed to a legendary 16th century female poet named Meera Bai, when in fact many of them are set to tunes in ragas which did not even exist in her time.  In reality, she composed the poetry, and dozens and dozens of people after her have set these poems to music, and indeed many of the same poems have been set to several tunes.  It is also not uncommon for the original composer to write his own tune, but someone else comes along and sets that poem to a different tune...  and yet, the poet is the one credited with the song.
In the video above, Thanjavur S. Kalyanaraman is performing a tune he wrote in the raga Sumanesa Ranjani.  Yet, the composer is apparently Subramanya Bharati (commonly referred to as 'Bharatiyar').  Well, Bharatiyar wrote the poem, and he also did set it to music in a completely different raga (Mohana Kalyani, or so I'm told), but this tuning in Sumanesa Ranjani is entirely SKR's.  I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why that task of setting the lyrics to music is secondary to the actual drafting of lyrics.  True, poetry, especially in South India, is intimately tied together with music and many feel that the default mode of performance for a poem is to sing it rather than merely recite it.  I also get that we classify a lot of forms based not on musical format, but on poetry format (e.g. bhajans, ghazals, qawwalis, etc).  When all is said and done, however, we are talking about music here, and music does not lie in words alone.

Because of this, I also don't put a lot of importance on understanding of Hindu mythology for people to really "get" Indian classical music.  "Getting" the poetry thereof, sure...  but who says that that's what good Indian classical music is all about?  Having a rudimentary understanding of characteristics of Hinduism as a religion and how it differs from others is certainly meaningful in elucidating why Indian music is the way it is;  I elaborated on this somewhat in Part 1.  If you're really interested in the significance of a certain set of lyrics, then, yes, having a background in the mythology and the stories does help.  The bhajans written by Meera Bai are written in praise of Krishna, and make passing references to certain events which lie in the collected stories of the deity.  Being able to catch those references is something that could only really be done by someone who knows the stories, to be sure.  My contention is that you don't need to have that knowledge to be able to appreciate the tune, the rhythm, the performance, the structure, the quality of support from accompanists, etc.  There is a big difference in what I might be looking for if I was going to a musical concert as opposed to, say, a dance drama or a harikatha performance, where it pays to have some context.  Sure, you may have some greater understanding than someone who is simply listening to the music, and not to the lyrics, but I don't accept the idea that such an appreciation should take a higher precedence in a musical rendering.  The flipside of this is that a lot of Indian classical music performances tend to involve the audience to a great deal, and the audience often needs to have some depth of knowledge about music itself to really appreciate the finer points of the performance.  In fact, they often do, depending on what level of concert you're talking about.  Many times, when I've seen friends of mine go to a Carnatic concert for the first time, they are surprised by how audience members are keeping track of complex rhythmic cycles, or engaged in discussion with the artists.  This behavior varies widely, of course.  There are singers like Aruna Sairam whose performances can be considered "beginner-friendly" vs. people like Sanjay Subramaniam who goes so deep on a theoretical level that you'd pretty much need to be a musician yourself to follow anything he does.

As a student of music, I suppose it is natural for me to put some weight on tunes over lyrics.  Some part of it also comes from the fact that India has so many languages that you're going to hear lyrics in languages you don't understand.  Then of course, there's the fact that I'm an atheist, and a lot of devotional songs are going to have lyrical content that I simply don't care about.  I simply have to say, though, that if you care so much about the lyrics, it begs the question of why you're listening to music as opposed to going to some poetry slam or dedicating your time to harikatha essays.  Forgive me for giving a damn about music when I'm listening to... well...  music.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bin Laden dead? So that means...

Supposedly, Osama bin Laden has been killed.  Well, okay, you'll have to forgive me if I only say "supposedly", since this is the third time since 9/11 that he's supposedly been killed.  Even Benazir Bhutto, prior to her assassination claimed he was already dead.  Gee, it's not as if terrorist leaders ever have body doubles like that Saddam fellow had.  While there is DNA evidence, we do have to remember that DNA evidence when compared against a family member can only really give proof that the people are blood relatives.  The type of profiling done in forensic applications is only dealing with major chunks of genes...  it is not a 100% complete nucleotide-to-nucleotide comparison.  Granted, I'm also a little bothered by the shoddy reporting where there is a great deal of inconsistency -- one moment, he's in a roughshod compound, the next moment it was actually a luxury mansion...  And the report about DNA evidence says something about 99.9% confidence that it's actually him?  I only have a cursory understanding of the technique, and even I know that DNA profiling doesn't offer that.  It's a classic case of telling you the story when they don't even have all the facts dead on the mark.

Well, that aside, it's still a little more likely he's really dead this time, though I'm a little bothered by the whole burial at sea within 24 hours thing.  Yeah, I know the cries of "must respect the local culture," to which I have to say bullshit.  Aside from my usual gripe that it's not to be respected if it's not worthy of respect, holding and killing a major terrorist figurehead who is a top priority enemy of several nations kind of qualifies as an extenuating circumstance which should warrant thorough examination and verification.  The setting in which the kill was executed was a little too unassuming to believe, but there's the counterpoint that he probably kept only the most trusted individuals in his company and avoided drawing attention to himself.

My big problem is really this -- So you've killed the figurehead...  what good does that do?  It's not like the Taliban, al Qaeda, Mujahideen, et al will all collapse now and he was the sole supporting pillar of Islamic terrorism.  There's still a pretty stable network set up covering the entirety of the Middle East by which supplies and weapons and training can be provided to support terrorists for centuries to come...  and let's not forget who set up this network in the first place -- the good ol' U.S. of A.

If anything, there's room for backlash and for new organizations to emerge, and the United States is still a nation of fear, a nation of paranoia, and a nation that clears its problems away with guns.  Sure, you're going to have people who feel the war on terror is somehow over now...  you're also going to have the people who feel that the war has some momentum now...  but overall, I don't think anybody really believes we're somehow safe now.  It's really just a moment of gloating over a perceived moment of victory.