Friday, December 21, 2012

FF - The Elegant Universe and More

The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos are excellent books by American theoretical physicist, Brian Greene.  They've been turned into two series of documentaries.  The documentaries are far from boring, and even people without a background in physics will appreciate them.  The universe is big and brilliant and beautiful, and flooded with startling phenomena.  In the wise words of The Doctor:

But this is one corner… of one country, in one continent, on one planet that’s a corner of a galaxy that’s a corner of a universe that is forever growing and shrinking and creating and destroying, and never remaining the same for a single millisecond. And there is so much, so much to see. 

The first of each series:

More to explore:
The Particle Adventure -- an excellent virtual tour of particle physics
This quantum world

Picture: TARDIS in flight by Hilson97 on deviantART

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Interesting Prophecies about 'The End'

"In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move." 
-  Douglas Adams

Considering the hype behind December 21, 2012, I figured I'd look up interesting prophecies about the end of the world, just for fun.  My favourites:

1. An asteroid, according to Zoroastrianism -- The asteroid, called Gochihr, will melt all metals and minerals when it strikes the Earth.  The resulting metal flood will flow over the surface and purge wrongdoers of their sins.  The righteous will not have to suffer; they will feel as if they're moving through warm milk.

2. A flood, according to ancient Vedic predictions -- Dark clouds will cover the sky, and the ensuing downpour will flood the Earth for seven years. Humanity will be destroyed.  The few who survive will be the progenitors for the next age. (The age we're currently said to be living in -- Kali Yuga -- is predicted to last over 400,000 years.  And it apparently began in 3102 BC.)

3. Total collapse and chaos, yet an opportunity to return to old wisdom during the new age, according to the Mayans -- What we're experiencing now is described to be total chaos due to disharmony of the spirit.  What will happen after December 21 is not, contrary to popular belief, the end of the world, but the end of the age we're in, and it will come to an end through calamity.  The new age will apparently bring the return of spirituality and wisdom.  A fresh start, after catastrophe.

4. Appearance of seven suns, according to the Buddha -- Each subsequent sun will bring new calamity in its wake: drying up vegetation, evaporating rivers and lakes and oceans, baking the earth, etc. The planet will then be swallowed by an inferno.

5. And last but not least: Running out of coffee, according to me -- yeah, coffee makes the world go round.  If we run out, we're doomed. ^_^

Friday, December 7, 2012

FF - Hangout with CERN

Last night I attended a Google hangout hosted by CERN: "Hot stuff - the early universe".

It was awesome, especially since they focused on the ALICE experiment in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).  ALICE is an acronym for A Large Ian Collider Experiment, and its focus is the quark gluon plasma -- a soup of particles called 'quarks' and 'gluons' that existed for a short period of time in the early universe.  I've had the amazing opportunity to work for people who are part of ALICE, so I was even more excited!

They explained things in laymen's terms, and addressed questions like:

What does the LHC do?
What is the quark gluon plasma?
What happened at the beginning of the universe?
The universe is expanding, but what is the universe expanding into?
And, of course, many more.

Here's the full video of the hangout. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

SS - The Tyger

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
 Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

 When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

 Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

by William Blake

Image from

Sunday, November 18, 2012

SS - The Melody of the Night

It seems kind of strange
that once upon a time
I had no idea who you are
Or that you’d ever 
come to mean so much to me
Or how much I would learn
how much I would laugh
because of you

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Three Days to See

Helen Keller was an American author, lecturer and political activist in the late 19th century and early 20th century.  She was also both deaf and blind due to an illness she had at the age of 19 months.  I find her story remarkable.  Helen could not have blossomed without the help of Anne Sullivan, her teacher, who painstakingly brought the deafblind child out of a lonely world of silent darkness.  Thinking about these two inspirational women and the struggles they had to go through motivates me when I'm facing an obstacle.  They really put things into perspective.

Helen wrote a beautiful article describing just what she would do if she was granted sight for three days.  These are the last two paragraphs, the ones that really stick out in my mind:

Perhaps this short outline of how I should spend three days of sight does not agree with the programme you would set for yourself if you knew that you were about to be stricken blind. I am, however, sure that if you actually faced that fate your eyes would open to things you had never seen before, storing up memories for the long night ahead. You would use your eyes as never before. Everything you saw would become dear to you. Your eyes would touch and embrace every object that came within your range of vision. Then, at last, you would really see, and a new world of beauty would open itself before you. 
I who am blind can give one hint to those who see -- one admonition to those who would make full use of the gift of sight: Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. And the same method can be applied to the other senses. Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again. Make the most of every sense; glory in all the facets of pleasure and beauty which the world reveals to you through the several means of contact which Nature provides. But of all the senses, I am sure that sight must be the most delightful.

Read the rest of 'Three Days to See' here.

Beginning of summer by bellathecat12 on deviantART

On a slightly different note, I found a little something I scribbled at some point:

If I had but a day to live I'd walk barefoot on the beach, reveling in the contrast of course grains of sand pressed up against my feet and the cool licks of salty water at my toes.  I would wrap myself in smooth satin and drink in the scent of strings of jasmine in my hair.  I would turn my face to the warm sun, close my eyes and imagine myself flying, as the sound of the ocean fills my ears. I would hug a kitten, rock a child, and kiss a man.  If I had but a day to live, I'd drive faster than I ever have before, windows down and wind in my hair.  I'd laugh with my family, sip an exquisite cup of coffee, and listen to a conversation among the flute, the shehnai, and the tabla.  If I had but a day to live, I would suck on a strong mint so hard that sharp shocks reach my happy brain, I'd sing at the top of my lungs, and I'd write and write and write.  If I had but a day to live, I'd whisper into the wind, "I'm sorry. And I forgive you."

What would you do if you had only a day left to live, or knew that tomorrow you'd become permanently blind?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Explanation of the Zone of Silence

In the middle of the blazing, blistering Chihuahuan desert in Mexico, there’s a place dubbed the "Zone of Silence" by the curious visitors who venture there. Electromagnetic waves fail to travel through the air within an unspecified and sometimes shifting area, creating a sort of “dark” zone. No television, radio, short wave, microwave, or satellite signals seem to be able to penetrate this zone. The explanation remains unclear, but this is what I think must have happened:

“Ahem! Respected King Fortu the Four Thousand and Twenty Seventh!  My Dear Queen Linly of the Forty Chins! Ladies and gentlemen and robotic gnolms!  This is the moment we’ve eagerly been waiting for! 
After having bravely travelled 180,420 light-years in a round trip to the Mines of Methalda to obtain a nugget of the universe’s most sought after metal – toughasnailsium, - Master Spleck the Once Awkward has now returned!  As you know, any planet with even a tiny bit of the magnetic material becomes powerful enough to be added to the reputable UCTP*.  For generations upon generations we Armpetians have tried to defend what little respect we get for being tiny, hairy, and soft.  We’ve been mocked, ridiculed, sprayed and waxed.  But now things will change!  For now, our time has finally come! The plan that was masterminded by King Fortu the First nears its end.
Master Spleck fought against the Sparring Spectacles of Supercluster XI, shouted at the Whispering Asteroids of Andromeda, deflated the ego of an Earthling, sat on the Standing Ovation of Centaurus, and meandered between the not so mellow guards of the Mines of Methalda – all for the sake of this planet. 
More patriotic an Armpetian you will never find!  He gave up the life he had for us.  His beloved friends and family are long dead.  His own aging process was slowed, due to traveling at near light speed coupled with continuously performing the Time Warp** on board his ship.
And now, without further ado, let me present Master Spleck himself!”
All 568 square kilometers of the planet erupted in applause as the scrawny looking Armpetian stumbled out from behind the green curtain onto the balcony.  The more scrawny announcer clapped him cheerily on the back.
The additionally scrawny king and his not-so-scrawny consort, along with her forty chins, wobbled in delight.
“Come, let us see it, then!” chirped the eager king.
An anticipatory hush came over the crowd.  Well, all except Acidic Admiral Arnie, though he did keep the more respectful – and controllable! - end silent.
“Note that Master Spleck here hasn’t looked at the nugget himself as per rules laid down by King Fortu the First.  He had to search for it with a blindfold, and slip it immediately into his pocket.  And so, we will all be seeing it together for the first time!”  The announcer was spitting with excitement. 
Spleck wiped off the tip of his nose, then very solemnly reached into his pocket whereupon the ring on one of his fingers entangled itself with the button.  There was a bit of a struggle between Armpetian and button, yet the crowd, the king, the queen, the chins and Arnie waited patiently.
Spleck eventually overpowered the button, which consequently popped itself in depression and sulked off into a corner.
            The crowd, the king, the queen, the chins and Arnie all leaned forward as Spleck’s hand slipped into the pocket.  And leaned even more forward when it slipped out, empty.
            They very nearly fell out of their seats as Spleck began to frantically pat himself all over.
            “Where is it?  What are you doing? Is that supposed to be a magic trick?” the king squealed in delight.  Everyone knew of his obsession with magic tricks.  He would often attempt to entertain his wife by pulling her out of a hat, and just couldn’t understand why the queen was never surprised that she had been there all along.
            “Um.  Erm.” A look of panic overcame Spleck, and he began to sweat – much more than the average Armpetian.  “It seems, that I, um -- now please don’t get cross! -- but…I think I might have, um, dropped it somewhere...”

*Universal Council of Tough Planets
** a universally famous folk dance that combines arm waving and kicking oneself as hard as one can.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

10 Interesting Sleep Disorders

For as long as I can remember, sleep has not been a simple, straightforward experience for me.  Many a breakfast table conversation after a childhood sleepover involved being teased for talking loudly in my sleep -- words and phrases that never seemed to fit with the dreams I remembered having.  I've sleep-walked a couple of times too, according to other people.  I once ran into my parents' bedroom screaming about bears chasing me, though to this date, I cannot recall that experience at all.

Once, I woke up my little sister for school in the middle of the night.  The poor thing, having full faith in her sister's time-telling capabilities, never even thought about looking at the clock.  She had a shower, wore her uniform -- basically went through her entire morning routine -- only to find that no one was at the breakfast table when she was done...and it was dark outside.  I don't remember this at all, though what I DO recall is a very, very angry 7 year old slapping me awake when she realized what the actual time was!

As an adult, I befriended someone named Insomnia.  And other sorts of nasty folks as well...

It's nearly midnight and I'm trying my best to feel sleepy after the long day I had.  I'm not particularly succeeding, as you can see.  While I chat with Insomnia, I thought I'd look up some interesting sleep disorders.  Here are the 10 strangest I could find!

1. Sleep paralysis - When a person who's either falling or sleep or waking up can't move, at least temporarily.  They WANT to move, and they're conscious, they just can't.  And often, this is accompanied by hallucinations.  (I've experienced this one before, a few times. It's pretty scary, actually.  The inability to move when you want to is not a pleasant feeling!)

2. Sleeping Beauty Syndrome - This is also known as Kleine-Levin syndrome.  And it's exactly what it sounds like.  Someone with this can have a sort of sleep attack in which they don't wake up for long periods of time!  They wake only to eat or use the bathroom, and appear to be disoriented when they do.  And, unfortunately, there's no Prince Charming to cure it...

3. Sexsomnia - Yes, you read that right. I thought this was a joke when I read it, but after looking it up I found that it's indeed a real disorder. And it's exactly what it sounds like.  Someone with this disorder engages in sexual acts while asleep, and doesn't even remember what happened, after waking up! A different twist to sleep-walking, eh?

4. Fatal familial insomnia - A person with this very rare genetic disorder doesn't stay alive long after the onset of symptoms, because they eventually lose their ability to fall asleep.  Imagine not ever being able to sleep!  One night of complete insomnia drives me up the walls; I can only imagine what this kind of disorder does to the brain...

5. Nocturnal lagothalmus - I think I'd be spooked if I caught anyone with this disorder asleep, for it's the inability to close one's eyes while sleeping!

6. Narcolepsy - Someone with this disorder can suddenly fall asleep in the middle of, well, anything.  Particularly dangerous when driving or crossing the road!

7. Cataplexy - This is slightly related to Narcolepsy. It involves the sudden loss of muscle control during an emotional trigger, leaving the person temporarily paralyzed on the floor and even asleep.  Even a laugh could set someone off!  

8. Somnambulistic eating - We've covered sleep-walks and sleep-sex, and now it's time for food.  Someone with this disorder raids the fridge in the middle of the night, but totally asleep!

9. Non-24-hour sleep disorder - A disorder that involves a person's body not being able to follow a 24-hour cycle -- perpetual jet lag, if you will.  If their internal clock follows a 28-hour cycle, then they'll sleep four hours later everyday.

10. And last but not the least, is the Exploding Head Syndrome - I chose this mainly because the name sounds cool (well, more like deliciously awful!).  But it's really the simplest of these listed disorders.  Someone who has this hears amplified sounds, sometimes as loud as a bomb would be.  So, a small sound, even the shutting of a door, could sound like an explosion.  Not a pleasant thing to startle awake to, for sure! This seems to be fairly common, at least a diluted version of it.  Many people I've spoken to claim that noises heard when asleep seem to be louder than they actually are.

So, what about you? Do you suffer from any sleep disorders? Have you heard of other interesting ones?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

SS - A Snap of the Universe Billions of Years into the Past

This is the closest thing we can get to a time machine:

This image was taken by Hubble, and is the farthest-ever view of the universe we have till date.  And since it's the farthest we've seen space-wise (billions of light-years away) it's the farthest back we've been able to look time-wise, since the light reaching us was actually emitted by those thousands of galaxies billions of years ago!

Read more about it here.

Friday, September 21, 2012

QS - Entropy

Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;

Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.
~ Alexander Pope,  The Dunciad 

Coined by a German physicist in 1865, the term 'entropy' is commonly used, though not commonly understood.  You may have even casually heard it thrown about with the words 'chaos' and 'disorder'.  But what is the significance of entropy?  Basically, it is what gives time direction.  You can call it "the arrow of time".  So, while it's super important, it isn't the elusive hard-to-grasp concept it seems to be. 

The second law of thermodynamics (the science of the relations between heat and other energy forms) tells us about entropy, by claiming that the universe is constantly moving towards a state of randomness. That is, the quantity called 'entropy' can never decrease, it can only increase. Processes end when maximum randomness and disorder are achieved.  Spilled milk remains spilled -- you cannot reverse the effect somehow, and watch the milk molecules fly back into the cup, exactly the way they were before.

Humpty Dumpty was in a state of low entropy when he sat on the wall.  When he had a great fall, he moved into a state of higher entropy, or disorder.  All the kings horses and all the kings men couldn't put Humpty together again... They couldn't reverse the process, or in other words: decrease the entropy!  

The second law of thermodynamics must not be confused with that of the first law, which talks about the conservation of energy.  While the first law says that energy can neither be created or destroyed -- only converted from one form to another -- the second law says that this conversion cannot take place with perfect efficiency.  Some energy is always lost during the conversion process, thereby increasing the entropy.  For instance, a running car does not convert all of the burning gas into motion; quite a bit is lost as heat or noise.  During this process, entropy has to increase as per the second law.  The process moves from less disorder to more disorder, and cannot be reversed because we can never gather all of the dispersed energy and turn it back into gas for the car.  (This is, by the way, why we can't simply renew our resources.  We can't, say, harness pollution. Resources will run out one day, and entropy will just point and laugh at us when they do!)

Now, here's the thing about the word 'disorder'.  In English, it has no set definition.  Disorder is actually pretty relative, and it is often misused or misunderstood when linked with entropy.  In the context of entropy, disorder is basically the state any irreversible process tends to reach.  Water flows from top to bottom in a waterfall, not the other way around.  Cream added to coffee spreads and spontaneously mixes with the drink; it doesn't clump back together to reach the state it was originally in when added to the cup. The motion or kinetic energy of an intact car disperses into sound and fast moving broken pieces if the car slams into a brick wall.  Therefore, the entropy can be said to point in the direction of energy dispersal, or chaos.  Which, in turn, gives time direction.  Any spontaneous process that happens in the material world can be attributed to entropy, as an example of the second law of thermodynamics. This means that it is very much prevalent in our everyday lives.  

You know, I think the next time I feel the spontaneous urge to indulge in a three scoop double chocolate nutty sundae, thereby setting my tummy and metabolism into a flurry of disarray, I should just blame entropy!


Interesting links:
Entropy is Simple -- If We Avoid the Briar Patches! (A nice explanation behind common misconceptions)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

SS - On the Deck of Space Shuttle Discovery has amazing 360 degree panoramic images. One of my favourites is of Discovery's deck.  This is just a single screenshot, but the website allows you to view the full deck by offering a 360 degree visual environment.  To view the full image, click here.

Nothing compared to the real thing, of course, but unless I steal a rocket, I doubt I'm ever going to get up there!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

SS - Just a Little Boy

People don’t stop
On their way to tomorrow
Blind to patterns in the pavement
And how trees sing with a passing breeze.
They’re all so caught up
in cell phones, meetings, mediocrity.
Barely recognizing 
the smell of good coffee.
But I want to pause...
Tomorrow can wait a while.
I want to watch the birds fly
Give a stranger a smile.
So follow me, darling
And I’ll take you where I want to go
Where the sun always shines
And people don’t know
The tremours of stress
Keeping them up at night
Follow me, maybe
If you’re not afraid to find
The thing you’ve looked for
all your life.

Photograph: Just a little boy by zznzz on deviantART.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thank you, Prof

On the morning of August 6, 2012, I lost one of the most important people in my life: beloved Professor Satish Kumar, Head of the Department of Physics and Computer Science at Dayalbagh Educational Institute, Agra. Not only did he supervise both of my post-graduate theses, he acted like a role model and personal mentor to me as well. I would go to him for all sorts of advice and guidance. He inspired me, made me test my boundaries, and played a large role in shaping who I am today. 

Professor Satish Kumar was one of those teachers who kept you hanging off the edge of your seat during class. He pushed a large number of students into finding their interests and strengths. I was one such lucky student. He approached me when I was just a Bachelor’s student and asked if I would like to join his small research group. Though I was the youngest in the group, I never felt uncomfortable, and he treated my silly opinions and ideas with respect. 

The Prof and I often had interesting discussions that would branch out into various subjects. We would lose track of time, which made him kick me out of the room with a playful scold, “Arrey, look at the time! I have so much work to do! Just don’t talk to me, Radha Pyari!” Yes, he was the only one who used my full name.

When proofreading anything I’d written, he not only looked through the technical parts, he painstakingly fixed grammar mistakes. He was super meticulous and his English was enviable. 

As a teacher, he catalyzed a large number of projects, including courses for distance education and open source learning. He also introduced an undergraduate award in his department to encourage students to take up research. Spreading education was very important to him. He was the coordinator behind a number of the MoU’s and tie-ups we have all over the world, and played a large role in putting together the goal of becoming one of the best universities in the world by the year 2031. He was a senior member of IEEE, an Associate Editor of IEEE Transactions on Fuzzy Systems, and well-known in the soft computing research community, especially for his book

After he passed away, the entire university came out to see off the carriage that held his body. They showered it with rose petals. He’s the only one who could have literally stopped a whole university from functioning like that. It really was a beautiful send-off. 

He would have been 49 years old on August 7, 2012. 

Thank you, my Prof
For showing me the way
To live with head held high
To recognize quality
And competence
To laugh off the big things
And appreciate the little things

Thank you, my Prof
For your endless hours
Of patience
Despite my shortcomings
And thick-headed mistakes

Thank you, my Prof
For the classes
So very well taught
By your signature hand gestures
And energetic smile

Thank you, my Prof
For enriching my life
For every life you touched
In fact
For putting this department
On the world’s map

Forgive me, my Prof
If ever
I caused you distress

You will be missed, my Prof
The happy memories made
Myriad lessons taught

You will be missed, my Prof
But missed with a smile…
For that is what you taught me.

I once asked him, “Prof, don’t you ever rest?” He replied with a smile, “I’ll rest when I die.” 

Rest, my Prof. You more than deserve it. I will try to live my life in a way that will make you proud, pick up where you left off, and hope to be even half the person you were.

Monday, July 9, 2012

What's the Higgs boson, anyway?

Higgs boson. God particle. Mass. CERN. These words have been circulating tongues around the world the past week. Ever since the fourth of July, the science community has erupted in a flurry akin to tots at a toy store, and it has nothing to do with the independence of the United States of America.

Excited scientists, when the announcement was made.

You’ve probably heard that scientists at CERN have discovered a particle that closely resembles something called the “Higgs boson”. And you’ve probably heard that this is a very important discovery. You’ve also probably heard that some people call it the “God particle” (a name that makes me cringe every time I hear it if it isn’t said in humour, because it is misleading). 

But what is this Higgs boson, anyway? And why is it so important?  Especially since it forced Stephen Hawking to lose at least $200 in bets...  Well, think of it this way: you, me, your neighbour’s dog, those jeans you refuse to get rid of that don’t fit you anymore, the electronic device you’re using to read this, and everything else around you has mass. And the Higgs boson is behind the formation of mass, if the theory it pertains to is true. 

Basically, when a particle moves through something called the “Higgs field," the Higgs bosons clump around it. The more bosons that clump around it, the larger the mass of the particle. 

One of my favourite analogies was given by a physicist named David Miller. Imagine a crowded room. If, suppose, Angelina Jolie walked into the room, fans would swarm around her. As more and more people joined the group, she would find it difficult to move across the room. If I entered the room, I would go virtually unnoticed. Only the welcoming host or a couple of people looking for a new friend would group around me, and I would be able to move across the room with ease. 

If Angelina and I were subatomic particles, she would have more mass than I. The people in the room would be the Higgs bosons, and the room itself would be the Higgs field. The more Higgs bosons stick to a particle, the more massive that particle is. 

Another way to look at it: if Justin Bieber and I entered a room full of teenaged girls, I would have absolutely no mass at all. 

Justin Bieber swarmed by fans in London
So, why is it called the “God particle”? Unfortunately, this is a misnomer. While the Higgs boson helps solidify a theory behind the workings of the universe, it by no means is an indicator of God, and still does not answer many of the big questions physicists are facing today. Some of those include the explanation of gravity and what dark matter is. Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman coined the term "The God Particle" for the title of his book about the indispensability of the Higgs. While it is apparently an excellent book despite the title, the media has latched onto it like Gollum to the One Ring. Lederman later semi-seriously defended the name by saying that the publisher wouldn't let him call it “The Goddamn Particle”. 

If the particle that was detected is indeed the Higgs, then we will definitely be one step closer to understanding the universe. This discovery is merely the beginning, albeit an amazing one. For now, however, the answer to the Life, the Universe, and Everything remains an elusive 42

I end with: 

Thursday, June 28, 2012


Been too busy (or lazy?) to post, but I've been scribbling lines on receipts and napkins and ticket stumps -- basically anything I can get my hands on. So, I thought I should share at least one little something I've written:

I daren't close my eyes 
I'd fall asleep. 
I'm afraid you’d be there 
Waiting for me
At the edge of a cliff 
A secluded cove 
Or at my doorstep 
With a plastic rose. 
I'm afraid to face you 
I'm afraid to forget you. 
But more than anything
I am insanely afraid 
When I close my eyes 
You won't be there at all.

Picture source

Friday, June 8, 2012

FF - and How to Detect a Lie

I've mentioned before what I terrible liar I am.  Well, it turns out that sometimes I'm a terrible truth-teller as well.  I seem to have a...skill, if you will: I can make the truth sound like a lie.  Especially in the awkward situation that has someone who knows me pretty well -- my mother, for instance -- asking me a question about something, and me screwing up the truthful reply simply because I'm nervous that they will take it for a lie.  Which makes it sound like a lie.  

A standard example would be someone asking me "Are you okay?" when I'm simply tired and quiet.  If I answer with the normal "I'm fine", I become awkwardly aware that a) I sound tired, which makes me sound depressed and thereby not fine, and b) people who aren't okay would probably say the same thing anyway.

And so, I force extra enthusiasm into my reply, so that I don't have to deal with the inevitable "No, really, are you sure you're okay?"  Because, of course, forced enthusiasm is exactly what someone who isn't in the best of spirits would incorporate into their reply.  And so, the situation usually spirals out of control, with me desperately trying to tell the truth and the second person thinking that whatever I'm saying is a load of donkey bollocks.

I know -- after watching way too many crime serials -- that there are signs people look out for to detect a lie.  Curious, I looked them up, not to become a better liar (or is that a lie?) but to become a more convincing speaker of the truth.

Google churned up when I searched "how to detect a lie".  There's an interesting and detailed guide to body language and eye movement that I enjoyed reading.  It also has puzzles, and a bunch of articles on a wide range of topics.  Definitely worth checking out if you need to kill some time.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Why We Love Fiction, Even Though Withdrawal Lies at the End

Sherlock Holmes. Tyrion Lannister. Harvey Specter. Sheldon Cooper.  Each of these is a fictional character who has recently triggered in me a bout of sulkiness simply because I've watched all of the aired episodes of the tv shows they're from.  An embarrassingly large chunk of the past couple of weeks has gone into what I like to call "fiction withdrawal" because of these non-people.  Every time I complete an epic piece of fiction, I look something like this:

This includes tv serials, novels, and sometimes movies if they're good enough to suck me in completely for two hours.  (Note: this is not unlike what happens when I discover that I've run out of coffee.)

So, why is it that we enjoy fiction so much?  I know that a lot of people (including yours truly) like the feel of 'escaping' into a story and imagining themselves in the position of a character because they feel they can relate to the characters, but I wondered if enjoying fiction goes deeper than that.  It turns out that it just might.

One theory is that if the telling of stories was not beneficial to evolution, the enjoyment of fiction would have been siphoned off a long time ago.  Stories are simulators that train our brains to be flexible and creative, traits that are both essential for progress and development.  This is a theory I can readily believe, especially for that of written fiction.  Reading, as I've posted before, requires more brain power than that of watching tv.

Another theory is that when we indulge in fiction, we are not really 'escaping' from life but to life.  Stories promise solutions to the conflicts that lie at the heart of them. The process of moving from conflict to resolution is like an echo of the processes in our own lives.  Experiencing situations that are out of our own realms of possibilities through fictional characters is enjoyable, yes.  But the theory claims that we sharpen our awareness of life because of the journey of emotions good fiction takes us on as well.  And, apparently, this sharpening of awareness gives us the ability to make logical decisions.  I suppose I can understand where the theory comes from in some sense, but I also think that obtaining a distorted view of the world is a risk if people cannot distinguish between fact and fiction.  I  have to read more about this to understand it.

Prof. Lisa Zunshine is a name that kept popping up when I looked up the research undertaken in this direction.  Her website has a number of interesting materials on the links between cognitive science and fiction.  If you're intrigued, definitely check it out.  A couple of other articles that you might like are: Why Do We Enjoy Fiction Anyway? and Next Best Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know.

Understanding why we enjoy fiction in various forms would provide us with insight into how our brains work.  I'd even be interested in a study that addresses why some people are more inclined to certain genres than others.  

But no matter what the reasons are, I know that as of right now, I wish I could curl up into a ball and weep for the loss of the fictional 'friends' I made over the past two weeks, or else travel to the future when new episodes are aired.

Which characters and stories have you recently encountered that set you spiraling down the dark hole of withdrawal?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

SS - Returning to the Same Ocean

I miss you.  I miss you so hard. So hard, my insides ache.  I wrap my arms around me and squeeze, to keep the ache inside -- the only proof I have left you were real. 

Picture of Karachi, Pakistan by Ali Khurshid on Flickr

Thursday, May 31, 2012

At the Bay of Bengal

Despite the burning heat of the sun beating down my back, my eyes remain fixed on the silver sea. It is as if all the steel in the world was melted and poured into a sandy basin, just so waves of liquid metal can dance at my feet.

Getting Nerdy on the Beach

I went to Puri, Orissa for a few days, and played on the beach.  After fiddling with sand for a while, I realized with horror that I'm even nerdier than I thought I was.  Behold!

The Great Serpent from the Wheel of Time:

A weirwood tree from A Song of Ice and Fire:

I wonder if the Old Gods of Westeros are hanging their heads in shame.  Especially since these 'sculptures' are pitiful.

I also wonder whether this post I made about Orissa and the famous Konark Sun Temple adds to or takes away from my nerdiness. Nerdome.  Nerdity?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

QS - Illusions and Therapy

I came across this "floating star" on New Scientist.  It's an illusion that was created by Kaia Nao, and works because of something called 'peripheral drift', much the same way as the famous rotating snakes illusion.

The star and snakes appear to move when you don't look at them directly, i.e., when they lie in the periphery of your vision, because of the colour gradients in the images.  The movement is usually from dark to light colours.

There's a bit of a debate over what exactly causes this perception of motion.  It was previously thought that slow drifting eye movements interpret signals differently, depending on the luminance (intensity of light), thereby tricking the motion perception system into thinking that the image is moving.  That is, it was thought that the eyes interpret dark and light colours in different manners as the eyes slowly drift around an image. Recently, an article in the Journal of Neuroscience suggested that it's not the slow movement of the eyes, but rapid eye movements called 'saccades' that are involved.  But it still remains unclear as to why we can so easily trick our brains into perceiving something that doesn't exist.

Following this line of thought, I wondered if illusions could somehow be used to 'trick' the mind in terms of therapy.  Google pointed me to the Oxford Journal of Rheumatology, where I found a couple of abstracts on illusions being used to treat chronic pain.  I haven't had a chance to go through any of the papers, yet, but I am definitely intrigued.  Studying illusions is an interesting insight into how our brains work. And potentially using them for therapy?  Pretty darn cool.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

SS - White Birch Trees

I picked up my current wallpaper from the National Geographic album Patterns in Nature: Landscapes.  It caters to both my weakness for patterns as well as my recent preference for backgrounds with subtle colours.

National Geographic's collection of wallpapers is amazing. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

SS - Rand's Women

As a huge Wheel of Time fan, I often look at various artists' renditions of characters and book scenes.  Most of the time I'm not too impressed, but I recently came across the artwork done by Ariel Burgess and love it!

A painting of Rand al'Thor's three women:

They match with what I picture in my head almost exactly, especially Min (the one on the left).  Ariel's also working on an official Wheel of Time poker deck. A few I really like are Egwene, Birgitte and Mat:

Really, really looking forward to the release of the poker deck!  Anyone want to gift it to me, pretty please?  I will shower you with cookies and sparkles if you do.

Ariel's deviantART profile.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

TCT - Wearing Milk

Did you know that cloth can be made from milk? I certainly didn’t.  When I happened to spot an article that claimed milk could be used to make clothes, I thought it was some sort of joke.  Of course, I’m a sad little ignorant.  
Apparently milk fiber can be spun into yarn to make fabric that is soft, silky, and shiny.  Not only that, it’s anti-bacterial as well -- something that made the little OCD-clean hand-sanitizer-obsessed nutter inside of me squee.  
Though this sounds relatively new, it isn’t.  Milk fiber was invented in Italy and America in the 1930’s, and called “milk casein”.  It snaked its way into a lot of household products and garments.  Then, last year, a microbiologist and designer from Germany, Anke Domaske, invented an environmentally friendly, antiallergic organic textile called Qmilch -- a combination of ‘quality’ and the German word for milk.  He reduced sour milk to a protein powder, then heated it and spun it into a fabric.  Google images spit out a number of interesting looking Qmilch garments when asked:

...and now I want one.  Got milk?

Images from: