Ignorance of natural processes...

To believe that voodoo, black magic or any other magical woowoo performance has or could influence natural processes and the progression of events is to profess profound ignorance... of how the world works and the frailty of the human brain.

Kandu geri monster

The photo below seems to have gone viral in the Maldives. The photo was snapped by someone from the police station in the island of Kulhudhuffushi in HDh. Atoll and according to the news, has caused panic and fear among some in the island and elsewhere. Haveeru Daily reported that even the police have now started to look into it. All because the black "thing" seen behind the kid in the photo is not easily discernible as being something we are familiar with. The general conclusion seems to be that it is an unknown creature. Some are calling it a "kandu geri" (hippopotamus), some consider it to be a "fureytha" (jinn) and some consider it to be a walrus or seal. Anyone who has ever seen a hippopotamus or seal or walrus will easily dismiss those claims.

Original picture

I tend to agree with the people who think it is just a woman in a black abaya and large black "buruga" (burka). The person who took the photo apparently says that he did not notice the thing at the time he took the picture and only noticed it later when he was copying the pictures from the camera to a computer. That really is clue number 1 - people tend to ignore things they are familiar with. He most certainly had seen the "thing" at the time but ignored it because he had seen a woman in the background and was not really concerned with what she was doing or how she appears frozen-in-motion in the picture.

Processed to highlight various aspects

Clue number 2 comes from processed pictures where light levels have been manipulated to show more details, as I have done in the picture above. The thin material of the burka appears against the background as being translucent. The form of the human body is also discernible with the limbs and the cloth wrapping around it. Abayas and burkas are designed to obfuscate the human form and it performs its job well for the woman in the snapshot!

Will this madness persist and a myth like the Loch Ness monster be created in the Maldives? What shall it be called? "Kandu geri" monster? I doubt the woman will be flattered.

Beating a child to "question" Jinn is insane and cruel

Irrational, delusional beliefs are always unjustifiable and aren't always harmless. Such beliefs can and do lay the foundation that lead people to do insane and terrible things. It was with shock and horror that I read yesterday of the news story on Haveeru Daily website about a group of people in Haa Alifu atoll Baarah island that beat a sick child on the palms and sole of the feet with an eakle broom a few days ago in order to "question the Jinn" on the outcome of the local council elections that was to take place yesterday.

The people of the island apparently believed that the child was "possessed by the Jinn" and believed, as many Maldivians do, that they could access "future knowledge" through the supernatural super-awesome powers possessed by the Jinn. It matters not that the child most certainly suffers from some mental or psychological affliction and probably could be cured or managed by medicine! It matters not that it is entirely unethical, immoral and down right cruel to torture a sick child!

Shouldn't the title of the article in Haveeru read "ވޯޓުގެ ނަތީޖާ ހޯދުމުގެ ނަމުގައި ބާރަށުގައި ކުޑަކުއްޖަކަށް އަނިޔާކޮށްފި" rather than "ވޯޓުގެ ނަތީޖާ ހޯދުމަށް ބާރަށުގައި ޖިންނިއާއި ސުވާލުކޮށްފި"?

Shouldn't the people involved be charged with child abuse?!

And here dwelleth 300,000 invisible beings

Most Maldivians are by now familiar with the drama unfolding in Makunudhoo. It has been on the news a lot and has been blogged about a lot but photos haven't been very forthcoming - well, except for a blurred image on Haveeru Daily and a photo stolen from my Flickr stream published on Miadhu News. So here are some images of the historic Makunudhoo School where Man and Jinn live side by side and study side by side, though not always in harmony as has been revealed. The school may replace the island's currently most famous landmark: the residential ruins of the infamous Bodufenvalhugey Seedhee (known for various supposed supernatural feats such as "walking on water" between islands, "helping" the infertile conceive etc) including its "teleportation well".

And yes, in case you wonder, it is ridiculous to believe this is a battle between invisible Jinn and humans, especially when there are good explanations.

Enjoy... stand awed.

Bonobos, skepticism & chemical scum @ TED

The TED Talks from the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference is among my favourite online edutainment destinations and this month has seen them update the site with yet another collection of thought-provoking and informative talks from various top scientists and thinkers of today. I thought I'd give it a little exposure and drop in a mention of 3 random talks that I took a liking to...

I just watched a recently added talk titled "Apes that write, start fires and play Pac-Man" by Susan Savage-Rumbaugh. The talk is on Dr Susan's work on Bonobo apes - one of the closest hominid primates to humans. I've kept up an interest in Bonobos ever since I learnt of them (not too long ago!) and they've continued to fascinate me. They are quite similar to us in that they share more than 98% of DNA, they are tail-less and walk upright/bipedally. They've demonstrated the ability to understand when talked to, communicate via writing and fashion tools. They display altruistic behaviour, are compassionate and kind, care for their offspring pretty much the same as humans and live peacefully. Infact, their motto literally seems to be "Make Love, Not War". They are also understood to possess some of the fundamental ingredients to an intelligent society - culture and concepts of equality of individuals. Interestingly enough, unlike how human cultures have mostly been thus far, the bonobo culture is matriarchal!
- Check out the talk by Dr. Susan

I adore the Skeptics magazine published by the Skeptics Society. Its founder, Dr. Michael Shermer, gave a very engaging talk titled "Why people believe strange things". There's an abundance of supernatural claims and pseudo-science that litters our societies and his talk goes through some of the common claims - dowsing, creationism, UFOs, crop circles, so-called miracles and the rest of pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo. He encourages critical, rational thought and scientific scrutiny.
- Check out the talk by Dr. Shermer

Chemical Scum
Prof. David Deutsch, whom I had mentioned about in a previous post, delivers a rough painting of the cosmos and where we stand respective to it in a light talk titled "What is our place in the cosmos?". He draws on the contents of the universe and bodies within it, the distances between objects and the ability of the scientific method to explain and model the vast and complex universe. The brain, he says, has the tools needed for solving almost any problem: knowledge, creativity and reason. A very inspiring speech!
- Check out the talk by Prof. Deutsch

Enjoy ;-)

The Game of Life

How could life on earth be so diverse? How could earth, the solar system or even the universe be so complex? How could it be so without it all being made, designed exactly that way? Really, how could it?! It's a fair question and makes a lot of people wonder. But there ARE answers - some are definite some not-so-definite. After all, life (and the universe) IS pretty complex. However, the interesting thing with complexity is that, complexity doesn't mean that it is entirely irreducible or that it couldn't have arisen from something less complex.

Enter John Conway's "The Game of Life" - one of the simplest examples of emergent complexity. The Game of Life (hereafter abbreviated to TGOL) is a type of cellular automata. Cellular Automata can be defined as a structure (cell) which has a finite set of states and any transitions from one state to another occur according to a set of predetermined rules. TGOL operates in a universe represented by a 2-dimensional grid - where the state of each cell in the grid is boolean; i.e. a cell is either alive or dead. The rules, in TGOL, simply determine the state of a cell at any given moment in time as per the states of the cells surrounding it. That's as much complexity as there is in TGOL (and many other Cellular Automata)!

It is quite intuitive to imagine this working at small scales for just a few steps in time but it quickly gets a bit too large a problem to work out in the head. In fact, TGOL can only be executed effectively using the massive computational abilities of a computer but even then, after sometime, the problem gets beyond which a computer can handle. What more, it is near impossible to determine the future state of the cells based on the starting states.

First, the "rules" in The Game of Life as defined by Conway.
- Any dead cell becomes alive if it has exactly 3 live neighbours.
- Any live cell with either 2 or 3 live neighbours stay alive.
- Any other case either kills the cell if it's alive or leaves it dead if it's already dead.

You can "play" TGOL on paper or simulate it on the computer. Being the lazy people we are, I have no doubt most of you would choose the latter option - but if you are any bit curious about TGOL, do try working it out manually first. There are many Life simulation programs available for free on the net - some are run online while some are available for download. Try the Java based Life simulator at http://www.ibiblio.org/lifepatterns/ (click the "Enjoy life" button on the page) for a version that you can run instantly without downloading anything. If you want to download and seriously play with TGOL, check out the open-source Life simulation software called Golly. It is available for Windows, Linux and Mac at http://golly.sourceforge.net/. Alternatively, if you are the programmer sort, you might even venture 10 minutes into making a rough Life simulator yourself (like I first did few years ago) :-P

TGOL simulations can be executed by defining a starting pattern. It can be as complex as you want or as simple as you want. TGOL develops many interesting patterns that people have actually named a lot of them. However, new patterns are found all the time and it seems Life never gets boring! A wonderful place to start on the patterns and their details would be the Life page at http://www.math.com/students/wonders/life/life.html. Try the Glider or Spaceship patterns - they move and were among the first simple-yet-complex emergent entities to be spotted in the TGOL!

Here are 3 steps in the operation of a crude smiley pattern in TGOL:

After playing around with different patterns and observing what happens after a few thousand or few hundred thousand generations in the TGOL universe, it becomes apparent that different sorts patterns get created along the way. Some are dynamic (like the Gliders), some are still, some are oscillatory, some go on seemingly expanding and growing, some develop motion to either of the sides. These more complex structures can occur frequently and regularly and even arrange themselves to form even more complex systems and behaviour.

If you are using Golly, look under "Signal Circuitry" for a pattern called "Turing Machine". As anyone whose studied computer science may know, a Turing machine can perform just about any computation. The fact that a Turing machine can be implemented in the TGOL demonstrates the sheer power that a world operated by a few simple rules could posses. More complex patterns are still being discovered within this universe of the TGOL which is dictated by 3 simple rules. The active universe in a TGOL simulation quickly becomes larger than what most computers can currently handle and does limit our ability to further observe the kind of even more complex behaviour TGOL produces.

Like I said at the beginning, The Game of Life is one of the simplest Cellular Automata around. There are many different kinds of cellular automata, each operating with a different number of states and rules. These produce an even richer variety of universes, displaying amazing complexity.

The End
Hopefully this little incursion into emergent complexity was enough to make you think just how likely it is that this "complex" world which we are both puzzled and fascinated by could have arisen from a really really simple set of rules - like the physical/chemical rules that govern everything in the universe.

Penn & Teller: Bullshit!

I am hoooooooked to this TV series called Penn & Teller: Bullshit! It ain't a new show and is currently past its fourth season but I only came across it a few weeks ago and I absolutely love the show.

Penn & Teller are famous magicians. I've loved their weird magic acts ever since magic became my hobby long time ago. They've brought their weird, eccentric touch to the TV world with a show that applies critical thinking to various misconceptions. Their objective is to debunk the various myths we hold individually, socially and even globally. In each show they investigate the selected topic and present alternative, more reasonable, logical and more scientific explanations and attempt to demonstrate how people are just err bullshitting with certain things. They've tackled a variety of interesting topics so far: global warming, the bible, drugs, cryogenics, creationism, circumcision, ESP, alien abduction etc...

The show isn't on any of the TV channels other than the American channel Sho but the DVDs are out and as usual, the episodes are floating around the net. It's a highly entertaining and informative show. I recommend watching it!

Check out these wicked episodes found on Google Video:
- Penn & Teller: Bullshit! War on Drugs
- Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Circumcision
- Penn & Teller: Bullshit! End of the World
- Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Environmental Hysteria