Monday, April 30, 2007

Jon Stewart talk to Bill Moyers.

Rarely do I wade into politics here (as there are a lot of other people who do such a good job at it), but I could not resist putting up this video of an interview of Jon Stewart (host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central) by Bill Moyers (PBS Radio).
Among other viewpoints expressed, I liked his views on the loss of innocence...

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Spring is good.

Rejuvenating, fresh leaves and great mornings...

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

On the network effect expanding the collective intelligence of our race.

Robert Metcalfe, the individual who invented the Ethernet and the famous Metcalfe's Law (on the power of networks) has a terrific article out on Forbes that talks about the paradox behind the enormous computing power of today’s supercomputers and how they still cannot hold a light against the power of the human brain even if the perceived computing power of the former exceeds the latter by orders of magnitude.
The comparison is between a chip that has about 10^11 transistors clocked at about 10^10 times per second and the brain that does its intelligent computing with about 10^11 neurons and 10^16 synapses that talk at a rate of 10^3 times per second.
Doing the quick math, this means technically the chip and the brain have about the same number (10^11) of transistors (neurons in the brain) - but since the chip is clocked about 6-7 orders of magnitude (10^10/10^3) higher than the brain, it should naturally follow that the chip is about 6-7 times more 'intelligent'.
He uses his network law to explain this seeming paradox taking into account other factors like the numbers of interconnections between neurons rather than just use the number of computations per second as a static factor. He makes sure not to include the as yet poorly understood contribution of glial cells...

Nice read, but now I have a bit of a headache (not too sure if my neurons overclocked in trying to understand it).

Note: Image ripped from my print copy of the Forbes magazine..

Children draw the darnest things...

Title: Undecided; Artist: Aswin, Anusha and Hari; Material: Color pencils, wax crayons and oil on canvas; Size: 4 feet wide X 3 feet high

The last weekend of March was a cold and a dark one. Spending a lazy weekend at home is not my kind of relaxation. I decided to haul a couple of my cousins visiting our family for a quick trip to the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University (about 15 minutes from our home). It is a fairly good museum by New Jersey standards and we were fortunate to run into works by the Indian artist Natvar Bhavsar who was having a retrospective there. His work was characterized by very large abstract forms and shapes thickly overlaid by oil, encaustic and sand. My cousins were very excited on seeing the abstract art although they could not make much of it.. We also visited a hall that exhibited abstract American artwork (1960s - 1980s) and also imbibed some brilliant Soviet non-Conformist art of the 1970s. By the way, the Soviet art representation at this museum is outstanding…

They asked me a lot of questions on what each of the paintings meant and how we could read meanings into diffuse forms on the canvas. I am not so sure if I gave them proper perspectives, but from their faces they seemed a little confused. After about three hours at the museum, we headed back home all charged up on artwork and abstractions… They then decided that they were going to create a quick piece of artwork if I were to lend them a canvas to work on… (considering their original plans on watching a Spiderman movie that night, I thought the museum visit really set their creative juices flowing). I told them the ground rules were that I would not participate in the painting process, but would offer suggestions and oil paints whenever needed. I told them to open their minds, forget what they learned at school and just express their thoughts on the canvas (easy words to say - I still cannot seem to practice it). They initially asked for color pencils and wax crayons and then proceeded to fill the canvas with words and phrases that they were taught at school with smaller pictures dotting the periphery and the centers of the canvas a la Basquiat style. I then handed them dabs of oil paints mixed with linseed and proceeded to give them disposable brushes with which to apply the oil at spots they felt would highlight aspects of what they had drawn into the background.

What they had created is pictured above. Of course the artwork was helped by bits of finishing touches added on by my three year old son (who had proceeded to hijack one corner of the canvas entirely to himself - the dark splotches at the top right corner was his handiwork). At the end of the exercise they felt elated, forgot about Spiderman and wanted to work on another canvas right away. It was about 10:30pm and I told them that it was late for bed and we could work on another one the next time they visited our home. I was very excited to see the activity and the energy that my cousins displayed on developing the artwork. In retrospect, I am also a little alarmed that I might have demolished some of the careful teachings in artwork that their teachers were imparting at school beginning with forms like drawing a house, sunrise and animals. I am not so sure if I did the right thing in exposing them to abstract art at so young an age. My cousin’s names were Aswin and Anusha. He was 9 and she was 8. My son Hari will turn 3 in a couple of months.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Performance art for mental illness:

We all know that mental illness still has an attached social stigma. Public education that furthers facts as regards the same is always more welcome... Like someone said, mental illness is not really an illness, it is just another mental state an individual is capable of experiencing. I do not fully subscribe to that viewpoint especially in light of the recent shootings, but I like the approach taken by performance artist Arnd Drossel who gained quite some eyeballs when he decided to get into a steel metal ball and roll acoss a German town in his quest for increasing awareness about psychiatric patients. He seemed to have rolled into a tiger pen at a German zoo today causing quite a stir…

You can read more about his exploits here and here
The eye of the tiger, or perhaps more importantly the teeth, are a little too close for comfort. But Arnd Drossel appears to have at least baffled the beasts, if not tamed them, with his spherical steel enclosure.

Through his project, the 38-year-old Drossel hopes to bring attention to the plight of people suffering psychiatric illnesses. He began his journey in Dorsten, the town of his birth, on April 17. Planning to cover around 20 kilometers a day, Drossel hopes to finish his journey by April 28. He's even planning on sleeping in the ball.

The cause is also personal for Drossel who suffered his own bout of severe depression a year ago. He came upon the idea of a ball because he felt it would signify the inner balance that’s needed for recovery. Drossel is collecting financial donations on his journey that will be used to further the cause.

Constructed out of 250 bent stainless steel rods, the sphere weighs about 120 kilograms (265 pounds).
I ripped the image above from today's online edition of The Daily Mail.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Brain honing:

Sharpbrains is a good site/blog for those who are interested in keeping up with the latest in making sure that their brains are honed to perfection with puzzles, tips and challenges for developing cutting edge clarity. For others (like me), the following are important bits of information culled from one of their postings on how we keep ourselves mentally alert... (Note: Italicized words are not mine - from the Sharpbrains website)

Guaranteed brain cell killers:

- High-levels of anxiety and stress, that are guaranteed to distract us from our main goals and waste our limited mental energies.
- A very repetitive and routine-driven life, lacking in novelty and stimulation. We have brains to be able to learn and to adapt to new environments

3 mental exercises that everyone should be doing daily...

- For stress management: a 5-minute visualization, combining deep and regular breathings with seeing in our mind's eye beautiful landscapes and/ or remembering times in our past when we have been successful at a tough task

- For short-term memory: try a series subtracting 7 from 200 (200 193 186 179...), or a series involving multiplication (2,3 4,6 6,9 8,12...) or exponential series (2 4 8 16 32 64...) the goal is not to be a math genius, simply to train and improve our short-term memory. Another way is to try and remember our friends telephone numbers.

- In general: try something different every day, no matter how little. Take a different route to work. Talk to a different colleague. Ask an unexpected question. Approach every day as a living experiment, a learning opportunity.

On the excessive use of use-it-or-lose-it philosophy or how good is doing something like Sudoku in keeping our brains sharp?
- "Use it or lose it" may be misleading if we think that "It" is just one thing. The brain is composed of many different areas that focus on different things. Doing a crossword puzzle only activates a small part of the brain. The 3 key principles for good brain exercises are: novelty, variety and constant challenge. Not that different from cross-training our bodies.

- The first time we do a crossword, or sudoku or knitting, that is great, because it forces us to learn. But when doing it is completely routine, the marginal benefit is very limited. Nowadays neuropsychologists do not recommend paper-based activities but computer-based brain exercise software programs, since they can provide a variety of new activities all the time, always tailored with a proper increasing level of challenge.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Sign of the times: Intellidating - Dating the brainiac way

Looks like revenge of the nerds on steroids. Washington Post recently ran an article that talks about a new trend in Manhattan - called - intellidating... It is matchmaking for people who find courtship through discussions and debates about art, literature, history and the likes. It definitely seems like a better thing to do rather than explore the texture of cold cobblestones stone drunk at 2am Saturday morning every weekend (which is another alternative for youngsters finding mates)...

In New York and other northeastern urban centers, including Washington and Boston, gray matter is the new black of the hip social scene. Thousands of young singles and couples are eschewing the perfunctory dinner and a movie for a growing circuit of late-night museum prowls, Oxford-style debates with pre-feud cocktail parties and book readings with cash bars and after-hour bands. In New York, even spelling bee nights have popped up as a romantic twist for the chic, unmarried and grammatically gifted.

It is, observers of the trend say, a visceral backlash to life in a Paris Hilton world. It's a chance to impress a mate, or a potential date, by flexing a body part that has lost ground in recent years to biceps and pecs -- the brain.

"Intellidating," first coined in England in 2002, sprang from "Intelligence Squared," a live discussion series launched by a couple of British moguls whose professed aim was to make debating "sexy." The concept leapt across the pond to New York last year with the American version of Intelligence Squared -- IQ2US -- launched by philanthropist and businessman Robert Rosenkranz. A 45-minute cocktail reception precedes each debate, after which comes a cranial lucha libre where, on one night, author Michael Crichton sparred with other panelists on global warming. For the right set, it can be quite the aphrodisiac.

I guess this is a further sign that the world is getting ever more specialized and potential single people want to choose exactly the right partner… Not too sure if this is a good sign or not…

By the way, if you did not notice, it also looks like Yuppie (a shortening of ‘young urban professional’) is out and yocos (the Post explained that yoco's are young cosmopolitans) is in… I thought yuppie was cooler.

Paper: Utilization of neural network and agent technology combination for distributed intelligent application and services. A thesis by Jouni Huhtinen

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Some light reading: Scientifically Accurate Brain Art - and quilted at that:

Developmental psychologist Marjorie Taylor and psychiatrist Karen Norberg give a whole new meaning to knitting and its representational glories by producing this piece of artwork from wool (yes, which is correct - wool.) You can see more of their art from wool and PET scans at

Image above - Title: "Karen Norberg #1" Year: 2006 Material: Colored Wool
The two were drawn to the niche independently. Taylor, a professor at the University of Oregon, Eugene, had been making quilts on the side for years before she turned her needle to neuroscience. Struck by the cover images of journals like Cerebral Cortex, she began reproducing them in fabric; creating pieces that--for example--show positron emission tomography scans of the brain's response to hearing or seeing words.

Karen Norberg who works at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says she began knitting a brain to kill time when she was undergoing clinical training in child psychiatry. The product now resides at the Boston Museum of Science.

"Building a brain with yarn and knitting needles turns out to follow many of the same pathways as actual brain development," says Norberg.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Coming to a video store near you - Mona Lisa starring in...:

At the Max-Planck-Institut für Informatik in Saarbrücken Germany, a group of researchers led by Dr. Volker Blanz have created a program that will have implications in the fields of filmmaking and pornography (yes, you did hear that right..) and to a lesser extent to artists like me interested in painting the human face in all of its glories...

Their program takes a 2 dimensional image of a human face and using certain best fit algorithms can create a 3 dimensional model of the same face with expressions added to the face...Just think, now you could have accurate computer rendered models in high definition of how Mona Lisa would have looked if she were smiling, frowning, laughing or crying. Extending this further into the future - even a time lapse videography of Mona Lisa walking down the street. I do not even want to think how the porn industry might want to manipulate technology like this to satisfy individual perverse fantasies... Interesting technology nevertheless.

- The Morphable Face Model captures the variations of 3D shape and texture that occur among human faces. It represents each face by a set of model coefficients, and generates new, natural-looking faces from any novel set of coefficients, which is useful in a wide range of applications in computer vision and computer graphics.
- In this framework, it is easy to control complex facial attributes, such as gender, attractiveness, body weight, or facial expressions. Attributes are automatically learned from a set of faces rated by the user, and can then be applied to classify and manipulate new faces.
- Given a single photograph of a face, we can estimate its 3D shape, its orientation in space and the illumination conditions in the scene. Starting from a rough estimate of size, orientation and illumination, our algorithm optimizes these parameters along with the face's internal shape and surface colour to find the best match to the input image. The face model extracted from the image can be rotated and manipulated in 3D.

You can get to a very mathematical description of the process that he uses here or you can view an animated clip of his experiments on images of Audrey Hepburn here.. I liked the video a lot. I am still trudging through the paper...
Some other papers of interest...
3D Videorealistic Facial Animation by Tony Ezzat, with Prof. T. Poggio and V. Blanz
Probing the Visual Representation of Faces With Adaptation : A View From the Other Side of the Mean by Fang Jiang, Volker Blanz and Alice J. O’Toole

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Painting post: Sandhya Ragam

Excerpted from the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (aahsa)

- By 2026, the population of Americans ages 65 and older will double to 71.5 million and about 12 million older Americans will need long-term care.
- In the next 8 years, the number of Americans ages 85 and older will increase by 40%.
- Among people turning 65 today, 69 percent will need some form of long-term care
- There are more than 1.9 million nursing home residents in the United States. This represents less than 6% of the total number of Americans over the age of 65. It suggests that the vast majority of elderly will most likely spend their final years in their community residence.

I did not want to do a Debbie, but sometimes statistics wake us up to reality…

I am sure that I will see a lot of colleagues in my generation go through the assisted living / nursing home circuit. Sometimes I think that the term assisted living makes fun of old people the same way some refer euphemistically to short people as vertically challenged...

Luckily the oldest member in our family does not need to go through the assisted living route. Various members of our extended family take turns looking after her. She may be the last of a breed that have the privilege to be taken care of by their families. I painted this from a color photograph that I took of her after she had kindly agreed to pose for me.

Title: “Sandhya Ragam”*
Size: 2.5 ft X 2 ft (30 inches X 24 inches)
Medium: Oil on canvas

*'Sandhya Ragam' literally translated is a Malayalam word for evening melody.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

2007 Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge:

About a month and a half remain before time runs out (May 31st 2007) for submissions to the 2007 Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge jointly hosted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and journal Science.

From the blurb on their site:
You can do science without graphics. But it’s very difficult to communicate it in the absence of pictures. Indeed, some insights can only be made widely comprehensible as images. How many people would have heard of fractal geometry or the double helix or solar flares or synaptic morphology or the cosmic microwave background, if they had been described solely in words? Judges appointed by the NSF and the journal Science will select winners in each of five categories: photographs, illustrations, informational graphics, interactive media and non-interactive media. The winners will be published in a special section of the Sept. 28, 2007 issue of the journal Science and Science Online and on the NSF Web site.

I really enjoyed their previous years submissions (2006 here and 2005 here)

Image above: 'The Synapse Revealed'
Credit: Graham Johnson, Graham Johnson Medical Media (I very much liked his portfolio)
Description: Deep inside the brain, a neuron prepares to transmit a signal to its target. To capture that expectant, fleeting moment with painstaking detail, science illustrator Graham Johnson based his elegant, highly accurate drawing on ultra-thin micrographs of sequential brain slices. The brain contains billions of neurons, whose network of chemical messages form the basis of all thought, movement and behavior. Johnson’s illustration tells the story of one such signal, a synaptic millisecond that is both eye-catching and accurate in scale and shape.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Grim visions?? - the world 30 years from now:

An interesting report worth a close read was released last week by England's Defense Ministry that talks about the world in about 30 years time from now...

Among the predictions:

-By 2035, an implantable "information chip" could be wired directly to the brain. A growing pervasiveness of communications technology will enable states, terrorists or criminals, to mobilize "flashmobs", with an ability to concentrate forces quickly in a small area.

-An electromagnetic pulse will probably become operational by 2035 able to destroy all communications systems in a selected area or be used against a "world city" such as an international business service hub

-The middle classes could become a revolutionary class, taking the role envisaged for the proletariat by Marx.
"The world's middle classes might unite, using access to knowledge, resources and skills to shape transnational processes in their own class interest". Marxism could also be revived, it says, because of global inequality. An increased trend towards moral relativism and pragmatic values will encourage people to seek the "sanctuary provided by more rigid belief systems, including religious orthodoxy and doctrinaire political ideologies, such as popularizm and Marxism".

-By 2010 more than 50% of the world's population will be living in urban rather than rural environments, leading to social deprivation and "new instability risks", and the growth of shanty towns. By 2035, that figure will rise to 60%.

-The global population is likely to grow to 8.5 billion in 2035, with less developed countries accounting for 98% of that.

-The massive population growth will mean the Middle East, and to a lesser extent north Africa, will remain highly unstable

-Tension between the Islamic world and the west will remain, and may increasingly be targeted at China "whose new-found materialism, economic vibrancy, and institutionalized atheism, will be an anathema to orthodox Islam".

-Iran will steadily grow in economic and demographic strength and its energy reserves and geographic location will give it substantial strategic leverage to turn "into a vibrant democracy".

-Acts of extreme violence, supported by elements within Islamist states, with media exploitation to maximize the impact of the "theatre of violence" will persist

-Climate change could lead to a reduction in north Atlantic salinity by increasing the freshwater runoff from the Arctic. "The drop in temperature might exceed that of the miniature ice age of the 17th and 18th centuries."

It also talks about the growing economic importance of India and China, the militarization of space, and even what it calls "declining news quality" with the rise of "internet-enabled, citizen-journalists" and pressure to release stories "at the expense of facts".
Yes, the Marxism and the Iran thing caught me a bit by surprise... Climate if not added is sacrilege, terrorist, population and violence related blurbs are fairly easily predicted. I liked the one about the chip in the brain bit...

Friday, April 06, 2007

Posts on Art and Perception (A&P):
My latest posts on A&P are here and here. One of them deals with the increased role that museums and curators could play engendering societal change whilst the other explores earthly topics like framing artworks.
Left: Sculpture by a contemporary artist: Title: ‘Domination’ Materials: Railway track, wax apple, plastic crocodile and glue.
PS: I believe this was created as a parody on the apparent
meaninglessness of some pieces of current art.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Rationalizing abrupt change and Chautauquas:
A friend asked me recently on what my favorite book was and I remember telling him that among others, a book that was one of my favorites but least understood was the one by Douglas Hofstadter (a physics Ph.D who won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize), the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid.

From a Time magazine article:
The book was called ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid’ -- Gödel being the Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel; Escher, the fantastical Dutch artist M.C. Escher; and Bach, the Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. It was a very odd book, a rattlebag of art, mathematics, music, philosophy, symbolic logic, computers, genetics, paradoxes, palindromes and Zen koans among many, many other things.

Hofstadter's unique intellectual makeup is rooted in his childhood. His father was Robert Hofstadter, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1961. Hofstadter might have grown up to be a straight-up physicist like his dad if it hadn't been for his younger sister Molly. When Hofstadter was 12, it became clear that she had grave neurological problems--she never learned to speak or understand language. "When Molly's unfortunate plight became apparent, it all started getting connected to the physical world. It really made you think about the brain and the self, and how the brain determines who the person is." says Hofstadter

I also know just from reading about Douglas and the thoughts expressed in this book that he is a hard nosed realist/pragmatist with his feet firmly in the ground as regards the validity and veracity of the truth as expressed in the formalisms set out in music theory, art and mathematics. Imagine my surprise when I read that after his wife's death (Carol Hofstadter) he now believes that she continues to live on in him, with her mind persisting in his brain like software running on his hardware. I was equally shocked to read that Robert M. Pirsig author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, (that cult classic that spawned so many metaphysical journeys into the definition of the word ‘quality’) recently came to believe his murdered son was reincarnated and lives as his daughter who was born later.

It is surprising to think that some of the cornerstones (pragmatism, reason, logic) by which these people live their lives are suddenly turned 180 degrees around when intense personal loss affects them. On a similar vein, people who are deeply religious have been known to eschew their gods when they lose something that is deeply deeply personal. It is almost as if people believe in a doctrine as long as the good times continue. At the instant the favorable times end, they tend to rationalize the abrupt change with a complete rearrangement of their most basic tenets. All this seems inexplicable now, but I am sure that brian research of the future will have an answer, but for now it does remain fascinating...

Hofstadter sees in Gödel's work a structural parallel to the mystery that is the human mind. The brain, which is merely a squishy agglomeration of madly firing neurons, shouldn't by rights be able to think--it shouldn't be able to wake up, twist around, become aware of itself, and in doing so become an "I," but it does. Just like Gödel's mathematics, the mind is a strange, self-referential loop--it's a mirage, Hofstadter writes, but "a very peculiar kind of mirage ... a mirage that perceived itself, and of course it didn't believe that it perceived a mirage, but no matter--it still was a mirage."

Hofstadter has written a new book (out last week titled "I am a strange loop") that expands upon the theory of the self and the mind and also the contributions that Carol (his late wife) lent him emotionally. Time magazine called it not just a work of rigorous thinking but also an extraordinary tribute to the memory of romantic love.
Sobering sign of the times:
Last week I read a pretty sobering essay in the New York Times that neatly laid out the fact that for the first time, the income earned by the top 300 thousand in our country was equal to the income earned by the bottom 150 million.