Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Learning by Context

Education is not the simple direct process people think it is.

When you give a kid 10 encyclopaedias, he/she doesn't learn them all by heart. People, including children learn and remember by context. By memorable information. 

I had over a dozen encyclopaedias and general knowledge books reference books when I was younger. I simply used look at the pictures and read a little of the text if the pictures looked interesting enough. That's a lesson for learning designers. Focus on visual information and cues as much as possible. As little text as possible.

But that's not all. You still have 500 pages in your book full of information that the reader really has no reason to be interested in. Which is why that information has to be put in context that's interesting to the reader. My books were full of information about dinosaurs, but I had no reason to remember this information until I began playing Top Trumps card games about dinosaurs. It was the same with animals, cars, bikes and football. Playing these card games gave me a reference point for these topics. Browsing through my humongous books now became a slightly more productive exercise, as I'd stop to read and learn a little more about dinosaurs, animals cars or bikes when a picture caught my eye.

This is why children need to be exposed to as many specific stimuli as possible. Let them develop their own likes and ideas. Then back these up with a lot of easy reference material. Both of these are essential for building knowledge. Just one is not enough. A person is more apt to learn about Ancient Greek mythology when they have watched a film or cartoon about it and then a book or Wikipedia. Wikipedia itself would be next to useless. Because there's no motivating factor in studying a lot of information. The film provides context, and reference points that the book builds on.


Monday, 13 April 2015

Interesting Links


Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Making Sense of the World

Imagine the following three possible frameworks or models used to make sense of the universe, this world, and all behaviour and actions.


This universe was created by a race of aliens from another universe or dimension. Perhaps they exist outside of space and time (whatever that means). They either created or monitor all activity on earth. Perhaps they have ways of understanding and following human desires, or perhaps they interfere in human activity, according to their whims and fancies, or maybe not.


This universe is a function of the Matrix. It is an artificial construct, a virtual reality built by citizens of the future, human or robot, as a giant experiment or project of value. As such, our existence is really just our consciousness responding to whatever 'they' want us to see. Our bodies are either plugged into machines somewhere in the future, or we only exist in digital form.


This universe was created by the Abrahamic God. He exists outside or space and time. He hears and sees everything. He chooses to answer or ignore prayer. He has a plan for everyone. His ways are mysterious.


These are your three frameworks. I made up two of them, with inspiration from the media. The third is a commonly espoused belief system. Here's my question - what makes the third model any less ridiculous than the first two?

Granted, my description of all three were brief. But you are free to build on all three. If your goal in choosing a belief system, framework or world view is 'does this make sense?' or 'does this prove useful?' or 'does this explain everything in this world?', then all three frameworks are equally useful.

Take any physical law or phenomenon like gravity or electromagnetism. Take any biochemical unit or process like cell or an organ system. Take any aspect of human or animal behaviour like jealousy or altruism. Any of the three frameworks could be used to explain these facets of our world. They can all be used to explain economic productivity, evolution, tsunamis and genocide. 

All the three models are somewhat vague, and that proves advantageous. Being vague means the model explains more variation. The more specific the model is, the easier it is to undermine. You could explain away any bizarre phenomenon into the variation that the model accommodates. And since it accommodates everything in its vagueness, the model is never wrong.

Do you see the problem here? All three models cannot be correct. And these are just three. The number of models you could invent to explain variation in what you observe is infinite. How do you tell right from wrong?

'All models are wrong, some are useful'. We use models that useful to us. We don't really care how right they are. We use a model because we find it useful. Because it makes sense to us in our specific context. But if all three models are equally useful, then why prefer one over the other? Is it because only one is the product of historical thought and cultural evolution, and the other two are more recent and more clearly 'fake'?

We think prayer works because it works for us, and that's enough. We don't seem to care that historical data shows us that affliction and death rates for polio, smallpox and cancer have no relationship with prayer. That irrespective of how holy you were or how hard you prayed, if you had cancer in 1900, you would likely die. That cancer survival rates have more to do with the invention of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy than anything else.

Perhaps it is best to go beyond retrospective usefulness in picking the right model, seeing as how any speculative thought can account for all variation in observable phenomena. Perhaps we should stop asking 'how much variation does this model explain?' and instead ask 'how much predictive validity does this model have?'

Any made up theory can explain what you see around you. It doesn't matter if the model involves God, aliens, AI, time travelling robots, space monkeys, or a new scientific theory. All these models or frameworks can seem equally 'valid' or 'right' in that they have an explanation for everything, answers to all your questions.

To decide which model is right, or to create a better model, it seem much more intuitive to base that model only on the evidence you have, incomplete as it is, and then test it and continually modify it by making predictions, admitting all along the way that your model will always be imperfect and a work in progress.


In 50 years, when we do develop a vaccine or cure for AIDS, the same people who call AIDS a punishment from God will be thanking God for answering their prayers and curing people. It's easy to validate any model using retrospective post-hoc rationalisation, especially if your model was vague to begin with, you never tested it by making specific predictions, and you're making it up as you go along, avoiding any attempt at testing your beliefs and instead picking and choosing facts that seem to fit into your pre-existing framework and ignoring everything else or considering it a test of your faith.


Thursday, 2 April 2015

On Poverty

A lot of us don't realise this but it is really difficult to get out of poverty, even if you really want to. 

There are a lot of economically disadvantaged people out there who are smart and hardworking and have the means to remove themselves from poverty. And they do so very slowly. Because it's not an easy process. Let's say you work a double shift for six months and save up a bit of money, and then suddenly a family member gets sick, and of course they don't have health insurance because you can't afford the monthly payments. So all your savings are blown away. Or imagine you've been saving for six months and then just when you're going to use that money to get to the next stage, start a business, invest in something that will grow your money for you, you meet with an accident, or you're robbed, or you need to buy a new fridge or washing machine. Your savings are gone along with your plans. You're back to square one.

Because something bad always happens. This is what it's like to be poor. It's always one step forward, one step back, and so on. The rest of us don't experience this because we're rich, relatively speaking. We have a cushion. We have money in the bank that we can use to buy a new AC, fridge or washing machine. We always have enough money for healthcare. We have relatives we can borrow money from, networks of friends and ex-colleagues we can use to find a new job. We have cushions. The poor don't. These cushions serve to keep us from stumbling, they keep our careers moving forward and not grinding to a halt every time something bad happens. This is why I don't get how people look down on the poor as if it's their fault, like they are lazy. They aren't. No one likes being poor. They're working to get out of it. You just can't see it because of your privilege.

So how do you get rid of poverty? You could increase wages. Imagine a janitor in Sweden. He gets a minimum wage that's enough to afford a home. He's not rich, but he makes ends meet. Same with the UK or US. Now imagine a janitor in Mumbai. His wage, even if above minimum, would be nowhere near enough to rent a flat. So he lives in a slum. He saves more that way. Could the government enforce a minimum wage that's high enough so everyone can afford proper housing and not live in a slum? Sure, but employers would pass that burden back to customers. We would eventually pay more for items, and would want higher pay ourselves to cover the difference. Which isn't a bad thing. We would all earn more, and pay more more some things. For people doing menial work, their savings would be low but their living conditions would be decent. The rest of us would have higher pay and higher expenditure and our savings would be proportional. More importantly, we would all be living in a country with a higher standard of living, and no slums.

Or we could just leave it all up to market forces. The problem with this is that in a country with fewer opportunities, and less competition, employers can pay as little as they want, if they know there aren't any alternatives for you. They can always claim that people are free not to work for them if they find the salaries too low. This might be fair to the employer, but not to workers, because they live in a country with few opportunities by default, so they really have no where else to go to, and they can't all start their own businesses overnight because they are mostly disadvantaged to begin with. So they settle with being exploited because some pay is better than no pay. 

That's how rich people like Donald Trump end up legally getting even richer by building large buildings in the Middle East using voluntary 'slave labour', people who are too poor to do anything else and who aren't even allowed to keep their passports. Is it their fault their country didn't give them enough opportunity? Is it their own fault they were not smart enough to get rich on their own?

If you want to live in a developed country you need to remove absolute poverty. Relative poverty will always exist in a capitalist system, and that's OK as long as inequalities don't create further absolute poverty or lead to monopolies that create status quo institutions that can lead to exploitation. You could remove poverty by raising the minimum wage, ensuring that everyone has a liveable income. This by itself will only do some good. In Indian cities like Mumbai, it will enable to people to live in better places, or let them grow their savings. 

The government could just subsidise education completely of course. It already does that to a large extent. But that won't cure poverty on its own. If you waved a magic want and gave every Indian a PhD tomorrow, they still wouldn't have the ecosystem to use their skills. There would still be massive unemployment. You can't stop at education. You also need an environment that demands new skills, that serves as a market for these skills, so people can exchange their skills for money. 

They would also need a market that enables them to finance themselves and create their products easily. You could reduce bureaucratic procedures and other red tape involved in growing businesses, and incentivise patents and loans, to encourage self-employment and innovation. In the long term, this would create more jobs, and in turn serve as a motivator for people to up skill themselves, which would get them higher salaries, and better lifestyles. 


Wednesday, 4 February 2015

On International Politics and World Peace

Back in the 90's when I was in school and the US imposed sanctions on India for its nuclear tests, we cried hypocrisy. How could the US punish India for building nuclear weapons when the US also stockpiles them? I've come a long way since then, but only after a lot of self-education, education which I unfortunately didn't receive in school. 

Self interest and game theory

The thing about international politics and diplomacy is, no political action is a result of principles, other than those associated with self-interest. This is a historical fact. Countries do not build alliances or rivalries based on principles, they do so based on what maximises their own self-interest. 

This can be modelled using game theory. Draw a checker box. Put one player on the x axis, and the other one on the y axis. On each player's axis, list the name of the interaction i.e. cooperating, trading, going to war, etc., with the the player. Now in each box on the checkerboard, enter the values of one players's action given the other players action. These could be positive, negative or zero values. For example, the value of player 1 going to war while player 2 is at peace might give player one a high payoff and player 2 a negative payoff. Whereas the payoff to the players if they both decide to trade with each other could result in each of them getting an even higher payoff compared to the payoff that one got by attacking the other. In this way, countries pick the box with the highest value for themselves. The cost-benefit equation is of course more complicated than this, as any political scientist or economist will tell you. Like a giant live chess board of life, each country has to look at the best way to maximise its own interests in real time. The main difference is that chess is a zero sum game, whereas in politics more than one country can win.

This is the real driver behind political policy and action. When you look at history afresh after having learned this, you find no reason to use infantile terms and phrases like "we're friends with this country", "these countries have always been friendly", "these countries are enemies", etc. Another thing you feel no need to do is to cry hypocrisy at the actions of other countries - "this country is being hypocritical". 

When the US imposes sanctions on other countries for conducting nuclear tests when they themselves own an arsenal of nuclear weapons, this might be technical hypocrisy, but that's missing the point. The US does it because it's in their interest to do so. When you have nuclear weapons, it makes sense to prevent countries that are not aligned to you from obtaining the same weapons. It's just good strategy. Countries are only allies because it's in their mutual benefit to be allies. Because it pays to be allies more than it does to be something else. Here's another example - when the US commits to religious tolerance but backs Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with military aid. This isn't hypocrisy in a political sense. You say what you need to for votes, to define your value system (all countries run on value systems) but your actions have to be concurrent with good strategy, with game theory. In the end, self-interest wins out. 

How countries evolved

If every country had to follow principle-based politics, the world would be a better place, as long as every country agreed to follow the same principles. But they don't. Countries that exist today didn't exist 10000 years ago. We started off as nomads and hunter gatherers. Over time, different groups of people came together because division of labour made sense. These different groups had different principles, but they all focused on maximising their payoffs, whatever they were. Groups with different resources decided to trade with others as they both needed resources that the other had. Some developed a trusting relationship based on reciprocal cooperation, they didn't need to safeguard themselves against each other militarily. 

But what if there's a change of leadership and policy? Now one civilisation grows stronger, and begins to conquer more land and people. The other civilisation has a choice, do they ignore the first one, join forces with it, let themselves be conquered and assimilated, or turn into conquerers themselves to avoid being taken over? Also, military might isn't the only tool to use in your defence. There's also religion, which makes cultural assimilation easier, and economic conquest, where countries subjugate each other economically. Trusting your neighbour explicitly means giving them a chance to exploit you, and you won't do that if you think there's a chance that they will. Replay this scene for different groups across thousands of years, and through numerous conflict and death, we have the world today, fragmented groups with different value systems and ideals, terrified of being exploited or losing out. Hence, there's not much trust.

Self interest and trust

Which is not to say that trust doesn't exist. It does, but it comes about when it's in the players' self interest. The US and Canada can have a porous border because there's very little risk of a war breaking out between them because they have been at peace for so long and have reached numerous lucrative trade agreements in the process. If this peace was broken by say, America invading Canada and taking even some of their land, it would hurt trade, and Canada might align itself with an enemy of USA. It pays to keep your neighbours as allies to act as buffers between your other enemies. What we call international trust is ultimately all about money and security. Self-interest wins.

Here's another example - the Nordic countries being at peace. Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway all have porous borders, as do other European countries. The likelihood of a country misusing this trust and upsetting the status quo is low because the consequences would be dire. Border security would be strengthened, relations would sour, money would be lost, everyone would suffer. The payoffs from committing such an action wouldn't justify the costs. This is why the Nordic countries are at peace. They weren't always at peace. A long time ago they were at each others throats. But back then, it paid to conquer and kill each other more than it did to trade and cooperate freely. This also explains why Russia recently annexed part of Ukraine. The payoff (in terms of access to resources and trade routes) exceeded the cost (meagre threats from NATO?). Self-interests wins.

The situation today

Look at the two major power blocks today - the US and China. It used to be the US and the USSR. Preceding World War 2, the US was just another country gaining affluence through trade and innovation. Following World War 2, it emerged as a dominant superpower and its alliances with a number of European partners was sealed. But competition emerged with the USSR, whose economic and social polices rivalled that of the US. Here we have a case where countries have an internal value system linked to their economic systems, so they become economic competitors to protect their social systems. The US was terrified of communism, and the USSR was intent on spreading it. So they both embarked on policies of expansion. The USSR annexed and funded countries that embraced communism, crushing any opposition. The US did the same, backing fascist murderous dictators worldwide as long as they rejected communism. The devastation this wrought was immense in terms of human life. But it was in both countries' interests not to stop their activities, because then the enemy would have an upper hand. 

You see this mirrored today with the US and China, with China funding infrastructure projects in a number of Asian and African countries in exchange for political support, while the US can only count on its bases like South Korea and Japan for leverage, in addition to NATO. China knows North Korea is a powder keg but continues to maintain friednyl relations with them because they can use North Korea as leverage against the US if they need to. It pays to keep them close as an ally. Which is why the US has a military presence in Taiwan and the Pacific. Self-interest always wins. 

You also see this mirrored today with nuclear weapons. No world leader truly believes that these weapons are good, but they can't help keeping an arsenal as long as their enemies have them too. It's only the smaller countries with no ambitions of power that don't need nuclear weapons, but they are either aligned to a power block (like Bhutan), or are not threatened by one (like Oman).

Books like Isaac Asimov's Foundation series really open your eyes to these sorts of situations and decisions. You begin to see beyond the values that you were raised on, the values that countries should be run on, and see the world for what it really is, a blank slate ready for exploitation by power-hungry people ready to exploit anything.

Which is not to say that values don't matter. Of course they do. But they keep changing, and we need to be mindful of this, and ensure they change in a way that's best for all of humanity (if we are to take a humanistic approach towards existence). The Mesopotamian civilisation used slavery because it made sense to do so, values be damned. This doesn't make it right, but it made economic sense at the time, and later for thousands for years, until we decided that slavery was wrong. This didn't happen overnight. It took time. it's the same for universal suffrage, or homosexuality. Values change. But change takes time.

Attaining world peace

So how do you reduce international conflict and attain world peace? Again, you can use game theory to figure this out. Prevent countries from warring with each other by making it too costly (relatively speaking) to do so. People will always strive for power and self-interest. You can't take this urge away. You can only develop a political ecosystem in which acting upon the urge is too costly given more attractive alternatives. An ecosystem is which countries are incentivised to trade and cooperate peacefully with each other.

One way to do this is to build trust between all the different countries that currently exist. One way to do this is by removing any perceived threat between two countries and increasing trade opportunities. And you do this by economically developing every country equally. Remove economic gaps, invest in education and healthcare, make all countries economically powerful so they can serve as trading partners with each other. This serves as a status quo, a deterrent to attacking each other. Over time, this becomes trust. 

Of course, this should work better if the countries have similar value systems, as differing value systems pose a threat. For example, the world's number one economy - China - is communist, while the US-NATO power block isn't. Both blocks trade profitably with each other, but mistrust exists. A common value system would probably remove this. Remember that power blocks are only formed as reactions against perceived threats from other blocks. The other way to attain world peace is of course to ensure that there is only one power block in existence - yours.


This Crash Course World History series is extremely informative w.r.t observing patterns in group behaviour across human history. By watching a concise approximation of human cooperation and conflict across time, you begin to observe patterns in group behaviour. Watch if you have 20 hours to spare. 

World history Part 1 -

World history Part 2 -


Sunday, 25 January 2015

Movie reviews - Coraline, ParaNorman & The Boxtrolls

I have been catching up on the films from Laika studio recently. Even disregarding all other factors with which we judge a film, the body of work they have produced with respect to only stop-motion animation quality is astounding. 

Coraline (2009) is their best work yet. A visual masterpiece. And incredibly creepy. Worth spending money on for the visuals alone. The story was above par too. Most films have a typical plot line where a character is shown to desire something, then has obstacles put in the way of that desire, and spends the film overcoming these obstacles to achieve a resolution. This films takes a slightly different view, where like 'Alice in Wonderland', we see the main character change goals midway through the film, which is when the real source of conflict is revealed. Of course, they film makers did have good source material to work from (a Neil Gaiman story). This might also explain why the film was one of the creepiest I've ever seen. I was also surprised by how well crafted the film was in terms of pacing. The film wasn't long, and yet seems evenly paced throughout.

ParaNorman (2012), a dramedy, was a whole lot of fun to watch. The story of acceptance is a little predictable (but still reasonably engrossing), and the animation wasn't as great as 'Coraline' (maybe that comes from setting your film in a typical suburban setting), but it was still good. The supporting characters are colourful without being annoying, and they get the comedy right. The lead character's personality and development are both above par. For that matter, so is the script. The lead character's thoughts and conversations with others are perhaps the best thing about this film. The best part of the movie is of course the final confrontation with the little girl. A work of art on all levels, it's worth watching the entire film for that scene alone.

The Boxtrolls (2014) is a visual masterpiece. The set design itself is better than 'Coraline'. Again, watch it for the visuals alone. I liked the story, but felt it was aimed at younger audiences. The story felt old, like it has been done before, so it felt a little predictable and low key for me. Nothing about the plot really stood out. The Boxtrolls and ParaNorman are almost like inverted versions of each other, with the Boxtrolls being the better visual experience, and ParaNorman having a fuller, more emotional story to tell, with characters you really relate to. But this shouldn't take away how awesome the film is. Each individual frame is so well crafted it's tough not to admire the film.


Wednesday, 17 December 2014

On Beliefs, Assumptions and my World View

Beliefs are not equal.

I had a discussion with a gentleman recently who refused to accept that someone could have no beliefs. This because I told him I had no beliefs. I personally don't like to use the word belief. I would rather refer to any position I hold as a model or approximation of the truth. These models are in turn built on assumptions of properties about this world that could change. It is easy to dismiss the difference between approximations and beliefs as mere semantics, but do keep in mind that semantics is the first thing you learn in a Philosophy 101 course, and ensures that everyone begins a discussion on the same page, instead of ending up talking about different things while referring to the same term. 

Anyway, I see all views, opinions and theories as merely models that are built on assumptions. Nothing is based completely on evidence of course, as even the most basic evidence requires assumptions of the properties that the evidence is based on. For example, the colour red is not really seen by everyone in the exact same way. Our vision ensures that we all see the colour slightly differently, even if this difference is practically negligible. We still call it red though. This is an approximation. A generalisation. But there's more. We assume that the colour red, like other colours, exists as waves made up of photons. We don't know much about how light exists as energy, but we have created models that explain and exploit its properties to a degree that is useful to us. 

Of course, none of this may be real. We may all be plugged into the Matrix. This could all be a dream. The colours may not exist. This universe may not exist. The properties of this physical world that we think we know about may only be a function of a dream world we inhabit and not part of whatever is really out there. But we don't know for sure if this world is fake, and so we act under the assumption that this universe and all the properties in it are real. Because this is the only practical way to live if our goal is comfort and happiness. We don't know if we exist in the way we experience. But it is best to assume that we do.

So in this sense everything is an assumption. But that doesn't mean that all assumptions are equal. There is a hierarchy. If there weren't then any view or model we created, no matter how crazy, could all be equally plausible. So what we do to maintain order in our world is assume that certain things are probably real like our universe and our existence. We then build the rest of our models on top of these basic assumptions.

Now we need to be really careful about how we construct these models, because a lot of them are based on questions that involve incomplete definitions and subjectivity. For example, do we have free will? Luckily, a lot of our models are objective, and built on physical laws whose properties we can approximate quite well. We use mathematical operations to build bridges. Mathematical identities themselves like Pythagoras theorem are perfect and exist for themselves with no exception, at least under the assumptions of the mathematical laws of this universe. We don't know why these identities exist, but we know that they do and how to exploit them. This is not an excuse for a belief in the supernatural. That is simply uncalled for given the evidence. We simply do not know why identities exist. That is all. Any models explaining why will need additional evidence.

You could of course make up your own inductive proof for a supernatural entity that exists outside the laws of this universe and space and time and matter but you would eventually have to face the fact that the properties of this proof are made up by you. i.e the proof works by induction, just like mathematical proofs work, because you assume all the properties needed for it to work, like we do in math. You don't know if these properties are real, you just assume that they are. A logically valid argument will still lead to a false conclusion if its premise is false. If your assumptions are unfounded, then no matter how good your argument, the conclusion you reach will still be only as good as your assumptions. This is why models for God's existence are both perfect and probably wrong.

Moving on, when you build a model, you identify a pattern and make predictions based on evidence. Sometimes, you use other people's models. You act on expectations that another from another model that you know very little about. For example, when you get sick and pop a pill. You don't know anything about what you're consuming. But you take it anyway expecting to get better. Is this a belief?

You could call it a belief, yes. Like the belief that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, given a normal solar system, or the belief that you will be able to walk or talk tomorrow, given no major changes to your body. You could call these beliefs, and they are all based on assumptions. But are they the same as religious beliefs? No, of course not. Because unlike religious beliefs, all these beliefs are verifiable. You cannot know for sure if a pill will cure you, but you know that you can look up the details of the pill if you wanted to. You can examine the skies or your body for patterns if you want to confirm the expectations you have for your model. In other words, these models are verifiable. Not a 100% verifiable of course. Pills do not always work. Solar systems and human bodies do not always work the way we expect them do. Errors abound. Things unaccounted for. The model is updated with new data. This is how critical reasoning works. Religious models are different. They rely, as I have said, on assumptions that are unverifiable. They might lead to useful but false conclusions. Religious belief may be useful, but it is also unverifiable. 

So now we have not just beliefs, but levels of belief. There are verifiable and unverifiable beliefs. This allows for some degree of subjectivity, as what is verifiable depends on how good the evidence is, and all evidence comes down to further assumptions, which always comes down to our assumptions about this universe and our existence. But we can say for sure that some beliefs are more verifiable than others, because some evidence is better than others, assuming the basic laws governing this universe. Evidence that holds up to falsifiability and has predictive value will always be better than anecdotal evidence that relies false premise reasoning and confirmation bias. This is not to say that unverifiable assumptions are wrong. This is impossible to tell, but that's the problem. 

We are mostly concerned with truth or falsity of assumptions based on the evidence we have. But since we can only examine the evidence in light of what we know about the universe, and since this is itself a series of assumptions that do not take into account what we don't know, then of course anything we postulate about God or a supernatural being could be true. Not probable, but possible. I wouldn't say that  assumptions based on rules outside this universe are something we shouldn't bother to think about. But we definitely are limited in the ways we can verify them, given that all our means of verification exist only in this universe.

So yes, perhaps I do have beliefs. I suppose I do live my life along expectations of how the world should work even though I don't always understand why it works this way. These could be called beliefs. And they are certainly different from supernatural beliefs. My beliefs are based on assumptions that are verifiable, at least to a certain extent. I think is a more practical way to live for the moment, compared to holding beliefs that are unverifiable, because at least I can explain why I hold a belief. I can justify my beliefs with evidence. What about you?


Monday, 15 December 2014

Starting a Wildlife NGO

Here are some ideas for starting a Wildlife NGO. These are activities that your NGO could take up.

  1. Wildlife rescue –
    1. Rescue animals forced into entertainment
    2. Maintain a shelter to keep them.
    3. Maintain a network of professional animal caretakers & vets to help.
  2. Wildlife Research –
    1. Research aimed at conservation - ecology, distribution, predator-prey relationships, etc.
    2. Hire scientists to do research.
    3. Hire project managers to oversee researchers and develop conservation plans.
  3. Networking, communications & fundraising - Get a marketing team in place to do what they do best.
  4. Fight cases in court – Hire environment lawyers.
  5. Education/training – Hire education consultants to design outreach programs, scientists and and volunteers for education campaigns in schools.
  6. Excursions - Get your coordinators to organise and manage regular hikes or trips to wildlife sanctuaries.


Sunday, 14 December 2014

Stats Blogs I Follow

These are the stats blogs that make me better at what I do.

For stats literacy -

This is the main one for serious statisticians. Andrew Gelman, a statistics professor and Bayesian statistician and programmer, critiques poor statistical practices. Very informative - 

For some advanced talk and a lot of useful links -

Deborah Mayo writes about philosophy of statistics -

Great learning resource for advanced statistical concepts -

You might learn a few things from Daniel Lakens' blog -

A nice revision of important concepts with comics -

More on probability theory -


Saturday, 13 December 2014

Education without Innovation

Most complaints about education systems revolve around them being mostly theory without any practical application. This is a problem because practical application like research methodology & computer lessons are a large part of what you need to go from being a theorist to a practitioner. It is no use studying concepts if you can't use them. But there is another problem I have with the system and it is lack of innovation. 

Students are great at learning theoretical concepts. They are great at regurgitating what they are taught in the form of an essay. Sure this is a form of learning. But it is not innovative. When you gain knowledge being taught to you, you grow to the level of the person teaching you, but you don't necessarily exceed this level. This is why learning itself is useless for humanity without innovation. To truly make a change you need to go beyond what you are taught. You cannot simply learn concepts in a vacuum. You have to combine them to come up with new concepts. This is how new things are created. 

It is the same for practical lessons, which may suffer from the same problem. I can put students through computer classes, but it will not mean much if they just recreate what I can, unless you want no new development. The best way forward is to teach your students the basic concepts with practical application, but to connect these lessons with existing questions, theories or ideas that they already have. This makes their learning context dependent, and motivates them to go beyond their lessons, to use what they have learned to create something new. 


To see this in a broader historical context, countries that invested heavily in scientific innovation have always also been quick to reduce poverty and grow economically following innovation. Innovation makes you rich.

For example, Britain once had a lot of poverty. They were able to grow as a nation and coloniser and reduce their poverty because they innovated. This does go hand in hand with how much poverty you have of course. Britain had some labour, but not a lot i.e their labour was expensive because they were few, so they were forced to innovate, to find ways to mechanise processes that didn't require labour. They invented the steam engine, among other things, which meant that more resources could be processed, and which made the means of processing them even cheaper. This also meant that they could now do things quicker and cheaper than other more labour intensive countries could. 

Compare this with India, where everything was done by hand. It still is in many villages, because it is still economical to do so. The low cost of living and availability of cheap labour acts as a deterrent to invent in technology. This is of course fine if you aren't competing with other countries and if those other countries are peaceful. But this isn't the case. Exploiters gotta exploit. Britain had superior technology because they innovated because they were under pressure to do so. India had cheap labour so there was no pressure to innovate and so didn't have superior technology. It was the same with a lot of African and Asian countries where labour was cheap. No investment in technology. No incentive to innovate. And of course the countries with superior technology ended up colonising the countries without any. 

Bouncing back

You also see this with countries like Japan and Germany. Germany of course had a history of scientific development. But Japan didn't. It is interesting to see how these two countries managed to become economic powerhouses and developed countries despite losing world wars. Germany invested heavily in industries prior to both world war one and world war two. Even though they lost the wars, they still had the brains, the skilled technicians to build their economy, to continue creating, processing and selling products and services that other countries needed, which kept the money coming in, which meant they could continue to invest internally, in infrastructure, healthcare, education, and yes, in science and technology, to keep that loop going. 

It was the same with Japan. A country with immense poverty before world war two, they invested heavily in technology and innovation. They knew they were decades behind other countries in scientific development because of their isolationist policy. Political ambition and conquest drove their industrialists and businessmen to invest in technology, to send their best people abroad for training, to bring back, adopt, copy or recreate whatever they could, to bridge that gap between themselves and the west. Which they finally did. In a very short time frame to boot. Sure this was partly driven by war, but following their loss, which included recovering from two atomic bombs, they still had the scientific knowhow to become the number one economy in Asia. Because they had invested in technology like no other country had. So even though they lost, they were still number one in Asia in science and technology. 

History shows us that winning or losing wars doesn't matter as long as you own superior technology and a workforce that knows how to use it. You might occasionally grow overambitious, make dumb decisions like invading another country, and getting your ass kicked and pride hurt, but as long you still own superior technology, you will always bounce back quickly.

Owning the future 

China and India were happy being agrarian societies, while Japan correctly ascertained that if you wanted to be a world leader, you had to own the technologies that no on else had, because this gave you an advantage. You had to have products and services that made you more powerful, because you were able to do things better than any other country (like build better factories that built better cars, faster planes, etc.). This not only gives you a military advantage, but also something to sell to other countries for a very high value. 

Having better weapons not only gives you a military advantage, but it also creates a new market for exports. Having more money go into medical research means a better healthcare industry which means better trained doctors and hospitals with more advanced tools and techniques, which they can export. It also means better pharmaceuticals, which can be licensed or manufactured abroad. Again, the foreign countries that lack innovation only get to do outsourced blue collar work, not highly paying work. R&D stays at home. No country that owns technology is going to sell it. This has changed to some degree in recent years, with companies becoming more global, and R&D happening worldwide, which is an interesting change. It flattens the playing field somewhat.

But it's still shocking that people ruling countries today still act like they don't get the fact that for innovation to truly benefit you, you have to partake in it, so you end up owning the technology that results from it. When you look back at the recent history of India, it is shocking that there has been no efforts at home grown anything. If all you do is import foreign technology, you aren't owning the technology, you're simply renting it, or buying an end product of that technology, which is easily outdated. When India buys weaponry from Russia, Israel or France, it's buying old technology, perhaps even second hand products. Even if it is better than what its competitors have, it is still no comparison to having your own state of the art military industrial complex, like the US, Russia or France have. 

This doesn't only go for weaponry, but also for public infrastructure like trains. Why does India have to go to France, China or Japan to build a Metro or Monorail? Because it doesn't have the technology to do it internally. It has to contract the design work out to foreign firms, and then use local labour to build them. This despite the fact that monorail technology is over a hundred years old. This shows you how backward India is, how lazy it has been at innovating. It isn't like the incentives weren't there. They were, just as they were there for Japan. I don't mean war, but the incentive of not being left behind, of wanting the best for your people. 

Indian leaders simply do not have this vision. If they did, they would invest more in education and research. Without these, you're always going to be second best. You're always going to be left behind. And your country might always be exploited, particularly in terms of trade. Crops don't fetch the same prices that advanced technology does. A lack of innovation means that you're constantly dependent on other countries and their aggressive policies for products and services. To be the best you can't keep chasing the best, you have to outrun them. To chase is to lose. If in ten years you aim to be where the US is today, say n years ahead, then you're still going to be n years behind the US ten years from now. Your goal should be to grow at a faster rate than your competitors if you want to catch up with them. 

Reducing poverty

This is also how you get rid of poverty. Yes, low cost labour intensive production provides jobs to everyone, but it also sustains poverty because it doesn't really help the economy. In 50 years, when other countries have moved on to other technologies and you're still using a low cost labour intensive system to make things by hand, your economy will be in bad shape. Your workers might have jobs, but their pay will be low, because their work is simple and there's many of them. They might have just enough to cover food and basic living expenses, but no money to spend on more expensive goods and services, which means low purchasing power and a smaller market for expensive goods, which hurts the economy. Whereas other countries that abandoned labour intensive production ended up with a highly skilled workforce that are highly paid because labour is now expensive because their skills are valued, and they can now buy expensive stuff, which creates a market for more expensive items, which in turn drives the economy. This is pretty much a comparison of socialist India and capitalist USA in the 80s. 

This isn't a bad thing if Indians don't care about foreign products. But they do. They care about a better quality of life. However, because their economy is in bad shape, there's no money for the government to invest in infrastructure. This is partly due to subsidies, but those subsidies wouldn't exist or matter if your people were richer, which they would be if they had higher order skills that they could sell for more money. If you invest in innovation, say in factory production, there might be some job loss, but in the long run, you will need a highly skilled workforce to manage these new processes. You could have a million people harvest cotton by hand, or you could have machines do it, and have those million people do more specialised, highly paying work, like overseeing the machines, maintaining them, working towards business strategy, doing logistics, HR, marketing, PR, sales, client relationship management, IT. 

Through innovation, investing in scientific development and developing new and better ways to do things, you make life better for your workforce. Instead of earning a pittance doing low value work, they're now earning a lot doing high value work. This is how countries and economies grow. Innovation makes you rich. It's a costly investment, but the returns justify the costs. You see this as a historical pattern when you look at present day industrial nations that used to be agrarian - China, USA, Japan. All you need are leaders who can see and learn from history.