What Math?


If venture capitalists existed in the fifth century BCE, they would have invested in the catapult building enterprise without much thought. Social networking was not the big thing then.

The invention of the catapult had a major impact on ancient warfare and it was assumed that the catapult builders knew the principle behind the steelyard balance. Turns out that the catapult was built around fifth century BCE and Archimedes and other mathematicians of the Hellenistic era (time from Alexander’s death to the defeat of Cleopatra) came up with the theory, some 200 years later.

“They didn’t all go to Plato’s Academy to learn geometry, and yet they were able to construct precisely calibrated devices,” Schiefsky said, adding that craftsmen combined some improvisational trial and error with years of practice to make their machines functional.

The steelyard, which used unequal arms and weights to weigh items, was one device in use well before the advent of the math that explained it. It was a simple case of necessity being the mother of invention, with things like meat needing to be weighed and some method required to do so, Schiefsky said.

Athenians also understood the mechanics behind a basic pulley system well before Archimedes came along and invented the compound pulley, which the Greeks famously used to hoist and topple enemy ships during battles at sea. [Catapults Invented Before Theory Explained Them]

The only help mathematicians provided was to make the catapult more precise so that if an Epicurean wanted to fling a projectile on a Stoic’s head he could do so with precision.

Small things that matter

More than a decade back when  Yahoo! and Hotmail provided webmail services it was a great innovation, but over time those services became stagnant without any major break through. These services provided only a paltry 4 MB of storage, but were reliable. Then Google came and changed the game. Besides providing storage in the GB range, Gmail also provided a threaded view of the mails which is not a Google innovation, but was something new in the webmail world.

There was one small innovation which Gmail did, something which the other providers did not think about. In Gmail, when you start typing the first few characters of the receiver’s name, it auto completes the name. This not so hard to implement feature saves a few keystrokes in typing the address, a few mouse clicks in finding it from the address book and spares a few neurons from having to remember the email addresses.

No one takes the concept of distinguishing themselves from the crowd more seriously than Apple. If you go to an Apple Store to buy something, you will find that they don’t have the traditional cash counters. Instead, the staff will take a hand held device, scan your items, and  send the receipt to your email address. The staff can walk around with these devices and thus preventing any queues in the store. Sending the receipt to your email address keeps Al Gore, an Apple board member, happy too.

Costco did not get rid of the cash counters, but instead if the queues were getting too long, an employee would walk down the queue, scan your items and give you a bar coded receipt. At the counter you hand over the paper and pay  thus speeding up the queue.

The small things that make a difference can be found by studying your competitors. If you are an NRI account holder in HDFC Bank, you need to dial an Indian number to get help. When you call that number you are often asked to come to the bank and when you go to the branch you are asked for your ration card. All that is for another post. If you have a Citibank account, they provide a 1-800 number which also takes you to India, but at least it is toll free.

In a field where there are many competing players, it is small things like these which distinguish the great ones from the ordinary.

Day Dreaming Explained

The most difficult task while sitting for meditation is to bring the wandering mind to focus on a single thing, like the breath or a mantra. Usually when you attempt these things the mind will go back into the past or future and start pondering various useless questions. Scientists have now found the neural mechanism which causes the mind to wander.

But now psychologists and neuroscientists in Aberdeen and America have revealed that a collection of areas in the brain termed the default network, supports what is known as mind wandering.

The findings are published today in top journal Science.

The scientists carried out their research with the help of volunteers whose brains were scanned as they performed simple memory tasks.

The results revealed that when participants performed practised tasks with which they were familiar, activity in regions of the default network was associated with episodes of mind wandering, a finding that underscores the importance of this system in guiding the stream of consciousness.

The paper in Science entitled Wandering Minds: The Default Network and Stimulus-Independent Thought was a collaboration involving the University of Aberdeen; Dartmouth College, Hanover, USA and Harvard University, USA. [What happens when the mind wanders?]

The default network are those parts of the brain that is active when you don’t need to concentrate and this day dreaming is the brain’s default setting.

He says that the new work suggests that activity in the default network is necessary to generate spontaneous thoughts and adds to evidence that it makes an important contribution to our inner life. In one published case study, Raichle notes, a woman who suffered damage to part of the default network initiated almost no spontaneous thoughts. “Her mind was empty,” Raichle says.

The study leaves open the question of why minds wander, says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Schooler suspects that mental rambling is generally beneficial. “A lot of the time, people are thinking about worries or problems that they need to work out,” Schooler says, adding that creative insights often happen during these episodes. The new study could be a big help to researchers if it leads to a way to use fMRI to detect mind wandering without interrupting an experimental subject, Schooler says.[Peering Inside the Wandering Mind]

Train your mind, Change your brain

There was a study done some three years back on the effect of meditation on the brain and it was observed that during meditation the brains of monks showed increase in brain waves called gamma waves during compassion meditation. There is a new book called Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley which has more details on the research in this area.

The question asked by the Dalai Lama was “Can mind shape brain matter” and the answer provided by neuroscientists was that physical states give rise to mental states and not the other way around. Now there is evidence that it can happen the other way as well.

Prof. Davidson then used fMRI imaging to detect which regions of the monks’ and novices’ brains became active during compassion meditation. The brains of all the subjects showed activity in regions that monitor one’s emotions, plan movements, and generate positive feelings such as happiness. Regions that keep track of what is self and what is other became quieter, as if during compassion meditation the subjects opened their minds and hearts to others.

More interesting were the differences between the monks and the novices. The monks had much greater activation in brain regions called the right insula and caudate, a network that underlies empathy and maternal love. They also had stronger connections from the frontal regions to the emotion regions, which is the pathway by which higher thought can control emotions.

In each case, monks with the most hours of meditation showed the most dramatic brain changes. That was a strong hint that mental training makes it easier for the brain to turn on circuits that underlie compassion and empathy.

“This positive state is a skill that can be trained,” Prof. Davidson says. “Our findings clearly indicate that meditation can change the function of the brain in an enduring way.”[How Thinking Can Change the Brain]

Coming to car near you

Imagine you are driving peacefully on your Ford on Highway 101. There is the mandatory accident at Marsh Road exit and someone driving a Chevy Tahoe at 55 miles/hr on the left lane blocking your view of not just the road ahead, but also of the sun. Then there is that someone driving a 1900 Toyota Corolla thinking it is a Ferrari weaving across lanes, you know, the usual stuff. Your car halts abruptly, brings a window on the display and informs you that it has downloaded the latest updates and the machine needs a reboot to proceed. Of course, this is an exaggeration, but some version of this is soon possible as Ford is planning to install an in-vehicle operating system developed by Microsoft in Focus and Five Hundred sedans.

The Dearborn, Mich., auto maker will unveil next month a hands-free Bluetooth wireless system and in-vehicle operating system developed by Microsoft that will eventually be an option for its entire Ford brand lineup, according to people familiar with the matter. The new system, to be dubbed Sync, will allow for hands-free cellphone communication and other wireless information transfers inside the car, including the ability to receive email and download music, these people said.

Sync is based on Microsoft’s automotive operating system that has been under development in recent years by the company’s Windows Automotive division, which in 2004 struck a broad development deal with Fiat related to in-car computing. A person close to Microsoft said the company has turned in a spotty performance when it comes to Bluetooth technologies and that the Ford deal could help spur Microsoft’s efforts. [Ford Aims to Jazz Up Its Fleet With Microsoft Pact (subscription reqd.)]

Thankfully this will not affect Indians in the United States as we drive only Hondas and Toyotas.

Garages of Bay Area

Google purchased the two-car garage of the Menlo Park home in which they opened their first offices.

The two-car garage and a few rooms served as the company’s headquarters for five months after the founders took leave of their graduate studies at Stanford University to focus on their search engine, now the most popular in the world.

Google bought the 1,900-square-foot home in September from Susan Wojcicki, a Google vice president, who had leased the garage to Brin and Page in 1998 for $1,700 per month to help pay her mortgage. The sales price wasn’t disclosed, but similar home

Google’s founders worked in the garage shoehorned between computers and boxes piled head high. In a list of corporate milestones, Google mentions its home in Menlo Park with its characteristic humor, saying “the office offered several big advantages, including a washer and dryer and a hot tub.”[Google buys garage, search engine’s home]

In the 70s, when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started a company, their first offices were in the Jobs family garage. His father moved out his car restoration equipment and the garage served as Apple’s first manufacturing base. In 1938, Dave Packard and his wife Lucile move into the first floor flat of a house in Palo Alto. Bill Hewlett, his friend rented a shed behind the house and began work in the garage with a working capital of $538. Their association resulted in Hewlett-Packard.

Even after living in the midst of all these famous garages, I made the mistake of keeping the computer in the office room. Tomorrow, first thing, I am moving it to the garage, so that when varnam.org becomes a multi-billion dollar business, I can also claim that it all started in a garage.

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Converting waste to fuel

There are many advantages of not having to depend on oil for fuel needs. For a nation like India, energy independence will remove the need to bow before the middle-east dictators  and remove this competition with China to grab all oil wells in the world. With this freedom, United States could ignore the lunatic statements from Hugo Chavez and we all could live to see the day when Saudi Arabia’s major business is exporting camels. The problem though is in finding a cost effective alternative.

The market for alternative energies is huge and Venture Capitalists in the Bay Area like Kleiner Perkins and Khosla Ventures have invested in biofuels companies like Altra and Cilion. With companies like VeraSun and Aventine going IPO, ethanol is getting focus as that major alternative. Using E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) could also revive the slumping American car industry and give a boost to farmers.  Going by market trends, Ethanol seems to be the silver bullet as even Wal-Mart is planning to pump ethanol based fuel in gas stations around the country.

But corn based ethanol is not without problems. Ethanol is expensive to make. The fuel efficiency for E85 based vehicles are less compared to the ones running on gas. Besides this ethanol has to be carried in trucks or trains (as there are no pipelines) which requires more fuel to be spent. 

In Back To The Future II  or III, Dr. Emmet Brown comes back from the future , flying in his time machine and is seen scavenging the garbage carts for fuel. He find some soda cans and other pieces of garbage and stuffs it into the fuel tank. This future is near and soon we will all be doing the same , if we are going to use cellulosic ethanol as fuel.

In corn based ethanol, the corn is ground and mixed with water. The enzymes convert the starch to sugar and sugar eating micro-organisms  excrete ethanol, which is distilled and used. With cellulosic ethanol, we don’t have to depend entirely on corn. Farm waste like corn kennel, wheat and barley straw, leaves and stalks of plants can also be used as the source of ethanol.

Finally the cost of cellulosic ethanol is expected to be $1.35/gallon compared to $3.20/gallon right now for regular gasoline. This should be a big boost to consumers who can then buy Ford Explorers and H3s without guilt. Since cellulosic ethanol depends on farm waste, these giant SUV owners can claim that they are clearing waste instead of creating it. In Kerala where we stay, throwing garbage over the wall to the road is considered  good civic sense. If it turns out that this garbage can be used as fuel, then my neighborhood will be the cleanest place in India.