The Curse of Symbols

This article is a case on why the technology of typesetting was one of the most important contributors to the development of humanity, namely, Europe in comparison to major parts of Asia, particularly India. It would have helped in the medieval ages, I think, if Indians had adopted an easily typeset script like that of English as opposed to the complex Devanagari (and the like).

As outlined in Guns, Germs and Steel, many factors make a region suitable for human physical and (as a natural result) intellectual prosperity. Although the book mainly focuses on differences in Eurasia and the Americas, the ideas can be extrapolated to the context of any specific region. India too, had the right mix of geography (plains, mountains and seas), climate (tropical to temperate), food surplus (agriculture), diseases (refine genetic pool), etc. Yet, India is still a developing country. Apart from the factors that directly help survival, India didn’t see much knowledge proliferation before modern era although the conditions were set right for it, as in the case of many countries in Europe. I think, the (small) hurdle of ineffective communication was possibly the key to the restricted progress in India.

Devanāgarī is one of the most widely used scripture representing Indian languages. It has a structure that emphasizes on sounds formed by consonant-vowel pairs, categorized as alphasyllabary. Each consonant-vowel pair is a separate unit while writing, and so can represent several symbols when considered individually. It is important to consider the number of symbols for replication of texts (knowledge). At least 15 vowels and 34 consonants are necessary in Devanagari to represent the majority of words and representations. That is, 15 X 34 + 15 = 525 symbols! Compare that to English alphabet which has only 26 characters – less by a factor of almost 20. Although it is a minor task for scribes to remember so many symbols as it follows similar patterns, it is an enormous task to typeset them – similar patterns cannot be used to optimize typesetting (in its primitive form). This difficulty is maintained in almost all other scripts of India as they are either a derivative of/to Devanagari or have structures very similar to it. I call this the curse of symbols. This curse is evident in many Central and East Asian scripts too. So with ineffective means of replication of knowledge, collaboration becomes lower and life of the knowledge dwindles. Thus, the curse of symbols should have surely played a huge role in hindering intellectual development in India.

The difficulty in knowledge proliferation due to ineffective communication, I think, has more effects than is immediately apparent. The existence of so many different languages and scripts in India should have come about partly due to this communication deficiency. The mutation of script is higher without proper texts, which slowly leads to derived scripts or new scripts altogether. Simultaneously, the lack of enough knowledge exchange makes people create their own terms for the same things and they finally end up creating new languages. This slow cycle and development of new languages isn’t bad entirely (in fact diversity is good), but it hinders development, social interaction and collaboration in bigger scales and shorter times (as we do today with a common language of English mostly). If the diversity in communication cannot cope up with the human population, it acts as a feedback loop to create more pockets of people having less in common with each other. The only way to stabilize this is to introduce knowledge proliferation in an easy way. European languages succeeded in that very well. Gutenberg effectively changed the world by making knowledge sharing much cheaper and effective.

Today, technology has accelerated the efficacy of knowledge sharing and in turn is making the development of itself faster. The curse of symbols that was faced by our old ancestors is a puny thing to the technology of 21st century; we’ve found effective ways to represent the symbols of all the scripts of the world with Unicode (Ex: Devanagari). In addition, we’ve also found the balance between maintaining commonality and diversity with English. English has grown to be a huge mixed bag by adopting more words every year (about 1000 additions per year in the last decade), hitting the nail on the flexibility head. This versatility is essential from the technical to the colloquial. We collaborate and grow in ever increasing rates today. I wonder what lies ahead… Isn’t the world awesome?

Some notes:
  • The mentions of India above is not restricted to the current geographical borders. I’m broadly speaking about the region in general.
  • The upside of alphasyllabary in Indian scripts is information density. In writing, more information can be conveyed in lesser number of characters compared to English – on an average at least twice the information (I suppose). So you won’t feel so limited with Twitter’s 140 characters if you and your peers know an Indian (or almost any Asian) script.
  • It is said that some of the Vedic systems, such as the caste system played a big role in killing progress in India. I agree partially because knowledge restriction was really underlying the whole thing. Knowledge is freedom. Knowledge is growth.
  • I thought of referring to some puerile scientists who believe in a lost treasure of knowledge in India – like that of flying machines, or elixir of life. They are not worthy of the main article. I don’t blame them entirely. I wouldn’t be too surprised if several generations down the line, a small group of people will have a consensus about Harry Potter possessing a real thrust-less flying technology. That’s the curse of communication gap, which can only be caused by their own ignorance.

Resistance against Theism

I’ve got to declare what kind of a believer I am before everything: I’m not religious, and I can be categorized as an atheist. I would call myself a nontheist however – specifically to think that an intelligent agent is not necessary to run the universe, as opposed to disbelief in a God(s) who does. I write this post for several reasons, but mainly I’m pushed by the fact that there are a few respectful and scientific people who turn out to be religious, which perplexes me. For example Destin from SmarterEveryDay, who I admire and mean no disrespect with this post, makes references to verses in the Bible at the end of almost all his videos. And unlike I initially thought them to be some thoughtful text as an outro to the (awesome!) videos, I realized that he was actually religious! Destin is a rocket engineer who – apart from his day job and being a great father to his kids – takes the time to explore the world in wonderful ways and teach the world about it in his videos. I cannot understand how, as part of his ever inquisitive adventures in understanding the world – which is much more than I could hope to do -, he could not realize the futility of religiousness. When I was very young, I used to love the science subject in school and I’d thought I’d grow up to be a scientist, and yet, I used to pray. I understand that studying science doesn’t have an immediate consequence in making a person non-religious. But over time, exposure to more science made me realize that (intelligent) God doesn’t have to exist. It seems natural that the methods of inquiry and study, which comes as part of learning science and scientific methods, will be applied to everything in life, making any person born into a religious family climb out of the well, eventually. And yet, people remain religious. I’m perplexed by this dichotomy.

I wonder what it used to be like when I used to believe in Gods. (Hindu religion believes in countless Gods.) Why I did so? (Several reasons: family pressure, social status etc.) What I did? (Bunch of rituals.) How did it help me? (It didn’t.) Do I feel like an idiot now? (Kinda.) After my Upanayana ritual, which is to basically grant permission for a boy to perform more rituals in Hindu religion, I used to chant mantras and perform daily Sandhyavandanam to obtain credit from God to spend on. When the term exams in school neared, I used to perform the rituals longer so that I could perform well. The more credit I thought I earned, the more I could spend on points to make my exams easier. It was reasonable, as far as I could think. It took a while for me to notice that on the subjects I hated, for ex. history, this (counter-productive) ritual and belief wasn’t really doing much. The fact was backed by the consistent low performance in social science (I didn’t like science attached to the title), and the reasoning that the question papers are made by humans. The humans who set the paper could not be controlled by God, (to make it tougher for me,) because then God had to control everyone and free will is thrown out of the window, and/or the world is a you-centric world. In either case it seemed unlikely, (although it’s not falsifiable!) and the role of God diminished in making my life easier. Over time, I realized that God doesn’t have to be there to create and maintain the world in the first place and then I stopped doing the rituals. There was some resistance at home (not as much as getting rid of the sacred thread entirely – that’s a different story), but they got used to it. Richard Dawkins’ books, and documentaries such as Zeitgeist (not good on facts I realized later, but nevertheless) fueled the transformation I was going through at that time. I realized later that the only difference between the people who believed in God and me was that I reasoned slightly more than them. It was a subtle difference. Of course everyone, all humans, reason enough to make up a construct for why things fall down when dropped or why God existed. I didn’t understand why they could stop reasoning at the point that God had to create this intricate and complex world, and why not go forward and ask who created God? And in many debates, if they can put out the fact that God is just there or he was created out of nothingness, why can’t the same argument be applied to the Universe? I never thought of reasoning beyond the common belief when I was very young, but later, the methods and discipline of science invariably did. It is thus impossible for me to understand why a person of science can be religious.

Einstein, is quoted as saying “God doesn’t play dice with the universe”, from which people mistakenly think he was a believer in God (in the common sense of it.) What he really thought about nature and what (I believe) inspired him to make such huge contributions to science was that there was something simple underlying everything around us. E = mc², the encapsulation of relation between mass and energy in such a neat little expression is a very good example of the simple nature of things. It is this simplicity governing everything in the universe, that he believed was God. Not the God –  in the common sense of it – as the human-like intelligent agent who rewards the good and punishes the evil. In Einstein’s sense of God, even I can say I am a God-believer, that there are simple laws governing the universe. This form of God doesn’t have any religion associated with it, apart from the religion of science, if it can be called so. I like to think that Destin is indirectly associated (only) to this kind of religion.

I can’t help but only wonder about the dichotomy in the people I care about and who care about me. I have tried to respectfully argue with them about the irrelevance of (intelligent) God in the modern understanding of the Universe, the waste of time and resources in performing rituals in the name of God, the peer pressure that acts as a feedback loop to force people to stick to their beliefs, and I’ve to admit I’ve failed almost always. Sometimes, I’m forced to stop arguing because I could have hurt them. Lately, I’m stopping the debates, and the resistance against their beliefs. I give up the fight not just because the energy I spend on it almost always goes futile, or because I don’t want to hurt people, but there are some things I can’t change. I realize that the only way the change can happen is with time. With time, the truth will seep through to the younger generations, as it has to us from previous generations’ thinkers.

Some notes:
  • I have not or will not treat any theist disrespectfully, or have soreness against them. However, I have soreness against those, who in the name of religion or God hurt other people for justice. (The violence is inherent in human nature, but is fueled by religion.)
  • Although I’ve not delved into the field of quantum mechanics (at all!), I tend to align with Einstein’s view of randomness in sub-atomic levels to be governed by something esoteric we haven’t discovered yet. I might be wrong.
  • I love each and every YouTuber who makes videos about science and education. Destin from SmarterEveryDay, is no less; I was just surprised at his beliefs, and take him as an example as many readers might know him. I am related to so many wonderful people, similar to Destin, whom I’m honored to have in my life.

Patent before Publish

One of my past endeavors included research (and development) at an institute. It goes without saying that for any endeavor in academia (or otherwise), the road is full of potholes. One such pothole my adviser and I fell for was that we published the research findings before applying for a patent. Imagine this (my experience): You start validating a new concept with initial prototypes. The concept checks out and you decide to build a complete system. You work through several iterations building the system. You jump through hoops to conduct experiments. The whole exercise takes around an year of your time. You are excited that the results are even better than you expected, and you run to publish it. On the day the paper is accepted, you think it is the right time to apply for a patent. Reason: if the peer reviewers (satisfied that the content is worthy and most likely novel) have given the green signal for your paper, surely the patent granting authority wouldn’t have any problems. Right? NO! That’s just not how it works! Now, my personal experience is limited to applying for patent in Indian subcontinent, but I’m pretty sure, the safest way in any other country too would be to Patent before Publish.

Normally, universities/institutes have an office/department that deals with intellectual property generated in the campus. Here, it is arranged for experts (in legal matters) to offer advise about intellectual property rights and/or help file patents. It is a lawyer from such a department that revealed to us that we are going about this patent thing the complete way around. He told us that apart from publishing, even the presentation that we’d done to the public as part of an open day, cut down on our credibility to file the patent. It turns out that you shouldn’t even as much as talk about your invention in a public place such as the department cafeteria, lest someone might overhear your idea and file a patent before you do. The most painful of all such quirks: You’re not even supposed to apply for funds before you file the patent application! The exception to this of course is if the fund granting entity signs a non-disclosure agreement – it rarely happens this way. It is also worthy to note that in most parts of the world, the day a patent is filed is considered above all for the rightful ownership, irrespective of the day work on the invention had started. This is different in US however, where it is allowed to gain ownership by producing documents that validate date of invention. US is also lenient on the allowance of a grace period of 1 year from the date of public disclosure to file an application. But if it is competitive, even with the leniency in the US, the applicant might lose out to say a nefarious agent who produces falsified documents based on information from disclosures such as publications. So irrespective of the country, it is best to ensure the filing of a patent application before important details about research/project is divulged to the public.

Apart from the timing of application, the general view in academia is to be least cared about intellectual property. I think they have been so, partly because of the restrictions mentioned above, and the swirl of legal mess involved with applications; and frankly, even we were least bothered about the idea of patenting in the early stages of the project. As with us, many reach a stage (earlier the better!) where they foresee a potential for commercial usage of their invention – a novel development done to perform the research or  a development which can be derived directly from the research. Apart from the potential monetary benefits of owning intellectual property, many universities hold up a granted patent as high as publication in top journals. Also, you wouldn’t have to shell up the huge attorney fees that you would normally have to, if you’re applying for a patent outside the university. Thus in general, it is beneficial to take the extra step of probing the realm of intellectual property and it is important to execute this exercise in the early stages of the research/project.

Back to my experience: As for the patent application that we were denied to make, the lawyer (from the intellectual property department) offered advice to develop/modify the system so that it can be considered novel. So on top of the key upgrades I had in mind to make the system more robust and user-friendly, I made the changes as advised, so that it could be considered “novel enough”. After about 6 months from the date of (paper) publishing, we finally filed for the patent. Fun fact: When our patent application drafts were being reviewed, my adviser and I would cringe at some of the jargon and claims they (in the legal world) preferred to use. In the intention of covering as wide a scope as possible, they literalize the idiom “Make a mountain out of a molehill”. I think such incidences also play a part in academia’s reluctance towards considering intellectual property. (Note: I’ve nothing against the attorney or the intellectual property office.)

Hello, World! (again!)

Ever since I bought a domain ( in 12th Std. for the sake of having a custom email address (Google Apps), I’ve been using the domain and some cheap/free hosting (Ex. Freehostia) for testing a few scripts I wrote in free time or to stage websites I used to design for others before releasing. It was only right after graduating from SIT that I wanted to maintain a public journal, and so, I started the Oxidification Blog. This is the second iteration of the blog; I scrapped the last one because I  didn’t post many articles actively and the blog design/theme looked archaic. I ended up being inactive because I was transitioning from research at IISc to working full-time at Bosch. Now that I can afford a decent web hosting and have some free time, I take this opportunity to restart the maintaining-a-public-journal of things project. I will be posting articles about things related to Computer Science, Electronics, Photography, Life etc., and I will be glad if anyone finds them interesting.

The following is an excerpt from the “Hello, World!” post from my previous iteration of  blog/journal, that delves into some “Hello, World!” trivia:

Here’s a list of Hello world programs written in almost all languages, and here’s a list of programs written by different kinds of programmers (by age). Here’s a comic about Python language. And for the people who have not done any programming in their lives, here’s a computer language that you can learn easily because it has only 8 commands. And no, I’m not sarcastic. Do I look sarcastic?