Archive for August, 2012

Neil Armstrong

August 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Since the time I read about the Apollo program in Andrew Chaikin’s A man on the moon, every time I looked at the moon I have always wondered what an incredible achievement landing on the moon was. That thought never failed to moist by eyes. Today it was announced that Neil Amstrong passed away. We are not sure when exactly it happened. Twitter is abuzz with people sharing links about him. I thought I can share with you some interesting articles I read. Here they are.

What did the then American president, Richard Nixon, plan to say if the Moon landing failed? Here is the prepared statement.

The statement from his family announcing his death.

A really interesting piece in the garb of advice to journalists on what photos should NOT be used in tomorrow’s newspapers.

Statement from Buzz Aldrin, the second person who landed on the moon, on Neil Armstrong’s passing away.

An obituary in The Economist.

The actual video of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon …

… and what the conversation at that time was.

Neil Armstrong’s last interviewwhich ends rather well. When asked about conspiracy theories of the moon landing being a hoax, he replies:

it was never a concern to me because I know one day, somebody is going to go fly back up there and pick up that camera I left.

To end this on a positive note, here is the New York Times article published the day after the landing.

Just so the enormity of the achievement is not lost on us, here is Neil Armstrong on the moon (from NASA’s picture gallery).

A simple puzzle and a lesson in probability

August 13, 2012 3 comments

At the risk of sounding immodest, let me say I consider myself above average in mathematics. But when, sometime back, I heard of the Monty Hall problem, I was forced to reconsider the assessment of my skills. The problem kept me confused for a day. Then I forgot about it. I was reminded of the problem now because I am now reading Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape (Let me give you some envy saying I bought this for $1.5 at a local used goods store), where the author writes about this problem to illustrate how people tend to feel they are right, even when it is clearly proven to them they are wrong. Since he was so confident of the answer, I was intrigued and looked up the problem on wikipedia.


The Monty Hall problem is a probability puzzle loosely based on the American television game show Let’s Make a Deal and named after the show’s original host, Monty Hall.

Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1 [but the door is not opened], and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

The puzzle is a very simple one. The twist lies in the fact that in your first attempt, you have 3 doors to choose from, while the second time you are allowed to choose, you have only two doors. It seems reasonable to argue that since you had already chosen one, and because you have only two options in the second attempt, there is really no point in switching, as either door will have a probability of 1/2 of having a car behind it.

But the correct answer is that you should always switch. One way to understand that answer is to think as follows: Imagine, that the first choice you made was indeed the door with the car. The probability for that is 1/3. The probability that the car is in one of the other two doors is 2/3. So, if you do not switch, you will get the car only in 1/3rd of your attempts,  but if you switch, you will get the car in 2/3rds of your attempts. Therefore you should always switch.

Though I understood this, I was still not very satisfied. Let me make my confusion clear. The events in the current scenario are as follows:

  1. I choose a door.
  2. The host then opens a door with a goat.
  3. I get the option to switch, which effectively means I can choose to open one of the two remaining doors.

I wondered how different this is from the slightly different scenario given below:

  1. The host opens a door containing a goat.
  2. The host then allows me to choose one of the remaining two doors.

I felt that these two scenarios were the same and so the answer did not really convince me. Then it finally dawned. Step 1 in the first scenario and step 2 in the second scenario are not the same. They are different because, in Step2 of Scenario 1, the host chooses the door he wants to open from only two doors. While in step 1 of the second scenario, the host chooses the door from all the three doors. Therein lies the answer to my confusion.

When the host chooses from two doors, the possibilities before him are as follows (assuming the player chose Door 1):

  • Both Door 2 and Door 3 have goats in which case he will open any one randomly.
  • Door 2 has  a car, in which case he opens Door 3
  • Door 3 has a car, in whcih case he opens Door 2

So, in two of the three possibilities, he is correctly telling us which door has the car. Only in the first possibility is he misleading us (so to say). So trusting him to guide us to the right door, means we will get it right 2 out of 3 times. And so we should always switch.

But Sam Harris says in his book:

Even when people understand conceptually why they should switch doors, they can’t shake their initial intuition that each door represents a 1/2 chance of success.

I do not share that experience. Once I saw what was wrong with my initial thought process, I clearly see that we should always switch. My initial conclusion that switching makes no different to my chances of getting a car, clearly seems to be wrong now after all that analysis. What do you think? Do you still feel, even after looking at the answer, that switching does not help?

Eating ethics

August 6, 2012 12 comments

Yesterday, Venkat and Ranjini, my colleagues at work (who also happened to be married to each other, a fact that I learnt pretty recently even though I knew them individually for quite sometime) invited me and two other friends Nithya and Bharath over to their place for lunch.  Needless to say I accepted the invitation and was hanging around their community since 9.30 in the morning (No!). They were wonderful hosts. They fed us, showed us a movie, took us to Charlotte in their car, fed us Chaat, took us back to their home, again fed us, and finally dropped us back in our homes. I had a lot of  fun and reached home only past midnight. While with them, the topic of vegetarianism came up. Though there was no serious debate, there were very brief discussions on whether one eats eggs or not, whether eggs are considered vegetarian, why some people consider fish to be vegetarian etc. Moreover, since coming to the US, I have frequently been in places where the only options before me are either beef or bacon. All this reminded me of how my ideas on these questions evolved.

Some questions

It is my impression that many people who are vegetarians, have not really thought out the reasons for their vegetarianism clearly. Many are vegetarians simple because they have been brought up that way, as was the case with me for a very long time. I remember once trying to argue with a friend, Deepak, on why one should not eat animals. My primary argument against eating meat was that killing animals hurts them and so should not be done. Since plants did not experience pain, it was ok to slice, boil or fry them. My reasoning was so primitive (let me add that I had just finished school then), that I had not anticipated the obvious question that follows, which my friend promptly put to me. Is it ok to eat animals that were killed after being given an anaesthesia? I did not have an answer to that, but deep inside I still felt strongly that eating animals was inexcusably wrong . I still remember feeling supremely disappointed when I learnt that my elder brother eats chicken, looking back at which I can only wonder how stupid and naive I was (I was in my teens, then).

There is also another fundamental problem. Considering that every living thing on earth is a relative of every other living thing, is it really posssibly to draw a firm line between plants and animals? Of course we do not wonder what categories brinjals and cows belong to a they are very clear examples, but there surely are grey areas .The question of eggs adds to the confusion. Let me add here that I started eating eggs recently (primarily as omelettes). Is eating eggs moral? Many argue that eating eggs is ok because chickens do not come out of them anyway as they are unfertilised (There are no roosters around in farms). Then, there are also those who argue that even consuming milk is ethically wrong because they come from animals.

The way out

With all these questions, the situation seems to be pretty messy. But all this can be cleared up, by focusing on the right things. Let me start with what I think is the crux of the whole issue. Starting from that point we can zoom out to try to answer all the questions that came up till now. The basis on which our eating decisions should rest, should be that no living organism capable of feeling suffering, should be hurt for our own pleasure or for our nutrition. I get much of what follows from Peter Singer’s ideas which I heard in some of his interviews and lectures*. I have not read his famous book Animal Liberation, I must pick it up the next time from the library. Here is one of his videos.

Let us begin with eggs. Can eggs feel pain? They clearly cannot. But that alone does not make it ethical to eat eggs. It is a common scene to see a man on his cycle carrying 5-6 chickens tied to each side of his handlebar all hanging upside down by their legs. Try imagining what would happen if you were hung that way. Also common are the rows and columns of metal cages in which chickens are packed extremely close to each other. If an egg comes from a place that treats the chickens so badly, we definitely are not doing the right thing by eating those.** That much, I assume, you will agree. Then again, eating eggs from chickens that laid those eggs happily on their own does seem to be ok. But only if we are sure that the chicken is not emotionally attached to its eggs. I know the last sentence might have sounded too silly, but my point is that, the question of eating eggs is not answered by discussing whether those eggs would have gone on to make chickens, but on how its mother was treated. Again, it is the pain and suffering caused to any animal because of our actions, that should form the basis of our decisions, and not some arbitrary idea of what is right and wrong. And that means we should also count in the possibility of the chickens’ emotional pain of seeing one of its eggs missing. But the eggs that we usually buy from supermarkets are usually from theses factory farms, and should definitely be avoided (Yes, I am morally wrong in eating eggs).

What about milk and honey? As far as milk is concerned, it is the welfare of the cows that is primary. If the cows are treated well, drinking milk that is anyway far too much for the calves, is not ethically wrong. But for most of the milk we buy, I doubt if the cows are treated well and so there is a point in what vegans say. We are indeed doing the wrong thing by consuming milk. When it comes to honey, I think it is ok. I understand that the bees lose their honey and their lives too, but I doubt if they are conscious of themselves and are capable of pain, and so I think it is ok. But, On the point of honey, I am not entirely sure if bees are incapable of pain, and so I could be wrong in saying consuming honey is ok.

Now let us come to eating animals. Since animals are obviously capable of experiencing pain (if you are not sure, try biting a dog), killing them to eat is definitely not right. What about animals that were initially made unconscious and then put to death? Again we need to see who will suffer because of our actions. In case of animals that are painlessly put to death, there are two quetsions to be considerd: One is how they were treated when alive? This is the same as the question of how the chickens which lay the eggs were treated. The second one is to consider whether it has relatives and friends that would miss losing a good friend or father or son or daughter or mother or cousin. I realise this sounds like a heavy dose of sentimentality, but that is how we really should evaluate. After all, the goal of ethics should be to ensure that we reduce the amount of suffering to all beings capable of suffering. If those animals are not that self conscious to realise the death of its relatives then it is ok, but if they can experience the emotional pain of losing a loved one, we are wrong in farming those animals for our own food. It is this argument that makes it ok to eat plants, since we think they are not self conscious, that they cannot feel pain and they cant grieve the death of a close friend who was just cut down unthinkingly.

Roadkills? Is it ok to eat an animal found naturally dead in a forest? In this case, a different question should come into play. Since we did not kill the animal, we cannot be held respondible for its relatives’ grief. But the question now is, whether those friends would have some emotional connect with the body of the dead animal. I remember reading in Jane Goodall‘s book, In the shadow of man, about a mother chimpanzee, which carries around its dead child for more than a day, even after knowing it was dead. A very touching incident, but it means that the dead animal too meant something to its parent. In such a case, for the sake of the parent we should not eat the child. Of course, very rarely do humans eat chimpanzees, but I am only trying to illustrate the point that the emotional states of friends and relatives should also be taken into account.

The last three paragraphs flow from the idea that it is the physical and emotional suffering that animals are capable of, that should guide us on what to eat and what not to. I hope I have been cogent enough for that. But let us take this argument to the next level.

Can we eat humans?

Please don’t close this window yet. I am aware that it is disgusting to think of eating other humans, but let us take our principle of minimal suffering to its logical conclusion. Can we eat humans? We cannot kill humans to eat because it causes them pain. We cannot eat naturally dead humans, as there will be relatives and friends who would undergo emotional pain because of that. But imagine a scenario, where a complete loner (let us say nobody in this world knows him) just died naturally in a forest that you were trekking. You know that nobody in the world is even aware of his existence. My point is that there is nothing ethically wrong in eating that person.

Some of these ideas (as mentioned before they are not mine), can sound a bit too superficial. I remember talking to my younger brother, Pratap, about this when he for somehow could not see how we can justify eating eggs (he said something like, what about the chicken’s right to have eggs). Of course, there are lots of arguments that have not been covered here. There is also the often made point that it is environmentally wasteful trying to get nutrition from animals, as they are one step above plants in the food chain.

I have talked about eating chimpanzees and humans. But that does not mean I do that (just in case you were wondering). I am only trying to lay out the steps to evaluate the consequences of your actions. If you find the idea of eating even eggs repulsive, then you are not bound to do that (I find the idea of eating garlic repulsive). But the point is that one should not argue whether one is an animal or a plant, to decide whether it is moral to eat it or not. Such distinctions are rather useless. Rather, one should try to find out the effects of one’s actions on the overall wellbeing of living organisms. And that is the way to eat. To live.


* This is not the first time, I am influenced by Peter Singer’s ideas.

**As I completed this post, my elder brother told me that there are eggs sold in the United States, on which it is explicitly stated that those eggs were not from chickens held in cages. They are more expensive, than the usual ones.