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Voiced and Unvoiced consonants

May 1, 2016 Leave a comment

I am reading “Words and Rules” by Steven Pinker, where I came across voiced and unvoiced consonants. The book explains some of the seeming idiosyncrasies of of the English language with the help of this categorization of consonants which is based on whether they are voiced or not.

Until now I had no idea what this distinction meant. When I looked it up, I learnt that the distinction was whether your vocal cords vibrate or not when articulating a sound. When you make the sound sssss, the vocal cords do not vibrate, while when you make the sound zzzz, the vocal cords vibrate. I do not know much about the anatomy of the voice box, but an easy way to identify whether the vocal cords are vibrating or not, is to feel your upper throat with your fingers while making the noise (as explained here on wikipedia).

If you actually try that while making the s and z sounds, you will feel the vibration for z but not for s. Since the vocal cords do not vibrate for s, it is called an unvoiced consonant, while z is a voiced consonant. Other such example pairs are p and b, f and v and k and g wherein the first of the pairs is unvoiced and the second is voiced.

The book is very interesting (I am only in the 3rd chapter now), but once I learned this voicing distinction, I see this distinction in Indian languages too (the 3 that I am familiar with).

Take Telugu consonants. The way the consonants are listed are as below.

క ఖ గ ఘ ఙ

చ ఛ జ ఝ ఞ

ట ఠ డ ఢ ణ

త థ ద ధ న

ప ఫ బ భ మ

This is exactly the same way in which Hindi consonants are listed too (In both the languages, there are other consonants that follow this set of 25, but I have not given those, as they do not follow this 5 letter pattern).

What is happening here is that the first two letters in each row are unvoiced, while the third and fourth letters are the voiced versions of the first two. Suddenly I realized that there are patterns in the way they are listed. While this is something that people with any interest in language probably already knew, it was completely new and exciting to me.

Curiously, the Indian language I am most familiar with, Tamil, is very different. Tamil maintains only one consonant for each pair. In all the 4 of the 5 cases listed above for Telugu, Tamil uses the same letter for both the voiced and unvoiced versions. For Pa and Ba, it just uses ப (called “pa”). Similarly Ka and Ga has only one letter க which is called “Ka” but used for both sounds. Ta and Da has the same letter டcalled Ta. Tha (as in Thailand) and Dha(as it The) has just one letter த.  But it does have different letters for cha (ச) and ja (ஜ), which is the exception of those 5. I have also heard people say that ஜ (Ja) is not a “true” Tamil character since words of Tamil origin do not have that sound and that it is usually used in words imported from Hindi/Sanskrit. I do not know enough of the language to confirm it (the few examples I know do indeed support this), but if so, there too, Tamil has only one letter.

F and V also constitute a pair of unvoiced and voiced consonants. In this case too, Hindi has separate consonants for each of them फ and व . Telugu and Tamil do not have letters for Fa, while they both have letters for Va. That is probably because Telugu and Tamil do not have words with the Fa sound.




Was Ramanujan Autistic?

April 24, 2016 Leave a comment

I recently read the book, The man who knew infinity . It was a real good book. Ramanujan was born in Erode (BTW, that name is the shortened form of eera odu, which means wet skull. It comes from a legend that Shiva tore off one of Vishnu’s heads), but spent a lot of time in Chennai (my home town) and so it had even more significance for me. It also, naturally, talked about his relationship with G H Hardy. So I highly recommend the book.

But what I want to highlight here is that the possibility that Ramanujan was Autistic. Given below is a page from the book.

A page from Ramanujan describing his childhood. There are some indications that he was probably autistic

A page from Ramanujan describing his childhood. There are some indications that he was probably autistic

The lining up of vessels is a tell-tale sign. If you see the wikipedia page for Autism, you will see that there are two pictures of kids lining up things. Moreover the talk about his tantrums, being self-directed, eating only at a temple (Autistic people are known to stick to a routine), being non-verbal till 3 years old etc suggest strongly that Ramanujan was Autistic.

All this should not be surprising since Autism has been with us for as long as we know. We have just started diagnosing it better. But, once I noticed this passage, I looked it up on the internet and soon found that many people have proposed the possibility that Ramanujan was Autistic. The author of this book though, was probably not aware of Autism (to be fair to him, the book was written 25 years ago, in 1991). There is no mention of it in the book. While the books takes lots of pain to try to understand Ramanujan’s genius and his awkward social capabilities, I wonder how different our understanding of Ramanujan would be, had historians acknowledge the possibility of his being Autistic. More importantly, makes us wonder, how much of his genius was because of his being Autistic. It is, in a sense, a futile exercise, since Autism is not something separate from the person. That is why, autistic self-advocates prefer the word “Autistic person”, rather than “a person with Autism”.

But read the book. It is fascinating. Let me end it on one of the results that Ramanujan discovered which was that the sum of the infinite series 1+2+3+4… is -1/12. You can see the proof in this youtube video.


Categories: Uncategorized

Does reduction in weight really help improve memory?

June 21, 2013 Leave a comment

I read an article in The Hindu today that reported a study that was presented at the The Endocrine Society’s annual meeting at San Francisco. The study claimed that in post menopausal women, reduction in weight led to improvement in memory. The study had very specific criteria of people who are eligible: post-menopausal women whose BMI (Body Mass Index) is greater than 27.

I tried to look for the source of this article. The results seem to have been presented at a meeting, and I could not claim my hands on the study (not for lack of access, I don’t see it published anywhere online). The closest I could get was to find the meeting abstract. I also found this article on Huffington Post that gave more details about the study.

I have multiple problems with the study (based on what I could gather from the articles and the abstract linked earlier).

What prompted me to find the source of the article was the sample size. Of late, I have learnt how to read science articles a little bit better. One of the key things to notice in such studies is the sample size. This study was done on 20 women. Yes, just 20. The Huffington Post article referred to an earlier study that claimed that obesity in post menopausal women leads to memory impairment. That study had more than 8000 subjects.

The second problem was the ease with which it has been suggested that it was the reduction in weight that led to better performance. The memory test given was to remember picture-name pairs and to recollect them later. The study says that after reduction in weight, FMRI scans revealed higher activity while storing the memory, and lower activity while retrieving it, suggesting that once weight was reduced, it was storing well (using more resources) and recollecting easily (using very little effort). There is nothing to indicate that it was weight loss that caused this improvement. What if the women were feeling more confident and happy after losing weight and so performed better? What if they knew that this was a post-evaluation and so had to do better as they felt obliged to show improvement? What if the post-weight loss memory assessment showed better performance merely because they had already done the same activity before losing weight and so were better at it a second time?

I am also surprised that all the 20 women they chose did indeed stick to their diets and lost weight. The probability of that happening, appears very less to me. If it were so easy to induce people to stick to a diet (this study seems to have done it with 100% success), there would be a lot less number of fat people. If this 20 was only a subset of the people they chose (the subset that did indeed lose weight), then why was that not mentioned in the abstract? Also, if they chose the people who lost weight, did they exclude anyone after post-weight loss assessment?

All of this makes me wonder whether the study established anything at all. I would say no. Of course I have not seen the study itself, but a sample of 20 is too low to establish or even suggest any sort of causality, much less suggest something about our famously complicated brains.

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Rampant sexism in Indian movies

February 24, 2013 Leave a comment

My parents are here with me in the US, helping Prabha and me manage our two children. While it is very good to have them around, there are some inconveniences too, like when yesterday I had the highly nauseating experience of sitting through a Telugu movie that Prabha played for them. It is one of those regular mindless movies where the hero single handedly takes on an ex-CM, beating up ever increasing number of people every 20 mins that the villain sends to rough him up.

While that alone is enough to put me off the movie, what made me move to a different room was the way the hero preaches the heroine on how women should behave. Remember that for a considerable part of the time the movie played, Aman was testing the limits of his voice box by shouting into my ear, while Akash was trying to stand up tugging at my shorts to raise him up and so I could not really focus on the movie. But in a scene where the heroine is downing a beer, the hero preaches to her on how a woman should be. How she should not be drinking, how she must be soft, shy, wear makeup and so on. He goes on to explain how guys dont fall for extraordinary women (as the heroine, playing the role of a journalist, describes herself in the earlier parts of the movie), and that they like only ordinary women.

This kind of sexism never fails to rile me up (why else would I write about it at 3.30 AM). It makes me stinking mad. As a male myself, I don’t think I am completely free of such prejudice. I am sure that there are cases where even my privilege as a male shows. But I am working on it and when pointed out, I am ready to correct myself.

Another reason, why it makes me so uneasy is probably because it reminds me of the time (more than a decade ago) when I thought I liked Rajinikanth’s movies. His movies too are full of such utter nonsense against women (take any movie). It makes me feel sick about what my own thoughts were, when I was in school and college. Needless to say, I am today ashamed to say that I liked his movies at one point.

You might say I am fretting too much about something that is very common. But what concerns me is precisely, that such tripe is so common and that it is not talked about as much as it should be. My worry is that such movies, with big stars, are so popular that people are brainwashed into thinking that the role of women is just to play second fiddle to the men in their lives, and that any kind of assertion of women’s rights becomes something that a woman should never do. When someone does that, she is seen as being not an “ordinary” woman. Those who know not the first thing about feminism, start criticising it. I am not saying that the moment the movie is over, the men go about beating their wives and sisters. But this kind of movie making reinforces the already deeply entrenched idea in our culture, that women are second class beings.

What worries me further is that ideas like these are held my women themselves in our country, and such movies ensure they never get out of such a thought process. Women themselves think that their role is to help men succeed in their lives (as my mom does). I wonder if there are no women on the sets of the movie who will raise their voices against this. But I realise that those women who get to work as technicians in the movie do not get enough control over the process, to assert their views, but what about the heroines themselves? Is Tamanna ok with her journalist character being told that her not wearing make up, her swearing, her beer drinking are all something a woman should not do? I guess so. After all she does not mind being objectified as a mere prop in movie after movie where she gets screen time only because our movie format has five songs as an indispensable component. I can understand men being MCPs (though that does not justify it), but why are women playing along? That should give us an idea of how deep seated such prejudices are.

To get the problem into perspective, imagine a movie, where the hero tells a person, citing her caste, that ordinary people belonging to her caste, should not study in college and that they must act only as a servant of the upper castes and that if she goes to college and gets a degree, that would mean she would not be liked by the members of the upper caste? That would have raised voices from so many people asking for the movie to be banned since it promotes casteism. But, the movies that degrade women are exactly similar, and I would argue, are worse. After all, there is no caste that constitutes 50% of the population. But women who make up almost 50% (slightly less, I know) of our people are stereotyped day in and day out in the movies, and no one seems to care. Why does the censor board let such films through? Why is it not legally a problem to make sexist movies, but casteist movies are a strict no-no? I don’t have an answer, but I know it is wrong, unfair and prejudicial.

What is even more odd about the whole thing is that the women in the movie stars’ families, regularly do things that the movie star himself derides in the movie. Why is it that Rajinikanth does movies like Mannan, while his one daughter is a producer and the other a director? Cant people see the double standards?

I wonder what would happen if some filed a PIL against an obviously sexist movie asking for it to be banned? Would that raise our consciousness? The case might fail, considering that a majority of the judges too might go with the public sentiment that sexism is too common to be banned. I am personally not for banning a movie for being sexist, but I would like to see everyone associated with the movie boycotted and ostracised voluntarily by the rest of the media and people. At least the women in the media and the entire population of women. That would be very nice, but I am not very hopeful of seeing something like that happen in my own lifetime.

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).

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.

Top 5 tips to buying petrol in Chennai

May 29, 2012 Leave a comment

In case you have been spending the past few days in the International Space Station, let me bring you up to date with what is happening in Chennai. The petrol and diesel situation in Chennai is becoming worse. In brief the situation is this. There is no fuel in the city. Neither petrol nor diesel. It cannot get briefer than that. But as always brevity leads to some inaccuracies. It is not that there is no fuel at all. There is some fuel. Somewhere. It is just that nobody knows where.

As my friends would readily attest, I am a socially conscious, ethical, large hearted, selfless individual reminding them mostly of those heroes in the movies who, while mouthing take-my-life-but-spare-that-person’s  dialogues, run and position themselves, with open arms as if about to hug somebody, between the gun and the intended recipient of the bullet. Not wanting to prove them wrong, I thought I should make a list of tips for those who have had the privilege of not having to fill petrol in their vehicles in the last one week, but whose fuel level indicators are slowly making them come back to earth and urging them to wonder what all this fuss about fuel shortage is. Here are the top 5 tips then.

Read more…

Categories: Uncategorized