Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Turning meat-eaters into vegans

Rowan Jacobsen, author of "Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis" has an article about plant-based replacements for meat, from which I quote this encouraging paragraph:

“Livestock is an outdated technology,” says Patrick Brown.

Considering the speed of change, the money and smarts being thrown at the problem, and the desperate need, it seems likely that sometime in the next decade, Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods or another rival will perfect vegetarian beef, chicken, and pork that is tastier, healthier, and cheaper than the fast-food versions of the real thing. It will be a textbook case of disruptive technology: overnight, meat will become the coal of 2025—dirty, uncompetitive, outcast. Our grandchildren will look back on our practice of using caged animals to assemble proteins with the same incredulousness that we apply to our ancestors’ habit of slaughtering whales to light their homes.

Monday, March 21, 2016

How India Made Britain More Literate

Dharampal’s book ‘The Beautiful Tree’ contains a 1823 report by Ballari district collector. The collector mentions a curious fact:

The economy with which children are taught to write in the native schools, and the system by which the more advanced scholars are caused to teach the less advanced and at the same time to confirm their own knowledge is certainly admirable, and well deserved the imitation it has received in England.

Rev. Bell was in India to work in the asylum for the progeny of British soldiers through native Indian women, whom of course the soldiers abandoned. The imported teachers for these children were not exactly enthusiastic. One day as he was riding along Madras beach he noticed a native school session. He saw “little children writing with their fingers on sand, which after the fashion of such schools, had been strewn before them for that purpose” and he also saw “peer teaching - children learning from one another.”

Bell had his Eureka moment. He experimented successfully with this method and in 1797 published the description of his “Madras method” in England. Tooley discovered that the new National Society for the Education for the Poor in 1811 adapted this Madras method and by 1821, 300,000 children were being educated by Bell’s principles .

Meanwhile Jospeh Lancaster has launched his famous Lancastrian schools for furthering education in England. Bell and Lancaster entered into a bitter controversy as to the intellectual property of the particular system of education. But Tooley points out that “it wasn’t invented by either Bell or Lancaster. It was based precisely on what the Rev.Dr.Andrew Bell had observed in India”.

Rogoff: " population in long-term decline..."????

Kenneth Rogoff here:
Some say that governments did not do enough to stoke demand. Although that is true, it is not the whole story. The biggest problem burdening the world today is most countries’ abject failure to implement structural reforms. With productivity growth at least temporarily stuck in low gear, and global population in long-term decline, the supply side, not lack of demand, is the real constraint in advanced economies.
Perhaps he means the "global population of the advanced economies" (whatever that means)?
Even restricted to what the UN calls "more developed regions", a population decline begins in 25 years from now, if it ever does.  It is hard to imagine that quarterly-results-obsessed US industry is thinking that far ahead.  But I'm not an economist, let alone a very sharp and respected one.

From a United Nations website:

Human evolution: an extraordinary claim from Masol

"Cut marks on bone fossils found on an Indian foothill could well change the narrative on human evolution".

PS: looking for publications on the subject, here is one (but the abstract mentions no dates):

The lithic industries on the fossiliferous outcrops of the Late Pliocene Masol Formation, Siwalik Frontal Range, northwestern India (Punjab)

Intentional cut marks on bovid from the Quranwala zone, 2.6 Ma, Siwalik Frontal Range, northwestern India


The Indo-French research program ‘Siwaliks’ has been surveying the Late Pliocene Formation of the Chandigarh anticline (NW India) since 2008. These sub-Himalayan floodplain deposits are known for their Tertiary-Quaternary transitional fauna, especially those from the Quranwala zone in the Masol Formation, whose basal member is approximately 130 meters below the Gauss/Matuyama paleomagnetic reversal (2.588 Ma). About 1500 fossils have been collected in the inlier of Masol, most often on recently eroded outcrops, and sometimes in association with stone tools (choppers, flakes). Many bones were covered by a variety of marks (animal, bioerosion and tectonics) and among these traces a few were intentional cut marks. Different methods have been applied in Paris (France) to describe their topography on a micron scale, using the 3D Digital Video Microscope Hirox, and completed with binocular microscopy at the Center for Research and Restoration of Museums of France (C2RMF), and X-ray microtomography with the AST-RX platform, at the National Museum of Natural History, Paris. Experiments with quartzite cobbles collected near the fossils were carried out in India and in France. The mineralization of the traces is identical to the bone tissue, and comparison with our experimental cut marks confirms that the profiles are typical of the sharp edge of a flake or cobble in quartzite; their size and spatial organization testify to energetic and intentional gestures from an agile wrist acting with precision, and to a good knowledge of the bovid anatomy.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Manjul Bhargava on fringe science

Fields medalist Manjul Bhargava has a higher tolerance for fringe science than I do -- and perhaps I need to learn from him.

Perhaps Ramanujan’s struggle to find an audience for his work and the hardship he underwent to be taken seriously by the mathematics establishment of his time informs Dr. Bhargava’s relatively tolerant take on the inclusion of sessions on ancient Indian science in the proceedings of the Indian Science Congress. Last year, an ex-pilot made the apocryphal claim that an ancient Indian sage had laid down detailed plans of ancient airplanes; this year, too, a bureaucrat successfully submitted in the environmental sciences sub-conference a ‘research paper’ on how Lord Shiva was a “great environmentalist” — though he didn’t go on to present it.

To Dr. Bhargava, this is “fringe” science, though he adds that it’s in the very nature of science congresses the world over to occasionally entertain speculative claims and “fringe” science. The key, according to him, is that fringe science be treated as such and not be given greater space than actual scientific discussions or talks. “I was upset at the last Congress [in Mumbai] that the fantastic achievements of the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) were barely covered in the media and all space was taken up by those discussions. Real scientists there were wondering, ‘Hey, what about us?’” he says. Moreover, he adds, at the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM), there were always claims that someone had solved the Riemann hypothesis [a bedevilling maths problem, nearly a century old, whose solving guarantees a million dollars in prize money from the Clay Mathematics Institute]. On the other hand, the solution to another tricky problem — of rapidly testing whether a given number was prime — was proffered by an Indian computer scientist, Manindra Agrawal and his two graduate students. “They are computer scientists and not professional mathematicians. Imagine if their work wasn’t accepted at an ICM… solutions can from anywhere,” he reasons, “Science marches ahead when as many ideas are allowed to be communicated.”

Friday, March 18, 2016

Christian secularism

Former candidate for the Republican nomination for the US presidency, Ben Carson, is a believing  Christian.   Carson stirred up a bit of a controversy when an old speech of his surfaced, where he said the Old Testament figure Joseph built the Egyptian pyramids in order to store grain.  The Bible merely says that Joseph stored surplus grain against a future famine deduced from the Pharaoh's dream, but not how he stored it.

This controversy merits careful unpacking.

Carson most certainly believes in the resurrection, the water-into-wine miracle, the parting of the Red Sea, and such;  he shares these beliefs with a huge number of voters, and his statement of belief about these things would cause not the least bit of controversy, quite unlike his statement about the pyramids.    The average western liberal or Indian secularist would say that all the former miraculous things that violate the laws of physics are all about Carson's religious belief,  which per the tenets of secularism, are outside the realm of politics; but when he talks about the purpose of the pyramids, he is talking about something that we have archaeological and other evidence, and is therefore within the realm of political criticism.

That is, to be secular, one has to be familiar with the contents of the Bible.  Since the Bible is silent about the pyramids, a candidate's belief about the purpose of the pyramids is within the political arena; but the laws-of-physics busting stuff that the Bible does speak about is beyond political criticism.  In fact, without paying at least lip service to belief in what the Bible says, it is not possible to be a viable Republican candidate for the presidency.  One cannot say that the candidate is a credulous idiot for believing in miracle stories.

Suppose we accept that as a necessary compromise for secularism to work.  The very same culture from which this secularism arose encountered India and constructed religions called Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.    One would expect that secularism then requires extending the same respect to beliefs from these religions as it does for Christianity or Judaism.   One would be bitterly disappointed, however.   Also, unlike with the Bible, one does not have to be familiar with the contents of the Hindu "scriptures" to know the boundary between religious belief and politically attackable ideas.   Anything Hindu is fair game for political criticism.   Which also shows that those who claim "Hinduism is a religion" in practice do not treat it like one.

Further, notice, Carson says that his belief about the pyramids is a religious belief, based on the Bible; but the political class and media reject that.  The limits of religious belief are what are in the Bible, and that is about it.  Islam is struggling to get a foothold in this shielded area, aided by leftists and regressive liberals; and cries of Islamophobia.   Hinduism will forever be outside this area separated from political criticism.

I'm not saying that it is not as it should be - Hinduism is a living tradition - in religious terms it has new "prophets" and "scriptures" constantly being created.  Wendy Doniger (see "Purana Perennius") for one is upset that the Hindu "canon" is not closed, and her pungent remarks about the Skanda Purana stem from that.   I'm just pointing out that "secularism" and the separation of religious belief and politics has a very Christian basis.   The Hindu basis for what is legitimate in politics and what should be left out will be rather different.

PS: June 6, 2016 - Justin E.H. Smith in the New York Times makes the same mistake:
The leader of India, Mr. Modi, for example has brought about, through support of the ideology of Hindutva, a political climate in which Indian nationalist academics can claim that airplanes are described in the millenniums-old Vedas without being ridiculed or marginalized.
I note again that it is next to impossible for a candidate to win the Republican nomination in America without proclaiming his/her belief that a man rose from the dead, turned water into wine, and so on;  and there are plenty of professors in American universities who teach so; if anyone tried to ridicule or marginalize such beliefs, they would face a huge political backlash.   But that is normal and unremarkable.   It is only Hindu belief that is abnormal and that must be held to ridicule and marginalization.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Evolutionary web

Per this NYTimes story, the human evolutionary tree looks something like this crude drawing - not to scale.  The dotted lines indicate some extent of inter-breeding.  I have added "South Asians" to the narrative as well.  Given that supposedly India has a human genetic diversity rivaled only by that of Africa, and that India remains under-studied, I expect a lot more surprises in the future.

The dotted lines are small perturbations (a few percent of the genome) in each case.  I expect the "tree" of language families and languages to actually have much denser cross-connects in an undiscoverable reality, because the evidence on languages is much less rich than the evidence from genes; even constructing the basic tree for languages is a struggle.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Supreme Follies

Everyone probably has their own list of the worst decisions ever of the US Supreme Court.  My top three can be stated thusly:
  1. Slaves are property.
  2. Corporations are people.
  3. Money is speech.
 A terrible war was fought to overcome the effects of the first ruling.  The last two are insidiously changing the political and economic landscape, to the extent that American democracy may eventually become unsustainable.   They accomplish their effects by making the government increasingly unresponsive to the people.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The story behind Doniger's Scrap Purana

The main excuse for posting this is the story at the end.

Wendy Doniger in "Purana Perennis":
In this world of ever-shifting puranic sands, the Skanda Purana is surely the shiftiest, or perhaps the sandiest, of all. The longest and most sprawling of all the puranas, though it was usually grouped with the Maha -rather than the Upapuranas it was regarded even by the native Indian tradition as a scrap-bag; its name forms a pun to this effect in Tamil, where it is the “scrap” Purana (Kantal-Puranam).(Pg 59)
RS Senthilkumaran on the Rajiv Malhotra egroup:
Kantha-Puranam in Tamil narrates the birth and story of Kantha.  Kantha is another name for Muruga/Karthikeya, the son of Shiva and it's common meaning is "The Beautiful One". If I twist my brain like Wendy then I can infer that she's mixing "Kantha" with "Kanthal" a Tamil word meaning "Torn". Even then it is not same as "Scrap". A torn piece of cloth can be used as scrap cloth in kitchen, but that does not mean Torn = Scrap. And stretching it even further to say Kantha Puranam = Scrap bag is ridiculous.
Even with my basic knowledge on Skanda-Purana, I can tell that there are HUGE differences between Skanda-Purana(Sanskrit) and Kantha-Puranam(Tamil).
Skanda purana is massive and there are so many Khandas and Samhitas that comprise the Sanskrit body of the purana. Its subject matter is diverse.

Kantha puranam is a Tamil work that was inspired by a specific Khanda of a specific Samhita from the Sanskrit version. It is much smaller in size and has a more focused subject matter. All the more reason why it makes no sense why Tamils would call it a scrap bag.
Also, there are many other Tamil literary works like "Kanthar Alangaram", "Kanthar Anubhoothi", "Kantha Sasti kavacham", "Kantha Guru Kavacham" etc. Why would Tamils call all these works as scrap??
In fact the purana about Kantha-puranam, tells us about the rigorous intellectual debates that went behind, before it was accepted as a purana. 
Here's the version:
Katchiappa Shivacharyar was born in Kanchipuram, Tamilnadu in the Kaumaram sect that worships Kantha(Murugan). Once he had a vision in which the Lord asked him to bring his sacred purana to the Tamil people, from the Sanskrit version. HE gave clear instructions on the source material: Shiva-Rahasya Khanda of Shankara Samhita of Skanda Purana. HE also gave the author, the first few Tamil words with which to start the purana (Thigada-sakkara...).
Every day the author would prepare 100 verses and keep it at the feet of Muruga's murthi at Kumarakottam temple at night. The next morning he would find it corrected for grammar and poetic usage of language.
Once he completed his work, Shivacharyar went to the learned assembly of scholars and submitted it for peer-review. To his disappointment, the very first words (incidentally given by Muruga) of the book were rejected by the scholars stating that it contradicted the rules-of-union of words as per Tamil grammar. He went back home dejected to re-work on his product.
The next day, an old scholar (Muruga Himself or someone blessed by Him) appeared in the assembly in defense of the choice of words of Shivacharyar. He provided citations from another Tamil work called Veera-Choliyam (Sandhi chapter, 15th verse) where such grammatical unions were used and were approved by the learned scholars. The assembly was satisfied at that point and the work became published for mass consumption as a purana.

Calling such a purana, a scrap-bag?
One can only say that the quality of American scholarship on India is outstanding.  But may the Beautiful One inspire us as he did Shivacharyar.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Particle Physics to-do list from 2005

Chris Quigg:  (the stuff in italics has answers today)

A Pollockism

Pollock concludes in his essay "Deep Orientalism":
“From its colonial origins in Justice Sir William to its consummation in SS Obersturmführer [a senior rank in the Nazi party] Wüst, Sanskrit and Indian studies have contributed directly to consolidating and sustaining programs of domination. In this (noteworthy orthogenesis) these studies have recapitulated the character of their subject, that indigenous discourse of power for which Sanskrit has been one major vehicle and which has shown a notable longevity and resilience.”
In brief, the Germans learned Sanskrit, and that caused them to be infected with Nazi doctrines, per Pollock. 

Other scholars have remarked that Pollock is remarkably thin on evidence.

To quote Rajiv Malhotra, Reinhold Grünendahl "says Pollock's narrative "is not an evidence-based study of Orientalism or Indology in Germany, but a sophisticated charge of anti-Semitisim based largely on trumped-up "evidence"...... He takes up the question of Pollock's attempt to associate Indology with Paul Lagarde (1827-91), a noted German scholar who focused his analysis on Greek, Arabic and Hebrew texts using tools of comparative philology.  Grünendahl says there is no evidence that Lagarde was influenced by Indology or had any association with it.  Lagarde's The Current Tasks of German Politics is supposed to have deeply influenced Hitler.   In it, he called for (a) unification of the German peoples, and (b) relocation of Polish and Austrian Jews to Palestine.  During his lifetime, he was seen and celebrated for his knowledge of classical Greek and Hebrew — not anything remotely connected with Sanskrit.  Interestingly, the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia has a detailed entry on Lagarde, with no mention of his association, in any way, to Sanskrit, Indology or India.

Monday, March 07, 2016

The Pollock Postulates

Sheldon Pollock is the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University.  (Disclosure: Arvind R. and I were classmates a long time ago; and it has been equally long since I last met him, which is just as well, since I think this university chair is a bad idea.)

Summary of Sheldon Pollock by Surya Kachivuk.
Sheldon Pollock writes, “All Indian learning ... perceives itself and indeed presents itself largely as commentary on the primordial sastras.” ... “We ourselves do not "create" knowledge, but merely bring it to manifestation from the (textual) materials [Vedas/Sastras]” and concludes that since “all knowledge is pre-existent”, “progress can only be achieved by a regressive re-appropriation of the past.” Therefore, “there can be no conception of progress of the forward movement from worse to better, on the basis of innovations in practice”.

“If any sort of amelioration is to occur, this can only be in the form of a "regress'" a backward movement aiming at a closer and more faithful approximation to the divine pattern [Vedas/Sastras].”

Question: Do Hindus (“traditional Indians”) believe that all knowledge is sourced from Vedas and Sastras?

Sheldon Pollock says so emphatically. In fact, he is convinced sufficiently to write an entire article towards this conclusion titled “The Theory of Practice and the Practice of Theory in Indian Intellectual History”. This paper was published in the prestigious Journal of the American Oriental Society in a special issue in honor of Pollock’s teacher, the famous Harvard Indologist, Daniel Ingalls. In that paper,  Pollock draws the damning conclusion that Hindus believe that all knowledge is sourced from Vedas/Sastras and hence failed to make progress in sciences (vyavaharika or this-worldly knowledge) because they saw themselves limited to merely extracting knowledge of the Vedas: theory (rules or “grammars”) of the Vedas always preceded the practice of science. 

The West, on the other hand, is diametrically opposed to it and held experimentation and practice as the means to developing knowledge of science.

Summarizing his conclusive views on Indian intellectual history, Pollock writes,“The understanding of the relationship of sastra (‘theory’) to prayoga (‘practical activity’) in Sanskritic culture is shown to be diametrically opposed to that usually found in the West. Theory is held always and necessarily to precede and govern practice; there is no dialectical interaction between them. Two important implications of this fundamental postulate are that all knowledge is pre-existent, and that progress can only be achieved by a regressive re-appropriation of the past.

Pollock arrives at his thesis as follows:

1. Epistemology of Hindus points all knowledge to be divine in origin as with all of material Universe (Satkaryavada cosmogony); there is no knowledge creation, only uncovering concealed preexisting knowledge. Pollock writes, “First the "creation” of knowledge is presented as an exclusively divine activity and occupies a structural cosmological position suggestive of the creation of the material universe as a whole.

Knowledge, moreover - and again, this is knowledge of every variety from the transcendent sort "whose purposes are uncognizable (adrstartha) to that of social relations, music, medicine (and evidently even historical knowledge) - is by and large viewed as permanently fixed in its dimensions.”

2. Vedas and Sastras are of a divine origin. Moreover, all divine knowledge has been transmitted through and only through Vedas and Sastras. Therefore, all human exploration of knowledge is limited to uncovering concealed knowledge in Vedas and Sastras. Pollock writes, “Knowledge, along with the practices that depend on it,does not change or grow, but is frozen for all time in a given set of texts that are continually made available to human beings in whole or in part during the ever repeated cycles of cosmic creation.”

3. Sastras provided rules (or grammars) to govern many aspects of non-ritualistic human behavior. Grammars of Sastra had a stranglehold on practically all aspects of secular human behavior in traditional India. Pollock writes, “These grammars were, by a process to be discussed, invested with massive authority, ensuring what in many cases seems to have been a nearly unchallengeable claim to normative control of cultural practice.”

4. Even when (vyavaharika) knowledge of this world – such as medical, surgical, ayurvedic, astronomical/astrological, art - was developed in traditional India, Indians viewed such knowledge to be necessarily originating from but concealed in preexisting Vedas/sastras. Pollock writes “All Indian learning, accordingly, perceives itself and indeed presents itself largely as commentary on the primordial sastras.”

5. Believing that Vedas are eternal and perfect, and that all knowledge, ideological and of practice, is in the Vedas has limited Hindu minds to Vedas for seeking knowledge and eliminated any change of civilizational progress. Pollock writes, “The eternality of the Vedas, Sastras par excellence, is one presupposition or justification for this assessment of Sastras”. Pollock adds, “From the conception of an a priori sastra it logically follows - and Indian intellectual history demonstrates that this conclusion was clearly drawn - that there can be no conception of progress of the forward movement from worse to better, on the basis of innovations in practice. ... it is clear that in traditional India there were at all events ideological hindrances in its way.

If any sort of amelioration is to occur, this can only be in the form of a "regress'" a backward movement aiming at a closer and more faithful approximation to the divine pattern.”

Pollock’s conclusion is nothing short of a sweeping judgment on the entire Indian civilization and knowledge development. He summarizes this moribund predicament when he writes,

“Logically excluded from epistemological meaningfulness are likewise experience, experiment, invention, discovery, innovation. According to his own self-representation, there can be for the thinker no originality of thought, no brand-new insights, notions, perceptions, but only the attempt better and more clearly to grasp and explain the antecedent, always already formulated truth. All Indian learning, accordingly, perceives itself and indeed presents itself largely as commentary on the primordial sastras.”

If Sheldon Pollock’s pronouncements are true, Indian civilization amounts to becoming a victim of its own creation by jailing creative minds of generations of intellectuals within the restrictive confines of cultural rules enunciated in Sastras over multiple millennia. This is not only a damning narrative of India’s past, but also a damning foreboding for those who follow tradition in India.

To summarize Pollock, give up your traditions and progress the way of the West or be damned.
 This is a far more sophisticated attack on India than that of Max Muller, who wrote:
The translation of the Veda will hereafter tell to a great extent on the fate of India, and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It is the root of their religion, and to show them what the root is, is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last 3,000 years.
This attack also comes at a time when the Indian anglophone elite has completely lost its way.  There are no Mahatma Gandhis, Rabindranath Tagores, Sri Aurobindos, Ramakrishna Paramahamsas and Swami Vivekanandas any more.   And people like the Murthys of Infosys or the people of the Sringeri Sharada Peetham seem stupidly intent on giving away interpretational authority to the Pollocks of this world.

And this attack comes when to dispute the premises, facts and reasoning behind the attack is to almost automatically to qualify one for the "Hindu fundamentalist" label.

The situation is dire.

One from Manasataramgini