Bassam cafe

It surprises me that I have never explicitly written about this cafe in SD. I am sure that in my myriad musings on great coffee shops, the prototypical place that has always been at the back of my mind has been cafe Bassam. I have no doubt that whenever, with clenched fists of anger, I have scoffed against the soulless and slick coffee shops which crop up with embarrassing regularity in this world, the one place against which I was measuring all others was Bassam. And, therefore, it is rather surprising that I have never thought of mentioning all of it quite so clearly. In this world which is so incredibly unfair to so many, what an amazingly ridiculous and pretentious enterprise it is to take one's cafes so seriously. But Bassam can only be understood against the backdrop of such an incredible folly. It's not great coffee shop. The coffee isn't even all that special. However, it is a poignant work of art, the culmination of the fantasies and dreams of one man who may or may not be clinically insane: the only kind of man who is capable of creating things which are beautiful and not just useful.

Bassam cafe sits in a location which is as much a puzzle as the fact that it exists at all in a city like San Diego. I lived not too far from it for a little more than a year and I hardly ever noticed much foot traffic in the area. I'd invariably walk over and spend my late evenings behind those large glass windows, reading a book, and listening to the same 30 songs which the owner (Bassam) seems to put on repeat everyday. The cafe is decorated with what can only be termed a bizarre, yet lovingly assembled, collection of paintings, portraits, glassware, antique furniture, cigars, wine bottles, teas, armoirs, hip-flasks, clocks, statues, marionettes, musical instruments, and of course, guns and rifles. The interior is illuminated with sodium lamps whose warm yellow light refracts through the mirrors, window panes, and glassware and lends a beautiful depth to the heavy dark wooden furniture. There are times when the pianola is playing instead of the recorded music and there are times when one of Bassam's many curious patrons takes to the grand piano and ascends into Beethoven and Chopin pieces. Then there are times when the cafe's chairs are pushed to the sides and the central area plays hosts to those who wish to tango. But often the place is simply a beautifully remembered memory of some reality which was created, bit by bit and painstakingly, into something which could not be made any more beautiful. There is that old familiar tune in the air. There's the sanguine glass of port. There are those pretty baristas chatting away behind the counter. There's Proust. And then there are those puzzling characters who swerve around the space loosening further the flimsy grip of reality. With the setting so perfect, the coffee almost doesn't matter.

I understand that this is a rather romantic description of the place and it misses some issues which go on behind the scenes but I'd like, for once, to maintain and embellish the illusion which takes flight in my imagination rather than take it down through vapid tangents. I see the cafe as a paean to the creative power of an individual, his flight from mundane reality into a fantastic world that is both enchanting and infectious. The owner appears to be a curious and troubled character but I'd expect nothing less from someone who is capable of creating such beauty. Very rarely do I come across anything comparable. Compared to Bassam I find the best cafes merely adequate and I find those which are trying to be cool and sassy, in hilariously bad taste. At best, the others sell decent coffee in a tolerable setting but often they are just soulless and tasteless*.

* One hilarious example that comes to mind is a cafe which has the gall to call itself cafe intelligentsia in Chicago. Its patrons are women in yoga pants and men who go to gym! I am stereotyping here with the understanding that there exist very rare exceptions.

Civilization and Savagery

It was one of those routine bus trips back from Guwahati city to IIT campus late in the night around 13 years ago. I remember sitting at the left side rear window and noticing an elderly lady a few rows ahead. Apart from her the bus was full of students, most of whom were friends from my own class. These students were loud and unruly like young students tend to be especially when they are rounded up in close quarters and I have no doubt that I myself had at other times, participated in the sort of unruliness that I am talking about. However this time, with that extra person on board, I remember feeling a distinct sense of discomfort at the obnoxious loudmouthedness, the excessive cursing, and the general savageness of the atmosphere. I remember feeling ashamed on behalf of the person and a sense of anger at the insensitivity of my friends to my imagined discomfort of this person whom I did not even know. This emotion has since manifested itself a number of times, most recently at a concert at the Chicago symphony orchestra where I took my parents for a rendition of Mahler. A couple sitting in the row in front of mine could not keep their mouths shut for the duration of the concert. They were sitting a few columns away from me which prevented me from interrupting their interruptions. However, my rage was complete at their indecorous behavior which seemed to be ruining the experience for my parents and others who were trying to listen. However, the interesting thing about this emotion of mine, of feeling uncomfortable on behalf of others, is the fact that it might have no legitimacy at all. The old woman on that bus that night might have been perfectly fine with her surroundings and my parents and others, for all I know, might not have cared at all during the concert. It's possible, perhaps even likely, that others have thicker skins than I attribute to them. Moreover, the idea of being ashamed on behalf of others rests on a very slippery slope for it is the same impulse which tries to legitimize all sorts of censorship. People have made a hobby out of getting offended on the behalf of others. They get offended on behalf of their children, the religious, moral, and ethical sentiments of their communities, on the behalf of minorities, so on and so forth. And it is a short trip from feeling offended on the behalf of others to trying to suppress speech, behavior, and opinion uncomfortable to one. Of course people who do get all tied up in such a fashion are only more ridiculous than those whom they dislike so much.

And yet, there was something personally wrong with the couple who sat whispering in that concert and with the behavior of those students on that bus. I can, in a very private way, take issue with them but the offense must be personally owned in order for it to have any sort of meaning in my own eyes. The thread which unifies these two incidences together with the many others which I have experienced is perhaps an elitist one. I dislike unruly behavior as I see it primarily as being uncivilized (and not as being morally wrong). I prefer civilization over savagery, deliberation over red-blooded passion, and intellect over emotions. I prefer refinement over brutishness and I, therefore, prefer Tennis over American Football! So when the couple sat whispering and when my friends brought down the roof, they had, to me, incarnated as uncivilized brutes. Their behavior was something that civilization and common sense was supposed to have put a check on. The fact that it had failed to do so was and still is, in my eyes, the failings of certain people the company of whom I steadfastly try to avoid now. However, the real kicker is that I realize this as a deep personality flaw in myself, in that my leanings are so heavy. I'd have liked to strike a certain balance which one sees in a passage by Russel but it's not there yet.

SD reredux

My second trip to SD after moving to Chicago completed recently. And while the last one resonated with long walks alone on lovingly remembered streets, this one ended up being about the amazing people I know there. It has been several years since I graduated from UCSD and SD is not the place which most people think of as their career base. Yet, and yet, I found myself entirely short of time when it came to spending it with those whom I'd have liked to. I had the feeling, however, that this was the last time when the tremendous variety that moves me was to be found preserved there. People have plans and many will disperse before I have the chance of going back again. Which is perfectly fine in the cold and reserved sort of way that life works. However, in the emotional and nostalgic light through which I gaze that Sun drenched city, the place would lose a certain magnetism and the people, perhaps, would too. We are primarily contextual, our essences tied faithfully to the settings of certain memories. We are not remembered so much as being endowed with this or that quality but as being lively contributors to some strong remembrances which were made memorable through equal contributions from others and from the settings in which their memories are placed. Once removed to alien surroundings we run the risk of becoming pale shadows of our past. It is, therefore, always with a deep sense of trepidation that I meet someone whom I have very fond memories of in surroundings which have nothing to do with those in which those memories were formed. In those moments, since what I am really trying to do is to figure out how much of the old person still remains, I feel deeply conflicted between the desire to find permanence and the rational thought process of allowing and accepting its absence. Perhaps this hankering of mine for reexperiencing some memory of the past is the reason why I have found myself being utterly disappointed by the medium of photography as well. While what I have in my mind is live and mutating and full of beautiful visions, what a photograph provides is merely a pathetic approximation to these feelings. I find its dead, soulless, sledgehammer approach to memory insulting to what is otherwise intriguing, nuanced, and multicolored. As an extension, I find those who are obsessed with capturing life within the borders of a 4 by 6 or, even less romantically, in the cemetery of a zillion electrons, amusing at best. While they are utterly absorbed with their ridiculous cameras and ridiculous lcd screens, the feathered seraph that is life unfurls its beautiful wings and soars against the patterned clouds.

I have very few photos of SD but it is alive in my mind in a way that a place can never come to life in a photo. There are absolute characters of life I know there but their brilliance owes something to my own imagination as well. In my mind, in the heady drifts of my mnemosyne, I have filled in empty spaces with psychedelic colors and silences with strange reverberations. I have bent the elastic essence of reality, slightly here and a little there; in my mind SD lives on in vivid colors.

The bluishgreen Almirah

The book that I am reading now is Salman Rushdie's very well written and very famous Midnight's children. The story of Saleem Sinai who, by the act of being born at the stroke of India's independence, became intimately intertwined with her destiny. Among the many virtues of the book the one that immediately stands out to me is Rushdie's amazing talent of molding the rich tapestry of Indian life into stories of great muted sadness and comedy. More than anything else the book is a testament to the potential of brilliant stories which resides in the Indian culture, a culture whose logic is entirely its own and which fails to be adequately quantified in typical Western measures. I do not claim any special greatness inherent in the culture. I merely claim its stunning, almost mind-boggling intricacy. When all is said and done the American culture is merely unidimensional, all its facets chiseled by the same inevitable forces of efficiency and selfishness, all its products minor variations of the same essential mold. By comparison the products of the Indian culture, because it offers so little and it places such curious constraints on them, are weird tragicomic specimens both heroic and hapless in the situations they find themselves in. There is hardly ever the go-getter devil may care attitude among them which is perhaps just as well. One can never meet too few of those despicable characters in life.

In the book I came across the word almirah which refers to a sort of metal cabinet used to keep valuables. I am not sure if it is still in fashion but it sure was when I was growing up. In my home it was referred to as an almari, perhaps an indianisation whose roots are now difficult to trace. Like Proust's Madeleine and tea, the word took me sailing into the past, to the touches of that bluishreen almari which was part of our household for as long as I can remember. Like the oval wooden dinner table and the glass center table, like the ornate dressing table and the heavy sofa, that almari came into our home with the marriage of my parents and it still is going relatively strong after 33 years. The sofa has been replaced and the glass table broke at some point, the dinner table was also eventually deemed too wobbly and worn out but the almari remains. It remains with its signature metallic creak and its chipped paint. It survives with its silvery pointy handle whose cold touch I remember with more clarity than I remember many things which happened yesterday. There were other storage spaces in the house but the almari was always used for the most precious things, my mother's expensive sarees, important documents, money, and jewelry. There is a curious way by which images of nostalgia assume a proportion much larger than reality. I now remember that almari being much bigger than it really is. I now ascribe to it the human emotions of pride and grace which accompany a life of tight-lipped service in the line of duty. I now see in its closed doors barriers more insurmountable than suggested by the mere rotation of its handle. There indeed is something very human about its memory. It grew with me and through daily touches and sights, through being a passive spectator during a couple of decades, it has precipitated in my conscious as a living benevolent presence. It, along with certain other objects which survive through the ages, is a dusty, musty reminder of a childhood spent in relative security and happiness. These reminders are not vocal but by being silent they are perhaps more poignant. They also serve a much larger purpose than starting points for personal nostalgia. The fact that that object was preserved through all those years even when means were available to replace it with something better functioning and newer says something about a culture. Beyond the superficial level where reside qualities such as making do with less and a certain modesty, perhaps it point towards deeper traits as well. The traits of not being afraid of permanence and of being more or less satisfied with the present. And I cannot help but be propelled, from the innocuous little memory of the bluishgreen almirah, to make comparisons between the two cultures which have dominated my life so completely.

Humor and Misery

A thought occurred to me the other day, the worst winter Chicago has seen in the last 30 years failed to make me feel too crappy. Maybe I was still under the spell of novelty, the white city to me still glistening under the soft white blanket of snow. Maybe the years of living in San Diego, under its ever benevolent Sun, had equipped me with a certain reserve of fortitude which I might have dipped deep into to withstand this winter. Or maybe it was just the fact that I didn't have to shovel my car every morning as a matter of routine. Life must really suck for those who did have to shovel. However, the real reason is probably more interesting than any of these. I think the real reason why I didn't feel too bad about the winter was that the winter seemed to be so much more harsh on everybody else. We, as human beings, almost always derive our happiness and sadness in relation to others. We would never be miserable about all the things we do not have if it were not for those pesky neighbors of ours who seem to have them. Similarly we are never entirely unhappy about the misfortune of others, especially of those who share proximity with us in terms of social order. The heavy hand of culture teaches us that these feelings are wrong but I suspect that for most people these are very instinctive. And if something is instinctive it cannot really be wrong, at least not in my opinion. It may be curbed for pragmatic reasons but that's another issue.

So this winter was pretty harsh on a lot of people. There was no end to people complaining about the record freezing temperatures and about how water was freezing up in their eyes as soon as they stepped out. Talking heads on unfortunate television channels were going ape crazy converting real temperatures to 'wind chill' factors. The music on the radio was glum, just like the overcast sky outside the window. While walking about on the roads, I could see on the faces of those who did venture out, looks of absolute death and gloom. After the first 4 months of bitter winter it seemed as if they had finally given up any hope that spring would ever arrive. Needless to say that all this constant complaining by everybody was a constant source of joy to me. Not because I'd like to see others being miserable (I'd like to see them exactly as happy as I am in fact.) But because all this fake misery is quite hilarious. By fake misery I don't refer to the misery of those who might have had real issues in this severely cold weather. People with very limited means for instance. There's nothing light hearted about their predicament. I am, however, referring to those who have an otherwise comfortable life and only had to venture out into the elements for short durations. I have always been amused by the complaints of those who have a much better life than a vast majority of people around the world. Not only do they seem to lack a certain kind of perspective which would let them see how fortunate they are (at least in specific matters), they also seem to make their lives and experiences worse by giving undue weight to the little problems that they do have. The final outcome of it all is a vicious circle where their misery runs amok in the absence of any check from perspective. Their problems, it appears to me, are largely made up in their own heads and because these problem are largely imagined, they can legitimately be milked for their comedic potential.

This brings me to another important point here. Where does one legitimately source humor from? Humor can never be sourced from the misery of those who have real misfortunes to deal with. There is nothing funny about the sorrows of Werther, to quote a fictional story, or about Turing's demise, to refer to a real one. There is not even satisfaction or happiness to be gained from those whose lives are so significantly worse than ours. Humor can be gained either from the self, in which case it is self deprecating, or from those whose miseries are fake-ish miseries in the larger scheme of things. I feel that both avenues should be exploited for all that they are worth in order to maintain one's own sanity.

Installing python/numpy with ATLAS support

The reason MATLAB is so efficient at matrix operations is because it uses highly optimized fortran libraries which have been developed over the last 3 decades. The most basic of these is the BLAS (Basic Linear Algebra Subprograms) library which is a set of functions to efficiently evaluate simple matrix operations like the multiplication of a matrix with a scalar. LAPACK (Linear Algebra Package) is another library which builds upon BLAS and implements more complex matrix operations such as LU-factorization. There are many different ways by which the fundamental BLAS/LAPACK libraries can be implemented. Intel has a proprietary implementation called the MKL (Math Kernel Library) which is optimized for Intel's own processors. So if you have MATLAB on your system and if your processor is from Intel, chances are that MATLAB is using MKL for fast matrix calculations. There are several open source alternatives to MKL such as OpenBLAS and GOTOBLAS. ATLAS (Automatically Tuned Linear Algebra Software) is another such implementation particularly suitable for clusters and high performance computing over distributed nodes. Coupling ATLAS with python/numpy, therefore, turns out to be an open source alternative to MATLAB+MKL. I have recently had to learn how to install these and thought that it would be a good idea to list the steps required for doing so. These steps are appropriate for a linux CentOS cluster:

Installing Python: Python 2.7.6 can be downloaded using the wget command:

and extracted using the tar -xvf command. In the absence of root access it can be installed in a specified directory using the --prefix command. It is also advisable to generate the dynamic shared libraries using the --enable-shared command. So doing something like:

./configure --enable-shared --prefix=/path to directory where you want to install python/
make install

will do the trick.

Obviously for this command to work you would need to be in the directory where python has been extracted to. Two further changes to the environment variables would make this installation of python the current installation:

export PATH=/path to the directory where you installed python/bin:$PATH
export LD_LIBRARY_PATH=/path to the directory where you installed python:$LD_LIBRARY_PATH

Installing ATLAS: Before installing numpy you would need to install the ATLAS library. The following commands can be used for the installation:

wget (Download)
tar jxf atlas3.10.1.tar.bz2
mkdir atlas (Creating a directory for ATLAS)
mv ATLAS atlas/src-3.10.1
cd atlas/src-3.10.1
wget (It may be possible that the atlas download already contains this file in which case this command is not needed)
mkdir intel(Creating a build directory)
cd intel
cpufreq-selector -g performance (This command requires root access. It is recommended but not essential)
../configure --prefix=/path to the directory where you want ATLAS installed/ --shared --with-netlib-lapack-tarfile=../lapack-3.5.0.tgz
make check
make ptcheck
make time
make install

The whole process of configuring and installing ATLAS can take several hours.

Installing numpy with ATLAS support: With Python and ATLAS installed and the PATH variable set to point to the newly installed version of python, numpy can now be installed. It is assumed that these commands are issued from the directory where Python is installed:

tar -xvf  numpy-1.8.1.tar.gz
cd numpy-1.8.1
cp site.cfg.example site.cfg

Now site.cfg needs to be modified to make numpy aware of where ATLAS is installed. Adding the following lines in the beginning should suffice:

library_dirs = /Path to the ATLAS installation directory/lib
include_dirs = /Path to the ATLAS installation directory/include
atlas_libs = lapack, f77blas, cblas, atlas
amd_libs = amd

Finally numpy can be installed using the following:

python build --fcompiler=gnu95 (or gnu depending upon whether ATLAS is built with g77 or gfortran compiler)
python install

Hopefully now you have a free open source alternative to MATLAB. Python is pretty amazing in how easy it is to learn and how extensible it is. And how free it is!

Resignation of Brendan Eich

While I generally refrain from commenting on specific issues, there's  a recent development which caught my interest both due to its wider contemporary relevance and to its connection with a general social trait that I have been noticing. Brendan Eich, the CEO of Mozilla, ended up having to resign (was forced out) when his campaign contributions to an anti gay legislation in 2008 recently became public knowledge. This outcome was precipitated/hastened by a massive outcry by individuals and companies which do not  agree with his position, threatening loss of business for the various Mozilla subsidiaries. In summary here is a person who supported a position which is very quickly losing the majority support (and for good reason in my opinion) by acting perfectly within the legal framework and was punished for it in a way that reeks of mob vigilantism. It also serves as a very good example of a general principle which seems more true now than ever before, flourishing as it is within the deep reach and unifying power of modern mass communication. The principle is one of the diminishing middle where people with centrist, often nuanced, opinions are drowned in the rhetoric and the noise which is generated by the raucous majority. The middle is diminishing faster today because the majority grows bigger, finding it easier to coalesce through the glue of internet and mass media. This is not to say that Eich's views were centrist but intelligent and discerning observers would probably have considered them with more nuance and they would probably have given him more space for his positions which, after all, are quite legal. Intelligent people would also have better evaluated Eich's worth as a technologist separating his personal views from his professional services and capabilities. However doing all of this requires thinking and suspending our deep seated prejudices, something that large groups are not particularly good at. Large groups have always sought simple explanations and have always bayed for blood and revenge in different forms. Large groups become large by crushing dissenting voices and this instance is just another manifestation of this general tendency. Society, just like almost everything else, seems to be moving towards greater conformity in the form of bigger consolidations. The result is an all pervading "us vs. them" narrative which is as bland and as soulless as it is annoying for people who can still think. I wish Eich didn't have to resign. Not because I agree with his position (I don't) but because it reinforces the bad precedent of the rule of the mob over logical and respectful discourse between dissenting thoughts. Because it takes away a little more emphasis from the colorful individual and gives it to the intellectually dead mob.

The hedgehog and the fox

There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Scholars have differed over the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel - a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance - and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de-facto way, for some psychological or some physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle. These last lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all embracing, sometimes self contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust, are in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes.

Of course, like all oversimple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic and ultimately absurd. But if it is not an aid to serious criticism, neither should it be rejected as being merely superficial or frivolous; like all distinctions which embody any degree of truth, it offers a point of view from which to look and compare, a starting point for genuine investigation. Thus we have no doubt about the violence of contrast between Pushkin and Dostoevsky; and Dostoevsky's celebrated speech about Pushkin has, for all its eloquence and depth of feeling, seldom been considered by any perceptive reader to cast light on the genius of Pushkin, but rather on that of Dostoevsky himself, precisely because it perversely represents Pushkin - an arch-fox, the greatest in the nineteenth century - as being similar to Dostoevsky, who is nothing if not a hedgehog; and thereby transforms, indeed distorts, Pushkin into a dedicated prophet, a bearer of a single, universal message which was indeed the center of Dostoevsky's own universe, but exceedingly remote from the many varied provinces of Pushkin's protean genius. Indeed, it would not be absurd to say that Russia literature is spanned by these gigantic figures - at one pole Pushkin, at the other Dostoevsky; and that the characteristics of other Russian writers can, by those who find it useful or enjoyable to ask that kind of question, to some degree, be determined in relation to these great opposites. To ask of Gogol, Turgenev, Blok how they stand in relation to Pushkin and Dostoevsky leads - or, at any rate, has led - to fruitful and illuminating criticism. But when we come to Tolstoy, and ask this of him - ask whether he belongs to the first category or the second, whether he is a monist or a pluralist, whether his vision is of one or of many, whether he is of a single substance or compounded of heterogeneous elements - there is no clear or immediate answer. 

-From Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin (The hedgehog and the fox: An essay on Tolstoy's view of history)

A brief history of the big bang

After recently reading Lawrence Krauss's 'A universe from nothing' I have understood in greater detail the current state of our understanding of the beginnings of our universe. A fascinating and beautiful picture has emerged over the last 80 years (but more specifically the last 30). A picture which is clearer in some parts and uncertain in others but which is hard to dispute in certain key details. It is also a picture which is infinitely more nuanced and imaginative than any other creation stories that the various religions of the world have come up with. This is not surprising because the people who contributed to the religions didn't know what we know now, even though they may have been quite intelligent themselves.

The story begins around 13.72 billion years with what George Lemaitre called the primeval atom. This primeval atom of infinite density and temperature has been undergoing a constant expansion since then and has resulted in the universe that we currently live in. The theory of the universe emerging from this primeval atom is the theory of big bang. Before this the universe was assumed (by Einstein no less and many others) to be steady and to have existed forever. Three important experimental observations contributed to the advancement of the theory of big bang and no other scientific theory exists which provides better or even nearly as good explanation for these observations:

  • It was discovered by Hubble in the first half of the 20th century that far away galaxies (which are not gravitationally bound to our galaxy) are all receding away from us. The further they are the faster they are receding. This would suggest that we are somehow at the center of the expansion which would lend a special place to the humans and the Earth. This runs counter to the Copernican ideas and to the more general cosmological principle which states that the universe, on a large enough scale, is same everywhere and in every direction. If this is assumed to be true, and it is not a difficult assumption, then the explanation for Hubble expansion would be that everything in the universe which is not gravitationally bound to something would be receding away from it. There's uniform expansion everywhere. Extrapolating backwards, the idea suggests that some time in the past all the matter of the universe must have been concentrated at one point, at the moment of the big bang. By measuring how fast the expansion is now, we can determine roughly how long ago did the big bang occur.
  • There is a significant abundance of light elements (hydrogen, helium, lithium) in the universe. Once big bang has been proposed it is possible to calculate what the fractions of the light elements should be in the current universe. These theoretical calculations have been found to be in close agreement with experimental measurements.
  • When the big bang model was being developed one of its prediction was the existence of its afterglow which could be measured from the Earth now. The measurement was predicted to be in the form of an electromagnetic signature in the microwave regime. This afterglow corresponds to a time around 330,000 years after the big bang. Before this time the universe was, as they say, opaque to such radiation meaning that no observation can possibly be made now about the time before this 'last scattering surface'. This afterglow which goes by the technical name 'Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation' (CMBR) was discovered in 1964 and its properties were found to be in excellent agreement with those predicted by theory. This discovery is also, arguably, the most important observation in all of cosmology.

Big bang, therefore, provides a time frame to our past with a very high degree of confidence in its veracity. Through high energy particle experiments on the Earth the evolution of the Big Bang expansion is reasonably well understood beyond the first microsecond of the universe. What happened in the first microsecond is less well understood and there is no understanding of what happened in the first 10^{-44}s.

The next question is what is the future of the universe. Which is to say how would the continuing expansion of the universe behave in the future. The answer to this question depends upon the nature of the current universe, specifically the nature of its curvature on large scales. This curvature can be measured from the CMBR profile and our universe has been found to be 'flat' from such measurements. Since the universe is governed by the general theory of relativity which relates the curvature of the universe to the amount of matter in it, it is possible to estimate how much matter there should be in the universe from the fact that its curvature is zero. However, after taking into account all the visible and measurable matter in the universe it was found that we were short of the required amount by a factor of around 50. This apparent discrepancy can be seen in other independent measurements such as gravitational lensing as well. This suggests that there exists another form of matter which only makes itself felt through its gravitational effect and which cannot be seen or measured otherwise. This is named dark matter. It was further discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. This has been accounted for by an additional term in the Einstein's field equations. The term itself has been called the cosmological constant and its physical effect, dark energy. There appears ways to investigate what dark matter is but scientist are at quite a loss about what dark energy is. However, what is unequivocal is that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, so much so that, everything in the universe except the structures which are gravitationally bound to us would disappear from our view in about 2 trillion years (unless dark energy behaves in an unexpected way in the future). This is our fate.

Now the concept of big bang is intricately related to the idea of genesis which sits very uncomfortably with religious thoughts of all kinds which claim such stories as only within their own domains of treatment. Big bang itself doesn't overrule the existence of a God because it doesn't explain the initial conditions (where did the primeval atom come from for instance). But various sub-fields of science have together severely restricted the regions where the concept of God needs to be invoked. They have made the idea of God redundant and unnecessary to a large degree. To me it is only applicable now as an explanation of the first cause but even this applicability is unnatural. There may still be a God who started it all but even if that is the case what is beyond doubt is that it bears no resemblance to the gods of the humans because religious ideas are incredibly local and naive when compared to reality. This is not surprising either. People who came up with such ideas had no clue as to what is really out there.


I have often wondered as to how seriously should one's reading habits be taken when it comes to making a tentative assessment of the depth of one's personality. It's a sensitive question on which I gravitate too easily on the side of quick and stern judgments before I find myself arresting such temptations. The hesitations result from the same organic fountainhead from which result all of my other hesitations. I believe that this complex chatter and argumentation is the accumulated result of a long chain of thought processes which has extended through many years and has been refined and molded by some of my own reading habits.

There is a certain period of time in everyone's life when they don't have to make conscious efforts to be interesting. They are young and enthusiastic about the world around them and there's a childlike curiosity which characterizes that time. This is a time which, while it is not known for the best of judgments and the greatest of insights, is nevertheless known for an easily accessible fountain of excitement and a sense of great adventure. However, life catches up much more quickly than one imagines it would and suddenly one is besotted by its practical considerations. It is at this critical juncture when I feel it becomes important to confront what sort of a person one would hope to become. Our personalities appear cumulative but they appear to show diminishing effects of more recent events. This is to say that we are liable to get frozen in a way of thinking and in our set of judgments as time progresses. There is a certain kind of philosophic comfort and some sense of safety in stagnation which perhaps encourages such stultification. However, I maintain that such a state of existence is an objectively ridiculous state because it prevents us from having new experiences for what they are worth and encourages us to judge others rather unfairly. It also makes us behave in petty ways because we come to think that our structures of thought, our creed, and our philosophies are worthy of protection and must be preserved. Before we realize, such narrow-mindedness closes in on us in ways and from directions which are surprisingly numerous and subtle. And we become rather sad shadows of our former selves with a monotonous and unchanging world-view lacking the excitement which is inherent in change and its acceptance.

Coming back to the original question, I feel that cultivating a reasonably complex reading habit tends to offset this degeneration. In a sense such a habit is not very different from cultivating other non-trivial talents which require patience, application, and dedication - they all instill very admirable values which are also very practical. But reading additionally/often requires the considerable application of the mental apparatus as well. It exposes one to the thinking of very accomplished thinkers across centuries and from around the world. It underlines the unity of the human experience and shows, embarrassingly clearly, the existence of an infinity of personalities and a multitude of thought processes. It lays bare the exciting spectrum of life, its humming and buzzing tune. It gives a much needed perspective to our own thought processes. Of course I am talking about a certain kind of reading material which unfortunately does not include easy literature like the American detective novel or genre novels which have become rather popular of late. They are merely entertainment and like all other entertainment there is a sinister side to them. The side which sucks up time and energy and the creative impulse and the side which induces us to think in very simple generalizations. In fact the side which is the very apparatus which accelerates the degeneration mentioned above.

I do think that the existence of a complex and respectable reading habit tells something rather definitive about the depth of one's thoughts. However, a lack thereof doesn't necessarily tell much because different people draw upon different aspects of their lives to develop their own understandings. There is, however, a sharp and an elitist demarcation to be drawn between easy and complex literature and it is a demarcation which I have absolutely no qualms in drawing.