Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday Quote

You must accept one of two basic premises: Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not alone in the universe. And either way, the implications are staggering — Wernher von Braun

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Last Lecture

In many Universities in the USA, there is a tradition of top academics delivering what is called the 'Last Lecture' - a talk which is the result of deep thought as an answer to the question - If you were to give a final lecture what would it be - what wisdom would you like to impart to your students and what would you want to share, if you knew it was your last chance.

Randy Pausch was a Professor of Computer Science at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, Pennysylvania. He was born in 1960. When he was 46 years old he learnt that he had pancreatic cancer. In August 2007 he was told that he had about 6 months of good health left and in September 2007 he delivered his 'Last Lecture' on the topic 'Achieving your Childhood Dreams.' This was a phenomenal lecture delivered with great humor and enthusiasm. I saw it twice in the last one week. It is moving and tells so much about the man - his energy, enthusiasm, passion for Engineering - he calls himself an 'Efficiency freak' and love for his family. Randy Pausch died on July 25, 2008 and is survived by his wonderful wife Jai and three lovely children.

In his lecture, Randy talked about his childhood dreams, enabling others to achieve their dreams and finally about lessons learnt.

As I had watched the lecture twice in quick succession, some of it has stayed in my memory right and I want to try and see how much I can remember. It won't be long before my memory starts fading and I forget what he talked other than that the lecture was extraordinary.

Randy starts by talking about his cancer and then clarifying powerfully that he does not want any pity, goes on to list his childhood dreams - it ranges from experiencing zero gravity to winning stuffed dolls in amusement parks. He hilariously describes how he made his dream of experiencing 'zero gravity' come true.

Then he talks about his Football dreams and says that he accomplished more by not realising that goal than by realising other goals. Of course, football teaches teamwork, sportsmanship and perseverance. But that is only an 'head fake,' he says. Children start to learn football because they enjoy it but then they get out of it valuable lessons which they will carry with them long after they stop playing football. Those lessons for him were:
- You got to get your fundamentals right.....
- When you do something when you are young enough it becomes a part of you...
- When you are screwing up and nobody says anything to you any more, then that means they gave up on you... That's a very bad place to be.

He also talks about how he managed to dabble in Imagineering he talked his way to getting time off from his academic tenure....the people who served as brick walls as well as those who mentored him and so on. Brick walls are there for a reason, he says...they let us prove how badly we want things...and to keep others out.

He talks about several other things - the project he gave his students and how they excelled beyond his imagination and how then he told them to do even better; how to get people to bond; how he found somebody better than him to hand over his mantle. He talks about enabling children to learn computer programming by playing computer games. He recounts how his mentor instead of directly saying that he was a jerk, told him that people 'perceived' him as arrogant. He compares himself to Moses leading his clan to the promised land but not allowed to enter it. And he talks about having fun...I am dying and I am having fun, he says.

Finally he sums up his talk and asks : Have you figured out the head fake? He pauses and then says "It is not about how to achieve your dreams; it is about how to lead your life." Then he asks - Have you figured out the second head fake? "This talk wasn't for you guys. It was for my kids," he says. And that explains how he had put his heart and soul into this one final lecture.

What a Life.....

Friday, November 19, 2010

What happened to Tony Nicklinson....

There is no update for quite a while. I read about this man sometime back.

Tony Nicklinson of the United Kingdom is 'locked in' after suffering a stroke and can move only his head and eyes. He is fed up with his life and wishes to die but is worried that his wife would be prosecuted if she administers the lethal injection. He does not want to suffer indignities and wants to die and his wife understands him - but then his state is such that he cannot do anything about it himself short of starving himself to death which he does not want to do. The last I heard about it, he had requested guidance from the Director of Public Prosecution as to whether his wife would be proceeded against if she acted as per his wish.

What a quandary he finds himself in. Imagine a state when you are fully conscious but unable to move and need help even for your basic upkeep - somebody has to turn him in bed once or twice every night, somebody has to wash him, dress him, feed him and wipe the dribbling saliva. How painful it would be. He feels the task of communicating by blinking at alphabets tiresome. And he has been that way for the past five years and with no hope of getting any better. I would want to die too given the same situation.

So what could be done to tell my family that in the eventuality of such or similar situation happening to me, be it known that I would want to die peacefully - quietly slip into the night as it were, without any fuss - just taking care that if it would be possible to harvest any of my organs it might be done .... and don't forget to donate my eyes..... and also donate my body to some medical college to be cut and viewed by the students instead of consigning to the incinerator straight away. Well I considered writing a living will ...but how valid is it in India? My attempts to discuss it with my family members has been met with jest and humor ...maybe it is a gruesome subject. But not saying it and later rotting away would be worse. So I should think of some legal way to do it.

Anyway I proceed to record my wish here...

In the event of me being unconscious or unable to communicate after being diagnosed with a terminal disease or a condition from which there is no hope of recovery to a meaningful quality of life or in a vegetative state or in a state of extreme mental deterioration I may be allowed to die peacefully either by withdrawing life support or by administering a lethal injection. Any of my organs may be harvested and my body may be donated to a medical college for academic purpose.

Oh ...good. I feel so much at peace and happy. And yeah that reminds me .... I should set out to complete my Bucket list...there are quite a few places to see and things to do before that final act of 'kicking the bucket.'

Friday Quote - Richard Feynman

I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there.

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you are finished, you will know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. So let us look at the bird and see what it's doing - that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.

It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil — which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.

- Richard Feynman

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Quote Backlog...

If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I'd give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein. And everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. But it is not just a wonderful scientific idea. It is a dangerous idea.

If you want to reason about faith, and offer a reasoned (and reason-responsive) defense of faith as an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, I'm eager to participate. I certainly grant the existence of the phenomenon of faith; what I want to see is a reasoned ground for taking faith as a way of getting to the truth, and not, say, just as a way people comfort themselves and each other (a worthy function that I do take seriously). But you must not expect me to go along with your defense of faith as a path to truth if at any point you appeal to the very dispensation you are supposedly trying to justify. Before you appeal to faith when reason has you backed into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side.

- Daniel Dennett in 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Carl Sagan - My Hero

I never tire of watching Carl Sagan. He has this endearing way of talking about the Cosmos - almost like a child in a sweet shop - with twinkling eyes he somehow manages to convey the wonder he feels about the universe.

November 9th was Carl Sagan day. In his relatively short life he tried to popularize Science a great deal. He was truly one of a kind. His Cosmos series are timeless - I think it is time for me to watch the last episode now : "Who speaks for Earth?"

Wonderful Carl. Steven Novella pays a fitting tribute in his blog -

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Bertrand Russell Quotes

In all affairs it is a healthy thing, now and then, to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.

Many people would sooner die than think; infact they do so.

No one gossips about other people's secret virtues.

So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence.

The main things which seem to me important on their own account, and not merely as means to other things are knowledge, art, instinctive happiness and relations of friendship or affection.

Monday, November 1, 2010