Monday, June 25, 2007

What I Do Matters

It's a universal question that most of us ask ourselves at least once during our lives: why am I here, and what is my purpose? Some of us believe in a God, or perhaps we believe in destiny in which case we believe in a purpose, but that purpose has not yet been revealed to us. Many of us do not believe in a God and some of us believe that our destiny can be controlled by our actions. For those individuals, the esoteric question, "why?" is explained by the chain of events that led up to the question and is based purely in logic and an understanding of human behaviour. Purpose, and destiny are no more relevant to the question than the colour of my bedspread is relevant to whether the sun will rise again tomorrow. But regardless of our spiritual persuasion, we still ask ourselves every now and then, what the heck is the point of it all?

Depending on our stations in life, this question may matter more to some than to others. For many graduate students including myself, this question is on our minds a lot of the time. Graduate work is a tedious process of infinitesimally small advances in science. Breakthroughs in any particular field generally occur in more than one place at the same time because the right amount of information was available. Once a breakthrough has been made, people in that field of study look at the result and comment, "why didn't I think of that? It's so obvious!" Well, hindsight is 20/20, and we can't all be geniuses. But what about all of those infinitesimally small advances? Some results are not obvious without those infinitesimally small advances, and what's so special about the breakthrough anyway? Anyone could have thought of it; but those infinitesimal advances are not always so obvious. More importantly, the vast amounts of literature in any given field often make it difficult to find the true gems that constitute an infinitesimal advance as opposed to recycled junk and cross field publications. And since these true gems are difficult to find, the authors seldom receive the recognition they deserve and they ask themselves, "what the heck is the point of it all anyway?"

So what is the point? What did you do today? Not everyone is cut out to be great. Main stream entertainment recognizes this fact and there is an undercurrent in every movie that allows the common man who will probably never amount to anything to feel that his station in life is justified by the way he lives it. As long as he's a good father and provides for his family, the fact that he never won an Oscar, or a Pulitzer or any other recognition or award is largely irrelevant. But why should anyone settle for being so ordinary? It certainly is easier to just accept one's abilities; give in to mediocrity and just exist for the time you have been given. Perhaps, you will enjoy every moment.

But maybe the point isn't to be great. Maybe it is to simply do something that matters in our own ordinary way and to be proud of what we have accomplished. I for one state proudly, that what I do matters. In my infinitesimal advances towards the next breakthrough, I stand proud as the shoulders on which greatness will stand. And maybe that's the whole point.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Scale

I do not claim to know the meaning of everything: from a mathematical standpoint, one can only theorize based on a minimal set of axioms. I have heard a wide variety of theorems about the meaning of life and the nature of existence. The one that holds most true:

"But in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."
-Benjamin Franklin

Of this we can be sure. Of the rest, I humbly assert that it is pulled out of my ass. I also take this opportunity to appologize to all denominations that I will intentionally or inadvertently offend in the following. You have been warned. =)

So what is the universal truth? Balance. Yin and Yang. Opposites, positives and negatives. Dualities and dichotomies. Matter and energy. Symmetry and continuity. Male and female. Earth and heaven. God and man. Balance can be an integral part of our diet and lifestyle.

Whether you believe it or not, balance is the ultimate truth. The universe is an equilibrium and many of the dynamics that we observe, whether chaotic or harmonic are held together by a symmetry that maintains an elegant cohesion. From the minute atom to planetary systems, these balanced dynamics are observable in one form or another. From a mechanics standpoint, Newton's 3 laws of motion epitomizes this balance while from a philosophical standpoint we have Yin and Yang.

Yin and Yang is a dual concept originating from ancient Chinese philosophy. The Chinese believed that the dualities of the world could be expressed as either Yin, represented by the dark element, or Yang represented by the bright element. Yin's dark element symbolizes Gaia or mother earth, and corresponds to the night while Yang's bright element sybolizes activity, and corresponds to day. It is important to realize that Yin and Yang do not represent good and evil. The symbol depicts Yin and Yang chasing one another in a cyclical fashion much in the way that night and day are cyclical events: both elements are crucial to existence as they represent continuity. Eastern philosophies in general are not cut and dry. Hinduism speaks of the Devatas and the Asuras. When literally translated, the Devatas are angels, while the Asuras are devils, however much is lost in translation. The Devatas and the Asuras are a lot like Yin and Yang; their existence is dependent on the balance they share as one cannot exist without the other. The Vedas describe the Devatas as immortal beings that preside over natural processes while the Asuras are immortal beings that preside over morality.

Much of the eastern philosophy is deeply entrenched in mythology. Balance however can be a guiding principle. Consider evolutionary theory and its position on altruism. Evolution states that altruism is a characteristic detrimental to survival and as such is a rare occurrence.

Altruism is a quality wherein the individual expresses "selfless concern for the welfare of others" [|]. It is important to distinguish altruism from loyalty or duty. Duty is often precipitated by a moral obligation towards a benefactor (such as God, or a government) and is not the same as altruism as the benefactor often pledges a reward for the actions of the individual when those actions are performed to the benefit of the benefactor. Altruism on the other hand is a purely selfless action with no expectation of reward, and the vast majority of religions in the world believe altruism to be an important and essential virtue.

The Capuchin monkey of the Amazon rainforest is the most intelligent primate in existence and demonstrates cooperation within their community. If a predator attacks the group, the first monkey to learn of the threat will issue an audible warning to the rest of the group. This act in turn jeopardizes the survival of the individual as it facilitates the predator's ability to find the individual. Strictly in terms of game theory, the move that maximizes the monkey's survival in the short term is to flee, however what is most interesting is that the actual behaviour of the Capuchin improves its entire community's ability to survive in the long run even though it puts the individual at risk in the short term.

Within any community, there are three types of members: freeloaders, cooperators and altruists. A freeloading Capuchin monkey would only listen for warnings, but would never warn anyone else. An altruistic Capuchin monkey would always warn the community regardless of personal risk. Cooperators however, will only help those with whom they have already established a relationship, that is to say, they help those whom they expect would return the favour. When the Capuchins search for food, they will only share their food with the individuals that aided in the venture in a tit-for-tat fashion. In the long run, communities tend to develop a large fraction of cooperators with some freeloaders. Altruistic behaviour in general tends not to survive because the altruistic behaviour is easily exploited by the freeloaders.

Thus we have a fallacy: altruism cannot be a virtue. Altruism is a characteristic that leads inevitably to extinction. The same is true for freeloaders. Cooperators within a society will shun freeloaders, and so while freeloading will benefit an individual in the short term, the freeloaders will be shunned when they are discovered for what they are. Altruists can only exist in a system of primarily cooperative members as cooperators will reciprocate with individuals they trust. There are always some freeloaders and while altruists serve everyone, they also benefit the freeloaders which provides a disservice to the cooperators. Within any system, the cooperator is thus the optimal solution with the overall goal being survival. A balance between giving and receiving provides the appropriate mechanism by which a society can flourish. It is through the atomic exchanges between the individuals that trust is established.

The capitalist system is successful because it rewards cooperators. Money in the capitalist system is the currency of trust and the penny is the most atomic of exchanges. We all know that a rich person however is not necessarily trustworthy, however it is understood that if an individual's living is made through worthy endeavours that contribute to the wellbeing of a society, the money they earn is used to acquire other products and services from other members of the community which helps them survive. Naturally, the system isn't perfect. Money can be obtained through deception, however the cooperators of the community pay taxes, which enables the government to maintain the law which more or less benefits the cooperators. The most important point of this discussion is that the emergent behaviour of this system leads to balance. An individual's lifestyle must be balanced. We should give, but we should also expect reciprocation.

There are many examples of the necessity of balance in the individual such as the importance of a balanced diet. Couples entering into relationships should also be balanced. In this respect, the man should be the equal of his partner and vice versa. Unequal partners would lead to the harbouring of feelings detrimental to the relationship. A woman far more intelligent than her partner, for instance, would cause the man to feel insecure and she in turn would become annoyed when he simply doesn't measure up. Balance in relationships however can be tricky. A characteristic in one partner need not be balanced by the same characteristic in the other. Often, it is more important that the characteristics complement one another in order for the relationship to work.

This complementary balance is seen readily in nature in the form of symbiosis. Nature balances itself through natural processes that regulate everything. The entities on our planet share a symbiotic relationship with everything else within its biosphere much in the same way that a man's character must complement his partner. Their roles in a marriage must complement each other such that both of them appreciate each other's contributions to the relationship. Without this mutual respect for one another, the relationship is destined to failure.

Balance is indeed a universal phenomenon, after all, there can be no shadows without light. It manifests itself in the microscopic as well as the astronomic and we accept it unequivocally in our every day life. But understanding balance within the context of our lives helps us to understand ourselves and gives us the ability to make intelligent decisions. We all know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. So, when faced with a difficult choice, ask yourself the question whether the decision may upset the balance and tip the scales, because if it does, you will have to consider what the reaction will be.

By: Shad Sharma

Broadband: Creating Global Communities

The Internet is one of the most revolutionary technologies ever invented and it is destined to be the single most important technology for creating and binding communities together as well as providing the means that allow these communities to have a global presence and a voice.

Over the last few years, there has been an important paradigm shift in the way the Internet influences the lives of individuals. Web based email giant, Hotmail proved to be one of the most prolific of Internet technologies – comparable to the cell phone in terms of its adoption rate. The Internet blog is also changing the way the media works. No longer are we tied to a specific news source. Clearly some of this success is the direct result of the flexibility to access content and services from any connected terminal at any time, which is the driving force behind Google’s latest and greatest web based technologies like Google Docs and Spreadsheets. On the other hand, peer to peer file sharing networks were the reason for the sudden and explosive adoption of the mp3 audio format, and with its creation, the birth and success of the hardware to play it. Most importantly, web based videos through community projects such as YouTube have found their success and place in the global community, and with the growing demand of these technologies in terms of bit rate versus quality, a faster Internet connection directly translates to a better overall experience.

The existence of web based technologies such as e-mail, p2p and others however, do not yet scratch the surface of the innovation to be realized. The Internet is a virtual world, and the physics of this world are virtually boundless. The Internet has the potential to be a much more user oriented technology than it was meant to be. Within this community, no longer will individuals be tied to their computer. User data will be stored within the network, accessible from anywhere. Computing will be provided by the network as a service. In effect we have the most important of paradigm shifts; the network will be the method by which the user receives computing resources. The Internet will become a vast distributed network incorporating massive data centres such as those owned by Google, large intranets operated by corporations, independent computers as well as smaller, more personal devices like cell phones and this network will be managed by peer-to-peer technology.

Due to the heterogeneous nature of the nodes and complexities involved, it will likely be supported by a hybrid of p2p overlay topologies. The design should adapt to the dynamic nature of mobile nodes while providing fast look-ups and high data streaming rates. A possible solution would involve a dual overlay p2p topology with a structured overlay to support distributed hash tables among persistent nodes and an unstructured overlay that all nodes participate in for quick and flexible connectivity. Persistent connections can be limited to nodes offering computing and data storage services. They would provide a database service backed by the network search operation whose function would provide the foundation for a relational database backed network file system. Each file will have various extensible tags associated with it. The use of this data about data, or metadata in the p2p network effectively incorporates the concept of the semantic web, by creating a network that intrinsically supports its operation. Machine learning algorithms, which have been ignored mostly in the area of communication networks, can help in associating meaning to data. This extensive understanding of the data stored within the network will allow for vastly superior search speeds and more importantly, very accurate and intelligent context aware searches.

Such dramatic changes in the nature of the Internet requires cooperation of both service and network providers. These organizations must consider development and use of new hardware for fast content processing and content routing. Further processing power located at the core of the network will accelerate development and performance of future web services. Security will also be an important factor to many users and it will be partly the responsibility of network providers to address this issue in their developments. Another very important issue to keep in mind is that tomorrow's networks will clearly be much more complex. Management of these resources to provide Quality of Service guarantees is a task which is impossible without careful consideration in the design of protocols and hardware components.

This extremely flexible and secure community network will be the new core network. It will be a service oriented technology which would ideally run as a background process on potentially millions of devices world wide. Libraries, universities, corporations, Internet caf├ęs and individuals will all be a part of this community driven network. Individuals and administrators will be able to dictate the degree of participation within the community network. New applications will be designed to be run through the available services in the network leveraging the vast computing and storage of the entire network. The programs will be accessible through portals ranging from mobile web browsers for cell phones to applications that run on desktops.

The new community network will enable communities stretched across the globe to remain in contact. We have already seen that it is possible for musical bands whose members have never met to produce albums online. Why does this seem at all amazing when open source software is created, updated and maintained by a group of individuals who have potentially never met? Such collaboration is possible due to tight communities, and such access is possible because of the Internet. The next stage in computing use will be made available by the community network. It is the only technology required to remain in communication with the world and it will be the basis for a global community network that brings people together and makes technology accessible and exciting.