Thursday, August 5, 2010

Odds of Astrology

If you watch the sky on a clear night, you will see millions of stars. It is hard to contemplate the vastness of the universe. Out of the many billions of celestial objects, astrologers hand pick a few, and claim that these objects have special powers to control human destiny. Why should these handfuls of celestial objects have so much of power? (Why Mars ? Why not Pluto or the Kuiper belts?)The deep dark space is full of objects: billions of stars, planets, comets, satellites, supernovas, black holes etc including manmade objects like space stations, abandoned satellites, bodies of astronauts, etc.
 A few celestial objects however seem to decide on every thing from birth to death. Yet no one will explain exactly how these celestial objects control human destiny and why and how they do it. Planets like Mars  is unable to control its own destiny but has the power to control the human life on earth! how?. Lifeless planets like Mars are dragged around in a pre-destined elliptical path over and over again, revolving pointlessly by the gravitational pull of the mighty sun. Comparing to Mars, I , a tiny human being, have more control over my destiny. At least I can decide where to eat my breakfast even if I do not have control at the cosmic level.

A friend of mine has a double PhD and his academic credentials are as long as my arm. He is a strong believer in astrology. He struggled to get a job for a while. After several attempts he met with his astrologer. The astrologer told him some mambo jumbo and the double PhD guy did some prayers to please the planets. Bingo! The next week he got an interview and he got a job. How do you explain that? I have heard many stories of this kind.  A millions of others follow the same logic. “ We don’t know how it works, but it works for me” is the classical response. Does it really work?

Intuitive Reasoning – Connecting the wrong dots!

Michel Shermer, a skeptic and psychologist, argues that we (humans) are natural pattern seekers. We connect the dots to make patterns. We intuitively assume things without doing a detailed analysis and this has evolutionary advantage. For example, if our stone- age ancestor in Africa heard a rumble noise in the bush, he is more likely to assume that it is a predator ( a lion or tiger), and he will devise his flight (run) or fight response. There is no time for rational investigation. If his assumption was right, then any amount of time spend in rational analysis would result in his own death. Such quick intuitive response is necessary from an evolutionary perspective. But we often connect the wrong dots!

I was driving along a highway listening to the radio in my car. I wanted to turn up the volume but I accidentally turned it too loud. Exactly at the same time, my windshield glass broke in to pieces. Since I knew very well that loud noise does not crack car windshields, I looked for other causes (see picutre on the right). If it was someone without any knowledge of car windshields he/she is likely to assume that the glass broke because of the loud music.Increasing the volume was an independent event, it is not the actual reason why the glass broke. Or you can call it as a coincidence. Most people readily agree with this conclusion. However if someone goes to an astrologer and get a job the next day, they are unlikely to agree the astrologer trip as a coincidence, as in the case my double PhD friend.

My double PhD friend assumed that  the planet was indeed responsible for getting him a job. How do we know that the astrologer's bla bla is not a coincidence? Easy,  my double PhD friend should resign his job and see if it works again! In real life we do not conduct such experiments. You are more likely to turn on the radio again and see if the windshield breaks! We do not therefore spot coincidences. There were several good reasons why my double PhD friend got a job. He ignored all of them and attributed his success to astrology. We connect the wrong dots!

The second question-  if  my double PhD friend is really talented and got a job becuase of that, why did he not get a job before? He had all the same strategic advantage in the past months, but never received an offer. That must mean that it has to do some thing with astrology, right?.
 Well, not actually. There is a thing called Luck Factor in life.

Some time no matter what you do, you never get what you want. Some other time, you may be walking on the street, a lottery ticket will fly into your hands and you might win a million $$s ( yes , I am being a bit dramatic, but you get the point). No matter what you do, whether you kneel down and cry to the almighty or please all the planets in the galaxy, things will not work. In other words, with or without astrology my double PhD guy would have got the job this time , not in the previous attempts. OK, but how can we rationalise something like Luck? I am really using a colloquial term, what I mean in mathematical terms is “randomness”. The odds must be in favour, and that is the next component.

Random Events - we don’t understand- we connect an imaginary dot!

Leonard Mlodinow's book  “ Drunkards Walk- how randomness rules our life” is an excellent book for anyone interested in understanding probability. He writes that we often miscalculate odds and most of us do not understand the idea of random events.
 Let us take a simple random event like flipping a coin. If you flip a coin and let it fall, you either get “head” or “tail”. The probability of getting a head ( or tail) is 50%. What does it this mean? It means nothing if  you are going to flip a coin to decide who will inherit your ancestor‘s estate! It is impossible to predict whether you will get head or tail in a single event. Suppose you flip a coin twice and you get head both times, your natural tendency is to assume that you are likely to get tail next time. "Wrong", says Mlodinow, the probability is still the same 50%. That means bugger all. There is no way to tell if the next flip will be head or tail. This is a random event. In our life, several things that happen are random. There is no reason behind it. Since we have a natural tendency to look for a reason, we assume some reason (act of god or angel or planet). We connect an imaginary dot!

What is this got any thing to do with astrology? Let us take the example of my double PhD guy. He attended the interview in which the company interviewed 6 candidates. Out of the 6 candidates, my double phd friend was the successful one. His odds of getting that job were 1 in 6 or 16.66%  ( if we assume that all the candidates are equally qualified and there are no real differentiators). Let us assume that he was in the same position previously. His odds of getting a job in his previous job interviews was also 1 in 6. So why did he get the job this time and not during the previous job interviews? If you role a die, the probability of getting number 6 is 1 in 6. However on some occasions you will find that you get six in the first throw but in some other times you have to roll it again and again. What is the reason? There is none. It is just the way random events work!
So how we do we deal with the randomness or uncertainty or luck factor associated with our real life events. Let us take the coin flip example again. Suppose you flip the coin again and again and noted the outcome in a sheet ( head or tail), and you do this say a million times. You will find that approximately 50% of the time, you get head (  An English mathematician found this the hard way. He was  put  in a prison by the Germans during the world war when he was lecturing in Copenhagen. He decided to conduct this experiment when he had nothing else to do!). In other words, the larger is your trials, the closer you are to the probability. While you cannot predict the outcome of a single coin event, if you were to bet for a million times, you will probably even out with your friend. This is how Casinos make money, this is how insurance companies make money. The Casino set the odds in its favour, so if a million people play, overall they win, even though once in a while a guy will hit a jackpot and walk out with a  suitcase full of money!

So if we are to be successful in anything ( getting a job, getting married etc) , we need to adopt the same Casino strategy. we need to do two things:
a) Increase the trials, roll the dice again and again- Never Give up, the die will roll in your favour. Some time the very first interview, some time after the 100 th interview , with or without an astrologer's help.
b) Increase your odds. If you are in competition with 6 other colleagues for a position, try and think how you can increase the odds in your favour, from 1 in 6  to 1 in 3. Still there is no guarantee that you will get the position. But an odds of 1 in 3 is better than 1 in 6. That is the practical use of probability! The best odds is 100%, that means you are the only person suitable for that job. This is a certain event! Hard to achieve in real life

Surrendering to Astrology and fate reduces human potential. We lose the ability to do a self evaluation. Instead of improvising by learning from our failure, we surrender and rely on random events. Our ability to do a honest and thorough self analysis is lost in the process of surrender. My double PhD friends  was downgrading his own talent  to justify astrology!

In summary: we connect the wrong dots, and sometime we connect imaginary dots. That is our human nature and that is why astrology, palmistry, tarot reading, etc thrives. Once we attain this realization, we will achieve our true potential.You will see how powerful and mighty we are.
When you look up in the sky you will see how tiny and irrelevant the stars are in your life!

Monday, May 17, 2010

The fasting Yogi- how stupid is the media!

The story of an Indian Yogi going without food or water is making headlines. First of all they all scream that this Yogi is living without food and water for the past 70 years. As if the reporter lived with the yogi for the last 70 years. How the hell do they know? It is impossible to verify this claim.

The DRDO and other good medical folks decided to put him on observation. He was monitored under the watchful eyes of the decorated medical establishment for 15 days. They then conclude it is a miracle. The DRDO want to hire this Yogi as a consultant to train soldiers fighting war in remote locations. Holy Cow!

All most the entire media is reporting the same story. No one is providing any details - , how did the yogi take bath ? Was someone watching him when he took bath? did they strip search the Yogi to see if he is hiding something under his dress ? Was he always facing the camera? etc.

I searched over 80 news links through Google. I discovered one thing. One reporter writes a story and rest of them cut and paste ! They do that "line for line", including the same quotes from the so called experts who claim that this man is making energy from some other source. Apparently he is doing photosynthesis!

Let me switch gears before coming back to the point. David Blaine is one my favorite magicians. All his magic stunts are in open public space ( not stage shows) with cameras watching him from 360 degrees. His book “A Mysterious Stranger" is truly awesome. It gives a brief history of magic and he also reveals some of the tricks of the trade. In his book, Blaine talks about a Yogi who lived in India during the colonial days. Apparently this man volunteered to be buried six foot below ground in a secured Coffin. They left his coffin underground for 6 months. When they finally dug the coffin up, they found the Yogi alive and well. Breathtaking isn't? . Can we teach solders to survive underground for six months as a part of combat training? David Blaine also explains how easy it is to pull this stunt. Several magicians have since repeated this stunt. When you read it you realize how gullible we are. I am not going to explain how the Yogi managed to stay buried for six months. . Read the book if you want. It is not that I am promoting his book. I simply want you stay wondering how this is possible. The same kind of reaction that you currently have with the fasting yogi!

Let us now switch back and look at the facts. The Yogi apparently lived without food and water for 15 days. That is as far as we can go with the analysis. As stated earlier we cannot verify his 70 year claim.

Going without food for 15 days is no big deal. Anyone with a will and nerve can do it. Mahatma Gandhi's fasting record is something like 21 days, more than this blessed Yogi. An Irish protester apparently lasted for 64 days (then he died) in a British prison. David Blaine did a stunt for 45 days in London sitting inside a Box.

Going without water for 15 days is a big deal. You are likely to severely dehydrate and die. Living without water for extended period is a Medical Impossibility.

We also see the medical establishment puzzled by the fact this man has not used the toilet during the 15 days. Here is a little tip for anyone who wants to control the bowel movement for extended period of time. It is a trick used by Yogis and Magicians ( as David Blaine explains in his book):

Fast for two days taking only clear fluids. (clear soup, juice, Pepsi etc, with no lumpy things or solids). The third day take a laxative (I recommend Dycolex). After you take this, sleep near the toilet for the next 8 hours. It will empty your bowel as hell as clear water! From now on take only fluids. You don't need to use the toilet for number 2! It is a standard magic protocol if you are going to do any stunts like this. it is standard prep exercise for practicing regurgitation ( swallowing a small object like Shiva Lingam and vomiting it back)
However the Yogi still need to urinate. The doctors claim that his bladder is re-absorbing the urine back in to his body. I am no doctor. I am an engineer by profession and I work with Water and Sewage. Here is a little tip to the learned doctors. The bladder is not re-absorbing the urine. He is peeing. Just how? He is taking bath regularly you morons!

After the yogi has taken bath, they could collect the bathed water. ( they need to divert the drained water in to a clean sump). It may be possible to test it for Urine ( like compare level of Urea, Ammonia, Nitrates etc in the collected water against the raw unpolluted water). If this is not possible another less dignified option is to ask one of the DRDO officers to watch him closely ( I mean closely!) when the Yogi is taking bath. Or we can strap some kind of tube to his thing and connect it to a bottle. Attach the bottle to his body so that if he is peeing it will fill up the bottle. To make it a bit more fun, let us attach a moisture sensor in the bottle  and linke it to an alarm!

If we are talking scientific experiments let us do the full works. Blessing from Goddess doesn't make it any different.

How is he getting the fluid intake? He is allowed to gargle and take bath! Go back to the list of questions I asked in my article. Who is monitoring what the yogi is doing in the bathroom ? He might be gulping Vodka martini! It is easy for the Yogi to replenish some fluids especially if it is mixed with glucose, minerals and vitamins. He might also be hiding some kind of energy pills similar to the ones used by Astronauts in his Dhoti and dropping it during his ritual bathing. It may be possible to survive for 15 days just by drinking water that he would get from his daily bath. He may also have some accomplish inside the testing team who may be slipping some drink or medicine. We really don't know.

The doctors’ report contradicts basic engineering. There is a thing called Water Balance. In any given system: Water inflow = Water outflow + storage. If the yogi has never sipped any thing in life then, his inflow =0. There cannot be any storage in his bladder. In other words the doctors shouldn’t find any urine in his bladder as there has been no inflow in to his body. It is a direct proof that he is Drinking some thing. The only alternative explanation is that he is making his own water from his alternative energy source. This is an engineering impossibility. Water is a natural raw ingredient, you can only covert it from one form to the other (e.g. sea water to surface water ) or from one state to other ( water to ice). We have no technology so far to produce water. We can only purify (alter the state) existing water found in earth.

Also if he is producing energy from alternative sources, all his digestive system, colon, intestine, kidneys, urinary tract, bladder etc are redundant. They should be bone dry without any fluid. There is rally no need for the yogi to have these parts. Shall we remove them and see if he will live?

The simple explaination  is : he is drinking fluids, we don’t know just how.

If the DRDO is interested in testing this seriously, then they should strip this guy naked and make him sit in a glass box and attach cameras all over him. He cannot take bath, neither allowed to gargle. At the most, we can permit giving him a sponge bath once a week. He should be observed for at least more than 3 months under this condition. And make sure there is an emergency response team on site, The yogi will go pale after a few days without water!

If we talk science let us talk proper science.

I am still not telling you how the Indian Yogi managed to stay buried under ground for 3 months. It is a miracle!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Phislosophically Speaking - Killing a Cow is a Sin, taking birbe is not!

Our idea of “right” and “wrong” or “Good” and “Bad” stems from a combination of our upbringing and the environment in which we grow up.

People in general (religious or not) want to do “good” or do what is considered as “right”. The justification for doing “good” may vary between a religious person and a non-religious person.

Religious people follow their Moral values (the idea of what is right and wrong) because it is stipulated in the religious scripts or by the holy prophet(s). So a person may not steal because it is prohibited by the religion, or he/she is afraid that God will punish (or alternatively God will reward him/her for the good behavior). Every religion has a list of “dos” and “don’t”. Violation of the religious code will result in some sort of punishment or suffering (usually after death!).

The motivation for doing some thing “good” or “right” in this case is either personal benefit or out of fear.

Non Religious people derive the idea of right and wrong through reasoning and logic. In this context, “Non religious people” are those who are not motivated or guided by religion (they may or may not believe in God). For example a non religious person may not steal because they have come to a conclusion that stealing is wrong through the following analysis:
• How would the victim feel? (Sympathy)

• How would I feel if some one stole my stuff? (empathy)

• What would happen to the society if every one steal stuff from every one else? (sense of belonging)

Through a logical process such as the above (Reasoning), the person concludes that Stealing is wrong.

The moral codes (to a large degree the basis of modern justice system) were largely derived from` religious principles. They served the purpose of organizing the society and moving mankind from animal to human behavior. However the moral code of conduct derived from religious principles/prophecy has many problems in modern society.

1. Religious codes of conduct are not consistent nor universal

One part of the Holy Scripture might say “do good to others”, while another part of the holy script might encourage you to kill a fellow human being because he/she is not following the same system of god(s) or faith as you. So the moral value “you shall not kill any one” in this case, means more like “you shall not kill any one as long as they are practicing the same religion”. The Holy Scripture that says “Love your neighbors” might equally stipulate that your neighbor will go to hell because he is not following the same god as you.

What is considered as good by one religion may not be considered as acceptable by another religion. Buddhists, Jains and Hindus (some) consider killing animals as a sin, Hindus (some) are OK with killing animals as long as it is not a Cow, Christians are OK with killing animals as long as it is for Human consumption, Muslims and Jews follow the same Christian logic but the animal need to be killed in a certain way.

2. Religious codes of conduct are not comprehensive

The list of things that you are allowed to do (or not allowed to do) is incomplete considering the society in which we live. For example most middle class people do not steal, murder, rape, or rob a bank. So if you apply the religious code to them, they might qualify for heaven! However the same middle class person may sell a faulty product or enroll some one in a pyramid scheme knowing the person will loose money! They also have no problem in exploiting the poor, needy and vulnerable.

3. Religious codes are rigid and do not provide solutions to our every day ethical dilemmas.

The religious codes were developed thousands of years ago, and since then our society has moved on. We don’t’ get up in the morning, brush our teeth and kill our neighbor and eat his heart! We get up in morning and sell sub- prime mortgage and hide it in hedge funds!

4. Religious codes distorts our moral sense of right and wrong

If we take India for example, it is the most religious place in the world, yet it is also one of the most corrupt places in the world. I am not stating that Religion leads to Bribery; I am merely stating that Religion has not prevented Bribery. Government employees in India will gladly take bribes and don’t think that it is wrong (every one is doing this so what?). The same person will visit a Temple and drop a large donation (a share of bribe to God?).

Bribery is widespread and common, because people do not feel guilty or bad. There are more punishable offenses in religion such as missing a morning prayer, or eating a prohibited food!

The ratio of “holy places” to “human being” has increased steadily over the years. Yet the gap between the rich and poor is also increasing steadily. There are more Gods than Compassion!

A person, who worships three times a day and follow the food restrictions stipulated in the religious code strictly, may not consider receiving bribe or Dowry to be a sin.

What is good and what is bad? Can we establish this through a religious check sheet?


We must Reason, apply logic, compassion, sympathy and empathy. We then arrive at a conclusion. It is the next level of Human intellectual evolution.
Ethical reasoning provides a frame work for arriving at a moral conclusion. Ethical reasoning is not perfect. It is subjective and relative. However it helps us to understand and shape the society in which we live. Failure of logic and reason will lead to the destruction of man kind. Society as a whole should develop a sense of fairness and morality based on sound reasoning and logic.

The personal conscience should be the guiding light of behavior and not spiritual motivations or fear.

If the human society does not make the giant leap from “Moral values based on Religion” to “Ethical vales based on reasoning and logic”, the society will fail, for sure.

About Me

I am an Engineer by profession. Spritual and Anit-guru advice is my part time job!