Are ideas living?


What is the definition of life? I remember a conference of the scientific elite that sought to answer that question. Is an enzyme alive? Is a virus alive? Is a cell alive? After many hours of launching promising balloons that defined life in a sentence, followed by equally conclusive punctures of these balloons, a solution seemed at hand: “The ability to reproduce—that is the essential characteristic of life,” said one statesman of science. Everyone nodded in agreement that the essential of a life was the ability to reproduce, until one small voice was heard. “Then one rabbit is dead. Two rabbits— a male and female— are alive but either one alone is dead.” At that point, we all became convinced that although everyone knows what life is there is no simple definition of life. [Koshland, DE. 2002. The Seven Pillars of Life. Science 295: 2215-2216.]

Lately I have been putting myself in the shoes of ideas and trying to see if I can find how it feels like to be an idea. After much thought, I have concluded that if I were an idea, I would be convinced that I am a living being. Ideas do not have to be brought to life, I realized. They are already alive!

Before I go any deeper into this fantastic claim, I wish to discuss a few things first. The first of them concerns the definition for life so that we can be sure that we agree on the same foundations.

The only reasonable definition of life that I know of is due to Daniel Koshland, who was the Chairman of the Biochemistry department at the University of California. In an article in Science, Daniel defines life based on seven essential qualities that it must possess. These are called the “pillars of life”. It is his conviction that life, wherever it originates, Earth or elsewhere, will be founded on these pillars.

The seven pillars of life are Program, Improvisation, Compartmentalization, Energy, Regeneration, Adaptability and Seclusion or PICERAS to be brief. Daniel’s original article discusses these seven concepts in detail and I will quote extensively from this article to build ideas’s case for life.

We must also agree on what we mean by ideas. I will define ideas as any set of concepts that have a collective name. For example, Communism, the Theory of Relativity, Rock music are all ideas. The statement “The car is red”, on the other hand, is not an idea. Let me also be clear in that I am being limiting in my definition of ideas simply because it is easier to deal with simple definitions.

The name of an idea can be thought of as a collective concept which classifies ideas into species. Your concept of Rock music, for example, is an individual that belongs to the species “Rock music”.

Finally, let us agree that ideas are essentially made of two important parts. The first deals with the set of ideas and principles that define the idea and the second is the set of examples and links with other ideas that are bundled along with it.

If we agree on this much, the rest should go smoothly. To begin, put yourself in the shoe of an idea reading Daniel’s article. We will consider each pillar but in a different order.

Regeneration: According to Daniel, regeneration includes both reproduction and repair.

I think no one will deny that ideas reproduce. When you read a book, it reproduces in binary. In political rallies, it creates thousands of copies at the same time.

However, ideas get modified every time they reproduce. This is akin to genetic mutations. This happens because the idea has to make a lot of connections with preexisting ideas and life experiences in a persons head to be relevant or appealing. An idea often becomes more appealing if it changes its “meaning” slightly.

Are ideas capable of repair? Suppose you are Communism and you suddenly find that you are missing a hand, the hand that told you about censorship of art in a Communist society. Will you sit quiet? No! You will nag the person who has stored you in his head until he asks someone/reads from a book about your lost hand. And voila! Now you have a new one!

Energy: We can think of energy as the ability to perform work, or better yet, as the ability to bring about specific changes. Since living organisms are constantly undergoing change (be it transport of molecules, chemical reactions or locomotion) the need for energy is fundamental.

Ideas need energy for two of its most basic life functions. If you are an idea, you must firstly sustain and secondly reproduce when the opportunity presents itself. In order to sustain, the various neuronal connections that support linkage between ideas and experiences must be reinforced. This needs energy. To reproduce, new neuronal connections must be made (in the case of transmission from human to human or media to human). Reproduction from media to media requires energy too.

Where does this energy come from? From nowhere other than human bodies of course! Effectively, ideas are in a symbiotic or parasitic relationship with humans. In this video you will find a more aggressive take on this idea.

Program: According to Daniel

It is an organized plan that describes both the ingredients themselves and the kinetics of the interactions among ingredients as the living system persists through time. For organisms that we find on Earth, the program is encoded in the DNA.

Among other things, DNA helps us defining species. Organisms that are genetically distant usually belong to different species. Isn’t that also the case with ideas? Ideas that are distant in principles and axioms have different names. Ideas that are close to each other, for example, Classic Rock, Progressive Rock and Hard Rock are usually called by similar names.

This points to the fact that just like DNA is considered to be the program of a living organism on Earth, similarly the set of axioms or principles that define an idea can be called the program or blueprint of that idea.

You might argue that the principles and axioms may be more similar to phenotype rather than genotype. After all, the phenotype of closely linked species are also closely similar. It would be a valid objection. But since all phenotypes demand a genotype, and similarities between phenotype of individuals of a species demand a consistent genotype, you have to concede that this points to the existence of a consistent program for ideas too.

Which brings me to the other point. I think we would be mistaken if we consider the principles or axioms to be the complete program of an idea. Ideas have two parts and the second one is equally important. It tells us how an idea relates to your life experience and other ideas. This part decides how aggressive an idea is and how fast it will spread. What controls this part of an idea? I will leave you to think about this one.

Improvisation: Daniel explains this saying :

Because a living system will inevitably be a small fraction of the larger universe in which it lives, it will not be able to control all the changes and vicissitudes of its environment, so it must have some way to change its program

He is essentially talking about natural selection here. The same applies for ideas. Ideas undergo changes just like living organisms on Earth evolve. Some ideas die off for good, like the grammar of lost languages, some ideas spawn new ones, for example, Metal music was inspired from Rock music. Evolution of ideas point again to changes in the program of ideas.

Compartmentalization: This is what Daniel has to say about compartmentalization:

All the organisms that we consider living are confined to a limited volume, surrounded by a surface that we call a membrane or skin that keeps the ingredients in a defined volume and keeps deleterious chemicals—toxic or diluting—on the outside. Moreover, as organisms become large, they are divided into smaller compartments, which we call cells (or organs, that is, groups of cells), in order to centralize and specialize certain functions within the larger organis

How familiar! Ideas live in compartments like your head or in books or in websites. As ideas get bigger, like the General Theory of Relativity or Evolution, you have whole textbooks with numerous (and several essential) Chapters (read “organs”) for it.

Adaptability: Even though this might sound similar to Improvisation, it is not. Daniel explains this saying:

…behavioral manifestations of adaptability are a development of feedback and feedforward responses at the molecular level and are responses of living systems that allow survival in quickly changing environment

He is essentially talking about homeostasis. Ideas do this too. For example, if you see a ghost, your scientific ideas may try to adapt to the life experience by providing possible rational explanations to the sighting.

Seclusion:The concept of seclusion is not as easy to understand as the rest of the pillars because it relates to biological pathways and their inherent specificity. The section on seclusion in Daniel’s article says:

By seclusion, in this context, I mean something rather like privacy in the social world of our universe. It is essential for a metabolizing system with many reactions going on at the same time, to prevent the chemicals in pathway 1 (A→B→C→D for example) from being metabolized by the catalysts of pathway 2 (R→S→T→U). Our living system does this by a crucial property of life—the specificity of enzymes that work only on the molecules for which they were designed and are not confused by collisions with miscellaneous molecules from other pathways. In a sense this property is like insulating an electrically conducting wire so it isn’t short-circuited by contact with another wire. The seclusion of the biological system is not absolute. It can be interrupted by feedback and feedforward messages, but only messages that have specifically arranged conduits can be received. There is also specificity in DNA and RNA interactions. It is this seclusion of pathways that allows thousands of reactions to occur with high efficiency in the tiny volumes of a living cell, while simultaneously receiving selective signals that ensure an appropriate response to environmental changes.

Though this pillar is useful for metabolizing systems, which need to run several life sustaining processes at the same time, it is not so for non-metabolizing systems like ideas which do not need to run a lot of biochemical processes at the same time. Ideas, in general, do not respond directly to things like temperature, toxicity etc. They might respond indirectly. They might make you run and think at the same time in case of a fire. Then one might argue that they are performing locomotion and operations on the mind at the same time. But inherently, they have only one job: to relate to other ideas and life experiences. To form the relevant connections.

Since ideas needs to run this single process to sustain, they are trivially secluded. This single process, however, responds to stimuli in a highly specific manner. Stimuli, in this case, might be a simple question, like “What is the best economic policy for this country?”. A certain moderate ideology may answer this question saying:

1. Create infrastructure
2. Privatize
3. Promote foreign investment
4. Subsidize below the poverty line
5. Win elections by hook or by crook

This response is highly specific. The answer to the question “How do I assure goodwill of the minority?” will obviously be very different.

Finally, it is a well known fact that when we sleep, our brain becomes very active. A lot of new neuronal connections are made and many connections are reinforced. It is clear that our ideas do a lot of gymnastics when we are asleep. However not much is known about such processes, so I would not discuss them while I discuss seclusion.

If you have read this far, I hope I have been able to convince you that ideas share many of the essential characters of life as we can best define it. It has a Program, can Improvise, stays in Compartments, uses Energy, can Regenerate, can Adapt, and is trivially Secluded. It is thus not unreasonable to expect, that ideas might indeed be living.

This, if true, has profound implications and I plan to discuss them in later posts. For now, I’ve written a lot, and I am tired. I just want to digress a little bit before I finish and tell you what made me think of this.

We often wonder about our purpose and the meaning of existence. Religion provides answers. Rational thinking provides some too. Personally I find most of this answers begging more answers, and hence not very satisfying. If you similarly suffer, you have a friend here.

Many people give up. They say: there is no meaning. But that doesn’t work for me. I like to think that we have a part to play in the grand conspiracy of life and the universe but we are simply not in on it. It’s like we are small time agents working full-time on a highly classified project with something at its head.

What? God? Well, that’s just a word to me. I don’t know how He looks like. I haven’t heard him speak. Haven’t felt him either.

Religious people have felt Him apparently. They  seem to speak of God as a sentient being, just like us humans. The only difference is : His motives are not human, so we have a hard time making sense of things. He does not seem to be very keen on sharing His motives with us either. It’s classified, you see.

I think if you were an idea, your predicament would be similar. You would have no inkling as to why you exist and why you do what you do. And maybe, just maybe, you would also think that you have a role in some grand plot directed by none other than …

You guessed it, humans!


Chords of life


I thought guitar playing was tough. I tried the guitar a few years back and gave it up eventually. It made no sense. I learnt plenty of chord shapes but I could not figure out any system, any organization in what I was learning. It soon got very overwhelming. Maybe if I had a teacher, he could have told me. But I prefer self teaching, so I did not take help. It almost always never works for me. Result: I gave it up.

Recently, one of my friends kept his guitar at my house for our jamming sessions (I am a keyboardist). Since old habits die hard, I got the guitar out every night and fiddled with it. I restricted myself to playing chords on the top four strings in the standard tuning because this is what metal riffs are usually made of. I was also hoping that with the confusion of six strings gone for a while, I might find an organization to chords on the first few strings. Soon it became very clear to me that I should have gone through this exercise a few years back when I gave up.

I found the organization that I was looking for, thanks to the first four strings, and this is what I want to share here.

Chords on the first three strings: The open chord shapes used to nag me earlier because the shapes were so different across chords. Open major chords on different roots would have quite dissimilar shapes. Take Cmaj and Gmaj for example.

Learning the shapes were a huge pain. But you know what’s worse? That would be hearing metalcore bands change chords at their supersonic speeds. It demoralized me enough to give up playing the guitar. I thought I’d never reach that level.

The advantage of playing chords on the first three strings is that the patterns are no longer so complicated and that they remain fixed. They are easy to memorize and easy to change. This means: speed, baby!

There are only a few such basic patterns. You can play them anywhere on the fretboard. The root of the chord changes as you shift. This is why I have labeled the chords with numbers so that you know where the root is (the root is labeled by the number 1). The numbers will also tell you the rest of the notes (relative to the root) that are being used in the pattern.

There are ten patterns in total though most of them can be derived from the first two.

Shape 1 : Major (Root is in the second string)

String 1 ___ _5_ ___ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ _3_ ___ ___|

Shape 2 : Major (Root is in the third string)

String 1 ___ _3_ ___ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ ___ ___ _5_ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|

Shape 3: Can be used as major or minor (Root is on the first and third string)

String 1 ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|
String 2 ___ _5_ ___ ___ ___|
String 3 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|

Shape 4 : Minor derived from shape 1 (Root is in the second string)

String 1 ___ _5_ ___ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ ___ 3b_ ___|

Shape 5 : Minor derived from shape 2 (Root is in the third string)

String 1  ___ ___ 3b_ ___ ___|
String 2  ___ ___ ___ _5_ ___|
String 3  ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|

Shape 6: Diminished (Root is in the third string)

String 1 ___ 3b_ ___ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ ___ ___ 5b_ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ _1_ ___ ___|

Shape 7 : Diminished (Root is in first and third string)

String 1 ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|
String 2 ___ ___ 5b_ ___ ___|
String 3 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|

Shape 8 : Sus2 derived from Shape 2 (Root is in the third string)

String 1 ___ ___ ___ _2_ ___|
String 2 ___ ___ ___ _5_ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|

Shape 9: Sus4 derived from Shape 1 (Root is in the second string)

String 1 ___ _5_ ___ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|
String 3 ___ _4_ ___ ___ ___|

Notice how Shape 8 and 9 are identical!

Shape 10: Sus4 derived from Shape 3 (Root is in the third string)

String 1 ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|
String 2 ___ ___ ___ _4_ ___|
String 3 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|

That’s it! 10 shapes and now you have all common triads! Chords which have added notes (for example 7, Maj7, min7, dim7 etc) can derived from these shapes by adding the extra note in the fourth string.

Chords in the second, third and fourth strings: Now here’s the fun. The shapes stay the same! You don’t have to learn anything extra. Just take the shapes as they are and shift them down one string. The same formulas apply.

When you will become familiar with all the patterns, the next thing to master is chord progressions. For that you need to learn one more thing. Scales.

If you know scale shapes (I’ll draw one below), then to play the right chords in the scale you will need to use successive notes as the root. That’s it.

To illustrate, a certain shape of the major scale on the first three strings look like:

String 1 ___ ___ ___ _2_ ___ _1_ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ _6_ ___ _5_ ___ _4_ _3_ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ ___ _1_ _7_ ___ ___ ___|

Now go through these notes playing in succession shapes 1, 1, 5, 2, 2, 4, 6 (Maj, min, min, Maj, Maj, min, dim) using the note as the root. Those are the triads of the major scale played in succession.

This formula holds no matter which scale root (for example C or Db) you are on. The 1 in the scale diagram above marks the root of the scale. But even if you choose a different scale, chord shapes and scale shapes will remain fixed.

I’ll conclude with a tip. If you are trying to find the chord progressions of a song, the best way is to play the melody and then use the notes of the melody as roots. Of course this does not work all the time. But it works in most cases. If you do it , you’ll find that your life has suddenly become a whole lot simpler.

I did this to find the chords for the chorus of Blackbird by Alterbridge tonight and got it within a few minutes.

How fast is that cab meter?


OMG! That horrible meter is soon gonna do an Usain Bolt on me!

OMG! That horrible meter is soon gonna do an Usain Bolt on me!

“Sir, pay me a few bucks extra for tea” – said the taxi driver as he pulled down the road to let me alight.
“Look don’t!” Said I “The fares are already too high after the hike!”
“But babu, I am earning less than what I used to” The taxiwala mumbles as he grudgingly accepts whatever I pay him.

Goddamn cab drivers! First they will extort people with their outrageous rates and racing meters, and then they will have me believe that they are not earning more!

“But babu, I am earning less than what I used to”. Huh! That’s Sheer nonsense!

Unfortunately, this piece of sheer nonsense kept looping in my head all day. It just refused to go away no matter how much I tried. After a while I wasn’t even sure whether it indeed was nonsense or not! Oil prices have risen like crazy in the past few years. So has almost everything else. Did the hike compensate them? I had no way of knowing.

I knew how the taxi meters go, though most people in Kolkata will tell you that its better to simply ask how much than to try calculating from the meter. Some people think the current conversion system is a government conspiracy to hurt the self esteem among the proud middle class population in West Bengal by proving that they can’t even calculate simple taxi fares. Its supposed to be 25 bucks for the first two kms and 2.40 bucks for every additional quarter kilometer. Plus 1.20 buck for every 2 min 12 seconds of waiting time. Err???

Anyway, based on this knowledge and some other reasonable assumptions I did a little math or ball park estimate (see calculations below if you want to cross check or verify) : it told me that a cab driver earns on an average 200 bucks on his lucky days.

200 bucks a day amounts to 6,000 bucks a month. That’s what a taxi driver earns now. What about his earnings before the hike which happened in Nov, 2012? I found (taking into account diesel prices back then) that at that time he used to earn approx the same 200 bucks per month.

Thus having established that “But Babu, I am earning less than before” is an exaggeration, I realized that his lifestyle must have taken a severe beating since the hike thanks to inflation. He is earning the same while prices have all gone over the roof. The fare hike has not compensated him at all!

So the next time I feel inspired to think how fast the taxi meter is, I guess I should instead think about how fast we all (taxiwala included) are going to hell instead.

Calculations: Assuming a taxi driver drives all day, say 8 hrs of total driving time, which is probably an overestimate and assuming he drives at 20 kmph on an average, he will drive a total of 160 km in a day. Let us say this is broken down into 16 journeys of 10 km each. For each journey he gets approx. 100 bucks. So his daily earning comes to 1600 bucks. How much does he spend on oil? Assuming a mileage of 9.4 kmpl (which I got from a car website) , he needs 17 l of oil for the day. That amounts to around 1000 bucks presently (diesel price is 58 bucks per liter). He needs to pay around 400 bucks to the owner of the cab. WHat’s left is 200 bucks.