Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Happiness of Fish and Butterfly Dreams

Great Chinese philosopher and mystic Zhuangzi was walking along river Hao with his friend Huizi when he said, "See how the fish come out and jump around where they please! That's what fish really enjoy!"
Huizi too was a logician philosopher so he replied, "You're not a fish - how do you know what fish enjoy?"
Zhuangzi said, "You're not me, so how do you know I don't know what fish enjoy?"
Huizi said, "I'm not you, so I certainly don't know what you know. On the other hand, you're certainly not a fish - so that still proves you don't know what fish enjoy!"
Zhuangzi said, "Let's go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy - so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here on the bridge of Hao river."

It may seem that the master Zhuangzi was playing with the words but apparently Huizi decided to keep quiet. After all, it was Zhuangzi, who once dreamt of being a butterfly. In his book, he wrote:

"Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering here and there, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awaked, and there I was, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man." 

This fourth century B.C.E. philosopher believed in the Daoist practice of observing the natural world and learning from it. He was also a lifelong skeptic, so his observations make sense in that context. At another place he wrote:

"During our dreams we do not know we are dreaming. We may even dream of interpreting a dream. Only on waking do we know it was a dream. Only after the great awakening will we realize that this is the great dream. And yet fools think they are awake, presuming to know that they are rulers or herdsmen. How dense! You and Confucius are both dreaming, and I who say you are a dream am also a dream. Such is my tale. It will probably be called absurd, but after ten thousand generations there may be a great sage who will be able to explain it, a trivial interval equivalent to the passage from morning to night."
The butterfly dream by Lu Chih (1496-1576) 

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Universal Translator

In science fiction stories, when our adventurers make contact with aliens, they need to communicate. They can’t wait weeks or months in order to learn each others languages. They need something radical. Different writers have come up with some novel solutions to this conundrum. In TV series 'Farscape', our hero John Crichton is injected with some sort of translator microbes which colonize his brain and translate anything spoken to him. In the 'Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy', it is the 'babel fish' which is inserted into the ear and translates the spoken word. In the 'Star Trek' universe, it is the universal Translator, which is used for instant translation between languages. 

The translator microbes or babel fish may seem far-fetched at this point in time but the universal translator like devices are well within our reach. Google Translate, Microsoft Translator and several other are providing basic machine translation between worlds major languages at present. Google translate is particularly good at providing real-time translation of street signs. The actual face to face translations are still tricky and much is lost in translation due to the nuances of the languages like slang and cultural meanings but it can fulfill the elementary purposes.

However, a true universal translator should be able to give instantaneous, real-time translation between almost all world languages, in speaker's own voice. I think that can be achieved within the next ten years. The removal of language barriers all around the world could transform our planet. Our world would become flat at yet another dimension. It would preserve languages that are facing extinction. Cultures are seamlessly tied to the languages so it might help to preserve the rich diversity of earth cultures too. 

I am eagerly waiting to own such a device.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Power of Imagination

lion-man, Ulmer Museum, Germany

We can imagine things that are not present in reality. We can also bring those images into existence through our actions. That is a pretty amazing capability if you think about that. It allows to go beyond the limitations of physical world. It opens ways to all sorts of inventions and ideas. It is what makes us truly human.

The above statute is probably the first example of this unique ability. It was found in a German cave in 1939. Its age has been established at around 40,000 years. Someone in the prehistoric times, spent countless hours to shape this piece of mammoth ivory, with simple stone tools and leather, into a thing that do not exist in nature: a lion-man. 

It may seem a trivial object to a modern eye but incredible when we are told that It took humans nearly 30,000 more years to settle down in some kind of small villages and start the domestication of crops. After that, a passage of 5,000 years was needed to see the rise of first kingdoms. All of our written history is limited to this period. Just 500 years ago, we truly started to understand the intricate workings of our world. Things accelerated after that. Once accumulation of knowledge, ideas and imagination reached a critical threshold, it started to multiply. More than ninety percent of our current knowledge was discovered and created in the past 100 years. It is really hard to imagine that what would be the state of affairs in a mere 100 years from now.

And it all started with such humble beginnings; a mental image of something that do not exist and a desire to bring it to the reality.

Image Credit: Wikipedia, Ulmer Museum, Germany

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Power of Stories

Very few people in Pakistan know that Polish citizens played a very important role in the early formation of Pakistan Air Force. After the WW II, when Poland became a communist country, many Polish Air Force officers working with the Royal Air Force began to move to United States, Australia, Norway and Canada. Around thirty Polish officers and technicians opted to move to Pakistan in 1948 on a three-year contract. They served as instructors and other technical staff. They were among the pioneers. A number of them stayed beyond their three-year contract.

Young training cadets of RPAF College Risalpur with instructor Pilot Flt Lt. M Gorzula
Air Commodore Wladyslaw Turowicz and his section at PAF Museum, Karachi

A fine Polish officer Wladyslaw Turowicz became a Pakistani citizen and rose to the rank of Air Commodore in 1960. In 1966, the Government of Pakistan transferred him to SUPARCO, as the administrator and chief scientist. As the administrator, he revitalized and initiated the space program. He was awarded Sitara-e-Pakistan, Sitara-e-Imtiaz, (Mil) among other honors for his services to the Pakistan’s space program. Zofia, Turowicz's wife, taught gliding to the cadets in Karachi and Rawalpindi between 1950 and 1954. Later, she joined Karachi University and taught applied mathematics and particle physics there. She was also awarded the Pride of Performance and Sitara-i-Imtiaz for her services. Turowicz's son is currently working at SUPARCO as an aerospace engineer and chief scientist.

We humans like to stereotype. Our perceptions about a group of people, communities and nations are based on our experiences with individuals and the stories that we hear about them. So what would a commoner have thought of Polish people if the above story was widely known in Pakistan. I think that the mental image would have changed from something distant, remote and unknown to friendly, intelligent and helpful people. Such mental images also affect all future interactions between communities and nations. After all, the Turkish image of Pakistani people is mainly based upon the Khilafat movement of 1920s. Same is true for a number of negative images and stereotypes. That is the power of stories.