December 25, 2009

The Philosophy behind James Cameron's Avatar

James Cameron's Avatar is old wine in a brand new and spectacularly brilliant bottle. There is nothing new in the plot -- especially for those of us in India who have been following land acquisition battles in the tribal belt -- that pits the indigenous people as the underdogs who are battling to save their forest-based way of life from the clutches of a global ( universal ?) megacorp. Latched on to this main plot is a cameo sub-plot of a cute little love story between two individuals Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) from the two opposing camps, which again is nothing to write home about.

But what makes the movie remarkable and memorable is the concept of transferring identity and consciousness ( "soul" ? ) across two bodies -- one of which is a genuine human and the other a synthetic Na'vi humanoid. Cameron has referred to this synthetic humanoid as an Avatar which periodically receives -- and is animated by -- the hero, Jake's soul. The avatar analogy that Cameron has adopted from the world of Second Life and equilvalent MMORPG platforms is perhaps incorrect here. In an MMORPG, we have a physical entity ( the player ) and a virtual digital entity ( the avatar ) and both are ( or could be ) simultaenously active. In this movie, both entities are "real", physical entities only one of which is active at any time and this situation is referred to in Hindu mythology as the process of Parakaya Pravesha -- or entering into another body. Sankara is supposed to have done this when he was challenged with a question on sexuality, that a celibate like him should have failed to answer. However he is said to have temporarily left his body, entered that of near-dead king, learnt enough to answer the question and then left the king to die, reentered his own body and concluded the debate.

The concept of transmigration of the soul is also addressed with the injured bodies of Grace ( Sigourney Weaver) and Jake the paraplegic ex-marine who is the hero of the story. It fails in the first case -- Grace dies and her soul merges with the infinite,  but is successful in the second and Jake's soul leaves his damaged human body and takes refuge in his Na'vi Avatar.

The chinese philosopher Zhuangzi had written about a dream that he once had of being a butterfly and when he woke up he was left wondering whether he was a man dreaming that he was a butterfly or whether he was a butterfly dreaming that he is a man. If you follow the dialogue carefully you will realise that Jake has the same dilemma -- whether he is human or whether he is Na'vi -- and asks the question just before the intermission.

So much for the philosophy of Avatar but what made all this philosophy palatable -- actually quite enjoyable -- is the superb special effects with which the world is recreated. I wish I could have done a trillionth part of all this in my own movie Are You Real ? but then, I am no James Cameron

Post Script :

Another interpretation of this movie in terms of the Hindu concept of Avatar is available in this subsequent post. You may also consider buying a copy of the Road to pSingularity, that explores Hindu philosophy in terms of modern science and technology from my Bookshop@Yantrajaal.

December 01, 2009

Self Evaluating Question Papers : A simple homegrown approach

With the debacle of the CAT getting out of the bag and the rubbish of it being attacked by a virus being bandied around by semi-literate experts, I thought of digging deep into the innards of my laptop and locating a very simple tool that I had built a long time ago to automate the evaluation of examination scripts.

Despite all the progress made in telecom, internet connectivity remains a challenge especially when you have to consider users who are not only geographically dispersed but who have to operate in conditions that an American company like Prometric/ETS really cannot envisage. A design for India has to factor in a breakdown of communications and this is where the store-and-forward technology [ first used in the now defunct Lotus Notes product ] can provide a good model.

KwizAuto - the tool that I had built while teaching at the Praxis Business School, Calcutta is based on Excel and it works like this :

  1. Have KwizAuto available on the test machine or download it from a central location.
  2. Open it ... it will ask for  password [ in a real exam,   this password will be announced  in the exam hall ] ... in this case it is praxis2008
  3. Excel will throw a warning that  Macros have been disabled. There will be an option to enable Macros ... please do so as otherwise the tool will not work
  4. In this case you will face a simple Quiz in Quantitative Techniques consisting of multiple choice and true/false type of questions
  5. Answer it to the best of your abilities .. or just type in at random [ after all, you are not a student with grades to look afer ]
  6. Once you are done, press the LOCK button and you will be asked (a)  your name and (b) your roll number 
  7. This will create a new Excel sheet with the roll number appended to the name.
  8. You will see (a) your name (b) roll number and (c) your marks  ... but you cannot change anything anymore
  9. Close this new sheet and mail it  to the tabulator or upload it to some central server.
The tabulator can open the sheet with the same password, note the marks. He cannot change anything either.

This little tool obviously has all the answers inside it but they are protected by a simple encryption technology. This is obviously not military grade security and can be cracked by a competent hacker but most students will not be able to crack it in the limited time available. Obviously the tool can be improved upon but what is important in this architecture is that it cannot result in a situation where the student could not complete the examination -- unless of course the power fails and is never restored !!

Being a lazy person, I had designed this tool to save on the labour that a teacher has to put in to evaluate answer scripts but I feel that an architecture like this can be used for online testing as well. If any teacher wants to use this tool I would be more than happy to help.