Sunday, May 16, 2010


This photograph was taken in September 2003 somewhere in Umbria. We were walking through the alleys and narrow streets of this beautiful hilltop town since midday.

Then as the sunset started to gradually embrace rooftops, buildings, and streets beneath something magical happened.

Suddenly, as if responding to a mysterious call people started to pour into streets in their best outfits. It was an amazing sight. People standing, chatting, walking, greeting each other, individuals moving from one group to another. A wonderful human foam erupting and flowing everywhere.

Pay attention. There are no advertisement posts, no interfering commercial garbage, no hideous shop signs, no one is using mobile phone, no texting. Just people facing people.

So people’s attitude towards architectural and spatial settings is as important as their attitude towards each other. Italians know how to live and don’t let disruptive commercialism to take over their most precious everyday event, Piazza.

People genuinely facing and communicating with each other without letting anything getting in their way. They are simply experiencing being human in an embracing social fabric.

‘Piazza’ is a public square where people at any age gather just before sunset, and talk, gossip, fall in love, laugh and in general ‘feel’ human again. Piazza is the heart of Italian society. How much I envy them.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Scale matters

Ever since looked down from a high rise building, watched pedestrians and cars lazily moving, but somehow skillfully avoiding each other just like ants?

If you stop and watch an ant colony they too seem busy yet not panicking, some carrying their cargo into tunnels, others returning to take more, again skillfully avoiding each other.

It takes only going up about ten floors or more in a high rise building to realise how insignificant human scale becomes with collective scale emerging in its grandeur.

From this height that guy crossing the street becomes like an ant, his complex frontal cortex1 setup, his desires, thoughts, worries and joys, his career, personal finances, kids, wife, boss, lunch, friends, next summer holiday, aging parents etc simply vanish.

Collective consciousness mercilessly takes over, averaging his behavior, and reducing the man to a crawling creature.

“Look at'em Dad!” cries a five year old. “They're like ants!”.

Zooming in and out of scales may change your perception, your views about life, the universe and yourself. You may start to think for instance maybe after all we are exaggerating our role in the universe.

About the time we evolved to have a sufficiently large frontal cortex we must have discovered that we were not going to make it here on earth indefinitely.

Hence  somewhere along the line of homo sapiens evolution our collective consciousness created a fictitious after life. We invented gods and religions of various forms to secure and extend our life span. A delusion that blinded our species for generations to come from making sense of scale transitions.

We wishfully think we are intelligent enough to deserve a purpose behind our own existence. Perhaps our chauvinistic attitude and megalomanic admiration upon our own species grew with our intelligence, a misfire of some sort.

Whereas from evolutionary perspective systematic delusions often work against mother nature’s tendency to favor a particular species.

We are so much obsessed with regarding ourselves as the most admirable, beautiful and intelligent of all species ever existed, so much so that, we ignore other scales and other metrics.

The chances are we may be ‘intelligent’ but we may not be as ‘successful’ as other species. Our species may not be able to survive despite our ignorance so long as we keep misinterpreting the scale of our own importance and undermining the impact we inflict on this planet.

Looking down at gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from space should convince us how vulnerable and ‘unsuccessful’ we may be as species.

Scale matters.

1) Frontal cortex:

Monday, May 3, 2010

You are a null set

The "theory of probability" was one of my favorite subjects during university education.

Our lecturer was a man with great sense of humor, then Assoc. Prof. Fatih Canatan.

In probability theory there were abundant of interesting real life examples that would pull you out of the realm of photons (electromagnetic fields’ constituent particles) and put you on the ground standing firm on your feet, well almost firm, as we are talking about probabilities here. The theory of probability gave us the students a rare sense of belonging in our otherwise weird electrical engineering curriculum.

I remember we also had a classmate, an annoying type, you know the guy, a definitive 'nerd', who constantly asks stupid questions without giving a fig about how disruptive he is being for the class. 

Then one day following a chain of dumb and tiring interruptions he asked “what is a ‘null set’ professor?”. Mr Canatan turned, calmly puffed his long pipe twice, deeply thinking, but his face now turning slightly pinkish, answered:

“Mmm. A null set is an empty set as I already mentioned number of times. For example you, you are a null set!”.

The whole class suddenly cracked up, tears in eyes.

A classical problem in introductory probability lectures is:

"What is the probability of finding at least two people with the same birthday in a group of people?"

Most people underestimates the value of such probability. To give you an idea in a group of 20 people the probability is 41%.

In my hand writing the solution is given as follows :

If you also want to plot how probability varies with the group size first of all you need a good calculator which won’t give you overflow with large factorials. Most likely your computer’s calculator application would fail. You would need a tool like Wolfram Alpha.

Wolfram Alpha is a magnificent online math tool. Go to then in the search box type;

1 - 365!/((365-k)!*365^k)

After a few seconds Wolfram will give you a set of interesting plots and numbers in various forms:

If you want to zoom into the probability distribution for a group size between 20 and say 40, simply follow your intuition:

1 - 365!/((365-k)!*365^k) from 20 to 40

And you would get this;

Or if you want to calculate the probability for a group of 40 people simply type:

1 - 365!/((365-k)!*365^k) where k=40

And you would get the result as 89.1232%:

Isn’t this amazing! I mean the whole thing. It simply feels great NOT to be a null set.