Archive for December, 2007

Effect of Beethoven on Lenin, and other musical things!

December 31, 2007

In a conversation with Maxim Gorky, he extolled the power of Beethoven, but added, “I can’t listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid nice things, and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell.”

That is from Alex Ross’ The rest is noise: listening to the twentieth century.

I am half-way through Ross’ book; though the book is good, my unfamiliarity with most of the pieces mentioned in the book is getting in the way of my enjoying the book. For example, here is a description of Richard Strauss’ Salome:

Salome, written nine years after Zarathustra, begins very differently, in a state of volatility and flux. The first notes on the clarinet are simply a rising scale, but it is split down the middle: the first half belongs to C-sharp major, the second half to G major. This is an unsettling opening, for several reasons. First, the notes C-sharp and G are separated by the interval known as the tritone, one step narrower than the perfect fifth. (Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” opens with a tritone resolving to a fifth.) This interval has long caused uneasy vibrations in human ears; medieval scholars called it diabolus in musica, the musical devil.

In the Salome scale, not just two notes but two key-areas, two opposing harmonic spheres, are juxtaposed. From the start, we are plunged into an environment where bodies and ideas circulate freely, where opposites meet. There’s a hint of the glitter and swirl of city life: the debonairly gliding clarinet looks forward to the jazzy character who kicks off Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The scale might also suggest a meeting of the irreconcilable belief systems; after all, Salome takes place at the intersection of Roman, Jewish, and Christian societies. Most acutely, this little run of notes takes us inside the mind of one who is exhibiting all the contradictions of her world.

The description in this vein goes on for several more paragraphs. Having heard Salome only once (and, I don’t even remember hearing the other two pieces mentioned above), I have difficulty in enjoying the descriptions as much as I would have loved to. May be, after finishing it, I should go to the Rest is Noise blog, listen to the samples, and get back to reading it once more; it would be even better if I can listen to the complete pieces a few times before getting back to the book. In that sense, I think, this is a reference book for long-term use for novices like me.

Having said that, I still found the book enjoyable for other reasons, since in some of the sections, I can see some similarities to the Indian classical music that I am more used to. Anybody who heard MS sing

நாலுபுரம் நோக்கி நாணி நான்
யாரிங்கு வந்ததென்றேன்
(I looked around on all sides, blushed , and said, “Who are you, who has come here?”)

with a coy sounding change in the pitch level for the word நாணி (blushing), can identify with the observation of Janacek, a Moravian composer:

Melody, he decided, should fit the pitches and rhythms of ordinary speech, sometimes literally. Janacek did research in cafes and other public places, transcribing on music paper the conversations he heard around him. For example, when a student says “Dobry vecer,” or “Good Evening,” to his professor, he employs a falling pattern, a high note followed by three at a lower pitch. When the same student utters the same greeting to a pretty servant girl, the last note is slightly higher than the others, implying coy familiarity.

And, to anybody who is trained in Indian classical, I think the following would also sound very familiar:

He observed the flexible tempo of sung phrases, how they would accelerate in ornamental passages and taper off at the end. He saw how phrases were seldom symmetrical in shape, how a beat or two might be added or subtracted. He savored “bent” notes–shadings above or below the given note–and “wrong” notes that added flavor and bite.

There are descriptions of musicians who try to see music in the everyday sound, which reminded me of an anecdote I heard about Mani Iyer: apparently, once, during his concert, when the whistle of a train sounded, he jumped to that note and sang along with it. Similarly, the experiments of classical musicians with folk tunes, motifs and ways of singing reminded me of Omkarnath Thakur and Kumar Gandharva. Music and musicians, from all over the world, do seem to share a common language, after all!

Trailer for a book!

December 31, 2007

I think, in Bengali the same word is used for both books and movies (Boi?). In any case, we usually see trailers to promote movies and excerpts to promote books. However, Random House India (their publicity manager tells me in a comment) has made a trailer for one of their publications: Namita Devidayal’s The Music Room. I like the idea. It is a nice trailer too (I think you should have flash enabled to see it). Take a look!

LaTeX source files: some tips

December 30, 2007

Long back, I saw a mathematics text book, the authors of which, thanked \TeX in their preface saying that along with coffee, it is one of the inanimate things that brought much joy to mathematicians. I think that is true for almost all researchers in general; \TeX is as ubiquitous in a researcher’s life as coffee, if not more.

Not surprisingly, there are several wonderful resources online for learning \TeX and \LaTeX; take a look at the links at the end of the wiki pages, or this page, for example. A bit of googling will also get you a book that I like a lot: A gentle introduction to \TeX by Michael Doob.

The usual tutorials on \TeX and \LaTeX give the much needed information about equations, symbols, embedding figures, and so on; however, there are some good programming practices which are to be followed while writing a \LaTeX source file that I have learnt — mostly by trial-and-error and by observing some \TeX wizards at work — which, I thought I will jot down here.

Like all programing practices, these are not hard and fast rules, but only guidelines; also, the philosophy behind these guidelines is the same — the source file should be as clearly human readable as possible. Thus, even if you do not follow most of the following, you might still be able to produce a near-perfect machine readable file; however, following these would produce files which can be more efficiently modified.

So, here we go; please feel free to add any that I might have missed in the comments section: I will hoist them to the post.

  1. Set the default in your editor to 80 characters per line, or even shorter (say, 72). This makes editing far simpler.
  2. Never use \\ to make new paragraphs. Give an empty line. This again makes reading the source file easier. Similarly, give enough space to separate different sections, sub-sections etc. Make the logical chunks to appear physically as chunks in your source file.
  3. When you use \cite or \ref, always precede them by a ~. Most of the times, it might not matter; but there are times when your reference number or equation number gets separated from the preceding word; this practice helps avoid that.
  4. Never write equation numbers, section numbers, figure numbers, table numbers etc by hand. I have seen many papers in which the equation numbers are all jumbled up — you see after the paper is submitted, probably, the referee suggested that you move some derivation to the appendix. So, the equation numbers are all changed; and, however careful you be, you tend to make mistakes in going back and changing them by hand, and, in your published paper, what reads as Eq. 5 should have been Eq. A.2.
  5. It also helps to have naming conventions– for example, while labelling bibtex entries, always use the name of the first author with year. Thus, throughout your document, it is easy to add references as long as you know the name of the author and year (which, most of the times you will have by heart–at least in your short term memory–by the time you submit your paper) so that you do not have to go back and forth to see by what name you are calling a particular paper.
  6. Using bibtex is a great idea; however, if you happen to have the references in the same document and are using \thebibliography, again, make a convention: say, the title of the paper, authors, journal, volume, pages and year–in that order; have each of them in separate lines. This makes it relatively easy to change your reference list style because you can cut and paste lines while rearranging, say, such that the year follows the names of authors, and then the title, journal etc follow. Of course, bibtex is the best solution for these kinds of problems.

Happy \TeX-ing!

Impartiality, information loss and economics of newspapers

December 30, 2007

Tyler Cowen points to a paper by Jeremy Burke, which indicates that it does not make economic sense for any newspaper to be seen partisan:

A majority of Americans view news organizations as politically biased, creating a strong incentive for firms to try to present themselves as impartial. This paper argues that the desire to appear unbiased leads to information loss.

As Tyler Cowen notes in his commentary,

Paul Krugman often makes this complaint, namely that newspapers often prefer a “He said, he said” story over simply telling the truth.  One message of this paper is that the problem isn’t so easy to stop.  Newspapers aren’t just being lax, rather they are maximizing their profits and reputation.

Apparently, the paper also discusses blogs.

There are a couple of key points, I think: one is that it is the desire to appear unbiased, not to be unbiased actually. The other is that this argument might hold only when majority of people do hold the view that news organisations are politically biased. I do not know if it is true of India. Of course, in Tamilnadu, for example, some Tamil dailies were openly partisan. But, we did know of some which weren’t; I think Dinamani was one of the non-partisan ones; I do not know if it still is. In the English dailies, as I noted earlier, Hindu was considered non-partisan; it no longer is, and I doubt if it ever was.

By the way, the piece also reminded me of something I read (I forget where) about Pravda (“The truth”) and Izvestia (“The news”) during the Soviet regime:

There is no Pravda in Izvestia; there is no Izvestia in Pravda.

Any case, take a look at Cowen’s post and the comments; some of the commentors disagree with the very premise that being seen non-partisan is bad for business.

How does glass flow?

December 29, 2007
Defects in crystals

In a typical crystal, there are many kinds of defects; some of them are zero-dimensional (or point defects) like vacancies — an atom that is missing from it position; some are one-dimensional (or line defects) like dislocations; some are two-dimensional (or planar defects) like stacking faults; and, there are three dimensional defects too, like voids. What makes it easy for us to discern these defects in a crystal is the underlying order.

It is sometimes said that crystals are like people since it is the defects that make them interesting. Some of these defects also play a crucial role in determining the properties of the crystals. Dislocations are an outstanding example: they play a crucial role in the plastic flow of crystals, and, in fact, had been theoretically postulated to explain flow anomalies observed in crystals.

Glassy materials

As opposed to crystals, some materials might be in what is known as glassy state; a glass is like a frozen liquid with no underlying order. But, glasses can also flow (or, in other words, undergo plastic deformation). This flow property of glasses leads to several interesting questions, namely, what is the underlying mechanism of flow in glasses? Are there defects in glasses which are similar to dislocations in crystals? If so, without the backdrop of an ordered structure, how do we characterize and observe these defects? Needless to say, these are very interesting questions and are actively pursued.

Flow in glasses

In the recent issue of Science, Peter Schall, David A Weitz, and Frans Spaepen report on some experiments that they have carried out on colloidal glasses in an attempt to identify the mechanisms of flow in glasses:

Structural rearrangements are an essential property of atomic and molecular glasses; they are critical in controlling resistance to flow and are central to the evolution of many properties of glasses, such as their heat capacity and dielectric constant. Despite their importance, these rearrangements cannot directly be visualized in atomic glasses. We used a colloidal glass to obtain direct three-dimensional images of thermally induced structural rearrangements in the presence of an applied shear. We identified localized irreversible shear transformation zones and determined their formation energy and topology. A transformation favored successive ones in its vicinity. Using continuum models, we elucidated the interplay between applied strain and thermal fluctuations that governs the formation of these zones in both colloidal and molecular glasses.

Why colloids?

Peter Schall’s home page has some details:

Colloidal suspensions are widely used as a model system to study a variety of phenomena in hard condensed matter physics. The particles – several ten nanometers to micrometers in size – self organize into structures similar to atoms in different phases of condensed matter. Crystalline as well as amorphous states can be prepared. Being several orders of magnitude larger than atoms, colloidal particles offer the unique possibility for studies at convenient length and time scales.

What is the experiment?

Schall et al take a colloidal glass, apply a shear stress to it, and observe the individual particles using confocal microscopy. The trick is to calculate the strain on application of shear, reverse the stress, and see how much of the strain is recovered, the un-recovered strain being the plastic strain. The calculation of strain is tricky because, in the absence of underlying lattice structure with respect to which strains can be measured, one has to take recourse to some statistical methods to describe the average structure to be used as reference.

What are the results?

The shear transformation zones, which are induced by thermal fluctuations, respond to applied stresses; and, the long range elastic fields associated with each of these zones leads to further creation of such zones, and interactions among them. These interactions play a crucial role in the flow.

The experiments and results in perspective

Michael L Falk, in an accompanying perspective piece in the same issue of Science, gives a bit of history of the study of defects and flow properties of glasses using sheared bubble rafts, how the current colloidal systems used by Schall et al is better than such bubble raft based experiments, and the relevance of these experiments to our understanding metallic glasses. Falk’s piece also carries a nice figure explaining the shear transformation zones that facilitate deformation in glasses.

Happy reading!

The revelation of a musical mystery!

December 28, 2007

Raj at Plus Ultra clears a mystery or two:

R.K.Narayan, in one of his short-essays, described the agony of a musically-challenged man, forced to attend a Sunday evening concert of Carnatic music.

40 years after RKN wrote this piece, the truth can now be told. The anonymous friend in the article is actually me.

The passages I have ellipsis-ed out are the ones where Raj quotes RKN, and needless to say, you should read them; go, take a look!

A chat with Vijay Shiva

December 27, 2007

I am a great fan of Vijay Shiva; his Swatantra Geethangal (a two cassette set, released for the fifty years of Indian Independence) was one that I used to play every day (for several years); I wore out at least two sets; though, unfortunately, I do not know any place online where you can listen to Swatantra Geethangal, you can listen to Vijay Shiva at the Music India Online site. Vijay Shiva (along with T M Krishna, I think) is also one of the authors of Learning to appreciate carnatic music series (which you can listen to online).

In the Friday Review edition of the Hindu, V Balasubramanian reports on his recent chat with Shiva. Shiva has some interesting things to say, like this one about nature versus nurture, for example:

I firmly believe that more than the genes, it is the atmosphere you grow in that shapes you. To cite a couple of examples, D.K.Pattammal is the first musician in her family and so is P.Unnikrishnan.

Shiva also has nice things to say about DKP:

Once, knowing that I was going to sing on Shyama Sastri Day, she summoned me over phone to come and learn the rare ‘Mangalam’ composed by him! Until then I never knew of its existence! DKP amma keeps track of my development. As she is aging there are no regular classes now, but it is Divine guidance I get from her.

Take a look!

Systems biology and India

December 26, 2007

D Balasubramanian, in his Speaking of Science column in the Hindu, describes metabolome and systems biology:

Did you know that the human body has 2500 small molecules as metabolites, 1200 drugs, and 3500 food components?

This catalogue is referred to as, what else, our metabolome.

As Dr. Eric Lander said, decoding the genome is akin to writing out the list of parts that make a Boeing 727, and the challenge starts now: to understand how the parts are put together, what each part does, and how they interact and govern each other’s actions. This is the business of the new subject called systems biology.

He goes on to make a case for India to take the initiatives in developing systems biology:

Systems biology is thus a highly interdisciplinary field – genetics and biochemistry, bioinformatics, computer modelling, and data analysis (…). The rewards are rich- giving information on toxicity analysis of drugs, disease diagnosis, metabolic fingerprinting and basic biology.

Here is an area that is still developing, an area where India can take a leading role by putting together biologists, computer scientists, and systems analysts. Lets us go for it.

Take a look!

A promising way of handling information

December 26, 2007

Some time back, we spoke about BibDesk, Tellico and Jabref; Philobiblon points to another called Zotero (for storing net records, mostly):

… what looks like a very good way of storing Net records – everything from Jstor articles to Flickr photos! I’ve been thinking for some time that someone really needed to sort out the vast amounts of information that we’re all handling, and Zotero looks like a promising way to do it.

Here is from the Zotero About page:

Zotero is an easy-to-use yet powerful research tool that helps you gather, organize, and analyze sources (citations, full texts, web pages, images, and other objects), and lets you share the results of your research in a variety of ways. An extension to the popular open-source web browser Firefox, Zotero includes the best parts of older reference manager software (like EndNote)—the ability to store author, title, and publication fields and to export that information as formatted references—and the best parts of modern software and web applications (like iTunes and, such as the ability to interact, tag, and search in advanced ways. Zotero integrates tightly with online resources; it can sense when users are viewing a book, article, or other object on the web, and—on many major research and library sites—find and automatically save the full reference information for the item in the correct fields. Since it lives in the web browser, it can effortlessly transmit information to, and receive information from, other web services and applications; since it runs on one’s personal computer, it can also communicate with software running there (such as Microsoft Word). And it can be used offline as well (e.g., on a plane, in an archive without WiFi).

Sounds cool, isn’t it? Take a look!

Alice in wonderland read by Cory Doctorow

December 25, 2007

Another gift for the holiday season: Cory Doctorow’s reading of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in wonderland with a creative commons license is available (via B-squared); I understand this is part of open source audio project. Happy listening times!