Archive for February 16th, 2008

A recommendation for Intuition

February 16, 2008

Janet Stemwedel reads Allegra Goodman’s novel Intuition, and likes it a lot too:

n many ways, this is a novel about human interactions and how they play out in a scientific world that relies on teamwork yet encourages fierce individualism. Many of the characters have rich inner monologues while communicating very little to their coworkers and confidants. They interpret the silences, the terse statements, the questions, what they see, and what they think they see … but their interpretations range from incomplete to dead wrong. They seem fearful of saying too much, and that fear speaks volumes about the way these characters view the scientific environment in which they’re trying to achieve some measure of success.

The novel doesn’t indicate to the reader that one particular character’s viewpoint is authoritative here. Since we are privy to the hopes and fears of many characters, none emerges as hero or villain. We see how each of them, even in operating as a scientist, carries around a history that influences his or her decisions or reactions. We see that the complications of being a human make it impossible for any one of these individuals to be perfectly objective.

And the facts of the central conflict are presented through the eyes of different characters, so the readers aren’t in a position to decide what really happened — which is to say, we’re in pretty much the same place as the characters in the novel on the incident that seems to blow out of control.


Intuition presents a complex — and viscerally real — glimpse at what it is like to be a scientist in a world where being a scientist and being a well-adjusted human often seem to be at odds.

The road of bigotry towards mindless destruction!

February 16, 2008

Ram Guha, in his latest piece in the Telegraph, writes about the destructive path of bigotry that almost all of the Indian political class seems to be choosing more and more (and the complicity of the media (especially electronic)):

That bigotry and intolerance flourish unchecked is due in the main to the failures of the political class and the media (especially the electronic media). In and out of power, the Bharatiya Janata Party has given sustenance to religious extremists. But our supposedly secular parties have behaved no better. Back in the Eighties, the Congress banned Salman Rushdie’s books and did not allow him to travel to India. Now, the Congress does not have the guts to ensure that Maqbool Fida Husain can live and paint in his own country. And the Communist Party of India (Marxist) does not have the courage to keep Taslima Nasreen in the state of West Bengal.

Most recently, Raj Thackeray’s speeches have been little less than a call to murder. It took the state government ten days to arrest him; and ten minutes to set him free. They were encouraged in their inaction by the shocking silence of the prime minister and the Congress president. The former had evidently forgotten his constitutional oath to act on behalf of all of India and all Indians. The latter had merely forgotten her mother-in-law’s memory.

The voyeurism of commercial TV has also provided encouragement to the bigots and fanatics. Raj Thackeray’s men ‘invite’ a channel to witness an act of vandalism; instead of calling the police to take action, they go ahead and publicize it. An obscure mullah issues a fatwa against Sania Mirza; instead of asking how many Indians the mullah represents or speaks for, his demagoguery is given top billing.

Take a look!

Coffee, Coffee hotels and Coffee house!

February 16, 2008

Rev. Edward Terry, chaplain to Sir Thomas Roe, wrote in 1616: Many of the people there (in India), who are strict in their religion, drink no Wine at all; but they use a Liquor more wholesome than pleasant, they call Coffee;

David Burton, a food historian, writes in The Raj at Table (1993): India’s first coffee house opened in Calcutta after the battle of Plassey in 1780. Soon after, John Jackson and Cottrell Barrett opened the original Madras Coffee House, … [They recovered] their costs with the high price of one rupee for a single dish of coffee.

From Geetha Padmanabhan and Deepa Kurup’s piece on coffee in the Hindu Sunday magazine. One rupee for a cup of coffee in late 1700s–and, I thought 60 bucks for a cup in early 2000s to be too high!

A R Venkatachalapathy on some aspects of cultural history of coffee in Tam-land:

These coffee hotels were so popular and such money-spinning enterprises that the satirist Kuttoosi Guruswamy, the ideologue of the Dravidian movement, likened them ‘to printing currency notes in one’s own press’…

A.K. Chettiar, a keen observer of contemporary culture, wrote in a lighter vein: Some find it difficult to cajole their wives to entertain friends at home. Such persons seek refuge in coffee hotels. The coffee hotel is not just an eating joint. In villages it is a place of congregation. In towns it is the place where traders clinch deals. Wage earners, school-going students and sub-editors, who down ‘half a cup’ by the hour — all depend on the coffee hotel. There are people who, sick of homemade food, go to eat at these hotels with their family every week… Moreover, what can one do when visitors turn up without notice?…

What is missing in this account, however, is the fact that the coffee hotel was generally run by Brahmins and, in the popular mind, was associated with brahmins…

Antara Das on a place of intense intoxication without alcohol, the Coffee House of Calcutta:

The coffee house at Kolkata’s College Street was the place for intense intoxication, but achieved without the aid of liquor, remembers eminent Bengali writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen.A visitor during the 1960s, though not a regular, to that now almost mythical cradle of intellectual discourse, Ms. Sen recollects how the “intoxication of creativity, intellectual excitement and free exchange of ideas” energised the place.

A cauldron of creative energy, the Coffee House was the ultimate pilgrimage for the aspiring writer, the budding poet, the young painters, playwrights and filmmakers or the radical in politics. “It was a kind of lounge where new ideas would be generated and exchanged, where young, creative, thinking people would congregate,” Sen said.

Amid the twirling haze of cigarette smoke, editors of little magazines would prod wannabe writers to submit their articles, while intricate cinematic aesthetics would be laid bare in discussions where Satyajit Ray or Mrinal Sen would hold forth.

Take a look!


February 16, 2008

The point is that a president has to decide which advice to take, and if the president has no knowledge of economics, how is that decision made?

Mark Thoma, from whom I stole the title!

Few pieces from Current Science

February 16, 2008

[1] Rasoul Sorkhabi writes about Ananda K Coomaraswamy, and how his scientific training as a geologist influenced his methodology of research and writings in art, culture, religion and philosophy (pdf):

Ananda K Coomarasway (1877-1947), an eminent historian and  philosopher of Indian arts and religions, began his career as a Sri Lankan geologist. While his philosophical thinking was influenced by such great minds as Rabindranath Tagore and Rene Geunon, his methodology of researches and writings in the areas of art, culture, religion and philosophy was influenced by his scientific training. A large body of scholarly and insightful works that Coomaraswamy has left  is a valuable and useful legacy for today’s scholars and society.

A nice piece with some wonderful photographs to boot.

[2]   Mary-Ellen Lynall writes about C V Raman’s work on Indian science journals, and makes strong arguments as to why Indian scientists should publish Indian science journals, and strengthen them (pdf). However, I think she misses some important aspects of the problem as well as solution. Indian journals, to be respected, should be of international quality so that scientists other than Indians would also want to publish in it. In the absence of such international participation, Indian science journals will just become provincial affairs. One way of ensuring international participation would be by making sure  that (a) all the Indian journals are open access journals (which, almost all of them are, I suppose), (b) the peer review process is open, and (c) the publications are all e-publications. While open access assures wider dissemination, making the peer review process open will inspire confidence in the potential authors and make sure that there is no favouritism when it comes to acceptance for publication; the e-publication would make sure that the cost of maintaining the journals will be not escalate (which would be a huge problem if the volume of publications increase, since, by and large, the publication costs are to be met by the academies or by the government). Making open review process also will allow Indian scientists to foster a vigorous and open scientific community.

[3] An Editorial by Prof. Balaram on the task of evaluating researchers and teachers (pdf); in the process, of course, the inevitable question, namely,

… what does it take to be ‘successful’ in science?

pops up, as well as discussions on choosing problems, mentoring, and, the quantity and quality of publishing, which makes it a must-read for any young researcher/academic.

Happy reading!

Examples of some great presentations!

February 16, 2008

It is Bhrathiyar who said

உள்ளத்தில் உண்மையொளி உண்டாயின்
வாக்கினிலே ஒளியுண்டாகும்.

(If there be true light in the mind
There will be light in the speech)

That is something I am reminded of every time I watch a TED presentation.

Garr Reynolds at Presentation Zen chooses six of his favourite TED presentations from February 2006 (link via TED blog) and uses them to tell how-to and how-not-to make presentations:

Working within limitations, including time limitations, can be liberating in a sense. It narrows your options, pushes you to focus…and leads to more creative approaches. Any professional in their field can ramble on for an hour or two. But 20 minutes to tell your story, to give it your best shot? That takes creativity.

If you’re going to have ideas worth talking about — and your ideas are, right? — then you’ve got to be able to stand, deliver and make your case. All six videos below are excellent; I list the videos in order of the ones I enjoyed most.

Take a look!

Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia

February 16, 2008

Sacks got plenty of mixed reviews (and I linked to a couple of them in this blog too — here and here, for example). Thus, I approached the book with a bit of trepidation. However, I need not have worried. Sacks is yet to disappoint me.

Be it a couple of references to A R Luria and Hughlings Jackson, two of his favourite neurologists, or to literary figures such as Nabokov or Tolstoy, Sacks’ writing is always a pleasure to read — both for its lucidity and the ideas that they convey. Here is, for example, a quote from E M Forster, from his discussion on the therapeutic values of music, and how, to be catharatic, music must steal on one unawares:

“The Arts are not drugs,” E. M. Forster once wrote. “They are not guaranteed to act when taken. Something as mysterious and capricious as the creative impulse has to be released before they can act.”

It is lines like these which shine so much of light on the writers, their observations, and how they match with the clinical observations of himself and his colleagues that makes reading Sacks such a pleasurable literary experience.

One of the main themes that runs throughout the book is how

… singing (…) is a very basic existential communication

and, Sacks shows how, even when almost all the identity of self is wiped out in patients with Alzheimer or other such diseases or accidents which cause extensive damage to frontal lobes, music can still help give the patient access to his self.

The book is also full of interesting pieces of information, like this one about E O Wilson, for example:

Edward O. Wilson describes in his autobiography, Naturalist, how he lost an eye in childhood but nonetheless is able to judge distances and depths with great accuracy. When I met him I was struck by a curious nodding of the head, and took this to be a habit or a tic. But he said it was nothing of the sort–it was a strategy designed to give his remaining eye alternative perspectives (such as normally two eyes would receive), and this, he felt, combined with his memories of true stereopsis, could give him a sort of simulacrum of stereo vision. He said that he adopted these head movements after observing similar movements in animals (like birds and reptiles for instance) whose visual fields have very little overlap.

I have seen such very distinct head movement at least in crows (and, of course, my grandmother had the following mythological explanation for their behaviour: a demon of the crow form, called Kakasura, was rendered blind in one eye by Rama).

Sacks also tells the moving tales of some of the musicians, like Jacob and Fleisher, who, through their musical activities, attention and will, literally reshape their brains and overcome their debilitating diseases.

His section of musicians dystonia made me wonder if Chembai’s loss and regain of voice isn’t some type of dystonia (especially, considering his unbelievable and out-of-this-world excercising of throat muscles, such as the alapanas he used to make with his mouth closed):

In 1952, Chembai was singing in a concert at the temple town of Suchindram. In the middle of the concert, his voice chords snapped and he could not sing thereafter. The concert ended in confusion. Here is an account (in his own words) of how his faith in God had brought back his voice:

On January 7, 1952, I was giving a concert at holy Suchindram. An hour had elapsed and I was at the peak of my performance. All of a sudden, my vocal cords got stuck up, as it were, and my voiced totally failed me. The concert broke up in confusion. Many rushed up to the dais to render help. Doctors tried their best with pills and potions but to no avail.

I went through life without any hope and no ray of hope seemed to come anywhere. In this state of desperation, in 1954, on the great Ekadasi Day in Guruvayoor, I stood before the Lord and wrung out my heart to Him. I could not give vocal utterance to my anguish. Memories of the glorious days when I had sung His praises surged forward.

O Lord, I cried out, will Thou not let me sing Thy praises? Will Thou let my heart break, for without this outward expression of my heart’s agony, I can hardly live? Had Not Thou in the past not given the gift of speech to the great Muka Kavi? Had he not sung Thy praises in enchanting Sanskrit verses known so well as the Muka Panchasati Stotras?

In my agony and mute supplication to the Lord, I had not noticed a Namboothiri standing at a distance of some fifty feet from me. He divined my trouble and came to me. He had evidently heard my inarticulate prayer. He promised to rid me of my trouble, Guruvayoorappan willing.

The Lord had sent his minister to help me and I regained my voice. In keeping with my promise I have since then been singing the praises of Bhagavan. Every year, I have the ‘Udayastamana’ puja performed at the temple fo Guruvayoor and the sum of Rs. 5,000 need for it comes from the concerts that Guruvayoorappan himself arranged.

The only jarring note I found in Sacks’ book is his reference to the Indian music as Hindu music (I am happy he didn’t spell Hindu as Hindoo as some of the 19th century European scholars used to do). The reference is all the more surprising in a friend of V S Ramachandran.

Having said that, this is a  book certainly worth your time if you are interested in music, and is a nice complementary read for Levitin’s This is your brain on music; have fun!

Reviewing the reviews

February 16, 2008

It is always fun to read the review of reviews: the best example of such reviews is the series that Open Letters Monthly publishes for book reviews called Peer Review — take a look at this review of reviews of Guenter Grass, or, this one of Philip Roth for example.

In a similar fashion, but on an entirely different note, Arunn at Unruled Notebook (Hat tip to Gandham for the email alert) decides to have some fun interpreting, de-constructing and at times, just plain translating, the review of a music concert that appeared in the Hindu:

Though sporting a coquettish swing, there was dignity of Carnatic music.

Like commercial break between programs, this means ROFL break for my (Shri. SVK) review.

Through his competent singing (as agreed by me in the earlier sentences) Kasturi Rangan made me see the feminine swing (of hips?) of Mademoiselle Carnatic music. After enjoying it for a while, I realized it is wrong on my part to do so in public, so I shift the blame squarely on to Mademoiselle Carnatic music for sporting such an ungainly feminine swing that almost robbed her of dignity.

Long karvais, loops, gorgeous sancharas formed the raga edifice. His creativity was well matured by intensity of feeling with a skilful control of form.

All because of this good, creative singer Kasturi Rangan. Shame on him.

His training under a towering vidwan helped him enormously in the rendering of kirtanas.

Aha! He is very good because he trained under TNS.

His interpretation of ‘Sri Ranganayakam’ (Nayaki) and ‘Saragunapalimpa’ (Kedaragowla) clearly brought out the radiance of the composition. The spiritual excellence of the Nayaki kirtana was unfolded stressing its specific beauties. The shades of the raga in the song were precisely and compellingly revealed.

The Kedaragowla kirtana with its structural cohesiveness and chittaswaram was presented with passionate gracefulness. One significant feature noticeable was full-steam articulation both in ragas and kirtanas. But there was lack of clarity in the enunciation of sahityas.

Nayaki and Kedaragowla ragas and the follow up kirtanas were brilliantly done. Nayaki and Kedaragowla are difficult ragas to handle. Their important phrases present in the respective kirtanas were skillfully brought out. The singing was lively but the sahitya words were not sung with clarity.

If he desires to proclaim his individual identity he has to move away from the shadow of Seshagopalan.

Let me (Shri. SVK) close with the critic patented hypocritical cliche. Kasturi Rangan should move away from the “shadow” of Seshagopalan to prove himself to me.

Take a look!