Archive for February, 2009

To call it spectacular is an understatement!

February 28, 2009

In the last ten days, we attended eight concerts: those of Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia (Hindustani Flute), Vidwan Prof. T N Krishnan (Carnatic Violin), Pt. Venkatesh Kumar (Hindustani Vocal), Pt. Rajashekhar Mansur (Hindustani Vocal), Ustad Asad Ali Khan (Hinudstani Rudra Veena), Vidushi Prof. N Rajam (Hindustani Violin), Ustad Chhote Ahmed Khan (Hindustani Sitar) and Ustad Rashid Khan (Hindustani Vocal); in addition, we also attended a dance programme by Smt. Sonal Mansingh (Odissi) — all this, thanks to Virasat of SPIC MACAY and Aravali Kannada Sangha (Ustad Chhote Ahmed Khan’s concert).

If the sheer numbers and variety is overwhelming,  the fact that this is the first time that we have listened to quite a few of them (and live too — Pt. Venkatesh Kumar, Pt. Rajashekhar Mansur, Ustad Asad Ali Khan, Vidushi Prof. N Rajam, Ustad Chhote Ahmed Khan and Ustad Rashid Khan) has added lots of excitement and rang to our musical lives; what is more, we have fallen in love with the music of Pt. Venkatesh Kumar, Ustad Asad Ali Khan, Ustad Chhote Ahmed Khan and Vidushi N Rajam — these days, even Maithri speaks and sings with longish pulls, drags, draws and stretches 😉

Soon, I am going to locate a good music shop in these parts, and you are going to hear a lot about some of these artists in these pages! Before I end this post, one Hindustani musical snippet that we learnt from Prof. Rajam — Bhairavi should be played towards the end of concerts — she refused to play the raga since there was another concert after hers!

PS: By the way, the programmes that we missed are numerous too — movies, puppet show, visit to the art gallery, painting workshop, yoga sessions, and, heritage walk. As you can see, even spectacularest might be an understatement 🙂

Origin of the

February 27, 2009


All failures happen for only one reason — at least in the case of start-ups!

February 26, 2009

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy, Opening sentence of Anna Karenina

Contrary to what Tolstoy has to say, apparently, when it comes to failed start-ups, they all fail for the same reason — lack of motivation (which, might not be news to those of you who are in the habit of reading Paul Graham); here is Joel expanding on the same idea (quoting Paul Graham, of course):

Jessica is the co-founder of a small angel investment group called Y Combinator. Its model is to give a few thousand dollars to groups of two or three geeks to start tech companies. She has also written a book called Founders at Work, in which she interviews the founders of about 30 successful start-ups. When she asked me what she should speak about, I asked her to consider describing all the different ways a start-up can fail, rather than the usual stuff about lessons learned from people who succeeded.”That would be boring,” she told me. “They all fail for the same reason: People just stop working on their business.” Um, yeah, well, sure, and most people die because their heart stops beating. But somehow dying in different ways is still interesting enough to support 40 hours a week of prime-time programming.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized Jessica was onto something. Why do start-ups fail? As she pointed out, it’s usually a collapse of motivation — everyone wanders back to civilian life, and the start-up ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

Paul Graham, Jessica’s husband and partner in Y Combinator, has tackled this subject on his website. “The biggest reason founders stop working on their start-ups is that they get demoralized,” he writes. “Some people seem to have unlimited self-generated morale. These almost always succeed. At the other extreme, there are people who seem to have no ability to do this; they need a boss to motivate them. In the middle there is a large band of people who have some, but not unlimited, ability to motivate themselves. These can succeed through careful morale management (and some luck).”

So, who is capable of “careful morale management,” and what does it entail? In my mind, an entrepreneur is like a kid playing with his first shortwave radio. He takes it home and turns it on, and what does he hear?

Nothing. Static.

This might be demoralizing. So he tries a different frequency.

Nothing. Static.

And this might be demoralizing again. Until his mom wanders by and plugs in the antenna on the radio, and suddenly, he picks up the ghost of a station! It sounds like it’s far away, and they seem to be speaking — what is that language they’re speaking? Never mind, it’s a station! An antenna! Who knew? The kid runs off to blog about how cool antennas are.

This is what it’s like when you’re creating a business.

Take a look!

How strong is a chimp?

February 26, 2009

John Hawks has a must read piece in Slate (via Hawks himself) as to how strong chimps are as compared to humans:

Bauman managed to rig his device outside the cage, feeding in a rope for the apes to work on. Then, amazingly, one of the Bronx chimpanzees—a former circus ape named Suzette—managed to pull 1,260 pounds.

Bauman took his study on the road, attempting tests at the Philadelphia Zoo and making inquiries as far afield as Chicago and Cincinnati. In 1926, he returned to the Bronx Zoo, successfully testing the largest chimpanzee then in captivity. That animal, named Boma, pulled 847 pounds one-handed.

How did that compare with humans? As a college teacher in South Dakota, Bauman did what any good scientist would do: He recruited the football team as research subjects. He found that not one of his “husky lads” could pull more than 500 pounds with both hands, and only one had a one-handed pull above 200. What’s more, the football players were free to use the dynamometer as they wished, while the chimpanzees had been forced to pull the apparatus from a clumsy posture in their cages. It appeared that chimpanzees really could be more than five times stronger than humans.

Thus the number entered the anthropology textbooks and made its way into the talking points of recent primatologists like Jane Goodall and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.

But the “five times” figure was refuted 20 years after Bauman’s experiments.

The piece, however, does not answer the question as to what could have gone wrong with Baumann’s experiments and how he came to measure such high numbers which the subsequent researchers never observed — except to note in passing either that the apes might have been under duress, in which case, it would prove that in case of heavy adrenaline rush they might repeat the performance, or that Bauman’s experiments might have been error-prone. But for this small lacuna, a great read!

Grad students and political skills (and, many other things besides)!

February 25, 2009

From this piece in Washington Post (link via John Hawks, who recommended it strongly):

Born in Utah in 1931, he grew up collecting animal skeletons, and as a lowly undergrad he published a scholarly paper on the subtle differences between the bones of dogs and coyotes. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Berkeley but dropped out of the doctoral program after some kind of beef with a professor.

“He was always in trouble with his professors, because he was so smart and he challenged them,” Archambault recalls. “As a grad student, you have to be politic, and that wasn’t one of Grover’s skills.”

Of course, it was not just for grad students:

Living in the Pacific Northwest, Krantz heard lots of stories about the apelike “Bigfoot” creatures rumored to reside in remote forests. Curious, he chased down the rumors, interviewing alleged witnesses, analyzing photos, making plaster casts of footprints supposedly left by Bigfoot.

Slowly he came to believe that Sasquatch might exist, and he said so in several books. Naturally, that attracted a lot of publicity, which did not help his academic career.

“He was slow to advance to full professor, because they thought he was embarrassing the university with the Sasquatch thing,” says Tyler. “Grover was extremely stubborn. He could have played it better politically. But that wasn’t him. If he believed he was right, he did what he wanted.”

And then, there is a nice one about first couple:

Hunt believes in the power of bones as educational tools. In fact, he has already arranged to donate his skeleton to the museum’s collection. Several other Smithsonian scientists, including Burgess and Stanford, are also considering donating their bones.

Diane Horton, Grover’s widow, may do that, too. “I probably will, but I haven’t done the paperwork,” she says. “I’m either going to get cremated or I’ll join him there.”

Then, remembering the dogs, she corrects herself. “Join them .”

She likes the idea that somebody could learn something from her bones. But there’s another reason, too.

“Dave Hunt says that if I went there,” she says, “Grover and I could be the first couple.”

Take a look!

The “desire to just look at the thing”

February 25, 2009

John A Sidles, in the latest issue of PNAS, while commenting on a recent magnetic resonance force microscopy paper in particular, and the spin microscopy in general:

Medical researchers (the tribe to which the author belongs) have aspirations too. We are tantalized by a vision of medical practice becoming fully curative and regenerative. We are frustrated—as the generation of von Neumann and Wiener was frustrated—by the limitations of our present tools. We desire—as Feynman famously desired—to “just look at the thing” (…). And we plan—as every previous generation has planned—for these aspirations to become realities.

The reference in the passage to Feynman is to his 1992 talk There is plenty of room at the bottom.The other reference to the Neumann-Wiener correspondence, unfortunately, does not seem to be available online.

Morning miscellany: Madras madness and upma puranam

February 20, 2009

Vikram Raghavan at Law and other things is upset:

Almost 100 years older than the Supreme Court itself, the Madras High Court has been a grand symbol of our country’s commitment to justice and the rule of law. As a school boy and law student, I walked through those magnificent Indo-Sarcenic hallways of the High Court that reek with history, grandeur, and tradition. Having spent formative years as a legal intern there, the court is an indelible part of my legal imagination. It has greatly influenced my pride in what I’ve always considered to be the learned and noble legal profession and, indeed, in my conception of what is just, what is fair, and what is proper. Yesterday’s violent incidents shake those long-held beliefs to the core.

The fact that Vikram is upset is also made palpable by his unconscious use of the word “reek” while referring to the history, grandeur and tradition of Madras High Court.

In the other story this morning, this post of Arun Giridhar makes me crave for the Samba ravai upma (and, the fact that I showed up at the class at 8 in the morning without breakfast does not help me either):

On a very unscientific level, I had suspected once that upma made with fine semolina was digested more quickly (and consequently felt less filling) than upma made with coarse cracked wheat. It is nice to learn that there is a scientific basis for that hypothesis.

Time for a breakfast of vada if not upma, I guess!

Telling lies, not listening to advice and being on the side of the eggs

February 18, 2009

Haruki Murakami’s Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech has some gems (Thanks to Jayan for the email pointer); here is the first sentence

I have come to Jerusalem today as a novelist, which is to say as a professional spinner of lies.

And a few paragraphs down:

Finally, however, after careful consideration, I made up my mind to come here. One reason for my decision was that all too many people advised me not to do it. Perhaps, like many other novelists, I tend to do the exact opposite of what I am told. If people are telling me – and especially if they are warning me – “don’t go there,” “don’t do that,” I tend to want to “go there” and “do that.” It’s in my nature, you might say, as a novelist. Novelists are a special breed. They cannot genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands.

And then this

Please do, however, allow me to deliver one very personal message. It is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction. I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste it to the wall: Rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it goes something like this:

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.”

Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

which reminded me of that Dostoevskian sentence:

More than that — if someone succeeded in proving to me that Christ was outside the truth and if, indeed, the truth was outside Christ, I would sooner remain with Christ than with the truth.

Murakami ends the speech with an explanation of his wall-egg metaphor (in addition to the obvious one, of course):

What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them. This is one meaning of the metaphor.

This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: It is The System. The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others – coldly, efficiently, systematically.

Take a look!

Mad mathematical violence at the heart of matter …

February 18, 2009

have scorched us deeper than we know.

John Updike, as quoted here.

On forcing volunteers

February 18, 2009

Bruce Eckel:

When the concept of “forcing” is introduced, it breaks that unity and says “us” will force “them” to do things. That bothers me a lot because it tries to reassert an “us” and “them” in a unified group. That’s not what we’re trying to do, and a punishment-reward system only works intermittently.

To me the Python/Pycon community is all reward and no punishment.

What does work is incentive, and the biggest incentive when you want to be part of the community is incentive that comes from that community. At Burning Man, the people who have been there before try to indoctrinate the new people. It doesn’t always work at first, and things fall through the cracks. Those who understand the concept of “leave no trace” end up cleaning up after those who don’t. But the gentle pressure is there, and when you stop your bike to pick up a piece of MOOP (Matter Out Of Place — the subculture generates its own language), you get a positive feeling, even if there’s no one to see it. You’re connecting with and supporting the community with that simple act.

In Open Spaces conferences, the key to changing the culture is having simple, clear agreements that everyone knows about. Everyone knows that getting up and going to another talk is not only OK, it’s encouraged. Experimentation and discussion is encouraged. Once people figure out that it’s all about them doing the thing they most want to be doing right now, it flourishes.

A nice one!