Archive for July, 2009

Paul Graham tells when it is not good to have a smooth going

July 31, 2009

In his latest piece, here:

Someone riding a motorcycle isn’t working any harder. But because he’s sitting astride it, he seems to be making an effort. When you’re riding a Segway you’re just standing there. And someone who’s being whisked along while seeming to do no work—someone in a sedan chair, for example—can’t help but look smug.

Try this thought experiment and it becomes clear: imagine something that worked like the Segway, but that you rode with one foot in front of the other, like a skateboard. That wouldn’t seem nearly as uncool.

So there may be a way to capture more of the market Segway hoped to reach: make a version that doesn’t look so easy for the rider. It would also be helpful if the styling was in the tradition of skateboards or bicycles rather than medical devices.

Curiously enough, what got Segway into this problem was that the company was itself a kind of Segway. It was too easy for them; they were too successful raising money. If they’d had to grow the company gradually, by iterating through several versions they sold to real users, they’d have learned pretty quickly that people looked stupid riding them. Instead they had enough to work in secret. They had focus groups aplenty, I’m sure, but they didn’t have the people yelling insults out of cars. So they never realized they were zooming confidently down a blind alley.

Take a look!

Devil’s dung

July 31, 2009

I did not realise the amount of flavour that the uses of hing gives to our sambhar and rasam until, one day, I cooked them without hing and tasted the concoction. D Balasubramanian, in his latest column writes about the culinary and other uses of hing:

What gives it the pungent smell? It is the sulphides, the simplest of them being the one from the Kipp’s apparatus of high school chemistry lab.

The major component, 2-butyl 1-propenyl disulphide, is so “stinking” that the Europeans called it asafoetida – Asa from the Persian word for resin and foetida meaning ‘stinking’ in Latin. More colorfully it was called the devil’s dung – both for its shape and smell.

Ferula asafoetida is not grown in India, and is a native of Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan and that region of central Asia.

Have a look!

The Copernicun grave mystery

July 29, 2009

A must-read piece from the latest PNAS:

When in 2005 Polish archaeologists led by Jerzy Gassowski found fragments of a skeleton tentatively identified as the remains of the 16th-century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, some doubts remained. Now, in this issue of PNAS (1), these issues are resolved with high confidence through DNA analysis.

Take a look!

Junot Diaz on writing

July 27, 2009

A must-read interview at Narrative (free registration required):

During my college life, I understood that if I wanted to be a writer I had to be rigorous. But I was wrong.


What do you mean, you were wrong?


The one thing I knew very well was my body. I knew how to train the body. I was surrounded by athletes, so they were the metaphor. I saw that nobody could just come off the street and fuck with somebody with five years of training. I assumed that writing was like that. Big mistake. In many ways, writing is nothing like that. It’s something of a mystery, why people get good at writing. With athletes, it’s never a mystery.


What caused you to change your assumptions about writing?


Starting in ’97, something switched in my psychology, some wheel turned, and I found the actual process—creation, writing—to be unbearably painful. It went from being a great comfort to something horrific. It’s extraordinary, what one page takes out of me. Writing just reduces me. I think I’m probably the only person I know who is good at something that causes me tremendous distress.

There is more where that came from. Have fun!

PS:- To give another sample,


Unlike some other writers, you seem to have kept away from writing reviews and criticism. What is your opinion of literary criticism today?


I read it, but I don’t have a holistic sense of it. I don’t participate in the world of reviews and criticism because it would be a conflict of interest.


A conflict of interest?


I’m a striving writer, so am I going to give a good review to someone whose work undermines mine or makes mine look stupid? I could pretend to be incredibly noble and objective, but that would seem like a conflict of interest. I’m suspicious of my ulterior motives. I can’t read my unconscious so I’m almost afraid that, without even knowing it, I’d be biased in ways that would not be useful for a young writer or even an established writer. I only want to promote reading. I’m as critical as the next motherfucker; I guess I just don’t want to put it on paper.

Writers bring an enormous amount of discipline, rigor, training, and intellect to the work. But what’s really providing the energy is the unconscious. Ordinarily, we arm ourselves against that power with the shields of our intelligence and the spheres of our training. But in the end, it’s the unconscious that animates and makes what we do possible.

Did I say must-read?

Doyenne of Kirana gharana

July 26, 2009

Anjana Rajan in the Hindu today:

Gangubai, zestful and childlike, could also be firm. Sharma recounts that Bhimsen Joshi, having fallen on bad days brought on by alcohol abuse, was at one time barred from performing at the Sawai Gandharva festival of which she was the guiding light. But Joshi one year appeared at the festival declaring in Marathi, “I have come, and I will sing.” When he did sing, it was with such beauty that Gangubai exclaimed, “When this (expletive) sings, he really sings well!”

If Gangubai’s humility was disarming, her diminutive size took admirers by surprise when they set eyes on her for the first time. She recalled with a laugh that, before she became well known, she once travelled to Madras for a concert, where the organisers garlanded a stouter and taller woman who got off at the same station, convinced this must be the woman with those admirable vocal chords.

Take a look!

Schedules: makers’ and managers’

July 24, 2009

Paul Graham:

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there’s sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you’re a maker, think of your own case. Don’t your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don’t. And ambitious projects are by definition close to the limits of your capacity. A small decrease in morale is enough to kill them off.

I forget which one — FSP or Sciencewoman — but one of them wrote about research and non-teaching days; personally, I found that keeping a full day free of any other schedule really helped me concentrate on getting research, and more often than not, research oriented administrative tasks get done.

Research tips: work hard

July 22, 2009

Terry Tao; link via AMS graduate student blog which summarises the post nicely:

The two main problems are maintaining motivation and figuring out what to do next.  I have summarized some advice that Fields Medalist Terry Tao has written on the importance of working hard:1. Intelligence isn’t enough.

2. Reading and writing are important in addition to thinking.

3. Details are important in making your work worth reading and in selecting which papers are worth your time.

Take a look!

Gangubai Hangal: RIP

July 22, 2009

Another era comes to an end:

Gangubai was born in Dharwad on March 5, 1913, into a family of professional musicians. Her mother Ambabai was a Carnatic musician of extraordinary abilities. She could instantly write the notation of any song that she heard and was well versed in Sanskrit too. Gangubai often recalled Ambabai’s private concerts at her home in Dharwad with Kirana gharana founder Ustad Abdul Karim Khan often in attendance.

Hirabai Badodekar, Sunderabai, Sawai Gandharva and other musicians of the time would often make a stopover in Dharwad, just to listen to Ambabai. “A huge crowd would gather around our house to listen to my mother,” Gangubai would say with pride.

Gangubai’s moral grit and superlative talent helped her rise above her disadvantaged social circumstances, and the prejudices of caste and class. “Shukravarapete was then dominated by Brahmins. The minute I stepped out of the house, street urchins would jeer at me and throw dirty water at me,” she often recalled with no trace of bitterness. “These very people who had ridiculed me as a gaanewaali eventually treated me with respect later.”

As H.Y. Sharada Prasad put it: “Gangubai’s singing has the force of the Ganga; it cleanses.”“Every musical offering from me is a prayer,” she once said.

Gangubai Hangal belongs up there with a galaxy of outstanding women performers comprising Hirabai Badodekar, Kesarbai Kerkar, Rasoolan Bai, Jaddan Bai, Begum Akhtar, Bangalore Nagaratnamma, Shanmughavadivu and Veena Dhanam who, though from the margins socially, moved determinedly to centre-stage.

HowTo: design courses

July 21, 2009

Here is a tutorial that tells how; link via ScienceWoman who is blogging her experience of designing one.

Links: a movie, a reflection on careers, and “Software is dead: long live the software”

July 20, 2009

[1] Mark at Cosmic Variance recommends a movie:

Projects like this don’t change the world on their own, of course. But as part of a common goal of bringing a passion for science to the public, and allowing them to see that its practitioners and enthusiasts are drawn from all walks of life they play an important role; not only for science, but for our increasingly science-dependent society. It doesn’t hurt that Shaha is young and good-looking, but what shines through is his infectious energy and enthusiasm for science and the important role of skepticism. And that’s what I hope anyone watching this film takes away.

[2] The most recent, and must-read post of Bruce Eckel begins thus:

I’ve taken Robert McKee’s screenwriting workshop a couple of times (didn’t get it all the first time around). One of his maxims is “when you’re stuck, do research.” Mostly that’s meant reading books on management (primarily software management) but also general business books.

While at the library, a book practically fell off the shelves. Never one to ignore signs, I checked out Alan Webber’s Rules of Thumb. He was one of the founders of Fast Company, the only magazine I’m still (voluntarily) subscribed to (I keep meaning to resubscribe to Wired, though). The magazine stimulates my thinking and opens my horizons.

Rules of Thumb is subtitled “52 truths for winning at business without losing yourself.” It has that “bathroom reader” appeal, since each point/chapter can be absorbed in a short time and stands alone from the rest of the book.

I got stuck at point #6: If you want to see with fresh eyes, reframe the picture.

[3] Intimation of the death of software:

I was utterly floored when I read this new IEEE article by Tom DeMarco (pdf). See if you can tell why.

My early metrics book, Controlling Software Projects: Management, Measurement, and Estimates [1986], played a role in the way many budding software engineers quantified work and planned their projects. In my reflective mood, I’m wondering, was its advice correct at the time, is it still relevant, and do I still believe that metrics are a must for any successful software development effort? My answers are no, no, and no.I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that software engineering is an idea whose time has come and gone.

Software development is and always will be somewhat experimental. The actual software construction isn’t necessarily experimental, but its conception is. And this is where our focus ought to be. It’s where our focus always ought to have been.

If your head just exploded, don’t be alarmed. Mine did too. To somewhat reduce the migraine headache you might now be experiencing from reading the above summary, I highly recommend scanning the entire two page article pdf.

I guess it is a good reading list for a Monday morning. Have fun!