Archive for March, 2011

Writing professional e-mails

March 31, 2011

The difference between a good and bad poet is, apparently, that the good poet knows when he has written a bad poem.

I tend to think that I am not too hierarchical or snobbish. However, when I see certain mails, I get a feeling that the person may not even know that the tone and language of the mail conveys a message other than what the writer intends. For such people, this is a good place to start; via John  Hawks.

The code is not neutral 

March 30, 2011

The proof is no longer in the pudding. It’s in the search results. And baked into those results are the biases, ideologies, and business interests of the people running the search engines. The code is not neutral.

That is Nicholas Carr; I have to ask my wife is she uses the “search for recipes” option.

On reading

March 29, 2011

ArunN has a must-read post about his childhood and college readings:

As I browse the titles, I could recollect when and where I read them the first (and mostly, the only) time.David Copperfield was read sitting beneath the open mirror paneled kannadi bureau of my grandfather, which also stacked books of all sorts — from A Communist Manifesto to Kannadasan’s Arthamulla Indhumadham (Meaningful Hindusim) to The Brothers Karamazov to some vague titles on tantric secrets by one lady saint Sayimadha Sivabrindhadevi. The bureau was forbidden to youth of the house (it also had Kamasutra, I presume) and so during summer holidays while visiting my Grandpa’s place I used to creep into the room that contained the bureau in the afternoon while the household is enjoying their siesta, opened and sat down cross legged beneath the bureau, to read what ever I could rummage. The bureau’s kannadi door, if left unattended after opening, while creaking back to a closure at siesta-disturbing decibels would mimic a cat in labor with impeccable annoyance. A cross-legged posture of penance with the knees wedging the racks and the door to remain open is essential for outgrowing my illiteracy.

Lord of the Flies was read in two or three consecutive evenings after UG school, sitting in a red ‘rexine’ sofa in my college friend’s house. His father was an English professor and had the entire collection of classics and not so classics stashed in a wall cup-board whose double doors, once opened, cannot be closed  back properly over the ensuing avalanche of books. “From today, it is everyone minus one” (the original is a modified reply in a conversation) is an innocuous little sentence from To Kill a Mockingbird  that is stuck with me from my UG college days. Again, that book was read from that singularly neo-classic pile of sneeze. There was a reason for our swallowing such classical dust and deriphyllin. We both used to think of us as the next best in business to any writer we half-read and liked (say, Elias Canetti) and even started a no-profit-only-loss, typewriter-typed, cyclostyled and stapled magazine called The Ivory Tower (acronym is TIT, get the drift? that is how it became termite food).

I have my own memories of bookshelves and places of reading; I remember a niche bookshelf in my maternal grandfather’s home (from which I read a book, if I remember correct, called “Vaalgal” (tails)); another in my friend Veda’s home, whose father lent me Up from slavery of Booker T Washington. And, the local libararian who allowed me to borrow nicely illustrated and thick, hard bound volumes — Tom Brown’s school days and Ivanhoe were the favourite from this pile; and, the mathematics teacher Mr. Venkatachalam who allowed me to borrow books from the school library; Prof. Albert Irudayaraj from Sacred Heart who borrowed Abraham Pais’ Subtle is the Lord and lent it for me (because such glossy books are out of the reach of the students to borrow); and, finally, the bookshelves which were almost exposed to the weather at home from which I read the Jane Austens, Margaret Meads, K M Munshis, Gandhis, A L Natarajans and much, much more. And, all these books were read sitting on the thinnai, mostly; or, lying down on the wobbly, weather worn bench in the passageway next to the mutram. The post brought memories of intense discussions with GT, Punithan and Ela about La Sa Ra, Balakumaran and Indumathi — not to mention Ramana, Vivekananda, and Na Parthasarathy. The post also reminded me that favourite novel of mine from ThiJaa, Chembaruththi, in which, the hero reads books sitting in a corner of a room where grains are stored to avoid his brother’s comments.

What touched a cord in ArunN’s post is the following observation:

While in my twenties I dared Wuthering Heights, Lolita and 1984, I am reluctant now to revisit a Farewell to Arms or David Copperfield.

The other day, I was going through my own collection of books, built up from my B Sc days, and, I was wondering the same thing. Where is the enthusiasm with which I read Emma, Pride and prejudice, Ponniyin selvan, and Parthiban Kanavu, every summer, at least once?

Is it, as ArunN would have it, that there is no longer the need to impress your peers (and the opposite sex)? Or, is it that we are too busy? Or, is it that the reading habits and thinking patterns have changed, irrevocably?

May be back then I had a few girl friends I needed to impress and so I bespectacled me with a facade of such elevated classics and thoughts. Nowadays, I don’t need such impressive library. I am married. To a woman who is far too well read and worldly wise than me to fall for my philistine pick-up lines. I am grounded and go about reading an Anathem or Coyote Blue or How to be an Alien, none of which would make it to any of those generic must-read-for-everyone list.

Or there is a simpler reason for my neglect of those new-age classics to embrace my new found illiteracy. What if instead of reading, nowadays I keep finding other things to do? Like writing this note. Or working on that ever pending reviews or research papers. Unlike my younger days where I wanted to splash in serial lights I am intelligent and Oxbridgely and did everything other than getting educated in engineering, may be now I am actually doing round the clock what I claim to be doing and don’t have time for these ah, literati.

I think about these things at times, and conclude that I am afraid to lose myself to a book like the way I used to (Chattanathan and Bhuvana filled your mind for weeks after reading Chembaruththi) I do not have the luxury of time nor the strength, and, finally, and, most importantly, nor the company of equally crazy friends with whom one can discuss the book till the wee hours of the morning!

D R Nagaraj’s The flaming feet

March 28, 2011

Ram Guha, a couple of months ago, wrote about Nagaraj’s The flaming feet, and strongly recommended the book with the following words:

This new edition of The Flaming Feet may be the most important work of non-fiction published in this country in 2010. At any rate, it is indispensable for anyone with any serious interest in society and politics in modern India.

In his essay, Guha listed Nagaraj’s book as one that modified his world view:

Elwin was once a well-known writer in India. Tagore, Gandhi and Orwell enjoy global reputations. All had a considerable and varied oeuvre in English. Their books were published by the most prestigious publishing houses. A fourth book whose reading radically altered my understanding of the world was, in contrast, written by an author unknown outside his native Karnataka. And it was published by a totally obscure press. Browsing through Bangalore’s Premier Book Shop in the early 1990s, I came across a slim book called The Flaming Feet. The title was intriguing, as were its contents — a series of essays on and around the figure of B.R. Ambedkar.

Published by a local NGO called the Institute of Cultural Research and Action, The Flaming Feet was the first work in English by D.R. Nagaraj, a professor of Kannada in Bangalore University. The politics of the 1930s and 1940s had placed Gandhi and Ambedkar as antagonists — as, more recently, had the politics of the 1980s and 1990s. The Bahujan Samaj Party had launched a series of stinging attacks on the Mahatma, accusing him of patronizing the Dalits and impeding rather than aiding their emancipation. From the other side, the Hindutva ideologue, Arun Shourie, had written a 600-page screed depicting Ambedkar as a toady of the British.

D.R. Nagaraj was unusual and — at that time, at least — unique in admiring both Gandhi and Ambedkar. To be sure, in their lifetime their respective social locations made it hard for these men not to be political adversaries. By the time Ambedkar returned from his studies in the US, Gandhi was the acknowledged leader of the national movement. For a brilliant and ambitious young man from a Dalit background, to join the Congress was to relegate oneself to a secondary role in politics. Thus, as Nagaraj pointed out, “there was very little scope for a Congress Harijan leader to develop interesting and useful models of praxis from within”. So, Ambedkar chose to form his own political party and fight for his people under a banner separate from, and opposed to, Gandhi’s Indian National Congress.

In The Flaming Feet, Nagaraj demonstrated how, through their debates and arguments, Gandhi and Ambedkar transformed each other. The Mahatma became more sensitive to the structural roots of caste discrimination, while Ambedkar came to recognize that moral renewal was as critical to Dalit emancipation as economic opportunity. In seeking to honour both men, Nagaraj was, as he put it, fighting both “deep-rooted prejudices” (which urged Indians to follow only one or the other) as well as “wishful thinking” (which made one believe that one or other thinker provided all the answers to the Dalit predicament). Nagaraj insisted that “from the viewpoint of the present, there is a compelling necessity to achieve a synthesis of the two”. “The greatest paradox of modern Indian history,” wrote Nagaraj, was that “both Gandhian and Ambedkarite perceptions of the issue are partially true, and the contending visions are yet to comprehend each other fully”.

Reading Nagaraj, like reading Tagore, Gandhi, Orwell and Elwin, was an epiphanic experience. He taught me to recognize that while Gandhi and Ambedkar were rivals in their lifetime, from the point of view of India today the two men should rather be viewed as partners and collaborators. The legacy of both was required to complete the unfinished task of Dalit emancipation. After the publication of The Flaming Feet, Nagaraj began writing more often in English. These later essays, like the book, were marked by an unusual ability to bring disparate worlds into conversation: the past and the present, the elite and the subaltern, the vernacular and the cosmopolitan.

Guha has also written about Nagaraj earlier; but I had not paid attention before reading this piece; I am glad I finally did. And, in my opinion, Guha does not exaggerate; the book did change many of my views; it has helped me understand some of my own observations and though processes in a better manner; and, what is more important, it has opened up certain ideas and thought processes, which, but for reading this book, I would never have had a chance to think.

A must-read book; and, a book that you would like to re-read; and, finally, a book that will change you in ceratin ways, forever.

Not just doing but also explaining to others

March 27, 2011

Is the key.

Recently, along with a couple of colleagues of mine, I have been involved in a couple of activities, in which, some of our undergrads and grad students decided to explain some of the work that is done in the Department to school children and lay public. The experience has been uniformly positive, exciting and occasionally, even, fantastic.

So, needless to say, I agree with the following quote and sentiments (expressed in this post):

Any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan.

From Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

As a graduate student, one of my favorite things to do is solve interesting problems. It doesn’t matter if it is a homework problem or a random question from a fellow student (honestly, I think I prefer the random questions). Lately I have realized solving problems is not the only thing that creates a good mathematician. One also needs the ability to articulate ideas and solutions in a way others can understand and relate to.

And, there is much wisdom in that Sanskrit poem which says that the complete learning consists of four parts: a quarter from the teacher, a quarter from the peers, a quarter from self-study and the final quarter by teaching. (Yes! unless you teach, your learning is not complete – a sentiment that I fanatically agree with).

When Nature turns into National Enquirer 

March 25, 2011

Thanks to John Hawks, I got a link to this post, the last two paragraphs of which is a must read:

If the Nowak et al. paper is so bad, why was it published? That’s obvious, and is an object lesson in the sociology of science.  If Joe Schmo et al. from Buggerall State University had submitted such a misguided paper to Nature, it would have been rejected within an hour (yes, Nature sometimes does that with online submissions!).  The only reason this paper was published is because it has two big-name authors, Nowak and Wilson, hailing from Mother Harvard.  That, and the fact that such a contrarian paper, flying in the face of accepted evolutionary theory, was bound to cause controversy.  Well, Nature got its controversy but lost its intellectual integrity, becoming something of a scientific National Enquirer. Oh, and boo to the Templeton Foundation, who funded the whole Nowak et al. mess and highlighted the paper on their website.

The lesson: if you’re a famous biologist you can get away with publishing dreck.   So much for our objective search for truth—a search that’s not supposed to depend on authors’ fame and authority.  I feel sorry for co-author Corina Tarita, a young scientist with splendid qualifications, for this paper will always cast a shadow over her career.

PS: If you are like me, here is Wiki defining National Enquirer: an American supermarket tabloid!

A classic mistake: documented

March 21, 2011

Documentation is the key; and, if it is the documentation of a mistake, it is much more educational.

Here is a VC about an opportunity they missed:

We made the classic mistake that all investors make. We focused too much on what they were doing at the time and not enough on what they could do, would do, and did do. I am proud that our portfolio is full of companies where we saw the vision before other investors did and backed a great team. But we don’t always get it right. We missed Airbnb even though we loved the team. Big mistake. The cereal box will remain in our conference room as a warning not to make that mistake again.

Here is a long list of emails exchanged (in what turned out to be the documentation of the mistake); have fun!


HowTo: choose a grad school

March 20, 2011

Doug has some tips!

Linguistic survey of India: from 1920s

March 19, 2011

Thanks to Swarup, I had the pleasure of listening to some Kannada and Tamil stories, recorded sometime in 1920s. Nice one!

PS: The language of narration is obviously more literary and less colloquial. However, even now, sometimes, when you switch on Podhigai, you can listen to this kind of narration!

Supercool metals and imaging matter

March 17, 2011

Here are a couple of interesting reports!

[1] Supercool metals

Structural changes in an alloy may lead to a clearer picture of glass transitions in liquid metals.

[2] Imaging matter

An x-ray free electron laser setup converts the diffraction pattern of randomly positioned and oriented particles into an image of a single particle.