Archive for September, 2011

The urge to write it down: the list-maker and the note-taker inside you!

September 29, 2011

ArunN has a nice post on book and concert lists; as usual, it is humorous, very nicely written and showcases the keen and observant eye of Arun:

Nowadays, almost all of those who attend Carnatic music concerts, including the accompanists and sishyas on stage, seem to make these lists.

The Carnatic music concert list contains unique nomenclature. For instance, each song apart from the raga, tala and composer, would also be accompanied by letters R, N, S, T, i.e. if the list is in English. The R denotes whether the song was preceded by a raga alapana; the N signifies a neraval at an appropriate juncture, an elaboration of a suitable lyric section, during the exposition of the krithi; the S tells us whether the particular song had swara-kalpanai or creative extempore of raga swaras; the T means thani, the percussionist solo usually rendered as a tail section of the main piece of the concert. When a separate pallavi section is delivered, it is marked as RTP, the Ragam Thanam Pallavi, in our concert list.

I enjoyed reading Arun’s post; but, it also set me thinking about my own propensities to take elaborate notes in general, and making lists in particular.

In my case, the tendency to carry a notebook with me and note down things were not just restricted to concerts I attended and books I read; of course, I almost transcribed entire books on to my note book — the one book I remember reading in this fashion is Schnroedinger’s What is life? In fact when I think about the book the two images that come to my mind — one is the cover of the Canto edition that I read and the other is the large sheaths of paper filled with my transcription — I am afraid to use the word notes because, like some people who underline almost all the sentences of the book that they are reading, I wrote down every sentence (and, those of you who follow my blog do know that I quote and I quote extensively; and mouse mask, cut and paste has only made my job easier).

I went for talks and wrote down almost every sentence that the speaker uttered on to my note book.

I wrote down the movies that I went to.

After getting married, in the first few months, we went to lots of temples, and I made a list of all the temples that we visited — which must still be somewhere in the pile of notebooks at home.

For every trip that we take, we still write down the things that we carry with us, the things that we buy, and the places that we visit in a notebook (in this regard, I am very lucky to have a companion who also is an inveterate list-maker and note-taker!).

I also wrote down lists during my discussions with my thesis advisor; I remember, one day he kept telling me of the things that we were supposed to do; and, I was not jotting it down (as was my wont). Mid-way, he stopped, looked at me and said  “Guru, you want to jot it down?”.

Why did I (and, in some cases, still) write such lengthy and elaborate notes and lists (and, continue to in some cases)? There are plenty of reasons; but I want to draw attention to two possible reasons — with the caveat that these are not the only two reasons, nor for every case these two hold.

I personally feel that that I somehow felt that by writing it down, I was making the experience (be it reading the book, or watching the movie, or visiting the temple, or listening to a concert) more tangible; Arun also talks about the note book induced nostalgia of concerts; this is also further confirmed by the fact that the most memorable concert that I attended of TVS in which he sang “Thiruvadi Charanam” in Kambhoji, I did not write anything down; for that concert, writing down the names of songs would not have made the concert any more tangible or memorable; in fact, to have recorded that experience by writing down the song and raga on the paper sounds blasphemous to me!

At some level, in some cases at least, it also speaks of some amount of insecurity; I stopped transcribing lectures on that day when I paid more attention to the speaker and enjoyed the talk  — I guess, before that, I somehow thought that instead of allowing my memory to keep track of the ideas and concepts that I heard, I will transcribe them in my note book so that they will be available for me forever — this is the equivalent of making a photocopy of a paper rather than reading it or bookmarking a post rather than reading it; this is not to say that I do not reach for my notebook when I am in a lecture these days; but they are only for jotting down a reference or some phrase (of course, Google makes it easier to locate papers and documents knowing minimal amount of key words if one knows what one searches for).

That I can think of these two reasons does not mean that I am going to stop writing lists and making notes; Leela Prasad, whose book on Hindu ethics that I completed reading just a few days ago talks about her recording every conversation using audio-visual media to the surprise of her informants; she also speaks about revisiting her notes and transcriptions later to find fresh perspectives and newer meanings; in my own case, I would love to be able to jot down all the ideas that come to me and all the mistakes I make in my derivations/calculations and all the bugs that I discover in my code; it would certainly improve my performance on the professional front. But I have at least graduated to making sparse notes during lectures and fewer lists of songs of the concerts that I attend!

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An anthropological study of Hinduism

September 29, 2011

I enjoyed reading Leela Prasad‘s Ethics in Everyday Hindu Life: narration and tradition in a South Indian Town (which, I think is the same as Poetics of conduct: oral narrative and moral being in a South Indian town).

Prasad’s writing brings to life on the pages the people she is describing: after reading the book, one feels as if one knows Dodda Murthy, Chayamma, Vijaya, Lakshmidevamma, Shastry, and Ajji personally. There are also a couple of places where I found the book moving — the experiences of Dodda Murthy in Sevashram and the experiences of Lakshmidevamma’s first pickle making exercise. The book is also filled with lots of very interesting anecdotal details: the ones I liked best are about the explanations for the presence of a leopard in the town and the sensitivity of Dodda Murhty about narrating a sad incident and drinking milk after such a narration.

The book also talks about the Ashirvada tradition of Sringeri. A form of Ashirvada is practised in my place too– however, it takes place only at the conclusion of the 12 days and one year mourning period after a death. In this ceremony, the priest and the elders talk about the care given by the heir  (both physical and ritual) and the responsibilities that the heir has to fulfill towards the family and the local community to fill the hole left by the deceased member. However, the Ashirvada process described by Leela is more elaborate, has a poetics of its own, and more importantly, is performed after even religious ceremonies –not just on completion of the mourning period.

On the whole, a very nice and interesting book; a book that I might also revisit; a book that I have already recommended to a few people (including my father). Strongly recommended if you are interested in anthropology or religion or both.

Some timely advice on writing

September 25, 2011

I need all of it and more since I will also be racing to meet the deadline on at least three different writing projects within the next three to six months:

Paradoxically, I think setting a 1,000 word/day pace for myself turns out to be a good way to bring on that more creative state, that feeling of being entangled with the work. The more you’re able to write to a schedule, the more likely you are to hit those great moments when you feel like you’re transcribing ideas that come from somewhere other than your own mind. It can take at least a day to get to that mental state where the ideas really flow well; inspiration doesn’t come in a flash, but after a long run-up. Put another way, those states can, to some degree, be induced: you can start wordsmithing and end up doing something really creative. This helps explain Frans Johannsen’s observation (in The Medici Effect) that creative people do some of their best, most memorable work when they’re doing a LOT of work. We assume that masterpieces are the result of long solitary focus on a single problem, but they’re more usually part of a bigger enterprise.

A good one!

Three interesting pieces

September 23, 2011

Accepting death: a profile of Philip Gould (via)

Why breaking the law is safer

Contradictory beliefs

Bench tales!

September 20, 2011

Sriram has a nice post about The Maternity Bench.

At my place, we have a bench too; it certainly isn’t made to last — but it had lasted for about 60 years now; it is not teak; nor is it in great shape — if you do not ease yourself on to it, it vibrates as if there is an earthquake. But, I have spent so many hot summer afternoons lying on it reading the books and even some nights sleeping on it, that, it is impossible for me to imagine the open courtyard at the centre of our ancestral home without it! So, I obviously liked Sriram’s post!

Knuth: Q&A session

September 17, 2011

If you are a die-hard fan of Knuth and have an hour to spare, here you go!

The (lost) browsing pleasures

September 16, 2011

There were hours that I spent in the new journals section of the library browsing through every journal except what I came looking for (and, sometimes there were interesting discoveries — like the time I learnt journal of differentiation has little to do with mathematics!). After online journals, now, I hardly ever go to the journals sections.

There were also hours spent at several book shelves browsing through biographies, popular science and mathematics and sociology/anthropology sections.  These days I hardly visit the library looking for books; but, occasionally when I do, I make sure that I browse through at least one rack other than what I came looking for.

At least in the bookshops, we used to browse and once in a while buy a book without any recommendation from anybody and hence discover a new book/author on our own. But after Flipkart and ordering books online based on recommendations I read at blogs, hardly any author or book I discovered on my own.

Today, after a long time, my browsing in the book shop lead me to the discovery of a book that looks very interesting: Ethics in everyday Hindu life: narration and tradition in a South Indian town by Leela Prasad. I do not remember seeing any reviews of this book; in the blurb, I see a strong recommendation from Velcheru Narayana Rao:

This is perhaps the only book that moves our attention from the texts of the Dharmashastras to the practice of dharma in the actual lives of Hindu families.

I am very excited about this discovery, and I hope the book lives up to the expectations I have (I did dip in here and there, and liked what I read). More soon!

HowTo: Do research

September 15, 2011

A must-read post from Doug; specifically meant for experimentalists; but works for computational people too!

Trusting experts: the social and natural sciences divide

September 14, 2011

Sean at Cosmic Variance:

Over on the Google+, Robin Hanson asks a leading question:

Explain why people shouldn’t try to form their own physics opinions, but instead accept the judgements of expert physicists, but they should try to form their own opinions on economic policy, and not just accept expert opinion there.

(I suspect the thing he wants me to explain is not something he thinks is actually true.)

I am a strong believer that good reasons, arguments, and evidence are what matter, not credentials. So the short answer to “when should we trust an expert simply because they are an expert?” is “never.” We should always ask for reasons before we place trust. Hannes Alfvén was a respected Nobel-prizewinning physicist; but his ideas about cosmology were completely loopy, and there was no reason for anyone to trust them. An interested outsider might verify that essentially no working cosmologists bought into his model.

But a “good reason” might reasonably take the form “look, this is very complicated and would take pages of math to make explicit, but you see that I’ve been doing this for a long time and have the respect of my peer group, which has a long track record of being right about these issues, so I’m asking you to go along this time.” In the real world we don’t have anything like the time and resources to become experts in every interesting field, so some degree of trust is simply necessary. When deciding where to place that trust, we rely on a number of factors, mostly involving the track record of the group to which the purported expert belongs, if not the individual experts themselves.

So my advice to economists who want more respect from the outside world would be: make it much more clear to the non-expert public that you have a reliable, agreed-upon set of non-obvious discoveries that your field has made about the world. People have tried to lay out such discoveries, of course — but upon closer inspection they don’t quite measure up to Newton’s Laws in terms of reliability and usefulness.

However, the recent talk by Sharachchandra Lele (and several discussions with another colleague about astronomical evidence for/against Aryan Invasion Theory) has convinced me that Natural scientists are equally unreliable if it comes to things in which value judgement is involved. So, anywhere, anything with even remote human interest is involved, one has to make one’s own decisions and not rely on expert opinions! It just so happens that in the case of things like Newton’s law, it is the engineering that is based on these laws that convince people to believe in them — at least for the majority!

The real wizardry of Potter

September 14, 2011

I will leave you with the teaser from the piece How Google translate works:

A good number of English-language detective novels, for example, have probably been translated into both Icelandic and Farsi. They thus provide ample material for finding matches between sentences in the two foreign languages; whereas Persian classics translated into Icelandic are surely far fewer, even including those works that have themselves made the journey by way of a pivot such as French or German. This means that John Grisham makes a bigger contribution to the quality of GT’s Icelandic-Farsi translation device than Rumi or Halldór Laxness ever will. And the real wizardry of Harry Potter may well lie in his hidden power to support translation from Hebrew into Chinese.

As usual, I have Jenny to thank for the interesting link of the day!