Archive for May, 2013

Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Is Indian civilization a myth?

May 30, 2013

I enjoyed reading this collection of essays. The titular essay felt as if ended abruptly; however, many of the other pieces in the book are well rounded. I specifically enjoyed his interview (the last piece in the book) as well as his experiences in Lisbon and Delhi school of economics as a researcher. I have always wondered about the criticism of insiders versus outsiders; while it is far more easier to shrug off the criticism of the outsider (by simply attributing motives, for example) than that of an insider; for the same reason, the insiders who happen to criticize have to face much more brutal opposition; and, I have not thought about this aspect till I read Subrahmanyam’s piece on Salman Rushdie.

The book can also be considered as an anthropological study of academic world in general, and history and social sciences in particular; for example, there are some must read passages towards the end of the Rushdie piece and the entire chapter on the global market for Indian history.

Finally, the book is also peppered with anecdotes like this one:

… Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote one of her most celebrated essays: ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ At the time, a folklorist is said to have responded: ‘More importantly, can the bourgeois listen?’

On the whole, a must read; strongly recommended.

PS: By the way, for a hardbound edition at Rs. 595/-, this is really a good buy (though, there are several typos that I noticed). Permanent black is a publishing house that is worth following!

Graham Farmelo’s The strangest man

May 25, 2013

I have been enjoying Garaham Farmelo’s The strangest man: The hidden life of Paul Dirac, quantum genius. It is a very interesting book. There are things which come as a surprise: for example,  Dirac’s encounter with Ehrenfest only months before Ehrenfest committed suicide, as described by Dirac in his letters to Bohr’s is a true surprise. The book has got good reviews too: here, for example, is one.

Having said all this, I do find Farmelo’s speculative sentences a bit irritating (“It may well have crossed Flo’s mind that Bohr would have been the perfect father for her son”, “Dirac will probably have found the celebrations a chore and will have been relieved …”). This tendency to speculate is the worst  when he starts attributing motives: “Bohr, probably wanting a piece of action, threw a grand party …”;  “… Bohr … gave a speech in English, subtly ensuring that no one overlooked his contribution to the achievements of his ‘young pupils’ “. I would have liked Farmelo’s book much better if he stuck to facts that he can marshal and stayed away from these speculations.

On a different note, if somebody can delve deep into the mystery of why the Stalinist and Hitlerian regimes took such extreme reactionary stands against quantum mechanics and relativity, that would be an interesting read — is it the (perceived) speculative nature of these theories without experimental proof, or, the attitude of the proponents of these theorists that made the non-theorists take such stands? It is clear that the practitioners and proponents of the different theories themselves were calling these theories and notions all sort of names; so,  is it that we react differently to the response of other scientists who are not theorists?

Wodehouse and Rilke

May 25, 2013

Read Wodehouse’s Uncle dynamite and he is as entertaining as ever; also read Rilke’s Letter to a young poet — may be, worth reading once.

Reflections on receiving tenure

May 5, 2013

“So I have just one wish for you – the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.”

Feynman as quoted here.

Here is Scott Aaronson at Schtetl optimized on his receiving tenure:

In seven years of teaching and blogging, I’ve learned something about my own psychology.  Namely, if I meet anyone—an undergrad, an anonymous blog commenter, anyone—who claims that the P vs. NP problem is beside the point, since it’s perfectly plausible that P=NP but the algorithm takes n10000 time—or that, while quantum mechanics works fine for small systems, there’s not the slightest reason to expect it to scale up to larger ones—or that the limits of computation are plainly no more relevant to fundamental physics than the fact that cucumbers are green—trying to reason with that person will always, till the end of my life, feel like the most pressing task in the world to me.  And it will make no difference whether I’m an unknown postdoc and the other person is Emperor of the Galaxy, or vice versa.

Why?  Because, I confess, a large part of me worries: what if this other person is right?  What if I really do have to jettison everything I thought I knew about physics, computation, and pretty much everything else since I was a teenager, toss all my results into the garbage can (or at least the “amusing recreations can”), and start over from kindergarten?  But then, as I fret about that possibility, counterarguments well up in my mind.  Like someone pinching himself to make sure he’s awake, I remember all the reasons why I was led to think what I think in the first place.  And I want the other person to go through that experience with me—the experience, if you like, of feeling the foundations of the universe smashed to pieces and then rebuilt, the infinite hierarchy of complexity classes collapsing and then springing back into place, decades’ worth of books set ablaze and then rewritten on blank pages.  I want to say: at least come stand here with me—in this place that I spent twenty years of late nights, false starts, and discarded preconceptions getting to—and tell me if you still don’t see what I see.

That’s how I am; I doubt I can change it any more than I can change my blood type.  So I feel profoundly grateful to have been born into a world where I can make a comfortable living just by being this strange, thin-skinned creature that I am—a world where there are countless others who do see what I see, indeed see it a thousand times more clearly in many cases, but who still appreciate what little I can do to explore this corner or that, or to describe the view to others.  I’d say I’m grateful to “fate,” but really I’m grateful to my friends and family, my students and teachers, my colleagues at MIT and around the world, and the readers of Shtetl-Optimized—yes, even John Sidles.  “Fate” either doesn’t exist or doesn’t need my gratitude if it does.

Take a look!


May 1, 2013

Just heard about Trello from Joel and signed up! Looks promising; may be I can use it to manage things around in the lab and office! Let us see.