Applied Minds

August 13, 2016

Guru Madhavan’s book on how engineers think is a short, interesting and fairly easy read. Some portions of the book are so great that I wanted to make copies of those few pages and ask my class to read them!


Yann Martel’s High Mountains of Portugal

August 8, 2016

Of the three parts, I liked the last one the best. However, though the book is not uniform, it holds your attention throughout. Recommended.


July 16, 2016

And avian eyes! A very nice piece about quasicrystals and random packing and how all these are related to the arrangment of colour sensitive cone cells in the eyes of birds. Extremely well written and strongly recommended.

Kids under pressure

May 20, 2016

And how Ramanujan, the Mathematician can be their guardian angel:

… I see all these kids under tremendous pressure — rarely pressure that they understand the origin of. So many of these super-talented kids are just going through the motions, and aren’t passionate about their studies at all, and that’s terrible. I was like that too. I’d given up on ever trying to live up to my parents’ expectations, but somehow because I’ve had Ramanujan as a guardian angel, things have worked out well for me. It makes you a better teacher when you just tell people how hard it was for you.

A nice interview!

Moral Disorder of Margaret Atwood

April 30, 2016

Atwood’s prose is always such a pleasure to read; enjoyed it thoroughly. As Ursula Le Guin says:

What the stories do have in common, though, is a clear eye, a fine wit, and a command of language so complete it’s invisible except when it’s dazzling.

A good read and recommended.

Start-ups and universities

April 18, 2016

A must-read piece from Paul Graham:

What can CMU do to help Pittsburgh become a startup hub? Be an even better research university. CMU is one of the best universities in the world, but imagine what things would be like if it were the very best, and everyone knew it. There are a lot of ambitious people who must go to the best place, wherever it is—if it’s in Siberia. If CMU were it, they would all come here. There would be kids in Kazakhstan dreaming of one day living in Pittsburgh.

Being that kind of talent magnet is the most important contribution universities can make toward making their city a startup hub. In fact it is practically the only contribution they can make.

But wait, shouldn’t universities be setting up programs with words like “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” in their names? No, they should not. These kind of things almost always turn out to be disappointments. They’re pursuing the wrong targets. The way to get innovation is not to aim for innovation but to aim for something more specific, like better batteries or better 3D printing. And the way to learn about entrepreneurship is to do it, which you can’t in school.

I know it may disappoint some administrators to hear that the best thing a university can do to encourage startups is to be a great university. It’s like telling people who want to lose weight that the way to do it is to eat less.

But if you want to know where startups come from, look at the empirical evidence. Look at the histories of the most successful startups, and you’ll find they grow organically out of a couple of founders building something that starts as an interesting side project. Universities are great at bringing together founders, but beyond that the best thing they can do is get out of the way. For example, by not claiming ownership of “intellectual property” that students and faculty develop, and by having liberal rules about deferred admission and leaves of absence.

A very interesting piece, throughout and a must-read.


A racy start!

April 13, 2016

Here are a few paragraphs at the beginning of a piece published in The New York Review of Books:

Universities and museums around the Chinese world were interested but reluctant to buy. The documents were written on hundreds of strips of bamboo, about the size of chopsticks, that seemed to date from 2,500 years ago, a time of intense intellectual ferment that gave rise to China’s greatest schools of thought. But their authenticity was in doubt, as were the ethics of buying looted goods. Then, in July, an anonymous graduate of Tsinghua University stepped in, bought the soggy stack, and shipped it back to his alma mater in Beijing.

University administrators acted boldly. They appointed China’s most famous historian, seventy-five-year-old Li Xueqin, to head a team of experts to study the strips. On July 17, the researchers gingerly placed the slips in enamel basins filled with water, hoping to duplicate the environment that had allowed the fibrous material to survive so long.

The next day, disaster struck. Horrified team members noticed that the thin strips had already started developing black spots—fungus that within a day could eat a hole through the bamboo. Administrators convened a crisis meeting, and ordered the school’s top chemistry professors to save the slips.

Over the following weeks, the scientists worked nonstop through the eerily empty campus—the students were on vacation, and everyone else was focused on the Olympic Green just a few miles east. With the nation on high alert for the games, security officers blocked the scientists from bringing stabilizing chemicals into the locked-down capital. But the university again put its weight behind the project, convincing leaders that the strips were a national priority. By the end of the summer, Professor Li and his team had won their prize: a trove of documents that is helping to reshape our understanding of China’s contentious past.

The piece is interesting throughout!

Tamil Brahmans of Fuller and Narasimhan

April 12, 2016

Any book with coffee, the Hindu and the computer keyboard on cover is hard to resist. And if it titled Tamil Brahmans, more so. I read it and enjoyed it a lot.

I could identify with many of the anecdotes and opinions described in the book since I have personal experience with similar opinions and people growing up in rural Tamilnadu  in the 1980s (though as a linguistic minority — not as a Tamil Brahman). In any case, the value of books like this is that they help you understand your own experience and attitudes at a broader level; in doing so,  they also give a perspective that is generally missing and is very different from what you would get if you are not exposed these kinds of arguments and viewpoints.

Even though reading the book is not  as great an experience for me as, for example, reading Srinivas’ Remembered village, it is still one of the best books of this type I have read — I liked it better than I remember liking Beteille’s book (though Beteille’s book is a very good one too).

Strongly recommended if you are a South Indian; if not, it might still be an interesting read.

Here is an interview with the authors; here is an opinion piece on the book (with some awesome pictures).

On giving talks

April 8, 2016

Specifically, mathematics talks; but there are interesting things for other technical speakers too!

On curd (and other allied) rice(s)!

April 2, 2016

S Arvind in the Hindu on curd rice! The only part that is missing is the sangm poetry which proves that we have also been cooking mor-kuzhambu for at least 1500 years!

முளிதயிர் பிசைந்த காந்தள்மெல்விரல்
கழுவுறு கலிங்கம் கழாஅது உடீஇ
குவளையுண்கண் குய்ப்புகை தழும்பத்
தான் துழன்று அட்ட தீம் புளிப்பாகர்
இனிதெனக் கணவன் உன்ணலின் முக நண்ணியதே