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

Debating Vivekananda

April 2, 2016

A good read; strongly recommended if you are interested in Vivekananda.

Our Indian mothers

March 28, 2016

A nice piece by Mukul Kesavan!

John Cahn: RIP

March 16, 2016

Prof. Ranganathan alerted me to the news of Prof. John Cahn’s passing away; here is the obituary in Washington Post. Prof. John Cahn made fundamental contributions to several branches of materials science and engineering. He is probably most well known for his work on diffuse interface models; there are two non-linear diffusion equations named after him — Cahn-Hilliard and Allen-Cahn equations — which form the basis of all the phase field models.

Our group is one among the many in India using phase field models to understand microstructures, their formation and evolution; all of us have found the selected works of John Cahn to be a great book to have, read, consult to and argue about, and, I have met Prof. Cahn in 2005 in a Phase Transformations conference (PTM) that he helped start (though I did not discuss with him).

Cahn has also made several significant contributions including to the areas of wetting, solidification, symmetry breaking transitions and so on. One of the important charactersistics of Cahn’s work is the mathematisation of materials science and the close attention that he paid to general principles (and that included thermodynamics). I also believe that his theory of spinodal decomposition is one of the (relatively rare) instances in materials science wherein the theory was formulated fairly comprehensively before experimental confirmation was obtained. Of course, like in the case of dislocations, this scenario lead many to doubt the existence of spinodal itself. To quote Cahn’s reminiscence:

Borelius fully accepted the interpretations of the results. When I met him in 1961, he was unwilling to acknowledge my spinodal theory, and kept apologizing for having caused me to waste my time with what he now felt to be a fallacious concept.

May be I will write a more detailed appreciation at a later point in this blog. In the meanwhile, here are some videos at YouTube where you can listen to the pioneer himself.

 

Ramesh Mahadevan: RIP

March 11, 2016

I learnt the sad news from Abi. I have enjoyed his book on appreciating Carnatic music!