Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Ludwig van

One doesn't have to read Anthony Burgess or watch Kubrick to be driven to madness by Beethoven's 9th:

"The magic power re-unites all that custom has divided,

All men become brothers under the sway of thy gentle wings"

Lucky for me, I managed to borrow Herbert von Karajan's rendering of Beethoven's symphonies from a friend before he left for India. Nothing lifts your spirits better in moments of solitude!

Mildred Rogers

There's one like her in all of our lives, isn't there?

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

From Of Human Bondage (Chapter XLVII)
At last, in a small room, Philip stopped before The Lacemaker of Vermeer van Delft.
"There, that's the best picture in the Louvre. It's exactly like a Manet."
With an expressive, eloquent thumb Philip expatiated on the charming work. He used the jargon of the studios with overpowering effect.
"I don't know that I see anything so wonderful as all that in it," said Hayward.
"Of course it's a painter's picture," said Philip. "I can quite believe the layman would see nothing much in it."
"The what?" said Hayward.
"The layman."
Like most people who cultivate an interest in the arts, Hayward was extremely anxious to be right. He was dogmatic with those who did not venture to assert themselves, but with the self-assertive he was very modest. He was impressed by Philip's assurance, and accepted meekly Philip's implied suggestion that the painter's arrogant claim to be the sole possible judge of painting has anything but its impertinence to recommend it.
I wish more days were like this; when one could read, reminisce and introspect with absolute impunity :-)

Saturday, 13 December 2008

People talking without speaking; people hearing without listening

Excerpt from engaging editorial by Shekhar Gupta in the Indian express earlier this week:

Any number of illiterate emails and SMSes now float around, not merely cursing politicians, but spreading utter falsehoods about the Constitution and laws. There is one, for example, that says that our Constitution (article 49-O, it specifically says) entitles us to go to a polling booth and say we do not want to vote for anyone, and if the number of such votes is higher than votes polled by the leading candidate, the election will be set aside and nobody will be elected. So that is the way to fix the political class which, realising that, has kept that article under wraps. Now most of us passed our class X Civics a long time ago, and God alone knows how, so let’s not question anybody’s knowledge of our Constitution. But none of the thousands of very well-educated, rich, successful, respectable people through whom this silly mail has passed and been forwarded, have bothered to check that venerable document. For, if they did, at least one myth would have been set at rest: Article 49 deals with some thing very important, but it is not the right of negative vote, but the protection of our monuments.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Refreshing change but..

The first draft of the long overdue Administrative Reforms Commission is out. It is remarkably puzzling that the UPA government took this long to deliver on a promise they made ages ago. Unfortunately it took an catastrophe of the magnitude of the Mumbai attacks to set the wheels rolling. While a glance through the key points does encourage optimism, I wonder whether a review held as late as after 14 years of service isn't a bit too late. In fact, as the exact words go "the first review at 14 years would primarily serve the purpose of intimating to the public servant about his or her strengths and shortcomings, while the second review at 20 years would mainly serve to assess the fitness of the officer for further continuation in service".

What is the basis for 20? Why not a shorter period, say 5 years? There are many such questions which pop up as one goes through the provisions. Nonetheless, in the spirit of things, it is a step in the right direction. Der aaye par durust aaye (hopefully!)

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The premature birth anniversary of J. Willard Gibbs

Today was the last lecture of 10.40, the dreaded Thermodynamics course of the MIT first year graduate curriculum in Chemical Engineering and a day of custom. The course, while evolving in details over the past years, has retained its capacity to inculcate a perpetual sense of fear and delirium across the class throughout the semester. Its apparent level of difficulty can be traced back to (or blamed upon) exclusively one man in the history of thermodynamics- Josiah Willard Gibbs (partners in crime include G. N. Lewis, James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann :P). While mechanical and civil engineers revolve their lives around trivial heat pumps and thermodynamic cycles and while physics majors possibly escape the classical approach (most certainly the thermodynamics of solutions which is Gibbs area), possibly chemistry grad students are the only other sorry souls who have to endure the abstruse pain of Gibbs' calculus of thermodynamics and his geometric phase equilibria ideas.

But I like Gibbs. He is one of those towering figures in American Science (preceding giants like Feynman, McClintock and even G.N. Lewis) who's work was so original and ahead of its time that it evoked the interest of very few people in Gibbs' lifetime. It took a scientist of the greatness of Maxwell to immediately understand the significance of Gibbs' idea of the U-S-V surface (in this, they are almost like the Einstein-Eddington pair). Gibbs was a solitary figure who remained in the Yale campus all his life and produced an astoundingly rich body of work. Personally, the most significant aspect of Gibbs to me is that he made seminal contributions to both classical and statistical thermodynamics theory.

Back to 10.40 and today's lecture. Jeff Tester, the main instructor of the course is one of those classicists who revels in the joy of teaching this course which has been meticulously designed by him and his predecessors over the years. He filled his lectures with romantic connections to the historical development of the subject (one unfortunate consequence of this fact is that he was as abstruse as his idol Gibbs in some regard, but then this being his last year at MIT, one could overlook his indulgence) and his reverence to the likes of Carnot, Clausius, Gibbs, Boltzmann and Lewis. So as the custom goes, the last 10.40 lecture is marked with the celebration of Gibbs' birthday, although the actual date is in February. Legend has it that Bob Reid (Tester's predecessor as the 10.40 instructor and also incidentally Tester's PhD advisor) used to dress up as Gibbs to the lecture that day (tweed suit with flannels and all) and deliver his lecture in a New Haven accent. Tester did no such thing (though I think he could have pulled it off) but brought the customary cake (see picture) and tried to make sure fears were alleviated (or atleast momentarily forgotten) before the final exam week!

Most of the text is quite readable but for those who're curious about the formulae:
1. Bottom, top: The Gibbs Fundamental Equation in differential form
2. Bottom, bottom: The Gibbs Phase rule
3. Top, left: The fundamental statistical mechanical relation between the Helmholtz free energy and the canonical partition function.
4. Top, left: The kth Legendre transform of a first order homogenous function.

That's it for now until exams I suppose!

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Midnight ramble

As a student of science, there are a number of times when I feel confronted with a frightfully overwhelming feeling; a cursory glance at the various monthly journals that are displayed in any MIT library is enough to digest the sheer rapidity with which different areas are progressing. One wonders if one can make any significant contribution in an era of such stupefying complexity where progress is being made, both at the core and the interfaces of various disciplines, at breakneck speed.

These experiences instill humility but at times challenge your confidence. However, there are reassuring times too. Times when you suddenly find yourself understanding a particular idea faster than your colleagues and have the good fortune of helping them out (and vice versa), a moment during an incomprehensible physics seminar when you are suddenly able to relate to a particular concept and integrate it with pre-existing knowledge. hours of pen-paper algebra leading you to a completely unanticipated wonderful result staring at you like a beacon in a storm- all of these replenish the elixir in the staggering spirit when it's weary of the world.

Enough of the indulgent ramble. What prompted me to put up this post was a lecture on TED by the famous neuroscientist V S Ramachandran which somehow captures the simplicity that lies behind profound ideas capable of really making a difference and causing a paradigm shift in our understanding of things. Highly recommended to anyone aspiring leave behind an original idea in this world! :-)

Monday, 8 December 2008

Random political thoughts

I have, like every other insignificant thinking Indian, gone through the successive emotional phases that followed the terrorist attacks that shook Mumbai on 26.11. The initial anger intensified into helpless frustration as I stuck to the news website during those forty-eight hours, the mind feeling restless and sombre as the battle with the terrorists went on. The frustration then funneled into a call for desperate action and all reason was momentarily abandoned as the blind heart responated with the vox populi - "Enough is Enough", notwithstanding the embarrassing dramatization that the Indian media resorted to (Indian Express perhaps being an exception) and is continually on display. Later, the mind pulled back its senses and all that it could see was repeated stagnant rhetoric on every other talk show and every other opinion article. I had my own thoughts on the matter but then, what was their worth?

As usual, there has been constant bashing of our neighbours on this matter. Just read news items from either side of the border and one can at once infer the surge of nationalistic pride that result post such catastrophies when fingers are pointed. The case of Pakistan is quite unfortunate - its economy being in shambles (inflation close to twenty-five percent), its internal security being as bad as that of India (if not worse), its crackpot military establishment working against the interest of the state, the civilian government of this fledgling democracy is in dire straits at the moment. To call them weaklings is a platitude - the fact that ther President feels compelled to write such an article in NY times is a candid testimony of their hopeless situation.

Amidst all this frenzy, the Indian administration has to decide on its course of action. As Raja Menon put it in a recent interview, India and the US have to save the Pakistani Civilian government from another military takeover. Any military move from India, at this moment might drive Pakistan back into Musharraf's hands (his mouth seems to have opened again). Lalit Mansingh constantly keeps emphasizing the importance of diplomatic pressure, and while this has not quite worked in the past, I cannot but help agreeing with his stance, given that we're dealing with an infant civilian government and given that it is in our best interests for Pakistan to develop a democratic stability.

My book to bedtime currently is "Freedom at Midnight" by Lapierre and Collins. I cannot help but feel with a sense of irony that Jinnah's dream, one that he achieved in the nick of time while fighting tuberculosis, has degenerated into a failed state caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Ogden Nastiness

If you'd ask me to take a call I'd say,
that vintage leather-bound books,
Are birthday gifts superior
to trinkets and worthless coffee mugs.

Often though there are shades of gray,
beneath the glowing leathery looks.
Be sure to check the interior
for pages punctured by literary bugs.


Sorry if the degree of imitation is shameless and unbecoming :-). There are a million escapes from Thermodynamics at the moment, all of which are extremely inviting.

Friday, 5 December 2008


I plead guilty for not putting up a single post since coming to grad school. There hasn't been much I have felt compelled to write about and for whatever I have felt for, leisure has been scarce. Now that I think of the past, I never wrote in solitude. If I ever gave the impression of being a lone thinker trying to arrive at the truths of the world by being violently original, it was probably a farce that my subconscious played with me. It was a farce that thankfully did not consume me. Whatever I have written, it is with people in my mind - people I know, people I love and people whom I can feel at home with.

MIT has been a good experience till now. With the exception of the heavy academic workload that can sometimes stress one out, I love every part of being in this wonderful campus - the infinite corridor, the libraries, the free food, the coffee shops, harvard square, the charles river and downtown Boston. I hope it gets better with the semesters to come.

My research area and advisor have been finalized (almost). I would be working in what my group refers to as 'Computational Immunology'. Broadly speaking, the work would involve using theoretical frameworks rooted in statistical physics to understand adaptive immune response in organisms like you and me. In the immediate future, that would involve two things- learning a lot of physics and learning a lot of biology - I'm looking forward to both.

Social life took a sharp change from the IIT setting and it looks like it has equilibriated once more. 'Change', as it is understood, becomes less prominent as one gets older. The only constant companions I am looking forward to at MIT are the corridors, the bookshelves and the pebbles on the riverside. The others will come and go, take a part of me and leave me a part of themselves.

A lot of memorable things happened this semester beyond academics - Sailing in the Charles with Varun while the weather was still kind, the wonderful Clay Memorial lecture at Harvard on the life of Euler, the de-stressing 4$ movie screenings on weekends (A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather and Forrest Gump), Henry V, 'Into the woods', MIT rendering of Beethoven's Eroica (where I return from to type this post) and the wonderful trip to Purushottam's at Baltimore.

The semester's about to end in a couple of weeks. My near and dear ones in Cambridge will leave me alone to face the winter's wrath during Christmas.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Fuck you

for breaking my silence but stripping my words off me.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

'To know my country, one has to travel to that age, when she realized her should and thus transcended her physical boundaries, when she revealed her being in a radiant magnanimity which illumined the eastern horizon, making her recognized as their own by those in alien shores who were awakened into a surprise of life; and not now when she has withdrawn herself into a narrow barrier of obscurity, into a miserly pride of exclusiveness, into a poverty of mind that dumbly revolves around itself in an unmeaning repetition of a past that has lost its light and has no message for the pilgrims of the future.'
- Rabindranath Tagore

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Hi Chithi and C'pa,

I'm just dropping a customary note since I have nothing better to do at this moment. It is pouring heavily outside and am therefore confined to my room in the hostel. I am currently reading "The Discovery of India" by Nehru and it is magnificent beyond belief. I cannot believe it took me so long to get down to reading this book. I had read a few disconnected essays from the book from time to time but it is only now that I am on a cover to cover voyage. It makes me think of everything else I read as overrated drivel. Page after page of Nehru's sparkling prose feels like somebody finally switched on the light bulb in a heart of darkness. There are so many things that he talks about and it is remarkable that the man possessed such an immensely ecumenical breadth of culture; something that one finds so lamentably lacking in even the most educated of Indians today.


Tuesday, 22 July 2008

PM's statement

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Lok Sabha statement is up for viewing, which he chose not to read but submitted it to the speaker. It is fairly verbose and does contain some self-righteous rhetoric regarding the contributions of the Congress to India's route towards development. But the document itself begins with a trite bashing of the leader of the opposition, L. K. Advani that is especially delicious. That it comes from a man who is usually regarded as a taciturn statesman and who calls himself a 'Prime Minister by accident' makes it even more punchy:

As for Shri Advani’s various charges, I do not wish to waste the time of the House in rebutting them. All I can say is that before leveling charges of incompetence on others, Shri Advani should do some introspection. Can our nation forgive a Home Minister who slept when the terrorists were knocking at the doors of our Parliament? Can our nation forgive a person who single handedly provided the inspiration for the destruction of the Babri Masjid with all the terrible consequences that followed? To atone for his sins, he suddenly decided to visit Pakistan and there he discovered new virtues in Mr. Jinnah. Alas, his own party and his mentors in the RSS disowned him on this issue. Can our nation approve the conduct of a Home Minister who was sleeping while Gujarat was burning leading to the loss of thousands of innocent lives? Our friends in the Left Front should ponder over the company they are forced to keep because of miscalculations by their General Secretary.

Friday, 18 July 2008

The Dark Knight

Caught the latest Batman flick first day-first show at PVR mulund and with the knowledge that it's a Nolan movie I had expected it to be good. But it was fantastic beyond belief. Let me make it simple - if you're a cinema fan with a slightly refined appetite that does not restrict itself to a particular genre, set of actor(s) or themes, go watch this one without fail! It shall be worth your money-that's my guarantee. For Batman fans I'd say get your ass in that theater as soon as you can.

For me, the movie has three heroes:

1. Heath Ledger as Joker- With due respect to the legendary Jack Nicholson, Ledger takes the cake by far with the last performance of his life. Ledger's Joker is sadistic, psychotic, disturbing and much more complex than Nicholson's. The scene between Joker and Two-face in the hospital in the latter half of the film is one of my favourites.

2. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard for background music - This is one of the best background tracks I have heard in recent times (the other one being that of Philip Glass in Kundun). The violins kept playing in my head hours after the movie while I kept imagining how the experience would have been, if it were not for the music. The music has a constant sense of urgency to it along with a mood of impending chaos, breaking into a crescendo whenever Batman or Joker enters the scene giving it a flavour that is so much more different than the usual drab monotonic scores of most superhero films (That said, the Superman score remains one of my all time favourites :-) ).

3. Christopher Nolan as Director - This guy is the twenty-first century powerhouse packed with the talent of Hitchcock, Kubrick and Spielberg together. He proved himself with Memento and totally arrived with Batman Begins. His Prestige remains one of my favourite movies of all time. But with The Dark Knight, he leaves his contemporaries far behind in skill not only as a director but also as a master story-teller. The over-rated M. Night. Shyamalan does not even come close.
The performances of all the leads are extremely competent and for one thing, it is a direct result of the shaping of their characters by the writers (points to the Nolan brothers once again). Christian Bale as Batman is good (albeit the look of his lips when he tries to get the Batman intonations working is definitely funny), Gary Oldman is restrained and good as Lieutenant James Gordon, Aaron Eckhart is fantastic as Harvey Dent/Twoface and Maggie Gyllenhaal makes for a good Rachel Dawes though I wish Katie Holmes were around. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are at their usual best. Though Heath Ledger outruns all of them by miles by being more than top-notch as Joker.

The film gets what it deserves from the cinematography front. The aerial shots of Gotham city and the action scenes are breath taking. On the flip side, the movie could have been a little shorter but no one's really complaining :-). There's definitely gonna be second viewing from my side sometime next week!

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Back to business

After what was without doubt the best vacation of my life, I am back to my burrow with the sense of urgency reaching out to me- tentacles and clamps. Some unfinished business remains on the thesis front with regards to submitting a journal paper which I have absolutely no interest to work on. Amma smiles me with ladles and tongs in her hands reminding me of my utter lack of dedication when it comes to learning some cooking. I reply with the words "Sandwiches, salads and flavoured yoghurt." She responds sharply, "Proteins?"

My google reader has clocked 1457 unread posts. With one stroke of exasperation, I marked all of them as "read" and unsubscribed myself from quite a few pages. There are too many people around with too much to pontificate about and something in my head reminds me that I'm tired.

I realized that my flight to Boston allows only 23x2 kgs on board. Apart from the utensils and the cornucopia of masalas and other condiments that my mother has already made reservations for, I get a feeling I am going to find place for very few books. Despite being told that the first semester at MIT will allow no leisure for divergent reading I was hoping to carry some books that have been breathing dust in my library for ages. I have finally decided to do whatever it takes to carry the following books. Suggestions for additions and editions are invited though there is a polite possibility the latter might fall into deaf ears :-). Generous donations in the US will be welcomed with folded hands and might be rewarded with fine dining ;).

1. Discovery of India and Glimpses of World History - Jawaharlal Nehru. Both magnum opuses of immense scholarship. I have read both in parts over the last four years but something in me makes me think I would say the same thing four years hence too.

2. GEB- The Eternal Golden Braid - Douglas Hofstadter- Elezier Yudkowsky had recently remarked in Overcoming Bias that a person who has not read this book is incomplete as a human being. Taking that more as a compliment for this wonderful book than anything else (there is no shortage of such rhetoric in the internet these days :P ), I shall first admit that I am still incomplete as a human but shall strive hard to get there from now ;).

3. History of World Philosophy - Bertrand Russell- Once again, a magnum opus by one of the most fertile minds of this century. Haven't read much of the book except the chapters on Spinoza and Kant.

4. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass- Have a vintage copy of this book but unfortunately never got down to reading it.

5. Collected Short Stories- Jorge Luis Borges- The master postmodernist fiction writer. For any of you who don't have a copy of this book, I highly recommend this collection.

6-10 - Suggestions are welcome :-)

Sunday, 6 July 2008

There is life...

elsewhere. But there are no stories one can fall asleep to.

The porticoes where we hid and sought are now a charred legacy. Our secret inscriptions have long dissolved and are now polishing stones on river-beds. Light rays and bandicoots enter and emerge unscathed from that heartless house.

Time refuses to budge. Some compromise. Some life.


I have not stopped blogging (for better or for worse) :-).

In the middle of a family vacation, I have just managed to find an efficient internet connection in Haridwar and thus, am able to slip this post in. I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of mails in my inbox demanding an explanation for temporary dormancy on this blog page.

I know that my readership is still a very modest number and mostly comprises of close friends and some good Samaritans. Also, with the advent of the wonderful Google Reader, I thought it would be unnecessary (and lame) to wave hands and publicize my departure. Nevertheless, I extend sincere apologies to the handful who missed me and paid fruitless visits to this page. With folded hands, I shall also gently recommend the use of GReader.

For the record, I was hibernating the past few summer days in Auli, a ski-resort up north of India. Six days and six nights at Clifftop Club were extremely comfortable, indulgent and rejuvenating. Apart from long solitary walks on endless grasslands amidst the friendly society of cows, sheep, mules, sheepdogs and mountain peoples, I managed to catch up with cricket, Wimbledon and some awesomely kitschy hindi movies (Read Beta, Judwaa, Aflatoon et al).

I read Heart of Darkness once again. Can't say it was an easy read, but this time around, the imagery seemed a lot less alien than when it was confronted in the confines of concrete walls. Conrad was followed by the long procrastinated but fantastic City of Djinns by William Dalrymple. The book, in a nutshell, is about the city of Delhi. The author narrates the story of Delhi through the lives of its creators and inheritors through the annals of history. There is some fantastic early British, Mughal and Pre-mughal history in the book.

Dalrymple was followed by Richard Dawkins' collection of essays, A Devil's Chaplain. I somehow can never get enough of Dawkins! For those who don't want to go through the prolixity of his other books (The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, Unweaving the Rainbow, Climbing Mount Improbable), the book makes for a great read. Especially heartening to read is Dawkins' eulogies for Douglas Adams, William Hamilton (the famous British evolutionary biologist) and Stephen Jay Gould (the famous american evolutionary biologist, popularly seen as Dawkins' academic nemesis).

I didn't know if I was ready for non-standard fiction just yet :). But binging on non-fiction called for a brief respite and I re-read Summer Lightning and Heavy Weather. Wodehouse is indisputably the best comic writer ever.

Following a friend's recommendation, I have finally gotten down to reading Jeanette Winterson. I had paid a visit to Odyssey the day before the start of my trip and picked up the only available book- The Stone Gods. I'm liking whatever I'm reading right now and I shall hopefully post about it later.


I shall be in Delhi for the next two days catching and will hopefully get to spend a day in the National museum. From the day I read about their repository of the Indus Valley relics, I have been longing to get there. Wednesday, I catch an early morning flight to Leh for a 5 day sojourn with a few close friends.

It will be another week/ten days before the revival :-) Adios!

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Amitav Ghosh's latest book and The Great Gatsby

Amitav Ghosh, for all my money, is one of the finest authors in India today. I have found both his fictional and non-fictional works outstandingly perceptive of anthropological issues and what makes them special is Ghosh's deep compassion for the human condition- a rare quality these days especially when most authors are preoccupied with brandishing their opinions missing out on the delight of communicating experience without judgment.
I haven't read his latest book, The Sea of Poppies, but I plan to read it sometime soon. I came across this (rather long but nonetheless interesting) interview of Amitav Ghosh by a refreshingly perceptive and intelligent interviewer. While much of their discussion is about themes and techniques in The Sea of Poppies, the author also talks about the ideas that influence and inspire his writing. The latter part of the conversation begins at the use of language in the book and how the medium of expression itself can become a theme in the narrative. Ghosh shares some fantastic history on word origins that is worth reading:
Which is why I feel that if me, and other Asian writers, if we are going to write in this language at all, then we must reclaim for it what it historically had. When an English newspaper says about our writing that these guys are bringing all these new words into the language, it’s nonsense – those words have been there for centuries!
Some colourful swear words were in the dictionary too. Let me tell you about something interesting I came across in the lascari dictionary written by Lt Thomas Roebuck, in 1812. When he lists the words of commands...have you ever heard the word “habes” (pronounced hab-iz)?No. In lascari, when you wanted to tell a sailor to pull, or heave, the translation that Roebuck provides is “habes”. I’m not sure what the root is, but it was a very common command.
So he provides this word and then adds in brackets, “Sometimes it may be necessary to include a few words of abuse, for example ‘bahenchod, habes!’ Or ‘saale, habes!’”We have somehow become very embarrassed about these things today. I hope I’m not offending you, but the word “beti-chod” (daughter-fucker) has been used going back to the 17th century, in English as well.
A preceding post in the blog actually discusses some interesting linguistic gymnastics that Ghosh indulges in, in the book.
I just finished reading The Great Gatsby. The book is one of the earliest 'American novels' and to say that it is a fantastic read would be an understatement. Indians (from time to time) like to indulge in coffee-table criticism of the wanton materialism that has forever prevailed in the west while being happily oblivious (or indifferent) to the rising tide of extravagance that carries us all. In that, F. Scott. Fitzgerald was one of the earliest critics of the materialism and economic opulence that followed the first World War in America.
There is a difference between scholarly criticism and haranguing. The former stimulates the reader to evolve as a thinker rather than blindly marry to the ideas that any good writer would be able to weave into a convincing prose. Both Fitzgerald and Amitav Ghosh belong to the former category of intellectuals; in writing, they acknowledge the difficulty of translating experience into ideology. Personally, this limitation is the strongest case in point for the necessity of fiction in our lives. It is in this exploration that the seed of imagination germinates and it is important to experience it rather than be instructed by it.

Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Indus Valley

The debate as to whether the Indus Valley civilization was a progenitor to the Hindu culture and tradition has been an area that has been intensely pursued by the BJP/VHP brigade in recent times. While this issue is yet to assume proportions comparable to the Ayodhya and the Ram Setu propagandas, it is noteworthy as a case in point of how political vested interests corrupt debates that ought to be resolved through simple falsifiable evidence. Thank god that the sites lie in Pakistan for I wouldn't have been surprised to find shiva lingas mushrooming from the excavation site with Hindu groups striking vehement claims to the hallowed land of their ancestors.

A very interesting article that was linked from another blog reviews the various theories that attempt to explain the collapse of the Indus Valley civilization. As to whether that remarkably advanced civilization finally evolved (or should I say degenerated) into the later Hindu civilization- the people who gradually drifted eastwards, to settle on the Gangetic plains or whether it was annihilated by Aryan invaders (as an excavator of the name Wheeler had suggested in the 1940s) who brought the Vedic culture with them is an issue that remains to be resolved. But the extent to which bigoted vested interests constantly supress true scholarship is evident from the following passage from the essay:

Did the Indus directly seed what eventually grew into the second wave of Indian civilization? That is a hot political as well as scholarly topic. "This plays a significant role in today's India," says Possehl. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which ruled India from 1998 to 2004, declared the Indus to be the progenitor of Hindu civilization, a controversial claim in a country with a large Muslim population. While in power, BJP pumped additional funding into Indus-related digs, and its influence over archaeological matters remains strong. Last fall, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was harshly criticized in Parliament for asserting in a report that the underwater ridge connecting India and Sri Lanka was natural rather than the remains of a bridge built by the traditional hero Rama. Under pressure, ASI suspended two senior employees involved in the report. In May, members of India's Supreme Court expressed sympathy for a lower court decision ordering ASI to investigate the formation.

Such are the reasons why most of the advances in the historical understanding of this subject have been made by Western academicians and not researchers from the subcontinent. A disgusting case of falsification of evidence to buttress the Hindutva-mediated hypothesis has been documented in The Argumentative Indian. Despite much contrary evidence, the Hindu camp has constantly asserted with absurd confidence that the Indus Valley civilization was Sanskritic in nature. Two Indian researchers, N. S. Rajaram and Natwar Jha published a book in where they claimed to have deciphered the 'hitherto-undeciphered' script of the Indus Valley civilization. They attributed the script to 4000 BC (which was nearly a thousand years before what had been established earlier) but also claimed that the tablets found referred to the Saraswati river mentioned in the Rigveda. They produced a seal with a picture of a horse on it, which was amply forwarded as 'indisputable' proof of the Vedic/Aryan identity of the Indus Valley civilization.
It was later found that the alleged horse-seal was a fake, the credit of its creation going to Hindutva activists. Researchers from Harvard University demonstrated the fraud beyond reasonable doubt. But as Sen says, even the demonstration was not enough to end references in school textbooks to the 'Indus-Saraswati civilization'.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations- then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations.If it is found to be contradicted by observation - well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

-Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1928)

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Damn those puritans

William Dalrymple writes about the retrogressive fate of sexuality in the Indian culture through the ages in this highly informative article.

As McConnachie makes clear, the Kamasutra was in many ways an act of resistance against the growing tide of Hindu and Buddhist ascetic puritanism that was beginning to question the libertine lifestyle of the third-century nagarikas—or young men about town—at whom the text was aimed. These polygamous and hedonistic nagarikas sound a little like characters from a classical Indian version of Sex and the City. They "incline to the ways of the world and regard playing as their only concern," writes Vatsyayana. Such a man, he writes, chooses to live in a city "where there are smart people" or "wherever he has to stay to make a living." He sets up the perfect home, "in a house near water, with an orchard, separate servants quarters, and two bedrooms." One is for sleeping. The other is devoted entirely to sex. Inside he keeps his vina to strum, implements for drawing, a book, garlands of flowers, a board for
dice, and cages of pet birds. His bed should be "low in the middle and very soft, with pillows on both sides and a white top sheet." His orchard should have a sturdy swing.

In the early evening the nagarika should attend a courtesan's salon, to discuss art, poetry, and women. Later he should visit a musical soiree before returning home to await his lover. If she arrives wet from the monsoon rain he should courteously help her change, before retiring to the frescoed bedchamber which has been festooned with flowers and made fragrant with incense. Dancers and singers will amuse the lovers as they chat and flirt. Only then are the musicians sent away—and the lovemaking begins.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

free speech

The state of free speech in India, if I may be so optimistic to use the very term, has always been of concern to me. The the current populist spirit of 'better fed than free' makes sense when you speak of the imminent priorities of the country, but I believe (and hope) that there will be some time in the future when the right to expression would be more intensely promoted in the public sphere than what is being done today.

The episodes of Taslima Nasreen, MF Hussain and Kumar Ketkar have shown glimpses of the extent to which certain groups can oppose free speech to promote self-interests. It is also pathetic to see how the higher judiciary in India still refuses to come under the purview of the RTI, in spite of much support for the motion among the Indian intelligentsia. The smug unwillingness to show transparency is an abomination, especially after reports of many judges indulging in extravagant misuse of the state funds have pointed fingers at the judiciary. Another deplorable example showing the extent to which legal mechanisms can be misused to protect vested interests is that of the Ahmedabad police commissioner filing charges of sedition (not defamation, mind you) against the TOI for publishing reports that questioned his competency in providing anti-terrorist security to the Gujarat citizens. See Jug Suraiya's article about the dubious nature of a concept like sedition itself, and its recent appearances (and its misappropriations) in political rhetoric.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

A passing note

With my masters dissertation approved, the last of my IIT duties have been dispensed. The next few days involve actively avoiding the computer and indulging myself to irresistible Bombay monsoons. The air outside my room is amazingly fresh and inviting; I want to indulge as much as I can.

I have decided not to subscribe to TOI anymore on Google reader, because it is an ordeal to go through every irrelevant and stupid news piece that it sends you. Check out this and this.

Thursday, 5 June 2008


Amit Varma has cited two passages, one by Gandhi in 1934 and the other a recorded quote by Sharon Stone recently, where both describe earthquakes as cosmic punishments meted out to sinful humans. I was reminded of an interesting piece from Sam Harris's An Atheist Manifesto:

As Hurricane Katrina was devouring New Orleans, nearly a thousand Shiite pilgrims were trampled to death on a bridge in Iraq. There can be no doubt that these pilgrims believed mightily in the God of the Koran: Their lives were organized around the indisputable fact of his existence; their women walked veiled before him; their men regularly murdered one another over rival interpretations of his word. It would be remarkable if a single survivor of this tragedy lost his faith. More likely, the survivors imagine that they were spared through God‘s grace.

Only the atheist recognizes the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. Only the atheist realizes how morally objectionable it is for survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Because he refuses to cloak the reality of the world‘s suffering in a cloying fantasy of eternal life, the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is--and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgments of their happiness for no good reason at all.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

When I heard the learn'd astronomer

(A poem that I don't agree with but whose spirit of naked rebellion of order I find difficult not to admire)

When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

- Walt Whitman

Jai Jai Money

Taking inspiration from Tirupati, it seems now that even the Vaishno Devi shrine authorities have adopted the concept of 'priority darshans'.

The decision to organise paid darshans was taken by the Vaishno Devi Shrine Board on Sunday. Now a traditional mata ki aarti can be organised inside the sanctum sanctorum at Rs 1000. And those who are unwilling to wait in long queue can enter the shrine by paying an entry fee of Rs 500 or Rs 200. This reduces the darshan time by over 50 to 70 per cent.

"The facility is like a tatkal service for devotees who have tight schedules and are keen to offer prayers at the earliest," M K Dwivedi, Additional Chief Executive Officer, told PTI.
In the age of Blackberries and palms, it is only fair that Gods have their schedules optimized. Darshan has become like an FMCG, and John Milton, unless his remains have long vapourized, would definitely be turning in his grave.

That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."

Monday, 2 June 2008

A Free Man's Worship

The Dawkinsque critique against theism is primarily occupied with countering literalist claims to the nature of reality and the universe presented by religious institutions and hence is considered atomistic and reductivist by many critics. Stephen Fry states in an interview that such a world view (referring to Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens) is devoid of the poetic liturgy that the believer can identify with in her copy of the King James Bible or the Bhagavad Gita. While literalism of any kind reflects a deeply entrenched delusion that needs to be uprooted through systematic reasoning, atheist rhetoric needs to traverse beyond the present counter-argumentative nature that merely confines itself to scientific diatribe against Intelligent Design.

Sam Harris says in his manifesto that "atheism is not a philosophy or a view of the world". I disagree with him when he says that it is simply a "refusal to deny the obvious". In the present format, atheism probably isn't a philosophy. But I believe it needs to strive towards being one. Religion finds staunch adherents, not because it offers a particularly appealing picture of the universe or nature, but because it pretends to offer transcendence to its followers. It appeals to the human condition in a way that one finds liberating from the instincts and desires that bind one to one's earthly existence. Religion took the easy way out because the quest for its perpetuation was always a quest for power. Through deceit and cunning, through the continual inculcation of fear and prejudice, by tabooing and chastising the spirit of inquiry, religion ensured its propagation through the ages. In its most iniquitous forms around the world, it persecuted the powerless, trapped others mentally causing them to turn a blind eye towards the suffering of their brethren and caused a systematic degeneration of a large part of society (which continues) ensuring that the parochial walls of fear and dogma-based faith make it impervious to reason and the nobler ideals of humanism.

Hence, if a rational and a liberal atheism has to triumph, it has to be integrated with a larger and a more universal world view that moves beyond merely debating the existence of a God. It has to strive to achieve those ideals for the individual and society which religion only pretended to achieve all these years. It has to convince man that the world holds in its bosom, a vast potential to the achievement of transcendental ideals, those that elevate his pursuits above and beyond the realms of his appetite.

I give you two excerpts from an essay by Bertrand Russell. It was one of his first essays arguing the case for atheism. While Dawkins, Harris and even other texts by Russell have convinced me of the intellectual, ethical and moral rectitude of being an atheist, this is perhaps the only essay upon reading which, I have felt truly inspired to proclaim that I do not require any God to lead a life that can extend beyond personal goals and ambitions.

1. Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.

2. The life of Man, viewed outwardly, is but a small thing in comparison with the forces of Nature. The slave is doomed to worship Time and Fate and Death, because they are greater than anything he finds in himself, and because all his thoughts are of things which they devour. But, great as they are, to think of them greatly, to feel their passionless splendour, is greater still. And such thought makes us free men; we no longer bow before the inevitable in Oriental subjection, but we absorb it, and make it a part of ourselves. To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things--this is emancipation, and this is the free man's worship. And this liberation is effected by a contemplation of Fate; for Fate itself is subdued by the mind which leaves nothing to be purged by the purifying fire of Time.

Single mothers, Gay and Lesbian couples win right to parenthood

In a landmark resolution in UK, single women and lesbian couples have been granted parental rights. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill waives the requirement that women need a male support in order to approach a fertility clinic. It is also expected (and naturally correct) that gay men who use surrogacy will be allowed to enjoy similar rights. It is said that the Bill will also recognize both partners as legitimate parents of the child as opposed to considering only the natural mother or the father involved in fertilization.

Understandably, there are dissenters. And it is no surprise to notice which ideological camp most of them come from. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster thinks it strange that the Government should want to take away not just the need for a father but the right for a father. Others disapprove stating that this would amount to conveying that fathers are not important, or are less important than mothers.

Such detracting criticism reflects the nature of the deeply entrenched patriarchy and religious literalism that plagues even fairly progressive societies. If the well being of every British child is what truly concerned these dissenters, then why isn't there a proposal to make every couple desirous of parenthood pass through a socioeconomic filter that would decide whether they are capable of raising a child in the first place? Does the presence of a father implicitly assure a good childhood as the Archbishop seems to suggest? Consider the first two comments following the news post:

1. Incredible. A male child growing up without a fatherly influence, will not get to know the behaviour of a mature man , like a father . Male childs will be weak if they get raised up by women only and when these humans grow up to their their twenties, they ll act more like a mother than a father.

2. And we wonder why society is breaking down, why young men who have no father figure knife each other. Get a grip NuLabor, your time is up.

I fear with the very thought of being around at a time in the future when these issues would be discussed in India; when these voices, reeking of the past and a lack of imagination, would be lurking around only to emerge from different faces.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Classical Misrepresentations

Some years ago, when I was reading The Sign of Four, I recollect having been particularly disturbed by the description of the little dart-welding, dark skinned, deceptive Indian native that the villain, Jonathon Small, smuggles from the Andamans to carry out his nefarious plans in England. It was representative of a particular brand of racial stereotyping that was rampant in the writings of classic authors like Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. Consider, for instance, this line from the Sherlock Holmes' mystery describing 'Tonga', the perfidious, snake-like havoc wreaking uncontrollable pygmy of an Indian:
"It was that little hell-hound; Tonga, who shot one of his cursed darts into him. I had no part in it, sir. I was as grieved as if it had been my blood-relation. I welted the little devil with the slack end of the rope for it, but it was done, and I could not undo it again."
Some would say that such a characterization should not be used to read too far into the author's mind and if anything, should be written off as a peccadillo subsumed under the larger umbrella of artistic freedom. Nonetheless, it is surprising how deeply progressive writers such as Doyle (someone who was singularly responsible for popularizing the methods of science and deductive reasoning) had a part of their minds that still lived in the past. And this was a time when the moral Zeitgeist was undergoing rapid progressive transformation, thanks to philosophers and visionaries in the West. This was a time when slavery had long ended in America, a time when feminism was already a significant social force in Europe, a time when philosophers like T. H. Huxley and John Stuart Mill had broke open conservative traditions through critical reasoning. Three years after the publication of The Sign of Four, Swami Vivekananda's speech at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago would be greeted by a thunderous applause by a prominently white audience.

But my thoughts in this vein were rekindled today, not by Conan Doyle's works, (which in spite of being masterful are filled with such racial innuendos) but by one of the most innocuous of authors in the English literature- the master comedian P. G. Wodehouse. While most of us fancy Wodehouse as light reading, I read Wodehouse carefully for I find his wit unparalleled and worthy of emulation. At the same time, his writing is pregnant with incredible perception and satirical irreverence of English orthodoxy. Dawkins' tells us how Wodehouse's writings were filled with extremely smart and appropriate biblical allusions (See The God Delusion):

P G Wodehouse is, for my money, the greatest writer of light comedy in the language, and I bet fully half my list of biblical phrases will be found as allusions within his pages. (A Google search will not find all of them, however. It will miss the derivation of the short story title, 'The Aunt and the Sluggard' from Proverbs 6: 6.) The Wodehouse canon is rich in other biblical phrases, not in my list above and not incorporated into the language as idioms or proverbs. Listen to Bertie Wooster's evocation of what it is like to wake up with a bad hangover:

I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head — not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones.

Coming back to what whetted my appetite to write a post was a growing consternation at regular negative allusions to the 'tropics' and the 'natives of the subcontinent' in Wodehouse's classic bestseller, Life at Blandings. In an otherwise hilarious racket of a series, these instances seemed like bad notes spoiling a well-woven melody. The first instance that I quote is from Summer Lightning(1929), when Millicent discusses Schopenhauer with Sue Brown, who is posing as Miss Schoonmaker in Blandings Castle.

Schopenhauer says suicide's absolutely O. K. He says Hindoos do it instead of going to church. They bung themselves into the Ganges and get eaten by crocodiles and call it a well-spent day.

For all his mystical infatuations with the wisdom of the east, I am pretty certain that Arthur Schopenhauer would not have made a statement that even suggested a practice similar to that described above. But while The Sign of Four was published in 1890, Summer Lightning was published much later in 1929, sixteen years after Rabindranath Tagore had won the Nobel Prize in Literature and ten years after Srinivasa Ramanujan had left Wodehouse's country after one of the most successful collaborations in the history of mathematics with England's most famous mathematician then. In less than a year's time, India would have its first Nobel laureate in Physics - C. V. Raman. Gandhi was already world-famous and highly respected in England. Yet, Wodehouse's representation of India is reminiscent of the arrogant Maculay and James Mill (who is said to have written the first 'authoritative' history of India) as opposed to the likes of his own contemporary writers like E. M. Forster. As an other example, consider the following statement of Colonel Horace in Something Fresh(1915) when he speculates what must be wrong with Rupert Baxter's disposition:

It's a well known form of insanity. Paranoia- isn't that what they call it? Rush of blood to the head, followed by a general running amuck. I've heard fellows who have been in India talk of it. Natives get it. Don't know what they're doing, and charge through the streets taking cracks at people with dashed whacking great knives.
I was surprised to find not two but five or six instances throughout the Life of Blandings where the tropics were used with great dexterity and with to make fantastic allusions to degrees of madness and insanity that can manifest themselves in humans. I was far from outraged when I read these things :-). However, they invariably led me to reflect upon the biases that writers carry in spite of not wanting to be labeled as such. My only take-home from this is that in the process of being funny and witty, one just ends up being squarely obnoxious and unjust to a largely heterodoxical culture, worthy of kinder words. Such misrepresentation is more of an indicative verdict on the intellectual limitations of the author as compared to being defamatory on the an entire culture/community. I still stand by my love for Wodehouse and Conan Doyle - they are to me, the greatest comedy and mystery writers respectively and absolute masters of the English language. No reader can miss the feeling of a rejuvenated ability to write and speak after reading a single chapter of any book by either of them. But a writer must exercise caution; it is easy to get carried away forgetting that there is a thin red line separating satire and stupidity.


I made an honest confession to myself yesterday- I suck at math puzzles. Unless the puzzle has a familiar character, attacking the conundrum is to feel like a monkey trying to pluck a banana using two long wooden sticks. To begin with, he feels confident and sophisticated thanks to the impeccable machinery in possession- sticks and opposable thumbs. But he soon realizes that neither of the sticks is long enough to reach the banana and finds himself unable to conjure a successful contraption with the tools at hand. Incapacity turns into frustration and the monkey begins to gnaw his teeth in exasperation. And finally, he ends up doing what he always wanted to avoid- break the entire creeper with his might for that one measly banana. That's the (similar) feeling that this monkey gets when all intuition fails and one has to resort to the savage way of doing puzzles. And when out pops an elegant solution from a smarter friend or the answers on the back of the book or the bottom of the page, one feels really really stupid.

I spent a nearly half an hour trying to write down the solution to a pretty looking problem that was suggested by Onkar yesterday morning- Given any group of 6 people, prove that you can always find a sub-group of three individuals that has one of the following properties - (a) Everybody knows everybody in that group (b) Nobody knows anybody in that group. (Also, assume that only two kinds of relationships exist between a pair of individuals- they either know each other or they don't; eliminating one-sided acquaintances). I have this infatuation with generalization. Naturally I started playing with variables, started writing comprehensive combinatorial possibilities, applying PHP and doing all sorts of tortuous things that only made life more difficult. Ultimately, I arrived at a solution that I knew was far from elegant as soon as I had finished it. A complicated solution is worth the effort if it leads to new insights about the problem- (say) like what should be the minimum number of people to make the same statement about groups of four, five, etc. But my solution was a mess; brute, lacking any new insight and boring.

But I still felt the relief of solving a problem; or to rephrase, this was how I felt until I heard the solution from Onkar, after which I felt incredibly stupid, like a monkey who's outsmarted by a smarter monkey in the banana game. The elegant solution proceeds like this. Imagine you are one of those five people. Then (convince yourself) that there will be (at least) three people, all of whom are either your acquaintances or completely unfamiliar. Assume without loss of generality that it is the former case (for if it is the latter, the arguments are completely analogous). Now among the three people who are your acquaintances, if you can find two persons who know each other then, combined with you, we have a group of three individuals, all acquaintances of each other. If this does not happen, then we have three individuals, all strangers and we have the required set. Complementary arguments apply if the original set of three are complete strangers to you and it can be trivially seen that one can always find a set of three individuals satisfying either of the two properties required. Incidentally, one needs a minimum of seventeen people (I haven't checked this yet) to be assured of having a sub group of four individuals who are all acquaintances or complete strangers.

Well, I have reconciled myself to this fate of mine- I suck at math puzzles. However, there have been a handful of times when I have felt the bulb glow in my head while working on a puzzle/problem and those times have been memorable. But the great thing about these puzzles even to someone who is fairly mediocre at solving them like me is that solutions often contain brilliant insights that stretch your intuition. In spite of possessing fairly competent analytical skills, people often get their intuition wrong with these puzzles. The best examples come from those involving probabilistic reasoning involving variable change (or conditional probability). I shall quote two examples:

1. The first is the often mentioned Monty Hall Problem or The Game Show Host problem- You are playing a game show where the host shows you three shut doors (A, B, C) and asks you to select one. In one out of the three doors lies the sports car of your dreams while inside the other two, sits a goat each. You select 'door A' because your mother's name starts with the letter 'A' and you think that will bring you luck. The host the opens door 'C' that contains a goat, and asks you, "Mr. K, so would you like to stick with door A or would you like to switch your choice?". The question is, what must you do to maximize the chances of winning the car? Stick or switch?

There used to be a show called 'Khulja Sim Sim' on television some years ago with the same format. And whenever confronted with above question, most people used to stick to their choices. There is a certain sense poetic justice, a moral high ground that people associate with following a set of ideals and that makes them avoid caprice. I am not aware of the statistics of the show but I won't be far from the truth if I claimed that two out of three people who would have stuck to their choices would have ended up with the goat. That's what simple probabilistic bookkeeping tells us. Though I cannot remember the exact details, I think I was properly bowled by this question when I had heard it first as a kid. It is very likely I would have felt that the prudent (and moral) thing to do is to stick to your choice.

Now that I know the solution to the problem (if you switch, you are likely to win the car 2 out of 3 times), I know what was wrong in my thinking so. But since the time I understood the problem, I have posed this question to many people and I have observed that it shocks most of them. It was just yesterday when I communicated the problem and explained its solution to an acquaintance and while he acknowledged the solution he kept wondering that there was some 'deep mathematical flaw' in the reasoning. It is not surprising that when Marilyn vos Savant posed the problem and the solution in 1984, many people, including PhD graduates and professors disagreed with her solution. In spite of the fact that the mathematical reasoning was as clean as a virgin's honeypot (and not terribly difficult either, one had to simply account for the conditional probability) vos Savant arguments had to be validated using computer simulations and mock trials in classrooms. I shall not bother writing down the solution here; it can be looked up online in hundreds of sites.

2. The other problem is called the double toss problem and is much more straightforward compared to the earlier one. The problem goes as this: I have tossed a coin (assume unbiased) twice and I tell you that one of the tosses turned out to be a head. I ask you the probability that the other toss was also a head.

Most respondents (primarily non-mathematicians) tend to answer half as the probability. Their reasoning is simple yet specious - since the tosses are independent why would the outcome of the other toss depend upon this one. While this is true in the literal sense, the context of the problem asks you to go a little deeper. To make a small digression, suppose I told you instead that my first toss was a head and asked you what is the probability that the second toss turned out to be a head. Many people cannot differentiate between this and the original problem. Yet they are fundamentally different.

Let us look at the set of possible outcomes of the two tosses - TT, TH, HT, HH, each with a probability 0.25 with H denoting 'head' and T denoting a 'tail'. Now when I say that 'one of the tosses turned out to be a head', this confines us to the sample space - TH, HT, HH. Now the only case where both the outcomes were a head is the case 'HH' but since it is one of three possible outcomes, the chance associated with it is 0.33. But when I say that 'the first outcome was a 'head'' as in the second case, the set of possible outcomes are - HT and HH. In this case, the probability is 0.5.

Interestingly, even this problem created a lot of controversy leading to lot of experimental validation in spite of a clean mathematical explanation. But the funny part is that the problem was not posed in this form in its original version. The original problem went something like this : You meet a person who confesses to having two children. If she tells you that one of them is a boy, what is the probability that the other one is too. Incidentally, survey forms were dispensed to mothers known to have two children of whom one was a boy to calculate the chance that the other one was too. The survey results showed that 35 % of respondents had a second boy-child, a figure that is close to 33% than to 50%. But it is nonetheless funny that such an experimental validation had to be carried out to resolve a clean mathematical argument (assuming of course that the sex ratio was 1:1).

While I often despair my lack of the fast mathematical intuition to penetrate such simple yet confounding problems, I am happy to know that I can fairly easily grasp the arguments that explain these riddles. I refer to the feeling as 'enjoying artificially sweetened sour grapes' :P.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Article on Predatory growth in India

The Economist recently speculated that the inflation rate could hit 10 percent, stated a CNN-IBN article that I came across yesterday. This is despite the fact that this year, India is all set to register a record growth rate. Those of us who commonly cite the Chinese model of economic growth might want to know that both India and China have suffered this paradoxical phenomenon- a high rate of growth going brothers-in-arms with increasing economic inequality among classes.

The problems of welfare and developmental economics are really deep and complex. Many (including me) cannot even get their dialectic parlance beyond commonalities like 'free-market economy', 'socialism', 'demand elasticity' or 'marginal utility'. And I couldn't disagree more with G. B. Shaw who insinuated that the economists were a group who if laid end-to-end, could not reach a conclusion. They are a set of people I have come to deeply respect for their ability and courage to articulate these problems so well. But I often wonder whether the ability to penetrate conventional wisdoms to disinter latent insights ever translates into good public policy.

I came across this article yesterday and it was one of the most deep and perceptive essays that I have read in recent times. Only after finishing the article did I find out that the author was an emeritus professor at JNU, Delhi (such thoroughness and erudition can come only from an academic) by the name of Amit Bhaduri. On the problem of China/India growth-inequality paradox, Bhaduri delineates:

A central fact stands out. Despite vast differences in the political systems of the two countries, the common factor has been increasing inequality accompanying higher growth. What is not usually realized is that the growth in output and in inequality are not two isolated phenomena. One frequently comes across the platitude that high growth will soon be trickling down to the poor, or that redistributive action by the state through fiscal measures could decrease inequality while keeping up the growth rate. These statements are comfortable but unworkable, because they miss the main characteristic of the growth process underway. This pattern of growth is propelled by a powerful reinforcing mechanism, which the economist Gunner Myrdal had once described as ‘cumulative causation’. The mechanism by which growing inequality drives growth, and growth fuels further inequality has its origin in two different factors, both related to some extent to globalisation.
I strongly recommend the article to anyone who, like me, has felt the paralysis from old cliches and the lack of fresh perspectives while discussing these issues. With the UPA brandishing the increasing growth rate as the natural panacea to all the socioeconomic inequalities that continue to affect nearly a quarter of our population, with evangelical platitudes like "high growth will soon be trickling down to the poor" being constantly mouthed, this article analyzes the apparent Indian economical dilemma- is product growth going to really solve the problems of inequality in India?

Bhaduri's critique of 'predatory growth' can be summarized by a quote forwarded to me by Anirudh Patil (who incidentally was responsible in leading me to this article) - Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.

Monday, 26 May 2008

McCain can?

An excerpt from an article describing Senator John McCain's health reports:

The doctors also said McCain has occasional momentary episodes of dizziness when he suddenly stands up, high cholesterol, blood in his urine from an enlarged prostate and kidney stones. Additionally, McCain had his most recent colonoscopy in April, when six benign polyps were removed.

He also suffers from degenerative arthritis in his joints from broken arms, legs and shoulders suffered when his plane crashed in Vietnam.

His medical records revealed that he takes simvastin to control his cholesterol, hydrochlorothiazide for kidney stone prevention, aspirin for blood clot prevention, Zyrtec for nasal allergies and a multiple vitamin tablet.

If McCain is elected (personally I hope he doesn't for I have reasons to fear the Republicans), he would become the oldest President in the history of the United States. Apart from what is mentioned above, the article stated that the Senator's history puts him at increased risk of skin cancer. He also recently underwent treatment for a 'minor skin cancer in his leg'.

But in true Monty Python style, the same article concludes:

However, McCain’s age is not a problem for voters, according to recent national polls. Now that the medical records are also in the open and do not reveal worrisome health conditions, he is more than ready to compete.

Inscrutable is our appetite for contradictions and absurdity!

Kaifi aur main

He often finds himself in the society of things that leave him overawed and humbled. He can locate his position in many of these situations; a mute witness to an unconquerable, brilliant expression of art. And like Salieri, he curses God to have given him the longing but denied him the talent. All his vanity and hubris are uprooted mercilessly and flung beyond the horizons of his imagination. His identity thins beyond recognition and the only place he finds solace is in the gentle indifference of the world that has accommodated his mediocrity long before finding a place for him in its vast bosom. Nothing defeats a person like a beauty that he can sense but cannot conquer. Nothing makes him feel more human.

I saw a play in Urdu yesterday. On recollection, I cannot help but think that every moment of that play was pure gold and I am yearning to catch it once again. Bearing the yoke of an unfamiliar language was certainly a severe limitation, yet the feeling that I experienced was that of a wanderer who had fortuitously arrived into a foreign land where, despite the atrophy of language, he could understand the feelings of the native culture better than those of its own. The machinery of expression was more friendly and even without resorting to sophistication, it was pregnant with the inconceivable variety of human experience.

I am reminded of Jack Kerouac immortal lines (Source: On the road):

"..and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.."

However I try, I can simply not get myself to write a part by part review of the play. It suddenly seems a task too formidable and it would be presumptuous of me to make a half-hearted attempt. I shall refrain.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

A few days ago, I read an article about a poor Kolhapur Dalit boy Sridhar Kamble, who, owing to his single minded dedication to astronomy, had landed a NASA scholarship. This news piece and the one in TOI were both really heartening to read; they made me happy with the thought that true scholarship paid off. This was rural India making a statement. The voice and will of the oppressed triumphs. The article mentioned the numerous hardships the boy's poor farmer father had to endure to make his son study. In spite of selling more than half of his land, the boy was short of meeting his travel expenses and I was satisfied to read that the state had intervened with a scholarship to fund his expenses.

But the words jumping the gun could not have been more ominous. The first CNN-IBN article that hit my face this morning was about the entire business of Sridhar going to NASA being a fake and a case of deceit and forgery. He probably did have a genuine interest in astronomy, but he had faked documents starting from his 10th marks to his correspondence with NASA, in order to get funds from the government. Unfortunately, this momentary lapse of the boy (who is all of seventeen and cannot be guilty of dreaming high) is going to extract a heavy price on his future career and education.

Selective abortion in nature

A Danish researcher proposes an incredibly intriguing hypothesis - that the sex of the progeny is related to the stress levels experienced by the expecting mother during her pregnancy. Based on data collected from surveys that were administered to nearly 8000 expecting mothers between 1989 and 1992, the researcher arrived at a startling correlation- the more stressed a mother had been, the less chance she had of having given birth to a boy.

Most of us are statisticians enough to appreciate that correlation does not imply causality. However, the goal of scientific investigation is to look at possible causal structures that manifest themselves through final correlation. The investigator believes that if at all there is such a causal mechanism that directs the sex of the baby according to the stress experienced by its mother, the reasons are likely to be adaptive rather than pathological.

But all said and done, in spite of being a Darwinist at heart (not a social one though), I cannot say I am not surprised (even amused to an extent) when I read paragraphs such as these:

That is because the chances are that a daughter who reaches adulthood will find a mate and thus produce grandchildren. A son is a different matter. Healthy, strapping sons are likely to produce lots of grandchildren, by several women—or would have done in the hunter-gatherer societies in which most human evolution took place. Weak ones would be marginalized and maybe even killed in the cut and thrust of male competition. If a mother's stress adversely affects the development of her fetus (as it is likely to do) then selectively aborting boys, rather than wasting time and resources on bringing them to term, would make evolutionary sense. That, in turn, would explain why women in rich countries, who are less likely to suffer from hunger and disease, are more likely to give birth to sons.

- From The Economist
In so much as the contextual premises that such arguments are based upon, they seem perfectly reasonable. But there is still a part of me that feels something clinically lacking in these reasonings. A lazy disposition holds me back from thinking further in the present moment, so I'll leave it for the record.

Our sweetest songs

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet, if we could scorn,
Hate and pride and fear,
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

- From To a skylark by Percy Shelley

jumping the gun?

Being a part of my generation of Indians, there are sometimes when I feel lucky and gratified to find myself a witness to a propitious phase of rapid economic development in my city. That the scent of this 'progress' has not permeated beyond the urban epidermis into the rural landscape of my country will be of some concern in the near future, with buzzwords like 'inclusive growth' keeping the thinkers and planners busy.

But in an interesting NDTV article, a grad student questions whether these current metrics of growth are reasons to quote and be proud about. She doesn't get into developmental economics and analyze what these metrics really reflect; she is rather blunt in asking us Indians whether we have any reason to be proud about the direction our country is taking. It's not a crime to be 'confident' she says, but fears that this confidence is changing too quickly into arrogance in some quarters - arrogance, that neither has any basis in reality nor advances the interests of 'Brand India' in any way.

In the true spirit of Monty Python, we Indians like to always look on the bright side of life. When we have master campaigners in parties like the BJP, it isn't difficult for most to live under the delusion that India is 'shining':

For instance, if you challenge the idea of a rising India with the dogged optimists by pointing out the Gujarat genocide, you are immediately reminded that Gujarat is also one of the most industrially advanced and administratively efficient states in India. If you point to the fact that most of our engineering graduates are not employable you are immediately reminded that India still produces the highest number of engineering graduates in the world.

If you suggest that Indian democracy is so criminalised that it has killed good governance you are told that no other country sends a billion people to the ballot box. This is the new half-full approach to life but it tends to gloss over anything that points in the other direction and brands anyone who says so as a skeptic and a kill-joy.

I would still like to question the author's premise which made her conveniently assume the naive homogeneity of the Indian voice over these issues. But I cannot help but acknowledge the bitter truth in the following words, where she harpoons this ineluctable diatribe against a nation she believes is counting its chickens much too early referring to our collective dream of becoming a South-Asian superpower:

But a great power is fundamentally supposed to be able to positively influence events, something we can't do even in our own backyard at the moment. Afghanistan is a mess, Pakistan is losing control over itself, Bangladesh can't decide when to have elections, Nepal is in transition and Sri Lanka in civil war.

India has little or no control over events in its own neighbourhood, let alone projecting its power around the world. Besides even when the chance arose, India could not take a bold stand. It refused to condemn China on its actions in Tibet and it did business with the Burmese junta at the height of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

Friday, 23 May 2008


Probably the last or the second-last in this series. The process is getting too monotonous :-). Following are some Albert Einstein stories.

10. Einstein, who fancied himself as a violinist, was rehearsing a Haydn string quartet. When he failed for the fourth time to get his entry in the second movement, the cellist looked up and said, "The problem with you, Albert, is that you simply can't count".

11. Einstein was attending a music salon in Germany before the second world war, with the violinist S. Suzuki. Two Japanese women played a German piece of music and a woman in the audience exclaimed: "How wonderful! It sounds so German!" Einstein responded: "Madam, people are all the same."

12. In 1946 a South African child, Tyffany Williams expressed in a letter her surprise that Einstein was still alive. He answered: "I have to apologize to you that I am still among the living.There will be a remedy for this, however."

13. An American women's organization protested Einstein's visit to America (1928) on political grounds. Einstein replied: "Never have I experienced from the fair sex such an energetic rejection of all my advances; if it *has* happened, it was never by so many at once."

Anecdotes - III

7. Today's serving shall involve three stories of the extraordinary Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann (1903-1957)

The following problem can be solved either the easy way or the hard way. Two trains 200 miles apart are moving toward each other; each one is going at a speed of 50 miles per hour. A fly starting on the front of one of them flies back and forth between them at a rate of 75 miles per hour. It does this until the trains collide and crush the fly to death. What is the total distance the fly has flown? The fly actually hits each train an infinite number of times before it gets crushed, and one could solve the problem the hard way with pencil and paper by summing an infinite series of distances.

The easy way is as follows: Since the trains are 200 miles apart and each train is going 50 miles an hour, it takes 2 hours for the trains to collide. Therefore the fly was flying for two hours. Since the fly was flying at a rate of 75 miles per hour, the fly must have flown 150 miles. That's all there is to it.

When this problem was posed to John von Neumann, he immediately replied, "150 miles."

"It is very strange," said the poser, "but nearly everyone tries to sum the infinite series." "What do you mean, strange?" asked Von Neumann. "That's how I did it!"


Student: "Er, excuse me, Professor von Neumann, could you please help me with a calculus problem?"

John: "Okay, sonny, if it's real quick -- I'm a busy man."

Student: "I'm having trouble with this integral.

John: "Let's have a look." (after a brief pause) "Alright, sonny, the answer's two-pi over 5."

Student: "I know that, sir, the answer's in the back -- I'm having trouble deriving it, though."

John: "Okay, let me see it again." (another pause) "The answer's two-pi over 5."

Student (frustrated): "Uh, sir, I _know_ the answer, I just don't see how to derive it."

John: "Whaddya want, sonny, I worked the problem in two different ways!"

9. Von Neumann (like our own Srinivasa Ramanujan) supposedly had the habit of simply writing answers to homework assignments on the board (the method of solution being, of course, obvious) when he was asked how to solve problems. One time one of his students tried to get more helpful information by asking if there was another way to solve the problem. Von Neumann looked blank for a moment, thought, and then answered, "Yes".

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Anecdotes -II

4. More Paul Erdős

a) On one occasion, Erdös met a mathematician and asked him where he was from. "Vancouver," the mathematician replied. "Oh, then you must know my good friend Elliot Mendelson," Erdös said.

The reply was "I am your good friend Elliot Mendelson."

b) He had the habbit of phoning fellow mathematicians over the whole world, no matter what time it was. He remembered the number of every mathematician, but did not know anybody's first name. The only person he called by his Christian name was Tom Trotter, whom he called Bill.

c) This one's definitely a fabricated urban legend, but what the hell :-). There was a storm with thunder and lightening. Little Paul Erdos was in bed, frightened and fretting and his mother couldn't calm him. Then, as mothers seem to instinctively do, she found the right words. "It's all right dear", she said, stroking his shiny head, "there's always a prime between n and 2n".

After that, little Paul drifted off into a blissful sleep.

5. This is a story that I remember reading in E. T. Bell's excellent book 'Men of Mathematics'

This story is about the number 2^67-1, the 67th Mersenne number (Numbers, Mersenne had claimed to be prime, which was proven to be non-prime in 1903 by Frank N. Cole (1861-1927). In the October meeting of the American Mathematical Society (AMS), Cole announced a talk "On the Factorisation of Large Numbers". He walked up to the blackboard without saying a word, calculated by hand the value of 2^67, carefully subtracted 1. Then he multiplied two numbers(which were 193707721 and 761838257287). Both results written on the blackboard were equal. Cole silently walked back to his seat, and this is said to be the first and only talk held during an AMS meeting where the audience applauded. There were no questions.

It took Cole about 3 years, each sunday, to find this factorisation, according to what he said.

6. The mathematician G. H. Hardy was to give a keynote speech at a conference. Asked for an advance summary, he said he would present a proof of the Rieman zeta hypothesis -- but they should keep it under their hats. When he arrived, though, he spoke on a much more prosaic topic. Afterwards the conference organizers asked why he said he'd talk about the theorem and then didn't. He replied this was his standard practice, just in case he was killed on the way to the conference.

It was part of his tactics against God - in that he thought God would not allow him to die on the sea trip, because then everyone would think that Hardy had solved this great theorem. Hardy had other anti-God tactics, including always taking an umbrella, and some grading or other boring work, with him to the cricket games. For an athiest Hardy certainly spent a lot of effort against God.

Apparently Hardy's ambitions were:
  1. Prove the Riemann Hypothesis
  2. Score the winning play in an important game of cricket
  3. Murder Mussolini
  4. Prove the non-existence of God