Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hacking the Lack

We found that a lot of people were customizing the IKEA Lack table, which is a square side-table that is quite cheap (a white one is $7.99). Here are some examples of what people have done.

We decided to hack a Lack too and showcase a 500 piece circular puzzle that we had made. The Lack table-top is a 55cmx55cm square, and the diameter of our puzzle was almost a perfect fit. The puzzle was set and "frozen" together with Modgepodge (which you can get at any art store) and pasted to a cardboard piece. We then glued the cardboard back of the puzzle to the top of the table.

Next, we wanted a flat table top that is transparent. We bought a sheet of acrylic from Home Depot, and cut it to size. Now ideally you should use some tools to do this (the best one is a laser cutter). But we did it manually, and it took forever (about 20 minutes of scraping for every cut you make, followed by a careful snapping along the cut). The acrylic was kept level with four carpet savers.

Finally, we added some decoration with paint. Since the puzzle was a set of scenes from Romeo and Juliet, we added a quote from Shakespeare along the table edge ("What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."). We also drew some red roses to go with the theme. Just think of it as our way of sticking it to the crazies who believe in Anonymous:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cricket: right through the stumps but not out

When I was a kid, I watched a Pak-SA match live, where the ball went right through the stumps without dislodging the bails. Its really hard to get people to believe that this happened, but it did. Finally, someone posted the video on youtube, so I have proof.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Flying blue pig: An alternative transit solution

In contrast to my previous and serious aerospace post, we make a more light-hearted investigation into flight. We do this by making a silly flying blue pig. It can sort out all the public transit problems in your city. Just install a ginormous fan in the center of the city. Passive flying pigs will take up the wind and travel along circular rails.

Have a look at our prototype (with sound and voiceover):

Thursday, October 13, 2011


I've been thinking about what sorts of careers are right for me. I like research, and I want to keep doing it. But it turns out, in this complicated world, there are a many definitions of what research actually means and, therefore, a variety of things I could be doing. I recently took this to an extreme in a previous lighthearted blog post.

Instead, in this post, I want to explore the space of conventional research careers. There are lots of resources online to help make the decision, like this one from MIT. Here is my take.

So first I thought about the types of `hats' that I wear when I'm at work. At different times I am one (or more) of these three:

As a scientist, I work on theories (and theory) and do experiments. As a scholar, I study previous work by looking at records (books, publications, journals...), collecting a lot of (perhaps obscure) knowledge. And finally, as a technologist, I enjoy the latest gadgets and their impact on society, and I do tinker once in a while.

So what types of jobs would allow me to express my inner scientist, scholar and technologist? Well these three types of `hats' enable three corners of a space of careers:

There is a rough mapping between scientist -> research, from scholar -> teaching and from technologist -> development, but its a little more complicated than that. In fact, each of the three career nodal points require a bit of each `hat'.

The sad thing about the career space is that compromise is inevitable. If you love to teach, and you want to go to either a high-school or a liberal arts college, you'll eventually have to reduce the amount of time you spend doing research or hacking (or do those things in your free time, which would affect your work-life balance). Same holds for a development position at, say, a software company.

From my experience, most positions tend to pick only two of the above career foci. For example, industrial research positions have no teaching, and so they've picked research and development. All industrial labs fall in a spectrum of R&D. Now granted, there are interns, but its a limited form of the third vertex. Similarly a professorship position is both research and teaching (and writing grants, but lets leave out stuff we hate). You do get the odd prof who hacks apps and creates good infrastructure code, but its pretty rare.

The bottom line: conventional post PhD careers involve severe compromise on at least one of the types of things grad students might enjoy. You can always include the thing you compromised on, but it might eat up into your work-life balance, since its not something you are evaluated on, at your workplace.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A primer for debating evolution

I've been watching a lot of Richard Dawkins' stuff on youtube (just google "Richard Dawkins youtube" and enjoy). I don't think that any of his powerful arguments moved me much from my current positions, but I did get very curious about the resistance he faced when talking about the concept of evolution. As a scientist, I believe in evolution. In fact, I had thought the debate about teaching evolution in schools was a knee-jerk reaction by narrow-minded folks.

I was totally wrong. While watching the Dawkins videos, and while looking at data I found on Wikipedia and other places, I realized that I was totally unprepared for any sort of, say, dinner debate with those who have problems with evolution. People against evolution can be articulate and highly intelligent. Their arguments are well thought out, and they have a support system of electronic media that provides them with lots of usable data. Do not underestimate them. Your high-school level, half-assed explanations will not fly and will be shot out of the sky like geese in hunting season. Lots of them are also really nice people, who volunteer, give generously and have strong families. If your plan was to use biting sarcasm to buttress your weak arguments, you'll appear rude and caustic, which will probably scare away any neutral and/or undecided listeners.

If you like science, get educated and figure out how to make good and clear arguments to support evolution. I've put together a strategy below, but this is just my take. Go ahead and make your own.

First and foremost, exclusively use the phrase "the idea of evolution". Avoid saying "theory" (which it is, technically) or "fact" (which it also is, as far as I am concerned).

Secondly, say that the idea of evolution is supported by an overwhelming set of circumstantial evidence. In this way, you acknowledge that no one can actually go back in time and see evolution for themselves. In that weak sense, we infer evolution from the evidence we have collected. However, you end strongly by saying that almost every fact discovered in biology and allied fields is evidence of evolution. The amount of evidence is truly staggering.

Thirdly, even though you believe in evolution, you wouldn't want to live in a society ruled by natural selection. It would be a painful place to live: it would be a place ruled by jungle law. Just as we can use our minds to understand evolution, we can use our minds to build a society not based on "survival of the fittest".

Fourthly, you ask for few seconds and hit home a small set of points:

a) Fossils: The process that forms a fossil is a lucky process and does not happen often. So the fossil record is incomplete. However, no fossil has ever been found that contradicts evolution. In addition, many "transition" species have been found like Archaeopteryx and the series of humanoid fossils. Although we'd like more fossils, all of those that exist support evolution.

b) Geographical distribution and environmental pressure: The same type of animal, in two close but geographically distinct regions (like islands vs. the mainland) can have quite different characteristics that seem suited to the environment. It suggests animals moved from one environment to the other (say from the mainland to the islands) and evolved. Furthermore, unrelated species display the same feature when the environment is similar.

c) Microevolution and Speciation: Changes in animal shape, behavior and other aspects can happen within human lifetimes (for bacteria and plants like roses) and also over human history (for domesticated animals such as dogs and cats). So you can infer that over even longer periods of time, such changes could happen (directed by the environment) and result in speciation. In addition, many instances of speciation have been observed.

d) Vestigial organs and Embryos: There are useless organs in animals, like the appendix in humans, that appear to have been useful in earlier stages of our evolution. Embryos of different organisms are also interesting. While concrete theories relating embryos and evolution are no longer accepted (so be careful if you mention that human embryos develop gills which later then disappear), there is modern theory on development and evolution.

e) Genetic material: Evolution is supported by DNA evidence. For example, if you say that humans are closer to apes than to snails, then the number of genes in our DNA will match with apes more than with snails. In this way, you can build a tree of life which correlates well with the fossil record and geographic distribution. Remember though, genetic material relates our cousins (species alive today) not our ancestors (species found through fossils).

f) Evolution as a tool: We can simulate evolution on a computer. This can be educational, to show how artificial species change. It can also be useful for industries and to solve real problems: for example in genetic programming. Since evolution can be a useful tool in technology, it makes sense that nature, over long periods, could use the same tool to make complicated biological entities.

Finally, you can end by the icing on the cake. Of course, this is the fact that no other idea in science, or any other field, explains all the evidence in a simple and logical manner. There is simply no other competing set of logical arguments. That last bit about being logical is critical. You can always come up with a magical idea, where a magical entity creates fossils and animals with vestigial organs just because it feels like it. Its important to know that anyone can retreat into such a superstition-based argument, and that these ideas explain the evidence, but not in a logically and intellectually satisfying way.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Space museum

While I've always loved the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in DC, I've never liked its name. In particular, the word "museum" in its title seemed inappropriate. It gives the impression of a dank building where bones of creatures, long dead, gather dust. Instead, I think of the Smithsonian as a glass aviary on the green National Mall where steel birds who once danced with stars have perched, perhaps temporarily, so that we can look at their gleaming edges.

My romantic view of the Smithsonian contrasts strongly with the reality of an aerospace industry whose best days seem behind it. The Smithsonian's focus seems less on the future of flight and more on the creation of an experience that is best described as a "scientific amusement park". IMAX theaters abound, and much effort is spent on acquiring and displaying weird-looking aircraft, with the goal of inducing a brainless "woah". When the Smithsonian turns 35 this year, it will seem more a museum for artifacts than an avante-garde hangar in which to contemplate our cosmic destiny.

Soon, the Smithsonian will be the home of Discovery, NASA's former flagship and the oldest surviving space shuttle. She will join the Bell X-1, the Eagle lunar module, the SR-71 Blackbird and the Enola Gay as monuments to the golden age of aerospace, when the United States held total dominance in the sky. When this happens, the Smithsonian will, perhaps, become the perfect place to meditate on our transition to what Fareed Zakaria calls the post-american world.

Maybe it is time that I let go of my opposition to the word "museum" in the title of the Smithsonian.

During my last visit to the center, in July, the retirement of the shuttles was imminent and these sorts of thoughts swirled in my head. I looked at the displays with a feeling that I was looking at history, at aircraft archeology perhaps, rather than technology. Such emotions weighed heavily in me, till I came across a gallery called How Things Fly. The space was a collection of about 25 or so interactive displays and was swarming with loads of excited children.

The different displays were not just for kids: I really enjoyed them too. Most of the interactive exhibits were on different aspects of flight, and each hammered home the concept of airfoil. There was a thin plastic disk that hovered magically, a beach ball that levitated over a glorified hair dryer and all kinds of wind tunnels. I've uploaded a video of one of the interactive displays below. I believe that as long as the Smithsonian can keep putting up exhibitions that bring out in everyone - children and adults alike - an excitement in flying, then in some sense the building is not a catacomb of mechanical dinosaurs and is, instead, alive and breathing. Hopefully, that means I can still get away with not calling it a "museum".

Airfoil with smoke streams:

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Do you really need pace bowlers to make a top Test team?

This is a repost of my facebook note:

Ok, so I think England are an amazing team, and they have certainly deserved to win so far. In addition, they definitely are worthy of the #1 slot because they are currently better than the 11 we are fielding right now.

However, I am really tired of hearing about this theory that a top test side must have three or four world class pace bowlers (the very first argument from Chappell's column I disagree with this completely (and I'm looking at you Mohit Singh and Mohit Gupta).

So I thought I'd say what I think.

Here are my two claims (just opinion, no statistics. I use players' names to give you an idea of the type of cricketer I am talking about):

(A) You can be a #1 Test side with three spinners and one pace bowler: If you give me three top spin bowlers (of the likes of Viswanath, Prasanna, Chandresekar) and one quality pace bowler (of the likes of Zaheer or Srinath) plus part timers (Sehwag or Yuvraj), then we can win abroad (in Australia and South Africa too).

I further submit that our bench strength of spin has always been world class and we should exploit this. Whether or not other teams do this is irrelevant, since they may not have our spin bench strength.

(B) More controversially, I believe you can be a #1 Test side with 8 batsmen and two pace bowlers: India likes to bat, and why should we apologize for this? Overwhelming batting strength is a valid and equally threatening policy as compared to having 5 pace bowlers (Windies in the 70s), once you satisfy the critical need of three or four part-timers, who bowl spin or left arm slow. So if you give me the classic 2002-2009, *full*, Indian attack with batting till #8 (plus Zaheer and, say, Ishant) and enough part-time bowlers to give the strike bowlers a rest, you can play a high-run scoring, winning strategy.

I also submit that this strategy is sort of contingent on have eight (or more) batsmen. It will not work if you have six or seven. Our last two captains do not take batting strategy to its logical conclusion (having the guts to bat till #8) and that is why we lose so many matches.

(C) Least controversially, I believe you can be a #1 Test side with four bowlers who all bowl at 135kmph or slower: If you have four bowlers who can swing and you have a good wicketkeeper, then there is no excuse for having problems abroad. Speed doesn't matter at all! Swing takes more wickets than bouncers any day.

Basically I am saying that you do not need overwhelming pace to win Test cricket.

Monday, June 6, 2011


I've read a series of disturbing news articles about the status in woman in India.

What is the situation?

The situation is that India's women are being killed in vast numbers. Ultrasound imaging is being used to figure out the sex of an unborn person. Many parents are aborting if the fetus is female.

I'm not pro-life.

But abortion is murder if the reason is gender.

This situation isn't earth-shattering by itself. The really earth-shattering news is that this is happening in mostly educated families. (Despite a government ban).

You see, I am from exactly that educated, middle-class Indian elite. If you look at the numbers, its almost a mathematical certainty that I've unknowingly met and talked and joked with adults who have done this to their daughter.

I've probably shook the hands of some "uncle" or "aunty" who murdered their baby girl. I've probably met their replacement son. I may have played cricket with him.

I've started to think about friends of mine. Friends with two sons. Friends who have only brothers and no sisters. I've started to wonder if their family structure was random or...

What a disaster.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A path from here to Utopia*

Utopia means "no place" in Greek. The guy who invented the word, Thomas Moore, was beheaded by his government. This gives you a sense of how things went for the idea. Every time humans tried to socially engineer a "heaven on earth", things went terribly wrong.

But technology can do much better at bringing about revolution. For example, the birth control pill freed women. I don't mean it physically freed them: that revolution happened the old fashioned way, much earlier. But it freed their minds from the tyranny of unplanned families and allowed them to demand equality.

The pill freed women from the prison of biology.

What if there was a pill that could change your race?

You pop in it one night, and the next morning (or in a few weeks) you experience life as a red-haired Irish person. Or a blonde Pacific Islander. Or a tall Ethiopian.

You'd still look similar: your face would appear the same I mean. But you'd have some difficulty recognizing friends who switched ethnicity without telling you..."I totally missed my friend Ali as he walked past me the other day. I guess he picked Korean for this week."

If the racepill came out, it would be expensive at first. The rich and famous everywhere would get to look different all the time. In parts of the world with serious colonial hangovers (like my country), the well-off would turn as white as the trees in Cambridge in January.

Eventually, middle-classes in rich countries would get the pill, and race would cease to have meaning in those societies.

Maybe a big philanthropic foundation would use their millions to make tons of these pills available to the world's poorest.

In food aid bags.

TV images of starving children in Africa and burning war fields in Asia would look less like far removed tragedies of strangers and more like tangible nightmares for the kids on our street.

Maybe the coffers of the world would open up. Immigration rules might change, since the only way to differentiate people from around the world would be their skill-set. Their resume. Their minds.

Hows that for a path between here and Utopia?

* PS: If you google "a pill to change your race" you get tons of hits. I think a lot of people have had the same idea, but I haven't seen any books or articles on this.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

An airline whine

I had the ambiguous fortune to visit Phoenix, AZ for a talk. The talk went well (thanks for asking) but this rant is about how I got to Phoenix and back.

Of course, I flew. I took a major airline and things proceeded fairly smoothly on my outbound flights.

This was not true of my return journey. I flew Phoenix to SF, and SF to Boston.

On my Phoenix-SF flight, a part of the plane fell off from the cabin roof. We were lucky that this happened (a) While the plane was on the ground and (b) for a relatively unimportant component of the roof. The pilot came back into the cabin, and pushed the part into its place and it sort of "clicked" back in.

Little did I know this would not be the last time I saw such complex mechanical engineering in action that day.

In SFO, I just managed to catch my Boston flight. I sat in my seat, relieved, and read my Kindle till it was time to turn off digital devices. As the plane taxied I suddenly noticed, to my horror, that the entire frame of my window was detached.

It was hanging, literally by the skin of its clamping teeth. What I'm talking about was a whole window frame and a layer of clear window plastic. It was an inch thick. It did not seem like a trivial issue.

I immediately contacted the airline staff. The plane parked itself near the runway while the pilot announced on the intercom that a passenger had made a "cosmetic" complaint and we'd be delayed. Groans filled the cabin as a few passengers gave me the evil eye.

One of the staff sat in my seat and sort of prodded and pushed the window frame. Sure enough, it "clicked" into position. The entire fleet must be made of Lego.

They made a note of where the damaged part was, and we flew off.

I safely made it back home.

I did a little research, and the aircraft I flew in were first released in the late 80s, and most are reliable workhorses of the sky. I wonder if the airlines are cutting costs and wholly depending on the "robustness margins" built into these old machines. These margins are basically how much the aircraft can fly with "missed" maintenance. Its the sort of thing that keeps your car working when you skip 10k checkups.

I hope that is not true. Anyways, next time you get in an aircraft, scan around and make sure its all in one piece.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The plainspeak-BS boundary

I've got other image-blog posts, like this.

Friday, April 22, 2011

My hilarious barista

I drink coffee at Buckminster's, a cafe on the Harvard campus. My barista is usually a bulky Italian guy who gruffly recognizes me with an aggressive "small?" and slides the cup over to me. I think he'd be offended by me calling him a barista.

This conversation happened recently. Ahead of me, in the line for coffee, was this skinny, hipster type:

Skinny hipster guy: Hey good afternoon! : ) I would like a large soy latte.

My barista: What? A large what...a soy? What is wrong with you?

Skinny hipster guy: Um...

My barista: A soy latte! Listen guy, thats like a putting a bean...with another bean! What do you want, a burrito?

Skinny hipster guy: No I mean...

My barista: What are you, hungry? Do you want a soy mocha? Thats a bean with a bean with yet another bean!

By which time I was laughing too much to figure out how this ended.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

List of Indian languages on the note

In a sense, this image I discovered explains a lot about India

Our national languages are on every currency note: but they are arranged in English alphabetical order!

(image from wikipedia)

Population density

If you've ever talked to me about population density, then you'll know that I'm a skeptic of simplistic viewpoints like "overpopulation is the root of all problems". I'm motivated by this link at wikipedia that shows the population density of the planet. Even though humans aren't allowed free access to all parts of Earth, the map makes a clear point: there is lots of space in the world.

My favorite example is India, since I know more about that country than any other. Most Indians I meet are gloomy about population, and view it as the same way someone from Canada or Russia might view their climate: something to be overcome, perhaps escaped from.

I've always claimed that India isn't overpopulated, just mismanaged. If you look at the list of countries by population density, from wikipedia, you'll see that the list shows many highly developed nations that have figured out a way to use their high population density to their advantage. Israel, Taiwan, Singapore, Bahrain and South Korea have higher density than India, while Japan, the UK and Germany are quite close. So India could somehow copy these countries and manage to have both a high population and high development.

But why then the discrepancy between the numbers and the experience? When you visit India, you don't feel the same way that you do when you wander around Germany or South Korea.

I found some links that might help explain that. The first is a list of the most crowded cities on Earth: India dominates both East Asia and Europe. Another list is the most crowded subregions (like districts or urban neighborhoods). Again India punches way above its weight, and has more entries than, say, China.

Basically, India has few centers of economic growth and these are supercrowded. I'll have to concede that while India has the potential to be a place with a well-distributed high population, it is far from that now. However, I still maintain that while India does have a gigantic population, the large size of the country implies that it is still possible to create a well-managed living environment.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Cricket theory

All of the below theory must be laced with probability and statistics, especially expected scores for batsman and expected strike rate for bowlers. I'm not good at probability, so if you are gonna whine, take the list and improve it and cite me.

Swing bowling is applied physics, particularly fluid dynamics.

Spin bowling is applied psychology. : )
(Yes, I used to bowl leg-spin.)

Pace bowling is just simple geometry.

You need many skills for the Captaincy, most of which are NP hard problems. However, one easy one is field placement (reactionary), which is basically applying the pigeonhole principle. Anything else is tougher. Field placement (strategic) is a graph coverage problem, while bowling and batting orders are either combinatorial setups or versions of the secretary hiring problem. Finally, the twin issues of declaring the innings or imposing the follow-on are types of knapsack problems. (Are they really? Bite me.)

Wicket-keeping is an extrapolation problem. Get to where the ball will be. In fact you could say that for most fielding roles, but the time scales for wicket-keeping are harshly small. Probably only the first slip, silly point and short leg compare.

Batting! Oh the variations. Timing is resonance: if you've ever done it right then you know what I mean. Feels like silk. Figuring out what delivery is next is pattern recognition: look at tons of videos of Murli and see if you can pick the doosra (I can't, at least not from the TV perspective). The angle of the shot and the direction are geometry plus sampling the field.

Chasing: Deciding when to be aggressive or not is the knapsack problem. Setting: Deciding when to be aggressive or not is a expected run total maximization. Running between wickets is actually really hard. Coordination, extrapolation, tons of ACKs sent back and forth. The systems folk can handle this.

Umpiring is just a look-up table and therefore will be automated soon (pitched inside? hit inside? going onto the stumps?). Physios are the only bio folk in this mess.

And commentators? No theory there: just a black art.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Hawks at Harvard!

Our office is a corner office, since its shared between post-docs and visiting faculty. Its really nice with spectacular views of the campus.
Last year a pair of hawks made their nest right next to our office:

We found out that hawks actually have been around campus for a while. We found an article in the crimson about the beautiful birds.

And now, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) placed a webcam where you can see the nest. Right now we can see eggs!!! : )

Another Earth

I was awarded $50.00 for this photograph and short essay. It is about the search for other worlds. Astronomers today are pretty close to finding images of new earth-like worlds. Look at this article from wikipedia for one of the possible ways to take the picture, which involves a giant pinhole camera in space.
Enjoy the photo-essay:

From Baghdad to Bangalore, I’ve seen it all.
Everywhere, people believe things. Maybe God, or maybe, just soccer.
Unfortunately, you can find somebody, somewhere, who believes wholly
opposing ideas.
Eat beef? Somebody thinks its unholy. Think gay marriage is fine?
Somebody else deems it illegal.
These differences stop us from solving tough problems together.
Its why the question ‘Why can’t we just get along?’ is a cruel joke.
What we need is one, single image that could get us to unite.
One day, sky searching scientists will take a picture of another world.
Another earth.
My imagination already sees it.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

India wins, Sachin gets the elusive prize

In one of the closest world cup matches that I have seen, India beat Sri Lanka in Mumbai today to win the world cup of cricket.

Endless pages will be written about the match and India's victories in the run-up to this amazing final. Well deserved and just praise will be showered on the Captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Good words will be said about Yuvraj Singh, the man of the moment, as well as about determined seniors like Zaheer Khan and youthful fighters like Gautam Gambhir.

But all of this will be dwarfed by the glory that India will heap on Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar.

To understand this generosity, you need to understand the place Sachin occupies in the hearts and minds of Indians. You can go online and find that most Indians think Sachin is the greatest batsman who ever lived. Most neutral voices think he is in the top 2 or 3. South Africans, Australians and Pakistanis probably put him in the top 5 or 10.

These rankings are not important. What you need to understand is how much Sachin became a symbol of a type of Indian aspiration.

You've all heard the trite and over-repeated story of how a socialist India, freed from its bureaucratic shackles by globalization, became an economic powerhouse.

But if you lived during that period of change, as a middle class Indian, you'd remember how it felt in the 90s. The world was opening up. The internet and TV brought images of how far ahead other countries were, and how quickly some countries that used to be like us (China) were changing.

We were slow and poor and frustrated. We developed a thirst and craving for something Indian that was modern (not from our proud heritage) and yet still world-class.

Today, in India, we still have loads of problems. But there is a long list of Indians who have done things or built things or manage things that have the tag: "as good as anywhere in the world".

But it wasn't like that before. Its easy to forget how rare it was to have a news report about an Indian that made us feel proud.

As we opened up in the 90s, however, there started to emerge flashes of brilliance in the darkness. A. R. Rahman was one, and thats why I think people of my generation are such fanatics of his music.

Sachin Tendulkar was another. He produced batting that was truly amazing. His gift was instantly recognized by our competitors in the cricket world.

We started to win some matches against teams with whom we had deep psychological issues. More importantly, we started losing matches gracefully, due to a Tendulkar ton. Sachin became, rightly or wrongly, a symbol for the aspirations for an upcoming India. Another rare example of an Indian who was doing something world-class.

His professionalism, talent and the drive to win shone like a jewel in the bureaucratic dirt that was Indian cricket in those days. We can now reasonably suspect that he won matches for India that were in the process of being thrown away by the match-fixing goons (look at Sachin's batting support: Azharuddin got a life ban and Jadeja got a 5 year ban). How many times has the batting collapsed around him while he played on and on, against all odds, with tail-enders like Kumble, Prasad and Srinath? Every time he has performed, India has statistically been the winner.

However, as India changed, we no longer depended on Sachin for our honor. Many aspects of India became world-class (although really really slowly and still on ongoing process), and our economy started getting a global reputation for services and industries where we actually delivered high quality results.

The impact of these trends in the larger Indian scene inevitably led to changes in cricket. Suddenly, Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly gave us fighting matches, even when Sachin did not perform. Younger players were showing much more grit and determination. The turning point was MS Dhoni's victory in the 20/20 World Cup. This was followed by the IPL and the total economic domination of cricket by India.

In this new world, Sachin continued to perform, with feats and records such as the only double century in ODIs (obtained last year, when he was 37). But we all felt he was still playing the game to achieve his last unrealized goal: a World Cup Victory. His last chance would be the world cup held in 2011 and co-hosted by India.

Today he got his Victory, in his home ground of Mumbai. He failed with the bat in this particular match (but did amazingly throughout the tournament). As Virat Kohli put it:
"Tendulkar's carried the burden of the nation for 21 years, it's about time we carried him on our shoulders."
Here is that emotional moment. Cheers to you Sachin, for all those times when you provided a shining example of world-class Indian professionalism, skill and art.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A review of True Grit

I reviewed the movie True Grit on a cool Bollywood-themed blog about all kinds of movies. Enjoy the review here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Research in India

This post is for those of us thinking of going back to do research in India. Thanks to EJ for the link, which is a conversation with Prof. Ashutosh Sharma from IITK. Prof. Sharma recently won the 2010 Infosys Prize.

He talks about how things have changed (just like all Indian adults of his generation), particularly for Indian scientists. Some of the better quotes in the article are "education is too important to be left to teachers" and "ours is a reverential system which doesn’t encourage freedom of thought; in fact there’s little freedom of thought."

He also made some comments about how alternative careers ("history, archaeology, fine and performing arts") are great ways to train the mind but are ignored in India because of social pressures. These insights stemmed from the fact that he wanted to learn philosophy in school, but was prevented from doing so because of his situation.

Overall, I get the feeling he is a great mentor for a lot of lucky, lucky people.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cultural neighbors

I was reading an article in The Hindu about a parliament debate on India's foreign policy. It was a lot of hot air and politicians doing their thing. However, one comment by Mulayam Singh Yadav (wisdom comes from the most unlikely sources) struck me. He said that "India had no real friends in the international community".

As a person who has felt a little jealous of the US special relationship with Britain (who can forget Fowler's line from Chicken Run: "Americans! Always late for every war!") I started thinking about this.

I've taken the neighborhood map from Wikipedia, and color coded it according to cultural closeness. Three of the cultural contacts are religious based, while the fourth is based on shared British occupation.

Obvious (but granted, lazy) explanations reveal themselves. Most of India's cultural connections with our neighbors are weak. Those that are strong, are canceled out by the fact that our diverse country is also, almost uniquely, Hindu majority. Even though we share so much with our neighbors, perhaps they don't trust us (or we don't trust them?) because of this difference.

But its interesting to note that India does have this patchwork of mild cultural/culinary/musical/linguistic bonds with a large variety of countries. This explains why traveling anywhere between Dubai and Singapore could result in a sense of "this smells/tastes/sounds/feels vaguely familiar".

Monday, March 14, 2011

Arranged marriages

I keep getting irritated by smug westerners judging arranged marriage. So I thought I'd make a chart to make it clear. Each box in this chart assumes a marriage happens. We then ask if the family and the couple agrees.

"Don't care" = Indifferent.

Note that its only forced arranged marriages that are evil. Of course those still happen, with mostly women being exploited, and I would gladly join forces with the smug westerners to fight this.

But note that there are other kinds of arranged marriages. Particularly, the lower-leftmost square. This is how millions of Indians get married. Since they don't have access to dating, when they feel like they'd like to start a family, they let their parents arrange their marriages. I'm not denying that this would feel weird to a westerner. But that is a cultural difference, and I'd like to see a bit more tolerance for arranged marriage.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Anti-engineer bias

I know its really easy to fall into an "us vs. them" war of words with humanities majors, artists, journalists and other "non-tech" people. I don't want this to be about that.

I like art. I respect it. And I think that the best engineer-artists are like da Vinci, good at both things. I don't mean like English majors who think their effort at a website makes them "techy".
I mean like architects who can design a structure for sunlight, but who also know Maxwell's equations.

But this article from nytimes makes me angry:

It basically blames Nokia's troubles on its engineers.

There were similar comments about why GM and Ford struggled. People asked "are their cars bad because their engineers dominate the work culture and push around the designers?". The article also reminds me of the end of the dot-com era. I remember seeing comedy sketches where developers in jeans coded while their office burned.

Lets be clear. No corporation, especially an American one, has ever loved engineers. Maybe Google comes the closest (and I love Google for it). But most of them force engineers to make a decision in their careers: continue to compute and stagnate; or move into middle management and rise.

It suits the managers to come up with trash like "people person" and push down engineers. They love to avoid having a parallel track for their tech folk. And this idea that designers or artists or some non-tech "creative" person could save the company may be true, but my point is the opposite is almost never true: its rare that the engineers break a company. When have you seen a big tech company collapse because its product didn't work? (Seriously, no Microsoft jokes. We all know Windows is convenient.)

Finally, I really feel that the Times has too many liberal arts majors as editors and tech writers. I can't help but feel there is some Freudian effort to push these stories onto front pages so that these same liberal arts majors feel good about their useless degrees and massive student loans. I think it makes them feel better about not being good at math (Did they try? Anyone can be good at math.)

These sorts of stories keep coming up. Maybe I'm too sensitive to them, but lets send out some of the blame to the GM managers and board members, the greedy venture caps folk in the dot-com era and the CEOs of Nokia.

What do advisors want

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Nothing to do

A lot of times you hear people say "I hate this tiny place, there is nothing to do here." I have a theory about why that is, and it might surprise you.

My thesis is that a place becomes "cool" to live in, if it attracts tourists. So its a chicken-and-egg problem. Lets compare NYC and Pittsburgh. NYC is amazing: there are lots of things to do. In fact, when you wander around, you get the feeling that every corner will have something hiding out there that will make good bragging rights when you go back home: a comic book store with free chocolate or a bar which attracts competitive paper plane flying, or even just exotic food.

What would happen to all these places if tourists stopped visiting? They'd collapse, and Manhattan would just look like Pittsburgh's downtown: busy with office-goers in the morning and deserted at night. Its the tourists who keep the city from sleeping. Those tourists are basically subsidizing NYC's claim to be a happening city where there is a lot of stuff "to do".

If my theory is right, perhaps people from fun cities like SF and NYC should be a little more thankful for tourists. Because I think without the visitors, they'd be living in a place no different from Bucktown, MO.