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.