Sunday, December 23, 2012

Pollution as space travel

I've read a series of articles recently that covered a lot of ground, but the basic message from all of them was that the planet is doomed. We've burnt too much fossil fuel, and we are on track to burn even more in the coming decades, with unknown consequences for the climate. Industrial pollution of our oceans and rivers is on the rise. Lets not over talk about our forests and jungles, which keep coming under pressure. More and more evidence is coming in that the Earth has reached the tipping point.

I don't lose hope because I've come to an interesting realization (which critics will call a rationalization) of our destructive course. I believe that as life on the planet gets worse, a variety of stop-gap technological solutions will emerge. These might be as simple as air filter masks or as complex as continent wide geographical sensor networks that alert us to future negative changes in the environment. These tech-solutions will not solve the problem of our damaged earth. Only using less stuff will do that, and I think humans are incapable of using less resources without a stick forcing them to do so.

But eventually, our planet will be so messed up that this repertoire of tech-solutions will form version 1.0 of the tools that are necessary to live on a dangerous planet. Essentially, life on earth will get uncomfortable enough for us to seriously consider living on other planets. If this happens, then it would be analogous to a womb - while it is warm and comfortable at first, eventually you come out and suffer the problems of the real world. Earth is a womb, and the universe is the real world. Maybe pollution is just the first step of space travel. If so, it would be the mother of all silver linings.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Fermenting yoghurt with wireless router

E makes her own yoghurt, and, in the Northeast, she used to get it fermented by keeping the mixture in the oven, with the oven turned off. The pilot light in the oven kept the insides warm. However, in Texas, the ovens are all electric and they don't have the attractive property of doubling as a fermentation receptacle. E has solved this problem in a unique way, by placing the yoghurt on our wireless router. The excess heat from the router is never super-hot, and turns out to be as warm as the inside of an oven. Its green, since we are recycling the heat, and has no effect on our connectivity.

I recommend it, as the yoghurt is tasty!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Matlab Casino

I'm trying to increase updates by including short posts with no proofreading. Like this one. I realized I invented the phrase "Matlab Casino" to refer to when people hack endlessly at Matlab hoping to get a result. When I get sucked into it, I lose track of any high level strategy (such as, why are we doing this again?) and keep changing random magic numbers hoping for an awesome result to appear.

It never works.

Friday, July 13, 2012


I'm one of those people who wishes they could quote Shakespeare. The problem is, I can't get through the writing. The reason, of course, is that the text is difficult to parse, since its in "old" English. Since I've never read the plays, I find it hard to follow the characters' conversations in films or theater that use the original language style.

But I've just stumbled across a nice way to experience original Shakespeare and even enjoy it. Its time consuming, but I think its worth the trouble. I've just finished reading Macbeth using this technique.

First, find a online, free version of the play (in this case, Macbeth). Next, find a movie where the actors converse using the old style. I found Macbeth on Netflix with Patrick Stewart. I know he is overacting, but its a lot of fun to watch him play a role without technobabble.

All you have to do now is read the play, but only one Scene at a time (the plays are divided into Acts, and each Act into some number of Scenes). After you've read a Scene, watch the corresponding scene from the movie and then pause. Do this again for the next Scene, and so on. You might have to synchronize a little, since movie directors might skip a scene, or switch around a pair of scenes.

I found that I followed the "old" English movie conversations almost perfectly, since I had just read them. So reading the play helped me enjoy the movie immensely; but it also worked the other way around. There were parts of the original Scenes that I did not understand when I read them. However, these became clearer when the actors articulated them in the context of the movie.

Overall, I would say this technique works far, far better than either just plowing through the text or simply watching a Shakespearean movie whose words you don't understand. Try it!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


My friend PB left us a semi-working telescope when he left town. This is a Meade 285, which is basically a non-fancy telescope dating from the 90s. It has an objective with a 900mm focal length and with an f/15 aperture. You can vary the eye-piece. After taking apart the telescope to make sure the optics were all ok, we fixed a bunch of mechanical issues. I learned that Teflon tape can work wonders with broken screw threads and should be added to duct tape as a useful thing to have in your toolbox (Thanks to AJ for that knowledge). On the left is a picture of the telescope, newly resurrected. We couldn't see the moon yet (because it was just recently a new moon and caused an eclipse), but we did see one of the phases of Venus. It was a crescent, and Venus is heading towards its "new moon" as well because it will soon transit the Sun, for the last time in about a 100 years. Unfortunately, we didn't take a picture of the Venus phase, so a wikipedia picture will do for now. We basically saw a phase similar to the last crescent image in the second row.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


I have been watching some BBC fictional programs on Netflix. After really enjoying Luther (a violent, police drama), I moved on to a political drama called The State Within. Set in a Bush-era-like Washington DC, the show is a 24-esque, simplistic and cut intensive miniseries about the adventures of the Brit ambassador to the US. The Ambassador is shown to be a human rights champion in a world dominated by beltway types who are depicted as enjoying playing games with the lives of millions around the world.

Strikingly, I found that many of the hero's speeches and monologues were given on the phone in the UK embassy, with a backdrop that was clearly a portrait of Winston Churchill.

I doubt the show's creators intended any irony. Instead its likely that, due to his victory over the Axis powers, Churchill has a place in many a westerner's heart as a hero of freedom. This is true in a limited sense; Churchill's leadership did save Britain during WW2.

However, Churchill was an imperialist to his core. Perhaps one could argue that he was a product of his times, and a modern Churchill would reflect our world's updated values on freedom. I won't speculate on that, but I do find the real Churchill an important man for Indians to study.

This is because Churchill was a man of ideas and, India, in the end, is an idea. Therefore, above all the militants and separatists, tin-can Generals, warlords, difficult multinationals and aggressive neighbors, Churchill, through his surviving writings, is probably India's greatest adversarial critic.

Churchill's position can be summarized by his comment that he thought India as a united nation was as ridiculous a concept as the idea of the Equator as a separate country. He understood that without British India there would not be an Empire and he lobbied and fought against Indian independence. A summary of his quotations on the subject can be found here, and they may shock you.

But looking beyond these statements, and avoiding the temptation to go for Churchill-bashing, I found that some of his ideas for Britain in the post WW2 era suggest optimistic directions for India, today. He foresaw a future where the UK would be a densely populated, relatively small country with limited resources. He realized that a path to a prosperous future could be forged by a such a country, even though most of the world might think that this nation's best days were long gone.

The Churchill quote that best summarizes this vision for me is: "The empires of the future are the empires of the mind". I find it an illuminating light to shine on the dark discourse of pessimism around me by armchair economists who get depressed about the slow progress of Indian manufacturing or give 18th century reasons such as "overpopulation" for why India isn't moving in some desired economic direction.

Perhaps the best advice for India in this century might come from one of its toughest opponents from the last.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Then and now

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Translating Madhushala

I'm working on translating Madhushala, by Harivansh Rai Bachchan, to English (from Hindi). I'm not just trying to port it to English, but I'd like to interpret it and spin the words with my own whirl (meaning I won't literally translate, so no comments about "you got that word wrong").

Here is a sample from one of my favorite paragraphs, and I'll try to post the full translation if I ever get the whole thing done (its kinda long):

मदिरालय जाने को घर से चलता है पीनेवाला
' किस पथ से जाऊँ? ' असमंजस में है वह भोलाभाला
अलग- अलग पथ बतलाते सब, पर मैं यह बतलाता हूँ -
' राह पकड़ तू एक चला चल, पा जाएगा मधुशाला॥४॥

Alco-holidays, on their mind, while heading out, to the bar,

people waxing innocence, ask, for directions. Answers heard,

routes proffered, lots of styles. But, myself, instead, I reveal
a single rule:

“Pick a path and walk, my friend, every way’s a madhushala

As far as I am concerned, my dad sort of invented the word alcoholiday, as a jest. Also, I'm having trouble translating madhushala. Most people write it as tavern, but wine dominates the poem as the drink of choice and I feel a tavern is more of a beer place. I've been trying to make up words, like winetrap, my current favorite. If you have a new, invented english world that you think means madhushala, and you want to get it immortalized in my soon-to-be-famous translation, let me know.