Science Under Attack

(From the BBC)
"A college professor was killed and at least four others injured when a gunman entered the Indian Institute of Science and opened fire at scientists and laboratory technicians attending a conference."


A month ago, I had joked about this-.
"My labmate and I were talking about the possibility of a bomb explosion in the Convention Center. What would it mean? At a big meeting like this you would loose 75% of the world's top neuroscientists and it would be huge setback for science. Tim argued that a terrorist might want to do that to strike at the heart of progress and destroy the intellectual wealth of a society. It sure seems like a smart idea but terrorists aren't that smart to begin with, right? Also, the impact factor (intentional pun) would be quite small. Who cares about a bunch of scientists being blown to bits?"

I feel really sorry about even thinking about such a thing even in jest. Tim perhaps saw it coming. Today's events put such thought-experiments in perspective. One scientist, M.C. Puri was killed and many others are injured. As usual, the fingers have been pointed towards the foreign hand and the ISI. Blame the green-eyed monster.

Theft Over Breakfast

Why would you want to steal this? Apparently, someone did as Reuters reports.

China Blog II - Sex in the City

There are some sights and attractions your Lonely Planet guide will not mention. My reason why they don't - they are so obvious that they don't need to be pointed out.

One thing you cannot but notice in Shanghai is the ubiquitous PDA (Public Display of Affection). At all times of the day, in the most crowded of places I saw couples making out. While small children were flying kites, their older siblings were locked in loving embraces from which it seemed they would never emerge. Nothing to suggest that China is still a prudish country when it comes to matters of sex. A theory is that China is so overpopulated that people don't have private areas to make out and hence it has become culturally acceptable to make out in public. If this theory is true then recent political moves in India seem rather contrary. In the Sexual Freedom Dept. India is surely falling behind.

Another unmistakable sign in Shanghai is the amount of white/foreign men walking around with really pretty well-dressed Chinese women. Whether these were 'escorts' or regular, Chinese women looking for some fun (as this Time story suggests) it was hard to tell. At more than one place we were offered 'services' and from the boldness and the frankness of the 'agents' you could tell that such offers were fairly commonplace and were generally accepted by foreigners.

Like Starbucks dots every third block in any major American city, KTV or karaoke bars dot the urban landscape in China. Regular karoke is fun - most people are soon drunk on the Tsingtao beer, are singing off-key; others slightly less musically challenged think they are on stage in front of cheering millions. For those wanting a little more adventure, in most places you can hire singing companions endowed with talents other than just of song.

As we would soon find out, this is not always all fun and games. On the Shanghai-Beijing sleeper we were sharing the cabin with a Chinese couple with an irresistibly cute 3 yr old son. Since they spoke a little English, we could have a meaningful conversation. Soon the cultural exchange took a turn we least expected. The women opened up in a way we were not prepared. The purpose of the trip she told us was to get them away from Shanghai, a city she hated. She was her husband's second wife and they were no longer in love. The husband had been philandering with a KTV singer. He often took 'business' trips with his mistress, which the wife found out about and it did not go down too well with her. Naturally, she wanted to leave him but his parents had recently begged her to work things out. So they were taking this trip to get away from the evil charms of his mistress and spend some time together to work things out. While the wife opened her heart out to complete strangers of an all-too-familiar story, the husband had the strange calm of a man condemned for a crime he did commit.

Love, sex, prostitution and marital infidelity are all universal themes but the pace at which they hit us could only happen in China. China seems to have embraced the idea of the West far more quickly and with more enthusiasm than even the West itself.

Chris Rock's " Quote of the Year"

(email forwarded by John)

"You know the world is going crazy when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the tallest guy in the NBA is Chinese, the Swiss hold the America's Cup, France is accusing the U.S. of arrogance, Germany doesn't want to go to war, and the three most powerful men in America are named Bush, Dick, and Colon."

China Blog I - Shanghai Surprise

I had promised long ago and I now seek refuge in the statement 'better late than never' - the posts on my China trip have finally been written.

Before I begin...
These are accounts of the 10 days that I spent in Shanghai and Beijing. China, like India is in the process of redefining itself and I could feel that nervous energy pulsating in the two cities that I visited. Of course, I wanted to know what makes China click and what can India do better? Is India with its completely beat-up but still functional democratic system still more likely to succeed than communist-capitalistic China in the long run? It was quite a trip. Despite my best intentions, I could not investigate human-rights violations, Chinese nuclear capabilities, repression of democracy, or Chinese Olympic training methods. Tongue in cheek, I mean that with a limited number of observations you cannot extrapolate a great deal. Like any first time traveller, I was extremely curious about the big questions and desperately seeked their answers. Reality, however does not pan out that way. What follows are my few observations, first impressions and speculative explanations for what I saw, so bear with me...

Surprisingly, after spending about 30+ hours in a plane flying in the wrong direction(courtesy: Air India for not rebooking my flight) from India to China - I faced no jet-lag. My theory is that by the time I landed at Pudong International Airport, my biological clock was so confused after being in Pune-Mumbai-Frankfurt-Ann Arbor-Tokyo-Shanghai in less than 40 hours, that it decided to completely give up. There were no troubles after that!
Pudong or New Shanghai, built across the Huangpu River, felt like some sort of urban fantasy-land. Skyscraper after skyscraper, broad but empty roads, spanking new facilities and housing projects. Needless to say that it was spanking clean. I know from years of living in India that views from the airport are often misleading. I half-expected, that apart from a few superficial differences, China would be very much like India, except it would be full of Chinese faces. There were a few surprises and my conclusion at the end of the trip was that China is like India's big brother. Everything in China was a few notches higher than everything that we have back home. A few notches more people, a few notches better transport, a few notches better pollution control and a few notches better planning and development.

Shanghai has had quite a chequered history. Pudong might have been marshy land less than 10 years ago and might have sprung up from nowhere, but Shanghai has always been around. It has been an international city since the early part of this century. For a number of years in the 1930s the city was home to the largest population of Europeans in Asia. There were more than a handful newspapers in European languages and people still remember some streets with their French and English names. Shanghaians are not only known for their tightfistedness and financial acumen, but also for being torchbearers for China. The Communist party was founded here and now, Shanghai is once again the epicentre for another kind of revolution that is sweeping China. The commercial and enterprising spirit of the city that was bottled-up for years has now been released. Given a second chance the city shows no signs of looking back. If you ask a Shanghaian where he wants to go, he will say, "Up!", and if you asked any other Chinese, he will say, "I want to go to Shanghai!".

Due to the conference(this was the 'supposed' purpose of the trip), we were booked at the magnificent Pudong Shangri-La Hotel. It really lived up to its name. My friend, Greg remarked looking at the toothpicks frosted with green mint at the ends, "Is there anything that they don't class up in this place?". It felt like the hotel depicted in the movie - Lost in Translation complete with a singer accompanied by a pianist in the main foyer in the evenings. Travelling with a bunch of Americans also makes travel abroad more interesting. They had quite a few culture shocks! The best among them was having to piss in what they called '... literally a hole in the ground'. It's time they knew how the rest of the world goes about its business. What surprised them the most was the amount of service personnel. There was 6' tall girl in a red dress with black stockings whose only job was to smile profusely and guide people to one of the six automatic elevators, that's it! I was not even about to tell them about how 3 people are needed to operate an automatic coffee machine in India. America welcome to the land of billionaires!

After two days, I was ready to leave the rarefied, synthetic atmosphere of the Shangri-La. So began the explorations with nothing but a printed card with directions in English and Chinese to places in Shanghai. If you are fussy about food, you won't get much of a chance in China. In most places, the menus are in Chinese and so it is a real blind test - you simply go 'eenny-minny-moe'. I really don't know what I ate, but I ordered hot-spicy 'Sichuan' stuff and I was happy. Till the buffet I was not aware that there are so many kinds of meat and so many ways to cook them.

The first question that may occur to most after a couple of days is: Why do the Chinese smile so much?. There are a few explanations. One, is that they are really friendly. Two, they have been 'ordered' by the government to do so. Three, smiling is generally a good substitute for not being able to speak any English. The most frustrating part of the trip was trying to conduct a simple conversation. I have yet to meet a rude Chinese; you could sense that they had a lot to say and would like to know a lot too, but in most cases I was reduced to the most rudimentary kind of sign language. In China, if you don't get a translator or speak Chinese be prepared for a lot of games of Pictionary and Dumb-Charades! I hate when I travel to a wonderful, new place and cannot conduct a meaningful conversation with people, except make really pathetic Mandarin sounds from my Pinyin phrasebook. All they did was smile and behave in an extremely friendly way, while drowning me in a barrage of Chinese.

Ingrid Newkirk has not been to to the Bird and Fish Market in Shanghai, because if she does she will instantly die of brain haemorrhage. All kinds of small animals were on sale - cricket, parrots, turtles and simply not as pets! In some countries humans have such few rights, what to say of the animals?. Curious onlookers stared at us as we walked about in the market. Then goaded by the excited audience, we participated in the local sport. Tim and I bought a pair of fierce fighting crickets and fought them. After a few bouts, we returned them to the astounded salesman and wife(pic on link below). Perhaps, we should have kept them and set them free. .

Being able to bargain is an absolutely essential skill for shopping. These guys were ridiculous with their prices! I felt completely at home: I simply knocked off the first digit of the price they quoted, they laughed, then I walked away, then they called me back, I came back looking hurt, the quoted new price, I said nothing looked dejected, then 'last price', more haggling, the the deal is sealed. The usual charade. By the end of the trip all my American friends acknowledged the potency of Gujju genes when it comes to bargaining! At one shop, I was actually banned from making the deals for them! I managed to avoid the charms of the tenacious 'Rolex' salesmen, but succumbed to the temptation of buying a whole lot of DVDs for 1$ after bargaining on a calculator. How can you not buy an entire box set of Stanley Kubrick for 15$?

Pictures from Shanghai

World Aids Day

Support World AIDS Day

From You and Aids:
India has the second highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world after South Africa. India accounts for almost 10 per cent of the 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS globally and over 60% of the 7.4 million people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in the Asia and Pacific region.

It is still less than 1% of the population, but 1% of a billion is still a lot of people! The figures above are conservative, since till date an in-depth survey of HIV/AIDS has not been carried out. The disturbing trend in recent studies is the spread of the disease from urban to rural areas; more and more women are getting infected as the disease travels from sex-workers to wives; and homosexual Indian men are spreading the disease as they continue to lead normal lives and have sex with their wives.

To bring home yesterday's point:
"...the HIV/AIDS pandemic kills as many people as this tsunami every three weeks."


Leavitt and Dubner's Freakonomics is the kind of book you pick up on a Friday night and then cannot stop reading till you are done. Only when you glance at the clock you will realise that it's 2 a.m.(Thank God for Fridays!) Steven Leavitt is an economist who believes that economics is nothing but a tool to answer all sorts of questions. For those who thought that economics is simply about about stock markets, demand and supply, GDP growth etc., wait till you read this book. I really doubt most of us would have really thought about questions like the ones below and then went on to investigate them and publish the findings in serious economic journals. Apparently, Leavitt has made a career in economics (in case you don't believe me!)trying to answer questions like these:

"What is common to Sumo wrestlers, school teachers and the office bagel stand?"
"What is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool?"
"Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?"
"Why do we have less crime now?"
"What the Ku Klux Klan and real-estate agents have in common?"
"Do parents really matter?"

Without not giving too much away upon reading the book a lot of things become clearer. I read their book and the next day this month's National Geographic arrived talking about the Global Aid in response to tsunamis and other natural disasters. There was a telling quote in the issue (pg. 23)
... One WHO representative reminded me that the HIV/AIDS pandemic kills as many people as this tsunami every three weeks." The issue showed how volunteers were throwing clothes and water away because they could not distribute it.

If I were a few years younger I would have definitely looked at economics as a career after reading this book (Yes, it is that kind of book!). The part about obsessive parenting is the most hilarious. My chief questions upon reading this book are to investigate:

Upto what extent is it worthwhile to park illegally?
What are the costs of speeding?
Is it cheaper to adopt or have kids of your own?

A Sample of Freakonomics:
Why vote at all?
In their typical style they take a mundane nquestio and turn it on its head and justify why a true economist would never vote.

For the more academic minded:
His home-page has the pdfs of his work, some of it figures in the book.

Darwin's Finches

"No field of study has been so dominated by the thoughts of one man..."
- Jonathan Weiner, The Beak of A Finch

I was really glad to hear that the Ann Arbor Library has chosen Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch for Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Reads 2006. This promises some really interesting discussions and events centered around evolution. Given recent events in Pennsylvania and Kansas one really wonders where this country is headed. Ann Arbor thanks to its proximity to the University is quite a liberal town, which explains that there were no demonstrations outside the library and the book decision was generally welcomed. On the library blog, one of the members commented that Ann Arbor should have a book drive and donate copies of this book to places in Ohio, Iowa, Kansas and Pennsylvania where they need it more. It seems ironic that Jonathan Weiner lives in PA.

This book has been around for quite sometime and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 and I feel that a 'second-act' for this book is much needed in these dark ages. It describes evoltionary theory with the backdrop of the fantastic study undertaken by the husband and wife team of Peter and Mary Grant. They have visited a remote island (Daphne Major) in the Galapagos Islands year after year (for more than 30 years) painstakingly studying Darwin's finches. They have branded almost every bird on the island and have collected every possible statistic about these birds over the years. Most readers, like me, will be surprised to know that till the Grant's began their research almost 30 years ago there was no real experimental proof for Darwin's Theory. This was a serious gaping hole in arguing the case for evolution. Darwin never saw evolution actually occur and the Creationists were justified to call it 'Only a theory' and they went on to say that, "... believers in evolution and creation must accept either view by faith."
The Grant's work on the finches is one of the most intensive and valuable studies ever conducted and is the best and most detailed demonstration of the power of Darwin's process. Their most startling conclusion is that evolution occurs 'daily and hourly' and not after a long passage of time, that it cannot be humanly observed, as Darwin himself thought. Weiner lucidly explains the pressures of sexual and natural selection, the fusion and fission forces that dictate the formation of a new species and how G.O.D. (generation of diversity, hah!) works. The book is also full of anecdotes about Darwin, his 'bulldog' - Julian Huxley and other colorful characters who have dotted the evolutionary studies landscape over the years. He also tells the story of how J.B.S. Haldane coined and defined the unit of evolution 'darwin'. He also describes some interesting parallel experiments carried out by Endler on tropical guppies and other studies by Dolph Schluter in Canada.
I liked Wiener's approach in writing this book. He provides a good background of the history and interestingly describes the 'scientific process' in action. He has maintained the focus on describing the Grants' work and evolutionary theory without slinging mud on creationism or debating the issue other than referring to it in passing. There are only two faults, if any, with the book. One, is that recent popular work on this subject by Dawkins, Gould and other merits not more than a couple of paragraphs; second, the long bibliography is appreciated but a short list of more accessible sources under Further Reading would have been more helpful for more enthusiatic readers. This is an extremely well-researched book and a must for anyone wanting to quote some solid facts about evolution to creationists and their pseudo-scientific cousins who believe in 'Intelligent Design' (such a cleverly coined misnomer!). It is a good read even if you are not really into pro-evolution militancy and proselytization campaigns like me.

Naipaul's Area of Darkness

I am really enjoying the free time and I have been reading, mostly between bouts of watching movies. A review of Naipaul and his book: India: A Wounded Civilization on the lit blog.


When you really have to study for an exam the slightest excuse is excuse enough to drift away from 'what-you-should-be-doing'. There is always this play between reward and punishment. To bring back the focus you think about the payoff - the period of relaxation after the exam. Visions of the promised land seduce you into reading that paper or making those notes. I don't know what the Old Testament promised, but for me the promised land is:
1) A place where you can wake up as late as possible
2) Have to do zero 'real' work
3) Where you read books, papers you WANT to read instead of books/papers you SHOULD read.
4) Nice, tasty food is always readily available.

If rewards are not in your scheme of incentives then try punishment. What really works for me is the more realistic scare of 'doing-this-painful-process-all-over-again'. Again and again this has proved to be a powerful incentive. It makes me avoid checking my email every 2 mins, or keep me from taking more than frequent UGBs (unnecessary Google breaks). I think it will be an interesting topic of research to see what percentage of internet users are taking UGBs and how this is affecting graduation rates.

Is the Writing on the Wall?

"FeudTween 2hses- Montague&Capulet. RomeoMfalls_<3w/_JulietC@mary Secretly Bt R kils J's Coz &&is banishd. J fakes Death. As Part of Plan2b-w/R Bt_leter Bt It Nvr Reachs Him. Evry1confuzd-bothLuvrs kil Emselves"

Got it? Check this out.

Mr. Parikh goes to Washington

I am now in the nation's capital Washington D.C., home to a certain George W. Bush and his pets. As my labmate John informs me, also the city that 8 years ago re-elected a cocaine addict as a mayor (after he was convicted).
I am here for Neuroscience 2005 the biggest annual conference on the Brain.
The Society for Neuroscience that organises the conference chose to invite the Dalai Lama as the keynote speaker. An odd choice but a good one. Those who went for the lecture were struck by his charisma. You could immediately feel that you were in presence of a person who is at ease with himself and the world. He seems rather open to science and wasn't the least bit dogmatic. He subtly hinted at a paradigm shift. I largely agree with what he said but he really hit the nail on the head with this sentence -

"I believe we want happiness, and the way to transform society is through education and by boosting among individuals, families and communities some of the useful emotions such as compassion or forgiveness."

Then he mentioned (what did not get reported in 90% of the papers) that humans can do without religion but not without affection. I was convinced that humans needed either love, money or respect, but upon closer examination I think he is right. The more I think of the word 'affection' and its meaning the more apt it seems to me. What a lovely word - affection. Imagine going up and saying to somebody and saying, "I don't want your love, money or your respect; what I really want is your affection." How true, isn't it?

For more on the Dalai Lama at SFN see: NDTV Story and from the Washington Post.
* * *
Other than that it has been hard-core science most of the time. Most conferences have their share of the schoomzers and snoozers and I would like to stay away from both. My labmate and I were talking about the possibility of a bomb explosion in the Convention Center. What would it mean? At a big meeting like this you would loose 75% of the world's top neuroscientists and it would be huge setback for science. Tim argued that a terrorist might want to do that to strike at the heart of progress and destroy the intellectual wealth of a society. It sure seems like a smart idea but terrorists aren't that smart to begin with, right? Also, the impact factor (intentional pun) would be quite small. Who cares about a bunch of scientists being blown to bits?
* * *
Went to a seminar on How to get published in Nature. That is really wishful thinking. I have made a pledge that if I ever got published in Nature, I would retire. It also interesting to know that Nature has got on the latest pop-technology bandwagon: a) they have a blog and
b) a podcast. There is something new and unusual to learn everyday.

Politics is a Sport

I have been following Liberia's Presidential run-off election for the past few days. Liberia has an interesting history. It was founded by freed black slaves from America in 1847. Despite being enshrined with American constitutional ideals there has been little peace and the country has either been a dictatorship or embroiled in civil wars. It just emerged from a 14-year civil war after a peace agreement that brought 15,000 UN peacekeepers into the country. More than 250,000 people died in this brutal conflict where pregnant women were often disembowelled by child soldiers who placed bets on the sex of the unborn baby.

The run-off election featured two candidates: 'King' George Weah and 'Mamma' Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. No two candidates could be more different:

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is 67, the granddaughter of an illiterate market woman and a German soldier, has spent almost 30 years in politics. She is a Harvard-educated economist and has served in several senior positions, including Finance Minister and Africa director at the UN Development Programme. She has been imprisoned, exiled and endured threats to her children in her quest for the leadership of the West African nation.

George Weah, is a retired Liberian-born football hero. He was born in a Monrovia slum and is one of 13 children who were abandoned by their parents and raised by their grandparents in a hut on reclaimed swampland. He never went to high-school, has never held a normal job, and now lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was his extraordinary skill at football that took him first to Cameroon, then to Europe (playing for AC Milan and Chelsea) and eventually, in 1996, to win the FIFA footballer of the year.
Not hard to understand why he is the idol of poor young men in Liberia, most of whom are addicted to football — and there are a lot of young men in Liberia: almost half its potential voters are under 30, and a quarter are actually under 23.

Who should be ideally suited to run the country? and win the battle between the old and the young, elite appeal vs popular appeal, the experienced campaigner versus the political neophyte, a Harvard degree vs a primary education? The answer is not that simple as Johnson a 66-year-old member of the old Americo-Liberian elite, simply lacks the street credibility that might persuade the tens of thousands of recently demobilised boy soldiers with no immediate prospect of improvement in their circumstances that there is somebody in power who understands their anger and their impatience.

Democracy is perhaps the least worst system. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf won (Reuter story), but Weah is not accepting defeat and it looks like the country might be plunged into another civil war after an uncertain peace. The attitude on the street can be summed in this quote from the Times Online:
“UNMIL must go!” screamed a woman, referring to the United Nations Mission in Liberia. “We will solve our own problems. When we kill each other, who will survive will survive. That is how we make peace.”

Hungry Planet

Imagine laying out all the food that you eat for a week and then taking a picture of it as the husband-and-wife team of Peter Alusio and Faith Mendel have done in their book - The Hungry Planet
From the NPR Story:
"...(they) wanted to see how globalization, migration and rising affluence are affecting the diets of communities around the globe. Each chapter of their book features a portrait of a family, photographed alongside a week's worth of groceries."
Page shows poignant comparisons from Darfur, Germany and others.

I am deeply interested in how globalization, free markets affect daily lives. I am not too interested in general hypotheses about their gross ill-effects or their silver-bullet effects on the economy. Simply looking at how a basic factor such as diet is affected in the East vs. West, rural vs.urban, rich vs. poor can reveal a lot. Looks like this will be another addition to the list of requests at the local library.

Amusing anecdote
In the NPR story they talk of a family that decided to be more healthy and joined a gym. Ironically, they began to eat more fast-food since going to the gym gave them less time to cook!

A Shortcut To Becoming a Computer Guru

In my book, a computer nerd is someone who uses vi not MS Office, Python not MATLAB, and can be seen mostly using a cmd prompt typing syntax which would give most people a brain hemorrhage. Most people, however don't seem to have such exalted standards for 'a computer expert'. I am not much of a 'computer expert', but definitely a lazy computer user. If my hands are on the keyboard, I like them to stay there. If they are using the mouse, I like them to stay there. So, to save precious calories I try to learn as many shortcuts as I can. My academic sounding excuse is that Knowing keyboard shortcuts is more ergonomic . With mouse gestures browsing has never been so much fun.

I have realised that knowing shortcuts has another added benefit - people think 'you really know computers!'. I have seen quite a few people completely amazed to see how I moved stuff around on the screen. The next level after the Shortcuts 101: CTRL + S,A,X,Y,Z,C and V is making stuff bold (CTRL+B), Italicizing (CTRL+I), Justifying, left, right and center (CTRL + J, L, R or E) and renaming files(F2), etc. These might impress some people but not all.

If you really wish to be revered as a computer guru then the next step is knowing the Windows (or system) shortcuts. Your average user's estimation of your expertise will take a quantum leap if he(*) sees you can minimize the desktop windows ( Windows + M), or access the desktop (Win + D), cycle through active windows (ALT+Tab) or close apps ( Alt+F4) in less than an eyeblink. If they have not reconciled to the fact they will, once they see you open the Run window to start Firefox ( Win + R, firefox). If you wish to add to your mystery use mouse gestures. They are so subtle and wonderful that most don't catch on and think are a magician.

I have a labmate who really knows computers inside-out. He is a master of networking, XML, Java, C+, hardware setup, 'you-name-it'. The kind of guy who chews 200 lines of code for breakfast. A few days ago, we were working on a grant and we had this complicated equation to add. He was trying to add a subscript to a term and was fumbling for the button in Word. Then I chipped in with the shortcut (CTRL + '=') and he raised his eyebrows, "Goddamn Hirak, you really know THAT shortcut!". In two keystrokes I was instantly elevated to 'someone who knows computers' by someone who really knew them. How easy it has always been to be instantly raised (CTRL+SHIFT+'+')to computer guru level! If only all things in life had such easy shortcuts.

* Such knowledge somehow does not impress chicks at all. They seem to have more practical and realistic expectations. Unless you want to drastically reduce your chances for this Saturday night do not reveal or revel in knowing shortcuts in front of the fairer sex.

Going slow

For me winter begins when they switch from EDT to EST. It gets colder and dark earlier. It won't snow till December but there are days with strong, cold winds. After an Indian summer in the middle of October it really got quite cold and I have been toting my gloves and ear-muffs around for the past week. It is one of the lessons I learned the hard way - Respect the cold.

However it was warm today. Normally, I would have been quite upset and would have wished it was cold so that carrying all this stuff around would be worthwhile. The warm weather & Neil Young through the speakers made today's bike ride a different one. As I biked slowly I realised two things -
a) Enjoy the good weather and stop complaining about the extra things you have to carry. (unless it is a huge parka meant for Arctic expeditions!)
b) Enjoy the commute!

Usually I rush as if I am competing in a race. I wondered if reaching 5 mins earlier was really going to make that much of a difference. I looked around and saw bright colors of red, orange and yellow which seemed to tell me the answer was 'No!'. I like to bike because it is nice to not to be slave to bus schedules or to geographical tyranny imposed by busstops.(That I am too lazy to walk is besides the point!) I wonder if the ride would as interesting as it is if the 10 min bike did not have so many ups and downs. So, as long as it doesn't snow and the temperatures remain above freezing, biking will be fun, provided I go slowly.

In Print

Anu Garg, who has been delighting and edifying about 600,000 people every day with his daily email called A.W.A.D., has published his second book - Another Word a Day: An All-New Romp through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in English. Many, many moons ago I had written to Anu regarding some trivia related to the etymology of Joseph Heller's Catch-22. If it had not been for Leon Uris's Mila-18, Heller would have named his book Catch-18.
Yesterday I got an email from Anu,

Dear Hirak,
Just to let you know that your contribution made it to the book "Another Word A Day" which has just been released widely. Your story is on page 130:

I biked over to Border's last night to get hold of the book and then straight to pg. 130 and there it was - Hirak Parikh, Pune, India. Someday, I shall grow up but yesterday it gave me a rush to see my name in print.

Among other things, Anu Garg also programmed the Internet Anagram Server which has been an endless source of entertainment.

Google Update: Another Winner from Google

Not a week passes by without someone prophetically saying, " Now, I too am going to start a blog." With so many blogs floating in the blogosphere it's hard to keep track. I have been a bonafide gadfly when it comes to the method I use for keeping track. First it was the sidebar of links, then I tried bloglines for some time. Then I switched to Thunderbird and have been quite happy and comfortable with it.

Like it has been for the past two years, Google always comes out with a better product than what is out there and I have to make the inevitable switch to the Google product - X-mail to Gmail; Mapquest to Google Maps;Pub Med to Google Scholar; Google Personalized is still not as good as Yahoo but is getting there. I like how it stores the history of your searches since who cares to remember anything these days.(Perhaps not something you might want your labmates or your advisor accessing!).

The latest from Google labs is Google Reader. The first thing that attracts your attention is the sliding window as you choose the subscription to view. While some stuff is mere fluff, the real advantage is the ease in finding the exact Feed URL or blog using Google's search engine. Incorporating some of the better features of Gmail such as labels & filters makes searching and reading through the million feeds more manageable; however, using the individual labels for the posts is a little complicated. Unlike other programs you can keep stepping back to access the previous posts. Once they sort out some of the issues after 'constructive criticism' from users like me, Google Reader will be another 'inevitable' switch.

Post Lunch Dream

One day this page maybe useful.

Codes and Puzzles over Lunch

We went out for lunch to Mongolian BBQ and at the end the waitress handed us an electronic hand-held survey. After filling in the survey, the machine reset itself to the login page - 'Please enter code...'.
Remembering the trick Richard Feynman used to crack the code of the 'super-safe' safe at Los Alamos, I tried the most obvious combination '1-2-3-4' and it worked!! With code broken, I was tempted to really mess up the survey data by rapidly entering false data for all the tables. I can understand why hackers do what they do or why stolen fruit is sweet. Can't wait to try '1-2-3-4' somewhere else.

A little later we passed by a local locksmith - Vogel Lock and Safe. The last place you would expect recreational puzzles but Ann Arbor has it surprises.

Quite an innovative way of window-dressing.
More Vogel's Rebus puzzles.

Why cast pearls before swine?

Getting summons should be one of the highest forms of flattery for a blogger but then things went a little out of hand when there was threatened violence which led to this courageous decision by Gaurav Sabnis. (The lukewarm reaction of his employer and its client were questioned by Kautilya.)
The facts of the IIPM matter are there for anyone to see. Will they get resolved without money muscling in and distorting the truth? Not if we all make a lot of noise about it and hence this post to add to the tons out there.

So are we responsible for what we post on our blogs? Can we post whatever we want? What are the limits and who decides that?
I feel the answer to these questions is simple: Stick to civilized debate.

Blogs are opinionated and there is no doubt about that. Not a week goes by without some sort of flame war erupting or some troll deciding to vent his/her frustrations onto someone expressing his or her opinion. Maybe most of it would be uncalled for if people understood civilized debate. 'Arguing' is why I like blogging. You argue and I argue - your point of view and mine. But at the end of the metaphorical day, either we agree or we agree to disagree. In the end we do agree on something. That according to me is the essence of debate. Everyone has a right to an opinion.(Including him). Opinions maybe unpleasant, misguided but they ain't the truth. How do people forget that?

I don't think it is too hard too tell the difference between a civilized response and one that isn't. Blogs provide an excellent medium for rebuttal. For one, you can actually sit down and calmly compose your arguments instead of hitting the person on the head (my initial reaction) and frame a at least a civilized response if not a rational one.

What about obscenity? I am not saying you CAN'T post something obscene, rather you SHOULDN'T. In any case, every thing survives on its merit.
Even with my most opinionated posts but my intentions have always been to seek the truth - for you to tell me so (nicely!). To some, like the IIPM, the truth might be exactly what needs to be hidden. Not only to hide but to try to scare away the seekers of the facts.

When Atanu Dey, blog award winner said,'Blogs can't change the world' - I didn't believe him one bit. You think I am doing this for nothing? Maybe not the world but atleast a small subset of it? Is that too grand a vision, Mr Dey?

For me, finally here is a medium that rids us from the tyranny of the main-stream news (Some 'main' streams have become dirty gutters!). If you manage to unite skeptics, enthusiasts, dreamers and doers will things not change? I have come across so many new and refreshing ideas and people thanks to blogs. We have built a community of people who are willing to stand up for what they believe is right - the right to speak out.
I wonder if such questions on freedom, libel, frauds in education and debates on moral courage would have sprung up if there had been no blogs. On a more mundane note - this incident has potentially made saved the lives and careers of hundred of future students who might have become victims of IIPM and animals of the same breed. Is it not ironic that education is being run by crooks?
Why cast pearls even before swine? Because, someone somewhere might listen and do something.

Why the little voice is little...

I consider my past few blogs in the light of this and I wonder if it's just me?

Swades IV - Last Episode

Progress@the cost of...?

At Vinzhar village we waited for the S.T. bus to take us back to Pune. We were advised by locals to take a six-seater. This would be our second six-seater on the trip. I am not too happy about these smoke-monsters which have made Pune a 'black hole'. People love them since getting from Point A to Point B is a higher priority than the environment. A billion people have to commute don't they? Jared Diamond's Collapse (perhaps the most influential book that I read this year) mentions: 'Of the six factors that determine a society's continued growth or collapse, the most crucial one is its response to its enviromental problems.' Whether rich or poor the environment is not too high on an Indian's list of priorities. After having spent two days in one of the most beautiful places in India that is being increasingly encroached upon by the city I wonder how long it will all last.

A citizen of a country like the USA has an ecological footprint of 10.3 and current estimate for India is 0.8 and for China is 1.5. The world simply cannot sustain India and China trying to achieve First World standards which means achieving levels of ecological footprints that are 6-7 times greater(assuming the avg. one for a developed country) than their present ones. It is a fact that in the name of progress India and China are doing a lot of ecological damage. Will we be able to develop and still not lose the most beautiful parts of our country?
I thought about this as we bumped along in the smoke spewing six-seater. It must be made clear that the word 'six' in 'six-seater' is a mere symbol which can stand for any positive integer. When you felt that now the driver cannot not possibly fit more people, he invites a few more and manages to stuff them in. I felt a little guilty as our three huge rucksacks might have cost him at least 4-5 seats!!! In the vehicle there were interesting conversations. A villager complained loudly how the damn government was now only allowing a limited number of six-seaters to ply on each route. You need to have a valid permit for the route to carry passengers. Another typical aspect of India - don't solve the problem but simply create the illusion of solving it and create another avenue for kickbacks. The six-seaters were a solution to the problem of providing cheap, reliable and frequent transport service. Six-seaters are a great short-term fix but are not enviromentally friendly and have now become a problem. The driver was driving like a complete maniac and yet the passengers were feeling quite cozy and completely at home in the overpacked vehicle.

Then we got onto an S.T at the highway that would take us to Swargate. My brother got chatting with some dude inside the driver's cabin who then invited us both in. He worked in the S.T. office and was a great source of practical advice and a philosopher of sorts. I was curious to hear his take on six-seaters and the private buses. Quite naturally, he had lots of things to say, here are some of his interesting observations and views.
1) The S.T. will never pack people like sardines for profit. People will gladly suffer the private operators: A lady in 6 seater will not mind almost sitting in your lap or if you accidentally brushed against her, but if such a thing happens in an S.T. she will scream and there will a huge hue and cry. (The pic above attests to situation in six-seaters).
2) There is no insurance or compensation in case there is an accident. For some reason if the private bus breaks down the operator will just shrug and you will have to walk. In case of the S.T. you will get another bus to pick you up or even a refund. (Some private operators do provide breakdown service. The important point is that it is not mandatory and it is few and far in between.)
3) There is no job security or benefits for employees. He pointed to the driver of our bus and said, "Look at him, he was a driver with a private bus company but he left them for this S.T. driver's job. Why?". As it turns out private companies might provide service but are not great for employees. Yes, the pay in the S.T. might be a little less but is still worth it. (Privatization seems to be great for the man with the big bucks, but not for people who work in it).

Maybe the S.T. guy had some his facts wrong but after my experience so far I don't think they were too far from the truth. Private transport can be great if there is:
- fair amount of competition,
- permits that are strictly enforced,
- there are minimum standards for passenger safety,
- employee benefits and accountability in case of mishaps.

For now these remain pipe dreams. Under the pretext of making things private the government is shirking its duties and responsibilities and things are getting out of control. Privatization can really work but there needs to be strong regulation(not control), well-laid long term progress plans and well-defined guidelines for operation. Many of my generation seem to be completely entranced by the word 'privatization' and think that it is some sort of silver bullet. A private company looks for profit and its interests may be in conflict with what might better for everybody in the long term. Privatisation is often good but not always. It is interesting to note that affluent always seem to be the champions of it since it allows them to do what they want. Heedless privatisation without proper guidelines or regulation is not going to much better in the long run. I am certain that 'laissez-faire' capitalism is not the answer for India and perhaps for any country.

Swades - Episode III

I had decided to get away from the city sometime during the trip. So in between the ceremonies and pig-out fest I had this trek planned. So come what may we (my brother, Javed and I) were going for 3 day trek in Sahyadris. Nothing like the Sahyadris in rains, right? We planned this grand trek from Singhagad to Rajgadh and then onto Torna. After being dropped off at Swargate we waited for the bus; after waiting for about 20mins a six-seater stops by and offers to take us there for almost the same price, minus the wait. The six-seater is a great leveller - we shared it with a couple of sweeper women, students, teachers, labourers and farm folk. I was too see the amount of houses and apartments on Singhagad road. The city now extends all the way to Khadakwasla.

Pune has its fair share of trekking enthusiasts and despite it being the 15th of August there were not too many people on Singhagad. On Sundays it is as crowded as a village fair. Climbing is among the few aerobic activities that has something immediate to offer at the end of it - the view. Wonder why views from the top are always so exhilarating. Everywhere I looked I saw green and it always makes me really happy. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the human eye is capable of discerning more shades of green than any other color (since green is in bang in the middle of the visible spectrum). After reaching the top we had the mandatory dahi-tak and a rustic breakfast. Due to it proximity to Pune, Singhagad is perhaps one of the most 'gentrified' of all the forts in Maharashtra. It is easily accessible by road (no need to climb), lots of food and water and tons of 'hotels'. But thankfully these pleasures are still quite rustic. The bhajis and wadas are fried on a primus stove and you are served water that is stored in brass handis. Often you see the wood-smoke mingling with the fog.

Currently the amount of commercialization on the Sahyadris is none or minimal. Even famous forts like Torna have no food or potable water at the top. Most of the people who live in this region are shepherds or small farmers. A thought crosses my mind - If better roads and paths are built, better equipped hotels and facilities these lovely mountains would become more tourist friendly. It may not be long before some politician seizes the idea of creating a chain of hotels on the forts in the region. Perhaps a glossy brochure advertising - 'The Sahyadri Monsoon Trail'. It will improve definitely improve the economy of this place. Seriously it won't take that much.
Already there are website advertising their services (like these) to the world at large. I wonder if in a few years this chap below is selling selling mugs, t-shirts saying 'Singhagad Rocks!'. Is that what would I would like these mountains to become? By not realising the tourist potential of this place are these people being disserviced? I am not sure what the answers to these questions are. Manali and other places in North India have long been overrun and I don't want these beloved mountains become a place like that.
Thanks to the low commercialization there were no boards and signs to direct us towards Vinzhar. So we did as Harish Kapadia suggested in his fantastic book (Trek the Sahyadris) and managed to get hold of some local to guide us to the correct ridge. Walking on the ridge in some place was like walking on the razor's edge. In our excitement or ignorance we managed to take a wrong fork and landed on wrong side of the mountain and found ourselves going down to a little hamlet. Lost, urban folk with huge backpacks are always are source of great amusement for the locals. This would be story of our entire trip - Lost and Found. I, personally was not really hung up on finding or losing the way. For a change I didn't not want to get to some place, just wanted to enjoy the ride. So we climbed back up on the right ride now having wasted a good 2 hours on the wrong path.
Even in the wilderness in India you are not alone and you cannot travel for long without bumping into a shepherd or two. We also heard the beautiful melody of a shepherd playing the flute and I assumed that such stuff only happens in books. Then there are downsides too - on one occasion we managed to climb into an empty village whose ground was a foot deep with cowdung. We truly were in communion with nature.
We had walked almost continuously for 8-9 hours and now the wet socks were having their effect. Only when you sit down do you realise how tired your feet are and all you want to do at that moment is get dry, get warm and sleep. We were hungry but too tired to eat. We all slept like babies and snoring was never an issue. It poured like crazy in the night and we were really proud of our skills in pitching the tent right and not a single drop of water made its way inside. The heavy tent with all that water got even heavier. As we trudged along Javed's hip started hurting and it become worse.
We finally made it to Vinzhar but not without another test. The rain had turned the road into the worst mud bog I have ever seen. At more than one point I was knee-deep in mud and unable to move with this heavy backpack and my shoes were acting like suction cups. When we reached Vinzhar we looked like as if we all had had a nice mud-bath. We were the local spectacle again as we washed ourselves at the village handpump. As we asked for directions to the bus-stop a local looked at us and said, KantaLAat?' or 'Bored!'. I could not but laugh at his cynical laconic remark. City-slickers like to spend their time and money to tramp along the mountains for fun but soon they tire of it and then want the next bus home.
Javed's hip was really bad now and I did want the blood of my friend on my hands so we decided to return home a day earlier. I loved being back in the mountains.

More images from the Trek

Dylan on PBS

"I didn't go to classes. I just didn't feel like it."
- Bob Dylan reminiscing on his years at the University of Minnesota.

See if you can catch the second half of Martin Scorsese's 4-hour biopic: Bob Dylan: No Direction Home on PBS. The first half was the 'folk' Dylan, his genesis and his influences. It is amazing how Dylan connects so many worlds - the Beats, folk singers, Civil rights, rock 'n roll; in my opinion - the most influential musician of the 20th century.

The documentary like its title is generally without direction as it goes back and forth in no particular order with the interviews, songs sung by Dylan, songs sung by people who influenced him (Odetta, Pete Seeger, the Clancy brothers, and of course, Woody Guthrie) and 60s news footage. The rare concert/tour footage and interviews with people (some dead) more than makes up for the lack of a clear narrative. In the movie you will see the rare video footage of his London tour where a heckler called him 'Judas' for betraying folk music and Dylan just cranking up the volume. Among others, Allen Ginsberg and Joan Baez reminisce on their times with Bob Dylan, the 60s and the Greenwich village scene. It was funny to hear an old friend, Nelson narrate the story of how Dylan stole 25 records from his house and then disappeared.

The second half will look at the 'electric' Dylan and the near fatal crash in 1966. Though protest movements have often appropriated his songs, and even Dylan at times, he says with much humility, "Just because you write about people who are fighting injustice it does not make you a protest singer." . Dylan explains on the film how Liam Clancy of the Clancy Brothers would sit him down in Greenwich Village, require him to drink 30 pints of Guinness, and then say to him,
"Bob - no malice, no fear, no envy." . I also think that's good advice for us all.

Swades- Episode II

The food

As always, the food was great. This time I had a chance to show off my culinary skills to the rest of the family. It is true that I cannot cook any traditional dishes really well but give me some fancy stuff and I'll be fine! The secret is that if you cook some exotic dish it will generally be a success since the victims don't know what it is supposed to taste like! A true test of a great cook is how well he/she cooks the really ordinary stuff. I tried really hard to keep running in the mornings to make up for excesses later in the day. As the weeks progressed - the running mileage dropped and the girthage increased. I mean the whole point of torturing yourself through 18 hours in economy class is to simply enjoy this! Right? Then why hold back?

I have been told that there are tons of new places to eat. But given the limited time of time that I had (less than 3 weeks), I simply wanted to visit the old favorites. The pork chop sizzler at Zamu's, the paneer satay at Boat Club, the thin crust pizza at La Pizzeria, the world's best wada pav at J.J. Garden, the mouth-watering Death by Chocolate at Just Baked, the Irani naans with paneer and mint from Radio Hotel, dahi-puri at Vaishali and other Pune classics. Who wants to risk trying new stuff after suffering the horrible, overpriced Indian restaurants in the US? (Not one in Ann Arbor is worth it, trust me!) Mainland China was the only one of the newer restaurants that I tried and the stuff is good though the restaurant is slightly overrated.

Of course Mom's food is always the best and all you want from her is the simplest of all dishes. Thanks to digital technology I was able to take movies of my mom making parathas and I am still amazed at how her chapatis are perfectly round and even.


I lied. The chief purpose of the visit was not food. Sumedha and I got engaged. If something like karma exists then I must done a great deal of things right in my past life to be fated to meet such a fantastic person like her. It could not have more perfect. Thanks!

Swades - Episode I

I was going back after almost 2 and half years and I was apprehensive. Made a couple of notes to myself to not do the following:
One, to avoid the Old-boy Syndrome. Much as I would like Pune to remain frozen in time to August 2002 it would not be. Time rolls on and things change. There will be more ghastly buildings that I won't be able to come to terms with. Live with it!

Two, to avoid the Expat Syndrome and stop talking of how things are different 'over-there' and how we will never rise from the rubbish heap and how everyone is constantly late!

The roads
Both my resolutions were shattered with my first intimate experience with Pune's roads. I have seen bad roads but not to the extent that I wish natural selection had provided Punekars with shock absorbers for their backsides! To travel on them would require, as Ramanand said, "A lunar buggy". Sakal even started a column called 'Pune gayle kHaDyAAt', loosely translated as: Pune has gone to pot! While it is true that due to the unnatural amount of rainfall, roads were bound to be affected. I was not upset with that as much as two general issues which still cause me worry and which this case highlights.
he creation of problems and the solutions or reponses to them.

While most roads were devastated why were some roads still relatively unaffected? Of course, due to differences in material and construction. Reason? How is a contractor supposed to win the tender, provide kickbacks to the corporators and still have money left over for good material and honest construction? There has to be a better way to award contracts and punish firms with poor records. Can you minimize corruption and still ensure that the task gets done well and the public does not have to suffer? Privatisation is not the answer as I was to learn in a few days.

Assume that some problems are inherent in the system. At least, the response to the crisis should be appropriate. The great PMC decided that the best 'temporary' solution was to fill the potholes. But with what? Gravel! In the weeks that I was there, I saw tons of teams doing work (good!) but the fix was so 'temporary' that in less then 2-3 days all the gravel would come loose and the road in addition to the potholes would become a roller-skating rink. It was far from funny to hear that more than a few people died in accidents while trying to avoid the potholes due to a collision with a car or truck.

I was depressed because this problem is characteristic of development in India. A few weeks later, I visited China and saw on what path a country much like our own is on and tears came to my eyes. There are critical differences in terms of attitude between the two countries and because of it we might not make it. We are poor at planning, especially advance planning, and in cases when we do plan we have extremely poor execution. To make matters worse we can't even put out the fire right. It was a bitter fact for me to swallow that despite all the hype and hoopla in the Indian media about India shining in the world arena and other success stories, we not only behind but are falling further behind the Chinese. Only because we don't want it so bad as nation.

Yet, I am happy to be in a democracy where citizen can be furious and can put up such petitions (thanks to Javed for this funny one!).

In Amish Country

(I seem to have a huge backlog of posts. Trying to get them off first!)

I was in Amish country in the Lacrosse-Elkhart region in Northern Indiana in late July. I felt that I was on the set of some 18th century movie. Women in large skirts, wearing bonnets; men with beards and coats without buttons, riding horses or in buggies; and the children dressed like what I had imagined Hansel and Gretel would be. It is indeed amazing how the Amish and a parallel group called the Mennonites (who share similar beliefs and look like the Amish but have slightly more relaxed rules for living) have stuck to a lifestyle from the 18th century. The Amish do not own telephones, have electricity in their homes or drive cars.

While initially it may appear as an idyllic Grimm fairytale, the reality is rather grim in some respects (see Sumedha's account). It may seem surprising that such a church/sect is growing in size instead of losing members because of its antiquated ways. On further consideration, churches or religions which advocate large families (>8 children) growth is inevitable, despite some people leaving. The way Amish life is structured, it is very hard for people to leave. Firstly, children are not schooled beyong the 8th grade and secondly, they do not have much of a social life with people other than the Amish. The tradition of Rumspringa sounds very liberal but is not much of a choice since children are not raised to deal with the 'English life' (as they call it) if they do choose to leave.

However there is much to admire:
their environment-friendly lifestyles;
strong family stucture;
mutal cooperativeness - if a person's house burns down all members of the community provide free material and labour and help him rebuild his house;
their sheer innovativeness;
objection to war of any sort - the Amish do not serve in active combat in the Armed Forces;
independence and self reliance - they have given up Federal funding and Social Security, and;
the definitely follow the maxim of 'simple living and high thinking'.

Then there is much to criticize:
in their naivity of religious belief;
accepting the authority of local bishop blindly - he is paramount with regards to crime and punishment, interpretation of scripture and everything else;
its openly patriarchal society, often leaving women in second place;
poor education - only upto grade 8;
lack of belief in courts - they don't take recourse to the federal courts or testify;
AND of course, undeniably, unwillingness to change.

I realised that it was not an easy thing to decide one way or the other on the Amish and slightly amused to encounter a culture that seems good and bad at the same instant. Of course, the countryside is extremely picturesque and their history is very interesting. Given their closed (or shy?) nature it is hard to avoid the tourist traps laid out in such towns which leaves you wanting a more authentic Amish experience.

More pictures from that trip on my website: Amish country pics

The Indo-China chronicles

I have been away for about 5 weeks. First to India, then to China. Hope some of you you are familiar with this story (read: excuse) - despite your best intentions you never have enough time in India to write posts, and accessing the internet via dialup is not pretty anymore. In China, I could not access at all. (More on the freedom of internet access later.)

After having been 5 weeks away from my lab, and also from blogger with 500 photographs and with a ton of stories to tell (some should not be disclosed publicly) I find myself with NO TIME! When you travel every day is worth 3-4 different stories, but a few weeks later you cannot recollect many of them.
We are a sum of our experiences and as time passes it becomes harder and harder to separate the individual components. These stories have the benefit of hindsight but will have lost some of the freshness of an account written the same day.

It was a great break. A couple of important personal milestones and revisiting India after more than 2 years was a little different from what I expected.
The US-India-China-US trip was a good three-way basis for comparison. In retrospect, visiting China was better than visiting Europe. For most people, India and China represent the future and the shape of things to come. Though I might have not had the benefit of extensive sampling - seeing is still believing. Quite a few popular perceptions that were floating in my head were altered and I have more reason not to trust the pop-pundits in the mags and newspapers.
I will try to keep the accounts mostly chronological, though some overlap is unavoidable. Before I lose all of the stories I better write them down. I plan to post one each day. Let's see how that goes.


No! I have not been bombed out. I was in India these past few weeks and I strongly intended to keep writing but I simply could not. You know how things are on a vacation.
This time I was also up to 'other stuff'.
I was impressed with VSNL dialup. It is a little better than it used to be.
The helpdesk folks (just try 'em). Let's not talk about the Pune roads. I am depressed already.
I am off to China for the next two weeks and I do have intentions of posting from there if I can get access and TIME (You elusive creature!). Let's see how that goes.

60 years of the A-Bomb

60 years ago, Paul Tibbets dropped the A-Bomb on Hiroshima. Eight days later, on August 14th, Japan surrendered. An obvious correlation. Right? All major newspapers have something to say on the 'occasion' of the 60th Anniversary of the A-bomb.

These two posts gave the two distinct viewpoints:

National Post

Kai Bird in the LA Times

I expect a post(or a comment) from the expert on: the history and politics of the bomb. It would irk him more than it irked me to read Robert Oppenheimer's Gita quote being quoted often and mostly out of context by writers (read: hacks) like these. Interesting story on the younger Tibbets

You gotta try this!

Got my hands on the Konfabulator and the associated bunch of goodies. Many thanks to my ever-vigilant friend Javed. He reported that this awesome technology is now FREE! Thanks for that. It makes my Windows desktop slightly classier; still miles to go before it can measure up to a Mac. Since my advisor has not done something like this, for now it is good enough.
(Needless to say that it wasted one whole hour and won't do much to improve my productivity.)

Arms and the Man

Finally finished reading G.B. Shaw's Arms and the Man. I had to! I had reached the renewal limit and also because I will be leaving for India in a couple of days. There were too many interesting (hence: distracting) books that I stumbled across this summer to pay attention to this classic. Too bad that they don't perform Shaw. We have a lot of Shakespeare every winter with the RSC coming on tour in most years. The venerable Bard is great but not immediately comprehensible. It would be nice to have a few evenings of Shaw for a change.

A more Substantial Google Update

It has been some time since I last visited the lab and there is a lot of new stuff from Google labs, especially this -Personalized Google Page. It is not as good as Yahoo's personalization, but it will get there. I liked the Fun Stuff Feed and the quick preview of your Gmail.

Google Update

A new flavour of : Science versus Religion

From Nature:

A growing number of neuroscientists are calling for the cancellation of a special lecture to be given by the Dalai Lama in November. The Buddhist leader is due to speak at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) in Washington DC, but a petition against the talk has already gathered some 50 signatures.

The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India since he fled Chinese troops in Tibet in 1959. Over the past decade he has increasingly encouraged researchers, sometimes at gatherings at his home, to study whether Tibetan Buddhist meditation can reshape the brain and increase mental well-being (see Nature 432, 670; 2004). It was during one of these meetings that he was asked by a member of the society's executive committee, to give an inaugural lecture on 'the study of empathy and compassion, and how meditation affects brain activity'.

Some of the critics believe that the Dalai Lama's lecture should be ruled out because of his status as a political and religious figure. "One of the reasons for inviting him is that he has views on controlling negative emotions, which is a legitimate area for neuroscience research in the future," says Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But "the SfN needs to distance itself as much as it can from the Dalai Lama and his beliefs", adds Desimone, who opposes the lecture but has not yet signed the petition.

I plan to attend the SFN meet in Washington in November where the Dalai Lama (access required) will speak. Meditation has clear benefits and merits scientific study. Religion, despite its numerous flaws has many great things to offer. Science is not blindly against Religion. Science seeks the best available provided there are grounds for that belief, other than faith. Meditation needs to be verified quantitatively and scientifically.
From the subtext, it is pretty clear that there is some political motivation since most of the protestors are researchers from China or, of Chinese origin and there are only 50 signatories.

Advisors or ... ?

For obvious reasons this comic has not made it to our lab wall; however, since this first appeared in an NIH's Analyst magazine, I guess it is okay. But who will bell the cat?

Mark Knopfler at Meadowbrook Music Festival

Not Deep Purple, not Bob Dylan, not Santana, not Eric Clapton, not U2, it was the sultan of swing - Mark Knopfler, who I’ve always waited for. It would be any ragpicker’s dream to see his guitar hero in the flesh. It was one concert I wouldn’t have missed for anything in the world. I have not spent money for nothing to own every record (almost) that he has ever made. Dear brothers in arms, here is the low-down on the concert.

Avoiding Telegraph Road which tends to get crowed in the evening, we (Romeo and Juliet) simply took I-75 to the Meadowbrook Music Festival. It is similar to, but smaller than the DTE Music Theatre and it lacks the fancy big screens making it, as some say, an ‘intimate atmosphere’. From my not-so-intimate lawn seat, the stage was so far away from me that I did not have the greatest view of the action. Some come to listen, others like me come to watch, especially to watch every expression and I love to see the fingers move. This time we were well-prepared with blankets and food. At end of the Santana concert, it was very late; we were starving; found nothing except a Denny’s, and Denny’s after midnight is one weird place. Why worry?

Coming back to the concert, the opening act was Bap (as in baap re baap, no really!) Kennedy (from Belfast), who was more of a filler than an opening act. It was Kennedy on the acoustic and another dude from Nashville - who was the real redeemer of the duo - on the lead/slide guitar. All the songs were in honour of, or honouring Elvis Presley or Hank Williams. I mean this guy is not playing Elvis or Hank but singing about/to them. You know that sort of inspiration leads to. He was ‘Less than OK’. Can’t they get anyone better to open for Mark Knopfler? In fact, anyone from the Ann Arbor Summer Festival could have done better.

Then just boom, like that Mark Knopfler burst onto the stage playing Why Aye Men. The reasons to like Mark Knopfler are numerous. Firstly, he is a finger-picking electric guitar god. Secondly, for all the guitar gods in the pantheon his songwriting is far above most, simply fantastic to say the least. His songwriting is inspired by Bob Dylan (who isn’t?) - Dylanesque, but not the same sort of impenetrable lyrics. Ever wondered as you want your MTV, how many rock-stars have mocked themselves and the music industry? He is a former English teacher and it shows. Some sample themes: Bonaparte’s failed Russia campaign, Imelda Marcos, Nazi war criminals, roadside Romeos, the Mason-Dixon line, the fast-food industry, Turkish guest-workers in Germany, gay strippers, the fading of jazz, the futility of war, and yes, great love songs too! You can’t like MK right away, I didn’t. He grows on you so subtly. You begin to hum through the hooks and refrains and then one day find yourself a fan. Thirdly, he has to be enjoyed slowly, and in bits; however, today I was prepared to relax that restriction and hear everything that the great red-bandana-populariser had to offer.

I managed to sneak in the ‘where-you-jangle-your-jewelry’ seats and take some close-up movies before I was kicked out by security. MK, I must add is among the few artists who don’t mind people taking movies or bootlegs as long as they don’t make commercial use of it. Good lad! Anyway I am still stuck with this camera with poor zoom and poor nighttime results!

I enjoyed him play on the Strat and the Gibson Les Paul, but the greatest moment of the day was to see him play the slide on the silver-steel National guitar on Donegan’s Gone. I can still see the vision of one floating on the cover of Brothers in Arms. The most amusing moment of day was his drinking tea in the middle of the set. Before that he introduced all the members of his band in his Scottish accent and while introducing, Matt Rollins he said, ‘He forgot his accordion on the bus, but I brought it in’. Can’t see how they could have played Done With Bonaparte without the accordion.

He played a lot of songs (see the Set List below) and yet I felt he did not play this song or that. This was supposed to be the Shangri-La tour, but he did not play much from that album except for two songs. I really wished he had played more from Shangri-La and I was dying to hear The Trawlerman’s Song. I also wished to hear Down to the Waterline and Why Worry?, I assumed that he would do the bonus track Do America from Sailing to Philadelphia.

Earlier in the day on radio he said that his current line-up plays Dire Straits better than the Straits and after hearing the band today I admit that this is true and offer the videos as proof. Today I become one of those fans overcome with silliness to buy the ridiculously priced T-shirts. Baloney again, but that's worship, that’s what it is!

Videos:(will uploaded by Monday)
Walk of Life
Money For Nothing

Mark Knopfler
Venue: Meadowbrook Music Festival
Date: July 8th, 2005

Set List

1) Why Aye Men

2) The Walk of Life

3) What It Is

4) Sailing to Philadelphia

5) Romeo and Juliet

6) Sultans of Swing

7) Done With Bonaparte

8) Song for Sonny Liston

9) Rudiger

10) Donegan’s Gone

11) Boom like That

12) Speedway At Nazareth

13) Telegraph Road

14) Brothers in Arms

15) Money for Nothing

16) So Far Away from Me

On Comics

If you are vaguely interested in comics then I recommend this book.

New White Flight

In the 60s, White America fled to the suburbs. Bruce Ashby seems to be a representative of a new kind of White Flight!

Who's Monsoon is it Anyway?

From Nature (Since access might be required, I am posting the most relevant paragraphs):

' ... Researchers at a climate institute in India have voiced concern at what they see as attempts by the government to curb their scientific freedom after they were forced to remove monsoon forecasts from their website. The government says the move is necessary to stop the public being confused by conflicting forecasts. But the scientists are worried that it could prevent researchers in a range of disciplines from communicating their results..." '

'... but the monsoon season is notoriously difficult to predict. The country's official forecast comes from the India Meteorological Department (IMD), which is run by the government's Department of Science and Technology (DST). To predict rainfall, it uses a model based on statistics of past monsoons.

In 2002, scientists at the Center for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulation (C-MMACS) in Bangalore began forecasting the monsoon with a more sophisticated global-climate model that uses equations to describe Earth's atmosphere. Since 2003, the researchers have been posting the results on their website, and the Indian media have been reporting them.

Last month, the DST issued a directive prohibiting the publication of any results that differ from its official forecast unless they have been peer-reviewed and cleared by the head of the researchers' agency. The DST will in future collect and disseminate monsoon data produced by research institutes to avoid confusion, DST secretary Valangiman Ramamurthi told Nature. "Monsoon forecasting is sensitive for the Indian economy," he says. "It's not a free-for-all..." '

What a shame that C-MMACS, among the few scientific research institutions, is having to deal with problems like 'territory' than concentrate on scientific problems. It appears that scientists who work from the government mutate into complete different creatures once given power. It can be justified if the DST was right - though I disagree, since there should be always freedom of expression? - but they were WRONG!

'In its 27 June bulletin, the IMD admitted that June's rainfall was 35% below average — as forecast by the C-MMACS. Heavy rains in Gujarat over the following three days reduced the deficit to 20%, and the IMD insists that this will be made up in the next few months to make 2005 a normal year, as it predicted. '

A longer comment appeared in the Hindu a few weeks ago. It highlights the larger question at the end: Can Indian scientific institutions ever get along with each other?

MIT Blog Survey

Dear Raed, the Iraqi blogger made headlines, wrote a book and is now a celebrity of some sorts. All he did was blog! Blogs have exposed major scandals; they ask critical questions which the conventional media does not ask or bothers writing about.(I am sure Chomsky is pleased to see the effect that blogs are having.) Now people are writing books on blogs and on topics as specific as what it can do for your business, organization, etc. In short, a concept that did not exist 5 years ago is becoming more and more 'de-nerdified'; the rest of the world has begun to notice. So much, that a scientific study on it is being done by MIT.

Take the MIT Weblog Survey

I took the survey and was very impressed with its format. It has a neat method of grabbing stuff from your blog and asking questions adaptively depending on the context. It grabs links from your main page and sidebar; a good idea since these links are more indicative of the general nature of your blog than some specific post.

Lots of really good questions:
'How long do you think you are going to continue this blog?', ' How many blogs do you update?',
and the real scorcher: 'How much time do you spend on blogging?' .

The survey revealed stuff that I don't really analyze.
'What % of the content of your posts are: personal, informative, or on a specific topic ?' I write on whatever topic I feel like, but now I will be more conscious.

I think that their survey questions on blogger location, nationality or ethnicity were not well-phrased. The way the questions were asked, I have been counted as an Asian-American blogger than as an Indian student in America. Also, the last part of the survey would redundant for any Indian, since any Indian would know all kinds of people as 'acquaintances' (by the loose definition provided). Such surveys that tap into a global audience need to be given more thought. It is quite obvious that the cultural, social assumptions were America-centric. There was a similar problem with the Harvard morality survey on which I wrote about here. However, I felt that the creators of this survey would be more prepared for global nature of blogging and the differences in countries and cultures. Answers to these questions should have changed the nature of the subsequent questions.
Also, it did not directly ask if blogging has really changed your life in some ways apart from the time spent on it! Like:
Has it changed your outlook?
Have you changed/reinforced your opinions on certain issues after reading about what someone wrote?
Have you learned something informative as a result of your blogging?

I learn a lot about myself and about things that I blog about because I have to think, research, think and then write about stuff. I felt that the survey overly emphasized how we meet different people and what means we choose to do it - SMS, email, blogs. That, is just an epiphenomenon - meeting different ideas and thoughts is what blogging is really about. Blogging has created these micro-communities that orders the vastness of the internet into some sort of shape that makes sense; or, maybe not since it gives 100 more interesting/distracting links to follow!

Mr. Smooth

If you can't afford the best tickets, then invest some money in a pair of binoculars.
Learning this the hard way, I was better prepared for this summer's concerts. The first of the season was Carlos Santana..

As is the case with most concerts that I go to, 80% of the people were in their 40s or 50s; a strong hint that my music tastes are quite anachronistic! I made a mental note of trying a little harder to listen to some music from 'my' generation. I just finished reading Kill Your Idols, a cynical relook at classic rockers and famous rock albums. The new generation of rock critics (DeRogatis, Marc Weingarten, Robert Christgau) tear the albums to shreds and I am filled with new-found scepticism. Among the more poignant passages talked about, " ... overpriced tickets and hordes of fans too eager to buy the dumb merchandise, when not even half original band was touring..." Wowing not to succumb to such nostalgic seductions, I entered the DTE Music theatre; it's a great venue - parking is free! You climb up Pineknob hill and the steep grassy slope looks down on lawn, then the expensive seats (Lennon might have called it 'where the rich jangle their jewelry') and then onto the semicircular stage.
I almost did not make it to the concert. I meticulously followed the directions and thanks to DTE's website's twisted sense of direction I found myself at The Palace of Auburn Hills (home of the Pistons and a music venue when they are not playing) and there there were 3 cars in the parking lot. Clearly, not the right place! After readjusting my coordinates and managing to get off the right exit on I-75, I found myself stuck in a massive traffic-jam. For the first time, I was happy to get stuck in a traffic-jam! At least, I was on the right road and there were a bunch of folks who were going to be late for the 7pm concert.

Los Lonely Boys
The first opening act was Salvatore Santana (Carlos's son), who studies at UCLA and apparently tours with his Dad during the summertime. Thanks to the traffic-jam I was late by about 15 mins and by the time I managed to trample over the people sleeping on the blankets and settled down at a 'good' vantage point - Salvatore Santana was waving goodbye. So I missed the opportunity to trash the son with a famous dad!
The real opening act was the Grammy winning Los Lonely Boys and they were great! Actually, only Michael Garza the lead guitarist is great, the bassist and the drummer are all right. Their songwriting skills are really poor and the rhymes are very contrived and often silly. For example from Nobody Else this gem:
I can't stand to be alone
Cause I go crazy when you're gone
You're the one that makes me whole
I pray you've known this all along
Everything is gonna be alright
I wanna be with you all of my life

Hilarious! What the did not have in terms of songwriting, they made up in terms of the music and there were some really fantastic jams. They also did the usual monkey tricks of jumping around with the guitars, playing behind their necks, etc., which are not that hard but who's complaining? There are striking parallels between Santana (the band) and the Los Lonely Boys. Both are(were) bands of brothers/relatives, Hispanic groups, have songs with Spanish lyrics and have a shrieking high-pitched lead guitarist. For a moment, you would believe that the LLB's lead was Carlos Santana; still Michael Garza is not Santana, not yet. They have some cool riffs and I loved this particular riff (see the video below).

Dressed in colors that suit a Jamaican reggae star more than an aging rocker from Woodstock, the hatted Santana made his way on the stage around 9pm with his trademark high-pitched guitar with Jingo. The crowd erupted - what a start!

Midway into his set, when quite a few people were already drunk with the copious amount of alcohol, Santana gave his anti-Bush spiel. There were cheers from the crowd, but rest of America does not seem to be listening to him, or the Dixie Chicks, or Bono. Then he started talking about '... achieving real Peace in our lifetime, if we only believe...' and other platidinous remarks. Then the screen had some 3D doves fly out and images of people around the world. Age has finally caught up with Carlos Santana. He was not making much sense; however other fans seem to agree with whatever crap he was talking and gave him a standing ovation at the end the 10 min speech; but Santana does believe in what he says, 50c from each ticket are donated to his Milagro foundation, but I would suggest: 'Santana do, but don't talk!'.
Thankfully, there were no more speeches from him for the rest of the night and the music in the second half was fantastic. I must give Santana credit for letting other musicians share the limelight, especially the musicians who seem to have the two-bit parts. We all know that he does not sing much these days and was mostly in the dark, while the light shone on other musicians during the songs. For the first time, I saw the 'unknowns' being given the stage for more than the 'one solo' in the concert. The brass section was really good and so was the drummer. Then he called the Los Lonely Boys to play on a song alond with - the biggest surprise of the day - Ray Manzarek of the Doors. The all came up onstage to play on two songs. It was great to hear Ray's tinkly keyboard on Evil Ways (see video below). Fantastic!
On the whole, this concert was better than the Eric Clapton concert because Santana did not treat this as just another stop on the tour. EC came, played and left - Santana connected and did three songs for the encore.
Hope some of you can catch him on tour this summer. Next up is: Mark Knopfler on the 8th.

Video clips
*Los Lonely Boys - Great solo by Michael Garza.
*Evil Ways - Carlos Santana and guest appearance by the legendary Ray Manzarek.

Santana Concert Set List
DETROIT, MI 6/25/05


Is Early Rising a Problem for you?

I hope school adminstrators see this. I should forward this to the Registrar at the U of M. I don't think it will be hard to prove that:
No graduate student can perform useful work before 11 am; perhaps he/she can do some 'work' before 3pm, if supplied with enough coffee.

From the latest Nature Editorial:
That's not to say that scientific advances can't already help to inform educational policy. For instance, there is now a solid body of evidence that sleep patterns change significantly with age — and that, as a result, it makes little sense to wake teenagers up early to go to school, when their attention will be low as a natural consequence of their daily rhythms. Education authorities and schools are starting to hear this message, and some are adjusting their schedules accordingly.

The report on the NSF funded studies. I agree with Dr. Bauer in being skeptical about applying scientific methods too soon - except the one quoted above.


"The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame."
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Last time I went back to India I smuggled The Satanic Verses. This time I will smuggle James Laine's Shivaji. I wish to extend this smuggling operation to all of you back home who wish to read books 'others' have decided that you shouldn't. Luckily, books banned in India are not banned in the US and Amazon has most of them available. Let me know the title and send me the URL. US-India shipping is free.

This IE List is a good place to start, but is woefully incomplete. It left out The Satanic Verses and Taslima Nasrin's Dwikhandito!

The Book Tag Virus Spreads

My Spiel
The Book Tag Virus has reached here. It is indeed a great concept and has spread like a wildfire in the last few months. I still feel that the first two items were rather lame. What's the point? What difference does it make if you own 2 or 2 thousand books? What has the buying of books got to do with the reading of them? I must give credit to the second last item - A dose of guilt can be healthy for you sometimes.

Can anyone point me to the originator of this meme? It is quite possible that I got a distorted iteration of this meme, or perhaps I missed the point. The Scientific American had an interesting article on the genetics of chain letters (You might need access to read the whole article).

Total Number of Books I Own: I have not really counted, but should be close to about 500 books back home (this is not counting the other books in the family library.) After moving to the States, I have not bought many books: to keep some breathing space in my tiny room; and more importantly, to keep my wallet full. I am now convinced that buying books is a futile exercise. (More on this later.)

Last Book I Bought: Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. It was for two reasons: One, because it is the book of the month for June on the Lit. Blog and second, there is an amusing anecdote involving The Wicked Witch of the West, the Ford Theater in Chicago, Borders and Probability. Buying seems contradictory to my previous assertion, but I am an addict on the mend.

Last Book I Read: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, who incidentally introduced the word 'meme'- if not the concept - in this book. Also, read the other book of the month - Hesse's Siddhartha this weekend.

One Book I Couldn't Finish:- Arms and the Man by Shaw seems to be perpetually on my reading list. I keep starting other books and this play always gets neglected. The ease of online renewal has really spoilt me.

Five Great Books??
Such questions are so tricky. It's often not who you include, rather who you exclude.
Can't really pin the top five or ten books: it seems unfair. At times there are authors whose body of work is more remarkable than one particular piece of work, e.g. - P.G. Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Steinbeck, etc. Then there are the one-hit wonders - Margaret Mitchell, Arundhati Roy, Harper Lee, and others who have said much in one beautiful book but then no more. Seems unfair to pick them over the others with a more substantial body of work. Such arguments can be endless, however I realised that these three were definitely unforgettable.

* Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera - A novel about all shades of love, marriage and relationships. Less magic and more realism as compared to his other books.
* Salman Rushdie's Ground Beneath Her Feet - One of the most fantastic books that I have ever read. His best work. A longish review was posted here.
* Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy - Not much of a story, but Seth is all about the writing. Seth writes prose that reads like poetry. The alternative index of chapters is proof enough.

This meme was inflicted on me by Paddy and though I can end the violence here, I have decided to pass the virus to the yet uninfected(?) -
Ashutosh, Javed, Anand Sivashankar and Anirudh.