Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris

I was driving around on Saturday and I switched on the radio to NPR. Wonder of wonders! I was quite surprised to hear Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion . They played songs from their latest album - All the Road Running. Garrison does a great job introducing the two of them on the half-hour segment in his inimitable style.

* * Jump to MK-EH segment (Garrison takes the first ten minutes talking about Rochester and the Mayo Clinic.)


My Karma ran over your dogma.
- Unknown
From the Quotations page

In Search of the Deep Dish Pizza

Last night, my dear friend Javed arrived in Chicago, the heart of the "land of milk and honey". The Windy City, the hog-butcher of the world and the city of big shoulders is also the home of the deep-dish pizza. New Yorkers might think that their thin crust pizzas are rather elegant and stylish, but they look rather malnourished when placed next to their muscled Midwest cousins. So early in morning, skipping breakfast we drove deep into downtown in search of the deep-dish.

Since it was Javed's first day, the focus of the conversation was 'here vs. there'. It brought back memories of my own first few weeks in America and how comical 'Coming to America' can be. Like most of us he was well-stocked with:
a)bags filled with food and,
b)armed with some hilarious advice and suggestions from friends and relatives.

If all of us pool the various suggestions given to us we could write a book - A Beginner's Guide To Living, Studying and Working in America. The most confident and definitive advice is given by people, umm... who have never been here! When you confront them with it they defend it by saying that they learned it from someone who has. Since, these first-hand accounts were obtained from a close family friend or a relative you shouldn't have any doubts about their authenticity. (Miraculously, the gospel truth survives each retelling.) Also quite surprisingly, much of the advice given by people who have been here or lived here for years has proved to be even more useless. It does not matter if you are a motel clerk, or did not ever leave your university campus, or even if you got the "US-returned" stamp on a mere technicality (because you spent 2 hours in transit at JFK airport): the stamp makes you an expert on everything that has to do with America. The reputation of this expertise has somewhat suffered lately due to the profusion of 'experts' in India and has exposed its rather dubious nature, but even now an audience for a US-returned XYZ can be summoned quite instantly. I am always eager for information and I had lapped up all versions by first-hand and second-hand experts. I must atleast give these stories some credit for making my actual American experiences more engaging and vivid. In fact, I spend a lot of time seeking to confirm or disconfirm the various theories.

In addition, each person has his own personal idea of America. The skeptical quite naturally shy away from the Hollywood version but often cling to either the 'America: The Big Bully' version or a 'America: the Land of Freedom and Opportunity' version. Of course, there is some truth to the various versions but these truths are rather partial ones. People believe what they want to believe. Then you get here and face the reality of America. Nothing quite prepares you for that. At the same time, there is no such thing as the 'real thing' because we perceive the same thing so differently because each one of us has a different lens.

People deal with the reality in different ways: some rush headlong into America and consider it some wild adventure; then there are others who are in perpetual state-of-denial and are constantly trying to re-create or carve out an India within America. No one is disappointed, but then no-one is completely satisfied. You may get what you were looking for but might also end up with extras that you did not bargain for and that causes a shift in perception.

We walked block after block to find nothing open. Hunting for the traditional Chicago dish on Easter Sunday is not the greatest of ideas. The only food places that were open for business were the chain restaurants. Who drives 5 hours to Chicago to eat at a MacDonald's? The good Italian-Americans were in church repenting for their sins and we were out on the cold, windy streets paying for ours. It would have been some story if we had persisted walking for another couple of hours in our quest and then finally, found one place open before we starved to death. But, that's not how it turned out. We found a Panera and its lovely sandwiches were rather enticing and we walked in. Another day, another observation. On some days you might end up driving 5 hours to Chicago to eat at a chain. Reality is like shit. It happens!

Piled, Higher and Deeper

Last night, at the Rackham Graduate School when the organizer mentioned that the event was a part of the Graduate and Professional Student Appreciation Week the audience cracked up upon hearing the oxymoronic title. More so, because I and a few hundred others had come to listen to Jorge Cham, the creator of the Ph.D. - Piled, Higher and Deeper comic strip speak on the Power of Procrastination. I have been reading his strip for the past couple of years and it has not only been a source of entertainment, but also a source of great comfort by telling me - "You are not alone!".

Cham created created the strip while working on a degree in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford (when he should have been working on his research!) for the college magazine. It was an outlet for his joys, frustrations, irritations and guilt-ridden moments as went through grad school for a number of years (Note: the ambiguous 'number of'. Why? see).
He had no idea that his joys, frustrations, irritations and guilt-ridden moments were the same as thousands (and counting) of other grad students around the world in all kinds of fields and places. There is no surprise that the strip spread like a wildfire mostly through word-of-mouth.(Well, atleast among graduate students. The local Borders informed me last evening that the books were still 'On Order')
Jorge Cham has captured everything that is grad life - checking email incessantly, strolling in late, working on Friday evenings to make up, CTRL+C CTRL+V-ing papers to get to conferences in exciting places, one-on-one advisor meetings, the pecking order in the lab. This one below is one of my favourites:

At some point (some more than others) every grad student wonders - WHY? Why did I do this? You could have been making big bucks, buying a new car/home, raising kids, instead of sitting in a basement lab checking email in front of bowl of Ramen noodles while it is such a nice day outside and you are not even becoming a 'real' doctor! Why? Especially, when grad school actually makes you dumber - in the sense that when you leave it you actually know that you really don't know much; in sharp contrast from the overconfident self that proclaimed only a few years ago that: "I don't know a few things, that's all. I have figured out most of everything else."
Jorge Cham showed stats from a study that 95% of the students feel overwhelmed in grad school (He demanded: "Who are the other 5%?"), about 60% feel that they are 'impostors' and don't belong there and on a more serious note 1 in 200 students actually commits suicide. Grad school can get rough.
Then again it is also a lot of fun. No 'real' work. Freedom of work hours. Endless cups of coffee. Lab members willing to go to a bar anytime of the day or night. Learning and working on exciting stuff. Free education. Being able to surf the net all day. It is really worth it - trust me!
For the rough spots there is the Ph.D. comic to make grad school more guilt-free, bearable and even enjoyable. Most importantly, it tells you - "You're okay!". Jorge addressed the pink elephant in the room - the deepest darkest fear of any graduate student: "But, will I graduate?" According to Jorge and his Newton's Second Law of Graduation - You will graduate. Don't worry. Enjoy your time in school. Well Jorge does know, since Jorge actually graduated and is now a faculty member at Caltech where he will hopefully treat his graduate students differently (he currently doesn't have any)

BTW: The topic of the talk was to show that Procrastination &ne Laziness
Laziness: Not wanting to do anything
Procrastination: Wanting to do things, but just not NOW!!

Also check out: Newton's Law of Graduation and the motivation levels of a graduate student.

Finding a Father - The search for Louis I. Kahn

Louis I. Kahn is considered to be one of the greatest architects of the 2nd half of the 20th century. While there was no denying his genius, he had a whole lot of twisted relations with the women in his life. He had one official family and 2 others, who all lived within 7 miles of each other in Philadelphia. Nathaniel Kahn is his illegitimate son and was only 11 when Lou died in 1974. Nathaniel remembers his father from the weekly or more intermittent visits, but says that he never really knew him. When Kahn died, Nathaniel scanned the obituary in the NYT and was disappointed that it did not mention him and only mentioned his 'official' family. In My Architect: A son's journey, he tries to find his father and also himself and his own ties to him.
The movie won a host of international awards and was also nominated for the Oscars in 2004. The good thing about such movies is that a few years later no one wants to check them out and they are simply lying on the library shelf waiting to be picked up. This movie is not the most slickly made documentaries, or well-shot and is edited a little sloppily. In short, technically the movie is far below standards. But there is a really powerful story - full of the drama and excitement. It is extremely well-written and well-structured and you will be surprised how good this movie really is.
Lou was was short, ugly due to burn scars as a child and had a raspy voice. But Lou overcame all that and internalized his battles. In the words of B.V. Doshi, the famous Indian architect he was the only person who could talk about the material in such profound spiritual terms and calls him a 'yogi'. While his buildings are geometric, well laid out with lots of natural light and a respect for the medium, Kahn's own personal life was quite the converse and tragic in many ways. As a Jew he discriminated against and failed to get many commissions. His genius rests on a rather small body of work.
That he was brilliant and influential was never a doubt and his illustrious peers - Philip Johnson, I.M Pei, Frank Gehry and Stern attest to it. Nathaniel asked I.M. Pei to compare his own extremely successful career with his father's and Pei replied , "The test of an architect is not money he made in his lifetime but what his buildings would mean 40-50 years later and the test is to see if they endure." I.M. Pei jokes about how his Chinese descent allowed him to be more patient with clients and he did not push his ideas too forcefully. "Lou, he would never do that." He explains to Nathaniel, "It is not quality that counts and not quantity."
I thought one of the best depictions in the movie was to show Nathaniel roller-blading at the centre of the Salk Institute (the only project on which Kahn's firm made a profit). Slowly, Nathaniel begins to understand his father and his work.


As the documentary progresses one cannot but marvel at Kahn's vision, his genius and his desire to make 'monumental' works. At the same time, one cannot get rid of the thought of how he treated Nathaniel and his mother. He was a difficult man to work with, often demeaning and humiliating his co-workers. All of them including the two female architects who he did not marry agree that he was driven and nothing mattered more to him more than his work. Quite surprisingly, all of them have nothing but love and respect for him. For a chance to work with him and be a part of his vision, they seemed to be willing to condone all his faults. But he was not a harsh man. Philip Johnson said he was perhaps the only contemporary who he could talk to as a person (Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier were too egotistical and cantankerous).
In the final leg of the journey Nathaniel travels to the sub-continent since the last big projects in Kahn's life were in India and Bangladesh. Kahn had his last home-meal with B.V. Doshi and his family while working on the I.I.M. Project in Ahmedabad before he flew back to USA. He never made it home and died of a heart-attack in Penn Station. The other project was the Sangsad Bhaban, the Parliament Building of Bangladesh. It is rather ironic that while Kahn's designs for the Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem have been shelved for more than 30 years due to infighting and politics; one of the poorest countries in the world, and that too a Muslim one, built his greatest work. For the parallel personal story within the movie, the moment of catharsis comes after Nathaniel spends five days in that building and talks to the local architect and then finally understands and finds his father.
It was fantatic film and in retrospect the roughness and the home-video quality was perhaps consciously done. This movie done in any other way would have eroded this deeply, sad and personal story of the son of a famous father.
* * *
More on NPR